The Physical And The Emotional

wp_20170101_008I’d been reflecting that I was finding it hard to move on; 18 months since Dylan had moved to residential care and I’d managed hardly any of the things I’d told myself I was looking forward to.  I wasn’t sure what I’d done with the extra time; in fact I’d written fewer poems, been to the cinema less often and swum hardly at all.

I seem to have spent a lot of time thinking about Dylan, I said to a friend. That’s understandable, she replied. You haven’t stopped caring full-time for Dylan emotionally just because you’re not taking care of him physically.

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wp_20170101_009So I’ve been thinking about the relationship between the physical and emotional labour of caring for Dylan. One of the things I was concerned about when Dylan moved to residential care was that I’d forget how to look after him.  I worried that I’d lose the rhythm of bathing and shaving him if I wasn’t doing it every day. I feared the habit of being alert might leave me; that I wouldn’t hear the change in his footsteps or sudden silence summoning me to check that all was well. I was relieved I no longer had to do all the caring single-handed but I envied those who had taken my place; the fruits of this labour would now be theirs.

And the rewards of physical caring, I came to realise, are rich indeed. In this blog post, written 29 days after Dylan moved to his residential setting, I reflected on the possibility that chores are a currency of care. If you have a disability that means  you can’t take care of your own needs, perhaps care-giving acts, such as laundering clothes, acquire emotional freight? In the aftermath of Dylan leaving home, I realised that the physicality of caring for him had been a language of love.

I have learned that we don’t forget how to care for someone physically if we no longer do it every day; the rhythm is as deep in my body’s memory as climbing the stairs or swimming a length of the pool. The challenge is not remembering how to care for a person we love but finding a way of sharing responsibility for this. Perhaps, as a long-term single parent, I am less used to this than others. I have asked myself whether I would find it easier to share Dylan’s care with others if I had had to negotiate this with another parent while Dylan was at home. As I’m sure I’ve reflected before, there is something limiting as well as liberating about having sole care.

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wp_20170101_010And although Dylan is 22 years old he does still need physical care; he has to be supported to wash, dress, eat and to access the activities which he enjoys.  Since Dylan moved to residential care his ‘care plan’ has developed to reflect minor changes in his support needs;  Dylan needs more help selecting appropriate clothes than staff realised, for example, but minimal supervision when organising his daypack.

Sometimes Dylan shows a new streak of independence. When I arrived to collect him from his residential setting at New Year he took off at high speed. Where is he going? I asked staff. They weren’t sure. A support worker followed him and returned with a smiling Dylan: He’d gone back to his bedroom, she explained, to fetch his water bottle.

I was absolutely delighted.  The water bottle was new –  a present from Santa – and I wasn’t sure whether or not it was something Dylan would use.  It turned out that in the week since Christmas Dylan had got into the habit of filling it up each day and taking it with him on daytime activities. I could tell the present was a success – the fact that Dylan had remembered it, when we had not, indicated this. As we drove to the seaside to celebrate the new year I reflected that this may well have been Dylan’s most successful Christmas present this year.

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wp_20170101_011I used to love listening to Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America on Radio 4. In one programme he introduced me to the term ‘not on my watch’, a plea which Cooke suggested American presidents made in relation to errors happening during their term of office. I have taken this phrase and applied it to my various responsibilities over the years, albeit for less-significant events. ‘If the course fails to recruit, let it not be on my watch’. ‘If the External Examiner isn’t happy, let it not be on my watch’. ‘If the children don’t have their lunch boxes, let it not be on my watch’…

The problem is, if you’re a single parent it usually is your watch. Sharing Dylan’s care gives the term more currency. I was thinking about this at new year because a breakdown in communication had meant Dylan didn’t have appropriate clothes for our planned trip. When I returned Dylan to his residential setting after the holiday I discovered this was because he is running low on trousers and needs to buy some more. I was feeling a bit grumbly about this as I settled Dylan back into his room after our trip to the seaside.  I’ll do an online order when I get home, I said, hopefully they’ll come fairly quickly.

I didn’t like that we hadn’t noticed Dylan needed to replace clothes. We need a better system for keeping track of Dylan’s things, I said.  And as I said that, something different but related came into my head.  Dylan, I said, Where’s your water bottle? What happened to your water bottle?  He looked at me, inscrutable. I’m pretty sure he knew what I was asking and what the implications were.  I thought he looked a little sad, but perhaps I imagined this. I checked Dylan’s bag and the car but there was no sign of it.  Staff must have worked hard to help Dylan build the water bottle into his routine and to look after it while he was out and about, I thought to myself. I’d been looking after Dylan for less than 24 hours and had managed to lose it. I’m so sorry, I said to the support worker. I’m afraid that was on my watch.

Later, when I looked at the photos from our trip, I could see the water bottle in the pocket of Dylan’s backpack while we were kite flying on the beach. Perhaps it had fallen out then.  Still, I telephoned the restaurant where we had eaten dinner afterwards. They hadn’t got it. Those Jack Wills things are really popular with the young folk, the manager said. Someone probably picked it up.

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wp_20170114_003Last month I noticed that Dylan’s railcard had expired so I took it home to renew. Last week I remembered that I hadn’t done it and went to get the expired card from the ‘to do’ tray in my study. No sign of it. That’s odd. I hunted around a bit. It hadn’t fallen on the floor. I hadn’t put it in a drawer. I couldn’t remember for certain when I’d last seen it.  So much for keeping better track of Dylan’s things, I thought to myself. Now what to do? I searched though old emails for a record but drew a blank. I would have to sort this out: I had promised Dylan a train journey in the new year.

Can I have your Filofax please, Dylan? I asked him this weekend.  Dylan loves his Filofax and carries it everywhere with him.  He isn’t so interested in the daily records that we fill in (though he realises that they are important to us I think) but he’s very attached to the passes, tickets and concessions cards which he keeps there. As he gave it to me the Filofax fell open at his travel cards and to my amazement there was his rail card, neatly filed in its place. Dylan must have seen the card in my study and taken it back – keeping track of his own things, taking responsibility. Rather than just remove it again, this time I took the time to explain why. Dylan probably keeps better tabs on things than we realise.

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As I reflected at the start of this post, I might not look after Dylan full-time but I spend a lot of time thinking about him.  This week, I’ve mostly been feeling bad about that water bottle. This is a small thing, I know, but I’ve been surprised at how much a lost water bottle has taught me about sharing Dylan’s care. So while Dylan and I were shopping for clothes yesterday I encouraged him into the shop where I had bought the original. Dylan seemed delighted and quickly picked out an identical replacement.  Hopefully I’ll be a bit better at keeping an eye on it this time, at least until Dylan has built it so firmly into his routine that he looks out for it himself.

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The photographs of Dylan flying his kite were taken in Cleethorpes on New Year’s Day

The Key

berrien-2016-047This week is the start of the academic year in England; pretty soon I will be deep in teaching. Although September no longer marks a transition point for Dylan I don’t think I will ever lose the anxiety that the end of summer brings for parents of children with disabilities. Each year I would live on my nerves through the first weeks of term, hoping desperately that all would be well.

It is three years, now, since Dylan left school. That was the hardest end of summer ever; my nerves burned for months. Happily, Dylan is settled at last and can live his life without such difficult jags of time; there are no sudden changes to the year’s rhythm, or inexplicable annual endings, in his residential setting. There is a reassuring continuity to Dylan’s life.

berrien-2016-046That’s not to say there aren’t changes; periodically something disrupts a routine or we deliberately introduce a new pattern to Dylan’s week. The last time I posted an update here, for example, I was anticipating taking a holiday without Dylan. I fretted terribly about the proposed trip, concerned that Dylan would be upset by my absence, but he was absolutely fine.

The key to this, I’m sure, was the extended timetable the care home staff made for Dylan. Instead of a weekly programme Dylan had a schedule which ran for the time I was away, ending with the day he would see me again. Dylan also had a weekly ‘overview’ schedule so that he could count the sleeps until his next visit home.  It didn’t seem to matter to Dylan that the gap between my visits was longer as long as he knew he would see me again.

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13901449_293441187680481_5004186233514663936_nI’m really glad that I took that ‘next step‘ during the summer. I had a fantastic week in Brittany and relaxed into the different pace of time without Dylan. Some of the things that my girlfriend and I did Dylan would also have enjoyed, but I was able to linger over them in a way that hasn’t been possible in the past: a Chagall exhibition in Landerneau; a beach day at Poul-Rodou; a folk festival in Plomodiern; cycling on the Isle de Batz. I returned from holiday this year refreshed instead of exhausted.

I missed Dylan of course. I kept his timetable close by me and checked it each day to see what he was doing. Initially I talked about him a lot. In fact on the drive down to Portsmouth for the ferry I must have come close to driving my friend away with my talk of Dylan. That journey was terrible for me. I was in such a state of anxiety about leaving Dylan I had made myself ill: my stomach was in knots and I had a dreadful sense of foreboding. My friend let me talk or not as I needed. Having her to support and encourage me was probably key to my being able to take the step at all.

wp_20160821_006I’m not sure how patient she would have been with me had I continued to talk so much about Dylan during the week. At some point in the Channel , however, I felt the knots in my stomach loosen and my anxiety lift. The sun was shining. We were on deck. I could sit and read Zola and drink tea, as I had dreamed of doing. And so the week continued; while we were in France I made only one phone call to Dylan’s care home and sent just one email.

The email was to ask staff what size Dylan’s head was.  The last time he and I were in Brittany he bought a Breton cap which he has worn constantly since and I wanted to get a new one for him, as a gift. He looked a bit puzzled when I gave it to him on my arrival home, as he did about the Breton biscuits which had mysteriously appeared in the house.  I think he pieced things together when he saw my photos from the holiday, however. Usually Dylan looks through photos from our trips with great interest but I’d describe his interest in my pictures from Brittany as ‘passing’. So mummy had been away without him.  He ate the biscuits. He put on his cap…

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berrien-2016-025Dylan’s care home manager told me she thought parents should take a holiday, even if it causes separation anxiety. I understand that now.  It is important for parents of disabled children and adults to have a complete break, not just from caring but from thinking about themselves as care-givers.  And, I remind myself, learning how to be apart from your adult child is part of learning how to be a parent. In this respect the experience of a parent of a disabled adult is not dissimilar to the experience of any parent;  I was also anxious about being far from my daughter when she lived in France.

There is  something about being away from a disabled child or adult which can provoke particular anxiety, however.  Their vulnerability and dependence on others means you need to have complete confidence in the people caring for your son or daughter.  I feel lucky that Dylan is finally living somewhere I can put my trust in others.  This week I’ve been thinking a lot about how we make such decisions.  How do we figure out levels of confidence in someone? Is there a science to it? Do ticks on a checklist really reassure us?  Parents of children with disabilities spend their lives making difficult decisions about care provision,  but how we make them – well, that’s something I’m not absolutely certain of.

As well as the checklist there is surely something magical to this? Call it intuition, if you will. Something in your guts, perhaps. An unknotting.  Sense of lightness. Je ne sais quoi.  I’ve written about this before; how some of the critical decisions I’ve made about Dylan’s care have been based on something entirely irrational magical. And this week it struck me that I’ve been relying on such seventh sense since Dylan was born. Because, as a single working parent, I had to go back to work when Dylan was only a few weeks old so needed to find someone to look after him. I was pretty clueless about the berrien-2016-088 process; I didn’t know how to care for babies and certainly had no system for figuring out how to choose a childminder. But someone very special came into our lives and I was able to get back to work – which some days meant working a distance from Dylan – with the complete confidence which comes from knowing you trust someone else to care for your child.

Blogs can be wonderful can’t they? I was so thrilled to find a message on mine last week from Dylan’s first childminder 🙂 I moved away from the area quite soon after Dylan was born but Tan has remained a precious memory. She was a key person, perhaps, because she made my first difficult separation from Dylan not just possible but positive. I think that is probably also an accurate description of my experience this summer.

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berrien-2016-153The thing about key people is that they tend to be transitory:  children outgrow childminders;  parents move away; friends move on.  I can add something else now:  care workers get promoted.  Dylan’s key worker will be moving onto a new role next month so one of the things we will be discussing at his annual review this week is her replacement. E has been a fantastic key worker; she has developed a great relationship  with Dylan and has been instrumental in developing critical aspects of his care, particularly around communication and behaviour support. Although I was sad to hear Dylan would be losing her as his key worker, I can’t say I was surprised. Key people are special people and if they are young,  gifted and ambitious they inevitably get promoted 🙂   The only question in my mind had been when and to where she would move.

Happily, the promotion is within the organisation so Dylan will still have occasional contact with E. I am telling myself that Dylan was lucky to have her as his key worker during his first year in a residential home; E has helped him to settle in and created a system of care around Dylan which should ensure continuity. As the message from Dylan’s first childminder reminds me, we keep people in our hearts and minds long after they have moved on: I’m sure Dylan will not forget.

One of the many things I love about Dylan is his capacity to form deep  relationships.  He has his own magical system for deciding whether to trust someone; I’ve seen Dylan reject some people entirely while embracing others with utter loyalty and commitment.  The transparency of Dylan’s affections means I am confident his ‘voice’ will be heard in the process of selecting a new key worker.

berrien-2016-104There are, of course, no promotion opportunities for parents; it is a role for life, with no possibility of moves up, down or sideways.  While that means there is no escaping the temporary anxiety of being far from your child, from time to time, it also means you are their continuity; the birth rock on which their whole life pivots. So although I don’t care for Dylan on a daily basis now, and am no longer the only person who knows how to do this, I am the one with the long view, holding his narrative together. That, I tell myself, is a privileged position to be in.

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A final key is for my daughter. She will turn 21 this week, a birthday we used to refer to as the  ‘key to the door’.  So this September I’m making wishes for both my children to walk  happily through their newly-opening doors …

 

Except for the photo of Dylan (looking uncertain in his Breton cap) the photographs were taken in Brittany in August.

The Next Step

Another Place July 2016 002This summer I’ve been taking Dylan on overnight trips to different locations instead of for a week’s holiday to one place.  Dylan loves staying in hotels and he responds well to variety so our summer trips have proved very successful so far. It also means that I am supporting Dylan for just 24 hours at a time which is sensible given that he is usually on 2:1 support ratios in the community. I love the time I spend with Dylan but it is demanding physically and mentally.

The overnight breaks have allowed me to take Dylan to places which are a little too far to travel to in a day but which we haven’t managed to visit from our previous holiday destinations. Recently we have enjoyed visits to Whipsnade Zoo and to see Anthony Gormley’s Another Place installation at Crosby Beach.  My aim is to sprinkle these trips across the summer so that Dylan and I are able to enjoy the equivalent of a week away together.

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Another Place July 2016 031Taking a holiday myself is something that has been on my ‘bucket list’ since Dylan moved to residential care.  Although I have had occasional weekends away over the years I’ve never been able to consider more than this. Once free of caring responsibilities, however, I still didn’t find it easy to contemplate. For the first half year I was focused on settling Dylan into his new home; as this involved regular visits there wasn’t the space for a break.  Since then I’ve managed to find all sorts of reasons not to go away: work; decorating; poems; money.  The usual excuses.

But sorting through drawers one day I found a voucher for ferry travel to France.  A few years ago, when Dylan was very anxious and his ‘challenging behaviour’ at its height, I decided to cancel a holiday. Although I had travelled alone to France with Dylan before, it didn’t seem wise that summer. The holiday company with whom I had booked the gîte weren’t sympathetic but Brittany Ferries didn’t hesitate to issue me with a voucher for replacement travel. I had filed it away, assuming it would be used when Dylan was settled enough to travel at some point in the future. Suddenly, it seemed, the future had arrived: the voucher was due to expire August 20th this year.

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Another Place July 2016 036Since Dylan has moved to residential care I’ve realised, and come to accept, that he needs more support than I can give. Dylan benefits from 2:1 support in the community and responds positively to a ‘fresh face’ at times of anxiety; having access to more than one adult, so that a support worker can be strategically swapped, is good for Dylan and a more positive experience for his carer(s). These are things which aren’t possible  when supporting Dylan alone. This is partly why I’m limiting the time I am in sole charge of him this summer and explains why, with some sadness, I have decided that it’s not possible for me to take Dylan to France by myself again.

But what to do about the voucher? Without it I would probably have hummed my way through the summer, fiddling with paint and trying to write a poem. It pained me, however, to sacrifice those ferry crossings. So oh joy and delight when a girlfriend declared she would be happy to put up with accompany me to Brittany for a week. Fantastic. We agreed easily on a location and gîte. Figuring out the crossings and bicycle rack was a bit trickier but we worked it out. What I was especially looking forward to, I told my friend, was reading on the ferry.  During Channel crossings with my children I had watched others doing this and hankered after such space. Instead of having to hire a cabin for meltdowns and timeouts, and be on high alert, this time I could relax with a book.

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Another Place July 2016 043Planning the holiday wasn’t all plain sailing, however. In fact I had a whole bag of worries about it which I discussed at length with the manager of Dylan’s residential home.  How would Dylan manage the longer than usual gap between my visits? What would we tell him and how? If there was an emergency, how would I be contacted? What if I couldn’t be contacted? These might be quotidian worries but they are not insignificant in the context of autism where happiness depends so much on reassuring routines.

Facing these anxieties and challenges seemed to be a necessary next step in the transition process, however.  The parents of other residents, I was told, had experienced similar anxieties the first time they had left their son or daughter in order to take a holiday by themselves. The staff would keep Dylan busy while I was away, I was assured, and make sure that his favourite activities were scheduled.  Confident that I had considered the situation from all angles, I booked the trip.

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Another Place July 2016 040What I hadn’t factored in, however, was Daesh.  As the attacks in Europe increased in frequency and scope, the possibility of being caught in a random act of violence ratcheted up my anxiety. Rather than worrying about how Dylan would cope with my temporary absence, I started to consider the implications of my not coming back at all. The scenario was awful but not unthinkable. We are more likely to be victims of a traffic accident, my friend pointed out, especially on the wrong side of the road. She was right. Why then was Daesh increasing my anxiety about being away from Dylan?

Having a dependent child or adult to care for makes us feel vulnerable. In such a situation there can be a tendency to become risk-averse, as I explore in this post. But what are the implications for autistic children and adults at times of conflict? I reflected on some possibilities in this post and in this book review.  When I wrote those posts, not so very long ago, the war in Syria felt like news from another country. Now, suddenly, it involves us all.

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Another Place July 2016 039I thought I’d let you know, I told Dylan’s care home manager, that I’m having second thoughts about my trip to France. I probably would go, I told her, but I was trying to think through the implications of the recent attacks.  I needed to be comfortable with my decision, I explained, or else I wouldn’t be able to relax. Earlier that day I’d watched a public information video about what to do in the event of  a ‘terrorist attack’. The advice came down to this: Run, Hide, Tell.  I watched the video through trying to imagine how I’d follow the guidance if I were with Dylan. It made no reference to people with disabilities or the vulnerable. It seemed to assume we are all fit, agile, able-bodied and verbal.

It would be impossible to keep Dylan safe in such a situation. He wouldn’t follow an instruction to run. He doesn’t understand the concept ‘hide’. He would behave erratically and probably noisily, drawing attention to himself and others. One of the pieces of advice in the video is to always show yourself to be empty-handed, particularly at point of rescue. This is important, apparently, because police might otherwise assume you are holding a weapon and mistake you for a terrorist. There is no way that I could persuade Dylan to show you his hands; in the community he hangs tight onto the arm of whoever is supporting him, burying his hands deep under their arms. If police are casting around for someone likely to be concealing a weapon, Dylan may well arouse their suspicion.

So I asked the care home manager what training staff had received for managing a ‘critical incident’ while supporting a resident in the community. Was this covered as part of  staff training? And given the current level of anxiety among the general public, were staff aware that the erratic behaviour of a resident might cause alarm and suspicion in the community? The manager assured me that staff had received training for explaining autistic behaviour to the general public but couldn’t, of course, allay my fears about a terrorist incident. I think we just have to get on with our lives, she said.

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Another Place July 2016 004I’d been letting three things get in the way of me and Dylan living our lives: my anxieties about his ability to survive an incident; my concerns about my own safety given his dependence on me; and my worries about not being there for him.

But my response to these anxieties, I realised, had been what my daughter would call ‘cotton wool’.  Would you put that cotton wool back in your pocket? she asked me one day as I told her to take care on some play equipment. I suspect I’ve never quite taken the cotton wool from Dylan but I have, at least, learned to let go of it a bit since he moved to residential care.  But wrapping myself in cotton wool instead? I can only imagine what my daughter would say to that.

Happily, the friend I will be holidaying with understands these anxieties and has listened while I talk them through. Something I’ve found useful is identifying a practical response to an anxiety: things that we will and will not do while we are away, for example, and how we would travel home in an emergency. Such concrete plans feel  better than the softest of cotton wool – even if, in truth, they probably wouldn’t be much use. I suppose that’s also the point of Run, Hide, Tell

 

wishing you a safe and happy summer…

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The photos of Anthony Gormley’s Another Place (on Crosby Beach) were taken by Liz, July 2016.

Transition To Care: the phoney time

It is nearly week seven of Dylan’s residential placement but it still feels as unreal as the ‘Phoney War’ my dad used to refer to when things you expected to happen didn’t materialise. It’s not that Dylan isn’t based at his new home: he is. But transition thus far has been so quiet that neither Dylan nor I really believe it. I’m not sure whether this is a good or a bad thing. Some days I tell myself it is going so well because of this phoney time. Other days I hold my breath; the reality will sink in one day soon and then I’ll wonder if I should have faced up to it before.

A bit of everything

phoney 002What I am calling phoney time arose through fortune as much as planning. The first stroke of luck was that after Dylan’s residential placement had been approved his day centre requested a month’s notice. Had this not been the case Dylan’s social care-funded day centre placement would have ended one day and his health care-funded residential placement started the next. Clearly this would not have been great from Dylan’s perspective (or from anyone’s except the funders) but this is standard practice and difficult to challenge. The 28 day notice period, however, provided a fortunate opportunity for a programme of interim activities involving home and both providers.

For the first three weeks of Dylan’s residential placement therefore he was based sometimes at his day centre, sometimes at his new home and sometimes with me. On the days Dylan was at his day centre he was observed by staff from his new home and on days when he was at his new home, members of staff from Dylan’s day centre provided guidance and support. This gave Dylan an opportunity to get to know care workers from his new setting as well as enabling the exchange of information, practice and expertise across staff groups.

This process was not without its challenges. The two settings had different values and practices which were evident in some of their approaches to supporting Dylan. By the end of the third week staff from the new home were keen to employ their own systems and establish consistency in Dylan’s care. Observing staff and managers trying to accommodate practices from another setting helped me to understand how confusing transition could feel for the autistic person at the heart of the process. The exchange of staff across settings gave those involved a glimpse of this through Dylan’s eyes.

So for the first three weeks of his placement Dylan got a bit of everything: his favourite activities (swimming, skating and library) continued with his day centre; other familiar activities (his exercise routine for example) were established in the new setting; and some new experiences (such as helping in a community shop) were introduced. During these shared weeks Dylan didn’t have to say goodbye to anything; he continued to see his familiar day centre staff and he saw plenty of me as well. This was partly because of the amount of ferrying between places I had to do during this time; Dylan and I spent hours together on the road, working our way through favourite CDs. Although the nights Dylan spent at his new home increased each week, he never stayed longer than his longest respite. So as far as I was concerned Dylan hadn’t yet left home; we were in a phoney zone.

Lots of mooey

Reighton 2015 125Dylan and I had a holiday booked for the fourth week of Dylan’s residential placement. This was not something I had expected earlier in the year; Dylan’s increasingly ‘challenging behaviour’ meant I had resigned myself to not being able to take him away this summer. Dylan loves his holidays so accepting that I could no longer support him by myself had been hard. But isn’t it just the way of things that the minute I made this decision my friend Julie asked whether we would like to rent a holiday cottage with her and daughter Ella 🙂

There was a chance that supporting Dylan and Ella would be too much for us if they became distressed by each other or at the same time – and if Dylan became very upset I would need to protect Ella and Julie as well as myself. Julie would be able to offer support to me, however, and her presence might have a positive effect on Dylan. We would, we decided, try it; if it proved too difficult I would head home.

Happily, we had a good week. Dylan seemed to enjoy having other people around and we did lots of fun things. There was a focus on transport (steam trains, land trains, miniature trains, pedalos, boats, buses and chair lifts) but we also spent time on the beach, visited churches and a stately home, and ate at the Magpie Café. And Dylan, of course, got to spend a whole week with his ‘mooey’; that he had already left home could not have been further from our thoughts.

Phoney signs

phoney 005Before we left for our week by the sea it was agreed that when we returned Dylan would be based full time at his new home. Although we were still within the 28 day notice period it was also decided that joint staffing would end and the new setting assume responsibility for Dylan’s care. In this way our holiday would signal the end of the first phase of transition.

As I am on leave during August however, and able to spend time with Dylan, I am still around too much for him to miss me or think anything amiss; Dylan still hasn’t been away from home for more than three nights at a time.  As well as allowing me to spend time with Dylan, the timing of his transition has been useful in other ways. One thing that has taken me by surprise is the effort parents need to put into the process. In addition to the ferrying between places there are meetings to attend, paperwork to complete, care plans and transition documents to develop, emails to write, phone calls to make, admin to sort out (mostly relating to change of address and adjustment to benefit entitlements) and the not insignificant time (and money) on, of all things, shopping.

I had originally assumed that Dylan would take his belongings from home to his residential setting but was advised this would not be a good idea: remember how it felt when you left home, one of the care home managers observed, and how important it was to you that your childhood room was still there? So I’ve been buying duplicates instead. I’ve tried to introduce some differences but have played safe and reproduced key items like Dylan’s CD player, TV set and his toiletries and personal items. I arranged for some things to be delivered (like Secret Santa) while we were away and am introducing others gradually; a ‘big bang’ approach would be too overwhelming I decided (not least financially).

Some days I feel exhausted by the process. I suppose it’s not dissimilar to the way the bereaved are kept busy in the aftermath of a death and grieving must wait – or, to be less melancholic, the effort expended by parents helping a child to leave for university. But because of Dylan’s disability, and particularly because he doesn’t use speech to communicate, the time taken to record his care and other needs is enormous. I could not have undertaken this at any other time of year; had transition happened while I had work commitments I would simply not have coped. The second stroke of luck, then, was that the timing of Dylan’s transition could not have been more perfect.

Yesterday, while I was in the city, I called into my office to pick up some marking. That’s a sign that the summer is over, I told the friend I was with; this phoney transition will have to end then too. But, she observed, from what I had said things were going well for Dylan? Well yes – except I’m not sure he realises yet that he’s left home. Dylan still keeps his day centre diary in its ‘overnight’ spot (not even the place he kept it at weekends and holidays) and, even more worryingly, he refuses to leave any of his possessions at his new home. When I pick Dylan up he has packed everything and is ready and waiting to load up the boot of my car. Oh dear, my friend said: that’s not good.

Positive signs

phoney 003I’m quite sure this isn’t because Dylan is unhappy in his new home. On the contrary he appears to be having a fine time. Dylan’s programme has been full and varied with the familiar activities he loves as well as new challenges and experiences. He is always happy to return after he has spent time with me and he seems to be settling into his room and to the routines of the home. As well as getting used to new support workers, Dylan is responding well to a communication system which promises to make a positive contribution to his life. Apart from a minor incident on our return from holiday, he has been calm and happy.

The fact Dylan transports everything to and fro suggests, however, that he doesn’t yet realise this is his home now rather than his respite setting. Dylan has always been careful with possessions, taking responsibility for his belongings and managing them independently, so it is quite understandable that he would continue to bring these home with him. He only tries to bring home things he has seen me take or has taken there himself (not the things from Secret Santa). Perhaps, as far as Dylan is concerned, someone else uses the room he sleeps in on the nights he isn’t there (as happens with a respite bed)? And why should he respond to my suggestion: why don’t you leave these here Dylan? I have, after all, spent years telling him not to leave things behind. The fact I have duplicated his belongings doesn’t stop Dylan from bringing them home either; as he collects multiple copies of books and CDs, having duplicate hair brushes, toiletries and CD players is a bonus.

phoney 006Although a visual timetable helps Dylan make sense of his life in concrete terms (where he will be and what he will be doing) it cannot communicate more abstract concepts. ‘Home’ is a complex idea. It is more than the house where you spend your time; it is the place where you feel safe and loved. The circle around the house in the symbol system which Dylan uses is an attempt to communicate the emotional freight of a building, i.e. that this particular house is the one where you belong. This is not something that can easily be explained however; it is through lived experience that Dylan will come to understand this in his heart.

Some of what Dylan is experiencing is not specific to autism or learning disability; anyone moving house or leaving home for the first time would take a while to feel at home or become accustomed to living independently from parents. If the key difference in relation to Dylan is that it is harder to explain the process, maybe the challenge is to help him understand it emotionally rather than cognitively. It is perhaps for this reason that I haven’t written a social story about ‘leaving home’ for Dylan. The ones he has been offered so far focus on more immediate and concrete events. This week, for example, I was unable to use my car so had to collect Dylan by train. This provided a useful opportunity to encourage Dylan not to pack all of his belongings for the visit. Staff at Dylan’s residential setting wrote a social story explaining that he wouldn’t be able to carry everything on the train so should take just an overnight bag with him. This seemed to help and for the first time Dylan left things in his room.

It may be that these early weeks have been about allowing Dylan to absorb the experience of transition rather than trying to explain to him what is happening. There could, I realise, be challenging times ahead, especially as Dylan can have a delayed reaction to change. Maybe my ‘Phoney Time’ is another person’s ‘Honeymoon Period’?  In which case I should probably ask myself why I chose a military rather than a romantic metaphor. But whatever I call these early weeks, they have been helpful in alleviating rather than creating anxiety. And while I know the move to a specialised setting cannot magically eradicate the behaviours which triggered the placement, the early signs are positive.

Real time

phoney 004There is still one more piece I want to write before the end of phoney August. After that I will consider Dylan and I to have crossed the line and I will start a daily diary. Those posts will be different to the ones I have been writing in the last two years and will focus less on Dylan and more on the experience of separation from a parent’s perspective.

There are things I could say already: that it was almost harder to leave Dylan the night he was charming and chatty and held on to my hand, smiling and laughing, when I dropped him off. That there are nights I have walked my house crying, heaving with grief. That I have loved walking the hour it takes into the city instead of driving. That I have swum first thing in the morning. That I spent a day with a girlfriend without looking at my watch (except to make sure we didn’t miss the film). That I said ‘are you alright for time?’ to someone instead of being asked it. That it was with shock I realised that I could read during the day instead of only last thing at night. That I sleep through the evenings as if making up for years of exhaustion.

All this and it hasn’t yet begun…

*

Images:

The photo of Dylan, Ella and Julie was taken in Whitby; I bought the wooden letters for the door of Dylan’s new room the other day, hoping they might help identify it as his space (he has some on his door at home); the ‘home’ symbol is from makaton but is commonly used across communication systems.

The Humber Bridge

humber5Before I had my own family I used to say that for every child I gave birth to I would adopt another. This seemed a small but realistic way of balancing the desire to have a biological child with the desperate need of already-born children for a family.

After Dylan was diagnosed I gave up my pledge; with an autistic child to care for, I told myself, it wouldn’t be fair and, anyway, I probably wouldn’t be approved to adopt. Later, other promises would be adjusted. I couldn’t, I realised, volunteer regularly or even for Crisis at Christmas; Dylan needed me and it wasn’t possible to undertake such commitments with him in tow. So I made donations to charity instead; I might not be able to give my time but I could at least do this.

*

‘I’m thinking of volunteering’ I said to my daughter the other day. Just weeks since Dylan’s residential placement had been approved and already the idea had risen to the top of my newly-shuffled priority pack. ‘Good’, she said, ‘I’m glad to hear it’. My daughter understood the new imperative; not just my earlier idealism but the desire, now that Dylan is receiving help from society, to give something back.

I’m not sure the job I do has given me many useful skills but I’m hoping that I acquired some from my years supporting Dylan. At the moment I’m open-minded about what I might offer but am drawn to end-of-life care. The only thing I would rule out right now is autism. ‘I need a break ‘ I told my daughter. But it’s not just that. If I volunteered my time to autism I might as well be with Dylan. It has to be something different; a bit like a collective where you trade and exchange.

*

humber bridgeI remember making the case for collective child rearing in an undergraduate seminar in the early 80s. I can’t imagine how we got on to the topic but perhaps the discussion arose from the study of a political thinker. Rousseau maybe or Dewey. I’m not sure. What I do remember, though, is that I was a lone voice that day. After arguing valiantly but without effect I turned to Dr Robinson and appealed for his support against my peers. But he wouldn’t give it; having children, he told me, was not motivated by a will to improve society but by the desire to perpetuate the self.

I understood this a little better once I’d had my own children. Perhaps having an autistic child added to my growing realisation that families are private entities, managing themselves according to their own value systems. An autism diagnosis forces us to confront aspects of our practice which might previously have run humdrum and unexamined. I found myself weighing the cost and benefit of every decision: whether to be relaxed about diet or intervene; how to manage meltdowns; when to use directive approaches and when to be non-directive. Sure there was professional advice for parents but ultimately the choices were my own; there is thus no less variation in how autistic children are raised than in that found across all families.

*

For some parents the desire to raise a family without interference from the outside world is strong. I suspect there are different reasons for this: the parents whose own upbringing was so troubled they want to do things differently, their own way; or the mother who has so little power over her life she wants control of the way her children are raised at least. I once knew someone like this. I wasn’t close to him (he was the husband of a friend) so didn’t have a context for his parenting except that it was NYC in the early 90s. Every morning he would take the bus from their Central Park apartment and head downtown with the baby. Why is it, he asked me when I visited, that people think it’s OK to interfere in your life when you have a baby? A private man, he was not enjoying the way fatherhood had turned him into public property; strangers, he complained, would stop to talk at and even touch his son. These unsolicited approaches were a source of great irritation to him.

I remember him telling me how the baby had been crying one day while they were riding the bus. A woman seated behind started to dispense advice. He needed to take the baby out of the sling. He should give the baby a pacifier. That baby needed to get into a routine. Suddenly, he told me, he’d had enough. He took out a pad of paper and a pen and thrust them at the woman. Lady, would you write your name and telephone number down here for me ? Because the next time my son’s crying at 3am in the morning I’d like to call you up and ask your advice. He reported this with glee, happy he had found a way to tell this member of the public to butt out of his life.

*

humber8To make a call for help at 3am in the night you have to be desperate and my friends were not – they were simply new parents dealing with the usual demands of a not-unusually unsettled baby. A desperate night is one when you are scraping poo off the walls yet again (I haven’t done that for years but will never forget when I had to, repeatedly). It is when you have lain next to your screaming child for five hours and they are still screaming. It is when you fall down the stairs because you are dog-tired from weeks of being up all night. It is when you drive 100 miles in darkness trying to settle your crying child. It is when you sit in the garden or barricade yourself in your room because you fear you will be hurt by your anxious son whose needs you have failed to understand well enough to help and who is in meltdown, a danger to you and to himself. It is when the house finally falls silent and you go to bed and cry yourself to sleep because you couldn’t be better or make a difference. It is when you stay up all night googling for answers or writing long letters, asking for help, which you know you will never send.

These are just some of the ways to become desperate in the night. There are others (some harder). I’ve heard parents of autistic children say that you only get help when you get desperate. I’ve said it too. It’s right, of course, that scarce resources should go to those in most need but it scares me (I mean it really did scare me) that the trigger for allocation is a crisis.

Some years ago Dylan and I went for a walk one summer with two autistic boys and their mothers. I had been invited by the woman whose child’s 12th birthday we were celebrating but didn’t know the other mother. Still, we talked the same easy language that parents of autistic children tend to when they are together. At some point we swapped stories about autism services within our Local Authority. They just don’t seem to hear, the mother I had just met complained. They don’t listen because they think I’m coping. But I can guarantee that if I go within 50 miles of the Humber Bridge they’ll listen.

We didn’t have to ask her to explain.

*
humber4The Humber Bridge is a beautiful bridge over a wide river in the east of the county where I live. But in 2006 the way I would think and feel about that bridge changed forever when a mother and her autistic son climbed over the railings and down onto the underbelly of the bridge and jumped.

Alison Davies and her 12 year old son Ryan were caught on CCTV camera moments before they fell 100 feet to their deaths on Easter Day. The Humber is a tidal river with sands which shift so dramatically it has to be re-charted each week. In such conditions, finding Alison and Ryan was difficult. It was four days before Ryan’s body was discovered, upstream of the bridge, and it would be some time before his mother’s body was found. In the days after the tragedy, while the police waited for the river currents to surrender Alison, the media speculated on what had led her to the bridge.

CCTV footage had recorded the pair arriving, smiling, at Hull railway station in the morning. They no longer lived in the town but, we would learn later, it was a place where they had once been happy. There were reports of an interrupted 999 call having been made from Alison’s mobile phone moments before a camera on the bridge recorded them falling – not together but 8 seconds apart.

We will never really know what happened that day or why. The tragedy was, commentators agreed, a result of the strain Alison was under as a single mother of an autistic child (Ryan’s diagnosis was Fragile X Syndrome). The Independent reported that the closure of a parents group had represented a significant loss to Alison who had no other support mechanisms apart from limited help from her mother. A friend of Alison’s, also the carer of disabled children, said: “She just didn’t get the help she needed. You have to fight for everything when you are looking after children with disabilities because if you don’t fight for it, you don’t get it.”

And yet, it seemed, in the days before the tragedy Alison had been feeling quite positive. She had started a new job, passed her driving test and was tackling some DIY projects at home – challenging for anyone, never mind a single parent with caring responsibilities. The picture which emerges from neighbours is of a well-liked mother and son with an active and happy life. As the newspapers later reported, however, this was a veneer; Alison Davies was, in reality, struggling to care for her son.

*
humber6Sadly there have been similar cases, often involving mothers who had appeared to be coping. I have listened to people express astonishment at such tragedies and suggest that had they only known they would have helped. I remember reading a request by one woman, in the aftermath of a similar case in America, that mothers bring their autistic children to her, rather than kill them, ‘in the middle of the night if need be’. 

So we are back to that call at 3am (the one my friend’s husband threatened the woman on the bus with). Such night calls may not be easy to receive but they are even harder to make in a society which does not encourage collective responsibility for parenting. And if you are a family in crisis there is a tipping point beyond which it becomes hard to even pick up a phone; holding on to any sense of your own agency, or a belief in the power of others to help, is difficult when you are at the bottom. In a note which Alison Davies left she referred to having failed as a mother and of the need to ‘end the pain’. She didn’t want her family to ‘have to worry any more’ about her and Ryan. ‘Clearly Alison was in distress’, a police investigator observed: ‘clearly she felt a burden and clearly she felt that she wanted to relieve her family of that burden’.

I recognise some of these feelings: doubting you will ever get the help you need; not wanting to ask for it; feeling helpless; wondering if your child might be better off without you; the impossibility of life alone. When you do your best and it doesn’t seem to make a positive difference to your child you can question whether there is anything anyone can do. You are the mother. You love your child more than anyone else in the world will. If you can’t help, who can? These feelings are natural and some may even be necessary. But if they combine in a particular way on a particularly bleak day or night, their impact can be devastating.

*

humber3Later, in August, the coroner would refer to Alison Davies’ ‘life of despair’. Although she was struggling to cope with her son’s increasingly violent attacks, Alison was determined that Ryan should not be taken into care. ‘She loved Ryan so much and she tried so hard; her bank of resilience had been depleted ‘, her family said in a statement following the inquest. Alison was, they added, ‘a wonderful mother’.

It emerged that Alison had a history of depression and suicidal tendencies which made her and Ryan particularly vulnerable. Her family had intervened to help the mother and son on previous occasions. The call from Alison’s mobile phone had, apparently, been made 30 minutes before the tragedy but was not effectively followed-up. The inquest was told that Ryan was not pushed but jumped independently; it was noted however that Ryan had no understanding of danger and would have jumped, with encouragement, if told he could fly. The second person falling from the bridge was Alison. The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide on her and a verdict of unlawful killing on Ryan.

During media reporting of the tragedy and inquest there were frequent references to other such cases, no less tragic. The Guardian reported that the incident had led to calls ‘for more respite care for families with autistic members’. The Independent, meanwhile, quoted a National Autistic Society spokesperson as saying that: ‘if one good thing comes out of the tragedy it is an awareness of the lack of support for respite care. Local Authorities are reluctant to pay for support.’ Other newspapers reported sympathetic interviews with parents of autistic children, explaining some of the stresses of living with autism and the benefits of regular respite care.

I would hazard that every one of these tragic cases could have been averted had there been a timely response to the family’s need before they reached the tipping point. For an autistic child to be safe and to flourish, the family that provides care also needs to be well. Parenting an autistic child can become more challenging with adolescence and adulthood but instead of increasing with age, support falls away. Is it any wonder that parents are pushed to breaking point, especially if they have few support networks or are battling an existing mental health condition? I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve got support. But I would be lying if I said that I’d never, sometimes, tried to think of places where Dylan and I had been happy.

*

humber7In the US, where there have been similar cases, there has been much discussion in the press and much condemnation of the mothers on social media. I understand this response but worry that a backlash against individuals obscures the spotlight from shining, as I believe it must, on all of us. I am not questioning that Ryan was unlawfully killed. Nor am I suggesting that Alison’s actions could ever be justified or excused. I do believe, however, that we are all involved in these tragic deaths because, in a civilized society, caring for vulnerable children and adults is a responsibility we share.

While it is not natural or intuitive for us to adopt a collective approach to parenting, we need to be better at offering and receiving support. Alison Davies seems not to have found this easy – certainly she was reluctant to let others care for her son. And who can blame her? There are so many awful reports of care standards that it is hard for parents to trust their children to others. But instead of closing down specialist services because they have failed in the past, we should be improving them. If we put our energy into achieving excellence in the care system, with effective mechanisms for supporting families before they are in crisis (without creating a sense of failure or fear in parents that they are letting down their child) then we might help avert at least some of these tragedies.

The more individualistic a society, the less likely it is that the vulnerable will survive; certainly Dylan’s disability means he will only ever flourish in a society that prioritises social care. If we are to emphasise the importance of human flourishing, rather than human capital, we have to develop more cooperative and community-based approaches to supporting one another. With so much concern about our ability to meet the cost of an increasing care sector, developing sustainable models of support has to be a priority. I would hazard that those who receive support from others, offer it in return. Hopefully, as I adjust to no longer being a full time carer, my own life will bear this out.

*

Disturbed by the tragic case of Alison and Ryan Davies, I kept news reports of these and similar stories determined that one day I would write something. I haven’t got around to the poem I thought I might write but let this stand, instead, as my small wreath. RIP.

Acknowledgements:

I have had these images of the Humber Bridge on my PC for years. I’m unsure of the sources now but hopefully they are from public domain sites such as Wikipedia.  In this post I refer to media cuttings of the incident (April 2006) and the inquest (August 2006) from The Independent, The Guardian, The Mail Online and the BBC.

Mother And Son In Aspect Ratio 1:1

showroomOne of the things I have missed most while Dylan has been without respite is the cinema. I’ve always loved the movies, especially in the late afternoon, so there was little I liked better on a night off than to catch an early evening film at the cinema across the road from my office. It’s more than four months, now, since I was able to do that. I can hardly believe I’ve managed for so long.

Recently there was a day when I thought I wouldn’t manage. The yearning was physical: I longed for the particular darkness and to feel the tang of marmalade ice cream on my tongue as I waited, in a pulse of white light, for the film to begin. How, I asked myself, could I have this? Screenings don’t start until the afternoon; I couldn’t be home in time for Dylan’s return from day centre even if I went to the first film of the day. Maybe the out-of-town multiplex offered earlier start times but not for the films I wanted to see (or with marmalade ice cream).

I would have to think creatively. The independent cinema I favour offers special screenings for particular sections of the community; once a month, for example, there is an autism-friendly event. I scanned the listings to see if there were an early day group I could join. The new mum club looked good but I didn’t know anyone with a baby I could borrow. The Over-55s? Now that would be the one. There was an 11 a.m. screening that day of a film called Mommy. Perfect.

soundonsight.orgI requested a day’s leave then checked the blurb. Xavier Dolan wasn’t a director I knew and the film was not one I recognised. My heart fell as I read; I wasn’t sure a narrative about a single mother’s struggle to support her violent adult son was what I needed. I was living this reality; I had coped with two incidents that week already. My plan had been to have a couple of hours not thinking about being such a mommy. I let myself feel sorry for myself for a while. Then it occurred to me that  today’s screening might be a gift: perhaps there was something art could teach this just-coping mommy about life?

*

english.rfi.frOnce I was seated in the pulse of light I started to relax. This was exactly what I needed, I told myself. There was a hum of anticipation in the auditorium as a man took the stage; tickets for the 55 club, it turned out, included a talk. Xavier Dolan, I discovered, is a young Quebecois film maker who had turned 26 only the previous week. Mommy was his 5th film; his first, made when he was 19 years old, had received an eight minute standing ovation at the Cannes film festival. Dolan is so very talented, the man giving the introduction mused, and still so young, it will be exciting to see where he goes next.

Dolan had, apparently, created a slightly altered version of Canada for Mommy – a ‘stretched reality’ . The film returned to one of Dolan’s favourite themes: the claustrophobic relationship between a mother and son (his previous films included the ‘semi-autobiographical’ The Reason I Killed My Mother). In order to represent the intensity of the mother-son relationship Dolan had filmed Mommy in something called a 1:1 aspect ratio. This would be immediately apparent to us, we were told, as the screen would look narrower than usual. Dolan had claimed this was the only way to shoot his film; the 1:1 aspect ratio ‘mirrors the turned-in circumstances’ of the mother and son. I had guessed that Mommy would be bone-close viewing. Now I was sure of it. I settled back to watch our narrow world unfold onto a narrowed screen.

*

Earlier that week Dylan had become anxious one evening. Later, when I considered the possible triggers, I couldn’t identify with any certainty what might have caused it. He’d had a calm enough day and was watching a film. My daughter was in her room. I was working in the attic. Perhaps it was a scene in the movie that upset Dylan. Or a sudden memory . Maybe it was confusion at the changes since his sister returned. Whatever it was it made Dylan come hunting for me, intent on tearing off my ears (his particular behaviour). Usually I can predict such an attack and ensure I am safe but on this occasion Dylan had me cornered. I held my arms up to protect myself but I knew it was no good. It would have been much worse, I’m sure, if my daughter hadn’t come to see what the fuss was about and pulled Dylan off.

That’s how it can be sometimes. Dylan doesn’t mean to hurt me. It is a flight/fight response to something which has made him anxious and emotionally overloaded. I probably head off three or four times as many of these incidents as I witness. It’s easy not to notice when we get something right, though, or to overlook the times we handle a situation skilfully. We tend, instead, to remember when we miss something or a situation goes wrong. Dolan understands this; he gives us a mommy sometimes at her glorious best and some days way out of her depth.

*

thechildrensmediaconferenceThe son in Mommy is not autistic. ADHD is mentioned but not as the root of violence; we are offered social as well as psychological explanations (poverty, an absent father, inadequate social care). Nonetheless I recognised the relationship between mother and son and found links with my own experience.

Dolan wants us to see the closeness of the mother-son relationship as both nourishing and limiting. The mother (‘Die’) is the best thing her son, Steve, has; when everyone else has given up on him, she refuses to. But Die also holds him back. She cannot contain her son’s anger by narrowing his world to the walls of her house; when she tries, the violence turns on her. At these times the screen can hardly contain the charge; it spills out of frame as mother and son struggle for control. The intensity of the relationship (its 1:1 aspect ratio) becomes clear as they absorb the violence, refusing to give up on each other or walk away.

As I watched I kept thinking about a book I’d been reading. Phoebe Caldwell, reflecting on her work with autistic adults with learning disabilities, suggests that challenging behaviour can arise from a failure to differentiate from the mother. In ‘normal’ child development, Caldwell explains, mother and baby enter a ‘dyadic state’ in which baby’s every movement and action triggers a response from the mother. For the baby this is confirming; it learns something about its mother but it also learns something about itself. The baby therefore starts to understand that it is separate from the mother. It is possible, Caldwell suggests, that an autistic baby’s brain is unable to interpret the mother’s signals and the baby therefore fails to develop a separate sense of ‘self’. As a result:

Mother and baby remain bonded in this bubble of infantile need – infant because it needs to survive, and mother because she is drawn in by the maternal instinct to meet infantile need. The mother’s agenda remains the child. The baby may grow physically into adult but remains in the infantile state of critical need for the mother’s nurture. It still retains the fear of extinction if it feels it is not receiving this nurture or that the ‘dyad’, the infant survival state, is threatened. (Caldwell, 2006, p. 140)

Violence and aggression are common, Caldwell claims, where there has been a failure to separate from the mother as an infant. When the situation is complicated by autism, she suggests, it is extremely difficult to establish separation as an adult. Direct physical separation, Caldwell explains: ‘simply heightens anxiety, which sends the adult-infant back into the bubble.’ (Caldwell, 2006, p. 141). Recently I have been asking myself whether Dylan and I could be in a dyadic bubble. Perhaps, I reflected as I sat in the darkened cinema, this is what linked me to the woman on the narrowed screen?

*

Viewed through the lens of failure to differentiate from the mother, Dolan’s film made much sense to me. There are other representations of mothering in the film, however. The neighbour, Kyla, for example who befriends Die and Steve. Although we are aware Kyla has children, we don’t see her performing her mothering role; this part of her identity is ‘bracketed’. Kyla’s initial contact with Die and Steve is as a mother-son unit but she soon develops friendships with them as separate individuals. ‘From the point of view of the outsider ‘, Caldwell notes:

the mother/adult-infant bubble ‘feels’ exclusive and others involved in care will feel shut out. It is difficult to cross the boundary either way – the feelings involved are so intense and primal. It requires enormous emotional effort to establish communication between the different parties involved in care since all parties will feel protective. However, a real sharing of feeling may be almost the only way to stand back and see what is happening. (Caldwell, 2006. p. 141).

This process is, I think, one of Dolan’s preoccupations. When Kyla first gets drawn into the mother and son’s world, Die is struggling to establish boundaries that she and Steve can keep. Kyla’s increasing involvement in their lives is transformative. She gives Die a break from caring; she shares some of the practical and emotional responsibility of parenting Steve; she equips mother and son with education and life skills; and, crucially, she models alternative (non-maternal and non-infantilising) ways of building relationships.

Part way through the movie it seems that this support will be enough. It’s a film about community, I thought to myself; Dolan is inviting us to consider society’s role in supporting families. Mommy does not, however, resolve so simply. Unable to continue supporting her son, even with the help of Kyla, Die turns Steve over to the authorities. In a harrowing closing scene we are reminded that there are no winners in this situation. If you are vulnerable and troubled – because you are autistic, perhaps, or have ADHD or learning disabilities or are anxious or mentally ill – then you will struggle to receive the support you need either at home or from the state.

The laws on care and incarceration which Dolan explores may be a ‘stretched reality’ but they didn’t feel too far away from where we are or might be in my own son’s life time. While Steve’s relationship with his mother is claustrophobic and limiting, public services are depicted as chronically damaging. There is a sense in which the relationship between the mother and son, for all its flaws, had been the greater resource; for while such a relationship can be claustrophobic it can also be enabling. Although by the end of the film Die can no longer manage alone, she had at least tried to confound the skeptics; from the ‘turned in’ circumstances of a mother and son, stretched vision can also come. Mommy turned out to be gift indeed.


References:

Dolan, Xavier (2014) [Director] Mommy
Caldwell, Phoebe (2006) Finding You Finding Me. Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Images:
Showroom cinema by libcom.org Mommy by soundonsight;Xavier Dolan by english.rfi.fr; interior of the Showroom by thechildrensmediaconference

Zen And The Art Of Caring: the swept path

wet leaf fall 004The Anglo-Saxon name for an October moon isn’t Falling Leaf Moon without reason; for the last few weeks I’ve been meaning to sweep my front path. Dylan will slip on those leaves, I’ve kept telling myself.

Since Dylan started going to and from school on local authority transport at the age of five he has had the habit of hurtling at high speed into the house on his return. Without stopping to look or check for potential obstacles along the route he sprints like a German ICE or Japanese Bullet train to his destination. This habit has stayed with Dylan through 19 years of schooling and four different houses, three different schools and dozens of different drivers and escorts.

Although this behaviour may not appear unduly worrying it can be problematic. There are pedestrians, for example, who may be knocked to the ground by whirlwind Dilly. As the behaviour continues year round, unchecked by weather conditions, there is the danger that Dylan could fall badly in icy weather (or wet autumn leaves). And there is the possibility that in Dylan’s 50-250 yard sprint (depending on where the minibus has managed to park) he will encounter something to spook him – a dog say – and throw him catastrophically off his stride and into passing traffic. For in this brief time, Dylan is beyond any supervision or control; all a carer can do is stand back and watch, fingers crossed.

While the home sprint may be relatively low-risk, I worked with Dylan’s teachers and escorts periodically to try and re-shape the behaviour. We tried rebus symbols, rewards and changes to the drop-off routine but nothing made a difference. Eventually I gave up, thinking that perhaps once Dylan left school it would no longer be an issue, especially as the behaviour seemed to apply only to local authority transport (Dylan walks perfectly calmly into the house from cars and public transport). The behaviour appears, however, to be deeply embedded; Dylan has continued to sprint into the house from the minibus which now brings him home from his adult day centre.

wet leaf fall 005I must sweep these leaves up, I said to Dylan as I locked the front door of the house one morning last week: I’ll do it tonight. I put Dylan on his minibus and raced to work. I am always rushing to and from work. I have perfected the art of being back in time for Dylan’s bus while wringing every last minute from the working day; I know the shortest time it takes from desk to front door and I almost always bank on it. It’s a vital calculation; get it wrong and the consequences are horrible. Dylan would not understand, if I wasn’t home, why he couldn’t get off the minibus. Having to wait for me to arrive would not only distress Dylan but would have knock-on effects on other service users and families.

When Dylan was at school I was aware that local authority transport was only allowed to wait for an absent parent for so long before taking the uncollected child to what I always thought of as ‘the pound’. While I never had had to retrieve Dylan from such a place, I did slip up a few times. Usually I was stuck in traffic within striking distance of home; over a 15 year period, given that I’m a single working parent, that’s not bad. I always cut it fine though and one thing my calculations never seem to adjust for is the sweeping of paths: I didn’t, of course, get home in time to do this last week.

The swept path

wet leaf fall 001So when I got Dylan off the bus that night I hollered slow down, you’ll slip as he raced towards the house. The bus had had to park further away than usual that night due to workmen; as I had walked up the road to get Dylan I told them they might want to stand back a bit as in a moment my big boy would come tearing past at high speed – which is exactly what happened, with me in hot pursuit.

I don’t know what I expected to gain by chasing after Dylan like that. He is nearly 21 and in his physical prime. I wasn’t going to catch him. Even if I kept him within ear shot he wasn’t going to listen to my exhortation to walk. So haring after him, I now realise, was pointless and silly. But that is what I did and yes, you’ve guessed: I fell on the unswept path. And I went with such a bang and a crack on those wet leaves I lay dazed on the ground wondering what on earth I had done and what I would do next. When I limped into the house Dylan had his arms clamped around his ears, a sign that he was distressed. So instead of letting myself cry or peel off my clothes to inspect the damage I said ‘mummy fell’ then maintained our usual routine of reading and signing Dylan’s link file entry about his day. I would deal with the blood and bruises later.

wet leaf fall 008Happily they turned out not to be so bad; a few days later and I am already mending. I could have done without that fall though; it has made caring for Dylan and myself, as well as working and doing things like driving, slow and difficult. The first night, struggling to cook, shave Dylan or type, I chided myself for not keeping a swept path. I need a more zen approach to caring, I told myself; taking a few moments for small tasks, like clearing leaves, could make a difference to my well-being.

wet leaf fall 009So the next day I swept my path. It only took ten minutes but from that short time I took something valuable. And while I was sweeping I remembered a poem about a swept path. The poem, by Helen Farish, is not about autism; the narrator is learning to care for lavender, rather than for a child. The process Farish describes, however, and its impact on her sense of self, resonates with my experience in many ways. Farish reminds me to celebrate myself; this week the achievement I am most proud of is, indeed, my swept front path.

Programme
Helen Farish

She loves the radio, the freedom it gives
to listen out the back as she’s passing to and fro
or sitting in the half-house half-garden room

on a midsummer’s Sunday evening
listening to a three-hour programme on the monsoon,
and the front door is open and the back,

and every now and then the setting light
coming past the lavender she’s recently started caring for
and the honeysuckle she never used to notice nor those roses

hidden till she chopped back the buddleia – the light
coming past the flowering jasmine and the hanging basket
she’s so pleased with stops her,

makes her see how much of her life
has been lived in this house,
that she’s become who she is here

and what she will remember of these years is not
the times when living alone seemed a problem to solve
but the peace:

looking at a house she has done her best in,
loving small successes, the hanging basket, the picture in the half-
house half-garden room, that repotted plant,

and her larger successes – allowing herself the pleasure
of a three-hour programme on the monsoon
sorting through a box of postcards with a green glass of gin,

wet leaf fall 011seeing all those places she’s been to: but her journey
to this programme, her swept front path, this is
the one she’s most proud of.

Reference:

Helen Farish, ‘Programme’ in Intimates (Cape, 2005)