Before 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.
I 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.
To 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.
The 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.
Sadly 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.
Later, 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.
In 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.
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.