Although I’ve grown accustomed to not being able to do certain things, every so often frustration catches me out. I suppose other carers have something they dream of doing: clothes shopping, perhaps, or leisurely lunches. I can live without those as it happens.
If I find myself frustrated it is usually about an arts event; the exhibition I can’t get to or theatre production I must content myself with reviews of. At the moment my head is turned by Paul Cummins’ installation of 888, 246 handmade ceramic poppies at the Tower of London (not simply an ‘art event’ I know). A colleague who visited last weekend showed me pictures on her mobile phone; it was heaving, she told me.
I know that Dylan wouldn’t cope; I have only taken him to London once before and although it was a success it would be no preparation for thick crowds at the Tower. Besides, the poppies would have no meaning for him. Actually, that’s not the case: the poppies may not have the same historical and cultural relevance to Dylan as to me, but I cannot claim they would have no meaning for him.
Even so, I cannot contemplate a trip to London with Dylan, particularly with visitor numbers set to rise on the run up to Remembrance Day and given the anxiety Dylan has been experiencing in recent months. I have pored over my diary looking for a Dylan- and teaching-free slot long enough for me to get the train to London and back alone, but it’s no go.
I had forgotten until yesterday that I took Dylan to a poppy service last year. Although I had edited this from my memory I have a habit which means I can never forget entirely. As a long-term diarist I have records which stretch back years. Something I have done for some time now is use the previous year as a touchstone for the one I am living. So as well as writing an entry for 11th November 2014, for example, I will look back to see how I lived on 11th November 2013. So yesterday morning I flicked back to see what Dylan and I were doing this time last year.
The poppy service we attended had been advertised as ‘inclusive’ but it wasn’t a success, at least not for us. In my diary account of the poppy service (which I reproduce below) you will hear the voice of the church leaders and people with learning disabilities as well as my own voice and that of an omniscient narrator.
The dark circle, he said, is the evil in the world; the bad things which we do. He showed pictures of tanks and soldiers with guns. Cartoon characters squaring for a fight. Hurting each other. Making people cry. These are the evil things. This is the dark circle. Stand here in the middle of the room, M, and hold this black circle.
Now what are these? he asked. These petals of blood remind us of Jesus, he said; that he loves us all, even you shouting for WW3 and echoing back words. Even you with a blank look and the boy looking through books instead of paying attention. Even you he loves.
Now I see that you are not wearing your poppies. Come here and hold this one. Look at it. Don’t peel the back off yet. Hold it in your hand. Look at it. Those are tears of blood.
Who is this on the screen? ‘That is him! That’s him!’ one man cried.
In the above account Dylan is the boy looking through books; these were located at a distance from the group. Dylan’s exclusion was partly due to the lack of adjustments made to the service : the chairs were arranged formally and proceedings were conducted through spoken language, with the balance towards instruction. Signed hymns and projected images were the only attempts to enrich communication.
It’s easy to be critical of course. The church was working with what it had access to in terms of space, resources and expertise. Church leaders are attempting to meet a need in the community and the group may well be valued by its regular members. I suspect that it wasn’t really aimed at someone on the autistic spectrum and the issues I am raising may be more about that than inclusion generally. I’m pretty sure, however, that the things which would have engaged Dylan might have appealed to others too.
Making a giant poppy out of tissue paper. Rattling poppy seed pods. Music and movement as a field of poppies. Simple memory games. Remembering someone you loved. Saying thank you.
It appeared hard for the people there – adults with learning disabilities – to sit and listen. Surely we can bring active methodologies from schools and adult learning centres into an inclusive church? The concept of the sermon may underpin religious practice in many faiths but it is an approach which needs to be re-thought if we are to include people from across the community. Perhaps this is already happening in some places; I imagine churches may grow and adapt to the needs of autistic children whose families are already members (much in the way families themselves do).
My discomfort at the service Dylan and I attended was not just about methodology, however; I was as troubled by what was said as by how it was delivered. I found the focus on ‘good’ and ‘evil’ difficult, for example, and I was aghast at the images of toy soldiers. How might Dylan and others make sense of Toy Story’s role in this I wondered? The narrative offered made a dark connection with personal life; I was disturbed by the attempt to link ‘bullying’ (as an example of evil) with Remembrance Day. I watched people shift in their chairs; this ‘making concrete’ was, I suspected, painful and confusing for some people in the congregation.
Although there were questions, the concepts were complex. I felt uncomfortable that people with a learning disability were being set up to fail with questions they couldn’t answer; although I’m sure this was not the intention, it felt patronising. Am I reading too much into this? It’s possible. But I have learned to trust the intuitive judgements that Dylan makes and his reaction was to distance himself.
Inclusion is more than the arrangement of furniture or use of Makaton; it is about attitudes and philosophy. For me this means ensuring Dylan feels safe, that his needs are considered and that his ability to contribute is assumed. I think these are inter-related in that Dylan feels comfortable where he can sense he is valued and his confidence increases when he can engage. The inclusive poppy service which I took Dylan to last year was not as inclusive as I had hoped in this sense.
There was of course another, more literal, way in which the service wasn’t inclusive; it was a special event, aimed at people with learning disabilities. I am not uncomfortable with separate provision although I understand why some autistic people, parents and professionals argue against this. Dylan attended a National Autistic Society school until he was 19 and he flourished and was happy there; in my view this was the appropriate education setting for him. So I’m not averse to taking Dylan into a specialised setting if I think it might benefit him.
So why did I take Dylan to an inclusive service? Because recently, as Dylan has moved into adulthood, I have been thinking about ways I can create circles of support around him. I want to help Dylan find his own place in the community, separate from and beyond his relationship with me. Although I am not a regular church goer now, I was as a child. I was aware while my children were growing up, therefore, of the absence from their lives of something which had been an important part of mine. Joining a church seemed to me to be something which Dylan might benefit from now and enjoy; a church community for people with learning disabilities would, I hoped, be a safe and enabling place where Dylan could feel valued.
Although Dylan didn’t attend services as a child he developed a special interest in churches. I think this is partly because of the acoustics and the effect of light through glass (I have written about this here). Dylan also seems to share with others on the spectrum a draughtsman’s perspective; architectural features such as stained glass windows, bells, steeples and gargoyles are among his special interests. Unfortunately, the church where the inclusive service was held did not have such features; perhaps Dylan buried his disappointment (having been told that we were ‘going to church’) in those books.
After I read last year’s diary entry, however, I remembered that we had once attended a service at a church with bells and a steeple. We were in Knaresborough for the weekend and were walking back to our hotel on Saturday evening when my attention was caught by a flyer advertising Eucharist at St John the Baptist the next morning. The setting was to be Mozart’s Coronation Mass, one of my favourite pieces.
I spent the rest of the evening thinking about the service. I couldn’t take Dylan, surely? I pondered the logistics and possible scenarios and outcomes. No. It was ridiculous. There was no way that Dylan would sit through the service. And yet I couldn’t bring myself to give up entirely on the idea. I went to sleep that night promising myself that I would do nothing to make it happen, but if Dylan woke on time, and we happened to be strolling by at 10.30am, and if the crowd didn’t appear too overwhelming and somebody smiled at us, and if there were two free seats at the back – well maybe.
And so it was that Dylan and I found ourselves next morning at the entrance of the church. As one of the wardens welcomed us I explained, simply, about Dylan; he might shout out, I said, but we’ll leave if need be. ‘Oh Jesus won’t mind a bit of noise’, the blessed warden replied. ‘Though I suppose Mozart might’, she added, as we took our seats.
That is him! That’s him!
The service lasted two hours. I would never have imagined that Dylan could cope but he was brilliant; he stood and sat and stared upwards at the stained glass. I listened and sang and supervised. Afterwards, several members of the congregation made a point of welcoming and congratulating us as if realising the extent of our achievement.
I imagine that the attraction of churches for Dylan is to some extent their familiarity and dependability; he enters churches to search for something that he knows he will find. What Dylan took from the service at St John the Baptist, perhaps, was a sense of connection; as well as recognising features of church architecture, he witnessed community spirit. This process of recognition is, I think, part of belonging.
And now I remember that what redeemed last year’s poppy service was one man’s joyful shout of recognition: ‘that is him! That’s him!’. He had seen that face before and was comforted. It was, of course, the one who doesn’t mind a bit of noise.
Images of the poppy installation at the Tower of London are via the BBC (the Tower) and The Guardian (individual ceramic poppies).
The other photographs were taken by me outside the Church of St John the Baptist in Knaresborough, at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight (poppies with lavender), at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (single poppy) and at my local allotment gardens. The architect’s drawing of Ulm Cathedral is a section from one of Dylan’s favourite pictures; it hangs in the corridor outside his bedroom and I often find him standing by it, looking intently.