Four and a half years ago I wrote a blog titled ‘grieving for a child I haven’t lost’. It has been read over 100 thousand times since I wrote it and appeared in a number of books and on some popular websites. It’s been one of the most commented pieces I have written and evoked very strong feelings from people, both good and bad.
Time has passed and feelings change. Some advised me to delete that blog. But why would I be ashamed of how I truly felt at the time? You can’t eradicate history and it’s not healthy to pretend something wasn’t real when it was. I stand by every word I wrote back then and I know by being so brutally honest it has helped thousands of others feel less alone and more understood. Four and a half years ago my son was non verbal, smearing, screaming for hours, unable to read or write and needed 24 hour care. He was still in nappies at 6 and a half, having seizures, his behaviour was ‘challenging’ and every single day felt never ending.
He’s now 11. He’s still not toilet trained, still smears, now officially diagnosed epileptic, still has challenging behaviour and still non verbal. He still screams, he still can’t read or write or dress himself but something fundamental HAS changed: I no longer grieve for him.
I refuse to debate wether ‘grief’ is the right word to use for what I went through. I am the one that went through it and I know the intensity and depth of my feelings and the struggles both my son experienced, and in turn I felt as his mum and full time carer. The day I sat on that park bench and poured my heart onto paper was a day of truly understanding the reality of the pain, heartbreak and despair I felt. No-one has any right to undermine that unless they were living my life. My feelings and thoughts are not up for debate and never will be.
But things have changed now. A few days ago I took my son a trip to his favourite place. He now has a means of communication and I have learnt to listen. While he still can’t communicate verbally, after a lot of frustration and heartbreak, he found his own way of sharing his world through unconventional means. For him this is a unique combination of you tube, google street map, photos and using items of reference. He shows ingenuity and creativity daily as he tries to convey what he wants to wear, eat, and do. I have had, in turn, to be wiling to put my prejudices aside, be patient, and be willing to listen with more than just my ears.
Many misunderstood my grief as not loving my son. The opposite was in fact true. It was my intense love for him that made me grieve what I was missing as a parent and also the reality of what he will miss throughout his life.
But back to our trip and why I no longer grieve for my autistic son.:
He woke up on Saturday and made his way downstairs to ‘his’ chair. He pressed his iPads on (yes he has two!) and scrolled through his history of videos in YouTube until he found the one he wanted. He then used the other to go on google street map which is set to begin at his own home. Within minutes he had taken himself to the local train station on one iPad whilst watching local trains on the other.
I know my son and I know where he likes to go. Together we have a deep understanding now that has helped us both feel happier. He learnt that communication was worthwhile and I learnt the importance of allowing him to decide and control more about his life.
So I took him on a train to his favourite shopping centre to see lifts. On the train I watched as he flapped happily and looked out the window, holding his favourite teddy up so he could see too. He held my hand to get off the train and he took me to all his favourite lifts. We had lunch together in the food court and he dragged me by the hand and pointed to what he wanted. Then when he’d had enough we came home.
I’ve accepted that this is what makes him happy. He’s accepted that I actually have a use and by communicating other ways instead of screaming (which was his communication) he can achieve more.
I struggled but he struggled more.
Love helped us through. We both needed time.
In the four and a half years of us both needing time and changing I noticed something very important: attitudes to autistics are changing. We are much more accepting of difference now and the need to accommodate. Unfortunately though that acceptance still doesn’t seem to apply to parents as they journey through all the emotions involved in caring for, and living with their autistic children.
I am no longer grieving for my autistic son because I have come to accept and acknowledge that his life will always be different, as will mine, and that is OK. But it’s important that that is seen not as a ‘changing sides’ or ‘finally being positive’ but more about a natural journey of learning, patience and love. I haven’t suddenly become ‘accepting’ it was a process of coming to terms with the fact that my entire life will mean caring for my child and his entire life will involve others caring for him.
My son didn’t scream once on Saturday nor did he self harm or even show challenging behaviour. He was happy and so was I.
It’s still difficult at times, for both of us. But instead of sitting on that bench crying we now walk hand in hand past it as he flaps and laughs and drags me back to the car. He’d rather have fun at a lift or be eating lunch than walk around a park with his mum. That’s not something I grieve about now. It’s something I smile about instead.