Why I no longer grieve for my autistic son

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.

We have come so far…

January is often a time of reflection for me. A new year; a fresh start. As I approach the second anniversary of my blog at the end of this month I have also been reading back at my own journey. I never knew my own writing would make me so emotional. It has brought back memories and when every day seems the same as the next, it has been nice to see that my children have actually progressed, even if it seems we have been stuck at times. And I have come so far.

When I started this blog I never thought that two years later I would still be writing. But here I am.

And as if to prove a point to me, my son chose this very week to suddenly do something he has never let me do before (well not since he was less than a year old). At six years and two months old he let me read a book to him for the first time since he was a baby.

Sometimes pictures speak louder than words:

This was what my twins looked like when I was last able to ready to them both together:

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And this is what they looked like this week when instead of reading to just my daughter I had the privilege of sharing the moment with Isaac too:

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We have come so far!

I also came across an old note I wrote on my Facebook account this week. I wrote it back in October 2012, a month before the children had their fourth birthday and three months prior to me starting blogging. It is a poem I wrote for Isaac and I thought it might be good to share, as even though we are still dealing with nappies and we still have no speech, it shows how far I have come and the picture I posted back then shows how far Isaac has come on too.

I’m sorry son

Dear Isaac,

I’m sorry I reversed the car today
When I know it disturbs you and makes you cry
And instead of offering comfort
I got angry and screamed at you “Why?”

When I carried you into the house
heated your milk, sat in ‘your’ seat
But forgot you won’t drink from a bottle
Just because you had shoes on your feet!

I’m sorry you still can’t speak to me
and today that was driving me mad
Your frustrations at trying to communicate
at the moment are just making me sad

Your sister set up a train set
but you destroyed it and pulled it apart
As she cried in my arms at your actions
I cried with her and just broke my heart

I’m sorry I almost force-fed you
when you refused all the options I’d tried
You were staring into space when I dressed you
But I was still so annoyed when you cried

I’m sorry you can’t look at my face
or respond when I’m calling your name
You’d rather pull out DVD’s
over and over again

I’m sorry you’re still wearing nappies
I didn’t expect it aged 4
I’m sorry you wanted to escape
when the gas man came to the door

My son I need to say sorry
Tomorrow we will both start anew
With patience, understanding, forgiveness
And a promise that I will always love you.

With love,
Mummy x

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We have come so far!

And it isn’t just me. When your child receives a diagnosis of autism, neurofibromatosis type 1, global developmental delay, or anything else for that matter, the entire family has to learn to cope with it. And we don’t all cope in the same way.

I have struggled at times. My husband has struggled at times. But this week I caught a moment on camera that pictures the journey we have all made so well. Here is my precious baby boy in the arms of his daddy flapping and laughing with delight:

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It has been a difficult two years since I began blogging. It has been a challenging six years since the twins were born. But everyday we are making progress. And looking back helps me see that.

My first ever blog was called ‘The journey thus far…’ Now I can look back and say with confidence ‘we have come so far’. And one day I may even be able to sit down with my twins and share some of their own journey with them. I finally have hope that could happen.

How did you meet me?

Did you meet me many years ago, a child innocent and free, more interested in dolls and card games than school, influenced by the beliefs of my parents more than the media, eating food that others made me without thinking of the cost or how it was cooked? Had you met me then you would have known a very different person to who I am now. The innocence of childhood is long gone now.

IMG_1323Did you meet me in high school, a teenager preoccupied with my puppy fat and how to avoid being bullied? When it felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders as I struggled with French homework that made no sense and tried to remember the periodic table of elements. A time when friendship was someone to stand beside at break time, when my view of life became tainted by smokers in the school toilets and the pressure of exams made me cry. The confusion of my teenage years is long gone.

Did you meet me at university, a naive student who had yet to taste alcohol or party right through the night? The novelty of living alone soon forgotten when the loneliness and homesickness set in every night. When a determination first set in to achieve and my views of child development were rose tinted and way more fantasy than reality. When I let my world fall around me as the first person to ever call me a failure spoke into my life. Had you known me then you would have met an insecure and way too innocent student ill prepared for the reality of a full time career in teaching.

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 Did you meet me when I first fell in love, a believer in happy ever after, dreamer of happy families? When I consumed myself with wedding planning and being with my lover more than anything else because life suddenly seemed amazing, and bright and exciting again after the failure of university. Did you perhaps watch me walking down that aisle full of hope and love and a belief that together with my new husband life would be everything we wanted and more? It takes so much work to keep that spark, excitement and fire going. But the depth of love has not gone cold. I pray it never will.

Did you know me through those wilderness years of bitter disappointment, early pregnancy loss and grief of infertility, when darkness could overshadow me so suddenly I felt like I was being devoured? You may have met someone so negative at times, so consumed with their own pain it was difficult to see the hurt in others, someone so emotional and yet appearing cold in order to protect my heart from pain. Someone trained in child care yet avoiding anywhere children could be found. Someone who worked four and five jobs just to keep busy so as not to face the uncertainty of life. The pain of those years and the volume of tears may have subsided but the lessons learnt run deep inside my heart.

Did you meet me during the exhilaration and thrill of the birth of my babies when I wanted to scream my story out to the entire world and explode from happiness? Did you send me a card or buy a gift for my children? Or at some point on my journey shared with me as you bore children at the same time, experienced teething in your children as I did in mine or liked my children’s photos on social media? There is nothing more bonding for woman than sharing experiences of their children. I may have bored you with stories of their funny faces, silly antics and baby smiles. The beauty of those years will live long in my mind.

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Did you meet me through the agony and pain of realising my children where different, of never ending appointments and devastating diagnosis? Have you journeyed with me through autism, neurofibromatosis, vision impairment, faith, sleepless nights, developmental diagnosis and fighting the system? A mother so emotional yet determined, so overwhelmed yet so focused, needing to learn but struggling to cope. Have I poured out my heart to you in person or online craving that knowledge that someone somewhere cares and has been here before to show me the way? Have you seen me tell someone else it will ‘be OK’ and you wondered where or how I can find that confidence from?

My heart has been changed now. Compassion has taken over. Where there was once judgement there is now empathy for others. Where there was selfishness there is love. I am not the child, teenager, student, wife, or mother I used to be.

Life has a way of changing people. Disability has a way of changing people. Children have a way of changing people. Faith has a way of changing people.

Everyone’s journey is different. Forgive me if in the past I judged you, acted selfishly or was aloof towards you.

How did you meet me? You met me on my journey and my journey isn’t over yet. Bear with me as I keep on walking.

It has been lovely to walk with you for some of the way.

Thank you!

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“It’s ok, I’ve got you”

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It was a dry and mild spring evening, the sort you want to make the most of and get out of the house. So we packed the kids in the car, the changing bag, a few little toys and grabbed the leftover loaf of bread on the way out to feed the ducks at Lanark Loch. The park at the Loch has recently been rebuilt and we thought the kids might enjoy some time on the swings, climbing frame and slides after feeding the ducks and swans. We ‘thought’ it would be a relaxing evening. We ‘thought’ we could enjoy some quality family time together. We thought it would be ok. I never for a minute thought I would be writing about that evening days later with the emotions of it all still raw in my mind.

Naomi loved feeding the various animals and was so excited as they approached her eager to enjoy the food she was providing them. Isaac had other plans. So we did what we so often have to do in these situations and resorted to our tried and tested method of parenting these days “divide and conquer”. One parent takes the daughter and the other the son. A simple smile and nod to my ever understanding husband and he recognised the cue that I was heading off with Isaac, hopefully to the swing park. Never try and second guess someone with autism! Unpredictability should be their middle name!

It never occurred to me to check I had the essentials all special needs parents must carry at all times. In our case a watch, the car keys and a mobile phone! As I chased after my flapping, wobbling, vocal four year old who has an absolute love of water my first thoughts were along the lines of ‘will he keep his clothes on today’, ‘how deep is that water?’ and ‘even the swans have got the right idea to get out of his way!’.

But he never headed for the water. He was setting off around the loch following the path of so many dog walkers, romantic couples and runners before him. His eyes were squinted at the edge of the bushes tracking their path as they steered right around the waters edge. Totally in his own world. Totally oblivious to anyone around him. Just engrossed in an imaginary line that only he seemed able to see. I could certainly benefit from the exercise and had no choice but to follow this fascinating child who was off exploring.

He was looking at the bushes. Mum was looking out for obstacles at his feet, uneven tracks that he would never notice with eyes fixated on a peripheral imaginary line only seen by him. I was apologising to fellow walkers approaching in the opposite direction assuming this little one would move out of the way of their dog, pram or running path. But Isaac wasn’t even aware of them as he half walked, half ran in his trance like state. I was saying polite hellos to strangers. My little one more interested in the shrubbery than in people.

As he continued along and I got into his groove my thoughts began to wander as much as he was: ‘Will dad and Naomi have any idea where we are?’ ‘Are they having as much ‘fun’ as me?’ ‘Maybe after all this walking Isaac might actually sleep tonight!’ ‘wow, this place is beautiful. I’m so glad I am getting to see so much more of this place tonight.’

And then he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks! Why, I have no idea. And he screamed this ear piercing scream, a broken-hearted, confused, disorientated look on his face. And real tears. He can’t talk but his face said it all. He finally knew I was there. And he needed me. He had just walked half a mile (.75 km) in an absolute trance and suddenly reality hit and he had no clue where he was and how he got there.

“It’s ok, I’ve got you”

Half a mile is easy to walk in the cool of an evening with only the weight of your own burdens upon you. But with the weight of a 4 and a half year old, a heavy heart and all his disorientated frustrated burdens as well as your own, it is a very long way indeed. And it was right around that time that I suddenly realised I had no phone, no car keys and no watch on. Oh dear. We were alone. But we weren’t.

“It’s ok, I’ve got you”

I kept reassuring him as God was reassuring me of the same thing.

“It’s going to be ok my precious child”

He was hearing me through his tears. And I was listening through my tears too.

“We’ll get through this together.”

He needed to know he wasn’t alone. So did I.

“Look at that duck Isaac! Can you hear that dog bark?”

Sometimes we need to be distracted from our own worries.

We made it back safe and well together. I learnt that night that sometimes we can walk alone in life but at other times we just need held and carried and told by someone “It’s ok. I’ve got you.”