My son, Ben, is 11 and my approach to his disability has changed a lot since he was little. I knew very little about disabled people when he was born and my experience of being his mother has been a rapid education in the issues surrounding disability. If I had known then what I know now, I would have done things differently and I would have found it helpful to have read stories of other people with similar experiences.
This is my latest interview in an occasional series – A Parent Perspective – with Anoushka who has two sons, Spike and Oscar. Amongst the many interesting things Anoushka talks about is setting up Transport Sparks, a social group for young autistic transport enthusiasts.
How would you describe Spike?
Spike is 12. He’s very funny and charming with a good sense of the absurd. He’s quite a good negotiator – very skilled at getting us to add an extra leg to a journey, or more time on his devices. He loves going to the cinema, trains, hand dryers and adventuring around London. He’s also autistic and has ADHD (inattentive form), so he has some struggles with typical forms of social communication and he has sensory processing differences which can be a bit intense for him. He also has an amazing memory and a very interesting way of looking at the world.
When did you realise Spike wasn’t neurotypical?
From quite early on. He had a lot of trouble sleeping and feeding. He missed a few early milestones, he didn’t point or crawl. The books said all babies are fascinated by faces but he was not at all. Both my husband and I thought about autism before Spike was a year old. He started struggling in stay and play groups and while he started speaking at a year old, his language developed slowly. We went to see a GP when he was two, and had a diagnosis of autism by the time he was three.
How did you feel about the diagnosis at the time?
I felt like the possibility of autism had been rattling around in my brain for such a long time that it was a relief to have the question answered. There was an optimistic aspect to it because now we could get on with our lives. But it’s a challenging process to go through as a parent, to have to list the ways your child isn’t like other children, the difficulties they have.
Following the diagnosis, we were occupied with trying to set everything up – to apply for a statement of special educational needs, find a school, make sure that he was getting enough speech and language therapy, physio or OT. I didn’t feel too isolated but actually I hadn’t really come up for air and when I did I felt quite alone. I didn’t know anybody who had gone through anything similar and I didn’t really see other parents. At some point I found a very good group, mainly online, and we met up from time to time but it wasn’t really until I started meeting others through Spike’s special interests that I found lots more people who got it.
How was it having your second child?
I had reached a point where I had some mental space to think about another child. Although we were still in the process of getting Spike’s diagnosis, I’d reached a point of acceptance quite quickly and so if Oscar was going to be autistic that was fine, though I was alert to how he was developing. He was very different to Spike and him finding things easy felt weird and magical. He followed a more typical trajectory of milestones and it was a very different experience, a different delight. Oscar is now 9.
What were your expectations of what being a parent would be like?
I didn’t really have any idea what it would be like being a parent. My husband and I are slightly quirky only children and in some ways I expected to have slightly quirky children. I was excited to meet them and get to know them. I can remember having a picture in my mind of walking down the street with my child having a conversation. That took a long time to happen with Spike but I can remember the moment when it did happen and thinking, ‘Oh, we’re here.’ It was lovely to have that moment with Oscar, too and we reached it much more quickly than I expected! He’s a good talker.
How was school for Spike?
We had a relatively accommodating primary school and Spike had some good years, depending on the teacher. We had a lot of control over who worked with Spike so he was always really well supported. We were lucky that his year group were a wonderful bunch of children. Spike did a presentation to his class in year one about how things were for him and this helped his friends support him. It was always hard finding the balance between the academic focus in school and what we wanted to prioritise so Spike had time out of school. That’s a big reason why we asked the local authority for funding to home educate.
What’s your approach to home education?
Our starting point is always something he is interested in. We do project-based work and look for ways to bring in new information. We’re keeping our eye on the national curriculum and he’s a little behind his peers in some areas though he has some real strengths too. We work on Spike getting to know himself better, his communication, learning about the world and independence. We spend a lot of time out of the house because he loves travelling and learns well on his feet. He’s learning as much as he ever did, if not more. It’s a team effort with us, tutors and professional input.
In an ideal world I would like Spike to be at school but we can’t find the right place for him. There seems to be this idea that autistic children are either so-called ‘high functioning’ and can be integrated into a mainstream setting quite easily, or they have more substantial learning difficulties and higher support needs. I think a lot of autistic kids actually fall between those two. He needed more support than the mainstream schools could offer, but not at the expense of his education. It felt like we were being asked to choose.
How to do you talk to Spike about autism?
He knows he’s autistic, although we’re still refining his understanding of that. We’re introducing him to the idea that everybody has things they need support with and things they’re good at and he shares some strengths and weaknesses with the wider autistic community. It’s striking a balance between letting him know that if he’s struggling he can factor in the fact that he’s autistic, without saying that all the things he finds difficult are because he is autistic.
Could you talk a bit about Spike’s passions?
Spike always had things that he was very deeply interested in. It started with letters and numbers, then logos, idents. When he started liking the London Underground he had been quite anxious out of the home, and we saw that it was a way to broaden his horizons. He didn’t like the noise of trains but he also really wanted to be near them, and we wanted to help him work through this tension. It also gave us this shared experience of doing things together.
My husband and I usually take it in turns to go with Spike on a journey so we were spending every weekend going across London and it could be a bit lonely. I had heard that lots of autistic kids like trains but I couldn’t find any clubs. I tweeted saying, ‘Any other parents of autistic kids who like transport interested in getting together?’ and then I was inundated. I set up Transport Sparks – a social group for young autistic transport enthusiasts – about three years ago and it’s evolved into something brilliant.
When Spike meets up with a bunch of Transport Sparks they really connect with each other. They’re always so surprised that they have that meeting of minds and it’s also great for the parents to chat online and off.
Are there things that are challenging?
Spike’s anxiety permeates most aspects of his daily life and therefore our lives. That’s definitely more challenging for him than it is for us, but it’s difficult and affects the things we can do. We do a lot to try and mitigate it, but we can’t make it go away entirely. Spike does have some distressed or challenging behaviours from time to time. We’ve got better at supporting him and coping, ourselves, but it can be tough.
Has the way that you see the world changed since having Spike?
It’s a disgusting cliche, but I’m so much more empathetic than I used to be. I think it’s also made me feel more comfortable with uncertainty. I can’t see beyond a few months into the future, everything’s constantly under review, and that’s okay. It’s definitely made me more confident as a parent and self-reliant. There was a time early on when I thought the professionals had all the answers and now I realise that they are advisors and my husband and I know Spike best. We have to arrive at our own decisions. I hope I carried that forward with Oscar.
Are there things that Oscar finds difficult about having an autistic brother?
There are things which I don’t think he appreciates are, or could be perceived as, challenging – he doesn’t really see them that way. He’s found it more challenging as he’s got older. I’m starting to see that he finds it more difficult when, for example, Spike is very upset and he’s beginning to be concerned that he’s “adding to our problems” if he has difficulties. I have to be very clear that he can bring the good and the bad to us.
I noticed recently that Oscar was cross with himself for accidentally using negative language about autism and I felt bad that he was tying himself up in knots, but then also a little bit of me thought it was good that he was thinking about it and trying to choose his words carefully. I said as long as we think about our words, talk about them, we’ll be fine.
Is there a key thing you’ve learned about being a parent to Spike?
I remember a really clear moment of having a chat with someone in the playground and she asked, ‘What’s your son like?’ I gave her this terrible answer, like, ‘He struggles with this, he’s not very good at that.’ I burbled this all out at her and she didn’t really know what to say. It was a really clear moment of thinking that isn’t who Spike is to me. What am I saying? I’d adopted the language of the professionals. I thought I’m going to change the narrative and frame all of this differently, because it’s just not working for me.
I’m a rather self-conscious person and autism can be quite a loud, visible thing, but Spike has helped with that. He imitates transport noises and announcements when we’re out and if you’re feeling embarrassed or self-conscious about it, then other people pick up on that and everyone is tense. I’ve learned to just enjoy his enthusiasm and concentrate on him, and often people pick up on that positivity instead. Spike’s not particularly shy. He enjoys people and having conversations. We’ve ended up having so many more positive interactions with people than negative ones.
It took a while to unpack Spike’s way with words. He often uses scripting* and I would say 90% of that is meaningful – borrowed phrases used with intent. The rest is verbal stimming*, but even that is information. He’s letting me know he’s feeling a particular way. It’s all communication, if you’re paying attention.
You can find Anoushka here:
Blog: Spitting Yarn
*Definitions of some words:
Scripting is ‘the repetition of words, phrases, or sounds from other people’s speech.’
Stimming or self-stimulating behaviour ‘includes arm or hand-flapping, finger-flicking, rocking, jumping, spinning or twirling, head-banging and complex body movements. It includes the repetitive use of an object, or repetitive activities, speech or sounds.’