Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Not what we had planned.

So the day has finally arrived. River's first day at school.
It's a day we had imagined even before he was born. When we moved to our village I was in the early stages of pregnancy, and we were so happy to be back in the village that Tim grew up in. We walked around the village and up to the primary school that Tim went to as a child. This is the school our children would go to. I imagined doing the school run for the first time- holding the hand of a little boy or girl, probably juggling a baby and maybe a toddler too, and giving them a kiss before watching them walk into the classroom with all the other children. I'd shed a few tears with the other mums, maybe exchanging the usual comments like, "they grow up so fast!" and, "where have our babies gone?!" It might be the first step to making new mum-friends at this special milestone in my child's life and special milestone in my parenting journey.

But things don't always work out as you planned them to. This morning, instead of getting both of us ready for the first ever school run, we only had to get River ready. And half an hour before school started- a different school to the one we'd daydreamed about- a taxi arrived outside, with a man & woman we'd never seen before, & five minutes later they were driving away with our precious boy. They would hold his hand as he went into the playground, say the final goodbye to him as he embarked on his first day at school. It wasn't dreadful, it was ok- but it wasn't what we'd planned.

River did so well this morning. We got him dressed and explained what would be happening this morning, just as we've done for the last couple of days. He wasn't too keen on the idea of Mummy and Daddy staying at home but didn't protest too much. Before long, there was a knock at the door and Keith the driver and Jane the escort introduced themselves. I gave them an A5 booklet all about River so they can know what might trigger a meltdown, how to handle it, what he loves and hates. Jane came in and met River. We told him he was going to go to school in the taxi with Jane. "I want Mummy & Daddy in the taxi please." He repeated it a few times but in the end was quite happy to give us both a kiss at the door, be led to the car by Jane, and fitted into the car seat by Keith. He looked very confused by the whole arrangement, but not at all upset which was a relief. I felt it was really important to sell it to River as a really positive experience, and also not a massive overwhelming deal, so we stayed really positive and happy and chilled about it all until they were gone, when we shed a little tear.

In many ways, we are so so fortunate. We had a look round the village primary a year ago, and whilst it would definitely have been an amazing magical school for a neurotypical child, the headteacher made it very clear that it wasn't the school for River and left us with a heavy heart. Then we found out about the amazing autism unit that River is at this morning- within a tiny mainstream village school, it is run by a very experienced autism teacher alongside two experienced teaching assistants. River will be integrated into a mainstream class-in a school accepting of autism- for as much as he can cope with. We couldn't have found anywhere better.
He's been for 8 visits in total in the last 4 months, two of which were in the summer holidays. The autism teacher has also attended three of our multi-agency meetings. So they know him so, so well. And one of them will be by his side for every minute of the day. Most parents of neurotypical children are this morning saying goodbye to their little ones amongst a class of 30 children, with one teacher and one assistant, neither of which know their child yet. We don't have to worry about that. We will be getting a phone call from his teacher today, and a weekly phone call thereafter. He has a daily communication book, so I will know what he's done each day, if he's eaten much, if he was upset about anything. We have so much that most parents won't.
We are so grateful that he's got a place at the autism unit- not every town has one. We are grateful that he can talk, and communicate his needs- we were so fearful that he would still be non-verbal at this stage in his life.
Today is a massively positive day for River, and for us as a family! He is so academically minded, so very bright, that he is going to thrive at school. He is so, so ready. His mind revolves around academic things! We spent most of yesterday playing with playdough. Did he want to make cute animals or cars or planes? No. He wanted me to make every letter of the alphabet, in order. Then a circle. Then a square. Then triangle, oval, rectangle, pentagon, hexagon, heptagon, octagon, nonagon, decagon, dodecagon. He knew how many sides they all needed. Then sphere, cone, cube, cuboid, cylinder, pyramid, triangular prism. He is very, very ready for school!
And just this second, I've had a call from his teacher to let me know that River has arrived safely and is very happy. She is going to call me at 12:30 once he's been put in the taxi to come home. Not many parents are getting that today!!

So we are very happy about today- for River. And we aren't dwelling on past dreams too much, as doing that would stop us from embracing the amazing boy and life we do have. But there is still that pang of sadness today, and today is another milestone to remind us of how different our boy is, and how different our journey is compared to most other families. It's not awful, it's just not what we'd planned.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Two years on!

I haven't blogged in a while but in a couple of days time it will be two years since River was diagnosed with autism, so now seems like a good time to write.
It's a strange feeling, looking over blog posts from around that time and at the lists of his struggles- all of the things he couldn't do, all of the things that we worried he may never do. He has come soooo far- we used to say, "If River can just say a couple of words by the time he starts school, if he can just communicate that he's hurt himself or needs the toilet, just communicate his most basic needs, life will be so much easier for him." Now, he talks all of the time! Constantly. Which, despite being exhausting, is music to our ears.

It certainly doesn't mean we're 'out of the woods' though, so to speak. I think many people - myself included at times - have thought that if River can talk, he will be high functioning. He has such a smart mind, is academically advanced, has a photographic memory, that I thought if he can just start talking, and share that knowledge with the world, then he would be ok. Developing speech has indeed helped us to see just how bright he is- he is starting to read, knows many sight words, knows most 2D and some 3D shapes, is good with numbers, and loves putting objects in alphabetical order even without the written word. Speech has shown us that he is academically able to keep up with - and possibly exceed - his neurotypical peers. We know when he's hurt himself (although he usually says, "I want cleaning please") and he can ask for a particular book/toy/song.

But that speech also demonstrates his differences and his autistic traits. Nobody knows yet how severe River will be, but there are so many times I hear River talking and get this feeling in the pit of my stomach that River will always talk in this atypical way, that he will be talking like this when he's an adult, and it breaks my heart. This is a typical 'conversation' I can have with River:

Me: "River, would you like some porridge?"
River: "Porridge. Po-o-o-o-ridge. POOOORidge. Banana porridge. Bana-a-a-a-a-na porridge. Cinnamon and banana porridge. Cinna-MON. Mon. Mon. Police-MON. MOOOOOOON. FireMON. Fire engine...."
Me: "River, LOOK at Mummy."
River: "Fireman. Fire engine. Ambulance. Police car....."
Me: "River, LOOK. Would you like some porridge?"
River: "Yes, please!"

River has no filter. Whatever is in his head, he says. And I think because he is a visual learner with such an amazing memory, he can't think about any single thing without a million connections entering his head. He may learn to keep the thoughts in his head and not verbalise them, or he may not.

He also latches onto certain phrases and repeats them over and over again, throughout the day, for weeks at a time. We had some friends visit a few weeks ago with their children and at one point I said to him, "Isla is reading the truck book." River repeated this a few times, then a few times before he fell asleep. And I've heard it a few times every day since! Other daily phrases include, "Poppy's squeaky giraffe," "Give Amie a high five" and, "Show Daddy your new book."
His comprehension, or understanding, is very delayed, and that's probably my biggest concern. It is slowly improving, but again, there are no guarantees that he'll ever 'catch up.'

I watched an incredible TEDx video on YouTube the other day about an incredible pianist called Derek Paravicini who has autism and is also blind (for the video, click here) and it really made me think of River - not that River has these abilities, but the way that Derek speaks is so similar to him.

It's a real rollercoaster that I'm sure many autism parents will relate to. We've gone from hoping River will manage a mainstream school, to being sure that he will need to be in a special school, to finding a fantastic autism unit within a mainstream school, to thinking he might possibly transfer fully into the mainstream part of the school in a couple of years time, and just lately I've been wondering if he'll end up transferring from the autism unit to a special school in a couple of years, not because of his academic ability, but because of his comprehension of language and the world around him.

Things have changed a lot since he was diagnosed. We don't worry about the same things, and we are (despite much of this post!) able to remain positive more and worry less. In the early days, we were constantly on the brink of despair and would have the odd good day. Now we go weeks, sometimes months, feeling totally positive and then have a week or two of panicking. I think that feeling will always come and go, but hopefully be few and far between.

So, for now, I'm concentrate on specific goals to keep my mind off all the other stuff- which are weekly visits to his new school, learning to use a fork, getting him to sit at the table for all meals and stay seated for adult-led activities. I'm hopeful that if we take care of the little things, the big things will take care of themselves.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Guest blog: Being River's dad

I think it's been well over a year since I've posted on this blog. Just recently I have felt the desire to write again.

This week I took a photo of River on my phone in "mid flight." I could post a picture but I think if you imagine a blur across the screen, arms mid flail, hair flying in the wind, legs similar to the cartoon character road runner then you'd have a pretty good idea. The photo has no detail but is an accurate portrayal of River in his everyday life. 90% of his day is spend in motion, running, spinning, flapping, flailing and yelling..............and it's exhausting.

I didn't immediately fall in love with River when he was born. He was a big bruiser, who resembled Phil Mitchell and I found him intimidating. If I didn't witness with my own eyes River being pulled free from Gem I would've wondered if there had been a mix up. How could something so big, burly and hairy come out of somebody so petite?  When he first opened his eyes and looked at me I could almost feel him thinking, "Great, I've got a Dad who doesn't have a clue!"
I'm happy to say he did grow on me - over the next few days my heart melted and I knew that with such pride I was a Dad to a gorgeous little boy who resembled Phil Mitchell less and less. I also felt he started to cut me a little slack and thought, "yeah, he'll do."

River still melts my heart daily. He is the most beautiful little boy, sensitive, intelligent, inquisitive, joyous, interested, special and exhausting. He has energy in abundance, all day long, everyday. His interest in his subjects doesn't waiver, with constant questions then reaffirming again and again and again. His running, spinning, flapping etc makes me dizzy. He is so noisy, with his shouting and his stomping around, he knocks things flying all the time, rips books to pieces, pulls pictures and stickers off the walls, the 2 hour parties he has in the middle of the night and we're definitely not invited, and the routines are difficult, anything differing from his usual schedule throws him totally off kilter. Yesterday Gem wore my coat to go down the garden and it caused a major meltdown. Not having every part of a set of something is another big issue, we spend so much time searching around the house for a red car, the queen of spades or the letter "w" tile, everything grinds to a halt (baths, visiting, shopping, dinner, bedtime) until said set is complete again..............and I get frustrated. Frustrated that I keep repeating the same things, can't go out because we can't find the queen of spades, frustrated that we have to follow such strict routines, that a moment of not thinking could throw out a major part of the day and frustrated at myself for not having more patience for this little person in my life.

I've lost my patience in the past and to see River upset because I've been short with him is so tough. I said recently that I not only want teach River about the world but teach the world about River. But I am still no expert myself and still learning.

I guess tonight I wanted to put it out there that although I have endless love for my little man, it's still not easy. Some days I still struggle that River is autistic, that everything needs so much planning, that we don't do all the things other families do, that no one can predict how this will run. That maybe one day he might be independent, maybe he won't, maybe one day we won't be able to cope with River. How do you sit with that? I don't know.
Also that family and friends are so important. We don't always get back to everyone straight away but every message, every visit, every phone call is so important to us. More than you probably know.

I am ok and have so much to look forward and be grateful for. I know this. I am privileged to be River's Dad, I know this too. Sometimes I just think back to the first time he opened his eyes and think I hope he doesn't feel that way again.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

There was a documentary shown last week called Living with Autism, in light of World Autism Awareness Day. It was really lovely to see autism being discussed on mainstream TV by someone who really understood autism and could explain to the majority of viewers how the autistic mind works. It was also lovely to hear it being talked about in such a positive light. But I don't think it really showed what "living with autism" is.
There has been a fair bit of talk on autism support forums about the show, and the general response-which I agree with- is that whilst it was great to have a show that wasn't all doom and gloom, there needed to be more of the negatives shown in balance to the positives. Because living with autism-whilst being joyous and fascinating at times- is heartbreaking and soul destroying at others. And I don't feel you can show one without the other, because that just isn't autism. It is one thing mentioning on a programme that an autistic child may get upset if you move an ornament, but where was the explanation of 'upset?' The explanation of a meltdown? Explaining that 'upset' to an autistic child is not just asking for the ornament to be put back in it's original place, or a few tears. But that child may lie on the floor and scream for hours, may bite themselves or others, may not be able to communicate why they are so upset.
Whilst it was fascinating to see these people with autism talk about their interpretations of various experiments, where were the children who couldn't be taken to the shops without screaming? The non-verbal children, parents talking about needing to use visual timetables just to leave the house, the work it takes just to get eye contact, the battles to get the right support in school, the sleep deprivation many autism parents face, the very limited diet, the complex sensory issues?
The programme mentioned that 80% of people with autism can't live independently-that is a massive, massive statistic. So I think talking about the reasons why and day-to-day life would have been really good-especially as there was a fair amount of time spent on those with savant abilities, when only 1 in 10 people with autism have such abilities.
I know of many people who had asked friends and family to watch the programme thinking it will help them understand what life can be like for them, only to have the impression that autism is fascinating (which it is) and something to be celebrated (which it isn't always) and just a differing personality to the majority (possibly, but it's called a disability for a reason-it's disabling to various degrees.)

So, I thought it might be good to write my interpretation of what living with autism means.

The Good
- River doesn't lie-he has no concept of deceit so will openly tell you if he's doing something he shouldn't.
- He smiles and laughs and giggles about things we don't know about, several times a day.
- He can learn things very quickly as he has an excellent (probably photographic) memory.
- He doesn't judge people. He doesn't care if people are fat, thin, rich, poor, from a different culture or class, clever or not. That's probably my favourite thing about River.
- He doesn't feel the need to conform.
- He has no hidden agendas. You don't have to worry what he really means, what he's really getting at- he is straight to the point (to a certain extent-see next point.....)

The Bad
- River remembers phrases from certain moments in time, and will repeat them at random times when he doesn't know how to express himself. Which is very confusing for an outsider. For example- if he hurts himself or is upset he says, "Bella is finished, ok? Bella is finished" whilst crying. Bella is a character from the Tweenies. I assume that at some point in the past, he was upset at a Tweenies episode finishing and has associated these words with feeling upset.
Another example- if he wants a toy that another child has, he will say to me, "I want thank you, please." This is because he knows to say thank you when someone gives him something, so he thinks if he asks for " thank you" he will get the item. He can't just say, "I want that toy."
- River's amazing memory is sometimes a hindrance. River has over 50 small toy cars, most of which were bought 2 or 3 at a time from car boots and charity shops over the past couple of years. River knows exactly which ones were given to him at the same time. So if he's playing with one car, he will usually say, "I want the light grey car and the dark orange truck, please" (Or whatever the corresponding cars are.) If you fail to produce these, the fallout is horrific. This is the same for many of his sets of books, crayons, pencils etc.
- His diet is limited. River doesn't eat the same food as us. Most of his food is beige (although there are some exceptions) and increasing his acceptance of new foods takes a lot of thought and planning, baby steps. So he used to eat a lot of bread, toast and sandwiches. We started getting him used to rolls, pitta bread, bagels, brioche, croissants to increase his tolerance of different foods. It also takes lots of  thinking out of the box (he may not eat spaghetti bolognese, but he'll eat bolognese in a sandwich and on a pizza.)
- Getting dressed can be tricky due to sensory issues. He wants deep pressure a lot and things to be tight. So he often gets upset and says, "squeeze your toes, squeeze your other toes." He means that he wants me to squeeze his feet to help him feel more secure. You can imagine how difficult this was when he was non-verbal and couldn't express what was upsetting him.
- He doesn't understand that you have to wait for something. He doesn't understand that porridge has to be cooked before he can eat it, that I have to put the fish fingers in the oven as they're Not Cooked Yet. I can't tell him that we're going to the shop after breakfast, as he says, "finished your breakfast, I want shoes on please" and wants to go immediately.

The Ugly
-He doesn't always remember that I can't read his mind. So he needs the toilet, but forgets that I don't know that, then has accidents. Many children with autism are fans of smearing-it's a sensory thing-but thankfully River doesn't do that (yet)
-Whilst having breakfast on holiday recently, a waitress tried to engage River in conversation. His reaction: he clamped his hands over his ears, looked at Daddy and loudly declared, "I want 'goodbye' please!" Quite funny, but also quite rude!
-It's not just social and communication skills that are affected. They are many, many people with ASD who also suffer from co morbid conditions, including ADHD, SPD (sensory processing disorder) DCD (developmental coordination disorder) epilepsy, Tourette's, anxiety, OCD, Bipolar, hypermobility, bowel disease, immune disorders, mental conditions.....the list goes on.
-The ugly is other people's prejudice. The people who shake their head or roll their eyes when your child is screaming in the post office because he doesn't understand why we're standing still (queuing.) The people who don't want their children to play near your child because your child runs and flaps a lot, makes a constantly droning sound, and has the odd screaming meltdown - and therefore may be "unsafe." The people who don't "believe" in autism, that think it's down to bad parenting.

So yes, there is plenty of good. But there's also the bad and the ugly, and we have to accept and acknowledge all three if we're really going to talk "living with autism," as that is the reality!