Why we Need World Autism Awareness Day

Today is World Autism Awareness Day. In this guest post, MN blogger Matt Davis shares what his son’s autism has meant for his family, and argues that there’s still much to do to ensure that people with an autistic spectrum disorder are treated with understanding and respect.

A year-long, punishing process of tests finally came to its conclusion with the words “autism spectrum disorder”, delivered in a paediatrician’s room. It was a tongue-twister that deliberately acted as a soft landing for the harsher truth: “your child has autism”.


The diagnosis assuaged the regular bouts of heartbreak I felt at Isaac’s regular bouts of distress. It was the alibi for his perceived anti-social behaviour. But I came to realise quite swiftly that a chasm existed between what some people knew about autism and what most people didn’t. If the condition hadn’t touched someone, it just wasn’t on their radar; autism awareness was minimal at best. On the other hand, professionals, experts and parents who had accepted their child’s diagnosis were awash with facts and immersed in the world of autism.


I joined Ambitious about Autism’s online community ‘Talk about Autism’ and quickly benefited; questions were posed and answered, discussions launched and new people nurtured with the help of its Community Champions. It became a safe haven from the everyday assault course of discrimination, generalisations, judgements, ignorance, exhaustion and difficulties that parents of children with autism battle.


So what is autism? An impossible question to answer with any semblance of brevity. For last year’s World Autism Awareness Day, Ambitious about Autism ran a Twitter campaign called ‘Autism is…’ asking everyone to share their thoughts, feelings and perspectives on what autism is to them. The answers tweeted invoked honesty, warmth, sadness and happiness – a pretty accurate flavour of what autism really is.


The campaign was such a success that the charity is repeating it this World Autism Awareness Day. I’m supporting it again because awareness is a big deal for me. Things have improved drastically over the last 20 years, but there’s still a long way to go. People just don’t know enough about autism. It affects 1 in 100 children, yet the condition is often misunderstood.


Autism’s myths are myriad. People assume Isaac won’t have eye contact, that he’ll be quiet and introverted, or that he must have mind-boggling talents. None of these statements are correct. Isaac is a boy you remember when you meet him. He is funny, inquisitive, determined – at moments tender and full of wonderment, but also unable to know his own strength at times. He loves to learn (if allowed to in his own way) and he never forgets anything.


For my family, autism has been a game-changer – but certainly not in a bad way. We don’t only have a bright, funny little boy – we have a heightened understanding of disability and other people’s needs too. For me #AutismIs heightened everything – love, sadness, stress, happiness.


My wife and I wanted to do something else to mark the day – the more people know about autism the easier life can be made for everyone affected by it, and of course we wanted to raise money for Ambitious about Autism, too. 


The Happy video above came about because my wife, a musician, received a video from her friend Abigail of her son Reuben who also has autism. In the video Reuben was singing Pharrell’s ‘Happy’, on his own, so perfectly, and you could see the joy he experienced as he sang. My wife decided to make a short film set to the song with Isaac and Reuben doing things that made them happy. Simple and honest, just like any other children. We wanted to celebrate the boys. Autism is something to be respected and acknowledged, but we wanted it to be about the boys having a ball.

Long before my son Isaac was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, I saw how the world, with all its peculiarities and obstacles, was that little bit more hostile for him. Seeing him struggle – often articulated as screams, anger and crying – seemed so unfair to me. I didn’t subscribe to the ‘terrible twos’ or ‘naughty toddlers view’; there was something about Isaac’s tears that was different. 


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Can Judaism play a role in Isaac’s life?

As a fairly steadfast secular Jew, religion in its singular, most fundamental form was never going to be an (al)mighty force in Isaac’s upbringing. Secular Judaism serves up head-scratchers of, well, biblical proportions though. Anyone well versed in it knows that psalms, texts and liturgy form but a slither in Judaism’s complex cultural kaleidoscope.

Even though I’ve always dwelled in the ‘barely-believer’ camp, like so many others an arcane Jewishness has run through my family’s veins. From child to adult, I gorged on the rich pickings of a decisively pick and mix approach. Where a wholesome embrace of certain traditions over others appears arbitrary yet is utterly expected and rather effortless.

If this fluid yet full-of-foibles approach to religion is round holed, then autism is, of course, resolutely square-pegged – meaning Isaac’s Judaism has never really taken shape. Random festivals, sing-songs, all-join-in stories and surprises, full on Friday night dinners, the synagogue as social hub and more, ours is a brand of Judaism that’s more party than preachy. What it isn’t is logical, descriptive, sensible, straightforward.

As such, the cornerstone of the (secular, religious, whatever) Jewish calendar, Passover, passes us by. As the extended family sit down to celebrate, we’re seated elsewhere. It’s a giddy and glorious affair. Children the heart and soul. Colourful stories of Jewish emancipation are read by everybody, symbolic foods – bitter, sweet and worst – are eaten, dares are made. Wine is tasted, the youngest child sings, presents are hidden. 

We tried a fair few years ago, ever so slightly. But raised the white flag early on when the hurricane of noise and food and frolics blew Isaac into major over stimulation. The spartan surroundings of a spare room the only solace. Since when we’ve retreated into risk averse avoiders.


I’m denying him something precious I know. But Passover is so bound up with trip wires. Familiar family houses lose their familiarity; people jovially jostling for space and sound. Dinner tables become sinisterly ceremonial with plates and dishes, colour and spice, and much mystique. Groaning – literally for Isaac – with foreign foods that fizz and froth at him. Cutlery, crockery, glass, china – clinking, smells overriding, people shouting, picture books of cartoonish death and destruction howling at him. Not just a sensory sickness. The scalding blur of all this clutter, audibly and visibly also blighting any order, any uniformity he yearns. Comprehension can collapse like a house of cards.

Unreconstructed, this type of boisterous Jewish cultural onslaught is not on for Isaac. The collateral damage too much. For now. Denying can actually be a decent thing to do also. Even the most basic tenets of Judaism have seemed to favour isolation over congregation for us as a family. Synagogues are bustling, busy places with singing and chanting that can become exuberant and painfully loud to many ears, sensitive or not. The protocols are potty. There’s a haphazard nature of services that can mean a swift swing from loud informality to hushed seriousness.

Our one religious-ish experience five or so years ago, around diagnosis time, had been torrid. It was at an informal service in a synagogue for parents and their little ones. Jollily conducted by an expressive teacher, wide-eyed, miming motions that enriched and complemented tales of adventure and imagination. Restless, Isaac was disengaged. The tut tut brigade were on tenterhooks. Unaware as I was of his visual struggles to decode gesticulations (how my daughter instinctively, understandingly, unlike Isaac, apes hand movements and body moves with glee is so instructive). I attempted and failed to inspire him. Leaving in collective anguish meant no return.

Maybe the sorrow of this occasion has amplified in my mind. It happened during the epoch in our familial narrative of unknowledgeable nursery stuff, nasty stares and nerves fraying. There’s an element of self-infliction with all this avoidance, knowing how many, many Jewish communities boast an inclusivity – full of intention and with a degree of success. Welcoming is ubiquitous I know that. But instinct, sociability and illogical rituals are the dominant currencies in so many synagogue environments, making the battle for someone with autism appear demanding. My stance on Judaism therefore remains devoutly in stasis.

Nevertheless, I have a daughter to add to the complicated equation now. Who will nimbly fit into our faith’s idiosyncratic offerings that are full of warmth, love and family dynamics. Issues around identity that I could put off start to surface too – I have a responsibility to at least inform and open opportunities for both my children. And quite frankly, I am laden with a sadness about the absence of Judaism in my house; the silence haunting me a little like a lingering and lost Hebrew melody. So I am beyond grateful to two recent events that forced me out of this spiritual vacuum. And have proposed potential aplenty.

The first being the invitation to Ellie’s Bat Mitzvah (coming of age ceremony for girls). Ellie being a 12 year old first cousin Isaac adores with all his heart. And she loves him back just as much with a quite startling tenderness and understanding. Seizing on the solemnity of the day with brilliant simplicity, Isaac would announce with gusto for days and weeks before that “on Saturday November the 28th, Ellie will become a grown up”. Religion and sermons, ceremony and celebration, heritage, family, culture, discussion, children, a spirited and spiritual unique flavour – Bat Mitzvahs encapsulate that brand of Judaism I’ve talked about with its dynamism, dialogue and general richness. However, just this once, any amount of dwelling on the fissures that a visit could very possibly force failed to begin to chip away at Isaac’s absolute need to be there.

We arrived to witness men and women sitting  separately in the synagogue. An irrational concept to most people, let alone purveyors of logic like Isaac. He grasped this potential hurdle neatly however, leaping between my wife and me; utilising it as an opportunity to orientate himself in a new setting as opposed to processing any peculiarity. The mechanism of manically moving about a new location is one he often sets in motion on first visits. It is a method of focussing and stabilising – sometimes with success, sometimes not. My wife, admirably, courageously, unexpectedly, remained composed in the face of his energy. The physicality and enthusiasm was in the main treated with a compassion by most of the congregants.

Indeed, Isaac’s reactions and conversation, sparkling with honesty, spoke mischievously to some of them. “This singing is silly. It doesn’t work”.

His usual candidness induced humour: “Daddy, why are you kissing everybody, stop kissing the women.” “You don’t kiss grown-ups, you only kiss adult cousins and you mustn’t hug teachers,” checking himself before deciding who best to hug.

Regularly he enquired, “where’s Ellie, I need to see her, she’s becoming an adult.” A bit predictably and not a little pathetically, I was displaying a very detectable (by Isaac as well) anxiety. His mini mood shifts and irritations were manageable but always felt on the urge. A few rotten reprimanding voices in the congregation agitated me.

But there were a few moments to really cherish – which were when there was most jeopardy: when Ellie took to the stage to talk to everybody and share her learnings, and the subsequent address by the Rabbi. After some excited cries of “it’s Ellie”, he settled into a calm reverie as she spoke. Bewitched almost by her oratory.

And then the Rabbi spoke, and Isaac, with (as usual) not a trace of timidity, felt the urge to copy him a little as he spoke to the congregation. Isaac announced the Rabbi’s presence with aplomb and sincerity. The kind rabbi asked if he had “a sidekick somewhere”, an “echo perhaps”. To a now warmed up audience there was much merriment as Isaac repeated “echo” a few times and then hushed. Borrowing his school learning, he must have internally compared being at synagogue to being in an assembly, which, the two events now aligned in his head, made himself be quiet and disciplined. A real feat. We were proud and humbled.

Ellie concluded proceedings by announcing that to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah, she was making a donation to the charity, Ambitious about Autism, in honour of her cousin Isaac. “It was an easy decision,” she said, “as he’d taught me so much.” The hullabaloo at the end was a little hellish, what with people rushing around, snacks and wine, the crowd. Leaving via a playground and a neat finish as internally articulated by him, didn’t occur. The distress was transient, as we managed to manoeuvre out of the hectic synagogue, kind of in one piece give or take a lost skullcap or two. All in all it was quite a moment in ours and Isaac’s lives.

Which was built upon considerably a month or so later when my wife and I had the privilege of attending the Bar Mitzvah (coming of age ceremony for boys) of the wonderful Reuben – very similar yet very different to Isaac – who attends the same school. Electing not to take Isaac made sense to him; Reuben is a friend he sees at school, why would he see him not at school? He is a ‘School. Friend.’

A judgement-free, relaxed and open community, in a space dripping with inclusive spirituality, Reuben was honoured and seemed comfortable and comforted in his family’s unique synagogue. Reuben’s year’s preparation of chanting a significant Hebrew portion of the bible came to fruition fabulously. A beautiful voice resounding round the synagogue, a community delighted, heritage honoured, joy everywhere.

The Rabbi’s sermon sent me into emotional raptures. Veering between absorption and a little distraction, Reuben looked on whilst being celebrated completely: “We love you,” said the Rabbi. “You’re kind. Your personality so special. The room lights up when you enter.” “You’ve taught me what the scariest film in the world is!” At which point, unabashed Reuben climbed the pulpit and exchanged hugs with the Rabbi. Afterwards, a lambent Reuben told me, “I did my Bar Mitzvah. Everyone is very proud of me; I made no mistakes.”

This perhaps more than anything has created a path in my mind I can follow to drip a bit of Judaism in my family’s life. This could be Isaac. Yes, we have to show the devotion and immersion of Reuben’s family. Yes that me be unobtainable, unsuitable and a million miles off. Do I have the strength?

But with all the complications and randomness and individuality that comes with both, autism and Judaism can be joined. They can be bedfellows. And that is rather astonishing.

(I always try to reply)

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Kindness is everywhere

The very things that many people think make the world go round, actually make the world go wrong for anyone associated with autism. Hustle and bustle, chin-wagging, dropping everything to do nothing, spontaneity, chilling, trusting instinct, nous, crackling atmospheres, surprises, adventure. Society is bred and nurtured on wholesome truths like variety is the spice of life. When for so many touched by autism, variety is the spectre of life. A world where the primers of improvisation and intuition make it a world wrought with bafflement and, quite, frankly, danger. Off script, on high alert – us and Isaac.


And that’s just the uncontrollable base climate we inhabit. Before we’ve even considered the bolts of prejudice, cuts and an antagonising system that regularly blow up in our faces. Or indeed the ill winds and choppy waters of Isaac’s future – education, employment, relationships.

Battening down the hatches has its appeal, believe me. Burying our heads in quicksand, getting lost to a limited life of fierce logic, linear living and uniformity. Scripts, structure, rigidity, predictability. Repetition, repetition, over and over.


But doing that is such a disservice. This deference to Isaac’s controlled calendar of specificity; where he calls the shots of what to do, when and with whom from the comfort of his ever decreasing comfort zone of categorising, lists and scheduling. Instead we try ever so tentatively to tread beyond the timetable. As, indeed, does he. One step forward, two back, as I’ve often said. Challenge him with too much change and it all gets too quarrelsome. Pre-empt his shrill tones of rage and remorse with just a thimble full of new stuff and there can be progress some of the time.

And revealed to me in these positive and proactive moments – when brightness seeps in and there’s buoyancy and a bouncy spring in all our steps – is that Isaac’s existence can be one to really revel in. That despite how ill-fitting the world can be for his autism and dyspraxia (from sensory overload to the ubiquity of physical and visual disorder) right now, permeating this 8 year old boy’s climate is an extraordinary kindness. We are discovering microclimates of care and love orchestrated by friends, family, even strangers. At this very particular moment in time.


His slightly professorial persona makes loving people’s eyes stream. Our loquacious little boy disarmingly (unknowingly) charming others with his scripted announcements and super logic – on arrival at our house, people are greeted with “You’re alive! Welcome back. Are you staying for a long, medium or short time? Did you drive or walk?” (And on and on). Saying a hundred words of detail and minutiae when he can say one. Very literal, very long-winded.

Out and about, his turn of phrase, turns heads. Bringing joy more often than not. Who can’t fail to warm to a young boy earnestly commenting that he is “so happy when I’m on a bus; having such a lovely time. Can we watch a little bit of buses and trains please daddy when we leave this bus for the street near the station at Highgate? Highgate has a capital H. Capital letters are for restaurants, people, names and places.”


In public, Isaac has also started to wear ear defenders to manage clatter and chatter. Just witnessing people’s smiles and warm recognition means for those moments a microclimate is robust and a great place to be. For everyone somehow.

Thoughtfulness can be found in the least expected places. Some recent repair work to our house meant a cavalcade of builders disbanding in his space – and disrupting. The noise and mess could easily have accelerated in Isaac’s troubled mind to a torpedoed home landscape. Step in builder Jim and his innate appreciation of autism, and perception of Isaac.


After answering Isaac’s barrage of questions – some very intrusive like, “Who were you on the phone to?” he replied “Neil, he paints walls. You’ll meet him soon.” Not being phased with “does Neil have a mummy and a daddy?” Not flinching at his repeating of questions, sensing how relaxed it made Isaac. Before long Isaac was helping him lay carpet protector down. “It’s like a sport’s obstacle course at my school,” a typically bizarre Isaac-ism inspired by a subtle visual connection no doubt, and Jim agreed wholeheartedly. In those few moments, the groundwork was completed that eased so much of the subsequent house work.

Fanciful maybe, but it even felt he allowed for Isaac’s visual perception and motor skills challenges, showing him where work would happen, bricks moved, tools left, mess cleared. Unifying for him this tapestry of disturbance to his world into a digestible, comprehendible whole.


And recently, where there’s been jeopardy there’s been a real kindness too. The London Transport museum in Isaac’s mechanical but full-of-meaning words is “a wonderful place, my favourite in the world, a short distance from Leicester Square, where I can get books and toys and watch trains and stay for a really, really long time”.

But what if he arrives there and it’s not yet open? A kink to the flow of the punctiliously prepared day exposed already. Like a cumbersome computer ever expanding its ram capacity, Isaac’s ability to store information increases by the day; the flip side being a crash when the storage malfunctions will be ever more dramatic.


Like all crashes, however, if people act quickly, the impact is softened. The staff we tweeted as his day’s solidity slipped from him with this unpredicted barrier of a closed door responded with alacrity. Just as his stricken self was bemoaning with real distress that “this place is rubbish”, a saintly individual opened the door and allowed him early, exclusive access. The aware and considerate staff made for a micro climate of autism appreciation where Isaac could freely frolic around in train bliss.

Talking of trains (which Isaac rarely doesn’t do) Isaac’s monologues of multiple station names and their adjacent roads are – at the times when he’s open to communicating this extraordinarily processed and recalled information – received with relish by friends. In awe of his photographic memory and encyclopaedic knowledge, blessed by his idiosyncrasies, these fleeting episodes affirm the value of his ‘difference’ and how it can instil optimism in all. 


In fact he possesses an ever increasing, loyal and more than understanding band of buddies. Cousins mainly, who understand the need for one on one so will selflessly come round alone for a playdate with Isaac. Where he may squeeze parts of their bodies for sensory input and happy social expression; and to compensate his struggling body awareness. He may need more treats, dictate when he immerses himself in his iPad, watching something he’ll learn by parrot fashion and regurgitate in times of stress. These few cousins more than tolerate – they get and feel taught too. The lack of abstract chit chat is made up by admiration of his humour and personality. Even the impossible to manage despair and sadness he (very audibly) feels in his marrow at home time, when transition tests the inflexibility autism to the max, is met with no judgement or irritation

When things are good, it’s an extended family micro climate where his exuberance, eccentricity and infectious hysterics, just makes them smile and laugh. It’s so gloriously spirited.


And, no one finds him funnier than that big, at times immovable, fixture in his life, his sister, Tabitha. Someone who needs to be kind and caring forever; perhaps when he’s not being. Her resilience to his (actually in the main, benign) physicality defies her little-ness.

They clash, of course. My wife mediating magically. But there is a kind of beautiful complementary nature to their interactions. Her typically evolving play is imaginative, implying the fine spatial and visual skills that he is so bravely battling with. Compering her mini tea parties can become quite chaotic – she creates, he crash, bang wallops. But Tabitha loves his rebellion somehow.


Both types of play have merit – they simply must do in our universe. And I’m convinced Isaac picks up the pros of reciprocity in transient times. A light goes on, for a spilt second, as he witnesses the reward of sharing; and they both beam. He calculates cause and effect using her as some sort of giant abacus. He still demonstrates a propensity to repetitively play with inanimate objects. Most recently absorbing himself one dimensionally in a piece of pizza dough – he spoke and cared for it quite lovingly; it was moving; Tabitha seemed captivated too.  

As she was, as if seated breathlessly in an atmospheric auditorium, by his extraordinary delivery, word perfect and completely from memory, of the entire Gruffalo story; most amazingly, in the exact tone and tenor of the film they’d both been rapt by. This sublime skill of his – entertaining and enthralling Tabitha (and us) in equal measure.  


Finally, and so fortunately, we have family who just rally round where necessary. When I was struck down by a 24 hour debilitating migraine, a loving grandfather picked up the pieces with immense thoughtfulness. Isaac’s schedule had been torn to shreds; me and my wife were no longer going away for the night; his grandparents would no longer be staying the night. He wailed at bed time that “my papa has to be here in the morning,” because that’s what had been planned, a nugget of fact he was grasping on to in a frenzy. Quite beautifully, papa (having not stayed the night, because I was bed ridden) returned in the early morning to stabilise his grandson. He went out of his way because he perceived that was the only way.

All these events and relationships emphasize just how safe and comforting the many man made microclimates of kindness, openness and awareness are, when we are lucky enough to find ourselves in them. Sometimes in public, usually not. Where awareness has been impressed upon people with vigour.



Who knows the longevity of this not impossible to locate kindness? I feel tears when recollecting the tantrums that people interpreted abjectly in the early years, when kindness was at best evasive. I block out the din of inner dread when contemplating him getting older. Where the world is one of dipping in and out of things; with intuitive filters and edits life-saving tools for folk – anathemas to how Isaac sees the world, pursuing excessively, fixating, immersing, obsessing. When his quirks may be not as refreshingly received. A crushingly conformist world at odds with those deemed odd.


Yet, for now, the 8 year old Isaac dwells in certain places and climates where kindness abounds. And for that, I’m incredibly grateful.

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Discovering Problems, Creating Potential

Isaac’s immersion into his specialist school (for children with high functioning autism) has shown some of the marks of a fairly bruising process. And the onerous work has only just begun. We’re seeing a sensitive but substantial stripping back of some seriously stubborn layers of entrenched behaviours, habits, limitations, fears. I have no doubt that so many areas of his development have until now been neglected, denting his constitution. Physically and mentally. A shudder is sent down my spine, contemplating what would happen if he were to remain saddled with certain, what are rightly classified as, deficits.


These deficits, in areas such as strength and touch, have selfishly taken away a realm of positivity I may have always possessed. Dissecting them dispels any romanticism of autism, or ‘he’ll catch up’ that may have roamed, well-intentioned and benignly, in mainstream. They provide a reality check that until now the day to day handling of Isaac’s lifelong condition has been lackadaisical.

He blended as well as he could at his old (mainstream) school considering the pastoral approach that was necessitated by class size, desired integration, and non-qualified staff. Such were the goodwill and intentions and support, I hesitate to cite his considerable developments were in spite of the imposed ethos not because of it. However, his current school’s classroom assessments jettison any ambiguity about a need for intense and individually tailored programmes.


He has what occupational therapists report as ‘definite dysfunctions’ in social participation, hearing, touch, body awareness and balance. At his previous (mainstream) school, both Isaac and his teachers must have needed to adopt crude compensation mechanisms to integrate with the workings of a curriculum that couldn’t adapt appropriately.

I’m imagining that he was sensitively placed in the periphery for physical exercise and any ball sports so his underdeveloped body awareness and balance stayed that way. His stretched teachers must have tolerated rare scribbles when he attempted handwriting because there was no one to provide the one on one labour intensity required.



Through no fault of anyone, Isaac would have been drifting in activities, seemingly content and being involved ever so slightly. But this drift, this surface deep thinly veiled non-developmental behaviour, easy to repeat for him, easier to accept for teachers, would have been insidiously stunting and indeed marginalising. There was daily fall out in terms of his moods that I’ve talked about before. Knowing that long term damage was clearly happening too has unsettled me somewhat.


Social participation and playtimes expose brightest the folly of the non-specific, wholly inclusive approach. Galloping around making train sounds was his self-stimulating behaviour for surviving the furious environment that is the school playground. The soothing repetition went way beyond its initial positive effects, explaining precisely his deficits in play and social areas.

Indeed, in one of our more heart crushing sessions with Isaac’s psychotherapist, she made the knocked-me-for-six observation that Isaac doesn’t know how to play. He simply hasn’t ever done it. Play, a natural, sought after, intuitive, life affirming activity for typical children. An alien, complicated, bamboozling concept for Isaac.


(And how’s this for a topsy turvy thought: Isaac taking his sister’s toys and studiously playing with them alone is a good thing. Sublimating what appears to be jealousy into a desire to ape and learn.)

Heart breaking by the psychotherapist. But, as with so much emanating from his new school, enlightening too – offering up glimmers of hope. Specialist school is bruising for its pinpointing of challenges, healing for how it deals with them.

Like a slow turning tanker, sent ever so slightly off course, I’ve discovered riding waves of positivity and potential, knowing real, honest insight can reap so much.


Take handwriting. My inclination was to wallow in reports of inabilities to develop finger separation, his frustrations at the necessary tripod grip, the clear need for major work with fine motor skills. Whereas Isaac’s tenacious teacher pushes and compliments and improves and stimulates. His writing has literally transformed. At night he deliberately and defiantly stretches his fingers, discovering a dexterity, before formally announcing to me, “Daddy, today a certificate has been awarded to Isaac Davis for holding a pen properly. Well done Isaac.”


Isaac’s weekly certificates, which he avidly collects and collates, reveal so much of the school’s (and therefore his) industry. ‘Having three bites of a carrot’, ‘dealing with change’, ‘good listening and not having to repeat’ – in short, he’s working, and being worked, very hard in those areas that appear an anathema to his autism. Non-intervention is these areas has led to the deficits and therefore habits and limitations. Everyone, myself very much included, had given up, kept a blind hope, or consciously avoided these life skills with Isaac. Now life skills form part of his week, with patient, single minded professionals giving him the tools to succeed. Which in turn gives us the confidence to carry on the work at home – knowing when he can deal with something new, or eating his dinner at the table, tasting a new food he may have tried at school, maybe parking in a different place to a previous time. It’s far from easy, we’re fine perfecting the skill of distinguishing real distress from autistic like behaviours he can learn to manage. He will always have the generic sensory processing difficulties. The meltdowns are still explosive, world ending and catastrophic –  in many ways they are amplified and more gruelling for all parties. Transition, people leaving, will always be testing. But we are learning, just like him, a little more what his capabilities are and where discipline works.

All this is not to say autism is not championed, celebrated and respected. Indeed, it’s the filter upon which the school appears to make and evaluate every decision. They’ve seen vividly Isaac’s visual approach to learning – playing to this strength, they use the visual timetable which he rattles off to me, the whole week, in order, at least twelve subjects a day. He enchants teachers and pupils alike with his brilliant recollection of facts. This part of his autism is nourished and cherished.

Yet at times he can struggle to answer a simple question. He can be caught in a self-imposed routine and repetition rut.


The school will slavishly break down each topic in his timetable into explicitly described and audited mini chunks that he knows and expects. But then they may introduce a ‘surprise’ activity within this tight framework. Like learning comprehension in a reading class – about a certain book and character he’s prepared for. So he’s developing thinking skills and small change in one brilliantly efficient ten minute session. Totally, utterly inspired and priceless.

Likewise, his repetition needs are an ingrained feature of Isaac’s very existence. Always will be. But gentle easing out of, not so heavy reliance on, can take place. The genius strategy here is mentoring sessions with the elder boys. Who “like to repeat; we did when we were young like Isaac, but we don’t anymore. Isaac won’t always need to.” Who better to understand a little boy with autism than a big boy with autism? Who knows the desires and impulses and defaults. And can integrate them with socially appropriate behaviour. This is life enhancing stuff of a dizzying degree.


One massive truth is Isaac’s autism has never seemed as tangible as it is now. Despite all the intervention. And that feels correct and just how it should be. His vocabulary continues to expand to significant levels with it all appearing learnt like one would learn a foreign language. He seems to rapidly search his abundance of learnt phrases when needing to express something. “I’m going to read a book, just once, because it will tire me out. Then we won’t do it for a while.” Or when he senses change: “Yes daddy, I have changed my mind, you can drive on that road, because it is like a diversion.” And when he’s happy: “I love school, I want to go there today and forever, I want to give the building kisses.” In the morning: “Is it morning time? Good morning daddy< I haven’t been asleep for a while…”

His order can always be jumbled, with tenses astray. “Where’s the 302 bus, I might have lost it.” And it’s all delivered with a clunky, metronomic rhythm. This is him. It has an almost beautiful realism and logic. When I said to him “come on mister” recently and he got agitated and countered “No! I’m Isaac. Mister is for teachers”, I could but go concur (kind of) apologise and go with him. The school seem on the same page – it feels like they write the pages. Gloriously they’re as smitten as we are by my son.


His interests remain at best perfunctory. He loves lampposts; they light up his life. “But I love lampposts daddy, they make me happy.” Counting, spotting anomalies, one’s on during the day, off at night; he has a photographic recollection of locations, types, flickering ones – every single permutation of a lamppost’s life. They offer so much. And this dry information floods our airwaves as it does bus facts and general commentary and comings and goings.  

These sort of passions – their pros, their pitfalls – inform the armoury of knowledge the school possess about Isaac. They can then work with him, push buttons, reward and restrict, so accelerating to a potential. Teaching him life skills for example in a methodical, easy to digest, autism friendly manner, gives his preparation for an integrated, inclusive life. This is what I feel when I hear: “Today I did life skills. I made toast, daddy do you want toast? With honey or marmalade. In a toast rack, that’s where toast is made. Do you want toast?”


This is no political polemic about specialist schools versus mainstream. It’s about finding the best possible place for my son and his autism – with the best possible professionals and best possible environment for him to develop, and who knows, work towards a brilliant future.

A pertinent comment his teacher made to us when discussing his substantial handwriting training said it all really:


“He needs to write. He will need to write a job application form one day.”



(I always try to reply)

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The Weight of the World on Tiny Shoulders

Being in possession of a single care in the world should be one concern too many for any seven year old. Let alone a seven year old buttressed by physical health, familial security, stability and comfort. But part and parcel of autism’s package is some wayward brain wiring that seems to spark major anxiety not to mention a very real possibility of mental health issues. From an incredibly unfair, early age.


Isaac loads his days, and quite possibly nights, with an assortment of cares, frets and stresses – too many to numerate – that take counter intuition and patience to even begin to quell. Many of them, of course, centre on his desperate, pathological need to manage and compose his days with strict, sequential events he’s familiar with. And he will prowl after my wife and me seeking clarification and confirmation and minute by minute commentary. Over and over and over again.

“Mummy, who’s looking after Tabitha after her sleep number one?”

“Is daddy going to work now or very soon?”


“Can we go to Costa Coffee on Finchley Road before the clock clicks to PM?”
“Daddy, where are your friends? Are they at home or going to work?”

The harrying begins before breakfast. With many questions and answers compiled – out of necessity – during the previous 24 hours. Scripted, by him, without ambiguity, tonally specific, not a word out of place. With all the information needing regular reinforcement in the form of repetition. To not conform, to answer without precision or attempt to divert, is to risk agitation at best, most likely meltdown. To therefore execute any plan is a highwire act, the more mundane the more menacing; such is his need to control, dictate and deliver, the tiniest deviation will trigger upset. We are hostage to who goes where, when and how. Popping to the papershop on the way to the station when it hasn’t been planned and discussed and repeated? Forget it.


There’s no let up. No respite from a need to balance his ever computing mind, the oxygen of literal information his survival. Survival, not satisfaction. Or contentment really. Answers provide transient reassurance, ephemeral composure, as opposed to any overt happiness on his part. These cares of his, these things he really, really, really worries about with their terrifying capacity to dominate him and therefore us.

There’s an overriding need to control everything that means the routine obsession has mutated into other forms of repetition, detail and description. He mines me for minutiae, mainly things I’ve told him time and time again. (Offering up new information, even in the factual, dry way he desires so desperately is hit and miss. The discoveries of detail need to be initiated by him in the main). People’s addresses, their whereabouts, train stations, street names, bus routes, places we’ve been. Things people have said, announcements train drivers have made, announcements train drivers should have said but didn’t. And dates. Of all events. All unerringly accurate. And all of this, this avalanche, delivered at pace from the moment he awakes, identically, forcefully.


“Daddy when you go to your office near Oxford Street, will you touch Oyster at Dollis hill and Piccadilly? Why?”

“Why has Tabitha got no clothes on?”


“On the Jubilee line, why does the man say stand clear of the doors? Why ,Why?”

“Can I tell you something…The light bulb on the street post in Chestnut Road doesn’t work? When will it work? Now or very soon?”



He knows the answers, they’re facts burned into his brain. But it’s not as simple as information over imagination. Everything seems in visual, photographic form, a moving tapestry he seeks to maintain. Like when he listed (off the cuff and unprompted) all the stations on the Jubilee Line that have a letter ‘p’ in them. This info had come to him effortlessly but pressingly; and of course, correctly. So as ever, a small light is shined into his big brain, that when I’m being positive and embracing enjoy and marvel at. Which is not always. Too often his attempts to make us answer everything, try our patience – and we come up short.


Despite all this, I can’t make as bold a statement as Isaac is not a happy child. He implores happiness in us after any distress. Or even randomly. He will flood with delight at unexpected moments, demanding ‘cuddles’. But authentic joy has a manic, frenzied edge; a kind of chemically induced hysteria if we comply consistently with his commands. And within seconds, he could be grasping his ears, full of tears, punching or pushing, screaming.

(The closest he comes to a relaxed joy, when the tempo of his thinking slackens and settles a little, is, as I’ve said before, when journeying anywhere on the London Underground. He exhaustedly reads all signs, memorises announcements and is energised by intersections. The whole tube map seems to appear in his mind’s eye, each station, line and colour, a kaleidoscope he lives and breathes.)


It’s as if he has a different setting or temperature to us. Swinging in seconds from radiating elation to reaching boiling point. Acclimatising to his meandering mental state can be unachievable.

During the long, drawn out, empty summer break (his baby sister a permanent, chaotic presence too) this perpetual state of botheredness my son has been in has persecuted the whole family. Knowing his despair and demands – but having blunt tools at best to deal with them is a numbing, powerless state of mind to be habiting. Bogging my mind down with Isaac’s fragile and frazzled mindset has been like brutal combat.

But mercifully hope is revealing itself from this dark, deranged place.



It comes in the form of his new school that he has just started. A rather beautiful, inspiring place that battles for around 40 children with high functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. After the mainstream struggles – despite admirable intentions – I have faith that Isaac will flourish here. Focus will be on his unique strengths and interests. Strategies tailored to overcome difficulties will be at the fore. Academic achievement will sit side by side with social, emotional and personal development.


Here, perhaps happiness for Isaac can be attained. A place made up of people who will discover him – and him, himself – in a way no one has before. Because a condition as perplexing and otherworldly as autism needs professionals and carers to lay the groundwork for others to tread carefully.

I hear of a holistic approach, where he is solely in the hands of experts. A joined up support where he’ll benefit from occupational and speech therapy, yoga, sensory integration and more. Where there’s a necessary and welcome very low ratio between pupil and teacher. Plus a pastoral care that sits above everything. Knowledge of autism unparalleled. The condition respected so the child can be pushed appropriately. A balance that only the most skilled and informed professionals can perhaps keep.


There’s psychotherapy too – a potentially unsettling idea for a parent. However, when aligned with strategies emanating from the school, the thought becomes bracing.

Some preliminary sessions with the psychotherapist have told us what we expected. That the battle between autistic and non-autistic traits is being lost. Obeying his orders means living in a regime that’s doing none of us favours. That the relentless repetition leads to mindlessness. That we are accommodating not addressing this mindlessness. That, above all, he’s anxious, worried, on edge primarily because the world and its vagaries simply doesn’t work for him.


And making the world work for him will be painstaking and harsh and challenging. Just assessing the sensory processing hell he clearly experiences (beyond the straightforward autistic ones of routine, order, self-stimulation) makes me realise the urgent intervention needed. Streaking through his body and mind are sensitivities that need dealing with. Wanting to be squeezed, demanding pressure. Aversion to so much clothing and all labels. Needing to smell people. His many food phobias. Freaked by dirt. Terrorised by the irrational movements of animals. Pigeons in particular and therefore anywhere associated with them. His clumsy and poor motor skills and lack of body awareness work against him in ways I can only imagine. The torment he gets from certain noise and smells. All unpredictable, all potentially everywhere.

Now, at last, I know a team is in place. One week in, I sense an ever so subtle aura of delight is emerging from him. Replacing the mainstream school scrabbling about, are the people who will know what’s best and truly deliver for him. Now he’s somewhere that possesses the tools to make my boy happy. Which is the least he deserves.

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Family Dynamics

Tabitha, Isaac’s sister, recently turned one – to a cringey chorus of proudly cooing parents. A mother and father whose propensity for a more phlegmatic parenting profile had shrivelled ever so slightly. Overly emotional and overwhelmed as we were by what thousands of other babies up and down the land would be doing identically.

Crawling with intent, reaching and grabbing, interrogating for a micro second, disrupting, waving, waving back, indiscriminately squishing fresh vegetable, fruits, pasta bakes – you name it – and making great ceremony by sticking them firmly and forcibly in her mouth, and the surrounding areas of cheeks, eyes and hair. Wanting to use a spoon for goodness sake. And, diametrically opposed to a sizeable smattering of responsible and committed dads, a mini-behaviour that comforts me considerably: the pointing of the remote to commence an episode of Peppa Pig. Cause and effect – tick.
Tabitha’s interactions, instinctive learning and determination for independence, contrast harshly with Isaac at one. Viewing this behaviour is as soothing as witnessing Isaac’s atypical behaviour was agitating. So when we paused to briefly take stock and analyse Tabitha at one, we allowed ourselves to take some much deserved pleasure in our little girl’s developments. A brief pit stop in sentimentality-soaked mummy and daddy land if you like.

Hesitancy holds us back most of the time though. If only because I’m not quite sure what emotion to access when pondering her typicality. Joy? Relief? Guilt at being joyful or relieved? Sad for Isaac? Happy for her?


None of the above in unreconstructed form. Isaac is Isaac. Unimaginable in anything other than his irresistible, incandescent, intriguing form. Autism is part of him. Seeped into his whole being, his psyche, his sensibility. Tabitha seems to be jolly and moving in a healthy and straightforward manner. A kind of contentment is about as close as I can get to emotional quantification.
Anyway, there’s not a great deal of headspace for pointlessly monitoring a sibling of a child with autism. Not when occupying us, testing us and at times defeating us, is Isaac’s role in all this. His place within this small, nuclear family. Made all the more vivid for him since Tabitha has started roaming unpredictably around the house. How we behave and interact as a family has become a quandary that I fear will never expire. Despite a great, enduring love between Isaac and Tabitha.
It’s not that ‘family time’ is something I imagine conjures up sepia images of blissful harmony for most people. It’s just that with autism, the concept of quality family time is an odd one. Pulled as so many of us are by convention to deliver memories that demonstrate a beautiful unity – when in reality the accomplishment of such magic is hopelessly unobtainable.

Our experiences with wider family have been instructive here. Ours is a big, boisterous, effortlessly loving brood. Idealistic and inclusive, with kids of similar ages sparring, socialising, discovering. For typical young families who thrive in a spontaneous, soulful and healthy environment, one couldn’t wish for anything more.


A thread of unambiguous visceral love runs through the amorphous ensemble. Bonds, mutual, respect and instinct – traits not associated with autism at all – the spine that solidifies any hiccups, misunderstandings or mischief. Which has made Isaac’s position all the more precarious for him and, equally, me. The social challenges of Isaac’s autism are often the ones that marginalise him the most. And amplify over time, confounding us all. Despite both the kids and adults being (incredibly) well-versed in autism, the natural social forums of family life are a bafflement for Isaac no matter the extent of endeavour by all to integrate him.

So I’ve come to terms with being absentees at get togethers. Why would we put Isaac through it? Him desperately trying to block out the sensory hell of noise and conversation he can’t decipher. And despite his cousins knowing the reasons behind his removal and supposed special treatment, there must be thoughts that this is some sort of mutinous behaviour by him.  How can they not ogle at his oddness – of, for example, his current coping mechanism doing ‘train’, where he relives, exactly and exuberantly, a plethora of train journeys loudly to himself; sounds, announcements, the lot; the accuracy, as ever, extraordinary. Normal, urgent behaviour to extrapolate himself from the surrounding madness. Where he sees madness, others see normality. And vice versa. A chasm.

But over recent weeks and months our immediate family has become a microcosm of the wider one. With all the hullabaloo of free flowing family life that our slightly solitary existence had managed to avoid, having entered our four walls. At a time when many areas of Isaac’s life are similarly anxiety inducing, calling for a flexibility he cannot fathom.


His shear physical force around Tabitha is one manifestation. Hugging, hysterics, squeezing of her. He’ll show perfect ‘baby’ behaviour, no allowances made for his bigger age and height, aping quite brilliantly her movements and gestures, so collapse is tantalisingly close. Perhaps like twins? Double trouble, an ebullient double act. Our fear for her littleness is massive of course. There’s risk everywhere. And yet, we can count on one hand the number of times he’s made her cry. Her resilience to his repetitive teasing, snatching of toys and overzealous tickling is uncanny. Maybe she knows malice is non-existent. But he’s a force around her that needs containing. And what’s around the corner?

Belongings are in peril always. Hers of course. He’s adopted an obsession with peppa pig, books, DVDs, magazines – hoarding, cataloguing. As always with the capricious nature of autism, he’ll sink into silence and the security of his phone, tube maps, leaflets, and an almost eerie calm at any moment – which fails to never put me on edge a little.


I don’t doubt a strand of jealousy. And I appreciate the keenness by so many to stress that Isaac must be showing jealousy; how normal it is and, indeed, isn’t it rather reassuring it must be the reason for his wayward, difficult to control behaviour. Well, yes. But it is a whole lot more complex than that.

As is so often, explanation, survival strategies and lateral solutions have emanated from the people of BOAT (Brent Outreach Autism Team) who doubted the jealousy argument choosing instead to discuss the arrival of a knockabout, crawling, messy, clumsy, unpredictable, presence, that test all parents and siblings alike – but who have the tools to manage. He doesn’t.


And then there is all the other parts of his life contributing to the melee. Tabitha is one cog of a complicated wheel that risks running him over if we don’t navigate it competently and coherently.

As such, BOAT looked for problems elsewhere. Like his experiences at daily school lunch; a break from the nicely regimented school day. An echoey, cluttered bundle. When his teaching assistant is stretched. Kids run amok. He stims, flaps and seeks solace. But it’s a façade that crumbles on his return home, my wife left to pick up the pieces.


It is clear his shifts in defiant, dictating behaviour, ferocity of frustration, anger and not knowing his own strength, come from a simple place that Tabitha can trigger, or school lunch, or family outings, or unexpected visitors, or pretty much anything when the day’s minute-by-minute planning has not been executed meticulously. Which is chaos, disorder, noise – any deviation from the absolute known. Any coping he has done in public is camouflaging internal insecurities and agonies brought on by sensory-processing difficulties, his non-grasping of social language, or, mainly, a lack of order. A need for pure reason and logic perhaps – his lifeblood in scant supply.

And after any event – at which the stress for him could have been imperceptible for anyone else – when he sets about recharging his battered batteries, carnage can ensue. A state of autism-induced frenzy. Rage, sadness, insecurity. His autistic traits reaching a fever pitch that we cannot douse. Rituals are rife. His routine having taken such a bashing, he’ll fixate on a memory, something specific, so desperate he is to control his environment. 


Perhaps on the journey home from a supposed innocuous park visit. Roads are a latest obsession. He is showing a black taxi like knowledge of journeys. Each, though, once completed needs to be completedidentically. Road works, a shortcut, diversions – can be critical. Scripted responses firmly and dogmatically directed by him are demanded.

 “We’ll travel on Minster Road – looks like Westminster on the jubilee like train. What does it look like daddy? Say Westminster. Then after Minster Road, Cricklewood Broadway. What line is it, is it the Over ground. Say yes, of course…”


Monologues delivered in a heightened state, where if you don’t play your part or follow the instructions he may scream, become agitated, freak out and become impossible to do anything with other than restrain and hug. If I get the specific reason a bus is not in service (“because the driver has gone home for his tea, daddy – say it”) wrong, then there’s thunder.

(He can rattle off 10, 20, 30 road names in perfect sequence to describe a journey. Together with the name of the borough that, I hadn’t even noticed, appears on all road signs. Likewise he knows from memory the entire tube map, which line each station is on. Yet, when asked he may not answer if he doesn’t feel like it. Even, or especially, to parents wanting to show off his skills. The sense of reward that we may feel imparting knowledge, a foreign concept to him).


Rituals proliferate just to relax him; having the opposite effect on us. Cooking with my wife thrice daily at least, making mini trilogies of videos of preparing specific items at specific times. Then watching them back repeatedly, memorizing and collating. Needing textures of all the foods to be the same, consistencies for stirring identical. Then there’s the journeys to the same shopping centre, set of escalators, coffee shop visited, stuff ordered, books bought, conversations had. All tightly, forcibly adhered to; an iron grip on us. Repeated behaviours that become magnified to epic, end-of-tether for us, end-of-the-world for him, proportions.

One small step that’s yielding, for now, some small gains in coping mechanisms is him doing half days at school as suggested by BOAT. The effect on my wife in terms of childcare is clearly arduous as is the exhaustion she experiences tending to his ever need, focusing on him solely – help from our part-time nanny taking Tabitha but rarely both kids such are his demands. The good news is he’s fortified confidence wise. Less likely to be knocked sideways by his inability make it through the day unscathed and not too discombobulated from proceedings. The acuteness of his autism doesn’t abate though. And of course Tabitha is around anyway.


Weeks on and he’s still confirming “Not lunch today at school?” And only recently did he tell us that at lunchtime there are “too many children in the playground. I didn’t like the noise.”

Many days, my wife has to simply claw her way through catastrophe to get to even keel.


Real life like can be real agony for him, and us, with its irregularity, impossible-to-tune-out noise and lack of structure. It’s that stark, simple and unfair. A hatred of the haphazard. “Give me some space please!!” he can plead. He has an inbred inflexibility that so, so limits what he can do.

And the upshot? A segregated, slightly sad family life. Where my wife and I split duties of a weekend and during holidays. Like ships, with one child on board, passing in the night. That way, Isaac has a 100% focus, him calling the shots. Rituals and repetition running the show, but with slightly less intensity. A tiny bit easier to manage.


It’s where we’re stuck, albeit consciously. Our family we cherish, living a limited to stop it becoming an impossible chore. Now, as we tread water between him attending the new school where we’re confident he’ll have the intervention needed. Where we anticipate a new dimension to his life – where less distractions mean his feats of memories, his humour, his extraordinary capacity to learn, communicate and more are coaxed and cajoled, not compromised.

We cower for insularity for self-preservation’s sake not selfishness. I personally get tangled taming the sorrow of solitude with the desire to grasp the nettle of sociability – knowing the stings can be more than skin deep.



It needs a doggedness that I’ve not developed. It can feel like we are two islands within an island some weekends. That’s fine for now. We’re still the proud parents of two children going about our business – just slightly apart. For now.


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