How my toddler made me cry

My two-year-old daughter made me cry the other night.

It came as a bit of a surprise, because I’m not really that emotional a person. Over the years I’ve built up a thick skin – it’s the only way to survive being a square peg in a world of round holes. My moods tend to vary between melancholy, discontentment and ennui, so I rarely reach the extremes of feeling that lead to tears, good or bad. Funerals? Nothing. Weddings? Nothing. The birth of my kids? Meh.

But then, there is a chink in my armour. Toy Story 3 made me weep in the cinema, My Girl just kills me, and who doesn’t cry at Marley & Me (besides cat lovers)? I can’t walk past a child’s gravestone without welling up, and last year I even cried at a book, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, in a scene where a chimpanzee begs to be allowed to go home. All of which goes to show, give me the bittersweet juxtaposition of innocence and sorrow, and you can pierce right to the heart of me.

I first noticed this weakness about twenty years ago, at Land’s End in Cornwall. A little boy was running with his brand new toy sword from the gift shop when he tripped and fell and – SNAP! – the blade broke at the hilt. The look on that boy’s face – the dawning realisation of what had happened, the switch from innocent joy to infinite sorrow as life’s hard truths hit home, and then the tears of impotent despair at the discovery that some things once broken cannot be fixed – it broke my heart.

I mean, sure, it was just a plastic sword costing a couple of quid and his parents could have bought him another one in a heartbeat – hardly a life-or-death experience. But that boy’s face haunted me for weeks after, because in the innocent, uncontrolled emotional state of a child, unable to weigh up comparative value or process cause, effect and consequence, and living solely in the moment, it is life-or-death. Children and animals, their simplicity of thought and emotion, their purity – when they suffer, when they’re sad, when they’re in pain and when they die, it cuts through every barrier I put up to protect myself.

Unfortunately, my toddler is right at that point in her social and emotional development where innocence and sorrow come into contact several times a day.

The evening she made me cry, I picked her up from nursery as usual. It’s always nigh identical to that scene in The Railway Children – she sees me, stops stock still in awe, and then she shouts, ‘Daddy, it’s my daddy!’ and runs towards me, her face filled with elation, leaving me just enough time to drop to one knee before she slams into me and throws her arms around me. So excited to show me what she’s been doing, so proud to show me off to the ladies at nursery – ‘My daddy,’ she says, ‘This my daddy.’

She’s the last to be picked up, after dark, so for half an hour she gets to hang with the grown-ups. I know it makes her feel special. She gets such a look of well-being on her little face as she puts on her school bag like a big girl, waves to the ladies all cocky because she’s heading home to mummy and her little sister. This night was no different but for one thing.

She tripped as she stepped over the threshold, stumbled down the wheelchair ramp and face-planted into the mud.

I stood her up, her hands, coat and face black with dirt. The women from the nursery appeared in the doorway and in the light spilling out past them I saw my little girl’s face – the shock giving way to embarrassment and humiliation as she fought back the tears, struggling to keep control. I told her it’s okay and she’s very brave, but it was all too much and suddenly she was wailing and burying her face in my side so nobody could see her. Ultimate joy to ultimate misery in under ten seconds, her special, sacred moment destroyed. Broke my heart.

But that wasn’t what made me cry.

On the way home, to distract her from her misery, I asked her who had been there today. Turns out it was Tilly, Hugo, Sebastian, Rufus (yes, I know – we’re only a Tarquin away from winning Pretentious-name Bingo), and a new one for me – Jasper.

‘Who’s Jasper?’ I asked.

‘My best friend,’ she replied. Too cute!

Then I asked her what she’d been up to. ‘Me sing Twinkle, Twinkle with my friends.’ Oh my gosh, the sweetest thing ever. But it still didn’t make me cry. No, that came after dinner when I was bathing her.

She was sticking the foam letters to the side of the tub – ‘This mummy,’ she’d say, and ‘This Granny,’ and ‘This Poppa.’ Then she put three together, pointed at the middle one, and said, ‘This daddy.’

‘Who’s this, then?’ I asked, pointing at the figure beside me.

‘This daddy’s friend,’ she replied, and pointed to the other; ‘and this daddy’s friend.’ And then she put another one beside them and said, ‘And this daddy’s best friend.’

And that’s when I cried.

As a master at acting ‘normal’, I hid it well. This is particularly important because my toddler has become very sensitive to other people’s feelings. She’s always asking if mummy’s sad, or if daddy’s sad, and the other night she woke up sobbing because she’d had a dream in which mummy was very sad. So I wiped my eyes, endured that prickly feeling at the top of my nose, and got on with it.

But why did I cry? The juxtaposition of innocence and sorrow.

As somebody with autism, friendship is something I always desperately wanted but was never able to have. I struggle to understand or connect with other people. When someone wants to be my friend, I become paranoid and push them away. When I want someone to be my friend, I approach it so cautiously I miss the opportunity. I don’t know how to make, keep and manage friendships, and I only have the mental energy or focus to sustain one friend or partner at a time. As I’m married, this means I don’t have the social resources to have any friends – no close ones anyway. It’s the way I’m built. It’s one of those things.

But that doesn’t make it any less painful, and it doesn’t mean I’m not desperately lonely.

My daughter has already realised the importance of friendship. Watching her making friends is a wonderful relief, because she is not like me. A bittersweet relief, as one day she’ll learn that daddy doesn’t have any friends, and she won’t understand why, and she’ll be sad, because even though I won’t show it, she’ll know that I’m sad too. Because friendship is important regardless of who you are.

Where do innocence and sorrow factor into this? Her innocence; my sorrow.

That’s how my toddler made me cry.

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Speaking for Others with Autism

As someone who puts himself in the public eye for a cause, especially on the internet, I’m aware that this makes me a target for criticism. Mostly it’s to do with my opinion on MMR not causing autism (because it doesn’t), my belief that modern, science-based medicine is better than snake oil and superstition (because it is better), and my insistence that people with autism can and do make good parents (because we can and do – although not all of us). These criticisms I can easily brush aside.

Not all criticisms can or should be dismissed out of hand, however. There’s a pernicious idea among the younger generations (and Taylor Swift) that any criticism is trolling, and those who do it are simply ‘haters’ and bullies, which is a great way of avoiding personal responsibility and adopting the mantle of victimhood, but isn’t an enlightened way of viewing people whose opinions differ from your own. So I tend to give my critics the benefit of the doubt – that the criticism was sincerely meant, even though I might disagree with it – and I consider whether there is any merit to it, since this is how we grow as people.

My latest criticism has got me thinking, for despite being worded rather rudely and making some outlandish assumptions, it asks a pertinent question: by what right do I presume to speak for others on the autism spectrum?

I have to first point out that, while I have been told I am an ‘ambassador’ for the autism community, speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves, I have never actually claimed this myself. I recognise, however, that by putting myself out there as a speaker, author and blogger, my words and behaviours reflect upon people’s perceptions of autism, and this is not something that I take lightly. Indeed, I put a great deal of effort into getting it right, especially since I’m currently in a position to influence opinion.

On Wednesday, for example, at an autism conference in Belgium, I spoke to two-hundred delegates about what it’s like to live with autism and how I manage to cope. Also on the bill at Inservice Autisme 2017, in the small village of Oostmalle outside Antwerp, were two other Brits with autism: internationally-renowned opera singer Sophia Grech, and bestselling author of Freaks, Geeks and Asperger’s Syndrome Luke Jackson. So, what right do I have to speak at such an event?

My answer is: I have every right. I talk about what affects me and other people I have met with autism, what has helped me to cope and what has helped others. I point out some of the issues you might face living on the autism spectrum and how these might be overcome. As you don’t cease to be an individual when you’re diagnosed, I am up front about the fact that the things I say will apply to some people more than others, and while some coping strategies might work, they are certainly not for everyone. The important thing is to make sense of your own experience and find out what works for you.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly offensive about that.

I have also been told I shouldn’t speak for others with autism because I have a wife and children, a book and a blog, and I have worked in the past – that my achievement of various life goals makes me ‘atypical’ (i.e. too successful) and thus invalidates my experiences of autism. Inherent in this accusation is a very negative view of people on the autism spectrum, as though to qualify as autistic you must necessarily be unfulfilled, downtrodden and miserable, and this is an opinion that simply does not ring true for me.

I have met hundreds of people on the autism spectrum, and I continue to be amazed by their diversity. In just four months of public speaking I’ve spoken to many Aspies with wives and children, jobs and homes. After every speech I have given, people on the spectrum have come up to me and told me I could have been describing their lives and that what I said really resonated with them. To say that I am ‘atypical’ and cannot relate to others on the spectrum is therefore simply wrong.

It has also been assumed that, because I take a positive, hopeful view of the prospects for those of us on the spectrum, I shouldn’t speak for those who don’t have it as ‘easy’ as me, or the same ‘advantages’, as though I lead a blessed like free of strife and woe. I don’t think anything could be further from the truth. I could offer to show all my self-harming scars from years of struggle, but instead I’ll say what it took to attend the autism conference to show how ‘easy’ it was.

As a stay-at-home dad/unemployed guy with a two-year-old, a seven-week-old and an autistic wife who can’t be left alone with the kids for more than a couple of hours, attending the conference was tough. First, my wife was very abusive when she first found out about it in April because she was scared of me going away and her not being able to cope; despite organising for people to sit with her while I was away, and for her to stay at her mum’s, she remained hostile about it right up until the time I left, telling me I would likely be killed by terrorists in Belgium and that I didn’t love my family, etc., etc. This is what she does when she is feeling vulnerable – she goes on the attack.

As I tried and failed to book a flight to Belgium (I found it too difficult, for while I am capable of some things, I’m incapable of many others), I sought help from my dad, who agreed to drive me. He wanted to take the Channel Tunnel, but as I’ve been on it before and found it claustrophobic, I asked for us to take the ferry because I was worried I might have a panic attack.

On the day of the journey I was up at 3am with the baby and didn’t return to sleep. I left home at seven and it took more than twelve hours of travel to reach Oostmalle. Upon arrival, I was terrified, had an upset stomach, and struggled to keep my anxieties in check.

Entering the conference centre, I was confronted by 200 Dutch people eating dinner, drinking in the bar, and milling about in a noisy, dark environment. The organisers sought me out and directed me to the ‘English Corner’ where Sophia Grech sat with Luke Jackson, two titans of the autism community. So I dug deep, swallowed down my fears, and introduced myself.

After an hour of trying to hear people over the noise and hiding behind a bottle of Coke, my father drove me to the hotel. I rang home to check on things, to find my wife sobbing, the baby screaming, and my toddler crying down the phone, ‘Mummy very sad! Mummy very sad!’ Not easy.

After my dad went to sleep, I worked on my speech, as this was the first opportunity I’d had to be in a clear headspace – or as clear as it could be.

In the morning, I was really panicking. I had to take pills for my upset stomach, struggled to breathe, and wasn’t sure if I’d be able to keep my heart inside my ribcage. As we arrived I puffed out my cheeks, blew out my breath, and flapped my hands like a baby bird trying to take flight. And then I forced it all inwards and painted on my mask, my happy, confident face, and entered the fray.

The speech went well, very well, in fact. I really felt as though I made a difference, and the feedback afterwards showed that it went down a treat. For the next few hours I hung around with Luke and Sophia, and despite my fears, they were two of the coolest, nicest, most down-to-earth people you could hope to meet, with stories and experiences and ideas very similar to my own. In fact, to find myself in such agreement with others was both a rarity and a validation of my own views on autism.

The next day, exhausted and headachy and socially hungover, dwelling on every word I’d said in my speech and worrying if I’d done justice to the wider world of autism, I got up at six to leave at seven for the twelve hour journey home, whereupon I immediately resumed my parenting and caring roles.

I mention this to show that while things might be hard, those of us with autism can achieve amazing things if we have the courage and drive to confront our problems and refuse to let them hold us back. And if people still think I don’t understand what it is to struggle, that I don’t find things difficult enough to be a ‘proper’ Aspie, and that my life is too easy to be relatable, then it says more about them, I think, than it does me.

So why do I do it, if I find it so hard? I do it because I can do it, and I genuinely want to help. My life has been so hard I want to make things easier for others, and if sharing my experiences, opinions and coping strategies can make an autistic person’s life just a little bit easier, that’s what I’m going to do, regardless of whether critics think I’m entitled to or not.

I’ll leave you with the comments of a girl in my village who also has autism. She has struggled all her life but is now doing voluntary work and trying to make something of herself. She’s quite open about the fact that she isn’t articulate enough to describe what it’s like living on the spectrum and doesn’t have the confidence to speak in front of people anyway. Here is what she wrote on my Facebook page a few weeks ago:

‘You’re amazing and you’re doing a great job for everyone else who has autism like you and me and everyone else. I’m really proud of you.’

And the other day she wrote:

‘I and everyone else with autism is going to look up to you. You change people’s lives. Congratulations.’

Am I entitled to speak for others on the autism spectrum? I’ll leave you to decide.

 

Parents as Partners

Nope, this isn’t a post about Appalachian sexual practices. If that’s what you were looking for, then I’m sorry – for so many reasons.

For everyone else, it’s about attempting to balance the twin roles of parent and partner.

I’ve said before that the person who is everything you want in a partner can simultaneously be frustrating as hell to co-parent a child with. No matter how well you think you know someone, you can’t ever be sure what kind of a parent they’ll make until that kid pops out, and nor do you know how having kids will affect the dynamic between the two of you. You just have to have faith that whatever comes up, you’ll deal with it and get through it together, because that’s the commitment you made.

What I am discovering, as a father of a two-year-old and a seven-week-old, is that the gulf between words and reality is filled with sharp sticks and broken dreams – and a hefty dose of disillusionment.

You see, when you’re a couple, how one of you behaves as a parent inevitably affects how the other behaves. In an ideal world, each individual parent will have a mix of playfulness and responsibility, to differing levels, and you’ll share the load as best you can.

Unfortunately, it is not an ideal world.

In my household, my wife has abrogated all responsibility and so is situated right down the playful, irreverent, impulsive end of the parenting scale, alongside the fun uncle and your friend’s older brother who lets you drink beer. Trouble is, the only way to balance things is for me to go ever further towards the responsible, controlled side – I’m sitting with the school librarian and the ticket collector who won’t let you stand on the seats of the bus.

And I hate that.

While my wife dodges the surf with my toddler on a cold October day, I fret about the fact that they’re both now soaked up to the knees, the shoes will have to go in the washing machine to clean away the salt, and they’re going to freeze on the way home – not to mention we’re going to get sand in the car. While they carve their Halloween pumpkins, I hover around them on knife patrol, groaning as every drop of pumpkin juice splashes down onto the carpet, and trying to catch the seeds before the dog eats them. And while my wife is happy to say yes to just about anything, I’m the one who has to say no, and then deal with the nuclear fallout.

The trouble is, not only do your differing parental styles annoy the crap out of each other, they change how you see one another as partners as well. I’ve started seeing my wife as irresponsible instead of playful, argumentative instead of passionate, stubborn instead of determined and inconsiderate instead of simply absent-minded. For her part, she now sees me as boring, controlling, uptight and dogmatic instead of reliable, sensible, safety-conscious, and by-the-book. It’s all in how you define it.

Of course, matters aren’t helped by lack of sleep (mine), the spectre of postnatal depression (hers) and physical exhaustion (both of us). And to be fair, she has gone a long way down Nuts Street lately, with her moods up and down like a yo-yo, her OCD out of control, and the language she uses enough to make a sailor blush. So she blames her unreasonableness on hormones, I blame my irritability on tiredness, and neither of us really gets to be accountable for our behaviour, even though we’re driving one another up the walls and out the door quicker than a gas leak. I don’t remember the last time our wires were so completely crossed.

Actually, I do. It was a month or so after our first baby. Hmm, I’m spotting a pattern here.

On that occasion, things got better after I asked myself what it was I was doing that was unhelpful to the situation, and it turned out that I was being controlling and dogmatic, though for the right reasons – I was trying to help.

In similar fashion, I think I have located the root of our problems here, but they’ll be far more difficult to solve – it’s not what I am doing, but what I am not doing.

It was a throwaway comment in an argument that contained a thousand other throwaway comments, most of them spurious, many of them said simply to hurt me. It was that I’ve replaced her with the children, and on reflection, it’s a charge that I cannot deny. I have, over the past seven weeks, largely forgotten about my wife.

Well, that’s not true. As an autist – or maybe simply as a male – I thought that the fact I do all the nights and let her sleep, make most of the meals, sort out the dog, cat, chickens and fish, take the toddler to nursery and swimming and ballet, and do the lion’s share of the baby care so my wife doesn’t have to, showed the level of my respect and my regard for her. But it doesn’t.

I’ve been doing my damnedest since the baby arrived to make sure my toddler doesn’t feel left out, so what my wife sees is a man hugging his kids, telling them stories, making sure they’re okay, and then falling exhausted into bed – basically, giving them all the affection and attention he used to give her. And she feels left out, and resentful, and self-pitying. So she snaps at me, which makes me cross as I think, ‘Why isn’t she appreciating me?’ And then we argue, and the cycle repeats.

The solution? I have to show affection to my wife. I have to make time to give her hugs and cuddles, and tell her she’s special, and make sure she’s okay. Basically, I have to make her feel special.

Which is tough when I’m so busy and tired, and is tougher still when she says such awful things to me that I’d rather clip her round the ear than whisper sweet nothings into it. It’s like cuddling a rabid pitbull that hates you.

But it’s something I’m going to have to do. These are the sacrifices you have to make when you’re a parent as well as a partner.