Debating a two-year-old

Why have you emptied the cupboard onto the kitchen floor? No, don’t walk away. Come back. Don’t hide in that cupboard. Are you listening to me? Izzie? Come out of there. Come out or you’re on the naughty step.

‘Okay, daddy.’

Right. Good. Why are you sticking out your bottom lip? That’s better. Now, come here, I want to talk to you.

Leave the water bottle alone. I said leave it alone.

This broken.

It’s not broken.

This broken, daddy.

Don’t change the subject. Come here. The count of three. One, two…

Good. Stop sticking out your bottom lip. Now, why did you empty all the baking tins out of the cupboard when mummy told you not to?

‘Mffmffjmmmt.’

You have to open your mouth when you speak.

‘Mffmffjmmmt.’

No, you have to open your mouth. I know you’re capable of talking because you’ve been doing it all day. So tell me why you emptied the cupboard, and this time, open your mouth when you talk.

Muh huh bluh muh nuh juh bluh.’

That isn’t any better. Think about what you want to say and then say it. Why did you empty the cupboard when mummy told you not to?

‘Me sit in my chair.’

Fine, sit in your chair. Then tell me why there are baking tins all over the floor. No, look at me. Why are you sticking out your bottom lip again? That’s better. Now. Why did you disobey your mummy?

‘Mmf luff juh buh muh Daisy.’

Only one word of that was in English. What about Daisy?

My friend Daisy.’

I know she’s your friend. What’s that got to do with this?

‘Mmf luff juh buh tell me.’

Daisy told you to empty the cupboard?

‘Yes.’

When did she tell you to empty the cupboard?

‘Yesterday.’

You haven’t seen Daisy for a week. Are you lying to me?

‘No.’

Lying is naughty.

‘Me lying.’

So Daisy didn’t tell you to empty it?

‘No.’

Then why did you empty it?

‘Mummy tell me.’

Your mummy told you to empty the cupboard?

‘Yes.’

The person who told you not to empty the cupboard told you to empty the cupboard?

‘Yes.’

Are you lying to me again?

‘Yes.’

So why did you empty the cupboard all over the floor? Suck in that bottom lip. Do you know why you emptied the cupboard?

‘No, me not know why.’

Well, at least you’re honest. When mummy tells you not to do something, don’t do it, okay?

‘Okay, daddy. Me go in my playroom now?’

No, let’s pick these all up off the floor and put them back in the cupboard, please.

‘Daddy do it.’

No, you made the mess so you can tidy it up.

‘Me want daddy do it.’

And me want holiday, but we don’t always get what we want.

‘Me not want holiday.’

Then you’re in luck. Now, please put all of these baking tins back in the cupboard.

‘Mummy do it.’

No, mummy’s not going to do it. Where’s this bottom lip thing come from?

‘Me need a toilet.’

Do you really need the toilet or are you trying to get out of clearing up?

‘Me need a wee-wee. Me not wear a nappy, me not wee-wee in my pants.’

Fine. Come on, let’s go sit on the potty.

‘You not look at my wee-wee.’

I won’t look at your wee-wee. Come on, take your trousers down, and your pants, there you go.

‘You not listen, daddy.’

I won’t listen. There. Are you doing anything?

‘No. Me not need a toilet.’

Goddamnit. Okay, stand up then. That’s it. Pull your pants up, and your trousers. There, all done.

‘Me play in my playroom now?’

No, you’re going to tidy up first.

‘Why?’

Because I said so. No, don’t sigh at me.

‘Me not want to tidy things, daddy.’

Why not?

‘Me naughty.’

Well, don’t be naughty.

Why?’

Because it’s not nice.

‘Me not want to tidy.’

Look, how about this – if you put the baking tins away, I’ll come in your playroom with you.

‘Okay.’

Thank God. Okay, that’s one. No, leave the water bottle alone.

‘This broken.’

It’s not broken, it’s meant to be like that. Now, put the baking tins away before I scream.

‘Daddy sad?’

No, daddy isn’t sad.

‘Daddy cry?’

No, daddy isn’t going to cry.

‘Daddy cry. Do it. Do it now.’

Wait, you want daddy to cry?

‘Yes. On my birthday and mummy’s birthday.’

Why would you want me to cry on your birthday?

‘You always do.’

What? You’ve completely lost me now.

‘Me play in my playroom with daddy?’

Put them away, and then I’ll play with you. I said don’t sigh at me.

‘Why?’

Because…oh for crying out loud, I’ll put one away and you put one away, how’s that? Okay?

‘Okay, daddy.’

Okay, good. Here, that’s one. Now it’s your turn. It’s your turn. Pick that one up. That one right there. Where I’m pointing. Where I’m pointing, look.

‘Me not see it.’

Okay, now you’re just mucking me about.

‘Me not see anything.’

Right, that’s it. Straight to bed with no supper. Come on, up to bed.

‘No, me not go to bed. Me not tired. Me busy.’

With what?

‘Me got to put things in the cupboard.’

I know. I know you do. I told you to do it. Ten minutes ago. Ten minutes. You’re driving me insane, child, insane. Do you understand?

‘Daddy want a cuddle?’

Aaaaaaaawaaahhhhhhhhhhhh!

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Between a Baby and a Little Girl: The Joys of Ageing

As the father of a four-month-old and a two-year-old, I’m currently caught between two extremes. I have a child who needs carrying everywhere, feeding, dressing, changing, soothing, nurturing and supporting, and a child who is Miss Independent, insisting she walk everywhere, feed herself, dress herself, use the big toilet, and do whatever she wants, whenever she wants, without parental supervision. Unfortunately, I’m only talking about one child: my eldest daughter Izzie.

I’m constantly reminded of that Britney Spears song, ‘I’m not a girl, not yet a woman.’ For my daughter, it’s more like, ‘I’m not a baby, not yet a girl, because I don’t want to be either, except when I do.’ Which makes parenting her a bit of a nightmare at the moment.

One minute she’s refusing to wear a nappy because ‘me not a baby, daddy,’ bragging to her friends that ‘me wearing Peppa Pig pants!’ and using the toilet because she’s far too grown up for the potty; and the next, she’s screaming because she isn’t wearing a nappy, refuses to wear pants, and won’t go on anything because ‘me not a big girl!’

Four months ago she started to make representational art forms – a wooden brick airplane with wings and a tail – yet one day last week she assured me she didn’t know how to walk. She’s caught in that awful netherworld of identity between the easy, dependent life of an infant and the scarier, independent world of the little girl.

It’s obvious why – she sees her baby sister getting the attention and monopolizing our time and she wants the same for herself, but she also wants to play with her friends, do her own thing, and have some control over her life. Sure, it’d be nice to keep her a baby, but as she gets older it’s inevitable that she’ll have to leave that world behind.

Which her younger sister Rosie is doing right now. The first three months are sometimes called ‘The Fourth Trimester’ because you have a child that is little different from a baby in the womb, only you have to feed it and change it as it doubles in size and keeps you awake at night. But around three months she suddenly started to become interested in the world. She gurgles and snorts, smiles and laughs, and squawks like a cockatoo. Loudly. All blooming day.

And she’s become mobile. She rolls from her front to her back, from her back to her side, and, a couple of days ago, mastered reaching and grabbing hold of objects and steering them into her mouth – my necklace, my glasses, my beard. And that helpless little baby is now well on her way to a P60 and National Insurance payments.

It’s a confusing time. You want to tell them to slow it down, to accept who they are at this stage of their lives. You want to tell them to keep their fear of the dark because life is more exciting that way, and to hang onto their beliefs in a world bereft of magic. You want to tell them to stop wishing it all away.

But I remember being five years old in reception class at school, desperate to be older. I remember feeling powerless and small and longing to be autonomous and as big as the sky. I told the dinner lady, and she said that when I was older, I’d wish to be young again. I didn’t believe her. Who would want to be young? So I know my daughters won’t listen to a word I say, will only see the benefits of getting older and not what they’re leaving behind, even as we parents pine for the youth we lost.

But maybe they’re right after all. As a society, we glamorise youth and villify ageing – innocence and beauty and purity don’t have grey hair and wrinkles and saggy bottoms. We seem to spend our lives longing for some mythical time when we were happier and had it all in front of us. But why do we always define ageing by what we’ve lost instead of by what we’ve gained? Experience, stability, stature. A wealth of knowledge and the wisdom to wield it.

Instead of seeing ageing as decay, why don’t we see it through the eyes of our children, as a natural progression towards the people we want to be? Because each day we are becoming more, not less. Each day we are gaining, not losing. Ageing is not the enemy – it’s our perception of ageing, of what it means, that makes us suffer.

So whatever age you find yourself, embrace it. You are exactly the age you’re meant to be, and the features of that age are beautiful and yours to own – even hair loss and premature ejaculation. And that wonderful time long ago when we were happy to be young?

It never actually happened.

Fifty things you should NEVER say to a parent…

…unless you want your eyes scratched out, especially if you don’t have kids of your own (N.B. these have all been said to me in the last month or so).

  1. She’s quite chunky, isn’t she?
  2. I think she’s had enough milk.
  3. Maybe you should change the formula she’s on.
  4. Well I think the Health Visitor’s wrong.
  5. I don’t trust NHS guidelines at all.
  6. You know dummies are bad for them, don’t you?
  7. Is that how you put her top on?
  8. Let me show you how you’re meant to do it.
  9. This is the way she prefers it.
  10. You should cook all her meals from scratch.
  11. You were up twice in the night? Well that’s not so bad.
  12. If I had kids, I’d be fine with the nights.
  13. Lack of sleep doesn’t bother me.
  14. What’s his name? He is a boy, right? Oh. What’s her name?
  15. I used to have a dog called that.
  16. He was only playing.
  17. He didn’t bite her that hard.
  18. It was her own fault for getting too close to him.
  19. It’s taught her an important lesson.
  20. Let’s not make a fuss about it.
  21. Everyone else’s children are potty-trained by now.
  22. Don’t make it an issue.
  23. She really ought to be potty-trained by now.
  24. It must be nice to sit around at home all day.
  25. Isn’t it about time you got back out to work?
  26. Having kids is no excuse for an untidy house.
  27. Why don’t I take them off your hands for a couple of hours so you can do some housework?
  28. When I have kids, I’m going to set aside an hour every day to clean.
  29. Looks like somebody has some ironing to do.
  30. Nobody said it was going to be easy.
  31. Well, you chose to be a parent.
  32. And you’ll have to keep doing this for the rest of your life.
  33. We’ve all been there, you don’t have to go on about it.
  34. Parents these days have no idea how easy they have it.
  35. When I had my kids I had nobody to help me.
  36. All this modern ‘naughty step’ rubbish.
  37. Smacking never did anyone any harm.
  38. You’re making a rod for your own back.
  39. You shouldn’t cuddle her so much.
  40. Did you see that great programme on TV last night?
  41. You really need to read this book.
  42. You look more tired every time I see you.
  43. I don’t remember you having all that grey in your beard.
  44. Why have you put on so much weight?
  45. It doesn’t get any easier.
  46. If you think this is hard, wait until…
  47. Don’t worry, they’ll be starting school in four years.
  48. You should value this time of your life.
  49. It goes by so quickly.
  50. Remember to enjoy every moment!

Takers and the Took: Asperger’s and Confrontation

Every day at the moment, I’m having between sixty and seventy arguments. Some are mild, a witty response to a provocative remark; some are longer, a tussle between players on opposite sides of the game; and some are long drawn-out, bloodthirsty affairs that leave souls destroyed and lives in ruins. Sixty to seventy, every single day.

But it’s not as bad as all that: they only take place in my head.

Like many people with Asperger’s, I have something of a phobia about confrontation, to the point of enduring any amount of abuse in order to avoid it. When it does happen, I avoid eye-contact and retreat into myself, and all the cogent, coherent arguments I could make evaporate. I have a visceral reaction – acid, like liquid copper, spreads from my gut, my chest tightens, my throat constricts, and the back of my neck starts to burn, because even though words can apparently never hurt me, I feel as though I’m being physically attacked. So I wait for it to end, mutter some platitudes that completely undermine my own position, and then slink away in a turmoil of guilt, shame and humiliation like a dog with his tail between his legs.

And afterwards, I dwell on it. For days. I relive the argument, word for word, re-experience the feelings, the fear and helplessness, think of what I could have said or should have said but didn’t because at the time all I wanted was to retreat. Like someone who has taken a beating, it takes me a long time to recover. It’s as though my psyche is bruised, and the world is now altered, everything out of place and dangerous until I manage to rebuild my walls and feel safe around people once again.

I worked in telesales for a time. Last thing on Friday afternoon, a stranger eviscerated me down the phone line. I didn’t sleep that night, couldn’t relax all the next day, had bad dreams on the Saturday, ran over the incident a million times all day Sunday, and on Monday handed in my notice and bought a plane ticket to New Zealand. Growing up, people said I was sensitive – too sensitive to survive in society. I think the truth is that I’m autistic, and my problems with social communication and social interaction, married to anxiety, insecurity and an obsessive nature, make conflict something I’m particularly incapable of dealing with.

So I tend to avoid confrontation, if I can. You might have heard the opposite to this – that people with Asperger’s are themselves argumentative, self-centred egoists who run rough-shod over the feelings of others – and this is also true, no matter how contradictory. So how does that work?

I can only answer for myself. When it comes to facts – or at least what I consider to be facts – my natural pedantry, honesty, commitment to accuracy and inability to let things go mean I often get into arguments over trivial matters. Like when over dinner one time my (ex) sister-in-law was talking about someone overly concerned with their appearance, and concluded with the statement, ‘People are so fickle.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ I asked.

‘You know,’ she said. ‘People are so shallow and superficial.’

‘Oh, I totally agree,’ I replied. ‘But that’s not what fickle means.’

‘Yes, it is.’

‘No, it’s not. Fickle means changeable, inconstant, not shallow.’

‘I’m an English teacher.’

‘And I have a dictionary. Shall we look it up?’

‘Well, whatever it means, most normal people would have known what I meant.’

‘Then most normal people are using the word fickle incorrectly too.’

Sure, it’s a little thing and in hindsight it comes across as kind of petty, but that’s the sort of argument I can’t resist having – those to do with facts, where I will back myself to the hilt because I know I’m right.

On the other hand, when it comes to disagreements about less concrete things – emotional things – that’s what I struggle to cope with. I approach life in a rational fashion and expect other people to respond in a rational way, but that’s not what tends to happen. Instead, people are complex and confusing and behave in ways that aren’t rational at all. I just don’t understand it. You try to discuss something in a calm and controlled manner and they flip out, fly off the handle, scream and shout, and in a split second I’ve backed down, lost the argument and dropped into survival mode. Otherwise, if I try to stand up for myself, I get eaten alive.

I link this to my autism, especially since I know many others who experience the same anxiety over arguments. Perhaps having poor Theory of Mind skills – the ability to understand another’s thoughts, feelings, and point of view – means we are incapable of successful conflict-resolution. Or perhaps my aversion to confrontation is something more particular to me.

As a child, I grew up in a household in which confrontation had very real consequences, then at 19 I moved in with my girlfriend’s family, where a violent brother and emotionally unstable mother meant that any confrontation led to holes being kicked in doors and phones smashed against the wall. At 21 I formed a band with a girl who ruled my life for the next three years because I was terrified of her spectacular outbursts and felt powerless to escape her anger, while at 28 I moved into a ‘supported living’ house, where my housemate would break milk bottles on the kitchen floor if I disagreed with him. Over the years, I’ve learnt that confrontation means danger; backing down is the best way of surviving.

But it isn’t, because it’s incredibly damaging to your self-esteem and your long-term happiness. Living like this makes it very easy to be taken advantage of – unless you isolate yourself as a hermit, which, to be honest, is a very attractive option sometimes. I get churned up inside just thinking about the potential for arguments. I walk on eggshells, terrified of upsetting people because of how they’ll react, and I know what that makes me.

There’s that common expression about the world being divided between ‘givers’ and ‘takers’. This assumes that givers and takers are in some form of symbiotic relationship that fulfils one another’s psychological needs. I think the truth is much darker than that.

To paraphrase the 1960 movie The Apartment, there are ‘takers’ and ‘the took’. The worst thing about being the took is that you know you’re being taken, but there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. Because takers don’t take what is freely given – they take whatever they want. It’s a form of abuse, one that people with Asperger’s are very susceptible to because of our difficulties handling confrontation.

So when I know I need to confront someone about something – when I’m being taken advantage of, for example – I obsessively plan out what I’m going to say. And then how they’ll respond. And what I’ll say next. And so on, and so forth.

Of course, in real life, people don’t respond how you want them to, so I try various permutations – if the person responds rationally, irrationally, emotionally, angrily, defensively, offensively, how I’ll react, how I’ll respond. I have the same argument sixty or seventy different ways, every single day, all in my head.

And then the moment comes, and all the preparation goes out of the window. You’re aggressive instead of assertive, you stumble over your words, the other person explodes and you cower, or worse they deny anything’s going on and it’s all in your mind, which confuses you, until at the end of the argument you’re in a worse position than when you started, and all the things you’d meant to say, and all the rights you were going to insist upon, lie unspoken in your heart.

And you realise that there’s really no reasoning with some people, so it’s best to leave those arguments where they belong – spinning around in your head all day, every day, because they’re the taker and you’re the took.

And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

An Aspie Family Christmas

As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, and a wife with the same, I have just experienced an incredibly stressful holiday season that has left my nerves in shreds and my marriage hanging on a knife-edge. For the avoidance of future issues, and to help out my fellow Aspies and their families, I thought I’d share what happened to me and offer some friendly advice on how to make things run more smoothly.

1. Keep the disruption short

My wife asked if we could spend a few days over Christmas with her sister and family, a four-hour drive away from home. As a supportive husband and father, of course I said yes. Two or three days at somebody else’s house is about my limit.

It wasn’t until two weeks before Christmas that I discovered my wife had actually arranged six days with her sister. I protested and tried to change it, only to be told by the wider family that it had already been arranged and changing it would be inconvenient. For them. The neurotypical ones.

Not wanting to cause a fuss, I loaded the car with everything including the kitchen sink (a toy for my daughter), and we set off.

In short, it was two rather pleasant days, two rather annoying days, and two days in which I wanted to push people off the quayside and throw stones at them as they struggled to stay afloat.

People with autism need space to recharge our batteries. I’m not talking simply physical space – we need mental space, a way to escape the slowly building pressures and strains of being forced into relentless and unpredictable social situations. Such a thing is generally impossible in an unfamiliar environment filled with somebody else’s stuff and driven by rules and routines different from your own.

Without this release, as time goes on you become more tired, more stressed, more prickly, more antisocial, less able to cope. And then you look and act like an asshole as you start to isolate yourself, avoid eye-contact, mumble two-word responses to questions, and refuse to participate, all as a way of surviving. And are told this isn’t the way you’re supposed to be behaving over Christmas. By neurotypical people. Whom you already warned that you’d get like this if you had to spend six days with them, but who chose to ignore it anyway.

So to the families of Aspies – think carefully about the duration of the holiday arrangements, and when your loved one is showing signs of stress, leave them alone. You might think that trying to include them in activities will bring them out of their funk, but in reality it’ll likely make things worse as they’ll feel pressurised and even more trapped than they already do.

2. Keep the numbers small

I had been informed that there would be a total of eight people at Christmas, including myself, my wife and my two kids, perhaps because it was known that I’d become anxious or refuse to go if this number was any higher. So imagine my surprise when a further seven people turned up, to take up every spare room in the house and leave me to feed the baby on a hard wooden chair at the dining room table every night.

I’ve mentioned many times before that autism is an exhausting disorder. When I’m with other people I spend inordinate amounts of mental energy consciously processing those things that most neurotypical people take for granted, namely how to have a conversation, when it’s my turn to speak, what I should talk about, how I should phrase things, where I should look, how much eye-contact I should make, how to interpret what they’re saying, reading their body language, regulating my posture and my proximity, working out relationships, the appropriate register, making sure I’m not talking too loudly or too soft, dominating the conversation or saying something inappropriate. I do all this to ‘pass’ for normal in a process called masking, and it is incredibly stressful, overwhelming and draining, and causes massive anxiety.

That’s with just one other person. Put me in a house with fourteen other people and I’m on overload. I can’t mentally process so many inputs and interactions, and something has to give – normally my peace of mind and my ability to function. I tend to come across at these times as arrogant and antisocial as I struggle to regulate what I say or how I should say it. My coping mechanism is to withdraw from the social encounter, deal with people one-to-one, minimise the number of simultaneous interactions – something that’s impossible in a crowd.

So if you want your Aspie family member to have a good time during holidays, less really is more.

3. If you make a plan, stick to it

It is well known – so well known, in fact, that it’s hardly worth mentioning – that people with autism hate change. I have discussed this many times and pointed out that it’s slightly more nuanced than that. My wife, for example, cannot handle change that involves the cancellation of something already arranged. I am the opposite – cancelling things doesn’t really bother me, but adding things in with little or no warning makes me freak out. The looseness of Christmas exposed my wife and I to both of these types of change, leading to great emotional distress for both of us.

Our second day was a case in point. It had long been arranged that everyone would go for a walk at the beach in the morning and in the afternoon someone would kindly look after our kids so my wife and I could head off to a coastal village to have a look around and spend some adult time together.

We left the house at 11.45 and arrived at the beach for 12.30, which by my reckoning, as a stickler for accuracy, is not morning. A minor point, perhaps, but incredibly frustrating for a person with autism. An hour’s walk in the wind and rain at the beach and I was more than ready to go back to the house, head off to the pretty village, and spend some quality time with my wife.

Unfortunately, somebody suddenly announced, ‘We’ve decided we’re all going to the pub for a drink.’ And that was that.

My wife was okay with this, as an additional activity is fine for her. I, on the other hand, panicked. Telling me I have to go into a stressful social situation – a dark, noisy, crowded pub at Christmas with people I don’t know very well – with barely a couple of minutes to get my head around it caused me massive unnecessary anxiety. For other people, going into a pub is probably a pleasant experience – for me, it is a torture that must be endured, and I need to mentally prepare myself for that. Unable to do so, I found it horrendous.

Unfortunately, staying at the pub over an hour, walking back to the car, driving back to the house, meant it was nearly dark by the time we got there. Then the person who said they would look after our kids had to prepare the food for dinner, thus we were unable to go to the coastal village. While I found this annoying because I’d been looking forward to it, my wife found this change of plan – the cancellation of something already arranged for no good reason – very upsetting and difficult to process.

Most of the people I know with Asperger’s suffer problems with anxiety, and changing plans tends to send our anxieties skyrocketing. Indeed, it can ruin our whole day as dealing with the psychological and emotional fallout lasts for hours. So if you must add or remove something from the schedule, make sure it’s for a good reason and not simply because of a sudden whim. A little sensitivity goes a long way to sparing your Aspie relatives a great deal of unnecessary anguish.

4. Don’t expect others to conform to your emotional standards

I lost count of the number of times I was told to cheer up, be happy, enjoy myself, join in, stop being a bah humbug, as though my emotional reactions were somehow ‘wrong’ because they differed from those of the people around me. Not only, therefore, was I expected to behave in a neurotypical manner and suppress my natural tendency towards a quiet, ordered life, I was also denied the right to feel my own perfectly normal emotions.

I was even told that, as my kids made it ‘magical’, I should feel magical. I asked precisely when an adjective had become an emotion and if such a feeling could be described to me, and therein lies the rub – people with autism often struggle to understand or appreciate their emotions. I certainly approach them from an intellectual viewpoint, and I find the concept of happiness, as it relates to me, very confusing.

To me, happiness isn’t about feeling good, it’s about not feeling bad. If I am ‘enjoying myself’ it means I feel absolutely nothing – the everpresent irritation, the tightness between my shoulder blades, that electrical storm of focused energy that buzzes around inside my head as I process, process, process, are not there. It doesn’t mean I’m smiling or jumping up and down. If I’m reading in a corner I’m quite possibly quietly content.

But like most people with Asperger’s, I won’t lie, and perhaps that’s why I stand out. I found Christmas extremely difficult, and when people asked how I was feeling, I told the truth. While everyone else was supposedly having ‘such a good time’, I spotted tears when they thought nobody was looking, heard whispered arguments from behind closed doors, noticed when formerly talkative people fell strangely silent and when couples sat beside one another without a single word passing between them beyond mildly passive-aggressive statements. So maybe I’m not so different after all.

I played with my kids and made sure they were happy, and I’m not sure why everyone was so bothered that I should display outward signs of pleasure for their own gratification. It seems to me less about making sure I’m enjoying myself and more about feeling threatened that somebody isn’t buying into the same sentimental bullshit that they are.

So don’t heap added pressure on your Aspie relatives by expecting them to feel a certain way – we’re already expected to behave in ways that don’t come naturally. Allow us our own emotions and to react exactly how we react, and we’ll do the same with you.

5. Turn off the gosh-darned music

As soon as the household arose, the radio went on. As it was rigged up throughout the house, the music would play in the kitchen, the dining room and the lounge, at quite a loud level, right up until bedtime. This was despite people coming and going, having conversations, playing games, making phone calls, watching videos on their handheld devices, and everything else that goes on in a house at Christmas.

My God, it was overwhelming. It was like a thousand tiny drills boring into your brain morning, noon and night. When you’ve heard Shane MacGowan slur his way through Fairytale of New York six times by lunch, you’re ready to agree with that line ‘Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last.’

People with autism tend to have oddly-balanced sensory systems. Normally, we have very sensitive hearing and struggle to filter out one sound from another. Stick me in a house with fourteen other people over Christmas and I can hear three or four simultaneous conversations, making it very difficult to pay attention to my book and thus get the mental space that I need. Add music to the mix and my sensory system is utterly overwhelmed, especially when that music is loud.

So spare a thought for your autistic relatives over Christmas – a quiet space or some quiet time is certainly in keeping with the Christmas spirit of peace and goodwill to all men.

6. Don’t lecture from a position of ignorance

While walking towards the aforementioned (awful, awful) pub, I explained my reservations to a member of my wife’s family. ‘For me,’ I said, ‘going to a pub is the equivalent of sitting a really difficult exam. I discussed this last month with Luke Jackson, an autistic author, and we agreed that while for most neurotypical people going to the pub is relaxing, for those of us with autism it’s jolly hard work. You see, you go to work, get stressed, and then go to the pub to unwind. But while you’re unwinding, we’re becoming more and more wound up. Afterwards, you go home and go to bed because you’re relaxed. We go home more stressed than when we left, and then have to spend a few hours unwinding and de-stressing before we can be relaxed enough to go to bed, which is awfully tiring and has a knock-on effect for the following days. That’s what it is to have autism and why I’d rather we didn’t go to this pub.’

Quite clear, I thought, frank, easy to understand. So how did he respond (other than, ‘Cheer up, you miserable bugger.’)?

He said, ‘Oh, how ridiculous. No, I don’t believe that at all.’

‘Well, that’s the way it is.’

‘No, of course it’s not.’

And that’s the level of understanding I tend to get from my wife’s family. This is just one of multiple examples over the six days of me explaining to someone how my autism affects me, only to have them disagree with it. What? Why on earth would you belittle and undermine my understanding of my own condition and my own behaviour!?!

With all humility aside, I am an expert on Asperger’s Syndrome and how it affects me. I’m sought out to give speeches educating people about autism and I’ve written a well-received book about it, for Christ’s sake, one that’s sitting in the health section of every Waterstones in the UK. So why on earth would you dismiss what I say because you think you know best about a subject you have never studied, experienced or lived with?

Probably because there were some subsequent discussions about how ‘Asperger’s didn’t exist in my day,’ and how there are far too many people walking around using modern diagnoses as an excuse to cop out of life. Because that’s not condescending at all!

So if you want to keep cordial relations with your Aspie relatives, be sure to treat their expertise with the understanding and appreciation it deserves. Unless you’re a bigot, in which case we probably don’t want anything to do with you.

7. Bringing up the supposed links between MMR and autism isn’t going to win you any friends

 

I always find it strange that people dare bring this up. Without knowing very much about it, surely they know it’s a controversial conspiracy theory and therefore inappropriate to raise with people they don’t know from Adam. I don’t go up to somebody with cancer and say, ‘Hey, have you heard they have a cure for cancer, but they keep it hidden because they can make more money treating the disease than curing it?’ because that would be remarkably insensitive.

I have explained at length that MMR does not cause autism, and am armed with enough facts to shoot down any and all attempts to suggest otherwise. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop people like my mother-in-law and various people in the house over Christmas telling me that my wife’s autism was caused by the MMR jab.

‘Andrew Wakefield was paid a hefty sum of money to find a link between MMR and autism so people could make compensation claims,’ I told them. ‘He was also marketing his own competing vaccine. This is what we call a conflict of interest and why his study has been completely discredited.’

‘He’s very popular in America.’

‘He had to go to America because he was struck off by the GMC for faking his research.’

‘Well, I still think he’s right.’

‘No, he’s not. The only study suggesting a link between MMR and autism had a sample size of twelve and was faked, whereas meta-analyses of studies featuring over 14.7 million kids – yes, 14.7 million – showed no statistically significant difference in rates of autism between those who’d had the vaccine and those who hadn’t.’

‘Well, I think that if you’re genetically predisposed towards autism, the shock of having three vaccines at once can trigger it.’

‘But where’s the evidence for that? If that was true, proportionately more people who’d had MMR would have autism than those who didn’t have the vaccine, and that’s not the case.’

‘She was different after she had the MMR. I know she was.’

And so I had to bite my tongue, or else I’d say something suitably cutting. Emotion trumps logic every time, and that’s damned annoying.

So don’t bring up this crap with your Aspie relatives during an already stressful time and then argue against facts with feelings. As I said, autism is my area of expertise, and trying to make out that you know more than me about it just makes you look ignorant.

8. And lastly, compromise is not a dirty word.

Nor are compassion, empathy or understanding. It seems odd that those of us with autism, who have clearly defined and specific needs, are the ones expected to fit in with everyone else. Yes, the ones who, because of their condition, have the least capacity to modify their behaviour to suit others are the ones who have to make the effort to adapt their behaviour to suit others. It doesn’t really strike one as fair, does it?

I’m not saying that the neurotypical side should make all the movement, but surely we could meet somewhere in the middle? It might make Christmas a little more enjoyable for all of us.

A New Man for a New Year

When you become a dad, you have this idea that you’re going to get to be a man. I say ‘get to be’ because manliness and masculinity are somewhat vilified these days. We’re meant to be in touch with our feminine side, have opinions about soft furnishings, sculpt our eyebrows, wax our nut-sacks, and take longer than a supermodel to get ready for a night out. It’s rather telling that the male sex symbols of yesteryear had chiselled jaws, gravelly voices and rugged good looks, while those of today are pubescent boys who can sing like girls and are incapable of growing body hair. There’s no way I can compete with that.

So it’s nice to have an excuse to release the savage beast.

I’m not talking about boorish lad culture – booze, boobs, birds and balls. I’m talking about what were considered the traditional manly virtues of strength, courage and inventiveness. After all, men built the wheel, crossed oceans on ships made of iron, and tamed the very landscape with the sweat of their brows. In a family, the man used to be the provider, the protector, the lawgiver and the master of all he surveyed. Who wouldn’t want that?

I pictured myself hunting mammoths, fighting off packs of saber-toothed tigers, and decorating my cave with the skulls of my enemies as I bathed in the tears of their women. I am masculinity incarnate, red in tooth and claw. See my chest hair and hear me roar for I am MAN!

When I’m a dad, I thought, I’m going to be a cross between Alan Quartermain and Rambo.

The reality of being a house-husband to two little girls is somewhat different.

I spent most of Christmas sitting cross-legged on the floor sipping pretend tea from a flowery tin tea set, and saying things like, ‘Mmm, lovely,’ and, ‘Thank you, yes, I will have another pink plastic macaroon.’ That’s when I wasn’t watching child-friendly crap like Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s my Donkey? and Frozen, and resisting my daughter’s entreaties to shave off my beard as it’ll make me look ‘very pretty’. Let it go, honey, let it go.

I cooed over little tinkles in the potty, gave her high-fives for eating her crusts, and hugged her through the night as she woke up with bad dreams. I changed nappies in three separate female toilets because despite it being 2018 already, many eating and drinking establishments haven’t yet realised that a man might be the primary carer. And I started to perfect my hair-plaiting skills, which is pretty far from the strong hunter-gatherer I thought I would be.

And then a couple of days back, I found myself sitting very still while my two-year-old got out her toy makeup kit and pretended to do my makeup – lipstick, eye-shadow, blusher, eye-liner and mascara. She even tried to fix a shiny plastic princess tiara in my hair, but failed as I have no hair.

Eventually she sat back to admire her work, nodded, pleased, and said, ‘Willy bustle.’

‘What?’

‘Willy bustle,’ she repeated.

Now, as somebody obsessed with words and their meanings, I rapidly extrapolated the following:

willy – n., British, inf., the male member; penis; symbol of masculinity.

bustle – n. a wooden frame worn under a skirt to puff it out at the back.

And so:

willy bustle – n. a cage beneath a woman’s skirts where she keeps her man’s masculinity imprisoned.

My God, I suddenly realised. She’s absolutely right. I’ve been completely emasculated. Since becoming a stay-at-home dad, my manhood has slowly and surely been removed until I no longer have anything down there. I am a Ken doll – an empty, de-sexualised piece of plastic that other people dress up and play with for their own amusement. I have no power whatsoever.

I don’t get to decide when I get up in the morning or what time I go to bed. I don’t get to decide when I eat, or whether my food will be warm or left to go cold. I don’t get to decide when I make myself a drink or when I go to the toilet. Oftentimes, I don’t even get to decide what clothes I wear – I throw on yesterday’s as I hurry downstairs so as not to disturb my wife’s beauty sleep. My life is a parade of doing things for other people. As a parent, so far, so normal.

But my powerlessness extends far beyond mere parenting: if an Englishman’s home is his castle, I’m clearly no Englishman. My wife and her father bought a house together, and a few years later, I moved in with her, so despite it being our house, it is still seen as hers. I have no say over what comes into the house or what goes out; who comes and when and for how long; where things go; how it’s decorated; what pets we have. I don’t decide where we go for holidays, what activities we partake in, or what car we drive. As my wife is a spendaholic and hoarder, I don’t decide what toys or clothes my kids get, or which ones are given away, no matter how horribly spoiled they’re becoming. I’m not allowed to say what I really think to her family members when they belittle my parenting abilities in my own home. And since my wife doesn’t want to be ‘controlled by a man’, she makes arrangements and goes out without considering me, leaving me at home alone with the baby.

She keeps my manhood locked up in a cage beneath her skirt.

Why don’t you put your foot down? I hear you ask. Simple. If ever I resist, I’m told that it’s her house and I know where the door is, and if I go, she’ll get custody of the kids because ‘the courts are always on the side of the mother.’ So even though we have established that I no longer have a penis, my sex will still be held against me. And that’s just not right.

As a man, I need my power, my respect and my dignity. As a human being, we all need that, but as a man, I need it especially. It doesn’t matter whether you believe gender difference is a social construct or something innate, or as I do somewhere in-between, it is an important part of a person’s identity, psychology and means of understanding their place in the world. It might be unpopular to say it, but I’m going to:

I am reclaiming my masculinity.

I am sick of being told that masculinity is something bad. I’m sick of how it’s totally okay to judge somebody simply because they’re a man. I’m sick of having to hide or suppress my totally normal masculinity because we are creating a society in which you’re meant to be ashamed of being male.

Things are changing. I felt so utterly powerless last week that I shaved my head in protest. And I am growing my beard long so there’s no mistaking that I am no longer going to be anybody’s bitch.

I’ve spent nine years making sacrifices to keep other people happy. I’ve spent nine years pussy-footing around, compromising on my needs, burying my instincts for fear of coming across as old-fashioned and chauvinistic. And where has it got me? Am I respected for being a martyr? Am I appreciated for going without while those around me take, take, take?

No. I’m a new man for a New Year, and I’m not going to take shit from anybody.

Wow, that got dark pretty quickly. So to lighten the mood, back to my willy bustle.

‘Honey,’ I called to my wife, with my pretend mascara and eye-shadow and blusher. ‘Izzie keeps saying willy bustle.’

‘She’s saying “really special”,’ my wife replied.

My daughter proceeded to add more lipstick to my face.

‘Really special, daddy.’

And that seems just as bad.

‘Daddy’s not special,’ I said. ‘Daddy’s manly and dangerous and he has a beard. And I’m in charge.’

‘Me in charge,’ she replied.

‘No, I’m in charge.’

‘No, me.’

‘It’s my way or the highway, kiddo,’ I said.

‘No,’ she giggled. ‘It’s my way.’

I think the road ahead might be bumpy.