It’s too early for this…

‘Daddy, daddy, I can see willies!’

What?

‘Outside, there are two men with willies!’

I leapt out of bed and ran to my daughters’ room, to find them sitting on the windowsill staring up the street.

‘Where?’ I said. ‘Show me!’

And they pointed at two men walking up the road.

Wellies,‘ I said. ‘They’re called wellies.

‘That’s what I said.’

‘It really isn’t.’

A few minutes later I was in the toilet, standing up, ready to do my business when I heard a noise behind me. Glancing over my shoulder, there were my two daughters standing about a foot behind me, peering between my legs with big grins on their faces like it was present time on Christmas morning.

What the hell are you doing?

‘We’re going to watch you wee.’

‘Why on earth would you do that?’

‘Because it’s fun,’ they said, giggling.

‘That’s just so creepy.’

‘Go on, wee. Be a good boy.’

‘For crying out loud, get out of here and leave me alone!’

Then at breakfast, I asked what they’d dreamed about.

‘I dreamed that I went for a walk through the woods to my Granny’s house,’ said my eldest. ‘I met a wolf and told him I was going to Granny’s and he went there and he gobbled Granny up into his belly.’

‘Don’t just tell me Little Red Riding Hood.’

‘No, this is what I dreamed.’

‘This is Little Red Riding Hood.’

‘But it ends different.’

‘So skip to the end.’

‘Okay. I had to get into the house, so the woodpecker -‘

-cutter.

‘The woodpecker-cutter chopped a hole in the roof and then he cut the wolf open and cut off his head and cut up his tummy and cut off his arms and then Granny came out and she was all covered in poo.’

It’s not even nine o’clock yet.

Coronavirus and my four-year-old’s fear of death

Every night when I put my kids to bed, I read them a story, kiss them, cuddle them, tell them they’re loved, turn out the light and then sit in my bedroom next door for ten minutes in case of problems. It’s a relaxing time of listening to their childish conversations drifting down the hallway while I read a book, though it can be abused, like last night when my four-year-old came into my room 90 seconds after I’d left, saying she’d had a bad dream.

‘In a minute-and-a-half, you already fell asleep, had a bad dream, woke up, climbed out of your bunk bed and came in here?’

‘Yes.’

‘I don’t believe you.’

‘Well, it wasn’t an asleep dream, I had my eyes open.’

‘Oh. So, not a dream.’

‘Can I stay in here with you?’

Normally I’d send her back to bed with a flea in her ear, but at a time like this, I figure I have to bend the rules a bit. ‘Go on. But only for a few minutes.’

‘What are you reading?’

War and Peace. There’s no better time than right now.’

‘Can you read it to me?’

‘Not really, sweetie.’

Then my two-year-old came in and refused to leave, so last night saw me and my daughters cuddled up on the bed as I pretended to read them Tolstoy, but instead made up a story about a magic horse and the girl he befriended. I bet they can’t wait till they get to read ‘grown-up’ books now. How disappointed they’ll be!

But it was much better than the night before when things took a decidedly more morbid tone.

I was listening to their conversation as usual when the little one told the big one to go to bed. The big one must have misheard, because she said, ‘I don’t want to be dead, because when I’m dead, I won’t be alive anymore, and that’s sad.’

Nothing followed this, so I turned back to my book.

About a minute later, she appeared in my doorway her fists balled in her eyes, and sobbed, ‘I don’t want to be dead because then I won’t see you or mummy anymore!’

‘Come here,’ I said, and gave her a big cuddle. ‘Why are you thinking about dying? Is it because of the virus?’

‘Because I might get ill,’ she cried. ‘And when Aunty Sue got ill, she died and it was sad.’

‘Oh sweetheart. I’ve told you before, this virus doesn’t really affect children. The youngest person who’s died from it was a teenager. You don’t need to worry about dying because it’s not going to happen for a very long time.’

‘But what if you and mummy die? Who’ll look after me?’

‘That’s why we live in families,’ I said. ‘There’ll always be aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces and nephews and friends around when we’re gone.’

‘But I won’t have a mummy and daddy anymore.’

‘No, you won’t. But by the time that happens, you might already be a mummy yourself.’

Then came the really awkward question: ‘Where do you go when you die?’

‘Where do you think we go?’

‘My friend at school, her grandpa went up into the sky. He was ill so he went there to get better, but he can’t come back.’

‘I think that’s as good an answer as any,’ I said. ‘Nobody really knows what happens when we die. Lots of people think we go to a place called heaven, a nice place above the clouds where everything’s great. Others think that when we die, we’re born again as babies with no real memory of our former lives.’

‘What do you think happens?’

‘I really don’t know,’ I said. ‘I quite like the idea of a family of souls. Every time someone in a family dies, they’re born back into that family somewhere down the line. So if I die, and then you have a baby, I’m that baby. Which makes me my own grandfather.’

‘But you can’t be my baby! You’re my daddy!’

‘Yeah, you’re probably right,’ I said. ‘Whatever happens, nobody’s ever really gone. I’ll always be part of you, in your thoughts, your memories, your DNA. I will live on through you, and you will live on through your children. Dying is nothing to be afraid of. It’s sad, but it’s normal. It’s okay to be upset, and it’s okay to miss people, but we have to accept it and let them go. Life is for the living.’

Then my two-year-old came in and, completely failing to read the room, pointed at my man-boobs and said, ‘Bluebell and Buttercup.’

Bluebell and Buttercup are our guinea pigs.

My eldest is worried about death. My youngest thinks I have breasts like a South American rodent. Those parenting classes never prepared me for this!

Finding certainty in uncertain times

Go onto social media. Pick up a newspaper. Ring a friend. Switch on the news. What are you guaranteed to encounter?

Speculation.

Often quite rampant speculation. In the internet age, we are all epidemiologists and experts in public health; we are all fortune tellers and soothsayers.

How long will these restrictions be in place? Two weeks, six months, eighteen months, forever. We’re flattening the curve; we’re protecting the vulnerable; we’re shielding the NHS; we’re acquiring herd immunity; we’re buying time to find a vaccine.

What further restrictions will be imposed? We won’t be allowed outside at all; the army will be on the streets; there’ll be rationing; we’ll have to eat cats and dogs.

Why has Italy been hit so badly? It has an elderly population; they were already in the middle of a flu epidemic; they have a high proportion of smokers; they’re a tactile culture; they didn’t obey lockdown; they live in multi-generational households; they closed the schools before the workplaces, exposing the vulnerable to the superspreaders.

How many will die in my country? 6000; 20,000; half-a-million; everyone. The death rate is much higher than we’re being told; much lower than we think; 10%; 0.4%. The statistics are different because of how they’re recorded; how many tests have been done; whether they died of coronavirus or with coronavirus. We’re two weeks behind Spain; three weeks behind Italy; ahead of the curve; better.

When will it end? When everyone has acquired herd immunity; when there’s a vaccine; when there’s a proven treatment; when it mutates to become more or less deadly; when we’re all dead from it.

And what will life look like afterwards? It’ll go straight back to normal; it’ll be entirely different; people will care more; people will hate more; we’ll be poorer; richer; safer; more vulnerable.

Speculation, speculation, speculation.

I understand why people are searching for answers – humans hate uncertainty. Uncertainty is dangerous. It’s terrifying. We don’t know how to protect ourselves from the unknown, so we feel vulnerable. People right now are living in a state of continual fear, and they’d rather live with an uncomfortable truth – a deadly but known danger – than endure the unknown.

Trouble is, in a situation like this, there are no answers. We don’t know how long it’s going to last; we don’t know how it’s going to end; we don’t know how many will die or what the world will look like afterwards. Ahead of us and around us is a vast, empty unknown. We’re walking on the edge of an abyss, liable to fall at any moment. How can you not feel anxious at such a time?

If it’s any help, as an autistic guy who spends his life living under the shadow of the unknown, you have to take comfort in the things that are known, and those things you can predict.

Like the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow. The sun has risen every day for the past 4.5 billion years; it will continue to rise long after we’re gone. The rhythm of the planets is eternal.

There will be two high tides tomorrow, and two low. The Earth and moon are locked in an endless ballet, and whatever happens with mankind, that will not change. It is immutable.

There will be life in one form or another for countless years to come. Every living thing on the planet has an unbroken chain of lineage extending back 3.5 billion years. Through billions of generations, every single one of your ancestors managed to reach sexual maturity, find a partner and reproduce before they died. Life today is the culmination of billions of survivors. There will be billions more generations to come.

We can’t say anything with such certainty when it comes to coronavirus. We don’t know when it’ll end or how, how bad it’ll be and who’ll survive to come out the other side. But we can say, with absolute certainty, that we will survive, and it won’t last forever.

How do I know this isn’t the end? Because modern humans have been around for 200,000 years. We’ve only had a germ theory of medicine for 150 of those years. We’ve only had antibiotics and antiviral drugs for 80. Yet we’ve survived Russian flu, Spanish flu, Asian flu, the Black Death, smallpox, leprosy, cholera, malaria, polio, meningitis, measles, HIV/AIDS, yellow fever, rabies, tuberculosis, typhoid, dysentery, diphtheria, and syphilis.

I was born in the 1970s. Most of the people reading this will, like me, have lived through the Troubles, the Cold War, the Iranian Embassy Siege, the Falklands, the Poll Tax Riots, shell suits, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War, Waco, Diana, Dunblane, Columbine, Y2K, 9/11, the War on Terror, 7/7, SARS, MERS, Swine Flu, Bird Flu, the Credit Crunch, 2012 hysteria, the Paris Terror Attacks, the knife-crime epidemic and Brexit. We’ve taken all that life has thrown at us, and we can take plenty more.

If you want certainty, there it is. We’re going to survive. We’re going to get through this. It’s the one thing I have no doubt about.

The importance of language

I’m a writer. I believe that language creates the world. That’s why, at times like this, it’s so important to watch our language.

‘We’re stuck at home for the next few weeks’ creates an entirely different mental space than ‘We’re at home for the next few weeks.’

‘I can’t cope’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereas ‘I’m finding this hard but will get through it’ gives you strength.

‘I hate my wife and kids’ generates resentment in your chest, while ‘Finding my family difficult at a difficult time is perfectly normal’ keeps your relationships healthy.

And saying, ‘It’s not a problem, I’m enjoying this downtime,’ is better than screaming, ‘Holy shit, it’s the end of the world and we’re all going to die!’

Changing the language you use is a quick and easy way to change your mood and your attitude. Our body tends to believe what we tell it. Smile and it makes you feel good. Stand up straight and lift your chin, it makes you feel confident even when you’re not. Force yourself to breathe slowly and deeply when you’re panicking, it calms your body down because if you’re not hyperventilating, there’s nothing to panic about, is there?

The opposite is also true. Hunch your shoulders and huddle up, you feel edgy, as though you need protection from the world. Frown and you feel bad. Laze about and you lose all motivation to do anything that helps you.

So start telling yourself the reality in which you want to live.

What applies in your own home applies to the world outside. Be careful what you read. Be careful what you listen to. You can’t have a healthy mental space when you fill it with negative words.

A brief survey of headlines is enough to make you die of fear. ‘Killer disease’ is far more terrifying than ‘Covid-19’; ‘chaos’, ‘panic’, ‘tragedy’, ‘death toll’ are much worse than ‘hope’, ‘solidarity’, ‘positivity’, ‘recovery’.

So in this time of crisis, do what I tell my children when they’re moaning and whining: use your words.

And forgive yourself the occasional weakness, outburst, rant or cry – you’re only humsn, after all.

Home Support during lockdown

As a person with autism and depression, and a wife with both autism and Emotionally Unstable (Impulsive) Personality Disorder, I have home support. This means that twice a week, a support worker comes to my house for three hours to support me with my activities of daily living – making a menu plan, cleaning, washing, sorting the post, basic self-care, and all the things I don’t do when left to my own devices.

This help is essential, not just to keep me safe and hygienic and stop me getting into a mess with my finances and medication, it is my only means of ‘offloading’ my obsessive thoughts and preventing me descending into depression or worse. When you have autism, your thoughts often spiral out of control, particularly when you don’t have time to yourself, and left to their own devices, they can take you to a dark place indeed. Support workers help you put your thoughts safely to bed.

In my book, I explain my need for neurotypical support using a model I made up called the Mini and the Tractor. When those of us with autism are born, we’re given a Mini, while neurotypical people are given tractors. On the roads – those things we can do – we speed along quite happily, and are often able to overtake people in tractors. But either side of these roads are ploughed fields – the things we can’t do. While neurotypical people drive through them at the same speed, people with autism struggle, and bog down and get stuck, and often need a person with a tractor to come along and pull their Mini through the field and put them back on the road. We aren’t better or worse than neurotypical people, we simply have different wheels suited to a different surface.

So I need home support. Not only that, Social Services deem that I need six hours of support a week. I’ve thought carefully about this in light of coronavirus, and discussed it with my autism support service, and since caring for vulnerable people in their own homes is one of the government’s exceptions to the ‘stay at home’ rule, I don’t see anything wrong in continuing to have a carer.

My support worker engages with four other households. The way I see it, if our five households are doing what we should (i.e. staying at home and not interacting with family members), and she’s doing what she should (not seeing friends and family), then we’re a closed unit. If she gets coronavirus and passes it on to us, it will end with us – we certainly won’t be passing it on.

And this is why I believe it’s okay to have a support worker come round twice a week, but not okay to have friends or family round. My support worker is not a friend – she’s a key worker in the field of social care carrying out care in the community. She is here for work, not socialising.

Unfortunately, not everyone in my wife’s family sees it this way.

If I see my support worker, they think they should be allowed to visit too; and if I don’t allow them to visit, then I shouldn’t be allowing a support worker into my house either. That’s right, they think two people who are unable to live independently without support at the best of times should now live independently without support at the worst of them. All in the name of ‘fairness’.

There’s a line from the criminally-underrated What About Bob? where Bill Murray says something like, ‘Treat people like a telephone. If there’s a crossed connection, you just hang up and dial again.’

I used to believe that. Now I think perhaps there comes a time when you have to rip that telephone from the wall and throw it on the bonfire.

Day Five of Home-Schooling: teachers, you are busted!

I saw a lovely thing on Facebook last night from a school up in Surrey. It told its parents that what we’re doing right now isn’t home-schooling. Home-schooling is a choice where you considered things, planned for it, and were ready – this is more like distance-learning. But in reality, it’s trying to stop the spread of coronavirus.

It said that parents have always always been the child’s primary educator, but are not trained teachers, and that if you feel it’s better for your family to play in the garden, bake, or watch TV, that’s your right and there’s nothing to feel guilty about, because these are exceptional circumstances.

And it said that it’s impossible to facilitate distance-learning with a primary-aged child and work from home at the same time, so if you’re doing that, stop. Your primary focus is your job and your survival. You’re not a superhero. They’re not expecting miracles.

I thought it was great. Very insightful and reassuring.

Then I got an email from the headteacher of my school down here in Dorset sharing some of her thoughts. She said that home-schooling is a choice, whereas this is more a necessity. She said that parents have always always been the child’s primary educator, and that if you feel it’s better for your family to play in the dirt, bake, or watch TV, that’s your right and there’s nothing to feel guilty about. And she said that if you’re working from home and juggling home learning at the same time, STOP – you’re not superheroes. Your focus should be your job and survival.

Sound familiar?

Looking on Facebook, it appears that many headteachers up and down the country have had the exact same thoughts as each other at exactly the same time. How weird!

You know when every kid in the class copies from the same book and they put it in their own words so they don’t get accused of plagiarism? Teachers, you are busted!

Now, I don’t mind that they’re all copying from the same source. It’s a good message and it deserves to be spread far and wide. But don’t pretend as though it’s something that just occurred to you. And perhaps next time, don’t use many of the exact same words!

My kids have broken the Naughty Step!

A while back, I wrote a three-part guide to disciplining your children. In the first part, Understanding your toddler, I explained a child’s understanding of the world. In the second, The Fundamentals, I explained the theories underpinning different forms of discipline. And in the third, The Naughty Step; or, How smug am I?, I explained why I’m the king of infant behaviour modification.

Actually, not quite. I wrote the first two thinking I was doing really well at this parenting thing and I could share these techniques with other people. And then life happened, and the nice, obedient little girl I was looking after turned into a massive arsehole that I was incapable of controlling, and I didn’t really feel like finishing a series that would make me a fraud.

The Naughty Step has remained my principal means of disciplining my kids, however, and I stand by it’s utility, even if at times it doesn’t feel like it’s working.

The theory is pretty simple – the best form of discipline is a combination of love withdrawal (punishment) and induction (guilt), and the Naughty Step fulfils both criteria. You first get down on their level, get their attention, and warn them that if a particular behaviour continues, you’ll put them on the Naughty Step. If they then do the behaviour, for example hitting their sister, you put them on the Naughty Step and say, ‘I am putting you on the Naughty Step for X-number of minutes [equal to their age] because you hit your sister.’ Then you turn around and walk away.

You ignore all the crying, shouting and screaming. Every time they get off the Naughty Step, you put them back on it without a word or eye-contact, and restart the timer. This is very difficult at first – when I started it with my eldest, I had to put her back more than sixty times. After a few days, she no longer got off that step.

After the allotted time has elapsed, you get back down to their level and repeat the reason they’re there: ‘I put you on the Naughty Step because you hit your sister. We don’t hit people. Okay?’

Then you get them to say sorry, hug and kiss, draw a line under the incident and move on. No lingering nastiness, no lasting discomfort – crime, punishment, atonement, forgiveness, restoration, all in the space of a few minutes. It’s a remarkably effective tool and just the threat of the Naughty Step is normally enough to prevent behaviour escalating to inappropriate levels.

At least, it was an effective tool, until today, when my children broke it.

‘You really need to go and tidy your playroom,’ I said.

‘No.’

‘Girls, I’ve asked you three times already to tidy your playroom.’

‘No.’

‘Right. If you don’t tidy your playroom, you’ll both go on the Naughty Step.’

With lots of sighs and moody hand gestures, they turned and left the room.

After a few minutes I thought it was suspiciously quiet, so I went to see what they were doing and found them both sitting on the Naughty Step.

‘Why aren’t you tidying your room?’ I asked.

‘We’ve decided we’d rather sit on the Naughty Step,’ said my four-year-old.

‘Oh,’ I replied. ‘Well, go and tidy your room.’

‘No, we’ll just stay on the Naughty Step.’

‘Go and tidy your room or I’ll, I’ll -‘

‘You’ll put us on the Naughty Step?’

Bugger, I thought, they’ve outsmarted me!

What do you do when your kids aren’t afraid of the Naughty Step anymore!?