But how did her baby get into her tummy?

Ah. We have reached a developmental threshold. I thought we’d hit it before Christmas when my daughter said, ‘You know I was in mummy’s tummy? Well how did I get out?’ but that was only the mechanics of birth (and she didn’t believe me that mummy pushed her out her noo-noo). No, this question – the creation of life and the sexual dimension it implies – is altogether trickier, deeper, and represents a significant step outside of ‘that’s the way things are’ to ‘why are things that way?’ Yikes.

I must admit, I fudged the answer. I was alone with her in the car at the time, and I figured something like this ought to be discussed with her mother first so we can decide the best time, best way, and all that. To be honest, I thought I wouldn’t have to deal with the concept of procreation for a few more years at least, so I wasn’t ready, and a garbled response about eggs and seeds probably isn’t the best way to introduce a three-year-old to the mysteries of the adult world.

My mind racing, I considered implying that birds and bees had something to do with it; storks, cabbage patches, magic; even the age-old ‘when a mummy and daddy love each other very much…’; but given that bees are dying, storks are terrifying, and one of her friends has two mummies, it’s no longer that simple.

I turned it on its head and asked her how she thought they got in there.

‘I think mummy swallows them,’ she said, and we left it at that.

Phew! Dodged a bullet.

I was taught about sex at the age of four or five – penises, vaginas, sperm and eggs. While I’m not sure about the appropriate lower age, there is definitely an age where you should already be clued in – I remember everybody making fun of a ten-year-old at my school because he thought he came out of his mother’s butt. Sucked to be that guy – pooped into the world.

There’s a danger to leaving it too late, too. When I was on a bus travelling through Alabama twenty years ago, I remember seeing a massive billboard that said: ‘Talk to your children about SEX, or SOMEONE ELSE WILL!’ You definitely don’t want them learning from porn and thinking, like today’s eleven-year-olds, that that’s how people actually do it. And, of course, the consequences of a lack of sex education have been devastatingly explored in fiction, from Stephen King’s Carrie to Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Message received and understood.

But there’s a way to do it, and I know that showing embarrassment or squeamishness can send out the wrong message and lead to problems later down the line. I met a girl at university who said, ‘I’m bisexual, but I’m terrified of penises, so I’ve only ever been with girls and I don’t think I’ll ever have sex with a man, so behaviourally I’m a lesbian.’ (My response to this statement was, ‘Nice to meet you, I’m Gillan, what’s your name?’). I don’t want that kind of confusion for my girls.

And I certainly don’t want them to think sex or masturbation or specific body parts are ‘dirty’ or ‘naughty’ or ‘shameful’ either. I want them to be body confident, with a healthy sexuality free from the hang-ups that I, an awkward, sexually-inexperienced autistic bloke might pass on to them.

So I started researching this topic online (very carefully – I don’t want to be on a watch list!), and I discovered I’m a lot more old-fashioned and out-of-touch than I realised.

Today’s Parent, for example, suggests teaching a child of 0 to 2 the words penis, vagina, vulva, clitoris, bum and nipple, meaning I missed that window. It also suggest explaining to them when and where it’s appropriate to explore their bodies – gently and in the privacy of their bedrooms, apparently – which I must confess I thought was a conversation for much, much, much later on.

For the 2 to 5 age range – where we’re at now – it suggests opening up about consent, explaining it’s not appropriate for others to ask to see or touch their genitals, and not to keep secrets about this, which is definitely good advice but, God, how do you have that conversation without implying the world’s full of sexual predators? Also, now’s the time to mention sperm and egg, perhaps leaving the gory details for when they’re older.

All of this seems alien to me. Far too young, I keep thinking, let them be children a little longer before you strip them of their innocence. But other sites, like Family Education, all seem to agree on this basic framework – the proper names for genitals and where and when it’s appropriate to touch yourself somewhere between 0 and 3, the egg and sperm speech and stranger danger around 3 to 5, and the more explicit details about 6 to 8.

I’ve been living under the erroneous belief that I could sit them down in about five years, have a one-off Q&A session, then avoid the issue until their first date when they’re sixteen, with a couple of ‘women’s issues’ interventions along the way. Instead, you need to mention sex throughout their upbringing, stressing issues of consent and context, in order to create a sexually healthy adult.

I guess I agreed to all this when I became a father, and next time she asks I’ll be better prepared. Sometimes, I think it would be better if a stork delivered us fully-formed to our parents. You certainly wouldn’t have to worry about stretch marks and post-partum incontinence!

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The Greatest Spoonman

I am 39 years old, give or take six months. That means I’ve been alive around 14,235 days not accounting for leap years. I’m good at some things, less so at others, but one thing I can say without any exaggeration or false modesty: I’m damned good at using a spoon.

Some people look at me and think I was just born with certain genetic advantages, but I wasn’t. My skill with a spoon does not come naturally but has been honed over a lifetime of practice and hard work. If we scratch out the first two years of my life (which are a little vague in my memory), let’s suppose for the next four years, I used a spoon an average of four times a day, or a total of 5,840 times. If you use anything that many times, you become an expert. You have to put in the effort to get the results.

Unfortunately, my dedication to spoons slackened off after that as life got in the way. After starting school, up until eleven, I probably used a spoon twice a day – once for my cereal in the morning and once for pudding at teatime. Although I wasn’t really focusing on my spoon-wielding skills, I still managed to get another 4,380 uses in my logbook. Quite good for the average person, but not enough if you want your spooning to take you to the Olympics.

Then at twelve I started to take things more seriously. Like a quintessential Englishman, I started drinking tea to help focus my performances. For five years, seven spoons a day, that’s another 12,775 times.

At seventeen, shortly after taking silver at the National Spooning Championships, I realised I would have to add coffee to my daily regimen if I ever wanted gold. Eight to ten cups a day, plus cereal for breakfast and yoghurt for pudding, say, twelve spoons a day for 23 years, and you’re looking at 100,740.

Total times I’ve used a spoon in my life (give or take a couple of thousand): 123,735.

That is how I became what I am today. All my plaudits and successes in spoon usage have come from 39 years of single-minded pursuit of excellence. I am, without a doubt and by any objective measure, a giant of spoon-wielding brilliance.

But apparently, I’m using my spoon wrong. I’ve been using it wrong all my life. Luckily, my three-year-old was able to put me right over breakfast this morning. How lucky I am to have such an expert in my home who is able to correct years of bad technique.

Her lectures on how to properly use toilet paper, the best way of making coffee, and how I should shave my face have also been greatly appreciated and improved my life no end.

This will take me to the next level, so look out world! If I was unstoppable before, with the help of my three-year-old’s wisdom and expertise, I will soon conquer this puny planet. All hail your new emperor.

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar review

About eighteen months ago I was asked to review Chris Packham’s nature memoir, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, by an autism charity with links to the man himself. Presumably they thought that, as an autistic writer who lives in the New Forest like Packham, I would give it a glowing review. But I didn’t. So they didn’t publish it.

In honour of World Book Day, here it is:

Chris Packham is a man who divides people. I have met those who adore him and his animal activism, and others who cannot abide him. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, his idiosyncratic memoir of his childhood, is just as divisive.

The title is, without a doubt, the best possible description for his work. A jumbled collection of vividly-drawn vignettes and intimately-rendered impressions, some magical, some shocking, all peculiarly individual, it will surely disappoint those looking for a straightforward autobiography. To read this book is to delve into a mixture of memories and imaginings, poetry and pain, as though shaking up a jar of recollections and drifting through the resulting chaos. This is the book’s main strength, and one of its key weaknesses.

While there is an overall progression – it’s the story of a boy taking a kestrel chick from a nest and raising it, in the process learning about life and death – to try to impose a linear narrative to the text seems to be to miss the point. Indeed, it has an obsessive focus on the details rather than the ‘bigger picture’, clearly representing how Packham interprets the world and mirroring the workings of the autistic mind. As a reader, however, and an autistic one at that, I found this wandering style more alienating than inviting, especially the multiple shifts from first- to third-person, and craved something – anything – that might give me a sense of direction.

It is also a particularly difficult read, both in terms of form and content. From the first page, you are struck by Packham’s individualistic writing style – long sentences packed with adjectives and multiple clauses that create a wonderful sense of a place or a feeling but make literal understanding almost impossible. Some of his sentences I had to read a dozen times to even come close to getting the gist of what he was trying to say, and this added to my frustration with the book. Furthermore, the brutal, unsentimental honesty of his writing is at times deeply uncomfortable; the depictions of bullying and animal cruelty, for example, some of it by Packham himself – a passage where he describes his fondness for eating live tadpoles stands out – are markedly unpleasant and not for the squeamish.

All of which makes Fingers in the Sparkle Jar an incredibly difficult book to review. On the one hand, it is revealing and brave, beautifully illustrating the isolation, confusion, and bullying often experienced by those of us on the Spectrum while we were growing up; and on the other, I found it both a challenge and a chore to read. Having discussed it with others, some really liked the lyricism and free form of the structure, while others, like me, struggled to cope with the poeticism and formlessness of Packham’s style. I can understand why, as a dark, individualistic depiction of a childhood living with autism and nature, it has earned bestseller status, but if you’re expecting a straightforward autobiography about how a naturalist became a TV presenter and was subsequently diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, this is definitely not the book for you.

Fingers In The Sparkle Jar at Amazon

Spare me the armchair experts!

My wife has just had a knee operation, which means she’s on crutches for the next fortnight. Having been out of hospital a full two days, we have been bombarded with visitors who all seem to know everything there is to know about knee operations and how best to recover from them. Which is good, because the next person who offers an unsolicited, unqualified opinion will need all their medical expertise to extract their own leg after I rip it off and shove it up their ass.

Now, I don’t profess to being medically trained. True, I spent six months working in an old people’s home as a medication technician, six months as a student nurse, six months as a medical secretary and a year as a doctor’s receptionist, and am the son of a pharmacy technician who spent every mealtime of my childhood talking about pharmaceuticals, but still, I don’t consider myself an expert because I’m not. I do, however, consider myself sensible in matters of healthcare – enough at least to be able to sift the nuggets from the bullshit, and where I am ignorant, trust the advice of those better qualified than me. I just wish others had a similar awareness of their own limitations.

‘How long did the operation take?’

‘Two hours.’

‘Oh, no, it wouldn’t have taken that long.’

‘It took two hours.’

‘No, it would’ve been an hour tops.’

‘Well, the surgeon told her afterwards that it took two hours.’

‘No, it would’ve taken an hour.’

‘Well, you know what? I’m going to trust the surgeon because I’m pretty sure he’s the one to know.’

Same with the stitches. ‘How many did she have?’

‘Two.’

‘Two? It must have been more than two.’

‘No, it was keyhole surgery. Two stitches, that’s all.’

‘No, she definitely had more than two.’

‘Would you like me to get the discharge summary and we can see who’s right?’

Then there’s the recovery period. She’s been told she won’t be able to drive for two weeks.

‘Oh, it’ll be much longer than two weeks.’

‘Or we could trust the experts and see how it goes, yeah?’

‘It’ll be longer than two weeks, you’ll see.’

Grrrrrr!

They’re also experts at how to navigate with a reconstructed knee.

‘When you go upstairs, you should do it backwards by sitting down and using your good leg to propel you up one step at a time.’

‘That’s not how the physiotherapist showed her how to do it.’

‘Well that’s how I’d do it. That’s what she should do.’

I’ll admit, I lost it a bit. ‘Or, how about this for a novel idea – why doesn’t she do it the way the medical professionals told her to do it? You know, the ones trained in anatomy and physiology who are experts in post-operative recovery.’

‘Alright, alright, I was only making a suggestion.’

‘A suggestion that would involve her dragging her bad leg up the stairs? Why don’t we just stick to the things we know about, yeah?’

I’m off that Christmas Card list!

Same with the meds – everyone and their grandmother thinks they’re a freaking expert.

‘What’s she taking for the pain?’

‘Paracetamol and Ibuprofen.’

‘Oh, there’s no point using Paracetamol, it’s not strong enough – I’ll get you some Nurofen.’

‘She’s already taking Ibuprofen.’

‘Well, she should try Nurofen.’

‘Nurofen IS Ibuprofen. They’re literally the same drug, only one’s four times the price.’

‘Well, Nurofen’s better than Paracetamol.’

‘You’re comparing apples and oranges. Paracetamol and Ibuprofen do different things in different ways – one’s a painkiller, one’s a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory. Anyway, the hospital said to take both.’

‘Well, it’d be better if she was taking Nurofen. I’ll get you some.’

Good Lord, it’s like talking to a brick wall. There again, why would I expect anything more from a person who, whenever we have colds, gets cross with us for not following her advice to take 5000% of the daily recommended dose of Vitamin C?*

Frankly, I am amazed there are so many trained pharmacists, physicians, surgeons and physiotherapists hanging around in a little village in the New Forest working as farmers, cleaners, baristas and shopkeepers instead of, you know, pharmacists, physicians, surgeons and physiotherapists.

I’ll tell you one thing though – for people so concerned with health, they’re taking massive risks with it – every time they open their mouths near me!

*If you’re interested in why this is so ridicuhous, the human body can only absorb a finite amount of Vitamin C and it pisses out the rest, but exceeding the daily recommended dose by so much risks diarrhoea, nausea and in extreme cases of prolonged use, kidney stones or even renal failure. And that’s before we bring up the fact that there’s no evidence Vitamin C shortens colds. Admittedly, there is some evidence to suggest that it can make cold symptoms less severe, but only if you start taking it before you’re aware you have a cold. Drinking down five effervescent Vitamin C tablets every day because you have a sniffle isn’t going to improve your lot in life other than by the placebo effect. But hey, why would I bother saying all this to someone who thinks Nurofen is better than Ibuprofen because it’s in a flashier box with a higher price tag?

 

 

Imaginative play and the autistic male

Oh my gosh, my daughter is driving me insane. Now nearing three-and-a-half, she has reached the stage where imaginative play is pretty much the only thing she wants to do, and my life has consequently devolved into an endless game of mummies and babies, doctors and nurses, car journeys, shopping trips, picnics and tea parties, and I honestly don’t know how much more I can take.

I don’t mind playing with her. I like building towers out of wooden blocks and playing with her toy trains. I like sword-fighting with her and doing flash cards and making up songs. It’s the pretending games I can’t stand.

When I spend all day and much of the night looking after a real baby, I have little interest in looking after a plastic one. When the only thing I do that isn’t looking after a baby is driving to the shops to go food shopping, it’s a real struggle to get motivated about driving an imaginary car to an imaginary supermarket to buy imaginary items with imaginary money. And I have no idea how many cups of air I’ve drunk, or wooden finger cakes I’ve scoffed, but if they were real I’d bankrupt the NHS with my soaring blood sugar and endless bladder problems.

Ironically, the easiest one to bear is being a patient in hospital.

‘Daddy, please can you play doctors with me?’

‘Do I have to do anything other than lie on the sofa?’

‘No. You got a dinosaur in your tummy and I got to cut it out and make you better.’

‘Fine, knock yourself out. I’ll just close my eyes for a minute…’

At the other end of the scale, the hardest is when she decides the four square feet between the back of the armchair and the wall is her house, and I’m her neighbour, who lives in the main part of the lounge, because she always invites me over for dance parties where I’m expected to shake my booty.

‘How about you come over to my house, where there’s much  more room?’

‘Coz it’s my party in my house.’

‘But why don’t we pretend this much bigger space is your house?’

‘Because this is my house and you need to be dancing!’

So I squeeze myself in and simply shift my weight from foot to foot, because that’s all I can do. You want to know where I get my ‘dad dancing’ from? It’s here. This. Especially when it’s to Justin freaking Fletcher. (Although to be fair, his version of ‘What does the Fox say?’ isn’t the worst song I’ve ever heard, even if my daughter sings it as, ‘Why does the fuck’s sake!’)

And she gets so into her games that anybody not buying into her reality gets short shrift.

‘The drawbridge is closed, you can’t come through here!’

‘But my coffee’s on the windowsill.’

‘You can’t come in.’

‘Well, I am because I’m going to get my coffee.’

‘No, you can’t come in, no, NO!’ Cue screaming, shouting, crying, trying to block me, holding onto my ankle as I drag her behind me across the lounge (‘You’re in the moat! You’re in the moat!’) to get my gosh-darned drink. It’s excruciating and it never seems to end.

Now, I imagine many parents have this problem, but for once I’m going to play the autism card and say, ‘I just can’t do it, and it’s because of my autism.’

I have NEVER got imaginative play, even when I was young enough to enjoy it. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. I understood my own play – it was other people’s imaginative play I couldn’t get.

I’d treat my own toys as though they had thoughts and feelings. I once dragged my mother all the way back to playschool because I left my imaginary pet rabbit there. But give the same suspension of disbelief to other people’s toys and games? I didn’t have the ability.

That’s why at nursery, I’d wander straight through the middle of the farmyard the other kids had set up and not understand why they were now angry and upset – they were just pieces of plastic. That’s why I had no problem breaking my brother’s toys – they had no feelings, although he clearly did, and I’d invariably feel bad (and confused) a moment afterwards when I saw his tears. I was simply unable to appreciate that others could have the same emotional attachment to their toys and games as I did to mine – a fundamental inability to understand how other people think and feel.

And that’s why I’m struggling so much right now. I just don’t get that my daughter is investing her emotions into an imaginative reality.

However, while I might not get it, I can understand it at an intellectual level and adjust my behaviour accordingly. I know that imaginative play is important in child development, and I know that for the benefit of her emotional wellbeing, not to mention our relationship, I have to pretend that the things that are important to her are also important to me. So that’s what I do, as painful as it is.

The best way of surviving it? Biblical levels of sarcasm that she’s too young to understand.

‘What’s that? You want me to keep my voice down so I don’t wake your baby? Gosh, I wish she was just a cheap piece of hardened petrochemically-derived organic polymers, but since she’s clearly a real baby, then okay, honey, I’ll be quiet.’

‘What? Your baby has a poorly knee? Oh poor her, what an absolute tragedy. I’d better drop everything and see to it right away because it’s definitely so much more important than anything I was doing.’

‘I can’t come through here because it’s on fire? Well, let me check what’s on my utility belt, shall I? Wow, what do you know? I just so happen to have a fireproof suit I can put on. Holy asbestosis, Batman! Now get out of my way.’

Of course, if she learns to detect disingenuousness before she grows out of this imaginative phase, I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do!