Day Four of Home-Schooling: the health risks of spending time with your children

In the same way that suffering through The Best of Frank Sinatra eight hours a day while working in a bookshop ended with me buying the CD when I left, the rather annoying Cosmic Kids Yoga has, after four days, become something I actually look forward to doing. I can even overlook the praying hands ‘namaste’ stuff.

There’s just one problem left: it‘s bloody difficult.

Today, for example, we did the Jungle Safari, and oh my gosh, it races through 13 minutes of poses and stretches so quickly I was out of breath by the end. I had no idea I was this out of shape. There’s my kids pressing their foreheads to their feet; here’s me hunched over like an arthritic octogenarian still nowhere near his knees let alone his ankles. If you think you’re relatively healthy, check it out – it might disabuse you of some misconceptions.

I ache all over. I’ve already pulled muscles in my butt, my groin and both upper thighs. I’m hobbling around groaning like I just ran a marathon, all from writhing about on my lounge carpet. Who’d have thought the living room floor could be so damaging?

Of course, spending all day with your kids also sends your stress levels skyrocketing. We shouldn’t be awarding honours to public officials but to teachers for bearing with our little monsters. Yesterday my four-year-old erupted into one of the year’s worst tantrums – stamping feet, slamming doors, projectile tears, the works – because I took the garden hose off her. Why? She was chasing our 22-year-old cat around the garden, continuously spraying her. Not good.

There’s also the difficulty of the four-year-old being able to read, write, play football, tie shoelaces and construct an imaginative narrative, and the two-year-old wanting to do all those things with her big sister but being incapable of any of them. So either the little one is screaming and crying because she wants to do what she can’t, or the big one is screaming and crying because she wants the little one to leave her alone, or else ‘play properly’ i.e. the way my bossy eldest wants her to.

I had a bittersweet moment last night when I heard the youngest talking to herself in bed. I crept up to the door and spied around the crack. My eldest was fast asleep; my youngest was sitting up with a torch and a book reading the title over and over again, trying to teach herself to read: ‘Me and My Mummy, Me and My Mummy, Me and My Mummy.’

So in the evenings I’ve been getting on the exercise bike as a stress reliever, and I’ve discovered that that is far more dangerous than any other household activity, because I think I might have broken my penis.

It’s something apparently far more common than practically anyone realises, so it’s important to make people aware of the potential damage they can cause their best friend when they put on lycra and climb into the saddle.

No, I didn’t get it caught in the pedals. No, I didn’t ride over it. After about half-an-hour of cycling, I reached down to scratch an itch and, well, there are no words to describe the terror of being able to feel two testicles but nothing in between.

I scrabbled around like someone who’s lost his wallet. ‘Where’s my dick? Where the hell’s my dick?’

A quick inspection revealed it was still there – it was just completely and utterly numb. Entirely free of sensation, like my manhood had been replaced by a rubber sausage. Oh sweet Jesus!

After a panicked hour, I could finally feel it again. And then I started researching, and discovered I wasn’t alone.

When you sit on a chair like a normal person, your weight is distributed between your buttocks; but when you sit on a bike saddle, it puts pressure on your perineum, squashing the nerves and blood vessels that lead to your genitals. Indeed, meta analysis of 62 studies showed between 50% and 91% of cyclists experienced genital numbness and 13% to 24% had erectile dysfunction. This is because, as other studies show a narrow bike seat can cut blood flow to the penis by 66% and even a broad one by 25%. In some cases penile numbness can last up a week (a week! Can you imagine?!).

So, is a rubber manhood just part and parcel of cycling, something to put up with and get used to? Apparently, that’s an emphatic no.

According to cycling health specialist Andy Pruitt, ‘Numbness of any kind or duration should not be tolerated, period…Imagine taking an electrical cord and garden hose and driving over them with your car again and again and again. They may rebound initially, but over time they’ll stay collapsed and won’t function as well.’

Yikes. By the end of this crisis, I’m either going to be a hundred times fitter or else a crippled eunuch!

Day One of Home-Schooling: cosmic yoga, maths and biology

I was cooking dinner today while my wife was ‘teaching’ my four-year-old in the lounge. The teacher has given us homework to do, one of which involves watching the yoga videos they use in class.

Seems okay, I said. Helps you stretch and tone your body, teaches you how to breathe. Daddy used to do yoga.

‘It’s cosmic yoga,’ said my daughter.

Oh. You don’t sing Kumbaya and sit in a circle knitting beanie hats, do you?

‘What?’

Never mind, I’m sure it’s all fine.

Back in the kitchen cooking, a few minutes later I heard something on the TV and stuck my head round the door.

Did I hear that right? Did she really just say, ‘Be the pond’?

‘It’s wonderful being the pond,’ said the TV, ‘because you can watch all of your different feelings just swimming by.’

What the shit is this?!

‘Every feeling is welcome. You be the pond and let the fish be the fish.’

I couldn’t help bursting out laughing at the seriousness with which this was being said.

This isn’t like any yoga I’ve ever done.

‘Shhh,’ said my daughter.

‘Except sometimes,’ the TV continued, ‘we might stop being the pond and find we’ve become a fish, like the angry fish, and when that happens we might find ourselves saying or doing something that hurts other people.’

Ah, I see. It all makes sense now. I’m an angry fish when I should be the pond!

‘Be the pond.’

‘Be the pond,’ said my daughter roboticly.

Kill the Malaysian Prime Minister.

‘What?’

Never mind. I had no idea this is the kind of stuff you do at school.

‘Just say to yourself: be the pond.’

‘Be the pond,’ my daughter chanted again.

Wow. This is some Manchurian Candidate level bullshit right here.

‘Go and cook,’ said my wife, and I left them to it.

Okay. I’m all for mindfulness – live in the moment, notice what’s going on around you, try and detach from your thoughts and feelings, if that’s even possible – but is this really the kind of stuff they foist on our kids in mainstream education? This isn’t yoga, a westernized form of exercise mostly stripped of its esoteric underpinnings, this is mindfulness meditation, an esoteric eastern religious philosophy inseparable from Buddhist tradition. She even talks about the Zen Den, for crying out loud. What next? Ending every sentence with ‘namaste’?

I’m not sure how I feel about this. As someone who isn’t religious, if I discovered the school was making my kids go to confession, I’d have something to say on the matter; same as if they were practising Wudu (Muslim ablutions), or Transcendental Meditation; so why does Buddhism get a free pass?

Maybe I’m just a rube, out of step with modern cosmopolitanism. Or maybe I’d prefer more scientifically-minded programming like the proper way to wash your hands over airy-fairy feelgood fads. Watch it and judge for yourself by clicking this link.

Of course, a few minutes later my wife pushed it out of my mind when she shouted through to kitchen, ‘We’re doing maths and I’m having a mind blank. What’s 0 + 1?’

Are you sure it’s a mind blank and not a stroke? I replied. They tend to present the same.

And then my two-year-old burst into the kitchen, pointed an accusatory finger at me, and said, ‘You got a belly-button!’ before storming out.

How many more months of this do we have?

An observation on panic-buying

It’s rather bewildering to go shopping and find only dented cans left on the shelves.

What exactly is the thought process on that?

“Quick, grab as many tins as you can, it’s the apocalypse!”

“This one has a dent in it…”

“Leave it! We might be desperate, but we’re not that desperate.”

Sweet conversations with my kids

To offset some of the panic, negativity and fear consuming the world, and remind people of the joys to be had when they switch off their phones, I thought I’d share some cute and funny things my kids said yesterday.

I went swimming with my two-year-old, Rosie. At one point, she was sitting on my lap and we were comparing how big our thumbs are. She labelled one of my thumbs ‘mummy’ and one ‘daddy’, then pushed the tips together to make a triangle and said, ‘Mummy and daddy best friends.’

That’s right, I said. We are best friends.

She then labelled her own thumbs ‘Rosie’ and ‘Izzie’, and put them into the triangle of protection under ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’, making a little family of thumbs.

It was one of the cutest things I’ve ever experienced.

Of course, she ruined it a few minutes later when I took her to the toilet and, thinking it was a sink, she immediately stuck her hand in the nearest urinal.

She’s also started saying something really funny. It’s my fault, I have to admit. I told her not to let the dog lick her, and she asked me why.

Because dogs use their tongues as toilet paper.

So now she keeps saying, ‘No, Ozzy, don’t lick me with your toilet paper!’

But it’s just the latest in a string of weird idiosyncrasies – like the way every night when she gets into bed, she selects the teddy she wants to sleep with then shouts at the rest as though they’ve offended her, before angrily flinging them across the room – only to welcome them again in the morning. ‘You not sleep with me, no way Jose!’

My eldest, Izzie, is so far beyond her years, I often forget I’m talking to a four-year-old. She’s astonishingly switched-on for a child, and seems to understand human interaction better than I do. When my wife and I are at loggerheads, she often comes up with a fair and reasonable solution that neither of us had even considered. She even knows the alphabet, and can write all her letters in lower and upper case – I hadn’t even started school by her age.

But then, midway through a normal conversation, I’ll get a jarring reminder that she’s still just a child. Like yesterday evening when we went shopping.

While we were driving down a dark country lane, she turned to me and said, ‘I helped Gramps milk the cows. And there was a cow that had just been born, and Gramps had to go in the mud to help it and he got all dirty.’

You saw a cow being born?

‘Well, I am going to be a farmer,’ she said matter-of-factly.

You like getting muddy?

‘You have to when you’re a farmer.’

I guess so. Maybe Gramps will leave you the farm when you’re older.

‘No, we’re going to run it together.’

I glanced over at her. Sweetheart, Gramps is in his late sixties and you’re four. I don’t think you’re going to be able to run it together.

‘Why not?’

Because right now you’re too young and by the time you’re old enough, he’ll be too old.

‘Oh,’ she said, crestfallen.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t help him as you’re growing up, I said quickly. Make sure you learn as much as you can from him, so that one day, when you’re all grown up, you’ll be ready to run a farm all by yourself.

Okay. And then you can work on the farm too.’

Me?!

‘You can look after the cows when I’m being a superhero. I’m going to be very busy.’ She looked out the window and sighed, like it was all such a burden. ‘I’m going to have to learn to fly.’

The way she said it was so earnest and serious, that I couldn’t help laughing.

Oh. Where are you going to learn that?

‘Flying school,’ she said, as though I was stupid. ‘I have to go if I’m going to be a superhero.’

Yeah, I guess you do. You don’t want to pick one or the other – farmer or superhero?

‘No, I think I can do both, if you look after the cows.’

Well, study hard and we’ll have to see, won’t we?

Too cute!

Am I missing something?

Since my wife and I both have autism, sometimes we misunderstand each other; sometimes we get the wrong end of the stick; and sometimes we are simply incapable of understanding the other’s point of view.

I live with my wife; I have kids with her; I spend practically every waking moment with her; but after the conversation I just had with her, I’m pretty sure she lives in a parallel dimension where up is down and black is white, or I do. I have no comprehension of what just happened.

She rushed into the lounge, her face aglow with excitement. ‘I’ve just realised something,’ she said.

‘Oh, yes?’ I replied, eager to hear what it was.

‘You know the alphabet? If you count seven letters above A, you get H.’

‘Yes.’

‘And if you count seven letters above B, you get I.’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘Well, if you count seven letters above C, you get J.’

I waited for more, but no more came. ‘And?’

‘Well isn’t that amazing?’ she said.

‘Isn’t what amazing?’

‘That if you count seven letters up from A, B and C, you get H, I and J.’

I frowned. ‘Still not seeing the significance.’

Her smile fading, as though talking to an idiot, she said, ‘Seven letters above A is H.’

‘Yeah, I get that.’

‘And seven letters above B is I.’

‘Yeah, and seven letters above C is J. So what?’

She sighed. ‘You’re not getting this.’

‘No, I’m not. Seven letters above A, B and C are H, I and J. Why is that significant?’

‘Look,’ she said, starting to lose her patience. ‘If you put the numbers A to G in a line, and then on the next line put H to N, all the letters on the second line will be seven in front of the letter above.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Well, that’s amazing, isn’t it? I just figured that out.’

‘You figured what out?’

‘That H, I and J are seven letters ahead of A, B and C.’

‘I’m still not understanding why that’s significant.’

‘Because, like, mathematicians could make algebraic equations out of it.’

By now, my frown was so deep my eyebrows had merged with my moustache, and she got even more annoyed.

‘What?’ she said. ‘You knew that seven letters in front of A, B and C are H, I and J, did you?’

‘Yes. I don’t get why this is news to you.’

‘Because H, I and J -‘

‘I know,’ I said. ‘They’re seven letters in front of A, B and C, but so what? Why seven? What’s the significance? Do they spell something out? Do they mean anything?’

‘No, but seven letters ahead of A, B and C are H, I and J.’

‘So what? Three letters in front of A, B and C are D, E and F. Four letters ahead are E, F and G. What’s interesting about that? What the hell are you talking about?’

She was very cross by now. ‘I’m talking about how, if you put the letters A to G in a line -‘

‘I know! The second line are all seven ahead! So what? Who cares?’

‘You’re just not getting it!’ she cried.

‘No, I’m not, because you’re not explaining it, you’re just repeating it!’ I cried back. ‘Why seven? If you make a line of three letters, the next row will all be three ahead; four letters, they’ll all be four ahead. Shit, we don’t even need letters. Three in front of 1 is 4; three in front of 2 is 5. Look at your phone – every number on the second row is three ahead of the first row. Who cares? Why exactly does it matter!?!’

‘Because if you choose a letter and go seven ahead, and pick the next letter and go seven ahead of that, they’re next to each other!’

‘Of course they’re bloody next to each other! If you go ahead any number of letters, from one to twenty-four, they’ll be next to each other! Twenty-four above A is Y, twenty-four above B is Z. So what?’

‘You just don’t want to admit it’s amazing because you didn’t come up with it.’

‘Come up with what? That some letters in the alphabet are ahead of other letters in the alphabet?’

‘No, that seven letters above A, B and C are H, I and J.’

‘But that’s not – that doesn’t mean anything.’

‘Not to you. I think it’s quite a profound idea.’

By this point, I wanted to rip off my own arm and beat her over the head with it. ‘That’s not profound. It’s not even an idea. That’s saying what you see. The sky is blue. Who cares? That’s half an idea. You need to say, the sky is blue and therefore. You have to provide significance. Meaning. Like, neo-Nazi organisations often put 18 in their name because 1 and 8 are the letters A and H, which stand for Adolf Hitler. Or, it’s called the alphabet because the first two letters are alpha and beta. That’s interesting.’

‘Well, I’m still pleased with myself for coming up with it.’

‘Well, you go and be pleased, then. I’m going to try and figure out what planet you’re on, because it definitely isn’t mine.’

And, try as I might, I still can’t figure out what the hell she was on about.

Am I missing something?

What happened to my patience?

When I was younger, people marvelled at my patience; my perseverance; my ability to face down the impossible and keep going until I’d redefined the limits of what could be achieved.

I taught myself to play the guitar, painstaking hour after painstaking hour; I spent three years in a band with a girl so abusive she sent seventeen other band members running into the wilderness with their tails between their legs; and I tolerated decades of bullying without ever lifting a finger to defend myself.

Maybe that’s the problem, and the reason I no longer have any patience or perseverance or endurance. Maybe that’s why my fuse has become so short you might as well cut out the middle man and light the dynamite directly.

Or maybe it’s what happens to you when you have kids?

Throughout my life, people have often suggested I become a teacher, but trying to help my four-year-old daughter read her school books has well and truly made a mockery of that idea. This afternoon was a prime example.

‘Sound out the letters, come on, you can do it.’

Tuh – O – Mmm.

‘Yes, well done! And what does that spell?’

Mike.

‘No, don’t just guess – try again.’

Tuh – O – Mmm. Mike.

‘No, it’s not Mike. Say the letters quickly. Tuh – O – Mmm, T – OMmm, Tom.’

Tuh – O – Mmm, T-OMmm, Mike.

‘How can it be Mike? It starts with Tuh, not Mmm. You can say the sounds, just put the sounds together to make the word.’

Mike.

‘I’ve already told you it’s not Mike! How can it be Mike when the M is at the end of the word, not the beginning. It’s Tom. Tuh – O – Mmm. Tom.’

Tom.

‘Yes, Tom. Now the next word. You don’t need to sound it out because you’ve already said it twenty times.’

A – Nnn – Duh.

‘Okay, spell it out, then. What does it say?’

I don’t know.

‘But you just spelled it out and it’s one of the words you already know.’

Cat.

‘What do you mean, cat? No, it’s not cat! A – Nnn – Duh. Just put the sounds together and you get…?’

Dog.

‘And. You get and. Tom and. Now, what’s this word? Sound it out.’

L – I – Nnn.

‘Very good. And that word is…?’

Phil.

‘Phil?! It starts with L. You said yourself it starts with L, so how could it be Phil?’

Lif.

‘Why do you think there’s a Fuh in it? You sounded out the letters, L – I – Nnn. L – INnn. Lin. Say it, L – INnn. L – INnn. Tom and…?’

Lilf.

‘Go to your room!’

I’m sure she does it on purpose. That’s got to be on purpose, right?

But then, my wife does the same, like this afternoon.

Wow, I only need to roast this beef for fifty minutes.

‘I don’t think that’s right.’

Yeah, it says 25 minutes for every 500 grams.

‘How much does it weigh?’

1.3 kilograms.

‘Then that’s not 50 minutes, is it?’

It’s 25 minutes per 500 grams.

‘So that’s about 65 minutes, then.’

Why?

‘Because the kilogram takes 50 minutes, and the remaining 300 grams take another 15. Plus you need to put it in for 20 minutes first.’

Now you’re just making it complicated.

‘You have an NVQ in catering, how is this difficult? 20 minutes, plus 25 for every 500 grams. Put it in at 230 for 20 minutes, then turn it down and time 65 minutes. Total time, 85 minutes. Got it?’

That’s ages.

‘Well, do you want it cooked properly or do you want it raw in the middle like it usually is?’

Cooked properly.

‘Then put it in for 20 minutes followed by 65. Simple.’

Half an hour later and she says to me, It’s had 20 minutes, so I’ve set the timer for 50 minutes, okay?

’65.’

Why 65?

‘Because you’re not cooking a kilogram of beef! You’re cooking 1.3 kilograms. You have to cook the extra 300 grams! What about this are you not getting?’

I’m going to cook it the way I always do, and if it’s not right, it’s not right.

‘Honey, it’s not right, and the vegetables are going to be cold by the time the meat’s done. Are you leaving any time for resting?’

Fine, you cook it if you think you’re so perfect.

How can I not have a short fuse when this is my daily life?

Not to mention that my four-year-old keeps writing on her bedframe, but she makes sure to sign it with her sister’s name.

I didn’t do it, it was Rosie. See? It says Rosie.

‘Don’t lie to me.’

It was Rosie. Look!

‘Tell me the truth.’

I am telling the truth! Rosie did it! See, she wrote her name.

It’s a diabolical scheme with just a couple of flaws: Rosie is two. Rosie can’t write.

Not that Rosie is any more compliant. I gave her a bath this evening.

‘Put your head back or the shampoo will go in your eyes. Put your head back. Your head back. Do you want shampoo in your eyes? Put. Your. Head. Back.

Oohh, daddy! Uh-huh, uh-huh. I got shampoo in my eyes! Wahh! Mummy! Daddy got shampoo in my eyes!

And then:

I want get out. I want get out.

So I got her out.

Wahh! I not want get out!

So I dried her off and took her downstairs.

I not want nappy.

‘I really think you should have a nappy.’

I big girl.

‘You’ll use your potty if you want a wee-wee?’

I use potty.

‘You’ll tell me if you need to go?’

Yes.

‘Do you need a wee-wee now?’

No.

‘Are you sure you don’t need a wee-wee?’

I not need wee-wee.

‘Okay. Whuh – why are you weeing on the floor? Quick, get on the potty! Get on the potty! Oh God, it’s everywhere!’

Why I wee-wee?

‘That’s a bloody good question, a bloody good question!’

I not want go on potty.

I’m surprised I’m not shooting blood out of my eye-sockets by now!

Tell me they get less annoying as they grow older. Please, tell me that! (Except my wife – I guess I’m stuck with her the way she is…!)

What do you say in response to THAT!?

What should you say when you’ve just sprayed blood into someone’s face?

As an autistic guy, I have a number of rehearsed responses to virtually every question and situation. I don’t think I’m alone in that – much of society have pre-programmed sets of words they drop into sentences to convey meaning without having to engage their brains and thus slow down the communication.

When we meet a casual acquaintance, for example, we don’t choose every word to create a sentence – we select a block of meaning, as from a drop-down menu, and send it to the mouth:

‘Hi, how’re you?’

The unthinking response is invariably, ‘Fine, thanks, how’re you?’

We do this all the time. It’s the reason idioms are so divorced from their literal meanings – catch you later, how’s tricks, I’ll take a rain check, a piece of cake, shitting bricks. Instead of thinking of each individual word, we select the meaning we want, and the particular register (formal, informal), and our brains arrange the chunks and make the sentences for us.

If we didn’t operate like this, it would take too long to say anything and too long to interpret what other people are saying. It’s as though society has consented to ignore the individual words and ascribe meaning to blocks of words – they’ve agreed that ‘once in a blue moon’ means ‘rarely’ and ‘over the moon’ means ‘pleased’, for example.

This can be a good thing for those of us on the spectrum, as it means we can fake empathy and not have to struggle to figure out what someone’s thinking or feeling. So long as we learn the rules – which can admittedly be difficult in itself – we can fit in.

For example, I’ve had to learn that when people ask, ‘How are you?’ it’s merely a means of facilitating conversation and not an earnest enquiry after your health, so you’re not meant to tell the truth (for a time, I answered with, ‘Entering the inner sanctum of the seventh circle of Hell, and you?’ just to see the reactions).

Where a context-specific response is required and I can’t tell whether a comment is serious or sarcastic (‘Lovely day, isn’t it?’) I normally reply with ‘Indeed’ or ‘Absolutely’ so that it fits both. Unless I’m tired and slip into Aspie mode, where I’ll take everything literally, overthink everything I say and consequently fail to communicate, I can normally mask my difficulties.

However, there are three situations I keep encountering that I’ve never figured out how to deal with.

There’s a lady at the school gate who keeps slipping into small talk that her eldest daughter died as a toddler. Every time she does it, it’s so matter-of-fact that it knocks me off track.

‘How was your Christmas?’

‘It was really good. We lost a child at Christmas, so we make the most of it every year. How was yours?’

‘Er, er, yeah, fine,’ but all I can think is, Should I be saying, ‘oh dear’, or ‘that’s terrible’, or ‘poor you’, or ‘what happened’?

Another difficulty is when old people look at you, groan wearily, and say, ‘Don’t get old.’ Since I live in a village full of elderly people, this happens more often than you’d think. How the hell are you meant to respond to that?

‘I won’t,’ or ‘I’m not planning to,’ sounds like you’re going to kill yourself. Saying, ‘It happens to us all,’ is a bit patronising because they’re old and in pain and I’m not, as is minimising their experience with, ‘It can’t be that bad’ or ‘It could be worse’. And giving some philosophical statement like, ‘Youth is wasted on the young,’ or ‘Any day there’s air in your lungs is a good day,’ is a little too in-depth when you’re standing in a queue at the local shop.

But the worst, the absolute worst, is when I spray people with blood.

I’ve mentioned before that I donate platelets. The way they do it is to put a blood-pressure cuff on your upper arm, inflate it, then stick a needle in your arm. Despite having normal blood pressure, for some reason I have a tendency to squirt. It’s like popping a balloon – the second the needle touches my arm, boom! Blood spattered all over their hands.

So I warn them every time. And every time they’re like, ‘Ah, I’m better than the other nurses, it won’t happen to me,’ and every time – pop – I get them.

There’s something incredibly intimate about blood, so it makes me feel embarrassed and kind of dirty when I spray it over some poor girl’s hand, or neck, or face. The girl yesterday got it all over her bare hand and up her arm, and was clearly horrified, and in those situations I have no idea what to say.

I muttered, ‘Sorry,’ but that seems on the one hand inadequate (I’ve just squirted my bodily fluids over her, after all) and on the other pointless (I can’t exactly control it, can I?). I once tried, ‘See? Told you so,’ but decided that’s rubbing salt in the wound. Likewise, ‘Gotcha!’ makes me seem like a sicko who enjoys the sight of his blood on someone’s cheek.

So I just sit there uncomfortably and squirm. Every time.

If anybody has some advice for how I can respond, I’m all ears!