Child Protection Issues

Long term readers of this blog might have noticed that, up until Izzie’s first birthday, I regularly shared pictures on this site, but have not done so in the past year. This was a deliberate decision, and I shall explain why.

Putting photographs in an album or in a frame for display ensures that you retain control of them – who has access to them, what is done with them, and where they are seen. Putting pictures on the internet means that you have zero control over what is done with that image. As Izzie is too young to give informed consent over what is shared, that right passes to me as her father and legal guardian, and in this capacity I feel it is my duty to protect her image and prevent it being placed in the public domain until she is able to make that decision for herself.

I am not inflexible on this position – I do, for example, allow a few, carefully selected professional photos of my daughter to accompany magazine articles, etc. – but in general, sharing pictures of our day-to-day life is not something I feel comfortable doing.

I am sure that, without my having to explicitly state it, most readers will be able to infer which people I don’t want having access to my daughter’s photographs.

Whenever I have seen such issues raised – keeping photos of children away from the attention of people who might wish them harm – there is always somebody who pipes up with: ‘Most abuse goes on inside the home by family members or trusted friends and neighbours.’ And this is undoubtedly true. And then there are others who say: ‘We can’t censor everything just because there are some sickoes out there.’ Which I also agree with – hence I allow the aforementioned professional photos to illustrate magazine articles.

But the fact remains that, while the risk is low, there are predators out there. While I commend people for continuing to share photos because they won’t let the sickoes dictate their behaviour, as a dad I do not want some disturbed individual looking at pictures of my child, because I know that they are.

How do I know this? One of the interesting benefits of writing a blog is that you receive information about visitors to your site – anonymous, of course, but it records what country they’re from, what they’re clicking on, how they came to your site, and so forth. Every so often, you’ll even get to see the search terms they typed into a search engine – the very words they entered that brought up your page in the results.

I always think of myself as pretty unshockable, but the search terms somebody used to find and access this blog yesterday made me feel sick. I won’t repeat them here, but I will say that they contained the words ‘dad’ and ‘little girl’, and whoever typed them needs to be on a watch list somewhere. That such a person has visited my site makes me feel grubby by association and more than validates my caution about sharing pictures.

So, to all my fellow parents and bloggers who might read this: take a moment and think before you share something. Probably no harm will come from it; probably no sick weirdo pervert is ever going to see it; but no matter how small a chance, perhaps they might.

AS, Children and Play

As a kid with Asperger’s Syndrome, albeit undiagnosed, I never understood how to play with others.

At playschool I’d wander straight through the middle of the toy farm the other kids had carefully set out, trampling the animals underfoot and kicking apart the barns without realising it, and unable to comprehend why they were cross with me.

When I tried to play with my brother, I couldn’t get into the fantasy the way he could – the toys were plastic, or wooden or cloth, and had no existence beyond my own control. I cared for them as objects, not as independent beings. They didn’t have feelings – they didn’t mind being thrown against the wall or stuffed under the sofa. Just so long as no one else touched them.

Because I didn’t share. What was mine was mine, and what was yours was yours until it was either mine, or I broke it so you couldn’t have it. As a young child, it’s safe to say I was an asshat.

And I didn’t know how to mix with my peers. We used to go camping almost every weekend, and every weekend we’d be sent to play with the other kids on the campsite. My brother would take it in his stride, marching up to complete strangers and joining them in football or climbing trees or riding bikes – I’d hide behind him and never know what to say or do.

When I tried to be funny, I came across as spiteful; when I wanted to be cool, I was condescending; and playfulness always turned into physical domination where my clumsiness and misunderstanding of appropriate behaviour turned me into a one-man wrecking ball – and that’s when it wasn’t deliberate. When it was, it was much worse. No wonder I couldn’t make any friends!

At eleven months old, Izzie loves playing with the other kids – and I am finding it like pulling teeth.

Every time she crawls towards another child, I watch her like a hawk and get so tense I’m lucky I don’t drive my fingernails through my palms. I see other parents just dump their kids and let them get on with it, but I perch on the edge of my seat ready to pull them apart at the slightest sign of aggression from either side. It’s the most uncomfortable thing I’ve experienced as a dad.

‘Why’s she doing that?’ I think as she pulls a brick out of another child’s hand. ‘Now why’s she doing that?’ I wonder as she passes it back. I’m fine when she plays by herself, but the second she starts to move towards another toddler I cringe and hope she stops before she reaches them because I don’t understand why she wants to play with them.

It’s my problem, I know. You’re supposed to let kids figure out the social rules for themselves, with a little guidance. I’m not going to stop her playing with other children, but damn I wish it was easier.

I’m terrified the other kids will hurt her. I’m terrified they’ll make her cry and she’ll sit there screaming and grow up to be a recluse like me. But more than that, I’m terrified she’ll do something to the other child, and she’s too young to understand the consequences of her actions, but everyone will look at me, and judge me, and realise what a bad dad I am, raising a little tearaway. And I’m worried they’re right, and a dad with AS won’t be able to provide for his child’s social education.

And the thing is, it’s not an idle fear – Izzie’s bloody strong for a toddler. While I was bathing her this evening she rammed her finger so far up my nose it took five pieces of toilet paper to staunch the flow of blood. What if she hits another child? Pulls their hair? Scratches them? Oh God, what would I do then?

The thing with autism is that you like to control your life. You minimise your exposure to stressful, unpredictable social situations in order to protect yourself. Izzie playing by herself in the lounge I can cope with fine as I understand it and can control the variables – the moment you introduce a second child, all control and predictability goes out the window.

But unfortunately, for Izzie’s sake, I have to expose myself to increasingly stressful, unpredictable social situations so she can learn to function as a socially active neurotypical child. I can’t allow my own hang-ups to hold her back.

I just need to learn how to relax when my little girl is learning how to play with others – or at the very least make sure my fingernails are cut so short I can’t do myself any serious damage!

‘Different’ is not ‘wrong’

Thanks to problems with Theory of Mind, when you have Asperger’s Syndrome it can be very difficult to understand why people might want to do things differently to how you do them. Coupled with a tendency towards black-and-white thinking, this means we think our way of doing something is best, which makes all other methods worse. It is a short leap to thinking your way is ‘right’ and every other way is ‘wrong’.

As the primary carer of a baby, whether you have Asperger’s or not, it’s very easy to fall into this trap. You’re with the baby all day and all night, and as a result you quickly become an expert on all aspects of baby care. You develop ways of holding her, cleaning her, talking to her; you have routines dictating how you change nappies, make up feeds, how you put on sleep suits; you know how to respond to different cries, googles, gurgles and grunts; and everything you’ve worked out is definitely the best and only way of taking care of your little angel.

And then the other parent wades in.

For whatever reason – they work, they’re ill, they’re just not as in-tune with the baby’s needs as you are – they fumble around like a five-year-old trying to unscrew a doorknob with their eye-socket. You cringe, you grimace, and then you step in to show them how it should be done. ‘Like this,’ you say as you patiently guide them towards a better method. ‘No, no, hold her under here, like this, pat her bottom, there you go, see how well that works?’ Because you’re trying to help.

Ever since Lizzie returned home from hospital with Izzie, and struggled every step of the way, I’ve devoted myself to making things easier for her. I took over the night feeds, soothed the baby when she was colicky, strapped her to my chest when I walked the dog; every time it became too much for Lizzie, I took over; and everything I learned, every tactic and technique that worked, I tried to teach her.

Yet the more I’ve done to take the pressure off Lizzie, the worse she seems to have become. She would deny this but I’ve been doing around 75-80% of the baby care, and the fact I’ve had to shoulder the lion’s share of the burden has put an undeniable strain on our relationship, which came to a head the other day when I was telling Lizzie how to hold Izzie to stop her crying when she suddenly snapped, ‘Shut up! I don’t want to do anything the way you do it!’

We slept in separate beds and I was forced to do a great deal of soul-searching. Righteous indignation, resentment and a feeling of being criminally underappreciated slowly gave way to the realisation that Lizzie has increased in confidence when she goes out with the baby, decreased in confidence when she’s at home. The only possible reason for this is that when she’s out, I’m not with her, and when she’s home, I’m always peering over her shoulder, giving her ‘guidance’. Despite having the best of intentions, had I in fact made things more difficult for both of us?

I thought more about her outburst, wondered why she wouldn’t want to do things the right way for the baby – if my technique stops Izzie crying in thirty seconds, and Lizzie’s takes five minutes, surely she’s deliberately doing it the wrong way? I had to work really hard – I mean really, really hard – to turn my thinking around and realise that I can’t stage manage Lizzie’s relationship with Izzie, no matter how much I might want to. Her way of doing things is not wrong, simply different, and as Izzie’s mother she has as much right to experiment with different techniques and find her own solutions as I do. If it takes Lizzie five minutes to stop Izzie crying doing it her way, that is the nature of their relationship and it will be different from my relationship with Izzie. Not worse, not wrong – just different.

It’s hurtful and heartbreaking to admit that by trying to do what’s right for all of us I’ve actually made it much more difficult. I haven’t allowed Lizzie to develop her relationship with her daughter, build confidence in her baby-caring skills, or find her own solutions to her problems. I haven’t allowed her to be a mother, and I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

Since having this epiphany, I’ve stepped back. When the baby cries every fibre of my being urges me to go to her, but I have had to dig my fingernails into my palms and leave Lizzie to soothe the baby her own way. I’ve watched her doing things in ways that I would not and have bitten my tongue. And Lizzie’s confidence, and enjoyment of the baby, have both increased immeasurably. She is doing so much more, and without complaint, all because I’m letting her get on with it.

For the first time in around thirteen weeks, I feel like we are joint parents with equal responsibility for the baby – there is no longer a primary and secondary carer, much as it pains me to admit it, because I loved being the primary carer. But this is the way it should be.

So, all parents reading this blog: don’t make the same mistake I did. Unless you want to look after two babies, you have to be your partner’s partner, not their parent. They’re not doing things wrong, just different. And if you don’t allow them to figure things out for themselves, you’re denying them the greatest thrill of being a parent. So shame on you!