Adam comes down for breakfast, smiling and bright as a button. He remembers something in his bedroom and dashes back up the stairs. Half a minute later I find him on the floor, distraught, face red and eyes swollen with tears.
I ask him what’s wrong. He points to a mug half-filled with water on the floor. “I didn’t drink my water.” Every night before he goes to sleep Adam drinks a mug of water in bed. It’s the last phase in a well-established night routine. Last night he must have been too tired to drink it, so it sat on the floor all night and when he woke up he must have knocked it over. Half the water is in the mug and the other half is seeping into the carpet in a neat ring.
“Do you want to drink your water, Adam?”
“Nooo! It needs to fill up!”
I go downstairs, fill the mug to the brim and tell him to come down and drink it.
“No! I can’t!” This is his standard response when he doesn’t know what to do. So I take the mug back up and put it on the radiator. This is no good either. He picks it up and puts it on the floor, on the exact spot beside his bed where it was before.
“Do you want to drink it now, Adam?”
“No,” he says and skips down the stairs to resume breakfast. The mug sits there until he’s left for school.
A few weeks earlier we’re in the Ikea cafe, having meatballs and chips for lunch. It’s going well until Magteld filches one of the chips from my plate and pops it in her mouth. Euan is incensed. “You have to put the chip back!” he screams. She puts one of her own chips on my plate. But substituting a different chip isn’t what he means. He reaches into her mouth and tries to excavate the one that’s disappeared down her throat. No amount of explaining will convince him it can’t be done. He won’t give up until the plates are cleared and we’ve moved on from the table.
We all remember those incidents when a favourite toy was damaged beyond repair and we still took it to our parents to fix, but these two incidents magnify that desire to undo mistakes to the point of intransigence. Adam didn’t want the water: he just wanted things to be put right. Euan was enraged by his mum’s refusal to undigest a chip. Do autistic children have more trouble than others understanding that sometimes there’s no going back, that not all loose threads can be re-ravelled?