Sunday 27 April 2008

The first signs

The first signs of Euan's autism weren't confined to the nursery environment, but it was at nursery that they were most apparent. His interaction with adults and other children was minimal: he would play happily on his own with toys or books (the book corner was a favourite haunt) but it was almost impossible to engage him in group activity. When he was potty training he wouldn't tell anyone when he needed the toilet, so at first he wet himself like other children; but once he had mastered the mechanics of going to the cubicle, taking down his trousers and excreting, he would simply take himself off without announcement and return with just as little ceremony. The first anyone would know that he had been was when the next person went in and saw the evidence (unfortunately, washing his hands afterwards is still not an established part of the routine).
More seriously, when Euan was attacked by another child (a mercifully rare occurrence) he said nothing: he didn't even cry. It was only much later in the day that a member of staff spotted the large mark in his face – and, of course, Euan was unable to explain what had happened. The thought that your child is unable to defend themselves, either during or after the event, is a profoundly worrying one, particularly as they approach school age.
My wife, Magteld, and I denied the signs at home for a long time. The fiercely competitive sport that is bringing up small children does not easily admit the suggestion that your child might be in some way abnormal. I remember Euan at a birthday party at the age of two: while all the other children joined in a game of pass the parcel, Euan's interest was entirely taken up with watching the CD player that the music was playing on. On a visit to my parents a few months later, Euan became interested in watering cans: he took a can to the water butt in the courtyard, filled it up, then poured the water very carefully into an empty flower pot. He repeated this routine over and over again, seemingly absorbed in studying the flow of the water from the can into the pot.
Euan has taken an obsessive interest in numbers since he was very small. For his fourth birthday my parents bought him a blackboard. Once he had been shown how it worked, he picked up a chalk, handed it to me and said: “number one.” He showed no interest in watching people drawing or scribbling on the board, or doing it himself: the only thing he wanted was to see the numbers written in sequence, from 1 up to 99, which was as far as he could count. Or so I thought. The next time my parents were staying with us, Magteld and I got back from a shopping trip to find Euan effortlessly reading off three-digit numbers which his grandfather had written on the board.

Sunday 20 April 2008

My name is Gordon Darroch. I am the father of two children.

About a year ago we began having our elder son, Euan, then approaching the age of four, assessed for difficulties in his social development. He has always been a quiet, self-contained boy, rarely aggressive or anxious, happy to play by himself but equally content in the company of other children. His intelligence was normal and he seemed to be thriving at the nursery he had been attending since he was 10 months old.

But now the manager was telling us he showed little interest in the other children: he would play alongside them, rather than with them; if the nurses managed to persuade him to join in a group activity, he would quickly drift away back into his own world. And he rarely spoke. It was as if he was enclosed in a bubble: he could look out, and others could see in, but actual contact was all but impossible.

“Are you worried about him?” I asked the manager.

“A wee bit,” she said. It was the fairest answer she could give.

So began the long, exhausting and still unfinished process of having Euan assessed for autism. Even now I hesitate to use the words “Euan is autistic” to people because an actual diagnosis is still some way off. But the odds are shortening. Every specialist who has seen him so far has observed autistic traits in his behaviour, but the difference between suspecting your child has autism and having it diagnosed are as wide as the autistic spectrum itself.

This is intended to be a blog about living with autism in the family. Unlike some, I am not particularly interested in trying to work out who or what might be to blame for my son’s condition or whether it could have been avoided. The irrevocable fact is, it exists, and my prime concern is to learn how to deal with it.

There is a danger, too, of becoming so consumed with Euan’s condition that we end up seeing the condition and not the child. It’s true, as people often say, that there are worse things that can happen: he is not terminally ill or severely handicapped; his intelligence seems to be unaffected; he does not have a shortened lifespan, which I think must be the hardest thing for a parent to face. But at the same time, there are a lot of popular misconceptions of autism that lead people to dismiss it as just a mild hindrance, like walking with a limp or learning with dyslexia.

Perhaps dyslexia offers the most meaningful parallel: a generation ago, whole swathes of children were labelled as stupid, lazy or ill-disciplined when a little understanding and assistance could have saved them from a lifetime of under-achievement. I hope that with the right intervention and support Euan will be able to enjoy an independent and fulfilling life, rather than being written off as weak-willed and socially inept, as such children once were.