Thursday 5 October 2017


How can you grieve without language? It was a question we had to deal with even as we prepared to emigrate while Mageld was dying in April 2014.

We learned from the start that there was no point hiding things from the children. On the day she was diagnosed, 18 months earlier, Adam clung to her ferociously as she dropped him off at the school gates. She hadn't told him about the appointment, but he sensed an imbalance in his world. When she lost her hair to chemotherapy, Euan went through a routine of trying on her headscarves and rubbing her head when he came home in the afternoon. And when she learned the cancer was killing her, she sat down with them at the kitchen table and told them she couldn't be there for them in the future. 'But you're here now, mum,' Adam replied evenly.

When Euan started school he was assigned a play counsellor. She laid out games on the floor, gave him paper and crayons and tried to connect with him using the game as a prop. Euan scarcely responded. The language barrier, the strange surroundings and the unfamiliar routine left him emotionally paralysed. After a few weeks she delivered her report in which she said that he had little idea why he was in the Netherlands or where his mother was now. 'I asked him where she was and he said: “In the hospital”.' Yet we had made a point of taking the boys with us on every step of the journey, up to and including her death, and I couldn't recognise the description in the report with the boy who had clung to me at his mother's funeral and cried with anguish as the coffin retreated behind the curtain. Only now do I realise how Euan furled into himself in the months after Magteld died, as impenetrable as an armadillo in its shell.

To the outside world the boys seemed entirely unaffected by their mother's absence. A counsellor said to me: 'As long as they're not showing any signs of distress, don't worry.' If these words were meant to reassure me, they failed. It was inconceivable that they were unaffected by such a rupture in their lives, and the fact that they were unable to display or discuss it left me frustrated, alienated and anxious. The one time I managed to raise the subject at the dinner table Adam replied flatly: 'She died, and we don't want to talk about it any more.' Unable to tolerate my distress, Adam shut it out, sometimes literally: if he caught me sobbing he left the room and closed the door. We were like a dysfunctional version of the three monkeys: see no grief, hear no grief, speak no grief.

Three years later it remains a largely unspoken trauma, an absence of an absence. My efforts to incorporate anniversaries and memorials into our routine have fallen on stony ground. Pictures of her hang in every room, almost invisible. I feel as if I am carrying the burden of memory alone, though sometimes, if I'm lucky, I can goad them into recalling a favourite film or a place we visited together. At a castle in Sweden two years ago Adam reminded me how we had stayed in a castle with Magteld a few years earlier – a wretchedly cold, wet weekend during our last winter in Scotland that was nevertheless full of warmth and hope. A breakthrough of sorts came when Euan's carer managed to coax a few snippets of memory out of him, in the borrowed language that he uses to communicate: 'Euan is worried about his family. His mother is in the hospital. And that's how he is very very upset about his mother.' It was the first time that he expressed his feelings, even indirectly. But it was not so much a chink of light as the blur of the sun behind the clouds. Without language the grieving process is silent and turgid, like a solo pilgrimage.

Monday 4 September 2017

Extreme displacement

A little over three years ago our family underwent a violent change in circumstances. Magteld died, at the age of 38, from breast cancer, leaving the three of us who remained bereft and bewildered. To make things even more challenging, we had just emigrated to the Netherlands. Her long-cherished dream of returning, and mine of starting a new life in her country, was twisted out of shape in the last months when she was told her cancer had returned. We had sold our house by then and it was too late to pull back, so we pressed ahead like an Atlantic rower trying to outrun a storm. Magteld lived for just seven more weeks in her native land.

I am going to close this blog shortly. Euan turned 14 earlier this year and is at the point in life where his need for privacy outweighs my need to write about his progress. But before that I want to look at what we've learned about autism in the most exacting of circumstances. We've been tested by grief, by isolation, by the barriers of language and bureaucracy, and we've survived. I sometimes even dare to think we're thriving.

Looking back I sometimes wonder what on earth we were thinking of. It was like attempting to recite the complete works of Shakespeare from memory while trekking to the South Pole on crutches. The boys had to adjust to living in a new place, with new schools where the lessons were given in their other language. The country they called home and the one they visited would swap places and remould their identities. And at the same time a day was coming when they would no longer have a mother and look for guidance and stability from a father who was grappling with his own overpowering grief. We would go from being a cross-cultural family of four to an expat family of three, and so cross not one border, but two.

How did we set about making sure that the boys were not left displaced and traumatised by this conflation of extreme events? They depended, and still depend, on routine and familiarity to orient themselves. They struggle to communicate, so how would they cope with switching language. And from my point of view the crucial thing was to find a way of recognising when they were in trouble, since both of them find it daunting and difficult to communicate their emotions. The solutions I found, and the lessons I learned in the process, will be the focus of the next few blog posts.

Sunday 2 April 2017


Ah yes, I remember the milestones. The joy of sharing the early ones: smiling, chuckling, rolling over, crawling. Then came others that didn't go so well: listening, toilet training, talking. Talking, especially. Other parents would puff up with pride as they repeated their child's first words, followed by their first sentences, and then all the cute things they said as they experimented with language, while ours stubbornly refused to progress. Frustration gave way to anguish, stoked by false reassurances from well-meaning friends and relatives, until finally we heard the words we dreaded at first but ultimately craved: 'your son is autistic'.

When your baby is born childhood stretches ahead of you like a floodlit yellow brick road, lined with solid white milestones: here is talking, here is walking, here is hitting the swing ball in the back garden. In the distance you can make out university, the first pay cheque and the wedding where you get to make a tenderly triumphant speech. All parents find out sooner or later that this straight and narrow path is an illusion. The advantage those of us with autistic children have is that we find out much sooner. The knowledge that we will have to cut our own way through the thicket, in semi-darkness and with the ever-present danger of low-hanging branches, can be daunting and overwhelming. But once your eyes adjust it takes on the character of an adventure. And the deeper you go, the more you come to appreciate the beauty of the trees and the sense of pride, when you look back and see the path you have created. It may not be particularly straight or well paved, but it's indelibly yours, and it exists mainly because you kept hacking away.

I know people who still believe they're on the yellow brick road, even when their children are in their teens. They see David's B minus for an essay as a minor catastrophe, or go into convulsions if Lydia fails the entrance exam for Cambridge and must confront the horror of three years at Keele. I don't envy them. I pity them for being so blinded by the bright lights on the straight road that they live in constant fear that even the smallest deviation will send them over a precipice. When the reality is an uncharted forest that seems intimidating in the beginning, but through exploration becomes challenging, fascinating and rewarding.

In place of the milestones, I've created my own mudstones. Here are some of them: making it through a restaurant meal without anybody staring and tutting; eating vegetables that have been cut in the wrong shape; first phone call (age 12). And a few still in progress: tying shoelaces (age 13); losing the red mark on his forehead that comes from bashing it with his fist in frustration or excitement (I promised three years ago to take him out for cake when he achieves this one); telling me how much they miss their mum.

There was a time when I grew angry and resentful when other parents started up about their children clocking up the milestones (“He's so advanced! He was walking at 11 months.” – as if it could make the crucial difference one day in a job interview). These days I tend to nod and smile, and hope for their sake that the shock, when it comes, isn't too devastating. Most of us leave the straight path sooner or later, and it's often then that we discover the truth about ourselves. The unexamined life, as Socrates supposedly said, isn't worth living. Autism is a life of examinations, in every sense.