Louise sometimes asks me, “Why Olly, why has this happened to him?” It’s an impossible question to answer, and I usually respond quite cryptically and say, “Why does anything happen to anyone?” I simply don’t know obviously, and this pretty much sums up how I feel about life in general these days actually. I used to have a fairly well defined set of beliefs in terms of what it all means, what it’s all about. I’m not so sure anymore I must admit. My faith in any sort of meaning, rhyme or reason, has been significantly tested in recent months. So as things stand, I can’t really look for any sort of comfort or guidance based on faith, karma, or the like. Maybe I’ll get that back at some point. I hope so, but for the here and now I can only respond to what’s in front of me. Our little boy needs our help, and that’s what he’s going to get.
Nevertheless, I still can’t help but wonder what has lead us to this point, and in real terms, the more I think about it, the more I look inward, to myself, and back to my own childhood. I wonder if I were growing up in these times, would I have been labelled with something like autism? Times have changed since I was a boy, the world was a very different place. I knew nothing of autism as a child, and very little more as an adult. I had probably watched one television program on the subject in my entire life, and recalling it now, it left me with a misinformed, generalised overview of autism. My real introduction to autism has obviously been as a parent, and in an age of information and communication. So much more is known about autism now, thanks to all the information we can access using the modern technology at our fingertips. This sort of instantly accessible knowledge was unthinkable 30 to 40 years ago, and it provides vital exposure, with which comes recognition, understanding, and hopefully tolerance. Tolerance is the most difficult aspect of all I believe, and I myself have been guilty on more than one occasion of coming to unfounded conclusions about many illnesses and disabilities, without really understanding them. It is all too easy to judge sometimes, but at the end of the day, no one has the right to assume how difficult it is for anyone else to cope with the challenges of their own lives. Autism has helped me to realise this.
It has also helped me to see that I knew nothing of hardship or the stresses of day to day life as a child. I was very fortunate. I grew up safe, and warm, and healthy, and happy, and it never occurred to me that it was not the same for everyone. That being said, I was also far from normal. I realised this from an early age, but I didn’t know why. It all started at school really. I just didn’t fit in at any school, ever! I didn’t want to go from day one, and tried every trick in the book to get out of it. My elaborate schemes to avoid going to school would later impact on my unfortunate younger brother, who some years later was packed off to school genuinely ill by my battle hardened, skeptical Mother. He ended up being sick on the Headmasters shoes that day, and of course sent home (sorry little bro).
School was a genuinely terrifying experience for me though. I didn’t mind the teachers, they were OK. The only grief I ever got from teachers was in relation to my constant switching off and daydreaming. My reports were always the same – “Peter could do better if he tried, and wasn’t on another planet all the time!” I didn’t mind what they said though, so the teachers weren’t a problem! It was the other children. I couldn’t relate to them. I didn’t fit in with them, and was always very much an outsider trying to keep myself to myself and generally look invisible. As a result, I became a target for their amusement! I hated it so much. I hated them so much. I can see now that they were probably only messing about as kids do, but I took it literally, and personally, and I responded as such. My reactions obviously delighted them, and no doubt provoked in them a desire to see me squirm some more, and so began a cycle of torment that would continue for my entire school life.
Anyone who knows autism, has probably already recognised some interesting symptoms in those last paragraphs. I was comfortable with the teachers (adults), whilst uncomfortable around the unpredictable children, who’s actions (without any real malice) I took very literally! I didn’t pay attention, wasn’t good at eye contact, and daydreamed my way through my entire school life. The thoughts within my own little world were far more appealing to me than anything I was supposed to be listening to. So you can see why I have started to wonder about this I’m sure? There are other examples as well. I developed nervous habits at an early age, and these have progressed throughout my life. I’m well aware that I sniff and cough, and grunt a lot. My eyes twitch, my throat squeaks and/or clicks, and I have this thing I do when I click my thumb against my fingers. I don’t have a clue why I do any of these things, but thankfully most people are kind enough and polite enough not to mention them. In addition, I like rigidity. I don’t like being away from home or in strange environments, and I don’t like it when plans change suddenly. I also have an extremely focused memory, and can recall quite random things from early in my life very clearly. Things people wore, things people said, numbers, specific dates, and years for example. I still take things very personally as an adult too, and my memory never lets me forget instances where I am criticised. I take those moments to heart, and dwell on them and dissect them.
As far as how this all relates to Oliver, well I can see many of these traits in him too. The eye contact, the rigidity, his preference for the company of adults over other children. His dislike of sudden change, and his tendency toward overreaction. Although I wouldn’t say he has my nervous habits, he does however like to move his hands above his head and look at them. Perspective is clearly important to him, as is sensory stimulation. He will tilt his head a certain way, to see things the way he wants to see them, and he will move objects and people to suit his needs. I always liked to line things up as well, and this is clearly something Oliver and I have in common. Although I can’t explain why, I can completely understand why he likes doing this. With me, it was books, comics, and video boxes. I would lay them out and just enjoy looking at them. Oliver is the same, with certain toys, and at the moment, TV remote controls, and iPads. It even extends to people. He will arrange adults together in the same space and adjust our heads to his liking. The other thing we have in common is teeth grinding. I no longer do this, but remember doing so as a boy. Oliver also grinds his teeth sporadically.
So what does any of this suggest or prove? I don’t really know for sure obviously. I’ve never been assessed by a multi disciplinary team of experts as Oliver has. I guess the theory is that if I’d been born in 2010 instead of 1972, maybe I would have been? To this day I still feel that little bit out of sync with the world in general, and always feel like everyone else is that little bit ahead of me at any given moment, and they all know something that I don’t! Ultimately though, these whimsical notions of mine are irrelevant. What causes autism seems to be a debate that is destined to run and run probably beyond my lifetime. I’ve read a lot of theories of course. The most controversial is the vaccination debate. I personally don’t give any credence to that, but I know that many people do. I feel it is more likely that family genetics does have something to do with it, and if so, that would certainly account for many of the behavioural traits that Oliver and I seem to share. At the end of the day however, it just doesn’t matter. We are who we are. Oliver is a happy little boy and although he has some challenges ahead, my hopes for him are high. After all, if I can make it in this funny old world, surely anyone can, and I have a feeling that Oliver is going to find his way. It’s just going to take time, patience, love, and understanding.