On Saturday, we had a major victory when The Cat (my 8-yr-old with autism) actually agreed to go to a birthday party. He doesn't get invited to many, and when I saw this was a swimming party I was pretty sure he'd refuse to go. Not because he doesn't swim - he has his own unique but surprisingly effective style of 'catty paddle' - but because he'd never been to a swimming party or even to the pool where this party was being hosted, and, as with most autistic kids, going somewhere he can't imagine brings on huge anxiety. Frankly he'd rather be in bed. In his pants (if we're lucky), with the (actual feline) cat. Probably re-reading his favourite passage in his current favourite book for the 977th time.
Anyway, after google searches to show the pool and chats with others about what happens at a swimming party, he went. I was required to stay poolside at all times and comment on everything he did, but he stayed in the water and invented his own complex game involving the gathering of floats to make islands, then diving off to reach his previous 'islands'. To my immense relief, he neither drowned nor sank. His classmates, who have experienced the full range of his quirks, left him to it and played at the other end of the pool. There were occasional incursions when he had too many floats and his classmates needed some back, leading to some impressive growling on the part of The Cat, but he mostly just paddled about with Project Face on and had a ball.
Watching this made me both happy and proud that we'd got him through his anxiety and it had paid off, although there was also relief, as these efforts just as often end in tears. (I'm pretty sure it was the Pokestop at the front of the swim centre that swung it, but I'll take happy however it comes.) Standing watching him also gave me time to reflect on his interactions with his classmates (or lack thereof), and that wafted me into reflections about autistic children becoming autistic adults, and then reflections about adults who just seem to be alone, whether autistic or not.
Here's the thing about The Cat. Sometimes, he loves being alone. He always has a clear idea of what he wants or doesn't want to do, and when he's with others he's not great at communicating those ideas and so is easily frustrated. But sometimes he wants to interact with someone. And sometimes he wants someone near, but not interacting. I think his father and I are pretty much the only ones who can read his signals fairly reliably, along with The Friend and a couple of exceptional school staff over the years. When you get the signal wrong, he growls and/or lashes out. So watching his classmates, it seemed to me that they had no chance of reading him, and that leaving him to his projects with minimal interference was a pretty good strategy.
But what happens when he wants some company, and everyone assumes he's happier on his own? Especially when he's older and I'm not there to draw him into contact with others?
As an autism parent, I know that worrying about The Cat's future when he has plenty of challenges today will send me batty. But what I wanted to say as a Mum, thinking of Mum-Care, is that one of the miracles of living with this child is that I have developed an 'alone on the playground' scanner. When the twins were tiny, I seriously considered setting up as a Child Health and Safety Consultant, as I could scan new surroundings in seconds and know which child would find which danger, as well as spotting any potential for simultaneous exit by both kids through different doors. I was Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard, but with two miniature Whitneys hellbent on mayhem and medical emergency. Now, after observing my kids' varying attempts to interact or avoid interaction, I hit the playground and within seconds see the people alone, either kids or adults.
We have a lovely bunch of Mums at our school and pick-up can be a fairly social time. But I realised a while back that I'd always assumed the people who have stood alone since Reception wanted to stand alone. But what if they don't? Isn't it better to make sure they know they can talk to you if they want to? I've got to be honest and admit that it would never have occurred to me a decade ago to talk to people who didn't seem to be like me. I figured they had their own 'worlds' and I had mine. But you know what? Mums are Mums. They all worry about their kids and so we all have at least one thing in common. We are all in Mum World, even if we're in different corners of it, and lord knows Mum World can be challenging. I'm not suggesting we all become best friends and have sleepovers and paint each other's nails and watch DVDs together, but when I used to roll into school with toddler twins in the buggy still eating breakfast and minus whatever clothing they'd thrown into bushes and a twitchy, anxious Reception child with his shoes on the wrong feet and a delightful paste of porridge and yoghurt in my hair, just a smile or hello from a Mum helped me to feel less isolated and slightly less of a circus act. I was clearly in a different world, but I needed all the lovely people who said hello each morning and snapped me out of the school run stress.
Now what about the Mums who have always seemed to distance themselves? Are we sure they weren't suffering from some kind of depression or trauma the year we first got an 'alone' signal, and didn't feel able to interact or even speak a whole sentence? Maybe they are now ready to interact, but don' t want to intrude into established social groups. Maybe they have lost all confidence and don't believe anyone would want to speak to them, and we're making that worse by assuming they're alone because they want to be. Maybe their kids have difficulties or some kind and they know your kid doesn't like them, so they assume you won't like them. Because let's face it Mums, passing judgement on parenting on the basis of a child's behaviour is pretty common. Frankly if I'd only had The Big Boy and not seen the potential for appalling loss of control in The Dog, or the extreme quirkiness of The Cat, I'd have assumed there was some pretty unusual parenting going on in our home and yes, kept my distance. (I write these blogs because my kids are slowly changing me, not because I'm a saint; I'm not sure I much like the old me, who missed so much that is suddenly becoming both clear and obvious. If I sound preachy, slap me, because I'm really just reflecting on things that have recently emerged from my slow-cogged mind.) But back to the Mums standing alone. Maybe they aren't big on interaction, but don't want to be ignored. Maybe they'd be happy just to stand next to someone rather than standing alone every single day. Or maybe they really do prefer to be alone. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I believe very strongly that Mums need to look out for each other. We're all doing a tough job, no matter how different our circumstances, and nobody deserves to feel left out if they don't want to be. I actually feel very strongly that we all need to scan for people alone, in whichever worlds we enter, and make it clear with the occasional smile or gentle attempt at conversation that we would be open to a chat if the person alone felt the need.
This is not 'Adopt a Loner', it's 'Show Everyone Respect'. I need to believe there will be people showing respect to my kids by being open to them in the big scary Grown-Up World one day, particularly The Cat. Right now, though, my world is Mum World, and that's where I can maybe spot a need if I keep my scanner switched on.