My Zachary is 14 years old. He was diagnosed with autism at the age of 4. His diagnosis was revised when his dad and I sought a second opinion and so highly did he score in his non-verbal reasoning tests e.g. block building, puzzles, putting pictures into the right order, his diagnosis was revised and we were given a glimmer of hope when the specialists told us he had ‘high functioning’ autism.
The past ten years have been hugely challenging at times although as Zachary matures, his speech/language and social skills have improved and I no longer need to monitor every single piece of homework or sit with him while he works. I can wave him off and know he will meet me in the pizza restaurant and not vanish into thin air and I am thankful he has friends in school who genuinely seem to like him and enjoy his company. Having said that, I was present during one of Zachary’s ‘Did You Know?’ dinosaur onslaughts and could see the other boy’s face glazing over. Eventually, I managed to gently move Zachary away from the topic and seeing the other boy heave a huge sigh of relief, asked “Was he doing your head in?” The boy simply nodded, not realising how difficult it can be for the mum of an autistic and rather obsessive child, to know her precious son can drive others to distraction if they don’t have the same interests.
When Z was younger, it could be frustrating if I said something along the lines of “Don’t forget your jacket sweetie” only to be told (every single time) “It’s not a jacket Mummy, it’s a blazer” or “How were your pals today?” (meaning school friends) to be told “They’re not pals, they’re friends; the Pals are in my bedroom” (Zachary had a huge array of fluffy toys and we would refer to them as The Pals; Z’s brother, Dominic, used to tell Z a bedtime Pals’ Story and the shrieks of laughter still ring around my mind now – good times!). The moral of this story is that, when dealing with someone on the autism spectrum, you must always call a spade a spade and never a shovel as they will invariably correct you and this, in turn, will drive you, not them, mad!
So, imagine you are a company boss and you have an employee who turns up on time every day, takes one ten minute tea break, exactly one hour for lunch, never faffs about on Facebook during work hours and works right up until the clock strikes five. Someone who enjoys routine and ‘knowing where they’re at’, a person who thrives upon, rather than detests, repetition (repetition is safe, you know what’s coming next and it won’t scare you by doing something different). Of course, it’s not all plain sailing when dealing with someone who finds it difficult to look you in the eye when you’re speaking to them or someone who might need to take a ‘sensory break’ from the overhead fluorescent lighting every hour. Some people with autism actually wear headphones to block out unsettling noise e.g. traffic, people chattering, music. I am, of course, generalising and that well known saying “Once you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism” comes to me whenever people look at me with sympathy when I tell them Zachary is autistic. They immediately imagine someone flapping their arms and making loud unintelligible noises, a far cry from my articulate, highly intelligent and very funny son.
“People with autism and Asperger syndrome often have numerous (and sometimes exceptional) skills which enable them to make excellent employees. As well as their individual abilities, some traits associated with autism can, when well channelled, be a considerable benefit in the workplace. For example, many people with autism are good at paying close attention to detail and are meticulous about routines, rules and accuracy – meaning they are often extremely reliable, and can excel at jobs such as accounting, where consistent procedures and precision are vital. Other people with autism enjoy repetitive tasks (whether basic or complex) and perform very well in fields such as IT or administration” (source: http://www.mmu.ac.uk/equality-and-diversity/disability/the_undiscovered_workforce.pdf)
I know other ‘autistic mums’ who insist their child looks them in the eye when they are speaking to them and I try very hard to explain that this is not because they are being rude or ill-mannered. I noticed a long time ago, when testing Zachary on school work, once I’d asked the question, he would immediately turn his head away before answering. I now know he was ‘seeing’ the answer, whether written in his book or just in his head, he couldn’t look at my face AND think about the answer at the same time. I once heard it explained beautifully, by a teenager on the spectrum “It’s not that I don’t want to look at you when you’re speaking, I have to look away in order to SEE what you’re saying”. Autism brings many challenges, many of which are sensory. Bright lights, loud noise, scratchy labels just inside the neck of your jumper can all drive someone with ASD potty and so, they have to find ways around the every day challenges we don’t find any bother at all. For some, looking at someone’s face AND listening to their voice is overload, meaning they can only really focus on one of the two which is why they choose to listen rather than look.
I could write a book about Zachary, his autism and our journey since his diagnosis in 2006. It has been hard going, frustrating but at times, hysterically funny. I tell you what though, if I say “Shower at 8.30 please sweetie”, John and I will hear ‘clump, clump, clump’ as my 13 stone teenager moves around his room and heads to the shower and you can guarantee, come 9pm, he will be in bed with the lights switched off. I adore him and I give a wry smile when I remember the friend who told me God had sent me Zachary for a reason. I think he may have been right!