Sunday, 25 January 2015

One by one (by one, by one)

There's a small woman hopping up and down on my right shoulder. She looks a bit like me, but for some reason she's speaking with a gorblimey accent. She's leaning forward with an agitated air and saying into my ear: "Don't. 'E's not worth it. Walk away!"

I try to listen to her. I take a deep breath to calm myself. But it doesn't work. So I turn, and stride along the aisle, past eggs and dried fruit, in the direction taken by a young man a couple of moments ago. At the top I look left, only to see him disappear behind swinging doors into a staff-only area. I exhale, and square my shoulders.

"'E's not worth it!" hisses the mini-me again.

But I'm walking over to the door, beside which a senior-looking staff member is ticking things off a list. 

"Excuse me?"

She looks up. Beside us, an industrial-sized rotisserie splats and fizzes, turning rows of browning chickens.


It's been a good weekend, so far. I've seen friends and relaxed and felt enthusiastic about things again. In slightly giddy mood I went to Waitrose and piled my trolley full of rich, tasty food, planning to cook a big meal for my family. I thought: I am nearly well, my loved ones are all well - Grace is calm, happy and productive - January is nearly over. Tick, tick, tick, tick.

Then I turned a corner and two young people, dressed in the supermarket's uniform, came towards me from the opposite direction. The young man -  jaunty walk, shoulders back - was just about to arrive at the punchline of a story that was already making his female colleague giggle. As he walked past I caught the end of his comment: ".. like a special needs one, you know? So you have to look after 'em!" His colleague smothered laughter. They walked on.

But I was stuck. A victim of a walk-by shooting in the bakery aisle. I felt like I'd been splattered against the shelves of finest organic flour. Someone was laughing at my daughter again. I felt sick and sweaty. I felt like I was overreacting. I felt like I wanted to run after that young man and shake him til his teeth rattled.

I looked at all the food in my trolley. I didn't want to eat any of it. Up popped the worried little woman on my shoulder - the one who fears being a spoilsport, a humourless, professional complainer. I batted her away. One by one, I thought. I have to keep tackling them one by one, until there are fewer people who think it's ok to make Grace an object of fun.

Thus, when the senior-looking staff member looks up and says "Yes?" - I say: "I've just overheard a member of your staff make a joke about people with special needs that I found offensive. Do you think I could speak to him?"

The woman blanches, and says very quickly that she will go and get the duty manager.

"It's just - " I begin, - "I have a daughter - "

She stops me and says: "Me too. I'll be right back."

I wait for five minutes. I still feel sick. Then two young men walk up to me. One is the duty manager, who looks very uncomfortable. One is the young man who spoke. His face is a perfect blank. He looks at me, and fixes a bland smile, and clasps his hands together.

"I would like to apologise for my comments," he tells me. "They were taken out of context."

Wait, what? Out of context?

"That doesn't sound like an apology," I retort. "Whatever is going on in your head you should not be voicing it here. Do you have any idea how upsetting it is to be here and shopping and overhear someone making a joke about that?"

Urgh. I am so very un-eloquent.

He smiles blandly at me again, and presses his hands closer together. His expression doesn't change.

"I would like to apologise for my comments," he says again.

Go on then, I think.

There's a pause.

"I have a daughter with autism," I tell him. "And I'm sure I'm not the only person in your shop right now who is living with someone who has special needs. Do you have any idea what my home life is like?"

Double-urgh. Why one earth did I say that? Why can I not explain such an uncomplicated thought. Use your words, I tell myself, as though I am four.

The duty manager is still silent. The other man smiles blandly at me again.

"I would like to apologise for my comments."

Oh, enough.

"Ok then," I say tiredly. "Thank you. Please don't do it again."

I walk away and I don't look back. I think: I don't think I did that very well. I think: That was embarrassing. Then I think of Grace, and I think how glad I was that she wasn't with me, to overhear someone walk past and mock her so blithely.

One by one. It doesn't matter if it doesn't always come out right. It just has to keep being said. Until maybe, at some point, we don't need to say it at all.

Postscript: On Monday Jan. 26 Waitrose contacted me at home after seeing this post, widely circulated on Twitter. A spokeswoman said: "These kind of comments are not expected and not allowed. We will be contacting our learning and development department to comment that this has been happening, so it can be incorporated into future programmes, and a team sent out to reiterate our policies."

Friday, 9 January 2015

How Calamity Jane helped me through depression. (Minus sasparilly.)

I can’t remember the last time I wrote about being depressed. But at the moment there’s a lot that I can’t remember.

I have spent hours, lately, walking around my house looking for things I have forgotten or lost. Normally, I don’t lose things. When I do, it makes me very anxious. It also tends to happen when I’m not well.

Things that I have lost lately include keys, books, phones, letters, various items of food. Information I have forgotten: how to drive to my husband’s office, whether I washed my hair this morning, what the name of this blog was.

Amid the fog, however, there are a small number of things I have not forgotten. Among them are all the words to The Deadwood Stage.

In the evenings I sit down in front of the television. My husband builds me huge leaping fires of coal and wood and I scorch my skin trying to sit close enough to get warm. My youngest daughter turns around and around on my lap like a little dog marking her bed before settling.

Then the screen lights up, with a blast of golden trumpets and technicolour, and we stop fidgeting.

Calamity Jane. It’s such a ridiculous film, so silly and out of date that I am smiling by the first minute and the first line of the first song - which is of course about The Deadwood Stage, careering into town in clouds of dust and flapping curtains, and bearing a bright-faced, curly-haired heroine. 

I love Calamity Jane. I love her for her name – patron saint of those of us who can’t remember anything and keep banging their heads and bruising their elbows in the process of looking – but I also love her because she’s only been on screen for three minutes now and she is literally – literally -- slapping her buckskin-clad thigh while rhyming ‘heading over the hills’ with ‘Injun arrows thicker than porcupine quills’.

Encircled in my arms, five-year-old Betty gives a great shout of delight.

For the next hour and a bit we watch Calamity Jane gallop like mad, shoot anything that moves and sling back "sasparilly". We watch her tell tall stories, make mistakes, fall in love with the wrong man, and match him up with the wrong woman. We watch her try to pretty herself up only to fall in a muddy creek and get laughed at. And we watch her come up smiling – and usually singing -- time after time.

Yes, it’s terribly cheesy. But it’s also funny, mostly on purpose, and it’s a tonic to see this young woman clowning and capering and not caring what people think of her.

When the film has finished and the fire has crumbled to embers and my daughter is asleep in my arms with her cheeks flushed, I think to myself that I must try to care less and laugh more.

The next morning it’s raining and the sky is dark and my first thought on waking is “Oh no” quickly followed by “I can’t.”

But Betty needs to go to school so I get up and get her ready and we leave the house. I have managed to find my keys, which is a good thing, but I am also struggling not to cry, which most definitely is a problem, particularly as we are still only at the garden gate.

Then I hear something. Beside me, Betty is singing a faint tune. As I make out what it is I start to smile. I look over, and my daughter tilts her head back into the rain to see me from underneath the curve of her bee-embroidered umbrella. She reaches out her spare hand.

“Whip crack-away!” she urges, grinning. "Whip crack-away, Mummy!"

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

From across the divide, a sign of hope

Living with a person who says 'No' a lot is hard. It's a life of protracted negotiation without resolution, where things stop before they start. It's a life of knowing any tiny step forward is unlikely and would in any case be followed by ten steps back. It's an existence that requires many deep breaths a day.

It's hard living with a person who greets you in the morning with a No. It's hard living with a person who glares at you when the light is still not fully in the sky and you are still coming around from sleep and figuring out how to feel about the day. It's hard at the other end of the day too when any feelings of satisfaction or lightness about other aspects of your life must be weighed against the No's that have accrued from that person, who always seems to be waiting to shut you down again.

There are big No's that are like a punch in the face. There are slightly smaller but no less insistent No's that are like having a wall built around you. There are tens and hundreds of still smaller No's, on the surface less important, but that still fall like someone has upended a bucket of nails over your head.

It would challenge the sunniest of dispositions. Mine was never particularly sunny to start with.

Yes, I feel sorry for myself - it's an indulgence, I know. But I feel sorrier for the person who says No. It is awful to see that person's unhappiness and anxiousness. It is awful to see how they shut down possibilities and let things go undone so long that the sadness and stress of it is crushing.

I would so dearly love to see this person looser and lighter. I want to see them learn to say 'Yes' and to see the freedom that it brings.

I have joked in the past, a bitter taste in my mouth, that this must be what it's like to live with a sectarian divide. But even Ian Paisley said Yes, in the end.

And yet.

History shows that dark years of misery are still marked by momentous days.

Last week was particularly bad for No's. As a result the weekend, predictably, saw tears and upset when the consequences came around.

Then yesterday - there is no way of writing this but that sounds mundane, though trust me it was not - there was a Yes.

In fact, there were several. One after another, after another, like the sound of bolts sliding open across a long-locked door.

And she smiled, and her heart lifted, and with it so did mine. I know what an effort it is for her to take a path suggested by someone else. I am grateful, and very proud of her.

A day like today is not a day for soundbites, really. But I feel the hand of history on our shoulders. I really do...

Monday, 14 July 2014

School trip

There's no-one else in the pool this morning. The rain has stopped and the morning sky is fine and clear, so the other early swimmers are filing past me to exercise outdoors.

I barely notice them - glimpses of feet in flip flops that appear briefly at my eye level and disappear again as I emerge and submerge, furiously propelling myself down the silent blue lane marked out in orange ropes in front of me. I want to stay indoors. I want to be alone.

This morning my girl departed on the school trip. It's a common enough event at this time of year. I wonder how many other parents are experiencing it right now. From those early spring evenings at the school receiving instructions from calm-voiced teachers, to the rather more urgently phrased summer letters home detailing travel times and required packing; the last week watching your child get progressively excited; the list making. The departing shot: "Don't worry about phoning - but do let me know you're ok!"

Push, dive, kick, breathe.

What must it be like, I think as I swim, to wave off your child with just a flicker of manageable worry - a normal parental twinge? What must it be like to see your child laughing with their friends, shoving excitedly on to the bus in a safe gaggle of chums, then sitting draped over each other, firing jokes back and forth with bright eyes and big grins? What must it be like to go back to your car with just a small tremor of sadness, knowing that by and large your child will be fine, will be happy, will have the time of their life and will come back full of tales of happy gang exploits?

What must it be like, at this event, to be the parent of a child who does not have special needs?

Push, dive, kick, breathe.

I force the air out of me and watch the anxiety-laden bubbles stream past me under water, imagining their acrid pop on the surface. I breathe harder and swim faster til I can feel the muscles taut and burning along my arms and shoulders and thighs and calves. Embedded in the rhythm of my stroke is a silent chant: Please let her be ok. Please let her be ok. Please let her be ok.

I tell myself she will be. She is brave and resourceful. She is glad to be going. She is excited. And the condition that means she will need extra help, that requires extra support and understanding, also has its own defence mechanism: she does not see many of the things I do. She did not see, this morning, how her classmates' eyes slid away as she approached to say hello, how the girls she saluted cheerily exchanged carefully flat glances at one another and replied in non-committal monotones. (I saw, and it was like being rabbit-punched in the throat - a moment of winded, gasping pain which I could not indulge. Instead I smiled brightly at my daughter and the dead-eyed girls edging away from us.)

A bit later I watched her sitting in the coach, a little stiffly, possibly a bit nervous and working her way through the feelings arising from the noise and the excitement in the air around her. I wanted to jump up and down, cross my eyes and stick my tongue out - make her laugh, and relax. I didn't do any of those things of course. She would have been mortified. So instead we looked at each other silently either side of the glass - me smiling from a pavement of chatting milling parents, who all seemed to know each other doubtless from the parties and sleepovers to which my girl is not invited - and her, beautiful and inscrutable, like a Mona Lisa among crowds of holiday pre-teens.

I looked at her and I remembered what she said in the car as we drove here today: "It's okay Mummy, I don't mind who I sit next to because everyone else will be saying 'oh sorry, I'm sitting with someone else'."

The coach driver started the engine. The doors closed. The level of noise inside went up another notch. I put my fingers to my mouth and extended them quickly towards her, hoping to send love rather than embarrassment. And Grace smiled at me finally.

They drove off. I walked to my car, keeping my face as still as possible, and drove to the gym.

We are lucky. My daughter is doing really well at a good school that understands her. Many children with special educational needs wouldn't be able to go on this trip at all. Others might go, and find it much harder than she will. My daughter is lucky. She will enjoy much of this trip.

Push, dive, kick, breathe.

In the water, no-one can tell you are crying.

I will be swimming a mile for autism on Sunday July 20, as part of a nationwide campaign to raise awareness. You don't need to sponsor me - but do join in. It's easy. Simply: 

  1. Do a mile in whatever way you choose - walking, cycling, running etc.
  2. Post your #AMileForAutism photo to Twitter or Facebook on 20 July (not forgetting the all important hashtag!)
  3. Text AMFA14 and either £1£2£5 or £10 to 70070 to make a donation, then encourage friends to join in and do the same.

Click here for more details.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Pond Life

It's 6am on a June morning. The skies are clear blue. A faint, sweet breeze rustles the branches of the trees outside my house. No one else is up. The street is quiet. It promises a lovely summer day.

It's the perfect day for a run.

Instead, I climb into my car and drive to the swimming pool.

When I arrive there is a small queue of regulars waiting at the front door to be let in. They fall into two clear categories: the very old, who wake early and come to glide carefully, like small wise turtles, up and down in the slow lane; and the very fit, who leap out of bed to come and motor up and down in the outside pool - the temperature of which is kept seriously cold, for serious people.

Then there's me. I keep telling myself it doesn't matter that I don't fit, because I'm not a swimmer, I'm a runner and I'm only here for a while.

But it's been two months, and that's starting to feel a bit longer than a while.

It's two months since I limped over the finish line of the London marathon and I haven't run since. I've seen a doctor, a physio, and an osteopath. They all have different opinions about what I might have done to my knee. I don't know what to do with so many different suggestions, so I'm not doing anything at all. That's to say - I'm not running. But I think about running every single day. And every day my knee reminds me, in various squeaks and twangs, and the occasional shooting pain if I'm starting to feel too optimistic, that it's not ready to be tested.

But I'm really bad at sitting around. And I want to be fit for when I can run again. So I'm spending a lot of time in the pool.

I don't like swimming. I've written about this before, so I won't bore you with it again, except to say that compared to running through fields of waving grass - and along tracks of fresh-smelling earth, in the fresh air and glorious, isolated, freedom - the up-and-down of the bob-dip-chlorine-sting while avoiding other people's toes and spit is really not doing it for me.

But I am persevering.

This morning, when the gym manager comes to let us all in, she advises that the indoor pool is closed because the chlorine levels are too high, so it's the outdoor pool only. A mutter goes up. I walk to the changing rooms behind three old ladies with candyfloss hair and velour tracksuits who are each dragging a small bag on wheels stuffed with potions and curlers and other, vital, post-swim kit.

"Why are the chlorine levels so high?" one wonders aloud.

"Someone had An Accident in there yesterday," says another, knowledgeably. "A number two."

The third one tuts. "Children in the pool. What do you expect. Really."

"Oh no," says the second one, mildly. "It wasn't a child. It was an adult."

The first one squeaks, and so do I, but manage to turn it into a light cough in time.

We go into the changing rooms. The ladies turn left. I turn right. I open a locker door, and start to get changed, grumbling to myself about being stuck doing the kind of sport so insanitary that you have to be doused in chemicals in order to protect you from other people's poo. I huff and puff, and brace for a cold dip.

But when I get to the door to the outdoor pool, there's a gaggle of disgruntled Serious Swimmers blocking the way with their broad shoulders and tiny waists and lean sculpted thighs. (What? Oh okay, so this sport does have one thing going for it.) It turns out that the outdoor pool is shut too, because the water levels are too low. There's no swimming at all this morning.

Everyone goes back to the changing rooms. I stand alone for a moment, frustrated - reluctant to pack up and go home but unable to think of an alternative. Then the janitor comes past and says he'll be testing the chlorine level of the indoor pool again in ten minutes and why don't I go to the steam room for a bit and then come back. So I do.

When I re-emerge, pink and blinking, the janitor gives me a cheery thumbs-up. The pool is open and I am the only person there. I rush to it and dive in immediately, suppressing a whoop, and strike out.

By the fifth lap I realise that I am smiling to myself in the way I used to when a run was going really well. By the tenth lap I realise that I didn't think about the last five laps because I was enjoying myself so much. By the twentieth lap I become aware that no part of my body is hurting me, at all, and that this is the first time in weeks and weeks that I have felt so whole and healthy. By the twenty-fifth lap I feel as though I am becoming longer and stronger. By the fiftieth lap, I have abandoned all conscious thought, lost in blissful blue zen.

After seventy laps I stop and surface and shake my head and clean my goggles. Then I do a quick back flip under water in quiet celebration. I haven't felt this good in a long time. I could keep swimming for ever, but a glance at the Olympic clock on the wall tells me I have to go home.

I pull myself out and glance around, and realise that I'm no longer alone. There's a man at the other end of the pool, in the lane beside mine. He isn't swimming, but is squatting in the water so that it comes up to his shoulders and the tip of his luxuriant beard, which I see now that he appears to be grooming.

I suppress a shudder and go for a very hot shower. But I'm already planning when to come back again.

I will be swimming a mile for autism on Sunday July 20, as part of a nationwide campaign to raise awareness. You don't need to sponsor me - but do join in. It's easy. Simply: 
  1. Do a mile in whatever way you choose - walking, cycling, running etc.
  2. Post your #AMileForAutism photo to Twitter or Facebook on 20 July (not forgetting the all important hashtag!)
  3. Text AMFA14 and either £1£2£5 or £10 to 70070 to make a donation, then encourage friends to join in and do the same.

Click here for more details.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

And still, they don't get it

In the wake of Elliot Rodger's actions, I wrote this blog about the mistaken and painful perception that a diagnosis of autism and Asperger's Syndrome can make someone a killer.

That day, I also complained to the BBC about its responsibility not to perpetuate this myth, because its online news story about Rodger pointed out his Asperger's diagnosis - which seems to have been wrong, as his family said later they "suspected" but had had no formal diagnosis - in a way that strongly suggested it might be a factor at play and, in my view, invited readers to make the link.

In the same complaint, I protested the BBC's decision to include at the end of its online news story lines of additional information about Asperger's, because it drove home the implicit suggestion that this was a major factor in the killing.

This is the very disappointing response I received today:

"We understand you were concerned that our article referred to Elliot Rodger having Asperger Syndrome.

This information was provided by the family’s lawyer and is included as background detail about the young man involved. There was no suggestion that his Asperger’s led to him committing murder or that people with Asperger’s are predisposed to such violence.

However, given his own comments in his manifesto and video, he was concerned at his apparent inability to form and develop relationships, and it could be that his Asperger’s played some part in those problems. So clearly this was information worth including. 

But like people without Asperger’s, those with the condition are individuals who respond differently to various situations, and we have neither stated nor suggested that Elliot Rodger’s diagnosis was the direct cause of the killings.

Now, I understand how entrenched some people's mistaken views about autism and violent behaviour are. If I had not been aware of this, some of the comments left at the end of my last blog would have left me in no doubt.

But I don't understand why the BBC does not understand. I also don't understand why it failed to see the point I was making about its responsibility not to suggest.

(And I don't understand why the BBC failed to answer my complaint about the fulsome additional information included at the bottom of the Rodger news story about Asperger's Syndrome - how it's diagnosed, what it means, how some individuals might behave - though I do wonder whether that might have anything to do with the fact that those lines quietly disappeared sometime mid-afternoon that day as lots of people joined me in complaining loudly across various social media about the BBC's coverage.)

So I've written back to the BBC again. This time, I've asked: if Rodger had been left-handed, would the BBC have included that information as a relevant detail? It's about as relevant as his Asperger's diagnosis. If he had been deaf, would it have included lines and lines of detail about that medical condition? (And can you imagine the outcry if it had?)

One of the few sensible things I read in the immediate aftermath of what happened in Santa Barbara was the statement by Mark Lever, chief executive of Britain's National Autistic Society. So I'm going to give him the last word, below. And I'm going to hope that the BBC is reading.

"The shootings in California are shocking and our thoughts are with everyone caught up in this tragedy.

“We would urge the public not to jump to conclusions about reports stating that the perpetrator had Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, or to associate the actions of one individual with a whole section of society.

"The vast majority of individuals with autism are law abiding and respect the rules of society. Indeed, in many cases, individuals with autism are unusually concerned to keep to the letter of the law, due to the nature of the disability."

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Violent and wrong: Elliot Rodger's crime should not taint my child

Another boy, another gun.

A little later, another photograph.

Brown hair, brown eyes. Slanting cheekbones. A way of tilting the head.

Scrutiny. Debate. Then - aha! He had Asperger's.

The pain of the parents of the children killed by Elliot Rodger is unimaginable. The pain of the parents of Elliot Rodger is unfathomable.

What I can describe is the pain of a another parent, one whose child has Aspergers and who is this morning trying to formulate a response to yet another story in which their child's diagnosis is being held up as an explanation for murder.

While I type this, my daughter is asleep upstairs. It's half-term, and she's tired. Her room is still dark, the curtains closed. I went in earlier to wake her, then changed my mind. She was so fast asleep, so lost in her dreams, that I couldn't bear to disturb her. Instead I stood in the shadows and listened to her soft breathing and to the spring rain pattering on the windows. I looked at her and I thought: my little girl. What will the world make of you now?

I haven't slept. I am indignant, fearful and full of rage - like many others out there adding their voices to this collective shriek of pain. I am in the worst possible state to attempt to present an argument. But when others are shouting such nonsense so loudly, I feel as though I have to try.

For as long as I have known that my daughter was autistic, I have fought against autism stereotypes. My daughter's autism is an essential part of her, but it is not the essence of her. She is sweet and funny and clever and sparky and eccentric and arty .. for so long my biggest frustration was that everyone wanted to label her as Rainman. The number of times Dustin Hoffman's stuttering mathematical genius has been cited in conversations about my daughter's diagnosis is so many I have lost count.

But faced with the conversations I am reading today - the ignorant, block-headed tweets and comments about "kids with Asperger's disease who kill other kids" - I could almost wish back those days of clumsy cliche. They seem so innocent now. That my daughter's diagnosis puts her, in so many lazy, unthinking people's minds, alongside the likes of Rodger and Adam Lanza, who fatally shot twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook elementary school, is horrifying.

It's very hard to speak for all people with Asperger's Syndrome. To those denouncing them all this morning as potential mass murderers, I would point out that when you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism. However, if I may be allowed one generalisation with which to fight back - most people with Asperger's don't want "revenge against humanity." To say today that all people with Asperger's are potential killers is as reprehensible and wrong-headed as Rodger's own assertion that blonde women were collectively to blame for his unhappiness.

Listen to me. Listen to me.

Autistic people are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.

Some people with autism have difficulty understanding other people. But it does not follow to say that every person who has difficulty understanding other people is like that because he or she is autistic.

To say that Elliot Rodger did this because he is on the autism spectrum is like saying Elliot Rodger did this because he was a man, and white.

Autistic people who commit these acts are no more representative of  people with autism than white male serial killers are representative of white males.


As Emily Willingham wrote in her fabulous paper for Forbes earlier this week, the real unifying feature of most mass murderers isn't autism or brain injury, "it's anger and rage, often blasted outward at innocent targets by means of easily accessible firearms."

And in this case, not only is the role played by firearms far more relevant than where Rodger might have been on the spectrum, but - as Jessica Valenti writes in the Guardian today - to dismiss him as a madman also glosses over the role that misogyny and a sexist society played.

I would write more, I would write on and on, but my daughter has just woken up and come down to see me. She is standing in front of me smiling, hair mussed, anticipating a good day. I tell her I love her. She tells me that she loves me back, then goes to cuddle her little sister.

There is a lot to be sifted through and assessed in the Santa Barbara killings. Of all of these things, Asperger's is a detail. It is not a pre-determination.

Grace Under Pressure: Going The Distance as an Asperger's Mum is published by Piatkus in the UK and by New World Library in the U.S.