There have been many awkward moments over the past year and a bit since my son’s diagnosis. Moments of uncomfortable, embarrassing awkwardness have become pretty commonplace and part and parcel of life with an autistic son. You might think I’m referring to things my son has said and done, but in fact you’d be wrong.
The majority of awkward moments I experience involve other adults. Sometimes this occurs when I discuss my son’s autism or tell them for the first time that my son is autistic. For some reason, men in particular find it very difficult to respond to and their awkwardness and embarrassment is very obvious. Perhaps it is my matter-of-factness or bluntness that is disconcerting (I am never embarrassed to mention my son’s autism) or perhaps it’s that they just don’t know what to say. Whatever it is, it’s awkward, both for them and me. When I told Superdad (see Guilt), his face said, “Get me a taxi out of this conversation”, and he’s not the only male colleague to respond in this way. This annoys me. I do not make autism my main topic of conversation (though it’s usually the main thing on my mind). I’m careful not to ram it down people’s throats or become a bore. I share very little. Nonetheless, I will not shy away from something that defines who my child is so fundamentally, just because it makes someone uncomfortable. I won’t let autism make my child some sort of social pariah.
There have been many other moments at work when the subject of autism has been the cause of awkwardness. Although we’re a mainstream school, all of us work with children on the spectrum. Often these children are the one’s that staff discuss outside the classroom, whether it be in meetings or casually in the staff room or corridor. We all do it, me included. Lately though, I’ve noticed people tip toeing around the subject when I’m there, stopping themselves mid sentence or apologising afterwards. Suddenly, people feel uncomfortable having a bit of a moan or sharing an amusing anecdote, for fear that it will offend me. I hate this. I’d rather people just spoke their minds, not pussy foot around me. I can’t guarantee that I won’t have something to say and I can’t guarantee that I won’t feel uncomfortable or even offended. But I’d rather feel that way than be the cause of people’s self censorship. If you’ve got something to say, just say it.
I don’t know how many people at work know about my son’s autism, and this bothers me. There are probably over 150 adults in the building, with about half being teaching staff. A number of people know because I have told them. But many more know because they’ve heard it via word of mouth. Whilst I have no problems whatsoever with anyone knowing (I am not ashamed), what does bother me is not knowing who knows. The day B was diagnosed I was due to attend parent’s evening, but missed it (on account of being a gibbering wreck that day). My (uncharacteristic) absence would not have gone unnoticed. Neither would the many, many absences I’ve had since. At first, the staff absence sheets said, ‘Personal’ next to my name. That became ‘son’s medical appointment’. People would have noticed this and, presumably, wondered what was up. Some have asked me directly and some have been told by others. Some have pretended they didn’t know when I told them, even though it’s obvious they do. This leaves me feeling pretty uncomfortable. I don’t really like the idea of people talking about me, particularly if they feel the need to deny it. I also find it awkward when someone asks me how the kids are. Do they know B is autistic? Is another awkward conversation on its way?
I think that mainstream schools in general have an awkward relationship with special needs. My son’s school are certainly being asked to bend uncomfortably to meet my son’s needs. The school I work in has good special needs provision but this fits uncomfortably with the results driven focus of the Head. I have sat in meetings and listened as the Head raised concerns about attracting out of borough children with additional needs, and the impact it may have on results. At times like that, it is difficult to wear the hat of both teacher and special needs parent.
I asked my wife about times when she felt awkward. Like me she has her moments, but they are rarely caused by our son. She also told me how recently a friend had complained that her daughter had ‘no social skills’. The friend then stopped, horrified, before apologising profusely. It had not bothered my wife one bit- it was an innocent comment that had no harmful intent. But her poor friend was left feeling like she had put her foot in it. It’s sad to think people are made to feel this way.
A real fear is that, one day, my oldest son might be embarrassed by his younger brother’s autism. I’m not unrealistic- younger brothers are supposed to be annoying and embarrassing. That’s normal. But what happens when my older son’s friends take the piss out of B? How will he react? Will he have the courage to stand up to that, or will it be the cause of resentment? Already there are occasions when B’s wacky exploits amuse his brothers friends, but the laughter is good-natured. What happens when the joke is on B and it stops being funny? At the moment they are the best of friends. I hope it stays that way.
As I said, most awkward moments come from dealing with other people’s attitudes to, and ability to handle, autism. But let’s not let my son off the hook completely. There have been some brilliantly cringe inducing moments caused by my son. Some, though not all of these instances are nothing to do with autism. They are just about children being children. We’ve all seen the red faced parent in the supermarket chased by a child screaming, “I need a poo!” A particular favourite of ours, though sadly one I missed, was when my boy asked a parent, “are you a man or a woman?” In fairness to the boy, it was a difficult one to call. He also has a worrying habit of grabbing strangers by the hand, leg, skirt or arse. He knows no social barriers and will talk to anyone, particularly adults. I’m sure my mother-in-law still winces at the time he stripped off on the school run. The world is my son ‘s playground, meaning that if he wants to become a puppy in the supermarket and roll on his back to have his belly tickled, then he will. This is probably preferable to his other supermarket persona- the screaming, uncontrollable maniac. On the plus side, I can always find him if we are in different aisles.
Yet as much as these moments draw the disapproving stares of strangers, they are rarely embarrassing. Once upon a time I may have felt awkward and uncomfortable, but I never am now. Perhaps if B was neurotypical, I might find these faux pas and public scenes uncomfortable, as if they somehow spoke volumes about my parenting skills. With B, I know where these behaviours come from. I know no-one is to blame, least of all my son, and as a result they are not moments of embarrassment.
I’ve read plenty of accounts of how autism positively changes people’s lives. I remain unconvinced by this but would definitely agree that it has helped me find the humour in situations that might otherwise have left me feeling mortified. I don’t often think this way, but maybe having a child with autism has made me a better person after all. I hope so.