I’d like to say a big thank you to the woman I met in the chip shop this week. She got me thinking about a couple of big questions, like: where does being autistic end and being male begin? To what extent do the two overlap? Is autism really ‘a boy thing’? Mostly though, she reminded me that my boys were just being boys, and that not everything is about autism.
As we stood in the chip shop queue, waiting for the chips to cook, my boys hyper-actively bounced around, causing mayhem and drawing attention to themselves. I told them to sit and wait at a table, at which point they invented about ten new ways of ‘sitting’, none of which involved using their backsides but did involve being upside down, placing limbs on a table and kicking each other. I don’t think B presented as particularly autistic (although a keen ear would have interpreted his stimming as evidence) but he did come across as poorly behaved. I guess I looked like a dad who, charged with the care of his kids for the summer, was struggling to cope. The truth is that B’s apparent bad behaviour was a result of the way he copes with his environment, manages his sensory needs and controls his impulses. I’d refute the suggestion he is naughty, although you can’t really tell other people that. I guess that’s why some people invest in ‘not naughty, autistic’ t-shirts, badges and cards.
Anyway, the woman next to me in the queue made me feel a whole lot better when she said, “Ah, boys. My two were exactly the same.” We shared the old joke about boys being like Labradors and needing lots of exercise to wear them out. She told me that her main rule had been that her boys kept one foot on the ground at all times! I left the chippy feeling more, er, chipper about my rampaging boys. Yes, autism is a major factor in the way B acts and behaves, but so is the presence of the Y chromosome. He’s actually very typical of most boys. I spend so much time focussing on his autistic traits that I’m guilty of forgetting that many things he does are a natural, normal part of being four years old and male.
I needed to hear this woman’s wise words after a recent incident, involving the three-year old girl who lives next door. She was having a birthday party, in her house, and my sons were invited. It’s hard to make excuses for not going when you live next door, so we decided to give it an hour. In fact, we gave it forty minutes and it was the longest forty minutes of my life. I can honestly say that every second we were there was agonising and I could not wait to leave. The problem stemmed from the fact that every other child at the party was a delicate little three-year old girl. These pretty little flowers had spent their morning having their faces made up and having tea parties with their teddy bears. Enter Chaos and Destruction, my two sons. Within thirty seconds B had walked into a table, hurting himself (we forget how ‘B-proof’ our house is). After a few minutes, the boys had commandeered the trampoline and birthday girl was crying. B’s reaction was very predictable. “Oh shit! He’s hit her!” I thought. Luckily, no one else had seen it happen. Phew. The girls soon settled down to eat a very civilised picnic lunch, whilst my boys continued to storm their way round the house and garden, causing mayhem.
I am rarely embarrassed by my children, but I felt very uncomfortable for the entirety of the short time we were at the party. To the assembled parents I must have looked completely useless as a parent, desperately unable to control his kids. “Isn’t he a teacher?” they must have thought, before concluding that my classes must be utter pandemonium too, if I can’t even control two kids with a combined age of eleven (for the record, my lessons are very well managed thank you very much; a class full of teenagers is much easier to control). Added to this is the fact that we are significantly older than the couple next door (not that we’re old, as such, but they are very young parents. And I mean young- I think the child was conceived behind the bike sheds). By definition, maturity and experience should make us capable and effective parents, not the hopeless amateurs that we so often look like.
It was horrible, and we soon made our excuses (to no objections) and left the girls to their Sylvanian Families. At least the boys got a party bag out of it. Oh goody- more sugar and e-numbers for them to ingest. The experience was a real eye-opener for a man with very little experience of raising girls. I think I typically blamed the whole sorry debacle on B’s autism, but looking back, I’m not sure whether what I was seeing was simply the differences between boys and girls. Do I spend too much time seeing autism when what I’m really looking at is boyhood?
This could be extended to some of his other characteristics and interests. B is currently very interested in numbers and times and basic sums. Maths, of course, is very much a ‘boy’ subject at school (a cliché, but also true), in that they perform better and have more interest in the mathematical and scientific disciplines than, say, the arts. B’s obsessive, exclusive interests and hobbies could also be said to be a very male thing. It might be football, or it might be cars or it might be music, but we’re all capable of having all-consuming, obsessive interests. When my boy rattles on obsessively about scenes in the Star Wars movies, I can only conclude that it’s a genetic thing, because I was exactly the same. Nick Hornby (a man who knows plenty about autism) has made a living out of writing about such things.
So could it be argued that all men are a little bit on the ‘spectrum’? I read that a high proportion of wives think their husbands are. I’ve also had a lot of people tell me they suspect someone they know or Someone in their family is “a bit, you know…odd” They are always talking about men.
But it’s not just a boy thing, is it? Although many more boys are diagnosed, it is increasingly believed that many girls on the spectrum are simply not being picked up on. Girls, it seems, have a greater ability to adapt and mask The tell-tale signs that are looked for in a diagnosis . Special Needs Jungle posted a link last week to this Guardian article which makes interesting, if concerning reading. Clearly opinion is divided, but could it be that we do readily make the link between typically male behaviour and autism because our expectations, preconceptions and the research undertaken lead us to think this? And where does this leave the girls on the spectrum? From what I’ve read, they face an uphill struggle for adequate diagnosis and ‘an increased risk of anxiety, eating disorders or depression’.
It seems the more I learn about autism, the less I realise I know. The link between boys and autism seems to be a mindset, and I am glad that I have made an effort this week to be less quick to blame everything my boy does on his gender. I have very little experience of girls on the spectrum and would welcome the comments of readers with more first hand experience. How do girls on the spectrum differ from boys? What are your experiences of diagnosis and beyond?
Perhaps we are all guilty of perpetuating the myth that autism is a boy thing, when we should be doing more to understand how it affects both genders. People with autism face a general lack of understanding in the face of society’s indifference and ignorance. It seems that this is even more true for girls, and we all have a responsibility to raise awareness, whatever the gender of our kids.