Catching the quiet

Full colour photograph of an orange “super moon” in a deep blue sky, to the left of which are the black, silhouetted branches of a leafless tree.

I must take my life’s rare moments of calm where I find them.

Catch hold of the string holding the serenity balloon before it floats away into the blue.

I cuddle my son to sleep almost every night.

After a busy, noise-filled day, my whirlwind, bounce-off-the-walls, never-still, never-quiet younger child has listened to me reading him stories – all the while attempting handstands, inspecting the slight rip along one side of his dinosaur poster that was torn into existence by an errant foot, examining a stray vehicle rudimentarily constructed from Lego bricks.

I have done my best to contain my frustration at interruptions and interjections, my exasperation at the small limbs whose darting, distracting movements scratch at the smooth canvas of my peripheral vision or knock the picture book out of my hands. I’ve remained calm and patient, despite my exhaustion.

(I have medication now. These days, I am far better able to manage bedtimes than I was six months ago. My temper has been tempered.)

At last, his eyelids are drooping. He issues a yawn. He curls up on his side. Finally, he tells me he wants the light off, and a cuddle.

I oblige. I draw the jungle-animal-patterned duvet up around him so that he is “nice and snug”. And I lie down next to him, on top of the duvet, and I put one arm around him. Nuzzle my face into his soft hair. Often, he asks me to take his little hand in mine and hold it tight, and I do so.

Some would say that I’m too soft. That young children need to learn to self-soothe; to get themselves to sleep without parental input. That he won’t ever be independent if he can’t fall asleep by himself. That I’m making a rod for my back and not giving myself enough of a break.

Maybe. I don’t believe so. He will fall asleep alone on occasion. But where’s the harm in giving reassurance to a small child who needs it? In letting him feel safe, secure, and loved? Surely that’s a better path from which to work towards independence anyway, if that’s the thing that’s desired?

Besides, I have an ulterior motive.

The room is darkened. Still. I am comfortable. And he is quiet. This is a break.

I catch and enclose that quiet in my cupped hands like a butterfly. All too soon, I know I will need to release it; let it flutter free from my hands’ prison. I will have to let the balloon float on.

He’s been asleep for a few minutes now.

Downstairs, I hear repeated bursts of the Danger Mouse theme tune. I hear his big sister running, careering and thudding around the living room; humming, clicking, singing, squealing.

Soon, she’ll want to talk to me. She’ll need to share her latest grand idea, impart the details of her latest imaginary world, or outline the plot of her latest work of fiction. She’ll want to talk about her day. Share her worries, excitements, or causes for celebration.

And I’ll listen. I’ll be there with her.

Just Not. Quite. Yet.

It’s been a busy day. Office greetings. Kitchen small-talk. Meetings. Listening. Processing. Dark glasses in bright rooms. Headphones to block out the noise. Smells. Heat. Sweaty clothing. Sore feet. Too much tea. Dry mouth. Plans to make. Tasks to prioritise. Work to do.

And before I do my next round of listening, I need, however fleetingly, to catch the quiet, and hold it close to me as I hold my son.


[Image description: Full colour photo of a deep blue sky lit by a yellow/orange “super moon” – a full moon that appears slightly larger than normal due to its proximity to Earth at a particular point in its elliptical orbit. To the left of the picture is the black silhouette of some leafless tree branches. Photo by Dave Grubb.]

In praise of the brick

A row of brightly coloured, plastic Lego minifigures, in a range of poses and mismatched costumes, carrying a wide variety of props.
In between bouts of abject misery, whilst I’ve been off work over the summer holidays I’ve been immersed in a nice little obsession that has gripped every single member of our four-person household.

My husband was always a huge Lego fan as a child, and was always eager, from her birth, for our girl to reach an age where she might, just might, develop an interest in it. And although she showed little interest in the larger Duplo blocks as a toddler, that interest did come as she approached three, and for the past couple of years, building increasingly off-the-wall creations with those little coloured plastic bricks, plates and “elements” has been one of dad and daughter’s chief ways of bonding.

It’s hard to get her to put down the hardback Lego Ideas books she stays awake at night poring over. It’s an outlet for her feverish, ever-active, ever-inspired imagination. And it’s a compulsive habit for all of us.

As a child, Lego was simply one of the many things I played with. My younger brother had space and police sets. I gravitated towards the classic, multicoloured stuff and mainly built houses. Or house layouts. Single-storey roofless semi-open plan buildings with every room, and every appliance accounted for. All fairly basic. I enjoyed the creativity inherent in trying to replicate the look and feel of everyday items using materials constrained in their shape or colour. But the primary outlet for my wilder imaginings as a child was drawing. 

Now, however, it’s a different story. We have masses of the stuff. My husband takes great enjoyment in building pre-designed sets straight from the box. Daughter initially watched him build, enthralled, but these days takes a far more active role. And later, when the purchased, assembled sets are dismantled (and I have to disregard the inner wince I experience as the strict inventory of bricks from one set is mingled in with the rest of our stash of plastic), my daughter starts inventing. She also loves collecting minifigures, but is always happy, once again, to dismantle their intended forms and create her own monster minifigure mashups.

Our toddler is captivated by it all. Of course, his involvement has mainly, until now, consisted of dismantling his sister’s creations (and yet never smashing. He’s always take them apart bit by bit, examining the pieces) or running off with much-needed elements. Now he’s sorting the bits into type, assessing and grouping sizes and shapes, building towers of bricks of one particular type or another, and showing a level of dexterity and manual strength I’m pretty amazed at for a not-quite-two-year-old.

(And yes, I know he’s not old enough for it. He should stick to his Duplo. But he doesn’t put the bits in his mouth. He plays with them. Properly. He puts them together logically, and takes them apart. We supervise him. And we’re all happy.)
Front view of a small two-storey model house constructed primarily of beige, grey and brown Lego bricks, with double doors, white framed windows and navy blue roof tiles. In the front doorway stands a blank faced minifigure wearing a tricorn hat. On a balcony on the right of the picture stands a simple two-eyed 'ghost' constructed of white bricks.
And although it’s always been my husband’s domain (as the stay-at-home parent, he’s always had more available time), over the holidays I’ve really got in on the act.

Lego is just so phenomenally pleasing. It’s tactile. Stimmy. And despite the fact I’m hugely, and often adversely, sensitive to noise, I find myself enjoying the sound of the bricks as they crash and rattle through my hands as I run them through the box, searching for the right element. It’s akin to white noise, I suppose.

The design of each individual element can be utterly exquisite. And the beauty of the sets you can buy suggests that those who designed them had a hell of a lot of fun in putting those ideas together. Some are beguiling in their apparent simplicity; others dazzlingly, deliciously complex. Others still, especially those builds on a micro scale, make my heart sing with the way the very essence of an animal, person or object is conveyed by such a limited combination of component parts. 

Of course, there’s so much more scope now than there was when I was a child. The range of available elements is astonishing. And sometimes this raises expectations too high. You have a seemingly ridiculous range of materials from which to build from, and yet not quite enough of certain items to build your envisaged design to absolute perfection. Perhaps tighter constraints are, sometimes, liberating. But variety can also be hugely fun, and hugely exciting.

The interior of a small two-story house made of Lego bricks. On the left is a brown staircase with a 'Mr Hyde' type figures standing in it. A small 'ghost' peers out of a first floor door, and a larger one stands on the ground floor, to the right of the picture. Dimly visible in the background is a minifigure wearing a tricorn hat.This week, I built a haunted house for my daughter, at her request. It was an addictive process. I’ve struggled to tear myself away from the build, and once again, I’ve found myself utterly immersed, compelled. Always keen to improve on the structure and appearance of the thing.

At night, I’ve seen bricks in my mind’s eye. And even while ‘Picture This’ was playing in my head as I took my “need for space” walk earlier this week, and I noticed leaf formations, the shapes of trees, the light of the moon in the sky, and my feelings about past walks and past personal experiences and depressive episodes, I still found myself looking at buildings anew. Evaluating and appraising their structures, and wondering how such a thing might be conveyed in studded plastic form.

Daughter added embellishments, decor and furniture to the house, and two out of the three simple brick-ghost inhabitants. The husband added a couple of spooky minifigures.

A two-storey house built of brown, grey and beige Lego bricks. A simple 'ghost' made of white bricks stands in an upstairs balcony.It’s the most complex thing I’ve ever built out of Lego. And I’m bloody pleased with it. But also dissatisfied because I’m aware there are better techniques for ensuring structural integrity, optimum ordering of building of each part, and so on. The pattern-spotting, detail-fixated autist in me sees room for improvement everywhere, and a keenness to learn, observe, and do more. The trouble is, I’ll be back at work soon. I’ll have less time.

But I don’t think I can let go of Lego. It’s got me, dammit.

Our little patch of green

Collage of four photos, depicting a hand holding 5 strawberries, a lime green plastic bucket containing freshly dug up potatoes, a metal colander of fresh salad leaves, and more salad in a plastic tub, including leaves and edible flowers (red and orange nasturtiums; yellow rocket flowers)

[Image description: a collage of four photographs, depicting freshly harvested produce from a small personal garden. Clockwise from top left: a hand holding five ripe red strawberries; a lime green plastic bucket, about a quarter full of new potatoes, still with soil on them; a metal colander containing an assortment of fresh salad leaves and one red nasturtium flower: a plastic containing more salad leaves (rocket, cress and edible flowers (nasturtiums and rocket flowers).]


Those who know me, either “in real life” or purely through social media interactions, may have noticed I’ve been finding things all a bit much recently.

The build-up to my country’s recent general election, worrying political events taking place across the Atlantic and elsewhere (I have a lot of connections in the States), and whole host of horrific, life-changing (or life-destroying) incidents and accidents filling up the news have conspired to overpower me. This all came on top of the annual busiest time at work. I’ve been tired, stressed, and on the cusp of burnout for a fair old while.

This happens every year, at this time of year. I’ve recently celebrated my one year blogging anniversary, and it’s no accident that I felt the urge to start blogging at the same time last year, in a desperate attempt to let the blood of burnout and overwhelm, to trepan my pressured head of worries, anxieties, and mental noise.

(Side note: why does my country’s political leaders always insist on having the build-up to important voting events at the same time of year as I’m contending with my largest volumes of coursework marking and moderation, and the peak period for conference paper submission deadlines? And why does this always follow on straight from Autism Bewareness Month? But I digress.)

I recently uninstalled the Facebook app from my phone and iPad, in a bid to reduce my compulsion to check and be confronted with so much awfulness. I’ve been keeping personal Twitter use to a minimum and focusing more on using my professional account – this time of year, there are a lot of professional events and conferences, so plenty of interesting work-related stuff to tweet about.

Truth be told, I’m missing a lot of people, but I’m not missing my newsfeeds. Hyper-empathy and information overload mean I need to protect myself, and I have a drastically reduced tolerance for what others can happily cope with seeing online, day after day. It won’t be forever, but right now, it’s necessary.

The other thing I’ve been trying to do is spend more time outdoors in green spaces. I’ve written many times already about how much nature soothes and revitalises me. So much positive, mindful stim potential. The natural world, and the colour green, are as vital to me as air.

I’ve extended my walks to and from work by five minutes each way, so I can pass through two of my local parks. I watch the ducks, coots, moorhens and pigeons going about their daily lives on and around the lakes. I sniff at open roses. I run my fingers over foliage and examine the undersides of leaves up-close. I gaze up at the lush green canopies of mature trees, and occasionally (when no-one’s looking), swing from one of the thick branches, leaning backwards and enjoying the voluntary upside-down-ness for a short while.

Not far from the building where I work, my university has recently invested in an extensive landscaping and planting initiative along some newly-pedestrianised thoroughfares: with small trees with shimmering, rustling leaves; fragrant herbs and flowers;  swishing, textured grasses; wild strawberries; berry bushes; and plenty of places to sit. It’ll be a while until it’ll all be properly grown up, but it’s a welcome addition and an enormous source of readily-available sensory boosts for this particular autistic so close to her office.

And now the weather’s warmer, and both my children are older and more mobile than at this time last year, we’re out in our own back garden a lot more.

Our family garden, like our house, is on the small side. It’s south facing, and has great soil. But still, it’s small; plus, we’re in a middle terrace, with a path running between our kitchen and the garden that’s used by one set of next door neighbours. Our patch is heavily overlooked by the houses on the next road along from ours.

In sum, it’s not exactly the kind of place you go to sit and chill.

But then, that’s not something I’ve ever been any good at anyway. So it’s always seemed far more sensible to give the space over to fruit and vegetables. To growing things we can make use of.

When we first bought our scruffy, ex-student-let house over a decade ago, the back “lawn” resembled a hermit who has lived alone, cut off from civilisation for years; never cutting their hair or nails, or attending in any way either to appearance or to personal hygiene. We wanted to do something with it, and given that the husband prefers staying indoors and I can’t get enough fresh air, I was the one who took it upon myself to spend the first full summer sorting it out: clearing undergrowth; hacking at unruly, thick vegetation; meticulously picking out rubble; and digging out monstrous weeds that reached waist-height, with roots several feet deep. We’ve never put chemicals on the soil; I’ve always enjoyed the satisfaction of physical toil.

Since then, we’ve grown salads, potatoes, beans, peas, courgettes (zucchini, for my US friends), herbs, and much more. We have an untidy jungle of autumn raspberry plants at the back of the plot, providing us with enormous, juicy sweet fruit from late summer until November. 

Some things haven’t worked so well. Brassicae, onions, tomatoes (we don’t have room for a greenhouse), and beetroot, are all crops we’ve never had much luck with. We have some dwarf apple and pear trees, but I’ve never quite got to grips with looking after them well enough to get much of a harvest from them. Mint – supposedly one of the easiest and most invasive of herbs – has never liked spending time at our address. And some years, the weather means that even stuff that normally does do well is an utter write-off.

But it’s our little patch of green, and I love spending time in it.

My daughter makes mud pies, cakes and soup, and other “monster foods”. She inspects the many mini-beasts that frequent the space. She’s helped us plant potatoes, sow seeds, and water the growing plants. And when she’s outside, it’s the only time my fruit-and-vegetable-averse, texture-sensitive, “fussy eater” of a child will actually help herself to what’s growing, chowing down on fresh sorrel leaves, cress and, very occasionally, those delicious raspberries.

For a time last year, we wondered whether to replace some of our raised vegetable beds with grass, and room for play. Our son was a baby, and we struggled to manage what was growing there. The neglected state of our garden was beginning to depress me. But now he’s a toddler, he’s as happy as his sister to spend time out there, pottering about, “helping” with the watering, weeding and planting.  We’re even out there often enough to get to our meagre strawberry yield before the slugs and snails steal them all. And so I’d like it to stay as it is for now.

I’m no Autistic Gardener. You couldn’t ever argue that our space has been “designed”. A lot of the time, I just let stuff happen. 

Nasturtiums re-seed themselves all over the place, as do an assortment of wild flowers I only actually sowed intentionally on one occasion. Oregano is like a weed – from one original plant grown from seed, it now flowers, seeds, and grows everywhere. But the butterflies and bees love its clusters of small, fragrant, mauve flowers, so I’m happy to allow it some liberties. This year, we’ve been invaded by brambles. But whilst I’ll make the effort to clear them eventually, so they don’t overpower the rest of the plot, this year I’m content to enjoy the unexpected bonus blackberries.

I dream of one day owning a home with a far larger garden, with a place for quantities of edibles, and space to relax or spend time outdoors with family and friends, and room for the kids to play.

But our little patch of green still makes me happy. As I tend to what’s growing, I say hello to the friendly blackbird who nests with his mate in the bushes next door, watch the swifts swooping and wheeling in the evening sky, and listen to hum of bees, industriously searching for and gathering flower treasure.

There’s always something to do, and always something new to look at; to touch, to smell, to harvest, and to taste. And just recently, I’ve valued our little patch of green more than ever.

Another like me?

This blog isn’t an “autism parent” blog. I use this site as a place for my own catharsis, and for information- and experience-sharing. Nevertheless, I am a parent, and that part of who I am will, at times, feed into what I think and feel, and, thus, what I write about. I am also an autistic parent, and now my family has new knowledge.

Two days ago, my four-year-old daughter received – as I did, two months ago – a formal diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (deemed synonymous with Asperger Syndrome). Like me, she’s #actuallyautistic.

Unlike many parents of autistic children, I do not feel a hint of “grief” at this news. We had a feeling; we did research (in my case that very intensive, exhaustive, and in-depth research that comes of being someone of my neurotype); she had an assessment; and our feeling was confirmed. This is who she is. She is both wonderful and annoying, just like all four-year-olds. And being autistic is part of her identity, her personhood; it always has been. We’ve not been robbed of anything.

Do I feel an added pressure? I share a similar neurological profile to my girl. Am I then to be her primary mentor? Well, I am her mother.

We are alike in so many ways. So often I see myself in her. And – as it would be for any parent whose child is, to some degree, like them – this is a double-edged sword.

It’s all too easy for us to live vicariously through our children, or try to turn them into “improved” copies of ourselves – foisting our own interests upon them at the first vague hint of curiosity; drilling them to do better at something at which we feel we missed the mark.

She has received her diagnosis, thirty-two years younger than I received mine. Her life, and her knowledge and understanding of herself, will inevitably be different.

But then, of course her life will be different.

Because she’s not me.

Like all children, she is her own unique and beautiful self.

I will have insights into some of the ways she thinks and feels that some in our family do not share. I’ll be able to put myself in her shoes in a way that others in our family cannot do. I might be able to explain things to her in a way she can understand, better than those around us. And I can provide insights to others that might help them to understand both of us a little better.

Because autism is intrinsic to who we both are.

But…

We also have the many layers of identity, circumstance, experience, and personality. No two people are the same, and she – like her brother – will also learn so much from others around her.

It’s wrong of me to think I would ever have all the answers to how to be a parent, just because I share the same neurotype as my child. Just as it’s wrong of any parent to refuse to try to understand a child who is fundamentally different from them.  Whoever we are as parents, whatever our neurotypes or those of our children, we must allow them to learn from us, and we must also learn from them.

I’m just glad she has that chance of self-knowledge, and the opportunity of support and understanding, at an age when these things can, potentially, make a positive difference.

So that she can truly be her own person, and – or so, at least, I hope – not spend a lifetime trying to be someone else.