For the first time this weekend Eva saw me cry, because I thought her little brother Tomas had died while I was busy chivvying her all the way home from the park. Of course, by ‘chivvying’ I actually mean grabbing her scooter and pulling her along while she wept bitterly and cried ‘help! help!’ to passers-by as if I were whisking her to a gas chamber.
At the start of this tempestuous journey I gave Tomas a wee box of raisins to chew in his buggy, and right at the end I thought he’d fallen asleep, but then I looked again. He was very pale, didn’t appear to be breathing, and had snacks strewn across his chest in a most uncharacteristic fashion, being as he’s usually loathe to leave anything edible outside his stomach.
Suddenly I found myself in a blind panic. Had I been so preoccupied with Eva that I’d failed to notice chubby Tomas choking on a raisin?
Fortunately, after much cheek tweaking and sweaty unbuckling, he awoke from his sweet slumbers understandably annoyed. By this time we were home in the hallway and the sheer relief washing over the head-bursting frustration of the last half hour just unmanned me. Before you could say ‘wet sod’ I was weeping on the hallway floor, with Eva looking on.
Mummy pointed at my damp, heaving plug of flesh. ”Eva, Go say ‘There, There Daddy’”. Slowly, she sidled up, took my hand, and led me upstairs.
“Come on Hansel!” she said in her sing song way. Only very recently has she started to experiment with different tones of voice that are more than just echoes of our storytelling cadences, in content as well as form. Anyway, she led me to the spare room and actually read me a ‘social story’ I’d drawn for her about the ballet class she attends every week.
‘Social stories’ are a common means of communicating with Autistic kids – basically they’re comic books that walk the child, frame by frame, through the correct behaviours in whatever situations they’re having trouble with, and they’re so useful because they bypass the verbal. So many of them have difficulty processing spoken instructions – for example, I can’t say “Eva, we’re going out in five minutes so you need to put your coat on.” That’s too oblique. It has to be “Eva, look at me, listen, put your coat on, then we’ll go out.” You have to use ‘then’ a lot to lock the sequence of events and you must use their name right at the top to ensure their attention. And you can’t do it in passing on the way to the coat hooks. You have to get down to their level, point at your eyes for ‘look at me’ and your ears for ‘listen’, otherwise they’ll only get part of the instruction because they lack the ability to tune out background noise. At school it’s even trickier for them because of the sheer volume of stimuli. When her teacher issues an instruction Eva might catch the last bit or the first, but she’s unlikely to get it all without being directly engaged.
The images in social stories circumvent all that processing, so it’s a lot less stressful for them, although you do have to read them regularly to reinforce their message. Eva has a social story for going to the toilet at school, and another one for sitting quietly in the small Assembly Hall, and she’ll read those most days. I’ll write a lot more about social stories in more detail elsewhere because they’ve worked so well for her, but my main pleasure, as I sat on the bed with Eva this weekend, was seeing my daughter trying to empathise with me for the first time.
She didn’t really understand why I was upset – the mix of emotions would be hard enough for any four year old to grasp – but she was trying to make me feel better, and she’d never really shown any interest in that before, not even when I was carted off in an ambulance with a suspected coronary. And she remembered it too. I’ve lost track of how many times we’ve reassured ourselves that ‘she’s forgotten it already’ only an hour after a huge blow-up, but this morning she remembered.
“Can I go down Payne’s Lane?’ she asked in earnest the minute she woke up, and those were her first words at the very beginning of Saturday’s incident. She’d remembered my intense frustration and panic, her own tears and mine. Maybe this would be one of her first memories, and I’m not sure how I feel about that, not being particularly proud of my own lack of patience, but I’m glad that she’s at last started to acknowledge other people’s feelings. For a while there I was afraid she was destined to go toe-to-toe with Trevor Eve in a sociopathic battle of wills (not that she wouldn’t have won, obviously.)
Three cheers for my tears!