Our family were at a wedding a few months ago and a friend pointed out how loving and inclusive our children were with each other, and how they were so protective of their brother, Fiach. Although I brushed off the compliment it made me brim up with pride. She was right, my kids are fantastic with their brother who has autism; they take extra care and go the extra mile to meet his needs. They are patient and gentle with him. They always include him in their games and adventures. They never leave him out. Without any effort, one child is helping to create kinder more considerate future adults.
Fiach just turned 7. He was diagnosed with Autism and sensory processing disorder when he was 4. Since then, without even realising, our family has changed. I suppose we made a lot of our family life more in tune with his needs; avoiding crowded places, saying no to things and events we knew would stress and upset him. Doing instead, things that as a family we could all enjoy together. Spending more time in our family unit instead of with groups. As a result Fiach is an extremely happy child. Despite his delays he’s interesting and very funny. He loves jokes and tricks, and being included in what’s going on! He can sniff out fun.
So, in many ways he’s just like any other child.
He is different though. You notice some things like small obsessions that he carries for longer than a typical child. Recently he started asking “what was I like when I was a baby”. He was very satisfied with one answer and now he answers the question himself with: “I was so cute”. Daddy winds him up a bit and says he was smelly like a squashed apple, which he loves. That’s the thing though, he surprises people with his responses. For instance, he has a lot of sensory issues and won’t let most people touch him, but he loves rough and tumble.
There is much more to him than you might think at first. You have to spend time to get to know him, it requires a little more patience and a little more understanding. The surprising thing is that by making this conscientious effort with Fiach, I have noticed that I have developed more awareness of other people’s needs. My other children have also become more considerate of each other through being considerate to Fiach’s condition.
I have learned since that there is a whole field of cognitive study based on this called Theory Of Mind, which is the practice of imagining how other people think based on what they might know as opposed to what you know. This is demonstrated by a simple experiment: Child A and B are in a room with an experimenter who puts a toy in a box on the table. Child B is taken out of the room and the toy is then taken from the box and put in a cupboard. Child B is brought back into the room and child A is asked where will Child B look to get the toy. If child A has an ability to see things from child B’s perspective he will answer in the box, but if child A assumes that child B knows what he knows he will most likely answer “in the cupboard”. Now take this realisation to every argument you have ever had. Since Fiach came into my life I have noticed that sometimes the cause of frustration in an argument was actually a failure to comprehend what the other person knew or understood.
Taking this realisation to my dealings with Fiach, and I find myself adjusting how I explain things to him or how I deal with discipline. Fiach is like any little boy, he would rather do anything than schoolwork, so we have to find creative ways to gently but firmly insist he does his lessons.
As I noted earlier, the extra effort we make with Fiach seems to bring out the best in our family, and it’s a portable lesson. My children are more open to reasoning their arguments from the others perspective, and their efforts with Fiach have taught them to be more selfless. In short, Fiach has made them more kind towards everyone.
I noticed this with others as well; he brings out the very best in people. His teachers, his special needs assistant: they all love him to pieces, and they are genuinely overjoyed at each turn of progress he makes. There have been times his teacher chased after me when I collected him to share her delight that he was using his pencil properly, or that he was enjoying himself performing for the class in spelling games. There is a big fan club for Fiach between home and school .
Fiach teaches our family how to be happier and kinder and more caring, he teaches us the value of patience and what hard work can achieve, because of him we are more loving and stronger. He makes my world better.
Today, April 2nd, is international Autism awareness day and on this day you will probably hear about the increasing rates of autism as well as the obstacles facing families with autistic children and adults living with autism. I would reflect on a story I heard radio presenter George Hook tell some years ago before he was disgracefully booted off the radio by the outrage mob. He talked about a young girl who lived on his road when he was growing up, who was different. The other children paid no attention to this at first but over time it became apparent to them that this beautiful girl was not like them in some ways. They didn’t care though. Gradually, however, this child vanished from their circle. She was kept indoors, hidden away. It was as if she slowly disappeared to become a strange ghost – a memory that was locked away behind a door. I could hear from his voice that this gruff old curmudgeon was in tears as he recalled this memory of over seventy years ago. And he is right to grieve, it was a very avoidable tragedy, brought on by ignorance and miss-understanding.
I’m not trying to beat up “old Ireland” here. I can understand that resources were very scarce, and many people did what they thought was best. I’m sure this little girl’s parents thought they were protecting her as best they could.
But let’s reflect on Hook’s natural instinct. Meeting this child, who had challenges, brought out the very best in him. Fiach brings out the best in us, and in everyone who knows him well. Autism isn’t a tragedy that needs to be hidden from the world. It’s a challenge, that like all challenges, can bring great rewards.
Having said that, I would like to finish with the inspired reflections of Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Colin Zimbleman, who said: “Autism offers a chance for us to glimpse an awe-filled vision of the world that might otherwise pass us by”.
Don’t let it pass you by.
Lorcán Mac Mathúna is dad to Fiach and writes from Dublin