This is a guest blog from Holly Gaunt, 31, mum to James. He was diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder at four-years-old. Now five, James attends a special school near their home in Portishead, Bristol.
In 2014, Holly began a blog about life as a parent of a child with autism. We’re sharing her story as part of our 100 days, 100 stories campaign.
Since having children, I have become an expert in speed-shopping. In fact, unless I’m desperate, I try to avoid it altogether.
But today was an emergency: we had run out of milk and, more importantly, chocolate. I had no choice but to run the gauntlet, so to speak, keeping everything crossed that James would co-operate.
Unfortunately, about 10 feet inside Waitrose, James decided he’d had enough of holding my hand.
Before I could stop him, he had bolted around a corner and out of sight.
After trailing the aisles for several minutes in a panic, I eventually located him in the packed café.
I summoned my strength and managed to hoist him up over my shoulder whilst he screamed and smacked me in the face. For a four-year-old, he packs a surprisingly hard punch. I forced myself to grit my teeth and ignore his violent protest – experience having taught me that reacting would only egg him on.
At the checkout, I had to abandon my shopping several times to chase him as he tore off down the aisles, responding with a tight smile to the commentary of the checkout lady: “He’s a livewire, isn’t he?” I could feel about a hundred pairs of eyes on me and I knew exactly what they were all thinking.
And therein lies the ‘problem’ with James. People don’t realise that he has autism, because he looks ‘normal’- so he is judged by normal standards. To other people, James is just naughty and needs a firm hand, which clearly I’m not giving him.
People with autism struggle to cope with sensory stimulation.
For James, the supermarket isan overwhelming myriad of bright lights, colours, and noises forming a general din that makes him anxious and hyper. And because social norms mean very little to him, tearing through a crowded supermarket and throwing himself in the path of oncoming trolleys is not something he perceives as a problem.
James also lacks the necessary awareness of danger to prevent him from running off without a backward glance when something captures his interest. He isn’t being belligerent or ‘testing the boundaries’- that requires at least a very basic understanding of other people and their expectations.
Like our shopping trip, trips to playgroups, soft play centres, children’s parties, simple experiences that most parents take for granted are decidedly difficult for us. The common theme? Well, it’s other people. The staring. The whispered comments. I could grow a thicker skin but that’s easier said than done.
The truth is that all of us, myself included, have at some point or another been guilty of judging a situation without knowing the facts. I hope that, by explaining autism from a parent’s perspective, I am helping to raise awareness of this misunderstood condition. Have you read this and learned something new? If you have, then I am one step closer to achieving that.
There’s lots of information on Scope’s website on autism and about being a parent of a disabled child.
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