By the autumn of 1999, my son had started to walk. He was now about 16 months of age so this couldn’t come sooner for me, for he had become incredibly heavy to lug around. His elder sister had also by now settled into reception class at school which meant that I had more one to one time with him. I therefore joined a couple of local mother and baby groups. One of my favourites was based in my Nan’s local church which was situated in a sprawling suburban area. It was a lovely church that was then run by a friendly Vicar and his wife who I came to know through my daughter at school. Our family had a particular connection with this church; not only was it used for christenings and my Nan’s religious worship but it was through this church that me and my husband planned our wedding at its sister church in the middle of town many years before. Indeed it offered much to the local community at large in the form of social groups for the elderly, Brownies, toddler groups and so forth. It therefore came as a massive disappointment to us that a few years ago the Church of England decided to sell the land for a sheltered housing development which to date has still not finished.
Anyway, back then, I was still able to enjoy the weekly mother and toddler group that was held there. Here my son had the space to explore a variety of different, and sometimes messy, activities that I did not have at home. The session was loosely structured in that it offered free play, then refreshments to both children and parents and then at the end we had a circle time of music and singing. The group also offered the usual array of seasonal themed activities and parties which the children loved. I found it a welcome break to meet up with my friends and the staff over a cup of coffee while my son played. Being cooped up at home with a toddler can be extremely hard work and isolating, especially in the disparate communities that we live in today where neighbours hardly connect with one another. Whilst my neighbours at the time were really lovely and showed a lot of interest in my children they were far older than me and I really needed to find a community of other mums where we could share experiences.
As my son approached the age of 2, I also joined a twos group in another local church which, ironically, has also been abandoned. The aim of this group was to provide more structure as a stepping stone to playgroup which he would go to on his own when he was 2 and a half, so I thought it would be a good idea to take him there so he could get used to the building. This group had a range of activities that were set up in distinct areas so there was art, pretend play, reading corner, construction, cars and a physical play area and more that were regularly rotated. It was here that I noticed that his interests were different than other children. What he was really fascinated with was wheels, or things that moved, so this often meant monopolising the Thomas the Tank table or the box of cars and car mat. I would often sit with him round the Thomas table and gaze over at the other activities on offer and feel a bit disappointed that he would not play with the other things. His very fixed interest on things that moved was also apparent at home too and he would often line up all his cars in a long line on the car mat which to me seemed like a permanent traffic jam. The car mat resembled a town so I tried to play with him by suggesting different scenarios for his cars such as a car accident or fire and so forth. He did not like this and any attempt by me to move or play with his cars would be met with the said vehicle being put back in the line. Initially I felt quite stuck as to how to play with him but when I came round to his way of thinking, we quite enjoyed exploring the different types of cars. However, there were none of the role-play activities that I used to share with my daughter; you know the doctors and nurses type of scenario where I (or her father) was often the poor patient being prodded about with pretend hospital instruments. Whilst I missed this type of interaction with my son, I did not worry about it too much as I assumed that my son was just being a boy. In part it probably was but what I failed to appreciate at the time was how the lack of imaginative play may have been a feature of his autism.