My son seemed to cope quite well with nursery. His eye contact with us had improved and he was now using more words though he was still very unclear. However he remained very clumsy and extremely active. As often was the case, as soon as he left nursery he would act like a coiled spring and immediately run away. Fortunately I had access to a car so I made a routine of parking close to the school entrance so he knew where to run to, in case I struggled to keep up as I was now handling his baby sister. I did try and walk to school whenever I could but this was often fraught with difficulties as my son would either refuse to cooperate, have a terrible tantrum or run off. It was just too stressful dealing with this behaviour on top of looking after two other children!
Besides this, I had also noticed that he would not hold eye contact with people he did not know, one of whom was the nursery teacher. On various occasions the teacher would repeatedly ask my son to look at her when she was telling him something and when he eventually did look at her I noticed that he didn’t really look at her; he had a sort of vacant look. I didn’t think too much of this for two reasons. Firstly the teacher was so intimidating and loud that it didn’t surprise me that my son would not look at her (I felt the same) and secondly I also thought that my son should learn to look at people when talking and encouraged him myself. In hindsight though, I’m not sure this was always the right thing to do for I now know my son is autistic and struggles to cope with all the sensory messages to his brain which can often lead to sensory overload and ultimately a ‘meltdown’. Many people describe a meltdown as a severe tantrum but I see my son’s meltdowns as something a lot more serious where his brain is not functioning very well and he becomes vulnerable, angry, confused and unable to communicate with us. Consequentally accepting that he cannot always look at people eases the sensory pressure and anxiety he experiences and can help prevent or ease a meltdown. (I shall discuss these aspects of his condition in more detail in future blogs.) Of course in those days, I had absolutely no idea of this and continued to parent my son as if he was a non-autistic child. I have to wonder whether our ignorance (and that of the school) aggravated his behaviour for what I had assumed to be toddler tantrums were now becoming worse.
The first meltdown?
It was during this phase when I think we probably experienced our son’s first major meltdown, though we did not know it at the time. One sunny weekend we decided, as a family, to visit a local park and nature centre with my parents. This was a particularly pleasant park for it offered local walks amongst the surrounding countryside, boating activities on the lake and an adventure play area for the children. After walking around the lake, we returned to the nature centre where we bought our children an ice-cream from an ice-cream vendor. No sooner had we done this than our son lost control – he was screaming, fighting against us and attempting to run off. We decided to remove ourselves from the stares of the onlookers and managed to scoop up our son and place him in his car seat in the car. We thought our son had calmed down enough for us to attempt our journey home but by the time we were on the dual carriageway, our son lost it again to the point that he was now out of his car seat and trying to clamber over me and my husband who was driving. As my husband concentrated on controlling the car, I struggled to contain him as best I could until such point we could stop safely and buckle him back into his seat. Even with that done, he remained in a distressed state for the remainder of the day as were we!
(Car journeys with my son continued to be a very stressful experience for many years; we now think much of it is due to sensory difficulties - close proximity to others, the movement of the car etc. It is interesting that now he is older, he copes a bit better when he music being played.)
Anyway returning to my son’s time at nursery, that summer of 2002 was the time we prepared our son for school that coming autumn. The school was quite good at preparing their nursery children moving up and spent some time helping the children to get used to their new classrooms (which was just along the corridor from nursery). Parents and carers were also invited to have a school lunch with their child so they could share this ‘new experience’. I took this offer up and me and my son duly sat down along a trestle table in the school hall with our tray of food. To say I was surprised at the small portions was an understatement. Knowing that my son had a large appetite I peered down at the pathetically small piles of food and knew that my son would scoff the lot in seconds. And he did. And he asked for more. Unfortunately the younger children weren’t allowed seconds so I decided that my son would have to take packed lunches when he started school that September. School lunches were just not going to sustain my son’s unusually big appetite.