My son's autism made me fearsome
On a hot September afternoon in 2001, my son was born. ‘My little boy,’ I said, and the words felt wonderful. I was 39 when I had George*. The pregnancy had been tricky, but here he was in my arms, rosy and beautiful. I assumed that motherhood would make me gentler. Kinder. Calmer. I was wrong.
Fast-forward five years and my son, still beautiful, still rosy, is in a room in a clinic. I’m sitting on a hard, plastic chair alongside his father, while our 18-month-old daughter Flora* plays at our feet. George is looking at a book while an unsmiling doctor makes notes.
Though he spoke at eight months and started reading at two, George is different. He twirls his hands, has irrational fears and at parties hides under tables with a book, hands clapped over his ears. The doctor turns to me. ‘He’s autistic,’ he says, flatly. ‘He has Asperger syndrome. He’ll struggle at school but he might go to university.’
My hands start to shake. The doctor hands me a leaflet that tells me my loving, clever, funny little boy won’t ever make jokes, will never understand wordplay and won’t show affection. I throw it in the bin. Nobody, I decide, not a doctor, and certainly not a leaflet, is going to tell me what my son can’t do.
All my life I’d felt shy and afraid of authority. Teachers and bosses made me anxious. But at that moment, I realised my job now was to stand up for George.
For a year after his diagnosis I felt exhausted, which I now realise was grief and shock. I was terrified about his future – would he work, fall in love, even leave home? – and mourned the ‘loss’ of the straightforward child I’d naively assumed I would have.
Perhaps I was also tired because I was growing the metaphorical claws and teeth I’d need to fight for my son. I used to think children were generally lovely but soon learned that many are mean. I couldn’t take my eyes off George without him being picked on.
He had a slightly odd gait, a habit of twisting his hands and a lisp, and he’s always been small and young for his age. But more than that, children have a radar for kids who are different. And George is hopeless at defending himself. In situations where his sister would be fast with a crushing comeback, or even a good shove, George will earnestly ask why other kids are being mean.
All this has made me wildly protective – and extremely fierce. When he was six, a teacher told me George was ‘violent’ because he’d bitten another child’s hand. My old instinct was to apologise.
But when I got home, George, who is terrified of enclosed spaces, told me the boy he’d bitten was one of two trying to force him into a dark cupboard. He had bruises on his arms. I returned to the school, a whirlwind of fury, and extracted an apology from his teacher.
I told my son that day that I’d always have his back, and I’ve kept that promise. I’ve become fearless, utterly determined. I’ve fought local authorities until he got the support he needed at school, and confronted parents who let their kids bully him. And I’ve discarded friends who stared at his hand twirling, made insensitive comments or couldn’t cope with his meltdowns.
George is nearly 15 now. He’s quirky, stubborn and has had his struggles, but he’s a clever, loving boy, who is never without a book and is a whizz at technology. I’m proud of him, but I’m also proud of the warrior he’s helped me become.
*Names have been changed.