Sunday, March 6, 2011

The gift of time (and cheetahs...)

Autism brings some parenting challenges that I, for one, was not expecting.

Before Billy came along, I had a fair idea that kids liked popular primary coloured toy brands. I was expecting a bit of repetition as my child learned to speak. I was hoping for a couple of those baby product commercial moments when I could gaze out a window with my perfect baby snuggled into my chest.

I guess, what I was hoping for was, well… to be a parent, like all the other parents I saw out there.

And I have to say, it started out a bit like that.

I got to stare out windows quite a bit in the first few weeks. That’s because Billy had jaundice, and he needed the sunlight. The jaundice came because Billy was born with no sucking or rooting reflex at all. He barely fed for the first three days of his life, and because he was born in a small regional hospital, no-one thought to raise any alarms – until he turned yellow.

We fed him with a supply line, forcing vast volumes of liquid through his system. We sat in the sun a lot. I got my baby commercial moment. Kinda.

When Billy got to eighteen months or so, he discovered Thomas the Tank Engine. And when I say ‘discovered’, I’m speaking in the Christopher Columbus sense. He embraced, he celebrated, he acquired. He mistreated a few of the locals along the way, but it was all in the love of adventure.

Every part of our lives had a bit of the island of Sodor to it. Visitors to the garden were often surprised by carefully prepared crash scenes in the middle of paths and planting. The edge of the bath has a permanent rust stain on it from parked trains having survived a tsunami of bubble bath. The car, my bag, the fridge, the dog’s bowl… all places where trains have been found, lost and loved.

We are away from home at the moment. We’re on surprise trip to an out of town zoo, to celebrate both the recent sale of our house, and Billy’s morph from a baby Thomas lover to an almost ‘tween animal tragic. Thomas still has a presence in our lives, but he is slowly being inched out by Cape Buffalos and King Cheetahs.

For the un-autistically inclined among us, the extent of the ‘love’ for an area of special interest is really something to behold. It’s so not like ‘My little Julie just LOVES Disney princesses’ that it’s barely worth saying. It’s less like love and more like stalking. It’s collecting, in the attractively-creepy early Angelina Jolie film style of collecting. It’s a love of not so much the thing itself, as the love of having the thing in as many ways as possible. It’s like a merchandising brainstorm.

So, as we travel 500 kilometres to see a King Cheetah (as opposed to the normal kind) I wave a tentative goodbye to Thomas and his friends, lamenting only the fact that Billy’s sweet little voice will soon be scripting David Attenborough and not Thomas songs.

Christmas and birthdays have been easy for many a year. I’m a little concerned about how to tell the grandmothers they should start looking for small plastic hyaenas. I’m a little worried they might think I’m talking about something else…

No matter, I got my moment of kid’s toy brand love, and for that I am grateful. Kinda.

As the youngest of six kids myself, I watched in awe as my multitude of nieces and nephews learned to speak. The whole family would spend hours mimicking the cuteness of one child or another mispronouncing or misinterpreting something some grown up had said. I once said I wouldn’t do something ‘for all the tea in China’, to which my two year old niece replied, ‘Valerie, why do you have tea in your vagina?’

I was sooooo looking forward to riffing on language with my little man. He started well, naming the dog and us around 10 months. We were thrilled. Well, I was a little miffed that the dog and Daddy were named before the one who had shared so many midnight hours, but hey. It was talking and it was cute.

Then it got less cute. He went very quiet for a year or so. He got really good at making stuff happen without words, using our hands as his hands, doing stuff himself or simply doing without. Between eighteen months and close to three, Billy and his engine friends, were pretty silent. Sweaty, stressed and silent.

The language came, in its own way. It came through repetition. Not like, ‘Mummy! Mummy! Mummy!’ style repetition. ‘It was morning on the Island of Sodor, and all the engines were happy to see the Fat Controller…’ style repetition. Also, ‘Do you need a new home loan? Our rate is the lowest…’ style repetition. And sometimes, ‘You wanna know the truth? You can’t handle the truth…’ style repetition.

As he’s grown older we also have the ‘Can you guess which zoo has Thompson’s gazelles?’ style of repetition. This happens every ten minutes or so on an average day. It’s a conversation starter, in the same way as we might say, ‘How was your day, dear?’ or ‘How about them Broncos?’

Complete strangers have been asked this question. Unsuspecting, non-animal related, non-zoo visiting strangers who just happened to be standing near Billy, have had a stab at the Thompson’s gazelle question.

Oddly, they don’t think it’s anywhere near as cute as I do. I’m just glad Billy’s special area of interest isn’t gynaecology or poo sculpting…

There is one thing I didn’t expect to come with an autistic child.

I didn’t expect to learn that time is a gift. Other people’s timelines and expectations mean nothing to us. Whether it’s the standing in line or learning to write or getting through a meltdown.

It happens in Billy’s time. He can learn new behaviour, he can change his response to challenges, he can acquire almost any skill we can think of. But he has to be able to do it in his time.

That, makes parenting a whole new experience. Despite the pressures and misunderstandings that come from people outside our family sometimes, Billy has shown us that time is on our side. Our needs are important, for sure, but his are too. We are a team, and together, we make time for each other. It so happens, that he needs a little more flexibility than the grown ups (and the dog) and so, he can have it.

In the past few weeks, I’ve killed a lot of time in shopping centres while people looked through our house. During that time, I’ve seen a lot of stressed parents and distressed little kids. I’ve seen a lot of rushing and a lot of crying.

And it reminds me again, that the path we’ve had laid out in front of us is not so bad. We have the choice to say, ‘We’ll do it our way, thanks’.

Billy brought us the courage to make that choice. Along with trains, cheetahs and an encyclopaedic knowledge of international zoo populations.


 Valerie's increasingly random ramblings can be seen at Jump on the Rollercoaster.


  1. "We are a team, and together, we make time for each other."
    Beautiful. Stop-reading-in-the-middle beautiful.

  2. Our daughter brought us the courage to follow our own path as well.
    Love your humor! Love Billy's ice breaker.

  3. I love this, and don't know why those silly people don't want to know more about gazelles.

  4. "It’s less like love and more like stalking." I so know what you're talking about! Jacob's current obsession is movies (when they open and who is in them and what they are rated) and our cat.
    He's also a big TV talker /scripter, too. My favorite time was when he was 4 and very Thomas obsessed and fond of shouting out "Rubbish!" at the top of his lungs at odd times. Made it... interesting to go to synagogue with him. Another perennial favorite: "He tried to apply the brakes, but it was TOO LATE!"
    I love your attitude, here. It's very inspiring. Thank you.