Friday, February 11, 2011

In the aisle of the supermarket...

This afternoon, in the supermarket, Billy and I ran into his old pre-school teacher.

She recognised Billy, before she recognised me. Oversized tick number one. She greeted Billy before she greeted me. Gigantic tick number two. She didn't bat an eyelid when he retreated behind a freestanding display full of chocolate bunnies with his hands over his ears (a baby was having a tantrum over said bunnies and Billy needed a chocolatey place to hide).

This poor teacher had a hell of a job dealing with me. Speech and OT sessions were always Billy and I together. Early Intervention was Billy and I together. Pre-school was the first time he was expected to spend time somewhere without me. And though I put on a very presentable front, neither of us were happy about it.

I'm not sure why Billy is such an attached boy. Well, I have a few theories but no evidence (which, in autism world, means I have no freaking idea and may as well be wearing a colander for a hat and bedazzling my kid with crystals). Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I see that I am Billy's spare brain. His safe zone.

He lives in a constant adrenalin bath, spinning somewhere between flight and freeze on a hourly basis. Since he was a clump of cells, there's been me. Even when I've been cursing yet another sacrifice to the God of Underpants, or briskly forcing him past a crowd of cranky toddlers in a coffee shop queue (mostly minus my much needed latte) or, in the unquestioned worst moment of our lives together, holding him down with the full (substantial) weight of my upper body while a trainee doctor repeatedly attempted catherisation. There's always been, (and for as long as I can bargain with the boogey man) there always will be, me.

The other reason Billy might not want to leave home without me (I am AMEX Mummy!) is that home is controllable.

Sound, particularly surprise sound, is Billy's nemesis. Crying (particularly from babies, but really from the mouths of anyone) is Perry the Platypus to Billy's Doofenschmirtz. Funnily enough, we don't have much crying in our house, and a remarkable absence of babies. So home, in Billy terms, rules.  We do have the occasional moment when the dog barks when someone comes to the door, but after watching re-runs of It's Me or the Dog today, I think I may even have that one licked. Home is a haven from hyperacusis. It's a place where the adrenaline can bugger off and do whatever it's supposed to be doing... inspiring powerlifters or naming nightclubs or something.

Beyond that, I'm guessing Billy isn't massively keen on independence because the world is full of confusing, overwhelming, indecipherable, uninteresting, fast moving, irrelevant stuff annoyingly sandwiched between the good stuff. The world, to a kid like Billy, is most easily encountered for the first time, at arms length. Hence the love of DVDs, YouTube, documentaries, video games and endless hours spent quizzing Mummy and Daddy about their recollections of DVDs, YouTube, documentaries and video games. Then there's the other time, spent in an alternate dimension repeating, telling stories and recreating the scripts from DVDs, YouTube, documentaries and video games. The boy is quite content at home.

I've got Temple Grandin sitting on my shoulder as I type muttering, 'Push your kid, Mama...' And I'm listening, Temple. I'm listening. Given how profoundly his neurological safety net has been tinkered with (by nature, nurture or tiny wee pixies with a wicked sense of humour) I just want to push him in his own time, in his own way. I want him to give us a sign. Preferably one that doesn't come with heart palpitations and gigantic dilated pupils. He shouldn't have to do anything, just because society says it's time.

And that's where beautiful teachers like Julie, Billy's pre-school teacher shine like jewels that even I would like to own (have I mentioned I'm not a big fan of diamonds or flowers? Chocolates, on the other hand... sorry... back on task...)

Billy's first attempt at pre-school ended in hospital. I'd publish a picture of him in the days before he was admitted, but to be honest, I don't like looking at them. My tiny wee three year old looked like he was in a war zone. His hands were never less than half way to his ears. He clung to the furniture at the edges of the room, unable to focus well enough to let go. His eyes were like saucers, he was always shiny with sweat. I know this, because I was there. Every moment. I worked my way to the opposite side of the room to him, but I was always there. And Julie was OK with that.

Six months and a long stretch in the neuro ward later, he came back to pre-school. And so did I. And Julie was OK with that. She taught me her mantra, 'Small, manageable steps', and encouraged me to repeat it as I moved from the edge of the classroom, to the kitchen to the stairway to the car park, into my car and finally, home. It took a month or so, and Julie was OK with that.

She was OK because she's been doing this stuff for a really long time. She's taken countless Billys and Valeries through the same journey - just along a different path and at a different pace every time. She was learned and trusting and trustworthy.

Julie is a jewel among teachers. Among people. Even though she was exhausted, today, after a long day's teaching, she had the time and energy to greet us like family. She was interested in how her family had fared since she'd last seen them. Even if she didn't really care, she did a damn good impersonation of it.

When Billy emerged from behind the Easter display, he exchanged a few shy words, and clung to the trolley. But he wasn't sweating, and his pupils were fine. He barely needed me at all.

Except for when we got to the checkout and someone had to pay for the giant pile of chocolate bunnies he'd snaffled from the display.


DQ said...

As always, your writing is perfection.
I think of myself as the spare brain for my son. Only this morning he thanked me for "helping me remember my voice" when he had to answer a question from his dad about yogurt.
(I did an exaggerated nodding of my head to prompt him.)

Julie sounds wonderful. Preschool sounds like it was several circles of hell, I am so glad Billy has gotten so much healthier.

Home is sanctuary - home is where the lego is. :)

Simon said...

Wonderful post (particularly loved the first half - fascinating and vivid accounts!) I can't help but wonder with reference to the above comment from DQ whether anyone is collecting the to-the-point and pithy comments their children are saying... there's a book in the making there!

imawestie said...

There's still some pure gold left in the teaching game. Here's hoping Billy finds a few more just like this one!

Di said...

Valerie, you explain everything so vividly it is if I am there!! Your sense of humour is extremely refreshing and I always look forward to your next post!

As for the attachment - how WONDERFUL, I love it :D

PS: laughed when I saw that you had used the word 'bugger' :)

Dana Meijler said...


What a great post. Your writing is so great, I felt like I could take a chocolate bunny down from the shelf!

I love the how you say Billy is in a constant adrenaline bath, I never thought of it that way (and am not nearly original enough to coin a zinger like that) but I recognize that in Maya too.

And aren't teachers like Julie wonderful? They are the most precious of gems, those who lovingly and patiently guide our children and try to get in their heads but also recognize that each is unique. We need more teachers like that!

I am addicted to your blog and also to celebrity gossip too (so we have much in common). My fave gossip site is, in my view far and above any other gossip site.

Jodi said...

Hi Valerie - this is a beautiful tribute to a teacher. I saw your comment about squishing your Billy to sleep over on HLW3B, the guest post by Caitlin (she's a friend of mine). I have NT kids but my daughter also responded to pressure. Until she was 3.5yrs, we would swaddle her like an infant, as tightly as possible. You could see her eyes droop instantly. i felt like an idiot too, but in the end, I was proud because I gave her what SHE needed, everyone else be damned. So you're not the only kooky one ;)

Mama Deb said...

Great post! I'm so proud of're doing a really good job by Billy!!