The children were not going to give up – they wanted to see the badgers. Ever since Mark and I had sneaked off and seen five badgers without Joe, Peta, Melody and Amos, the children had been on our case. Of course it meant them being up late at night, but having watched Peta go through the completely pointless and totally unnecessary SATS process (I am not going to get started on that now) and all the stress that went with it, we decided that an end of SATS celebration was in order and blow the late night. End of SATS was a Thursday which also meant Joe could not be with us because he was at school (I won’t get started on that now either), but I phoned him and we agreed Mark and I would take Peta, Melody and Amos on the Thursday, then I would take Joe, by himself, at the weekend.
It’s not an easy thing taking children on these kind of experiences. Watching wildlife takes patience, it needs quiet, it needs stillness. As a general rule, children find this hard, little children find it really hard, and Joe finds it even harder even though he is nine years older than Amos. Joe’s autism makes it really hard for him to be quiet. His feet have to thump when they hit the ground – it seems to help him know where he is spatially. If Joe doesn’t see the point in something, he won’t do it. If Joe has something to say, he has real trouble not to say it – loudly. He needs the exact details of what is about to happen with complete instructions; if I miss anything, he won’t necessarily figure it out – an example in point – if you are sitting outside a badgers sett trying to be quiet, throwing sticks at the sett entrance is not a plan.
Worries about watching wildlife with children are a real impediment to trying. Often, there are other people around, and I worry about whether my children will negatively impact on other peoples experiences. There are certain things you feel you can’t do with young children, even more so with an autistic child. I have seen my children berated in nature reserve hides when they were actually just being a little too enthusiastic. One day, Joe felt so unfairly treated, he went outside and sat on the roof of the bird hide where I think he probably ended up with a longer bird list than the woman who remained inside. She sat there, now loudly moaning to her friend about the people who had seen her using her enormous camera and asked her what she was photographing. ‘I’m sick of them, to be honest,’ she said, ‘what are they doing here if they don’t know what they are looking at.’ Really? Surely that’s one of the main points of these hides – people can come to learn, to be inspired, to simply be curious. But with such negative reactions to lack of experience or an incomplete grasp of hide etiquette, it’s not surprising that parents pull back; there is no point in inviting disaster. Critisicm can be cutting and painful and can have a lasting effect. And all this is amplified when you have an autistic child.
But I refuse to be put off. It’s too important. We can’t expect children to be born knowing how to appreciate wildlife – they need to learn. They are the naturalists of the future and need to be allowed to try without criticism. I am not suggesting we let children run riot, just that we don’t come down on them like a ton of bricks when they are trying to expand their experiences. It is possible to share the experience of watching wildlife as a family. I think our greatest wildlife watching achievement has been to see kiwi’s in the wild. It took two nights and a massive effort, but we did it with a one, four, seven and ten year old. Our experiences, of course, are not usually that exotic. We have seen plenty of wildlife near to home from otters to owls, dragonflies to voles… and now we can add badger to the list. We saw them. When we went up to the woods with Peta, Melody and Amos we saw seven badgers, when I took Joe, only three, but although he thudded to the sett like a small earthquake, on the way back he surprised me by how quietly he tiptoed with exaggerated care, through the dry leaves. And he was rewarded – we saw a badger very close to us as we left the wood. We had stopped still as we had seen it and it had run a little way then come back. It was close to us, sizing us up for a good couple of minutes before deciding we were just strange objects in the wood and ambling off to forage a little further away. It meant so much to me, seeing the sheer enjoyment in each of my children’s faces as I shared their first encounter with a badger.
Who will care for the environment in the future if the children of today cannot learn to appreciate it? It is easy for me as a parent to avoid doing things because I am frightened of judgement from people who do not understand Joe’s needs or the massive effort it may have taken me just to get us to this point in the day, but I have to remain determined, not be defeated. Watching wildlife can be such a rewarding and life changing experience. Many people are not as lucky as us to have access to an area where the children can experience wildlife while not on public display. It would be such a shame if the next David Attenbourgh, Jane Goodall, Gerald Durrell were diverted away from nature after being told off for accidentally letting a hide window bang open too loudly.