There was a time that tree roots would have brought fear to our lives, the exposed tangle at the base of a fallen tree, sheer terror. Something about roots terrified the living daylights out of Joe. If we went for a walk, he would not step over exposed roots in the ground, and if there was a fallen tree base near the path, that was it – we would have to turn round; Joe would be distraught and nothing I could do would help him over his fear. I still haven’t got to the bottom of that one; eventually the fear passed and I never knew its origin. Not like the mole hills. We used to have to avoid mole hills too. Turns out, having read many lovely books about talking moles, Joe thought moles were people sized – that took me a while to work out. The irony was, most of the mole books had been carefully chosen by me not to be remotely upsetting – Joe couldn’t handle any book that had any sort of suspense in it when he was younger; he just couldn’t get past the page describing the disaster (lost teddy, dropped acorn, empty petrol tank) without panicking. He’d never make it to the happy ending. That poses quite a problem with toddler and children’s books; they all tend to run to the basic plot line of happy – disaster – resolution. I guess that’s why Joe mostly read fact books.
Although Joe was genuinely frightened of many specific things in the outdoors, he was happiest outside. His spatial awareness at three years old was better than mine, and it was actually this that ultimately triggered the process that resulted in Joe’s early diagnosis of autism.
Mark and I had gone for a walk taking Peta, our new baby, in her pram, and Joe, toddling alongside. We’d come most of the way home when Joe disagreed with our choice for the remainder of our route. We explained to him that we couldn’t go over the fields with the pram, we had to walk round on the road. Joe could not be persuaded as we stood debating with him, at the junction where the two routes diverged. Then, without warning, Joe shot off through the kissing gate before we could catch him. Any hopes I had that he would just turn round and come back when he realised we weren’t following slipped away; Joe didn’t look back. So Mark and I quickly agreed a plan – Mark would take Peta home in the pram and I would follow Joe.
As I trod Joe’s path up the hill, I saw him ahead of me; a lonely, tiny figure in his black coat and pink wellies. I watched amazed as he strode on, not looking back once. I was in turmoil. Joe’s detachment, the way he appeared not to need me or care whether Mark and I were with him, really hurt. But I also had in the back of my mind, that while the most extreme case so far, this determination was not unusual in Joe; this could easily happen when I was alone, and then what would I do? I decided to follow Joe at a distance and see how he coped; check that his ability to look after himself matched up to his determination to do it alone.
For the whole journey across the fields, I was desperate for Joe to break down in tears, for him to realise he was alone in a big world, for him to understand the enormity of his undertaking and learn from his mistake of running off. Perhaps I should have been proud, embraced Joe’s independence, but this was my little boy who had just turned three – the mother in me was not prepared for this step yet – and anyway, fields are one thing, but he was approaching a road. As I watched, he made for the gate of the field. Occasionally he would veer off, heading too far to the left, but then he would stop, hold out his arm in the direction of the gate, re-orientate his body and set off again. He wasn’t even put off by the sheep who were as big as he was; he just maintained his course and expected them to get out of his way. As he reached the gate to the road, I was still a distance from him, but I was confident he had reached his limit. The gate was really hard to get open. I waited back so I could run and comfort him when he got upset that the gate wouldn’t open. He struggled for a minute or too, but then to my horror, instead of standing there hopeless, he stood back, assessed the gate, then climbed out through the horizontal rungs onto the road.
I ran so hard, my asthma started in my chest. I imagined him dead under a car because of my stupid need to be seen as important by Joe. By the time I caught up with him, he had walked 50 metres down a country lane with no pavements. Joe realised I was there and turned round. He told me he was cross with me because I had not been there to open the gate for him. He wouldn’t let me hold his hand for the short distance back home.
When we got home, Joe told Mark he had not enjoyed his walk across the field because of what the farmer had done to it (the farmer had been muck spreading). At bedtime, as I tucked Joe up, I told him I’d been frightened of losing him and asked if we could agree that he wouldn’t go off alone again. Joe said he couldn’t agree, and fell asleep with my questions of why, unanswered. I cried that night.
As I explained to the health visitor what had happened, I could see something going on behind her eyes. She’d come for a home visit because she knew Joe had been struggling at nursery and at home; she had known us since Joe was around three weeks old. “Is that a normal thing for a three year old to do?” I asked, (I had no idea with Joe being my first child). The Health Visitor looked at me strangely; was it pity I saw in her face? I remember her answer clearly. “No, it’s not normal.” Before she left, the Health Visitor explained she was going to refer Joe to a paediatrician. She thought I might be finding Joe hard to manage because he had a higher than average intelligence. It was kind of her to put it like that, but deep down I’d already known for years that Joe was very different to his peers. I suspected the paediatrician might see more than a clever little boy.
Being the mother of a child with an autistic spectrum condition, I tend to lurch from one battle to the next; a never ending journey of complex twists and turns that drains me dry of energy and enthusiasm for life. It’s not often that I look back to see how far Joe and I have come together – it is too painful – but it was looking for lichen around the roots of a big overturned oak in the wood that started my mind on this train of events. I can’t say life has become less emotionally painful or exhausting, but it has moved on. Roots of upturned trees no longer hold fear but treasures – a wrens nest, unusual lichens and mosses, fabulous fungi. It reminds me that things have changed. And as long as we are moving forward, there must be hope.