Children under the age of three have less need of peer ‘socialization’ than many (most?) people suppose. They need their mums, their dads, and bonds with other family members and friends are an added bonus. They may start to show some interest in children of their own age, but their interactions are too problematic at this stage to be enjoyable. They come to peer relationships in their own time, and at age two or three the process is still in its infancy. Leo appears to have even less need for social contact. He comes across as a self-contained unit of energy. It is not excessive energy, just the right amount to keep him ticking over, and for the most part he appears purposeful and confident. When he finds another child in his way, or when a child decides to make his or her presence felt, his world is disturbed and he reacts rather than responds: a push, a scream, occasionally an ominous staring contest. Any direction or encouragement from me or any other adult falls very flat. The exception is if he is asked to wave at someone, including a child. He will do this beautifully. He is not smiling, it is not spontaneous, but it is a start.
We have been going to the usual toddler/baby/mummy groups since we arrived in the Village, and it has been just about manageable. At first, when we visited the Centre, all the toys were new, and he jumped right in and got to work, sand trays, tubes full of feathers and balls, different cars and tracks, things to twirl and bounce. An outdoor area where you could sometimes see diggers working on the new school extension. He was so busy with all the interesting things I even had a few conversations with other mums. Over the weeks and months he has become very familiar with the settings and the set up. After 15 minutes, sometimes less, he has done all he wants to do. He paces up and down looking as if looking for something, but he can’t find it. He flaps. He starts to make noise. It sounds to me like he is saying help. I don’t know what it sounds like to others, but it does make them turn and look. The looks are not nasty or disapproving, just concerned, and puzzled. One dad says that’s a funny noise. This is Leo’s way of saying he is finished and he needs to leave. I try to encourage him to stay. Look at these blocks…mummy help you build a tower, oh ok you don’t want to… look at this car, why don’t you go outside. These attempts have become more perfunctory, as in my heart I know: When he lets me know he wants to go, it is time. He means it, and if I ignore him his distress levels rise exponentially. It can take hours for him to recover. He is getting nothing out of the experience. He is not ready for peer socialization, or even much peer proximity.
Recently there was an activity day at a local park. I thought I would definitely take him to that. He prefers being outside, so I had in mind it would be more enjoyable for him. On the morning of the event I thought it through. The park is a large space of green with four little swings in one corner. In the other corner are some big kid swings and a few of those exercise equipment pieces. It usually quiet. There is usually nobody there. Leo likes to go on each of the four little swings in turn. Recently the fourth swing has got a bit dirty and dodgy looking, so we say yucky and go on the first one again. That morning we would go there and our quiet field would be full of people milling about and shouting and laughing and face painting and activitying. Leo will still want to go on each of the swings in turn. That would probably not be possible and the meltdown would begin pretty fast. I know he does not yet have the understanding or maturity to cope with any of that. I decided not to go and rather than guilt I felt enormous relief. We had a lovely day with his brothers instead. A few days later it was ‘Rhyme Time’ at the Centre and suddenly I felt like we needed to go to that. It feels like an achievement; getting, there, coping, feeling like things are not so bad, coming home and feeling justified in being a bit lazy because we have been out and done something. Something mummy can tell daddy about later when he asks what we have been doing all day. The short version is that we should not have gone to ‘Rhyme Time’ and will not be going again. Let’s just leave it at that. You might say, and daddy will certainly say that you can’t give up that easily, but that is exactly what we need to do at the moment. We will stay at home and bounce on the bouncy ball, feed the chickens and carry the eggs in without breaking them. We will have our own ‘Rhyme Time’ except we can sing really silly songs in our own way and play the instruments really loudly. We will go to the park and have hysterics on the see-saw. We will march up the hill and down again. We will wrestle and chase and run into a pile of duvets and pillows.
The downside is that I need peer socialization and I don’t get any. We moved here in November last year. I am friendly with a few people, but I have made no friends. I have invited people round, and they have accepted. Leo is very very distressed by their presence and particularly by the presence of their children, and he does not hide this. We have not been invited back. I was once asked to go to the park with some other mums. Leo was so upset he was hardly breathing. We had to go back home, as apart from anything else it was ruining everyone else’s day! I find myself trying to prolong a conversation with the doctor about an infected finger. I send unnecessary texts to friends from where we used to live(The Old Town), asking how they are much the same here. Leo has an infected finger. I start a half-hearted blog. I would cry if I had the time. I wonder how other people deal with this. I try to find a more suitable group. The only autism group in the Village is for parents only (and you need a diagnosis). There are groups for dads, and childminders and grandparents, but not for special needs. There is one in the next county but that is for people living there, not here. Someone suggests a group for carers. No children allowed at the carers’ group. In a neighbouring village a support group for parents of autistic children has found that it is easier if the children are not there. I explain I don’t have a babysitter (not for both little ones at once anyway) and need somewhere I can take an autistic nearly three year old and a seven month old baby and feel we can all relax, and I don’t need to explain anything. Like being at home, but with grown-ups. I ask, I call, email and research. Finally, a reply: a few towns away there is a new autism group. Kids welcome. A lovely email that shows they get it. Will need to bus it, and no doubt that will be like a (rather inept) military operation, but I can’t wait.