One of the most difficult parts of being Sawyer’s Mummy has been trying to find a balance between ensuring his safety and ensuring that my own anxieties never stop him from living as normal a life as possible.
Until Sawyer turned 5, whenever we went out walking we largely confined him to a buggy board attached to his sister’s pushchair, because he was still too erratic to trust alongside busy roads. As he got older I was acutely aware that the buggy, along with its board, wouldn’t be with us forever, and that we would need to find alternative ways to keep him safe. Of course his peers had been walking (even cycling – the horror!) alongside their parents for years by this time, and I knew I could not keep him strapped to me forever.
On the way back from the park one day, I had Sawyer step off the board so I could get the buggy up a high curb. I waited until he was up on the far side of the path before negotiating the buggy (complete with small child, shopping bags, snacks and other general mum paraphernalia) up the curb. 2.5 seconds later I turned my head to the empty space where Sawyer had been, catching only a glimpse of his bright blue coat out of the corner of my eye. I can only describe the feeling as horror, as I watched a car approach and swerve, narrowly missing my baby boy as I stepped out and yanked him back to safety. I loathed myself. And even more than I loathed myself, if at all possible, I loathed autism. Being a mum of two young children is bloody hard work – yet even the bits that should have been simple were a fucking nightmare. In true ‘me’ style, I waited until I was safely home before I went to the bathroom and burst in to tears.
Autism and anxiety often seem to go hand it hand, and although I wouldn’t say it is one of our biggest issues with Sawyer, it certainly plays its part. Sawyer finds it difficult to understand figures of speech, and for a long time that was a source of his anxiety. I’ll never forget for example, one Sunday afternoon in our local pub when my sister was asking Sawyer not to drink all of his juice in one go. She smiled as she said to him innocently, ‘Don’t drink it all in one go Sawyer, you’ll go bang!’ Not one of us could have imagined the reaction she would receive. He took it so literally that he genuinely thought if he drank his drink too quickly, he was going to explode. I actually laughed while typing that, but Sawyer certainly didn’t find it funny at the time, and nor did his poor old auntie, who undoubtedly wished she could wind back the clock and say something much, much plainer. With hindsight, in another situation he may not have reacted that way to those words at all. We were in the pub with some friends he did not know too well. It was a hot day in summer and he had been running around outside with unfamiliar sounds and smells. If we’d been at home in the kitchen, would he still have taken that harmless phrase so literally? Would he have even noticed? It’s impossible to tell. But what I do know is that it scarred his auntie for life.
I’d never really thought about my own anxieties surrounding autism until a few years ago, when one of my oldest friends decided to send her son to a childminder instead of preschool. We had boys of the same age and I remember thinking how homely his childcare seemed, and how lovely it was that he was considered part of a family – a home away from home. They often went out to toddler groups and soft-play sessions, and I was happy they had found a childcare scenario that worked well for them. Yet in the back of my mind all the time was a niggling anxiety, knowing that I could never give the same to Sawyer. You see, when I dropped him off at preschool, I needed to know he was staying in the same place. Soft-play sounded wonderful, but I didn’t feel I could trust anyone else to take my son out in to the world without me. How could I go to work and not know his movements at every moment? What if they underestimated how reckless he could be and before they knew it he was gone? And there lies a perfect example of autism and anxiety going hand in hand – only the autism was in Sawyer’s hand, and the anxiety was in mine. Fast forward several years and I rediscovered that familiar sick feeling in my stomach when Sawyer was due to go on his first school trip. The school were informed and prepared for him, he was excited and ready to join in, yet I was an anxious mess. So what did I do? I told him how excited I was, and I masked the fuck out of however nervous I was feeling. Or at least I hope I did.
Letting go of Sawyer has not been easy, and I don’t think for a moment that I’ve relinquished my anxieties surrounding him and his autism completely. I’m not so naïve to think that I can tidy my anxieties away and live freely forever because, okay, I’m not autistic – but I am human. Autistic or not, we all have our own vices, sadness, problems, issues and anxieties that we’re trying to battle and beat. I still feel that underlying sense of panic whenever he goes on a school trip, but you know what? I don’t want him to fear the unknown any more than autism already demands of him. I want to make sure that I don’t allow my insecurities to become tangled up in his own and make his life even harder to lead than it already is, and might be.
I feared I would lose my first born that day he ran out in to that road. And although it amounts to one of the worst days of my life so far, I have found solace in what came after. Realisation. I realised that I wouldn’t and couldn’t have done anything differently that day, and that I had put every reasonable thing in place to ensure the safety of us all. And it happened anyway. And from that I realised that I simply cannot control everything. My son deserves a chance to experience the same opportunities as his friends, without me intervening for the sake of myself. I of course make reasonable suggestions to his teachers if I feel it is necessary, but after that I kiss him at the door, wave goodbye and go about my day. Easy? No. Anxious? Maybe.
But that’s my own cross to bear.