This afternoon I was stood in the kitchen buttering rolls, when I asked my youngest, Piper, to lay a blanket out on the floor ready for their ‘picnic’. She was tired and hungry, so when the familiar whinge reply came back at me I rolled my eyes and buttered on regardless. But as I heard her get up from the settee to fetch the blanket, the whinge turned in to the sound of genuine devastation. “Why do you always ask me and not Sawyer? I want to watch my telly as well.” she sobbed as she straightened the blanket out on the floor.
The words came out of her mouth and made a beeline for my heart. She was right. I do always ask her to do things instead of asking Sawyer. If I’m in the bath and I forget my hair wrap, I call her to fetch it for me. If I’m making dinner and my phone beeps in the other room, I ask her to bring it to me. And when we’re running late for school because Sawyer has left his bag in the other room, it’s her I ask to retrieve it. Why? Because it’s easier. For me. I’m ashamed to admit that to myself, and even more so typing it out in black and white for everyone to see – but I’ll never figure out how to change my behaviour unless I first accept wholeheartedly that I’ve been fucking up. And so, I got down on the kitchen floor and I apologised profusely to my 4-year-old daughter.
By the time Piper was born, we already had a pretty good idea that Sawyer was autistic, yet strangely it had never occurred to me that any subsequent children might be too. I don’t know if that is because the section of my brain labelled ‘Autism’ was already at capacity, or whether denial was preventing me from thinking that far ahead, in case the world (or at the very least my sanity) imploded. Unlike her older brother, Piper was a fairly textbook toddler. When she started to cruise the furniture I didn’t feel the urge to throw myself off of the nearest cliff, and when she started to walk I didn’t cry as I chased after her behind tobacco counters and restaurant kitchens. She just walked . I suppose by the time it occurred to me that our future children might also have autism, it was already clear that Piper did not. We often joke that if Piper had been our first child it would have been much easier to describe what was different about Sawyer. And it would have almost certainly given the situation more gravitas when we took it to the NHS (doctors are allergic to first-time parents. Symptoms include eyebrow arching and head tilting – fascinating stuff).
As Piper started to get older we were able to do all the things I felt I had missed out on with her brother. We walked by the road holding hands, we sang songs complete with corresponding actions, and we laughed at jokes. Although she was the youngest of two, she quickly established herself as ‘mini mother’ to Sawyer, opening bottles and containers for him, helping when he spilled a drink and trying to teach him to skip and whistle. I don’t know when or how it happened, but I suppose I lost grasp of how little she was. To me, Piper was a prodigy. The frame of reference I had for her was derived from raising my wonderful and kind-hearted, very loving, very autistic, son. When she was smaller she took great delight in being ‘grown-up’ enough to help me around the house, which I just was not used to. But as every mum knows, the days their children ask to help with the housework do not last long – otherwise living with teenagers wouldn’t be quite so difficult, now would it? But as the novelty wore off for Piper, the expectation level remained the same for me. Although I never expected her to boil her own potatoes or go out and sweep chimneys for pocket money, I was giving her lots of tiny, unnoticed and simple tasks, which just was not fair – since her brother was almost never asked to do the same.
Piper gave me a big hug on the kitchen floor and as all small children do, forgave me without reservation. I explained why I had been wrong, and promised her that I would make sure I share out the chores equally from now on. She ran off happily to her programmes and as I plated up their food I berated myself for my short-sightedness. I have spent time researching the issues that siblings of autistic children face, and I pride myself on being aware of the extra sense of responsibility they might feel as they get older. I take the time to explain Sawyer’s behaviour to her, and we have good, healthy conversations about that. I try to make time to spend just with her, so she never feels overshadowed, and I consider myself to be fairly tuned in to the issues and problems each of my children face every day. But it turns out that my 4-year-old daughter is more intuitive than I am. As we sat down on the picnic blanket, Sawyer straightened out his corner and Piper remarked what a good job he had done all by himself. And again, she was right. Sawyer is perfectly capable of laying out a picnic blanket. It might have taken a little longer for him, but he could do it. And so today I owe both my children an apology. By constantly giving the small tasks to Piper instead of Sawyer, not only have I burdened my daughter, I have been taking away my son’s opportunities to learn. Instead of allowing him to try and fail, and spill and break, I have held him back just ever so slightly, but in hundreds of tiny, unnoticed fragments.
Today my 4-year-old daughter showed me how wrong I have been, and how I can help her grow up alongside her autistic older brother. I have been wrong about many things today, but one thing is for absolute certain.
That girl is a fucking prodigy.