After school one day, I drove my children to our local Macdonald’s as a special treat. There was a time not long ago when I didn’t think Sawyer would ever feel the childhood elation of a random trip for fast food, and so each burger they consumed was as much a delight for me as it was for them. Not wanting to risk the bustle of a busy restaurant, we took the drive-thru option and I listened to them rifle happily through the boxes as we made our way home.
When we arrived at the house they scampered quickly inside, leaving me trailing behind with a multitude of bags, books, lunchboxes and jackets, as standard after-school procedure. I made my way through to the kitchen and put everything down, cleared paperwork from the table and helped Piper open her orange juice. A few moments later I looked around and wondered what was taking Sawyer so long to make his way through to the kitchen. I called out for him twice, but as Sawyer often doesn’t hear me over the volume of his thoughts, I went to check he was OK. I walked through to the hallway and as the stairs came in to view so did my gorgeous son, sitting on the fourth step still smartly dressed in his school uniform, with his shoes neatly placed by his feet. He didn’t notice me arrive, even though I was stood directly in front of him, and he didn’t look up. His new toy was sat to his left and he was staring intently at it, whispering something rhythmically under his breath before taking the last couple of mouthfuls of his burger. I asked him if he wanted to come and eat with us at the table but he politely declined. When I explained that he might feel a bit more comfortable at the dinner table, and that we would like to eat with him, he eloquently expressed his thoughts in a way that left me both sad and happy. Bemused and yet completely sympathetic:
“I just please want to eat my dinner alone in the peace and quiet” he said, without looking up.
There is no instruction manual to tell you which autism-parenting battles to choose and which to quietly step away from. But in that moment I knew that I should leave him alone to eat.
It wasn’t the first time Sawyer had expressed a strong desire to be alone. There have been countless times when he has chosen to sit at a different table at softplay, in restaurants and pub gardens. And I suppose to the outside world it must be a perplexing sight, to see a young boy sitting on his own, with his family seemingly ignoring him from the next table. But don’t get me wrong – when he does want to integrate with us, and join in the family meals and games – we celebrate it thoroughly and hope each time that it’s the start of a new way of life for us. But equally, we are raising Sawyer to be aware of how autism affects his own ability to function, and above all else to be able to ask for help. When Sawyer refused to eat with us that day, he wasn’t being rude, disrespectful or deliberately unkind – he was simply expressing his instinctive urge to be alone, and it would have sent him the wrong message if I had denied him that right.
I kissed Sawyer on the head and I went back to the kitchen to digest what had just happened. I was proud of him for his words, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t saddened that he felt that way to begin with. It can be difficult not to take these things personally, even when I know he means no harm. I wanted to eat dinner as a family, and watch my children enjoying the treat I had bought for them, and once again I found myself angry at autism for taking away a simple family pleasure.
I sat at the dinner table, chatting with my daughter, trying hard to ignore the feeling of guilt that had started to build up in the pit of my stomach.
After all, I had just left my son to eat his dinner alone on the stairs.