As Lloyd’s story starts to unfold between us, I am surprised by how easily he can access his emotions when I ask a direct question. It occurs to me for the first time that although he rarely offers out his innermost thoughts, they are in fact very close to the surface.
The conversation continues to flow between us as I begin to steer away from denial and into deeper waters. I ask him if he remembers how he felt once he finally came to terms with Sawyer’s diagnosis, and accepted that autism was here to stay. As he pauses for thought, a vision of Sawyer screaming in a highchair appears in front of me. And I’m almost certain Lloyd is looking at the same thing.
“I suppose I started to blame myself”, he manages. And he looks the other way.
When Sawyer was around 18 months old, Lloyd was made redundant. He very quickly moved in to different employment, but initially the new job was only available for 2 days per week, which meant we suddenly found ourselves reversing the roles we had established since becoming parents: I increased my working hours to counteract the financial shortfall, and Lloyd became Sawyer’s primary caregiver.
It is difficult to explain how it felt to be around Sawyer when he was that age. Taking him out was rarely fun because all he wanted to do was run as far and as fast as possible, putting yet another spotlight on how unusual his behaviour was compared to his peers. But staying home alone with him was difficult too. Sawyer didn’t play with toys, or clap along to music. And he didn’t want you to play, laugh, or sing songs with him. In fact, Sawyer barely interacted with us at all. Because Sawyer was in a world of his own.
Long, silent days at home with him would be broken up with scream-filled mealtimes. Sawyer was unable to sit still at a table and therefore we used a highchair, which he hated with a vengeance. He also hated food, both texture and most tastes. Airplane sounds and elaborate motions with spoons were pointless because he had no idea what we were doing or why. All he seemed to be sure of was that he needed to escape. And his need to escape became the theme of every single day.
I can’t begin to tell you to what extent all of the above makes you feel like a terrible person, let alone a terrible parent. There aren’t enough words to describe the sense of failure that suffocates you as you sit in complete silence, not engaging with the child who sits just in front of you.
Because after a while, you just stop bothering to speak.
After a few moments, Lloyd looks back at me and takes a deep breath. He tells me that Sawyer’s diagnosis had made him question the time they had spent together, wondering if things could have been different if I had been the one to stay at home. For a moment he looks sad, but then out of nowhere he smiles, and I recognise it. It is the smile of someone who has overcome an anxiety and is able to look back on it as fiction for the first time.
I put my hand on his knee and mirror his smile, realising that it has taken up to this very moment for us both to accept something so vital to our future happiness.
It was never anybody’s fault.