Before having children, it’s normal to daydream about how life will be. We all hope we will be the near-perfect parent, raising our children the ‘right’ way, turning them into bright, inspirational, happy human beings in the process. As a child care professional and helping to nurture so many children, I was keen to become a teacher to my own children. I knew about child development, so I would be able to ensure I provided relevant, stimulating activities to encourage that development to its fullest.
As well as letters, numbers, colours and shapes, I would teach them manners, kindness, compassion, and right from wrong. I would teach them how to be independent, how to look after themselves, cook, wash, clean, shop.
And, so far, with H, I’ve done most of that, to the best of my ability (we’ll keep working on the cooking, washing, cleaning and shopping…). And then along came Tink, and the game changed.
Of course, it wasn’t instant. Autism is a hidden condition in the early days for most. I tried to be that same, enthusiastic teacher as I had been to H. Only, after a while, it became apparent that whatever I was doing wasn’t working. Tink didn’t engage in the same way H had. H was a very early talker; Tink didn’t speak. H enjoyed puzzles and games, and we’d spend hours playing together; Tink wasn’t interested in playing.
I was lost. I called in help. She was diagnosed with autism. And our roles reversed.
She became my teacher and I her student.
From the day of her diagnosis (before, even, during ‘the wait’), I became eager to learn all I could about this condition that would not just become part of our lives, but would end up dictating it. I read books, blogs, websites, leaflets; watched TV programmes, YouTube videos, joined support groups and went on a course. All provided information and advice – about other people’s autism. Some of it useful, some of it applied, but much didn’t.I quickly realised that the best source of information about Tink's autism was... Tink. Click To Tweet
I learnt to sit and watch before making any moves. I learnt how she communicates – not just verbally, but the more subtle, behavioural kind of communication. I learnt about stimming; not the flappy, clappy kind often associated with autism, but the less obvious touching of the thumb and fingertips or the chewing of her ever-present dummy. I learnt that if she does this, she’s most likely anxious about something and I then can try to work out what.
She taught me that some things are just not for her: fruit, short sleeves, hand dryers, for example. So, we don’t concern ourselves with those and move on.
She taught me that there are so many myths about autism and how misunderstood it still can be. “Autistics don’t have empathy.” Tell that to Tink. If she sees someone hurt, she’ll ask if they’re ok. She understands they are hurt. She knows how ‘hurt’ feels and knows to be concerned. If that’s not empathy, I’m not sure what is. “What’s her special skill?” You tell me. At present, she doesn’t seem to have one, just like most of us ‘typical’ folk which makes her fairly… typical. “Autistics live in their own world.” No, Tink very much lives in the same world as the rest of us! She just experiences it differently.
She has taught me not to sweat the small stuff, not to be judgemental, not to give up. I have learnt to be more patient, to let go of my ideals and preconceptions and to expect the unexpected.
She has taught me more than I ever hoped I could learn, and will go on teaching me every day of our lives together.