Manners maketh man, Manic Monday

Whilst Michael Savage storms into the spotlight to write off our children, the rest of us bimble along in the twilight shadows, busy and better than any microdot in his imagination.

I begin to type:-

'In principle, all children should be seen but not heard during dinner so that the other participants are to enjoy their meal. It's a very simple rule, one that I adhered to vigourously when I was but a wee young thing. It is essential that parents maintain scrupulously high expectations and standards, nay, tis their moral obligation to the rest of civilized society.' I pause in my piece for 'Ban Brats Daily' and gather the family for lunch.

In the 80 degree heat in the shade, we collect Al Fresco, as part of the ongoing ‘de-sensitization to outside’ campaign. These days, the underlying principle remains the same, behave in a kindly manner and hopefully you won't offend other people. For me, the unpublicized secret of good manners, is the skill to put other people at their ease.

We model 'sitting.' They approximate in return. We eat with knives and forks, their fingers work just as hard. Although there is a great deal of detritus over a three foot scatter radius, no-one purposefully throws food. During the meal we discuss a narrow range of subjects in depth, such as 'whether Chaotic cards are more desirable than Pokemon cards?'

During a pause my youngest shoots off like Billy the Whizz for no apparent reason, “hey! Where are you going Sunny Jim?” He stops, mid-fly, frozen, “er…..I'm done.”
“No you are not done! There's something you haven't done yet.” His whole body sags as he takes heavy steps back to his chair to take up the flop position, the nearest he's been to actually sitting in the last seven and a half minutes. “Please……..may I leaf dah table?”
“Beautifully said. Yes you may dear.” He scoots off on rewind back into the safety of the house.

My other son staggers off in his brother's wake, “hey! Where are you going Sunny Jim?” It takes a few more staggers before the message is processed. He turns, “wot?” he splutters, spewing crumbs. “Sit back down, you have a face full of food.” His hands fly to his face, whole hands on whole face, as they flutter for evidence.

“Wot?”
“I mean……….your mouth is still full of food dear!” He stands rigid, stretches his neck, head back and gulps. A little shiver engulfs him before he opens his maw wider than a lion to demonstrate emptiness. “Very good dear, now come and sit down, you've still forgotten something.”

He returns to the table to perch on the very rim of the chair. He opens his mouth to speak, notices a discarded Ritz cracker and stuffs it in without thought, “pls…..ma…lif..table?” he sprays. He droops back into the chair, resigned to full munching, without a further word.

“Ooo, where's your Dad gone?” I say to no-one in particular. This is just as well since half my potential audience is hard of hearing and the other half finds it hard to hear. I scan the garden. Not a trace.

“Pleaz……may I lif dah table now?”
“Yes dear, well done indeed.”

Nonna's chair scrapes back as she heads off to dead head a rose or two. I sit at the table for six with the debris, in silence, apart from the sickly globuling sound of the fountain.

I swivel to see my son as he hovers around the strawberry pot and the algae covered fountain in the blistering heat. I watch his fingers travel to the one semi ripe bauble. He makes a valiant attempt at a pincher grip but it's more like a strawberry daiquiri. Little pick pocket!

I say nothing, as he hates strawberries.

“Hey mom!”
“Yes dear?”
“Look………what I…… found.”
“Yes……first this year.”

Same every year, same spot, same fruit, same familiarity although he never seemed to notice them before.

“Dya wannit?”
“Who me?”
“Yup!” he reaches over and uncurls his fingers from his palm. I take the red splat and pop it in my mouth.

Delicious!


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The Theory of Mind

 

This theory dictates that autistic children cannot put themselves in someone else’s shoes, take their perspective. It’s also called mind blindness sometimes, but “ABFH” explains it so much more eloquently.

I have another of those conversations that leads me to believe that I am short of few marbles. It's all my daughter's fault of course, as she ambushes me at the end of the school day. The usual Friday afternoon play dates are always carefully orchestrated, but her regular partner is unavailable.

“Mom can Sarah come over for a play date now please?” Her new pal is by her side. I imagine that for most families this would be easy. For our family it isn't. Because my family is made up of different individuals, I feel an obligation to newcomers. Gone are the days when I worried about whether their were guns or other dangers in other people's houses. I concentrate on the information a new parent would want to know, before permitting their child into my care.

Under ordinary circumstances, when a new chum comes along, I take the time to meet the parent and have a chat. It's a delicate exchange for me. I need them to have an easy exit, if needs be. If they are uncomfortable about their child sharing time in a home with a couple of autistic children, and many people are, then I want to provide them with the opportunity to bow out gracefully. It's not a contest. I still find it strange that so many people have yet to hear the word autism, but I have to deal with the current status quo. I do not want to have this conversation with the other parent whilst my boys are around. They might appear to be blissfully unaware, but we all know that most walls have ears, even autistic ones.

Since I volunteer in their classrooms, I know many of the children already. I also wish to preserve a level of 'ordinary' for my daughter, not to hamper her own social desires. “Is your mum here to collect you Sarah? Do you live near the school? Shall I write down your address?”
I ask warily, as I look around the playground for the invisible beam of parent-child energy.
“I don't know my address,” she answers sweetly. I blink. I have been training my own children, all of them, to memorize their address for as long as I can remember. They can sing their address and telephone number but none of them can say it. The girls search, spot the target and race off in unison to ambush another mother.

Meanwhile, I am in a holding pattern, my own two boys and two other boys from their class. I attempt to impose the buddy system on my boys, “Stick with your pal, stay together, you're responsible for him.” I don't want them to glide off into their usual pattern, to stride towards the bus and disappear because this is a change to their normal routine. My youngest perseverates, “ responsibull, responsibill, responsiball,” as he buzzes around his pal to make a very accurate impression of a sheepdog. My older son and his pal circuit a bush, shoulder to shoulder, round and round, keeping in step, which is quite a feat for my son.

I glance across at the huddle of girls and a lone mother and attempt to herd the troops in her general direction in the hope that we adults can engage in an adult exchange. I need diplomacy skills but also need watch four moving targets. I am reluctant to move too close, because then the bus will be within view. It's egg yolk yellow loveliness will cue two boys into the wrong trajectory.

Many of us are led astray by visual cues. As you drive the route that you always drive, you automatically stop at the stop light. It’s a habit. You’re probably so habituated that if someone stole the stop light, you’d stop even though it wasn’t there any more. If someone put an extra stop light on your route, you’d stop. You wouldn’t take time to consider that it might be a hoax, you’d be on automatic pilot; stop sign evokes stop. So it is with the bus: see bus at the right time of the day and off you toddle, without another thought.

I make a start with the mother and introductions. I can see that she is distracted although I am uncertain what the cause might be. By shaking hands and speaking we take off at a tangent, “Oh yur frm London huh?”
“Um yes, that's right. I was wondering if….”
“Sure but y'll have to bring her home coz I cant drive at night.” At night? When does she expect me to return her daughter I wonder? I try and work out which of the other two children will be collected when and by whom, to see if I can offer an accurate timeline?
“Well…er perhaps you could give me an address and check this is your correct telephone number?”
“Yeah, that's it,” she glances at my notebook, “we're in the orange house on Main Street, doya knowit, ya cant miss it.”
My youngest bumps into me as he spins, “responsibull, responsibill, responsiball.”
“Oh is he yurs too? Geez I luv his English accent.” He spins off on a new ditty, “English accent, English accent, English accent,” he repeats in a perfect American accent.
“Actually, I’ve two brothers and a sister!” she pipes. The mother glances around unable to identify which if any, of the children she might be referring to. I grab my moment, “actually, about the boys, I just..”
“Too cute, gotta dash!” Dash? Don’t dash, not yet!

My head begins to hurt as he starts to pogo which tells me that we need to find a toilet within the next 3 minutes. I try and work out which is the nearest bathroom that will accommodate seven people? I remember to run roads through my lexicon but have no recall of any orange house anywhere. “Perhaps you could tell me the street address?” I blurt a little too loudly as her body is in retreat.
“Tha orange one on the corner with West.”
She squeezes her daughter's shoulder and turns on her heel to leave. I step after her, to forestall her, advise and appraise this trusting soul, since she doesn't know me from Adam.
“Do you want my number?” I offer to her back.
“No that's fine, just give me a call when yur coming,” she calls over her shoulder as she moves swiftly in the general direction of the bus and the parking lot, the direction that I wish to avoid.

The girls block my path fizzing at their coup. Sarah turns to me with a massive grin, the kind that splits a face and shrinks eyes to slits, “I always wanted a brother!” she beams. I double check: guileless American pre-teen or Smart Aleky British sarcasm? The former. My youngest spins, buzzes and points at her, the other hand pulls his T-shirt. No brother! Oh dear, how will I keep them dressed?
“What is it dear?” He pogos a little more, adds a couple of spins to squeak “she be thread.” Sarah and I examine her personage.
“Der, der, der!” he points and twirls. We look again, nothing.
“You are not tickle?” he asks. Sarah beams back at him although neither of us know what he's on about? “He's so cute!” she giggles. He continues to fizzle, the acceleration is palpable, “agh I am do it for you den!” he bellows as he pounces on her legs, brakes and lets a quivering arm come close to her bare flesh. She bends to look. We all peer at her leg. A thread hangs from the hem of her skirt, a squirrely, curly one with a knotted bobbly end. He holds the ball of thread in a perfect pincher grip, “it are tickle you right?”
I intervene and snap off the offending tail. Sarah grins again, “how come?” she asks simply. “That kind of thing drives him nuts. He thought it might be bothering you.” The grinning girl giggles, “he's so funny……and cute.”
It seems to me that they both share more than enough theory of mind to knock the average adult into touch.

I debate how to manoeuvre my herd, my flock, the 500 yards to the car, my car, which fortunately seats 7. I take a deep breath and recount heads. I am left in the nearly empty playground with six children, an unwilling Pied Piper, witless, clueless and pipeless.


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Unnatural Practices

 

Now that I have lived in the United States for more than 12 years, I am an expert on all of their funny little ways, or at least most of them. Others of them, still leave me flummoxed, but I am a willing student.

On the whole, Americans are great, because they speak clearly on any given subject. There is little artifice. What you see is what you get, which is so much simpler for simple minded foreigners to interpret. If you, the foreigner, make a faux pas, the handy American will put you right, unlike other countries where errors are noted, recorded, stored away for future reference and the offender shunned thereafter.

Occasionally, I am still brought up short. Maybe it’s a Brit thing.

I expect most parents experience a variation on theme. Your youngish child approaches you to ask thusly, “Mater dearest, I would dearly love to visit Charlie Witherspoon’s Estate. He has a simply smashing croquet lawn and the polo ponies are first class!” You, the parent, advise your child that he cannot invite himself to someone else’s house, he must wait for an invitation. In our household we teach the same lesson. “But i gonna go HER house!” It’s a statement of intent, even though the friend is a boy. He bellows at 50 decibels, but the answer is still more or less the same. I thought it was the same everywhere.

…….

I finish a conversation with the school nurse. I try very hard not to laugh, as even I know that this would be inappropriate. There is something about the phrase

“he accidentally ran into a Hoola Hoop,” that tickles my funny bone. No sooner have I replaced the receiver, when it rings again.
“Hello?”
“Hi, how was your summer?”
“Great thanks and yours?”
“Really great.”
…………..
“Hello?”
“Yes.”
“So how can I help?”
“Well I was talking to Jane and she said she'd love to have a play date.”
“Lovely. When were you thinking of?”
“Wednesday or Thursday would suit me best.”
“Right. Super.”
“So you'll pick Jane up and take her back to your house after school?”
“Er, right, o.k. that would be just fine. Shall I bring her back home to you afterwards?”
“Yes. Could you bring her back at about 5 as she has soccer practice.” Somehow it sounds more like a statement than a request.
“Righty oh.”
“D'you know our address?”
“Um yes. I'll check it in the school directory.”
“Great. See ya.”

My daughter and “Ohmygod,” that is to say Jane, have enjoyed two or three play dates each year. On each occasion, Jane's mother telephones me to tell me that her daughter wants a play date with my child, in our house and that I am responsible for the accompanying taxi service. No other mother or parent has ever adopted this approach. I am non-plussed but intrigued each time. I keep examining the details to see if I've missed a step or a cue, as my telephone skills are poor?

The following day, Jane's mother calls again.
“Hello?”
“Hi, I'm sorry but I'm gonna have to cancel the play date.”
“Oh dear. I'm sorry. Shall we make it another day that's more convenient?”
“No, Jane is grounded, no privileges for a month.”
“A month! Well we could make it for a month’s time?”
“Thanks no, I'd just like to hold off a while.”
“O.k. Well let me know how things go?”
“Bye.”

I replace the receiver. A month? The child is 9. What could a 9 year old possibly have done to have all privileges withdrawn? I know it's a common enough term but 'withdrawal of privileges' echoes from a bygone era, my bygone era. I wanted to ask, but that would be rude. If she wanted me to know she would have told me. It must be serious, not the kind of information to be shared with a casual acquaintance such as myself.

It's the fact that 'all' privileges have been banned. I wonder how many privileges the average 9 year old has? This is such a useful yardstick for me. I know that our family life is not well aligned to the average. We are habituated. It's only when you get a glimpse into someone else's life that this prompts a reality check.

I try and think what privileges, if any, we have? Only electronics, and play dates for my daughter. The boys do have play dates but they only consider them to be a privilege in theory. Desirable in theory, often turns into something far more haphazard in reality. I wonder why they don't have more privileges? But of course with their somewhat narrow field of interest, there could only ever be one privilege for the time being.

I try and think of anything that my daughter might do that would warrant a month's withdrawal?

Blank.

This must surely mean that my child is an angel or that I lack an appropriate disciplinary approach? Neither option seems quite right.

I try the same thought with the boys, but that is more difficult, because a month without electronics would bring life as we know it, to and end. It would be impossible to send nake.d boys to school. Without the promise of electronics, we would literally cease to function. This sobering fact brings an end to my thought processes.

Families differ and that's a fact.


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Interpreting social cues

 

A while back there was a popular programme on the telly. It was called “A very peculiar practice.” The main theme, for me at least, was the inability of the main character to decipher what was going on under his nose.


When I speak to someone for the first time, I inevitably ensure that I am at my most polite. Polite, the British version, differs from other cultures. More often than not, in America of all places, this is not a helpful mode of communication.

My son plagues me, “is it nine?”
“Look at the timer dear, 19 minutes to go.”
“It is a rule?”
“Yes, it's rude to telephone people before 9 at the weekend, it's a rule.” He searches my face for a hint of deception.

The key to conducting a successful telephone conversation, is the ability to tune into the timbre of the other person. I prefer to talk to someone face to face, as I am a visual learner and need those cues. Without them, I need to listen very carefully and adjust my tone. My own telephone skills are poor which means that I am sympathetic to the difficulties that others experience.

I tap out the numbers as my son waits close by nibbling his finger tips with his eyes squeezed shut.

I hear a cheery voice and make introductions. It's the Dad, a jolly straightforward American. This is going to be easy. We exchange a few pleasantries. He hands me over to the Mum. I remember that play dates are Mums' department. I make introductions again, just to clarify.

“Yeah. I know,” she replies in a halting, jittery tone. Perhaps she's busy. Maybe this is the wrong time?
“I'm sorry to disturb you so early on a Saturday morning, I hope this isn't an inconvenient time?”
There is a pause. Maybe she's adjusting the volume, or running away from her children to conduct a conversation in peace and quiet, or she's tucking the receiver into her shoulder so that her hands are free?
“Early? It's nine o'clock!” I'm not sure if I've just insulted her? Nine o'clock may not be early? Perhaps I've implied that she lies around in bed all day, whereas she's been up since first light?
“Sorry, I just wasn't sure this was convenient?”
“Convenient?”
“Yes…..I just ….. perhaps this might not be a good time,…..perhaps?”
“Good time?” I begin to wonder if I inadvertently slipped into speaking Swahili.

“I just wondered if he'd like to come over for a play date, although I understand that you might have other plans.”
“Who told you we had other plans?” she snaps back as quick as a whippet
“Um, no-one, er…….it's just that it's such short notice I didn't like to assume that he'd be available.”
“Available?”
“Er available to come and play.”
“Are you gonna be home?”
“Yes…..of course.”
Of course! Just in time I remember that quirk a few Americans have, a preference for child care by a woman rather than a Dad. It's a preference that I don't fully understand, but I've come across it before.
“Well sure,” she croons slowly and softly. It's not a Southern drawl, not an accent, more of a reluctant and uncertain acceptance.
“Shall I give you our address?” Another pause follows. I imagine her moving to find a paper and pencil.
“Well I don't know where you live!” Pause. “I'll go get a pen.”

I wait in a state of nervous confusion. I take care with my address details. I don't do it the American way. The American way is to provide detailed instructions, turns to right and left, number of stop lights or blocks, helpful landmarks on route until finally, if you're really lucky, eventually, they give you the number of the house and the name of the street. Brits give the address first. They use similar navigational hints, afterwards, if necessary. Left at the Frog and Toad, right at the Queen's Arms, straight past the King's Head, sharp right at The Two Trees. This isn't possible in America, as there is no such thing as a pub.
“It's 14799 C-h-a-r-m-i-n-g-t-o-n L-a-n-e.” I wait in silence, as if I say anything I might cause confusion.
“Can he bring anything?”
“No, just his sweet self will do nicely.” Maybe that didn't come out quite right? I can see him in my mind's eye, soft spoken, rounded shoulders upon a slightly curved spine, shy eyes behind thick glasses and a bewitching smile.
“My son……he's a boy you know!” Oh dear! It did come out wrongly.
“Yes, yes of course, I'm sorry, it's just that……well, you know, he's such a lovely child.” I don't know what I'm saying any more, I should just shut up.
“A boy!” Her tone is emphatic which is odd because I don't believe I'm arguing.
“A great chap.” Why didn't I say guy! I resolve to try harder with the 'boy thing' in America.
“Time?”
“How about 1? Would that suit you?”
“Sure………thanks so much.” I hear a click at the other end of the line. I am off the hook.

I give my fizzing child a synopsis of the good news, set the timer for 4 hours ahead and pour myself a vat of coffee.

After more than twelve years in this country, I still have a great deal to learn and no teacher.


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No Compass

Now do feel free to stop me at any time when you've had enough, as I do have a tendency to go a little off track on occasions. I won't be in the least bit offended as I'm well versed in social blunders of this kind. When I first meet someone new, I have a inclination not to mention children, mine or anyone else's. Do I behave in this manner because I am ashamed? You'd be justified in that opinion, but you would be way off. Unlikely as it may seem, seeing as how I am a Brit, on the contrary, I like to think that I am being considerate to that person. Unless you, the listener, have unusually enhanced social skills, then if someone that you meet, such as me, tells you that they have a couple of autistic kids in tow, that might prove to be a little bit of a stumper. What is the appropriate etiquette when receiving such a piece of information?

I don't know the answer to that, but I do know that whatever the person says, they at least, feel that it was wrong.

Now I am sympathetic to their plight and that is why I keep mum. [translation = don't let on] As it turns out, after all this time, it doesn't really matter what the reply is, as I've heard most of them, some of them many times and I can honestly say that I am not in the least bit offended any more. I feel sorry for you, the receiver of the information, because hearing this piece of information makes you feel uncomfortable.

It's a tricky one though, if I leave it too long before I mention it to you then it can be even more of an unpleasant or disconcerting surprise.
I know that you're just dying to know what the most common reply is? Well, sorry to disappoint, but generally the one that happens most often is an 'oh!' and a combination of a shifty eyes and a weak smile, followed by either a lengthy pause or a rapid change of subject.

But this isn't really my area of expertise, seeing as how I hale from yonder small island, where 'body language' merely refers to rude hand gestures and there are no such things as social skills, merely rules, a hierarchy and a sense of decorum at all times. Now if my autistic children were hoping for a leg up [translation = advantage] in the realms of social interaction, then they basically drew the short straw. Since I'm out here, in Jolly Old California, rather than back there, at least I have the advantage of understanding the not so subtle messages that I exude. The tight face, stiff upper lip, brow frown and rigid shoulders, tell every one to keep their distance without me having to utter a single syllable. My diction may be first rate, my enunciation second to none, but that won't get me very far with an autistic child because my facial expression doesn't match my message. If you have a face like a poker, you are wasting your time trying to communicate with them. You need an animated face, a cheerleader's movements, an Italian's hand gestures and a tone of voice that is arresting. Without these tools you are wasting your time, you won't even get their attention let alone permit a message to transmit.

Yes, when dealing with an autistic child, whilst it pains me more than you can ever know to admit it, two particularly loathsome American terms come to mind; 'in your face' and 'on your case,' because 'would you mind awfully' and ' when you have a mo' just don't cut it. Fortunately, learning to be a 'citizen' out here has conferred far more benefits upon me than the mere permission to work.

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