4th in the Happy Sawyer series
By Nikki Mann
I suppose I don’t think of Sawyer as autistic any more frequently than I consciously acknowledge that he has blue eyes, or that his 3 year old sister whinges for most of the livelong day. So when I put his school bags on the same cushion of the settee every single morning, I don’t really think much of it. And when our usual ‘parking spot’ has already been occupied, I don’t think twice of driving around the village until it’s freed up again.
It took a few years of his little life so far for me to understand in some capacity what sort of things were bothering Sawyer, and how we could adapt his surroundings to make things a little bit easier on him. I’m ever conscious that I don’t want to stop him doing things just in case he can’t cope with the over-stimulation, but I also understand enough about him/autism now to be able to (most of the time) put things in place that will soften the blow if we think he will struggle with certain situations. Many people don’t understand the way I choose to deal with Sawyer’s sensory issues, and I can understand that from the outside, it would seem I am pandering to a picky child. Luckily, the people I care about know me, and they know my son. Those people are my priority.
If there is one thing that will teach you who you no longer require in your life, it’s people being judgemental of your parenting. And when your child is autistic, that is almost everybody. There have been many times when I’ve been told that Sawyer was ‘just being naughty’ and that instead of ‘bowing to him’ with visual diaries and weighted blankets, I should try implementing the naughty step and teaching him right from wrong. These days, those people forcibly exit my life as quickly as they entered because I don’t have time, and I’ve certainly run out of energy. I accept it sounds a little bit harsh, but that is one thing I have to thank autism for. It has shown me who my friends aren’t, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
My friends and family accept that Sawyer has an obsessive nature, and as we all know by now, Thomas the Tank Engine is his number 1 blue ally. In our house Thomas has become our best friend and our worst enemy! Thomas calms Sawyer down and acts as his comfort wherever we go, but that also means that our lives revolve around Thomas, his friends, his sheds, his Youtube videos, his films, and his books. Now, I’ve just typed and deleted the same sentence several times, because it’s difficult for me to put in to words what Sawyer’s obsession is like. Okay, let’s try this: Imagine a child who likes trains. The kid likes trains so much that his parents buy him a train bedspread, and read him train bedtimes stories. For a few months his parents buy loads of toys, films, books, etc. The kid really likes trains. Got it? Okay. Now imagine Sawyer. Sawyer cannot imagine a day when there wouldn’t be Thomas the Tank Engine. If there are no Thomas toys around, he will find anything that relates to Thomas, and he will talk about that instead.
When you try to do math homework with Sawyer, and you ask him what 3 – 2 is, he answers ‘One! And that’s Thomas! The Number One Blue Engine!’. And it isn’t an accident either. Because he can also tell you the number and colour of every single other engine that features in Thomas’ long history. It’s actually pretty incredible. Sawyer disappears quite frequently in to what we call ‘Thomas Land’, a land in which he is so happy and engrossed that you have trouble trying to encourage him back out. He will sit for a long time all by himself, reciting stories and escaping reality.
What I’ve learned is that the Thomas obsession is far from unusual in children with autism, and these days, it makes so much more sense to me. Firstly, the trains can be categorised easily in to size, numbers, colours and shape. They can be lined up, and they have wheels you can spin. Secondly, after watching one or two (million) episodes, I realise that their expressions are very obviously connected with the given storyline. The faces are static, so they are either happy, sad, cross, angry, etc. Sawyer recognises these faces and connects them to an emotion. I have Thomas to thank for a lot, even though I want to derail him fairly frequently. He helps my son get through so many difficult times, and on top of that, Thomas and his acute understanding of autism has made birthday and Christmas presents incredibly easy to think of for the last 5 years. Thank you, Thomas. And thank you, Autism.
I know I am his Mum, but I think it’s fair to say that everyone who meets Sawyer falls in love with him pretty quickly. Sawyer is a kind and loving soul, trying to make sense of a world that does not understand him. It’s another trait he has that I think will fascinate me for the rest of my life – his ability to see the world in a different way to the rest of us, yet somehow manage to join in. Of course I don’t know how life will change for him, and us, as he gets older, but at the moment I’m envious of the way he operates. He gets to school and kisses me goodbye in the same spot in the playground. He puts his bags in exactly the right place, and he turns around to wave at me. Without even knowing it, he puts things in place that keep him feeling secure and in control, which is more than most adults can accomplish in an entire day, let alone before 9am. Sawyer joins in at school (for the most part) and plays alongside other children, but I’m very aware that children don’t notice the subtle differences at such a young age.
When one of his school friends asked me ‘Why is Sawyer so weird?” one day, I wasn’t surprised and I wasn’t upset. I gave her a massive smile, and I told her ‘because being a bit different is awesome’. She smiled back, and she agreed, and off she skipped. Sawyer doesn’t think he’s weird, and he doesn’t know that he seems a bit different. I don’t know if that will change as time goes on, but for now autism keeps him… protected. Ever so slightly oblivious (if that is possible), and I’m thankful for that.
I love Autism. I love it because I love my son. Do I wish Sawyer wasn’t autistic? How could I? Autism isn’t a trait or habit that Sawyer has, it is a crucial part of who he is and whom he will always be. Sawyer doesn’t have autism, he is autism. Being Sawyer’s Mummy continues to bring different challenges each and every day, but autism has become part of my life in a way that means I don’t think about it until I stop and reflect later on. Reflection is key for me. This blog is key. A time where I think of how things went and what I could do better, without beating myself up about decisions I made when something took me by surprise. Yes, Sawyer does things differently to other children his age, and sometimes he does them much later, but that’s okay. I can’t help but wonder if autism has helped me to appreciate the milestones whenever they arrive, in ways parents of neurotypical children won’t ever grasp. And I include myself in this, since I already take for granted that my daughter can whinge out 15 word sentences like it’s a sport, and that she potty trained herself long before she was 2 years old.
Sawyer was 4.5 years old and had been in school for nearly 3 months. He still didn’t say much and he didn’t have the coordination to hold a pencil like the other children. But he had settled, and that had been my aim. On the 23rd November 2014 he hurtled in to my bedroom, ricocheting off of furniture and walls as standard. But whilst he danced his morning jig, I realised that his usual high-pitched voice wasn’t usual at all. It was a song. He was singing me happy birthday for the first time.
Thank you, Awetism. For everything.