What Autism Taught Me

 

I’m trying to write. A gloomy Donegal sky is sagging low, closing in around the hills.  It’s blowing a gale outside. Hail stones, like small round pills, are drumming against the window above me. Behind me, my ‘autsome’ boy is pacing. Up and down.  School’s out. Kids are in. No day for the trampoline. I know he wants an outside space where he can run and jump, and do what my ‘autsome’ boy needs to do, but the shower of sleet has turned everything white and wet.  There will be no going out for a while. The pacing continues. I read the same line over and over, trying to make sense of what I have written. I am struggling against the noise. Mowghi is making his signature humming sound as he continues to pace. His incessant need for movement hasn’t let up all these years. His need for noise hasn’t either. His favourite music channel on the television is belting out all the latest hits. It’s all noise to me. The computer is playing Thomas the Tank music. I know every quaver, every beat, every tune that’s comes with being subjected to Thomas the Tank videos for almost fifteen years. That’s how long ago autism sneaked in and took up residence in our home, a noisy, pacing, never a dull moment autism that demanded me to be on red alert at all times, even when I’m writing, There is no retrieve, no downtime, no out when autism is about.  It’s the way it is, and another Autism Awareness Month is upon us.  As Mowghi paces, and the wind howls, and the hailstones rattle I commit to paper a list of things that autism taught me of which there are many, too many to mention. In no particular order, here is a random thought list of lessons I’ve learnt from my ‘autsome’ boy.

  • Time is irrelevant.
  • Moments make up life.
  • Treasure the moments.
  • Not all moments are magical.
  • Most moments are little miracles.
  • A lesson can be learnt in any given moment.
  • The lesson is usually a lesson in self-love.
  • Self-love comes from within and reaches out to others.
  • Self-love is unconditional love.
  • Unconditional love has no strings attached.
  • When Mowghi rests his head on my shoulder the world stops.
  • Never underestimate the power of love of any kind.
  • Autism taught me who matters and what matters.
  • Never underestimate the joy of simple things.
  • Joy can find its way through pain.
  • Given time, the pain of loss and grief eases.
  • Patience is truly a virtue.
  • Autism has honed that virtue for me very well.
  • Humour can be found in the darkest of moments.
  • Look for humour always. It’s a life-saving device.
  • So is toilet paper, and I have to look for it too!
  • Hiding toilet paper prevents blocked toilets.
  • Hiding everything prevents mess and is sanity saving.
  • Whoever invented the key should be canonized.
  • Strangers are mostly real life angels.
  • Talking is overrated.
  • Silence is the sweetest noise.
  • An non-verbal person does not constitute an empty mind.
  • A warm bubbly bath can make anything better.
  • Be soooo grateful for any night of uninterrupted sleep.
  • Material things mean little to the soul.
  • The soul celebrates difference.
  • Our human understanding is limited by logic.
  • There is nothing logical about Autism.
  • Autism remains a mystery.
  • Autism grows up.
  • Autism doesn’t always behave grown up.
  • Grown up autism needs help, support and services.
  • People who work with the vulnerable in society are unsung heroes.
  • Acceptance is the first step on any journey.
  • The journey must be experienced.
  • It’s called life, with or without autism.
  • A good giggle is essential to survival.
  • Strive to enjoy the journey.

My boy is trotting steadily towards his seventeenth birthday. Only yesterday I held him, as in the photograph above, at Crummies Bay, Dunree in Inishowen, Donegal, a small laughing mischievous rascal in my arms who knew his own mind and tormented me with his antics. He still does. I still am at a loss to fully understand him, his strange ways, his sixth sense, his breaking down, his frustrations. his wonder, his need for space, inside and outside, his connection with nature, his withdrawal to the sanctuary of his room. As he paces up and down behind me, I clock up a few more sentences, and wonder is he at a loss to understand me too?

 

STORY-TELLING IN SWAN PARK

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Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

Delighted to be asked to take part in a storytelling event for Free Wee Libraries, by local artist Geraldine Timlin, I ventured down to Swan Park and discovered a lovely surprise . Geraldine was busy decorating a little corner of the park that would entice anyone to sit for a while among the green and the books.  Like bees to flowers, the children came and took their place on a tiny toadstool. When they were sitting comfortably, I began to read a story about The Mummy Shop by Abie Longstaff & Lauran Beard published by Scholastic books. A little boy wanted a new Mummy because his own Mummy made him clean his room and go to bed early. She sounded like a really bad Mummy! So the little boy ordered up a new Mummy but no matter what Mummy he got they weren’t quite right. By the end of the book, he realised he wanted his own Mummy back because she was just perfect! All the children agreed that their own Mammies were perfect too, and it was a good job because their real Mammies (and Daddies and Grannys were not too far away) I hope everyone enjoyed the storytelling morning as much as I did.

The essence of the Free Wee Libraries is the fun of being out in the open air and the magic of a story. In a way, it took me back to when I was younger. All those summer months spent reading outside, for hours on end, on my back, squinting in the brightness, up on one elbow, propped up against a trunk of a tree, turning pages to the end of a book. Granted, there wasn’t much else to do, no electronic devices to distract me, no television, no town or village near, but the magic appeared in the form of a mobile library that came every fortnight to the bottom of Pomeroy, three miles away from our home.  Along with my sisters, we walked there and back, laden with books. We were so excited about getting stuck into the books we never minded the long walk. Besides, it was totally normal. Mum and Dad were shaking hay in the fields so shanks mare was our only mode of transport. When we arrived home we would have ‘tay’ in the field, and before we were asked to lift the dockins we would sneak behind a haystack and devour the latest Enid Blyton or Nancy Drew book. Sometimes Mum joined us. Wrapped up in arms and legs, while gazing at the view down to Lough Neigh and beyond, I got lost in my mother’s voice that took us off to a land of wonder and adventure. When Dad took a break he would stretch out in the heat of the day and tell his own stories, mad, crazy, off the wall yarns, and of course we believed every word that dropped from his mouth because they were always about the man that lived over the mountain, or the woman that had no shoes, totally believable characters that was a figment of my father’s imagination. The ghost stories were told by the fireside in winter but the long funny yarns were told in the hay field. My father had no formal education but it didn’t prevent him from telling the most amazing stories that had us hanging on to his every word. With the Easter holidays stretching out before us, now is a good time to renew your love for books and nature. Make sure you pay a visit to a Free Wee Library and who knows, sometime soon, you might come upon another magical story time in the park. If you do, be sure to stop by.

A WALK, A READ AND A WISH.

free week library pic

First Published in The Inishowen Independent March 2013

The weather is not exactly encouraging me to keep up my morning walk lately but once I’ve talked myself into my coat and walking boots, and pull the front door after me the weather becomes irrelevant. Besides, I have something else to entice me since the Free Wee Libraries popped up in Swan Park and surrounding areas, my love for reading with a dollop of curiosity on the side.

The little libraries are aesthetically pleasing to the eye and hard to pass by.  It’s always interesting to see the different books left in the wee library I’m challenging myself to read different types of books at the moment so what better way than to find a random book on my morning walk and share one of my own. So I was vexed to learn that the harsh weather had no mercy on a couple of the wee libraries that now need a little make over.

The Free Wee Library in Inishowen is the brain child of Geraldine Timlin, award winning artist and lifelong book lover.Geraldine learned about the simple concept that has gained momentum in different parts of America and Europe and wanted to share it with the community. Her love for books and culture compelled her to establish free book nooks in our corner of the world to cultivate community and boost literacy in the great outdoors. These itty-bitty libraries bring readers to books and books to readers making reading accessible and fun!

Five of these tiny wooden libraries, built by volunteers and placed along County Donegal’s coast, are the start of something new to promote literacy for adults and children. The brilliant book-sharing scheme runs on an honesty policy … Take a book. Return a book. A tiny but mighty community builder. How charming is that?

Obviously, Geraldine cannot do enough to share her love of books and the urgent need for a growth in literacy. It’s no secret; we live in a digital age. Our reliance on computers and smart phones has changed the way we interact with the world. Yet a little wooden box full of books has captured the imagination of young and old alike and is creating a sense of community and also a desire to be part of something positive.

The tiny libraries are monitored by volunteers and each library will change its collection several times a month. Geraldine’s wish is that it continues to grow and develop with people who value literacy and community. It’s certainly a great way to declutter your shelves and recycle books!

In late March FWL is organising a poetry competition for children and adults, in Irish and English. The winner will have their poem distributed throughout the Free Wee Libraries. The FWL project has been highly successful to date and plans are under way to expand the project throughout Inishowen. Geraldine is happy to hear from anyone who can donate books, particularly children’s books or help in volunteering in any way to keep the Free Wee Library project inspiring people to read and to share a love for walking and reading in the great outdoors! I hope the Free Wee Libraries that got battered by the storm are up and running again soon and open 365 days a year. It’s hard to beat a walk and a read in the many beautiful spots in Inishowen.

For further details contact freeweelibrary@gmail.com Follow at Free Wee Library Project on Facebook.

Details on the Free Wee Libraries Poetry Competition to follow…

 

 

 

 

 

I’M NOT A BUILDING. I’M AUTISTIC. LIGHT ME UP INSTEAD.

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FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE INISHOWEN INDEPENDENT

Hello World! I’m autistic. Perhaps you know someone like me. In April you will notice buildings lighting up blue on Autism Awareness Day. Awareness is good but acceptance is better. Allow me to explain why and how you can help.

When I am out and about with my family or carer, life can turn stressful. Autism affects all my senses, attention and perception. This means my behaviour is unpredictable. It helps if you are aware of my condition but it helps more if you:

Try not to stare when I’m having a tough time.
Please give me time, give me space, stay calm and carry on. My carer is often my Mum/Dad/brother/sister. She/he needs a break too!

Give up your place in the line.
I have problems standing quietly in a queue. Waiting is an enormous challenge for me. I become agitated and overwhelmed. I can’t help or stop the sensations I feel in my body. Please, if you notice me in a queue, allow me to go in front of you. My family will really appreciate it.

Watch my body language. It’s how I communicate.
When I’m excited I behave like most folk in Inishowen when Donegal wins a match. I run up and down, scream, shake my hands in the air and clap but I can also behave this way if I am hungry, frustrated, frightened, agitated, confused etc. I may have difficulty with words but if you observe me really closely you might work out how I’m feeling or what I need.

Keep me safe.
If you see me wandering around on my own, if you see me in my pyjamas or with no shoes, if I look lost, anxious and crossing streets aimlessly on my own, chances are I have wandered/ran off and my carer is looking for me. Please watch out for me until you find my carer or my carer finds me. Thank you.

Now, a word of thanks from Mum…

Thanks for giving my autistic child the thumbs up…the way you smile knowingly…the way you offer to watch him for a minute until I do what I need to do…the way you say hello to him even though he never says hello back…the way you ignore him when he helps himself to his favourite sweets in your shop…the way you wave my money away…the way you give him a drink and some goodies in the cinema when he gets fed up sitting….the way you open up your shop even though you had just closed it to let him check it out…the way you allow him to sneak behind the bar and serve himself a coke, the way you watch over him when he runs into your premises…the way you didn’t object when he went for a good snoop around, the way you offer to fetch our car when he has a melt-down in the middle of the multi-story car park…the way you didn’t react when he poked through your bag…the way you stopped and asked me if there was anything you could do for me…the way you made our visits to the clinic easier…the way you offer him a treat…the way you make us feel welcome in your restaurant. You will see us again and again and again because we are loyal to those that make every day life possible for us.

When you do that, you light us up, not only in April but every day of the year. Thank you for accepting, for understanding and making allowances for all families with Autism.

 

 

 

BE STILL AND KNOW

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It’s quiet round here. The road is stretching out in front of me for miles, a silky black ribbon weaving its way through Coolcross and Binnon. In their purple navy attire they roll down towards me as I surmise their stature across the lakes on the mountain road.

I turn towards a quiet country lane and head up the hill. The trees, naked and spindly, are waiting patiently for their new Spring coats. It won’t be long. Before I left I noticed a few new shoots  in my battered back garden. Heedless of the recent storms, they must have slipped up some time last week through the  darkness unnoticed…until today. Sunday. Even the birds are quiet this morning.  Are they contemplating too?

Over short heather and grass I ramp on as the ground rises steeply towards the top of Coolcross. It is well worth it. The view is breath-taking. I find them all standing tall and resting in their Sunday morning splendour, Malin head and Glashedy island to the north, Slieve snacht to the south, Slievekeeragh, Raghtin More and Mamore Head to the south-west, Culdaff and Scotland to the north-east. 

Sunday.  It’s a good day for a hike to feed the soul.

The fruit of silence is prayer,
The fruit of prayer is faith,
The fruit of faith is love, and
The fruit of love is silence.

—Mother Teresa

Donegal–rubberstamped and proud!

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It was one of those days when my bones didn’t warm up so I stopped by the Harbour Inn knowing the fire would be burning bright. As I turned my back on the hot embers a couple sitting close by made a comment about the dip in temperature. Their thick Yorkshire accent prompted me to ask if they were on holidays. “Oh, Yes but I’m from Donegal myself.” His partner laughed and interjected, “He left when he was two but he never fails to rubber stamp his identity.” “Well you couldn’t rubberstamp it at a better time,” I laughed and then we were off, reliving that magic moment all over again… the moment when the final whistle shrilled out across Croke Park sending out a red alert message to the world. Donegal are the Champions.

I doubt if anyone actually heard the whistle but the message was clear from the thunderous roar that erupted in every corner of the globe. ‘Donegal IS DNA. Donegal doesn’t belong to us. We belong to Donegal.’ A game of football had rubberstamped our identity once again! What an incredible message to rush through the veins of our children, our young people, our emigrants and expatriates! Be proud of your identity!

When I first came to live in Inishowen I realized for the first time that I had learned to suppress my identity. Growing up in the North in the seventies and eighties and coming from rural Tyrone with an address and a surname that questioned my beliefs, my values, my neighbours and what foot I kicked with didn’t really help to nurture my identity. It only seemed to bring attention to me wherever I went. The wrong kind of attention. It was difficult at school. The uniform and the bus I travelled on give me away. You just got used to the name calling. At university I rarely offered my sir name and was vague about where exactly I came from. While travelling I was the one that would be pulled in at the side of the road or at security in every airport I ever travelled through to be searched and searched again. I learned to keep my identity low key. …until I wanted to tell everyone I was from Tyrone.  Football played a big part in that and the county team’s achievements in Clones and Croke Park give me permission to celebrate and be proud of where I came from.

We should always have a sense of place and be proud of where we come from regardless of the times that we live in or the difficulties we face. In a year when we have had to swallow the news that there will be no new roads or new schools and very few new jobs in the foreseeable future, isn’t it magically that we are all going round on a high? A leather ball has put Donegal on the map again and I am so proud to identify with my adopted county, a place I call home.

When the Donegal man with the Yorkshire accent got up to leave he said, “I can live in other places. I can even love other places. But something in me says ‘home’ when I am in Donegal.”

I smiled knowingly and turned my face to the fire to warm my hands, feeling snug and warm, but something is niggling me. Due to the luck of the draw my identity is being tested again!  What unearth am I going to wear next year when Tyrone meets Donegal in the first round! Whatever I wear I guess it is going to be a win-win for moi!

Mr Sun has reconnected us and disconnected us…almost!

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Oh…So that is what the Swilly is for.

Thank you Mr Sun. We are so grateful that you are hanging out with us in Inishowen. Our pristine beaches are such a joy and it's great to see the children paddle in Lough Swilly without a scarf, coat and wellie boots.

Everyone is happy and wearing vests and cropped trousers, and summer dresses. I haven't cooked inside all week but I have had some gorgeous meals out of my picnic basket. Only for you, this would not be possible nor would I have been able to remind the clothes line of its use. There is something really fresh and magical about a line of washing dried by you in a sultry breeze.

Mr Sun, please stay around this summer. We really do need to feel your warmth and see everyone smiling. We are all funny colours now, pink, blotched, red, brown, golden but most of all we look healthy and glowing and the only rush on is the rush to the beach to spend time with you. Mr Sun we're loving it!

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No time to pose. No time for snaps. No orchestrated photographs. (I did try. They totally ignored me!) Don't you love how children are just too busy to stop enjoying the moment.

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Now, what are you two doing under there? Screening the sun? Sharing secrets? Swapping notes? What's that noise I here? Sounds like buttons being pressed. Giggles. Music? Electronic type music. You's aren't playing…? Couldn't be…on the beach? Surely not. Could they? Don't ask!

Picnic at Porthaw

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The sun is back! Time to celebrate and enjoy the glorious weather we are experiencing in Ireland at the moment. We get so few hazy lazy sunny days here so when they arrive most folk down their tools if they can and head to the nearest beach. Some folk up their tools and head to the garden. Whichever way it is, when the sun shines our burdens become lighter, we chat to anything that moves and doom and gloom seems to evaporate. On days like these, I believe a public holiday should be granted immediately! But while the powers that be work on the exceptional weather policy (no harm in wishing) we can always take a mini vacation in the back garden, on a seat by the river or dine alfresco wherever you are for an hour or so at least.

Picnic

There is something magically about eating in the open air. As a child, growing up in a rural area of Co.Tyrone, I spent most of my summers—pretty much as I spend them now when the sun shines—resting in the long grass with a picnic basket and a good book. Now the whole experience is enriched with my children and Lough Swilly at my feet.

Of course, when the sun is not shining it is rain coats and wellie boots and a brisk walk round the Lough, which has its own magic, but for today I am thankful for a little sunshine. It stops me dreaming about far flung sunny places and a longing for a casa in Italy or a cottage in France. You can read more about that here. The first two sentences were inspired by a poem by Brigitte from Brigitte Banter. You can read it here. It turns out we have a similar dream! Have a sunny day everyone (that’s inside and out) wherever you are!

Thread lightly as I weave my dreams

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Every dream is as precious as a child's drawing in the sand. Mindfully, it is created with great deliberation and care, taking shape in an area of our minds where we don't want anyone to thread or trample on our plan or our drawing. We want it to become part of out reality. We want it to come alive and stay alive as long as we can protect it, as long as nature allows. Sometimes the dream does come true. Sometimes it fades. Sometimes the turning tide erodes our best efforts, wiping the slate clean but it always invites us to start again, to dream a new dream no matter how many times the tide turns. That's were nature differs from a human footprint. A footprint leaves a mark, a smudge, an imprint that can crush a carefully woven dream. Dreams are delicate. Ring fence your dreams and in your mind's eye put up a sign No Trespassing. I shall conclude this post with the thought-provoking words of Cloths of Heaven by William Butler Yeats that defines how delicate and precious our dreams are to each and every one of us and as illusive as the sands of time.

Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

W.B. Yeats.