He is dealing with our new circumstances with courage and humour – and I’ve learned some important lessons along the way. By Chitra Ramaswamy
Three days before the UK went into lockdown and the world changed beyond all recognition, I had to catch a train from London to Edinburgh with my six-year-old autistic son, two-year-old daughter and partner. We were travelling back to Scotland a week later than planned after a harrowing visit with my parents. My mother, who has metastatic breast cancer, had ended up in intensive care just as the first UK deaths from coronavirus were being announced. She was still in hospital when we left. Now, somehow, I needed to make the magical transformation from daughter to mother, get my head in gear and get my children home before the journey I had been routinely making for 20 years became, at worst, impossible or, at best, freighted with risk.
Two days earlier, my partner had tried to take him home to give me a little more time with my mum, but at King’s Cross he had a meltdown and refused to get on the train. It is perhaps one of the great understatements of my life to say that my nerves were jangling.
The usual questions replayed on a loop composed by anxiety. Would he get in the taxi or run away? (He would get in the taxi.) Would he be able to cope with the sensory overload of the platforms at King’s Cross? (Yes.) Would there be time to grab a coffee and sandwich? (Of course not.) Now, suddenly, there was a new strain of questions. Would the train be too busy for us to keep our distance from other passengers? Would there be handwash in the toilets, and would we be able to get our son to use it? And when we got home, would we be able to get the handful of foods he eats or would the Birds Eye Chicken Dippers have been emptied from Tesco?
We families of autistic children are a resilient bunch. We have learned the high art of appearing calm as we work our arses off to make this noisy, intolerant and unpredictable world habitable for our children. We are like the people who paint the rooms before the Queen enters them, forever one step ahead of our little rulers, trying to make their passage through life smoother, better, happier. We are fighters. And it turns out these skills are extremely handy in a global pandemic.
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