My sister-in-law is in year 54 of a life sentence, with no parole and no remission for good conduct. It’s not called Strangeways or Wormwood Scrubs. It is called Autism.
Autism: a lifelong disability that affects the way persons relate to those around them. (National Autistic Society.)
No, she is not autistic – her son is. But in the mirror world of autism, it is she who is the prisoner and he the jailer.
Autism usually appears in the first three years of life. (NAS)
Autism was identified in 1943, but it took time for the profession to catch on. Their consultant’s diagnosis (in 1956) on this hitherto happy toddler was: ‘Mrs. J, your child is naughty. Naughty babies are not my job.’
When he was eventually diagnosed, it was obvious that he would need full-time care. They tried specialist institutions over many years, but finally decided they could do better at home. The decision changed their lives.
The impact on the lives of an autistic’s family can be devastating. (NAS)
Living with an autistic turns you into one. You get so used to his phobias that you anticipate the tantrums and avoid situations that might set them off. Our lives are ruled by his pathological fear of four-legged animals. He likes birds and people in that order: we haven’t tried him with ducks and geese.
You flee from little creatures that we can rarely hear.
Terror pains your features - from threats we cannot fear
One summer, we were sitting outside our rented cottage in Tuscany when he suddenly leapt up and ran inside. We couldn’t make out why – until a fluffy kitten, no bigger than a hand, emerged from the long grass. He will run even if the only alternative is into speeding traffic, so you learn to spot the signals – the person carrying a lead, or just hanging about the way that dog-walkers do. His one concession to normality is drinking beer, so we patronise pubs whose car park is next to the bar, so we can pass his beer through the car window.
Autistics have impaired social interaction and lack the ability or desire to communicate. (NAS)
For an autistic, the normal means of communication: touch, speech, eye contact, and gesture are too much of a commitment – autism is shyness writ large. He uses the fewest words necessary to communicate his need – and no words at all if he can avoid them. In the car, a raised finger – never a whole hand - means ‘I need the toilet’.
Despite this handicap, on most days he learns something new. He doesn’t always get it right first time - like when he first washed the dishes and we’d failed to mention that you don’t need a whole bottle of detergent per wash. But he grows in stature with each demon conquered, and my late brother’s widow, now his sole prisoner, will not appeal against the sentence.
‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far way.’ (Thoreau)
Surely the Iraqis can't come up with a SECOND death sentence on Saddam Hussein before the the election booths open?