Saturday, June 11, 2011
This story was initially written to enter in the Woman's Weekly competition. I have since edited and changed it, but the central theme remains. How isolating autism can be for a family and how one small gesture can change so much.
“Eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen.” Passers-by paused and watched as the child happily tiptoed past, his gait irregular. His mother remained close, guarding her small charge. Singsong tones flowed repetitively as his golden curls bounced, head bobbing in time with the vocal rhythm. Tall, white daisies lazily leant through the fencepost gaps to join in, sunshine flitting over their jiggling windswept heads as floral movement synchronised with endless chanting. “Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two.” His mother knew Steven would religiously count every picket along the way, angelically he pointed to each staunch, soldier-straight paling. “Sixty-seven, sixty-eight, sixty-nine.” Sharon gazed down, her heart swelling with maternal love as she worried, anticipating many arrival scenarios. He was so physically beautiful, this child of her heart. Strangers often commented on his outward perfection, though it was usually followed by the loathed “shame he’s autistic, you wouldn’t know it to look at him!” She had heard it so frequently that she now expected the remark and merely smiled at those so ignorant as to comment. Her son continued to count, intent only on the soothing rhythm and oblivious to his mother’s scrutiny and thoughts. “Two hundred and ninety-one, two hundred and ninety-two.” Her angelic child’s blue eyes focused compulsively on the regimented fence line. His father’s eyes, the father who had walked away two years ago proclaiming, “No child of mine could be autistic! This is your fault, you and your molly-coddling! You’ve spoilt him and made him autistic” The blood began to pump faster and her heart beat erratically as she struggled with the rising rage thoughts of her ex-husband’s betrayal provoked. His constant pitch did not falter until the mid four hundreds. Four hundred and seventy-four pickets added by the time mother and the child reached the towering thundercloud-grey steel school gates. Who knew, maybe today would be a good day, maybe today would be the day her six-year-old conquered some of his inner demons and walked through the entrance without trauma.
“Steven, you have to go to school.”
“Come on Steven, I will come in with you.”
“No! No! No! No! No!” The child’s distress quickly escalated, she looked about, futilely hoping nobody was too near. Sharon prayed quietly under her breath, “Please God, don’t let anyone say anything, don’t make it even worse, please God, just this once.” Impotently she tried to grapple his tightly strung body through the boundary, but with a burst of small boy strength Steven thrust himself forward onto the hard ground. Exhausted from the battle, fleetingly she loosened her normally tight grip. The child leapt to his feet sensing freedom and escape, fear adding agility to his normally clumsy movement. He raced unimpeded towards the busy, deadly road.
“Whoa Tiger, where’s the fire?” An arm reached out and successfully looped around the small escapee’s waist. The boy went rigid in the stranger’s arms. Shock gave a moment of silence, then the child released his pent up breath in a loud wail. Twisting, turning, arms flailing, panic set in.
Sharon raced to the roadside. “Steven, Steven, look at me baby! It’s Mummy, Steven take a breath, its Mummy, open your eyes, its Mummy.” She quickly pried him from the shocked rescuer’s arms and into her own, struggling to contain and calm the now hysterical boy. Groaning, she sat, splat onto solid ground and firmly braced his body against hers. She secured her arms around his small thrashing frame, gently rocked and hummed, rocked and hummed. Solely focused on him and his distress she was unaware of any prying, curious eyes upon her.
“I’m sorry, didn’t mean to scare him, I just wanted to stop him reaching the road.” The stranger crouched in front of the pair, concern etched on his worried features. “Is he okay?”
“Yeah, just leave us; he’ll be all right in a moment.” Her hushed voice sounded strained to her own ears. The school bell jarringly announced the start of another school day. Oblivious to the increase in activity Steven’s mother remained rocking, humming nonsense quietly as people pushed past through the school gates. Her son stilled within her protective embrace. He began to hum his personal tone. Crisis defused for the moment, she risked a glance at the confused stranger squatting before them. “I don’t think I thanked you, thank you.”
“Reflex action. Couldn’t have this little fellow reaching that busy road. I’m Sean by the way.” He started to stretch his hand forward in greeting, then stopped as he realised her predicament with the child still imprisoned in her arms.
“Sharon, and this little Houdini is Steven.” She wiggled fingertips keeping her hands clasped. A brief flickering smile traversed her clenched jaw.
“Do you need help getting him in to class?”
Embarrassment clouded Sharon’s face as she realised she had obviously delayed him. For a moment, she had forgotten how their odd little family appeared to outsiders, those who had no idea what this life was like.
“No, we’ll be fine now. I’ll get him to class shortly, thanks again for your help.” She stumbled clumsily to her feet, impeded by the tight hugging grip of her son, now clasped around her thigh.
“I’m sure I’ll see you again, my niece attends here and I’ve started helping my sister with drop-off. She is in Grade Two with Mrs Miller. My niece, not my sister.” He grinned disarmingly, risked a glance at his wrist and cursed quietly. “Damn, have to run. Now sport, no more Olympic sprints okay?” Sean leant forward to ruffle Steven’s dishevelled blond locks but the child flinched and tightened his rigid grip on his mother’s leg. The man shrugged, admitting defeat in the face of such obvious terror. “Bye Sharon, Steven…” He pulled open the cumbersome door of the green four-wheel drive, started the engine and roared off after a brief wave acknowledging the statue-still mother and son unmoving on the pavement.
“Well sweetheart, do you think we should have told him that Mrs Miller is your teacher too? The poor man must think we are nuts, though I think he was a little shell-shocked himself.” Grinning, Sharon tousled her son’s messy blonde locks in a comforting gesture. Steven freely accepted his mother’s familiar touch in stark contrast to his reaction to the baffling stranger. “Well, we almost had a normal conversation with another adult, mate!”
Sharon picked up her son’s discarded backpack, uncoiled his grip from her leg and took his small hand in hers. She lent down in front of him, “Steven, look at me please, sweetheart. Steven, focus, look at Mummy. Don’t ever run away from Mummy like that again, it was very dangerous, you scared me!” Her son’s glorious eyes flicked to her then away, back and forth, back and forth. Her age-old instincts insisted he had heard, but how much he had processed she could not be sure. He had the ability to surprise her with his understanding, usually when she least expected it. The fair-haired twosome turned back to the school gate, bracing for another attempt at the entry gauntlet.
As she walked through the high gates, Sharon could not resist glancing around, wondering if the hero of the previous morning’s episode would appear. The afternoon sun dipped behind the tall trees as she allowed herself a minute of daydreaming, fantasy all she could summon energy for in her complicated life. She had spent her day ricocheting arguments between the various public departments who governed her child’s therapies. Her constant companions of emotional and physical exhaustion hovered near the surface threatening to overwhelm at any moment. She reached the sheltered area outside her son’s class where the other mothers congregated in groups, chatting. Steven’s ritualistic stress chant wafted above the din of the classroom as Sharon froze, intent on listening, trying to decipher the exact tone amongst garbled noise. The bell rang with the manic tones of an ice-cream truck melody cranked to high speed and the classroom door opened. Children spilled clumsily through the cavernous gap like evils tumbling from Pandora’s Box. Only Steven remained inside, his mantra echoing from the enormous cardboard refrigerator box consuming one corner of the room like a small brown TARDIS. “Soon home time soon home time soon home time soon home time,” his tumbling words almost sliding into one drawn consonant. Sharon looked to Mrs Miller; “Bad day?” one raised eyebrow punctuated the murmured rhetoric question. She always knew it was a bad day when greeted by the boy in the box.
“We had a little incident after second break I’m afraid,” the matronly middle-aged educator replied with an air of dejection. “Cyndi Turner was teasing Steven and he lashed out, quite violently.”
“What exactly happened?” Sharon was not accepting the abbreviated version, she needed details to resolve the fallout.
“I didn’t hear what was said, I only realised something was going on when Cyndi screamed that Steven had pinched her. The poor child had a large welt on her wrist and needed an ice pack. She said she was only making a joke and he became extremely angry!” Mrs Miller thus declared her loyalties with her outraged tone.
“And where was Steven’s aide during all this?”
“Jeanette was at the office copying some work for me, she was only out of the classroom for five minutes.” Defensiveness now crept into the teacher’s voice. Sharon had had enough, her emotional reserves were too depleted.
“Mrs Miller, I will find out what the actual events were from my son, and let you know, but you and I both are aware that Ms Turner is renowned for antagonising Steven to provoke a reaction. I am surprised that you allowed this situation to arise. His aide should be with him to avoid such incidents, not in the office doing errands! I am not excusing my son, and will deal with him at home, but I am not accepting he is solely at fault here. What actions were taken when it all erupted?” Steven’s mother leapt into the fray to stand up for her son.
“I assure you Mrs Kennedy, the situation was dealt with promptly considering the chaos which arose from it. Cyndi was crying in pain, Steven was screaming. I sent Cyndi to sick bay with another child escorting her, and made Steven go into his sensory box to calm down.” The sensory box filled with comforting items for her son: a weighted blanket, earmuffs, large, dark sunglasses and a balaclava. Steven could climb in and shut out the bewildering world when overwhelmed, but it was NOT designated for a punishment cell. Anger bubbled threatening to boil over.
“I am taking my son home now, but I would like to discuss this further tomorrow after I have spoken with him.” Her quiet declaration was firm, no room for argument. Sharon went over to the looming cardboard container, the daunting silence speaking as loudly as the prior chants. She leant down and opened the flap to reveal her son’s tearstained face. “Oh baby, it’s okay. Mummy’s here now.” She climbed into the constricted space and embraced her child. He shivered violently in her arms, his confused world jumbled. “Let’s go home sweetie, we can count the pointing pickets on the way.” A glimmer of a smile flashed across the small child’s face, gone so quickly Sharon wondered if it had even appeared. She gathered up her son, grabbed his backpack from his chair, and with one last disdainful look, walked out of the classroom into the sunlight of the deserted playground.
Sharon’s heart lightened a fraction as they approached the schoolyard and spotted the green Toyota Prado near the gate. She glimpsed a flash of blue uniform as the door opened to disgorge its passenger. Her quick intake of breath betrayed her dismay as Cyndi Turner leapt to the pavement, turned and waved calling “Bye-bye Uncle Sean!” She raised her eyes heavenwards, muttering under her breath, “Great, the jokes on me, only adult conversation in months turns out to be with an enemy spy.” She chuckled quietly in amusement.
“Mummy happy?” her son beamed up at her, his own panic alleviated by the distraction of his mother laughing.
“Yes baby, Mummy is always happy when she’s with you.” Clenching his small hand tighter, she leant and kissed the top of his head.
“Sharon! Steven! I’ve been watching for you two the last few days, no more sprints matey?” Sean drew level with the pair.
“Sean, we wondered when we would see you next. Steven wanted to say thank you.” At the mention of his name her son whirled around behind her, his face pressed into the small of her back. Sharon twisted one arm around to comfort him, encouraging him with “Steven? Don’t you want to tell Sean something?”
One hooded blue eye peeped out and a little voice reluctantly spoke, “Thank you, thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you.” Repetition began to filter into agitation as the words babbled on.
“Okay sweetie that’s enough, well done.” His mother hugged him behind her body awkwardly, halting the toneless flow of words.
“That’s okay Steven, you are welcome.” Sean leant around her and held out his hand but the boy clutched his mother tighter dodging the well-meant handshake. Puzzled, Sean looked to Sharon, “Is it just me he disapproves of, or any male talking to Mummy?”
“Don’t take it personally, he’s unsure with any strangers. Sorry, I’d best get him into class, it’s better if I help him settle quietly before the bell. Good to see you again Sean.” Sharon smiled to minimise the cynicism, then turned to continue into the school. His next words took her by surprise.
“Would you have time for a coffee afterwards? I don’t need to be at work until later this afternoon.” Sharon turned, her mouth opened in disbelief. It had been a very long time since any adult, let alone a man, had asked her on a social interlude, even just for coffee. Autism was a meticulous alienator, her exhaustion and the ignorance of others combining to control the isolating campaign.
“I promise, I don’t bite,” Sean smiled in a boyishly disarming fashion “and I’d like to talk to a fellow adult about the classroom dynamics.”
Suspicion sharpened her tone.
“Sorry, I don’t think I can. I’m sure you must have a million more pressing things requiring your attention.”
“Ouch, a charming but decisive no. Are you sure I can’t tempt you? I don’t mind waiting, I can utilise my mobile for some business calls. And I would really like the chance to sit and have a conversation away from school premises, people will talk if we keep meeting like this!” Mischievous twinkle added to his devilish air, Sharon had long forgotten how to deal with a flirtatious male.
“All right, a coffee, but how about I meet you at the café on the corner. You can at least be sitting in comfort waiting and making your calls.” A sharp tug on her hand drew her attention back to the small boy, whose eyes were as big as saucers, standing beside her, listening to every word. She must be flustered if she had forgotten her number one priority tightly grasping her fingers. He needed to get to class. “I’ll see you there as quickly as I can Sean, but right now I have to see to this little man.”
Sean grinned, “See you up there shortly. Bye Steven, have a good day matey.” The boy turned as his mother led him away, continually glancing back to the man standing on the pavement. His large, round eyes were shaded by clouds of curiosity as bright blue gaze beheld the twinkling green the man. Sharon watched as the smile on Sean’s face widened further with belated acknowledgement from the quiet, aloof child.
The afternoon breeze flowed through the playground trees as the tall blonde-haired woman sat quietly on the bench at the rim. A secretive satisfied smile played at the edge of her lips as eyes closed she leant into the embracing branches of the Jacaranda behind the seat. Other parents did a double take as shocked recognition hit. Her relaxed posture and tranquil demeanour were such a sharp contrast to the brittle, jittery woman who normally appeared at pickup. Aware of the eyes upon her, Sharon remained still, silently replaying the events of the day. A cup of coffee and interesting adult company may be an everyday occurrence for most, but it was a rarity in her world. A pleasant, brief respite from her insular, demanding world, and a chance to reclaim a part of the person she was prior to her failed marriage and the draining demands of solo parenting a special child. Sharon eased back and mused, recalling the stimulating conversation, though it had started out stilted.
The frenzied tones of the school bell suddenly pulled her out of her reverie. Sharon jolted upright, eyes meeting the startled gaze of the regular mums holding court. She smiled, murmuring “sorry, daydreaming in the afternoon sun” to those closest. Puzzled glances were exchanged, this woman sitting in their midst was far more approachable than the defensive mother who flinched when approached.
She sat and waited for the door to open. Like an overripe fruit, the classroom burst and the children spilled forth. Steven flowed through in the middle of the surge, grasping happily a large piece of paper. Clutching onto his aide’s hand he called “Mummy, Mummy.” Sharon stood and opened her arms to her exuberant child. He flung himself to her, careful not to damage the treasure gripped in his hold. “Mummy look – mummy, look!”
Sharon took the proffered offering, and gazed at her son’s unmistakable hand drawn interpretation of a family. As always, a woman and child, but with a new addition: the man. Tears welled. Both of them had taken the first teetering step upon a new path. Steven pulled on her arm directing her attention, “S, Mummy, S. S people.” His finger pointed to the three figures on the page as he recited the drawn out syllables: “Ssssssteven, Ssssssharon, Ssssssean.” Little words so simple, yet expressing so much. The ice prison door melted a trifle further. She held her beautiful son in her arms, and silently uttered a prayer of thanks for the thawing of a little of the frost covering their isolated world. A closed door was now opening, and permitting hope to enter; hope for next time, or the one after. Hope for more. ‘I have a friend’, Sharon thought as she allowed herself a Mona-Lisa smile. She glanced at the child beside her. ‘No, we have a friend!’