“You’re Essentially One Of Those Whiny Mothers Who Has An Excuse For Everything …”

I guess I’ve been really lucky up until now: the response to my blog has been so positive and encouraging it’s been completely overwhelming. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that, sooner or later, someone somewhere would feel prompted to make an altogether less upbeat comment about what I’ve had to say.

My post https://throughacceptinglimits.wordpress.com/2012/11/11/an-open-letter-to-toys-r-us-4/ has so far received more hits than the rest of my blog put together, and has prompted interesting discussion both on my blog and elsewhere. I am delighted that it seems to have given other autism parents a springboard for discussing their own experiences. The comments left below the post have, without exception, been hugely encouraging. Until now.

I woke up yesterday morning to find a comment from Lena which says:

You’re essentially one of those whiny mothers who has an excuse for everything, aren’t you? He can’t sit in a buggy for sensory reasons? You are the mother, you decide the rules! If he suffers from sensory overload, just don’t go into Toys’R’Us!

I took some time to decide how, if at all, to respond. The easy option would have been to decide not to give Lena space on my blog for her negativity, and simply delete her comment. But who am I helping by doing this? I am not naive enough to believe that Lena is the only person who thinks like this – she’s just the only one to have voiced such thoughts to me thus far. I’ve spoken elsewhere in my blog about the “tuts” and disapproving looks I’ve received when J displays “naughty behaviour” in public. I’m sure I’ve been on the receiving end of comments like Lena’s many times, but usually behind my back.

And of course there is my core belief, upon which this whole blog is based, and which is a very good reason for at least attempting to put together some sort of response to Lena. “Some things I cannot change, but til I try I’ll never know”. Though to be honest, I kind of do know. I’ve spent enough of my life trying to challenge prejudice and discrimination to know how hard it is to do so, and I know that however carefully I think through the wording of this response, I am very, very unlikely to change Lena’s position on this.

And yet. And yet I have to try. Not for me, but for J. There are many challenges and difficulties he will face in his life due to his autism, but possibly the worst of these will be the lack of understanding from others. So I have to at least try. It is highly likely that J will come across his own “Lena”. Who am I kidding? J will have to battle his way through armies of Lenas every day of his life. The people who tell him to stop making excuses. The people who tell him “if it’s difficult for you, why are you bothering to do it?” So if I can get just one of them to think a little more openly, and to feel a little more empathy, then maybe one day that will make J’s life just a little bit easier.

So here we go. Here is my response.

Dear Lena,
I’m going to try to deal with each of your points in turn, though I’m a little confused about what you’re actually trying to say. When I read your first sentence about being whiny and making excuses, I initially thought my challenge was going to be to persuade you of the “realness” of J’s sensory problems. However the rest of your comment seems to accept that J does suffer from sensory issues – so I am left baffled as to what “excuses” you think I am making.
Still, let me firstly deal with the accusation of being “whiny”, which to be honest is the part of your comment that I find most offensive. I would invite you to take the time to read the rest of my blog. I realise no-one’s life is without its difficulties, but I think it’s fair to say I’ve had it tougher than lots. I’ve recently walked away from a horrific marriage and an excellent career to be a full-time mother to young twins, one of whom has autism. I have serious life-long health problems of my own. To be honest Lena, I think I’ve got good reason to be a bit “whiny” sometimes. Except I’m not. I can’t stand whiners. I am someone who always looks for the positive. I face challenges head-on and always try to change the things in my life that cause difficulty, rather than simply moan about them. My letter to Toys R Us was an example of this – rather than “whine” to my friends about my experience, I have done something practical and positive to try to improve the situation. I’d like to make the point that autism is a disability Lena. Would you criticise a wheelchair-user for whining that a shop was not wheelchair-accessible? Probably not. In my letter I was simply asking Toys R Us to consider making their approach a little more autism-accessible – but in order to do so I had to describe our experience in their store. This is not whining. If there’s one thing I can say about myself with absolute certainty – it is that I do not whine. This, of course, is stating the blindingly obvious … but you don’t know me. So you’re going to have to take my word on this one.
I’ll move on to your confident assertion that, as J’s mother, I should make the rules. You don’t say whether or not you are a parent, but I think it’s fair for me to assume you are, at least, not the parent of a child with autism. Because you know what Lena? I do make the rules. Until earlier this year I had a 7-year career as a secondary school teacher in a tough London borough. I know all about setting rules. However, I also know all about making the rules appropriate to the child and the situation, and luckily for J, I know about recognising the difference between behaviour caused by simple naughtiness and behaviour caused by factors out of the child’s control. J has a lot of rules in his life. It is an absolute rule that, no matter how frustrated or anxious he is, he does not hit his sister. It is an absolute rule that he does not hold the kitten by the neck. It is an absolute rule that when I say “no more chocolate”, there is no more chocolate. These are manageable, clear rules for J. However, I do not think it is unreasonable for J to have some rules of his own in order to help him make sense of the confusing world around him. J is terrified of the phone at my grandparents’ house because once, a long time ago, it rang and made him jump. So it is an absolute rule that they turn it to silent when we visit. J derives huge comfort from reciting the same “scripts” every day as they provide a constant in a world that is otherwise unpredicatable and frightening. So it is an absolute rule that, as we turn left at the traffic lights on our way home from school, when J asks “Can we go to this house?” I must immediately respond “No, we don’t know who lives there”. And, for reasons I have not yet discovered, J finds it very difficult to sit in the child seat in a trolley. So it is an absolute rule that I do not try to force him into one. So please don’t talk to me about rules Lena. My life with J and L is full of more complex rules than you could possibly imagine. They are rules that have been honed and developed to help them live safe and happy lives, whilst also teaching them as much as possible about socially acceptable behaviour.
As for “having an excuse for everything”. Well yes, we do have an excuse. Not for everything, but for some. J has an excuse for having screaming meltdowns in public. I have an excuse for looking exhausted and stressed. We have an excuse for believing people should treat us with patience and compassion. My son has autism Lena, and as much as I don’t want us to be different, we are. We are not a “typical” family, and as such I sometimes need to ask for a little more understanding and for people to think flexibly.
And finally your not-massively-helpful suggestion: “If he suffers from sensory overload, just don’t go into Toys’R’Us!” Oh Lena, if only you knew how much and how often I wished I could follow your advice. How much easier would my life be if I were able to avoid all situations that might be likely to trigger one of J’s meltdowns or anxiety attacks. It is worth me repeating a point I made in my letter to Toys R Us – even if I wanted to do this it would be impossible. I am a single parent and babysitters are not always easy to come by. Sometimes I have no choice but to take my kids with me. But, for the sake of argument, imagine I decided I was going to follow your suggestion. Where would I have to avoid taking J in order to keep him calm and serene at all times? Toys R Us. Supermarkets. Restaurants. Playgroups. My parents’ house. My grandparents’ house. Friends’ houses. The park. Soft play centres. Birthday parties. The doctor. This list is not exhaustive. So perhaps you are suggesting I should keep J at home at all times. Except even at home we are not “safe” from the sirens of passing ambulances; the drilling going on while our neighbours renovate their house; the buzz of a lawnmower outside … the million and one things that, without warning, can trigger another difficult episode for J.

And even if home was a haven where J is protected from all outside influences that could cause him a measure of distress, would it really be helpful of me to keep him there, protected in cotton wool and bubble wrap and cuddles? Would it be good parenting? Of course not. One day J will be an adult, and despite the problems I have written about in this blog, I am hopeful that he will be able to live an independent, meaningful, happy life. But the journey from here to there will be a tough one, and I see it as my clear role to prepare him as much as possible. Sensory overload will happen everywhere J goes, and over the years to come I will have to help him find strategies for coping with this. And at the age of 3, it is enough that he is being exposed to these environments in a way that feels as safe and manageable to him as I can find. Yes, as he gets older we will move on to coping with the fact that he can’t always crawl into a trolley and put his hands over his ears, but for now it is about striking the balance. I do not want to keep J segregated from the real world but I do not want to traumatise him either. Therefore I am absolutely comfortable with my decision to take him to Toys R Us, and with my wish to allow him to ride inside the trolley.

Finally Lena, I would like to make one last point. I am going to do all I can to teach J how to live independently. But I am also going to teach him a very important lesson – one that it has taken me way too long to learn for myself. It’s OK to ask for help. As I have said, my life has been full of challenges lately – and I have found almost without exception that when I have asked for help it has been there. Friends, family and strangers alike have been delighted to have the opportunity to make my life a little easier. And I am going to teach J that there is no shame in recognising his own limitations and asking for help when he needs it. Equally I will have to teach him that occasionally he will meet people like you who would rather criticise and jump to their own ill-informed conclusions, but hopefully he will learn as I have that the people in this world who matter are the ones who treat others with kindness.

Thank you, Lena, for giving me the opportunity to respond to your views. I realise they probably come from ignorance rather than malice, and whilst I accept I am unlikely to change your opinion of mothers like me, maybe I have planted a small seed … so that maybe next time you start to “tut” and shake your head at the mother in the supermarket who is seemingly indulging her spoiled brat’s temper tantrum, maybe you will stop to ask yourself whether there is more to that family than meets the eye.

Kind regards,

L

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An open letter to Toys R Us

Dear Toys R Us,

My son J is coming up to four years old and has autism.  Here are some key facts about J that mean shopping trips can invariably become very stressful events:

1)      J often refuses to walk when we are in large shops.  This may be because he also suffers from hypermobility which in turn can cause painful joints and a strange gait.  However, it is more likely that it is because stores such as supermarkets and Toys R Us are a sensory nightmare for J and children like him.  J experiences hyper-sensitivity in a number of his senses including sight, sound and proprioception, and when he walked into your store this afternoon he went into sensory overload.  The bright-lights, garish-colours, shelves-packed-with-toys, children-crying, lights-buzzing, trollies-squeaking, tills-ringing sights and sounds meant that he simply could not put one foot in front of the other.  Adults with autism have described a feeling of “shutting down” when they go into sensory overload.  So J refused to walk once we were within 10 paces of the store’s entrance.

2)      J refuses to sit in the child seats in trollies and will only sit within the trolley itself.  I do not know why this is.  It may be because he once had a negative experience in a child seat and now will always associate these seats with this experience due to the difficulties with social imagination that partly define autism.  It may be because he feels more secure surrounded by the “walls” of the trolley, and has a sense of reassurance in an environment that otherwise feels so overwhelming for him.  Believe me, it is very unhelpful for me to have to allow him to sit in the trolley itself.  If you have ever tried to fit a week’s worth of groceries into a trolley that already has a child in it, you will know what I mean.

3)      J equally refuses to sit in a buggy.  Again I can only speculate as to the reason, but I suspect he sees a buggy as being for a baby.  His inability to think flexibly due to his autism means that as he is not a baby, a buggy cannot possibly be for him.

4)      J has a twin sister.  This means that whatever kind of behaviour J is displaying, I can never give him my undivided attention as I always have another young child to consider.

5)      As a single mother I cannot always carry out my shopping trips without my children.  Sometimes I simply have to take them with me.  And sometimes I choose to take them with me, since sheltering J from the real world will not be helpful when he is grown up and forced to deal with the real world alone.

I appreciate that some of these factors were not immediately visible this afternoon when, as we entered your store, one of your employees stopped me to tell me my child could not sit in the trolley itself due to “health and safety reasons”.  This is why I took the time to calmly explain J’s needs, and reassure the sales assistant that J would sit quietly in the trolley.  Explaining this calmly was more of a feat than it sounds, as by this point J was screeching loudly, clapping his hands over his ears, and shouting out the names of children’s television characters as this is one of his coping mechanisms when he needs something else to focus on.  When your employee replied that it was “company policy” and that I would have to put J in the child seat, I attempted to do so.  Your employee then witnessed my struggle as I tried to force my screaming child into a seat he did not want to sit in.  He witnessed J hitting and kicking me in an attempt to break free, then when I stood J on the floor instead, he witness J clawing at my clothes and begging “carry me, carry me”.

When I turned back to your assistant I asked him what he thought I should do.  I told him that I could not carry J.  He is far too heavy for me, and I needed to push the trolley in which his sister was sitting (within the designated seat, you will be delighted to note).  I could not abandon our shopping trip as we needed a birthday present for a party we were attending later the same day.  Of course at that moment, witnessing my distress and having heard my explanation for J’s behaviour, there are a number of responses the sales assistant could have given.  Perhaps he would permit me to pass him and continue shopping provided I guaranteed to keep J seated in the back the trolley and not allow him to stand.  Perhaps he would even ask me to sign a disclaimer.  Maybe he would offer to accompany me around the store to assist a family clearly in some difficulty.  Or perhaps he would keep blandly stating “Sorry, it’s company policy.  Health and Safety”.  I think you can probably guess which option he went for.

So, pushing my daughter in the trolley with one hand, and half-carrying, half-dragging J with the other hand, I proceeded into the store.  J’s crying by this point had reached a ferocious volume, and I was continuing to be hit and kicked for the duration.  Other customers stared openly at my “naughty” son, tutting their disapproval at his behaviour and, no doubt, at my parenting.  Once we were out of your employee’s line of vision, I put J into the trolley, where he immediately calmed and sat quietly for the remainder of our visit.

I do understand the reasoning behind your “company policy” stating children may not sit in trollies except in the designated seats.  I realise that the purpose of this policy is to pre-empt an accident following which your company could be sued for large sums of money and receive any amount of bad press.  Of course I could suggest that Toys R Us are more concerned with protecting yourselves than with the wellbeing of your young customers, but I won’t.  I could launch into a bitter tirade about this being an example of “health and safety gone mad” (which it is) but I won’t.

However, I can’t help but wonder whose health and safety was being protected this afternoon when we were essentially refused entry to the store until I took J out of the trolley.  Certainly not J’s.  The absolute safest place he could have been was inside the trolley, which would have avoided a sensory meltdown that could have potentially caused him to bump into displays or fall to the ground.  Certainly not mine, as I am currently undergoing physiotherapy for a back injury aggravated by J’s insistence to be carried when we are out.  The spattering of bruises covering my legs and chest are evidence of the kicking and punching I had to endure.  And I can only assume a Health and Safety policy would need to protect mental health and wellbeing too.  I don’t think it is necessary for me to point out the difference in stress levels for both J and myself when comparing a shopping trip when he sits in a trolley to a visit when he cannot.  Was your policy protecting the Health and Safety of your employees then, or of your other customers?  Again, I don’t think so.  A child who is so distressed and overwhelmed that his behaviour is temporarily out of control clearly poses a greater risk to others than one sitting in the confines of a trolley.

I would therefore like to respectfully suggest that as well as making sure Toys R Us’ 70,000+ employees have a rigorous understanding of Health and Safety policies in order to protect yourselves from potential law suits, they also receive training in qualities such as “flexibility” and “compassion”.  I also suggest that your employees undergo autism awareness training.  Around one in one hundred children have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  This means your employees come into contact with significant numbers of autistic children each and every day.  A little understanding of what a trip to your store is like for a child with ASD (and their parents) would go a long, long way.  Circulating a copy of this letter around your 1500 stores would be an excellent start, as it will give your staff an insight into the experiences of one little boy and his mother.

Yours sincerely,

Ms L

Does every girl need a Sweet Talkin’ Ken?

I’ve been seeing a counsellor for a couple of months. It started because I was having a truly awful time at work and ended up being signed off with stress, and my occupational therapist had recommended counselling: but of course given recent developments in my life, the counsellor has become more valuable and important to me than I could have known.

Last week we moved on from picking over the details of what had gone wrong and how it made me feel, and started talking more about the future. I’m pleased to say I’m generally very optimistic about what lies ahead. I feel like I’m already getting my life back on track and reclaiming my house, my happiness and my sanity. However, my counsellor asked how I felt about the idea of future relationships, and suddenly the solid foundation I had started rebuilding began to feel shaky and unsteady. I answered that I had all I needed in my children, my family, my friends and my home, and that the thought of another relationship couldn’t be further from my mind.

My counsellor dug deeper. I began to explain, tentatively, that I have lost all confidence in my ability to choose a relationship that is good for me. Looking back I could see that time after time I have made bad choices, and formed relationships with people who are, quite clearly, not right for me. I took a deep breath, then dug deeper still. And as the session went on, I had an epiphany. I suddenly realised that my sense of worth – my own measure of how interesting, attractive and funny I am; my perception of how much I am wanted – has always come from men.

As a teenager I very much wanted a boyfriend. I thought being someone’s girlfriend was a way of showing the world (and myself) that I was important and desirable. And after some perseverence on my part, the boyfriends started, followed in later years by three fiances and an eventual husband. My counsellor asked whether I had ever stopped to ask myself how I really felt about each of these men, and the honest answer is no. Time and time again I have got so caught up in the excitement of a relationship, and been so delighted that someone wants to be with me, that I’ve not taken the time to examine my own feelings.

But why? My inital reaction is that this clearly points to low self-esteem: it suggests that I am “grateful” for someone’s attention and grab it with both hands. But this explanation doesn’t feel right. I don’t believe my self-esteem is particularly low. If anything I was a confident, extroverted teenager, and while the gregarious side of my nature has lessened a little over time, I still feel that in many ways I am confident in myself and my abilities.

So why then? Why have I sought approval and attention from males for as long as I can remember? I was at a loss to explain this … until this afternoon. Yesterday I finally completed the redecoration of my 3-year-old daughter’s new bedroom, and I went to Toys R Us today to buy her a reward for staying in her new bed all night.

It was here that I came across “Sweet Talkin’ Ken”. This doll proudly wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Ultimate Boyfriend” in a variety of languages. The owners of this doll are expected to press the heart on Ken’s t-shirt and whisper sweet nothings into his ear which he will repeat back, in his own voice. The recommended age on the box? 5+. Little girls from the age of 5 (and it is not unreasonable to suppose it will be mostly girls taking Sweet Talkin’ Ken home with them) are clearly not only expected to want a boyfriend, but to know what he will say to them too. And he’s not just any old boyfriend; oh no. As any discerning 5-year-old will tell you, she needs to have the ultimate boyfriend.

The back of the box bears the legend “The Ultimate Boyfriend always knows the right thing to say!” and bears a photo of a young girl twirling her bunches around her finger as she exclaims “Oh Ken! You’re such a sweet talker!”

Further investigation led me to the Mattel website, where the wonderful Ken has received rave reviews. One delighted customer says: “Bought as a Christmas gift for my niece……she LOVES it”. The happy Auntie has rated the doll 5/5 for “age appropriateness”. Her niece falls into the 3-5 years category. Worse still is the review on amazon.co.uk from a London-based mum:

“My 4yr old has had, and continues to have, lots of fun with this doll. Really enjoys getting Ken to tell the Barbies how handsome he is & how lucky they are to have him. She has about 4 barbies and now they have Ken (lucky doll!).”

It simply astounds me that this disturbing doll and its horrific packaging are seen as OK. The message that this toy gives to young girls is nothing short of terrifying. Before they have even left primary school, girls are expected to want the perfect boyfriend who always knows what she wants to hear; and are equally expected to respond to him with coy flirtatiousness.

Which all leads, in my journey of self-discovery, to the question: was I subjected to these kinds of influences as a child? And of course the answer is a resounding “yes”. For as long as I can remember I have adored Disney films. And what did I learn from them? Cinderella’s step-sisters only recognise that she is someone to be respected when her handsome prince comes to save her from the drudgery of her former life. Aurora in Sleeping Beauty is saved from her coma by her prince’s kiss; no doubt to then, in her overwhelming gratitude, devote her life to being the perfect wife. In the Little Mermaid, Ariel falls instantly in love with Prince Eric despite knowing nothing about him, and then like Sleeping Beauty, must wait for her prince’s kiss to save her.

And there we have my answer. Since I was a very young child I have received messages telling me that I need my own prince in order to feel valued and loved; just like little girls now are being told they need the ultimate boyfriend. Last week my counsellor uncovered the fact that I have never taken the time to examine my own feelings for someone before jumping into a relationship: much like Cinderella, Aurora and Ariel I have been happy to wait for a man to tell me I am important and to show the world I am of worth.

Phew. That’s quite an epiphany. So what am I going to do about it? I’m going to darn well sweet-talk myself.  I ‘m going to try to focus on the things I do well, and the things I’m proud of.  I’m going to try to be happy with who I am and what I have. I’m going to remember that my life is full and happy and often pretty darn wonderful without needing a man to validate me. I’m going to try to bring up my own daughter to be confident and strong, and to know that there are no limits to what she can achieve alone. I’m going to question the fact that the bedroom I’ve just completed for her is a Disney Princess themed room …. oh dear.

Well at least I can take a little comfort from the time I spent getting to know Sweet Talkin’ Ken in Toys R Us today. Once I had worked out how to record Ken’s message I set to work on the three Ken dolls remaining on the shelves. And so I can’t help smiling when I think about the fact that the next three little girls to take Ken home will hear his deep masculine voice saying “I respect you for being a strong, independent woman. Of course I will support you in your career. There’s nothing you can’t do”. Aaaah, my work here is done.