“It’s four days into the school holidays and I’ve had enough!” My friend has three kids and I can hear two of them fighting in the background as I talk to her. I laugh (but only after I’ve put the phone down).
Years ago, I would be secretly annoyed by my friends when they complained about their kids during the holidays. I used to think: “you have no idea”. But today I feel slightly smug, thinking of my son Ben, sitting quietly in his bedroom reading a book. (Don’t worry: it’s so rare for the parent of child with a disability to feel smug, I think I can live with it just this once.)
Nowadays, our school holidays involve visits to the beach, the pool, the museum, or a bookshop, riding on the train to the city or taking a bus around the suburbs, catching up with friends and spending lots of time at local parks and play grounds. Occasionally we take a “real” holiday, driving down to southwest WA to visit my sister.
Compare this to my friends with 12-year-olds, who seem to spend the school holidays driving their children around between sleepovers (girls) and sporting activities (boys), telling them to stop watching tv or playing computer games and arguing with them about bedtimes and whether they should be allowed a mobile phone!
Of course, things were different when Ben was younger. I have to admit, I did dread the school holidays because of those long days with no structured activities. Sometimes I took him to holiday therapy sessions for autistic kids, and then there was his anxiety about going somewhere new and meeting new kids and my worry about how to cover the bills. Much of the time, though, it was just the two of us, and long stretches of time to fill.
Ben just didn’t like doing most things other kids enjoyed. He couldn’t ride a bike or use rollerblades, didn’t like sport, didn’t like toys (not even Lego), didn’t like Nintendo or DS, wouldn’t watch tv. (Most of this is still true actually.) All he wanted to do was follow his latest obsession, whether that was counting letterboxes, collecting bottle tops, visiting “portaloos” (don’t ask), looking at swimming pool depths, reading Mr Men books, listening to the Wiggles, or writing lists. I remember one day begging with Ben to “just try” watching kids tv. I know, I must be the only parent in Australia who’s pleaded with her child to watch more tv!
When Ben was five, he was at the height of his number passion. That winter, he discovered that the ship bollards down at the wharf in Fremantle were numbered. He became desperate to go to there every morning to walk along the edge, reading off the numbers on the bollards. He was five; I was his mum; I really shouldn’t have given in to him. But there we were at 8am most mornings for weeks and weeks.
It was cold. It was windy. It was wet. It was boring (for me). We would wear our warmest coats, put on our gloves and hats and then fight our way through the weather to the end of the walk. Ben had a Dockers beanie and as we passed the few people fishing by the wharf, they would comment on how the Dockers had fared that week. I knew nothing about Aussie rules and Ben knew and cared less; he just happened to have been given that beanie. A friend told me that the Dockers rarely won and so all we had to do was shake our heads and do a thumbs down sign. And so we would pass the fishing contingent, pretending to shake our heads over the state of footy in WA, counting the numbers, time and again.
Ben and I laugh about that time now. I don’t think we laugh for exactly the same reasons, though. I’m not even sure why I think it’s funny. Am I laughing at my own foolishness in letting that become a habit? Or at the looks we used to get after we were recognised by the wharf regulars? Or just at the absurdity of life as a non-autistic mum with an autistic boy? And what about Ben – why does he laugh, I wonder? Is he amused that he managed to get me doing so often what he now realises I so disliked? Is he enjoying once more in retrospect the pleasures of counting those bollards? Or is it that he already has what it took me years to develop – that compassion for self that allows us to look back with fondness at our own idiosyncrasies?
At any rate, we tell each other stories about what we did in previous school holidays and make plans – in a vague way – for future holidays when we might go somewhere really exciting like Europe (“when you’re grown up and I’m rich,” I suggest). We have our problems, of course, as Ben still gets anxious about things and doesn’t have many friends – he likes other kids but doesn’t quite manage to bond with them. Unlike my friends’ kids, though, I have never once heard him complain that he is bored in the holidays.
We are still drawn to the water. Today was a blissful day of gentle autumnal warmth and so we went to the river. Ben played on the flying fox and then swam in the river, laughing with pleasure. Then we sat in the cafe, shared a slice of peach and raspberry teacake and watched two dolphins play only metres from where Ben had been swimming. “It is so beautiful here,” I say, “and we saw dolphins!” “Yes, mum,” says Ben, “it’s paradise.”