WHY I WON'T APOLOGISE FOR MY AUTISTIC SON
Katy Brent on her soft play epiphany
What do you do when your autistic child upsets another child or a parent? Katy Brent has decided to stop apologising…
Picture the scene. It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon in a local soft play centre – basically every parent’s idea of hell. Then the worst happens: a mother approaches you, her face twisted with rage. She rants that your ‘horrible’ child has been hitting hers. Quite a few people are watching now, your cheeks are burning with embarrassment; a shameful sweat starts trickling down your back.
So you do what you’ve always done and explain your child has Autistic Spectrum Disorder and apologise profusely for his actions, gather up your belongings and your distressed child and leave; your child crying because he doesn’t understand why he’s being punished, and the eyes of twenty strangers judging you.
Later that night you cry yourself to sleep, wondering how you can make your child’s world more understanding. Wondering why you’ve had to apologise again for something he has no more control over than an epileptic child has over a seizure.
Seb loves soft play. This is something I was stunned by, as the garish colours and soundtrack of screaming kids are an assault on all senses - even for the most neuro-typical of us. Seb struggles with sensory processing; he’s super sensitive to smell, sounds and bright lights – so I thought soft play would be something he’d avoid in the same way he avoids public loos (smells and hand-dryers are a toxic combination.)
But his need to burn off energy, throw his body around and get sensory stimulation from things like ball pits, slides and bouncy stuff apparently won the inner conflict of his senses. And once you’ve found something your ASD child actually enjoys, then you cling on to that with a desperate grip.
Last weekend, I took my children – Seb and his four-year-old sister Sophia – to our local soft play. It’s quite a bit smaller than the typical out-of-town-in-a-warehouse fare, so I can keep an eye on the kids. It’s also usually much calmer. We’ve never had a bad experience there. So I wasn’t prepared for Seb running up to me, shaking with rage and spitting out swear words (not something he usually does, for the record, but my word, the looks.). He was clearly very distressed so I decided to remove him from the situation and give him a chance to calm down before trying to find out what happened.
I could tell by the look on her face that she wasn’t about to offer me a cup of tea and a shoulder to cry on
Now, I’m not stupid, I know that a six-year-old swearing like a sailor is shocking to some people. But I refuse to tell off a child who has communication difficulties for using language that conveys to me just how angry he is. For Seb, this is the worst word he could possibly think of and he doesn’t understand why it’s not okay to use it in public. He wanted to leave and, as I was gathering up my things and attempting to simultaneously soothe my son and pay, a mother approached me.
I could tell by the look on her face that she wasn’t about to offer me a cup of tea and a shoulder to cry on. In fact, she told me that my child had been hitting her kids and that he was a ‘disgrace.’ Ah, this old record, I thought. So I put on my fake smile and politely explained that my son has autism and can’t control his actions when he’s feeling overwhelmed.
Then she said: ‘If he’s like that, then you should be watching him' and demanded that I apologise. It was in that second that I made the decision never again to apologise for my child’s ‘behaviour’. I wouldn’t apologise for any other disability and neither would I be expected to – so what makes it different for autistic spectrum conditions? Seb would never just lash out at someone without provocation - he later explained that the boys were throwing balls at him which is why he got angry.
The only apology I make is to my child, for the world being lacking in compassion.
Katy and her son Seb