Blog posts, musings, and thoughts on life in general

I've written a book. 

"Me, the boy, and 'The Monster" is a book about what it's like to parent a traumatised child. It's a raw, honest account, and it's borne out of my own experiences as an adoptive mum. Living with trauma is HARD. It's hard for the kids, and it's hard for the parents. I'd like to stand by your side, and tell you that you are not alone, that there are things that can help make things better.

In the book I'll explain some of the basics of your child's brain, how it's been physically shaped by trauma, and how it relates to your day to day experience of parenting them. I'll also explain what attachment *actually* is (clue: it is not what the social workers on my prep course told us it was), why it's important to you, and how to tell when someone is trying to fob you off with the old 'but they've obviously got attachment issues so that's just the way it is' thing.

I first used The Monster to help my daughter to understand why her brother was so angry and violent towards her, and more recently I've introduced the idea to Tickle (my adopted son, who features in the book) and he's turned out to be pretty receptive to the concept. So once the first book is released I'm planning on doing a kids version, which you can use to explain The Monster to your own child, and begin to give them an understanding of what might be going on inside their head.

If you want to be notified with the book is released you can join my mailing list, or follow me on Facebook or Twitter @folkycat. 

Half term has been generally quite good. Today specifically, not so much (wake up at 2.30am....) but in general, much better than the summer holidays.

We have been out together as a family. We have gone for long walks. Tickle has expressed sadness at the loss of our cat, and the loss of his scooter bell (level of sadness remarkably similar for both). The expressions of sadness have been appropriate and non-violent.

Tickle has been swimming every day. He's been to Gran's, and has had a day out with Grandad and Granny Sue. He's drunk hot chocolate, made funny faces, shared his crisps with a little boy he didn't know.

It's been, dare I say it, almost... normal.

Two sleeping catsWe had to have our cat put down yesterday. She was only two years old, so it came as a huge shock to all of us. We are all coping with it in our own ways; Fairy is distracting herself with books and writing stories, I am crying buckets and welded to my duvet, Husband is musing about getting a memorial wind chime for our apple tree. Tickle, however, has been the biggest surprise. Tickle, is demonstrably and unashamedly sad.

Tickle doesn't spend much time interacting with the cats, but I know he does love them, and considers them part of the family - whenever we go on holiday he tells me he misses them, and he's still not quite sure why they don't come with us. But that's not why I am surprised by his grief. I'm surprised because it's a really big emotion, and he is allowing it to exist in his body without feeling the need to block it out or run away.

When we first told him that Etta was poorly and wasn't going to come home, he did run away. He ran to his bedroom, and shouted, screamed, and banged things. We told him it was OK to be sad, that we were sad too, and asked him if he'd like a cuddle. He did want one, and we cuddled together on the bed, he was screwing his face up and making crying noises - although not *actually* crying this is his way of showing that he wants to. I was crying, obviously. He kept saying "I don't want Etta to die, please can she come home?" We sat for a while, just being sad together. He went off to play a bit. Then he came back, and we sat together being sad again. We explained that we were going to go and say goodbye to her, and he said he'd like to give her a kiss and say 'get well soon'.

Eventually he went off to play again, but he kept popping back to check on me. "Oh dear Mummy, what is the matter?" he'd ask. I would say "I'm sad about Etta." Once he gave me his favourite blanket to cuddle. Another time he asked if he could get me anything, something to eat, or a drink? Then he took my water bottle downstairs and asked Husband to fill it up for me. Other times he just gave me a cuddle.

And, do you know what? He came to the vets, he said goodbye to Etta, and he gave her a kiss. Then he went with Gran for the afternoon to give Husband and I a bit of space to say a private goodbye. And not once, for the rest of the day, did he go loopy or disregulated. (He did a bit this morning, but that's fair enough really!)

I am a firm believer in feeling whatever you feel. I didn't try to hide my grief from Tickle yesterday, and I think that actually helped him to feel and accept his. I'm not saying that's all it takes, as I'm fairly sure he would not have reacted like this a year ago. But it does make me realise that something we are doing is making a difference. He is - slowly - learning to sit with an uncomfortable feeling and be present with it, and that is a *huge* breakthrough.

This morning, as usual, I was woken up by Tickle shouting at Husband. When I heard Husband start to shout back, I thought I'd better get out of bed. Tickle had thrown a toy at Husband's face (again) - though thankfully this time it was only a small one and didn't do any actual damage.

Tickle came to sit with me in bed for a bit. He didn't like this much, which he chose to communicate to me by throwing his glasses on the floor, and then shouting at me because he couldn't see. I got back in to bed and ignored him until he'd calmed down a bit.

We had a chat. We talked about what was worrying him - school, as it turned out, or more specifically, one boy at school who he is worried about. This particular boy actually left school at the end of the summer term, and I've spent the last few months trying to help Tickle understand that he isn't coming back 'for ever and ever'. However, it seems like it hasn't quite gone in yet, and he's still pretty anxious about whether this boy will hurt him.

This flowed naturally in to a repeat of the conversation we usually have following an incident like this: "It's OK to be worried, but it's not OK to hurt people."

Today, I don't quite know how it happened, but I must have phrased it slightly differently. I said "Tickle, you threw a toy at dad and it hurt him" and Tickle said "Oh! Poor dad!" as if he were completely surprised by that fact. Straight away he wanted to say sorry to dad, wanted to give him a cuddle to make him feel better. It's great that he is showing an understanding of how his actions are affecting other people; I just wish the moment of understanding would come in enough time to stop him carrying out the action in the first place..!

When I was editing ‘Me, the Boy, and The Monster’ I actually wrote two entirely new chapters on this very subject, to incorporate some work I had just learned about, by a psychologist called Jaak Panksepp, who studied the science of emotions. Panksepp believes that the fundamental drive for human behaviour comes from emotion, rather than thought. He describes seven fundamental emotional 'systems', which will initiate particular types of behaviour when triggered. For example, I can be a bit scared of spiders, so when I see a spider my FEAR system is triggered. This makes my heart beat a bit faster, releases stress hormones, and could also produce a behavioural reaction such as calling to Husband to come and remove it. Over time, I have learned to modify the behavioural reactions to my FEAR system being triggered by a spider, sometimes even to the extent that I can catch it myself and put it outside..!

This for me, is the key part of behavioural regulation - learning to put 'thought' in between 'emotion' and 'action'. It's not that Tickle isn't empathetic, or doesn't care that he has hurt Husband, it's that he is acting on an innate behavioural reflex, and hasn't yet learned how to engage his thinking brain in that moment.

One of the interesting things about Panksepp's theory is that it allows us to study positive behaviours in the same way. The positive behaviour systems include SEEKING, CARE, and PLAY - which are all relatively easy to spot once you know what you're looking for. Tickle's CARE system is activating a lot at the moment; he's fascinated by babies, and whenever he sees one he wants to stroke it and kiss it. He plays with his baby dolls every day, and always tucks them up before bed. When we were going out to the park the other day he flatly refused to go anywhere until his favourite doll had a jumper on, in case it got cold. In theory, the systems that are activated most frequently are the ones that become our default 'go-to' systems, and contribute to our personality, so as well as noticing the positive behaviours I see in Tickle I can also be proactive, by involving him in activities that engage his positive emotional systems - for example exploring a new place, reading a book, or playing hide and seek could all be ways of activating the SEEKING system. Playing with dolls, looking after an animal, or helping someone with a task could activate the CARE system. This also offers an explanation of why the 'Playfulness' of PACE works so well - it activates the PLAY system at a time when the child is likely to default to FEAR.

If you'd like to read more about this ‘Me, the Boy, and The Monster’ is released on 19th February 2019, and you can sign up to my mailing list to be notified, or pre-order it from Amazon here:

Autistic people aren't supposed to be any good at communication. It's this word that is always used - deficit - like there is something wrong or something lacking from the way we choose to communicate. Granted, autism is a spectrum, and some people on the spectrum do find communication difficult, and aren't very good at it. But then, some people who aren't on the spectrum also find communication difficult, and aren't very good at it.

I am *exceptionally* good at communicating my feelings, thoughts, opinions, and desires to other people. I say *exactly* what I mean, no more, no less. The trouble is, I have realised as I've got older, that most people don't like this at all.

I have to admit it drives me slightly crazy. People are always reading things in to what I say that just aren't there - and I'm supposed to be the one with a communication problem?! I have been called manipulating, accused of always needing to get my own way, told I am undermining people, being bossy... it's really upsetting, and absolutely baffling. I don’t think I would know how to manipulate someone even if I wanted to.

Yesterday I emailed someone saying 'could I suggest we try this...'. That's what I meant. I have an idea, I'd like to make a suggestion, what do you think of this? What do other people mean when they say that?? I'm struggling to understand, because based on the reply I got today I'm not sure whether I accidentally wrote 'I think you're doing this completely wrong.'

I have had a few incidences in my life where I have literally been knocked sideways at how someone has responded to me. The first time I was still in school, and it was a music teacher. I've got no idea where it all came from, all I remember is that the teacher was pretty stressed out and I - trying to be helpful - said I'd be happy to take one of the lunchtime clubs if she wanted me to. I think I was about 15 or 16 at the time, a competent musician, and perfectly capable of taking a lower school recorder club. The next thing I know she is screaming at me, and I'm crying in my Head of Year's office because I have *no clue* what just happened. From her perspective, I think she's a useless teacher and that I could do a better job than she can. From my perspective, she was stressed out, I was offering to help ease the load.

I know it wasn't my fault at all, but that isn't the only time this exact scenario has been played out, with a few minor variations. I'm always the 'underling' - I'm a TA and she's a teacher, I'm a new volunteer and she's been there for years - and she is always overworked, stressed, and very likely has her own mental health issues that are not being resolved. It always happens the same. I try to be helpful, they think I am trying to usurp them. I try to state very clearly what I mean, they say I'm being manipulative. The women do, anyway. The men say I'm pushy and aggressive.

When my ex-husband and I split up we had a discussion (argument) that completely baffled me at the time. Back then I was gigging quite a bit, and early on in our relationship he had decided that he didn't like me driving home by myself after gigs, so would accompany me and share the driving if necessary. Over time, he got a bit bored of doing this, but he never actually told me directly Our conversations would go something like this:

Him: I don't think I'll know anyone there tonight

Me: Oh yes, Joe and Chloe are going, you'll be able to sit with them!

Him: But I'm not sure I should just turn up to your gig

Me: It will be fine, it's a ticketed event so it's not like it's a private party

And so on...

I thought he wanted to come, but was anxious about whether he would know anyone, or feel out of place. I had NO IDEA he was trying to tell me he didn't want to come. He thought I was pressuring him to be there.

I, like many other autistic people, find it ironic (frustrating, hilarious...) that non-autistics think that we are the ones with the communication problem. Non-autistic people hint at things all the time, without really saying what they mean. They expect us to be able to 'guess' what's really in their heads. Maybe one day this will all be turned on its head, and people will realise that autistics had it right all along. Imagine how much easier life would be if people just said what they meant the first time.

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© 2019 Cat McGill