Half term. I thought we were ready for it, another week of every-day-is-the-same watching the same YouTube videos, refusing to wear the same clothes and digging the same diamonds. At the last minute I bottled it. I risked the change in routine for a last minute mercy mission up North to visit family.
It was late Sunday afternoon, the trip was going well. We were a good way up the M6, just 70-odd miles left, 27% iPad battery remaining, all was good in our world.
Then the car made a strange noise.
Now I'm no mechanic, but even I knew it was a noise that meant the car wasn't feeling very well. But at least it was still moving. So I did what any mechanic would do in the circumstances. I pretended it wasn't happening and carried on.
After around a mile a couple of pretty lights appeared on the dashboard. I contemplated stopping. But the thought of standing with The Boy on the hard shoulder of the M6 meant I decided that I would rather continue driving until the car disintegrated into bits around us and we disappeared into a sinkhole the size of Portsmouth than risk that.
He was oblivious of the drama unfolding around us at this time. That is until the dashboard started flashing the word 'STOP' in big red letters. The Boy knows what these letters mean above any other. They've been held up to his face on visual cue cards at many points throughout his life. And if there's one thing he has come to learn, it's that S-T-O-P means Stop. Now.
I carried on going. There was a junction in three miles, if we could just make it there things would be so much easier. The Boy was becoming distressed. He has always feared breaking down, because breaking down is the same as an accident and an accident means you're going to die. The colour drained from his face as he sat staring at the four letters flashing on the dashboard. "It'll be alright mate", I repeated unconvincingly as I wondered if the burning smell was all in my mind or there really were flames leaping up under the bonnet. "It'll be alright..."
The sign for the turn-off was up ahead. We trundled past it, then up to the junction and turned into the nearest lay by. We'd made it off the motorway. And more importantly Dad had finally obeyed the Stop sign. Dad lifted the bonnet and pretended he knew what he was looking at. He then called the AA. The Boy sat calmly. Scared, but calm.
Finally our knight in fluorescent armour arrived. Brian, the AA man. Someone was watching over us that day as they sent us the loveliest, friendliest AA bloke there is. He didn't even snigger at my lack of knowledge as he handed over bits of a fanbelt-thingy and told me my water pump was seized. We'd need a tow the remaining 68 miles.
I told The Boy what was happening. He didn't want to be towed he just wanted our car to be better and he certainly didn't want to sit in a van with Brian. Brian could see he was getting upset, and he did the first of many brilliant things for us that afternoon. "There's a Burger King up the road", he said. "I'll drive you and your son there now, you can get something to eat and warm up. I'll come back here and load up the car, then I'll pick you both up."
And that's what happened. The Boy had a brief ride to get used to sitting in Brian's van and then we sat in Burger King for half an hour talking about what was going to happen. The colour started returning to his face.
It was dark when Brian returned with the car on a trailer behind his van. He helped The Boy climb up, putting on his seatbelt for him and making sure he was comfortable. The journey seemed to take forever. I chatted with Brian, every now and then he'd interrupt to ask The Boy if he was okay. He'd nod, just sitting transfixed staring at the satnav system, watching the blue arrow blinking along the yellow line the whole time. Consistent. Doing what it should. Then as we neared Nana's house and he recognised the places about him, he brightened up and began returning to himself.
"Who's that?", he said, pointing to a photograph behind Brian's head that I couldn't see from my seat.
"That's my son", said Brian, his voice filled with pride. Then he turned to me and smiled. "He's autistic too", he said.
Everything Brian had done suddenly made sense.
I have written this blog so many times over, because there's so much I wanted to say, about the strange, unspoken bond that connected the two of us as we unloaded the car that night. But if there's one thing The Boy has taught me over the years... it's that sometimes the words... the words, no matter how hard you search... sometimes, they just aren't there.
A couple of weeks ago we drove across London to visit a friend. There's often a sense of occasion driving over the River Thames, passing the Houses of Parliament and London Eye. Not so for The Boy. It's barely worth looking up for, he's seen all these things on Doctor Who, if anything there's just a sense of disappointment that a spaceship full of Slitheens isn't careering into the side of Big Ben as we pass.
We then drove on towards Buckingham Palace. The Boy likes the Queen. I'm not sure why she holds his interest - it could be the impersonal name, the lack of facial expressions from her or just the big house that does it, I don't know. All I know is that if the Queen is mentioned it's worth looking up from the iPad.
I told him to look out for the flag on top of the palace, and if it was flying it meant she was at home. He spotted it, fluttering away. "The Queen's at home", I said. "Yeh", he replied, "she's probably selling stuff on eBay..."
We both laughed for far longer than we should have. Just the absurdity of it. I didn't even know The Boy knew what eBay was. And rather than just enjoy the moment for what it was, Stupid Dad lets all his doubts creep in again. None of the books, manuals and websites mention jokes, let alone imagination. And once again that same question pops up. Is he really autistic?
Maybe it's the fear of going back to that time when he was a toddler when seemingly everyone had an opinion. "There's nothing wrong with him, he'll grow out of it, it's just you"... "Bite him back, that'll stop it"... "he's just naughty...". I'm not sure as a parent those times ever really leave you. His cerebral palsy is so much easier for everyone to accept. It's tangible, it's horrible effects are there for all to see, visible in his gait, in the pains in his legs at night. But the autism? That one's such a confusing, contradictory mess. And often it means that instead of seeing events like this as progress, as a sign of just how much The Boy has achieved over the years, instead they often make me feel like all those people years ago were right, we've just been playing a brilliant game of munchausen-by-proxy all this time and we're going to get caught out at any point.
And then a few days later something else will happen and I'll feel guilty for ever doubting him. The Boy takes a packed lunch to school and he never eats his banana, although it's always sent with him for fear that I'm a bad parent if I don't. And each day I make the same joke. "I've put your banana in your lunchbox, will you take it to school for a walk and bring it back home later?" Each day The Boy laughs and I think I'm hilarious.
And then one day last week something dawned on me, far slower than it's probably dawned on you reading this. I asked The Boy to eat his banana that day.
"Why?", he asked, puzzled.
"Because it's healthy" I said.
"Okay", he replied.
Since then the banana has been eaten each and every day and I'm left with yet another reminder just how crap I am at this sometimes.
By the way, just to make sure he really did know, I asked The Boy what eBay was. He didn't even have to think about it. He says it's where people go to sell rubbish...
So, I've booked our holiday this morning. We haven't been for a couple of years, and strangely I think we've both missed it... Not for us an exotic beach holiday or a month-long safari, instead we've opted once again for the same, glorious three nights in a caravan park less than sixty miles away in the middle of March.
There's method to the madness... 'caravan' because there's more than a wall between us and the neighbours; 'off-peak' because there's fewer of the aforementioned neighbours around in the first place; 'sixty miles' because it's just easier and 'three nights' because... well, anyone can last three nights.
The Boy loves staying in a caravan. Just a big, bright dolls house where everything is where it should be. No frills. No clutter. Everything has a purpose. Four plates, four cups, four knives, four forks, four spoons, four seats. If it wasn't for the fact that they come with a shower in the bathroom, they'd be pretty close to perfection.
We talked about what we'd do on holiday. And sometimes I'm surprised by his memory, even though I should know by now not to be. We will do on holiday what we do on every holiday. Together, we reeled off the list.
We'll start each day by going swimming as soon as we wake up even before we've had breakfast as it's quieter then and no-one is around. Then we'll go to the cafe and have porridge and play Top Trumps which The Boy will win. Then we'll go back to the caravan and hang up the swimming trunks and drive to the sea. We'll throw stones in the water and stand too close and one of us will get our feet wet when the waves come nearer and it might be raining but it doesn't matter because we're on holiday. Then we'll go to the amusement arcade to warm up and play the 2p machines until the wet foot has dried out. Then we'll go to crazy golf but we won't take the little pencil and scorecard because we don't keep scores and deep down we both know there's only one winner anyway. After crazy golf we'll go to the fairground where we'll both sit on rides that we're far too big for nowadays but we won't go near the far end of the fairground because that's where the Ghost Train is and The Boy doesn't like walking near the Ghost Train because there's no fun in making yourself scared when there's nothing more scary than real life itself. Then we'll drive back to the caravan and Dad will try to suggest we sit down for a bit and watch TV but the TV in the caravan only has four channels to go with the four knives and four forks, so instead we go swimming again even though our trunks are still wet but it doesn't matter because we're on holiday. Then we'll go to the cafe for tea and eat fish and chips and play Top Trumps which The Boy will win. Then after we've gone back to hang up wet swimming clothes Dad will take a sharp intake of breath and we'll go into the clubhouse to play bingo which The Boy is really good at and brings his own pen just to play and sometimes he doesn't win but it doesn't matter because we're on holiday. Afterwards Dad will go to the bar and order a pint of lager but The Boy doesn't really like him drinking 'dirty beer' as he saw a programme once and someone died from drinking too much. But if Dad buys a packet of Quavers at the same time that seems to make everything fine. Then we'll go back to the caravan and have hot chocolate which is a waste of time because we won't drink it until it's gone cold anyway and then as the rest of the park goes dark we'll make sure every light in our caravan is turned on before going to bed.
And the next day we'll wake up and do it all again, the only thing that might change is the weather, but that doesn't matter because we're on holiday and you get wet when you go swimming anyway and besides... the amusement arcade has a roof.
This blog is about bringing up The Boy. He's 12 years old and autistic. It's written by The Dad. It's my words, my view. Other people will think differently and have different opinions. Good.