Treasured memories

Memories are the most treasured gifts we can give our children. When they leave home, their memories go with them.

Most families have special events and family gatherings which they can look back on and talk about, smile about and even cringe over in years to come. When children in the family have a special need, particularly one as unpredictable as autism, then there seem to be far more of these occasions to remember - all of them with hilarity (and maybe some embarrassment!). Whilst trips down memory lane for other children mainly consist of fond memories of days out with their parents, particular treats and fun times, my elder children regularly sit and reminisce over the boys' antics and laugh hysterically as they remember past events. The boys and their differences add a special depth to the family, give the girls a rare understanding of others and create a wealth of hilarious memories for us all to cherish forever.

Sometimes as parents we forget these treasured times and I personally feel very privileged to have such special children to impart their own unique ways on special occasions. Sometimes family times really are fun!

If you ask my children to recall Christmas, they will be quite matter of fact about the way Ben has to be introduced slowly to the idea. Whilst one room is full of sacks of presents and strewn with wrapping paper, the children take it in turns to sit in the other room with Ben, away from all ofthe change and noise, and play with 'autistic' toys in order to keep him calm. The most major excitement for all of them this year was the fact that Ben is now very much 'in our world' and stayed in the room with us whilst thoroughly enjoying ripping the paper off his presents (although he did eat it afterwards!). Without the presence of the different shades of autism and related differences in our household, I am sure that we would be hard-pressed to find other incidents that caused such genuine delight.

If you ask my children to recall Easter, I know full well the one that will spring to their minds. It's not something I will forget easily either! They often collapse into fits of giggles as they tell the tale, and relish the opportunity to recount it at the most inopportune moments. Easter is difficult in our house because the boys are on a gluten- and casein-free diet. There is always a great deal of tension as Joe gets angry and tries to steal the older children's Easter eggs. To compensate for their restrictions, I tend to go rather overboard by making treasure hunts and little games to play with their own special chocolate. One year we were all throwing sweets up in the air and seeing if any of us could catch them in our mouth. Whilst I played in one room with the boys, the girls did the same with chocolates and ofcourse I got the job ofmaking sure there was none on the floor that the boys could pick up later. As I scanned the floor for chocolate, I suddenly spied a stray chocolate and, like a bird swooping down on its prey, I pounced and crammed it in my mouth. The whole action was done so swiftly that I didn't notice until I took a bite, exactly what I had put in my mouth... yes, you guessed...a piece of poo! I should have realized. Before the diet, Ben suffered from severe constipation and still often relapses back into having a nappy full of 'rabbit pellets' several times a day. I make sure that I use a vacuum to clean up at all times now!

Birthdays are traditionally a time to spoil a person and celebrate his or her birth and life. Most children love birthday parties, surprises and presents. However...children with autism, yet again, are the exception to this rule. Ben is not really able to say whether or not he likes surprises but I do know that he starts flicking his fingers, retreating into his own world and is extremely stressed if he is not forewarned about any changes. Ben, Luke and Joe are all very different to each other yet this is another area where they are all alike. Each one of them needs the security ofknowing what is going to happen next and therefore surprises just do not suit them. In fact Joe has just had his tenth birthday and I was given strict instructions not to wrap up any presents and to forewarn him about the contents of the wrapped presents from others. He says that ifhe doesn't know what is going to happen he has a 'nervous tummy' and hates the feeling.

In other ways, Ben and Luke are very different to Joe. In contrast to Luke and Ben, Joe loves noise and chaos and needs extreme sensory stimulation and so for his party he wanted to take four children from school to the local water park. As I had no babysitters anyway, I had no choice but to take Sarah, Luke and Ben along on the birthday trip. Sarah assured me that she would help with Ben and Luke was pleased to go. Anna was away at her friend's, Matthew at a sea cadet camp and Rachel at work, so I had lost my usual helpers.

At the poolside I was pleasantly surprised that although there was blaring music, echoes and noise, Ben seemed remarkably tolerant of sounds that would usually torment him. Luke on the other hand was a different matter. He stood pale and shaky whilst glancing furtively around him like a frightened bird - I experienced a sense oflooming disaster even at that point!

If it were possible to have speeded up the next three hours, I am convinced that it would top even the most hilarious slapstick as a best seller. I had asked all the lifeguards to watch Joe and his friends. They were playing in the shallow fun area and were also excellent swimmers so I didn't have too many worries about their safety. I scuttled from one part of the water park to another, checking that Joe was safe and up to no mischief, whilst allowing Ben to toddle around under water fountains. I tried to encourage Luke to go and swim, I left Sarah to do her own thing and all in all I think I deserved the mother of the year award!

As I stood shivering next to Ben, like a tigress carefully watching her young, I was poised, ready to pounce if anyone got into trouble. My eyes moved quickly from Joe and his friends, to Sarah, to Luke and back down to Ben. I smiled to myself as they all played happily, but then something caught my eye...a bulge in the back of Ben's swimming trunks! My mind went into overdrive as I tried to work out how I could subtly remove Ben and his rapidly overflowing swimming trunks from the pool without being noticed. With a swift swoop I grabbed Ben complete with poo and hugged him close to me. Running to the lifeguard to ask him to watch Joe and his friends, I grabbed Luke who couldn't be left alone, and dashed off to do a major clean up. On returning from the toilets with one rather cleaner but hysterical Ben (he didn't want to be removed from the pool) I entered the pool area to be met by Joe's friends accompanied by the lifeguard and all looking extremely seemed that Joe had gone missing! A frantic half an hour followed whereby I became comforter, disciplinarian, teacher and punch bag all rolled into one as I scurried from one area to another with a screaming and kicking Ben wriggling and writhing over my shoulder. Eventually Joe was found at a sweet kiosk where he was giving a lengthy (and highly inaccurate!) description about his special diet and what he was allowed to eat. Sarah, by this time, was hovering around, round shouldered and resentful at the fact that she had been dragged out of the pool to try and find her brother, Luke felt sick and wanted to go home and Joe's friends had had enough of trying to keep track of him, whilst Ben was squirming and struggling in a bid to be let loose. It was plainly obvious that it was time to beat a hasty retreat!

After performing a grand impression of sheepdog and rounding stray children up from all areas of the changing rooms, I managed to secure Ben in his buggy and marched them all off for a birthday treat at

McDonald's (therein lies another story). Four hours later, I had finally delivered Joe's friends home, got both Joe and Ben into bed (thank God for melatonin!) and positioned all of the teenagers in their usual places in front of the computer or television. Joe had had a wonderful day, Luke had at least survived without a panic attack, Sarah had enjoyed her swim and McDonald's meal, and Ben had had fun in the water and dealt tremendously well with many sensory experiences. I, on the other hand, finally sat nursing my bruised and weary body.. .and smiled. I had survived the day and amassed another set of treasured memories. If I could bottle and sell the sense of achievement after such outings, I would surely make millions!

I am sure that all parents reading this will have their own examples of family outings, parties and holidays, many of which will, I am sure, have not gone to plan. How many of you have tried to take your child shopping and ended up rolling on the floor trying to protect him or her from an injury as he or she has a meltdown? How many of you have gone to a relative's house and spent an agonizing ten minutes running around trying to stop your child from destroying the place? (Why do people place delicate ornaments on child sized tables?). I know that these incidents are often soul destroying at the time and I myself have come home and sobbed on many occasion after such an excursion. However, I have found that the secret is to try, if at all possible, to look for a positive and preferably humorous side to the outing.. .one thing about the bad times is that they make us appreciate the good ones far more!

All these memories, though rather different from other families', are a valuable part of living in multicoloured mayhem. Try to actively capture family outings, holidays, birthdays and other special moments, regardless of how chaotic they are. Use video tapes, photographs, scrap books and journals to store a wealth of memories for your children to treasure in later years. Things that seem bleak at the time can often be laughed about at a later date.

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