By KATE HUNTER.
I admit I was apprehensive.
Jim’s mate Shaun was coming to stay with us at the beach, and he was bringing his kids, Ella and Aidan.
Ella is nearly nine and as delightful as only a nearly-nine-year-old girl can be.
Aidan is eleven and a half, and he’s profoundly, heartbreakingly autistic.
He’s at the severe end of the spectrum. Never spoken a word, never laughed at a joke, pulled on his own jeans. He flaps his hands in front of his face, makes sing-song sounds and follows his parents about. Sometimes he uses the toilet, sometimes not. When he’s out and about, his parents put a nappy on him.
Years ago, we lived close to Aidan’s family in Sydney. Our sons were born three months apart. There were foolish jokes about our boys playing for the Wallabies, the silly things thing new parents say. Turns out neither boy will bother the Australian selectors.
We moved home to Brisbane when the boys were two; about the time it was becoming clear there was something wrong with Aidan. Our toddler was chattering away to us, Aidan wasn’t. He seemed to be going backwards. The diagnosis from the specialist was swift and brutal. There could be no prediction about how he would develop. Would he talk? Make friends? Go to Shaun’s old school? No one could say. Any guess would be just that, a guess. No medical or educational professional would ever know as much about Aidan as his parents – there’s no how-to guide for autism.
Shaun told us he had to ‘readjust his dreams’ for their boy. Not a Wallaby, but maybe some words? So far, no.
Shaun and Jim still call each other every week or two, to see how stuff is. They go to cricket matches and footy games. Both being interested in military history, they walked the Kokoda track together in 2009. They’re close friends, but we’d only seen Aidan a handful of times. Things just worked out that way.
They came up briefly last September, when I was amazed at how big Aidan was – he’s tall and heavy for his age. It had been easier to think of him as a little boy who might one day be ‘normal’. But here was a boy taller than me, and I couldn’t ask him how school’s going. Who he barracks for. I’m a chatty person, so that felt odd. Fine, but odd.
That was a lunchtime drop-in. This visit would be different. When Jim told me Shaun was coming for, ‘A night, maybe two,’ of course I said great. I love Shaun – he’s a terrific bloke – he loves a chat and a wine – two of my favourite things. But I worried. Would Aidan sleep well? Shaun told us years ago Aidan once spent the nights in a holiday house wandering hallways and slamming doors.
I wondered how our kids would handle it. Our son Ben is three months younger than Aidan, and he’s never spent time with a person with a disability. Same goes for our girls, six and nine. Would they be frightened? Anxious? Upset?
Worse, what if they said something hurtful? I didn’t think they would be deliberately mean, but I worried about Ella. Thoughtlessness can be as hurtful as deliberate cruelty when you’re nearly nine.
I wondered if I should, you know, prep the kids?
In the end I thought, nah … Shaun is our mate, and Ella and Aidan are his kids. All kids can be a bit weird. Once you stop looking for an explanation, it’s easy.
So how did the visit go?
It was great. Mainly because Shaun and Ella were easy company and Shaun’s matter of fact attitude towards Aidan’s disabilities and abilities.
Shortly after they arrived, Shaun said to our kids, “Guys, Aidan’s like a giant 18 month old. If he stands in front of the TV, you can ask him to sit down. If he takes your food, say, ‘No Aidan.’ He understands more than you’d think.”
It was good advice. Aidan understands quite a lot – an amazing achievement by him, his parents and his teachers at Sydney’s Giant Steps School. He can take his sandals off (a skill that took six years to teach), and he knows to wait to start eating – an important skill as Aidan is very motivated by food. ‘Watch him, Kate,’ said Shaun ominously as I made a cup of tea, ‘Aidan is like a seagull. Turn your back on that toast, and it’ll be gone.’ My toast was safe but later that day I lost half a sausage roll. Lesson learned.
Mostly though, our kids treated Aidan as Shaun does – with kindness and patience. Of course, it was easy for them. It was only two days. Nothing. I’m in awe of Shaun and Leah who do it day after day, year after year.
Aidan likes the surf. All moving water, really. He watches it like other eleven-year-old boys might watch a cricket match. It’s almost hypnotic, but a big wave gets an excited whoop. He stands hip-deep and moves with the waves, holding onto Shaun all the time – not frightened – just reassuring himself Dad’s there.
For hours they stood in the shallows – my husband, his mate and his mate’s boy. The men dissected the Sri Lanka test match while the boy studied the waves. All of them were happy.
It was a lovely couple of days.
Editor’s note: The author ran this piece by Aiden’s parents who were excited to see it published on Mamamia.