How History Helped Us Grow into the Future
I was astounded by the depth of my autistic son’s knowledge about naval history on a recent trip to Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard. On the trip, a present for my son Charlie’s 20th birthday, I thought about how far we’ve come since he was diagnosed at the age of 7. I’m a middle-aged dad, living in Walthamstow with Cleo, my wife, and our kids, Charlie and Lola. While I work as a civil servant, my real passion is film, poetry, and writing. I’ve written about the challenges of raising a child with autism and had a chapter included in Dad: Untold Stories of Fatherhood.
While I reflected, I realised that alongside the challenges there are many positives.
As the theme for this year’s Children’s Mental Health Week is ‘Growing Together’ I decided to write a blog about those positives and in particular on what Charlie has taught me. I think, as with many parents, I’ve often focused on teaching my children and hopefully getting some messages through, Charlie is turning into a kind and considerate adult.
Sometimes we forget how much our children can inspire and teach us.
Past flights of fancy
Charlie has severe, sometimes overwhelming anxiety and my wife and I have tried to help him as best we can. We battled to get him support over the years (now facing a new cliff-edge of entering adulthood and the children’s service support falling away). Like some people with autism, Charlie has ‘special interests’ about which he can talk at length and focusing on these is one of the tools we have used to help him with his anxiety.
When he was younger one of Charlie’s special interests was birds. We have no idea where this came from, maybe because we live around the corner from Walthamstow Wetlands. We used feeding the geese as a way to get him up in time for his school bus. Some of his other special interests may have been slightly engineered by us, for example, his love of Star Wars was definitely initiated by me, although by the time he was 9 his knowledge of the Galaxy far, far away far exceeded my own. His love of birds was his first ‘special interest’ that actually taught me a lot. My own dad had for many years tried to get me interested in birds but by the age of ten I was far more interested in the world of punk rock than anything the young ornithologists had to offer. As I reached adulthood, I could probably identify pigeons, crows, ducks, and seagulls (hard not to growing up in Brighton), so my poor dad had miserably failed to teach me about birds. It was through Charlie’s enthusiasm for birds that I learnt all the things my dad wanted to teach me. Charlie’s incredible sense of hearing enables him to identify different types of bird from their song. He once told me there were some Greylag Geese approaching just by their sounds, I was sceptical until a whole gaggle of Greylags appeared. It was such a pleasure to be able to share and learn from Charlie’s passion. It took Charlie away from his anger and anxiety and transformed him into a calm and very happy child. And these days I can identify a much wider variety of birds, Dad would have been proud.
Now It’s All History As he’s grown older, Charlie’s love of birds has waned somewhat and been replaced by other special interests. Some mean very little to me (the world of anime is completely alien) but others which have brought us together and taught me a lot. One is his love of history. Again, we have no idea where this came from, he went to a special school and they didn’t do a huge amount of history there, and he is currently studying media (like many of his generation his ambition is to be a YouTuber). One possibility is that it was initiated by playing a war game on his Xbox, he is particularly interested in military history, which contradicts the perception that gaming is just bad for kids. One of the great things about Charlie’s interest in history is his willingness to watch documentaries with us. Like many teens, Charlie spends an unhealthy amount of time in his room glued to his phone. Sometimes, when he is in the grip of an anxiety attack, I can distract him by putting on a documentary about something like the Second World War. The other wonderful thing is being able to have long, detailed discussions about a huge range of historical subjects from Genghis Khan to the morality of the British Empire. I find myself being regularly surprised at the level of Charlie’s knowledge, for someone who hardly ever reads books he has a really broad grasp of history. Aside from the documentaries we watch together, I’ve no idea where he gets all his information from, I assume it must be online. But wherever he does get it from, the really inspiring thing is that he’s taught himself. And by doing that he has been able to teach me. All Aboard My wife and I sometimes discuss how to nurture his special interest without putting him off, I’m sure if he had to study history, he would hate it. So, as the milestone of twenty approached, my wife came up with the idea of taking Charlie and a friend to Portsmouth. The trip was fascinating, for all of us, and we all really enjoyed it and learnt loads about life on a submarine, the Warrior and the Victory (although at 6’4” Charlie got backache from bending down).
“That’s a Type 23 Frigate” Charlie informed me, before the guide said anything, as the tour boat took as around Portsmouth Harbour, and I had no doubt that it was indeed a Type 23 Frigate.
As we travelled back to London, with heads full of Naval History, I remembered something we learnt on an autism training course from years before – ‘allow for the autism’. I’d always considered it in terms of Charlie’s behaviour, but it occurred to me that actually by nurturing his special interests we’d been allowing for his autism. Doing this had enabled us to grow strong relationships as a family through shared interests. And I felt hopeful about a future of growing together with Charlie through our shared interest in history.