Born into a small parochial community on the day Japanese forces officially surrendered to the Allies, thus marking the end of the 2nd World War, David was an only child and markedly unlike other kids of his age. David lived in a world of his own – a world fertile in creative play and imaginings but detached to some extent from actuality. Certainly many people in the village thought the boy slightly strange – artistic, spoiled, timid, yet far too well-mannered and big-headed for a mere farm labourer’s son. Are you bringing him up to be a pansy then, they would chide his mother?
Although David was aware of everything that was going on around him he didn’t utter a word until he was four years old. Painfully shy well into his teens, unable to make friends and thus an easy prey for school bullies, he found it distressing to maintain eye contact with those around him, even for a few seconds. He would often stare at the ground when speaking. If on the odd occasion he did actually look someone squarely in the eye he would invariably blush while a faint smile would appear – often giving people the feeling he scorned what was being said. This nervous smirk would always appear when he was being scolded. It irritated his teachers no end. But what could he do? He knew it was happening. He could feel the rush of blood to his cheeks. But he simply couldn’t control it and there were no words that could adequately explain his anguish.
Most of us know people who find it difficult to blend in or to conform and David quickly became the butt of spiteful remarks and snide pranks. On the other hand he did nothing to dispel such attention. He refused to walk on sand or pebbles in bare feet and didn’t much like playing on the beach for that reason. He avoided getting wet if possible, visibly flinching when water splattered on his skin. All the physical activities other children embraced with such passion David found tedious. In later years he would rashly relate stories of physical prowess to strangers – claiming credit in every sport from cross-country running to rugby. Such boasting was intended to be nothing other than a forlorn attempt to connect more deeply with others of his age who measured their maturity by such deeds. But it almost always failed to impress. They could sense his true nature. Unsurprisingly this got him into trouble when the truth was eventually disclosed.
Extremely sensitive David far preferred to sit alone, writing poetry, tending his flower garden, composing music, playing the piano or reading erudite journals like The Lancet - pretending he understood concepts of which he had not an inkling and imagining what it would be like when he became a doctor - his one and only ambition.
Other factors marked his slow development. He obeyed orders grudgingly, for example. This made life at school particularly difficult - especially for certain of his teachers. He relaxed by reading books, playing with his pet puppy Suki, or assembling his collection of tin soldiers, putting them neatly away as soon as they were out rather than playing with them as other children might. He was also fussy. For example he would always separate the food on his plate, polishing off the apple pie before turning his attention to the custard. He was obsessed by neatness and rituals. Everything had to be in its place before David could rest.
One person was pivotal in David’s young life. His father. His father was his hero. Although his mother was always on hand to protect her cherished boy it was David’s father that mattered most. His dad was always the first person to pick him up when he fell; the first person at his side to wipe away the tears after he was tormented by the village louts; the first person David would go to for reassurance. David also cherished being held by his father - though that feeling changed to one of intense discomfort when anyone else came too close.
These emotions became much more pronounced after his father left his mother, without prior warning, to be with another woman. David was eight years old at the time. He never saw his father again. Suddenly his young life was torn apart. He didn’t speak a word or cry a tear for weeks. Meanwhile his mother doted after him, keeping him close to her whenever and for as long as she could. One result from this early trauma was the fact that David avoiding physical contact of any kind with women until he was in his late twenties.
In later years David learned to manage these social and emotional mannerisms. But not every trace of his bizarre behaviour disappeared. Even today he is still embarrassingly timid and finds it particularly arduous to start a conversation or walk into a room full of strangers. He still compulsively rolls paper receipts and keeps a small collection of these in his car for when he needs something to fiddle with. As a professional speaker he has learned to face up to many of his early fears and these days actually enjoys playing to an audience. On the other hand he still feels uncomfortable when he senses someone staring at him on the street. Deep within his psyche he remains a child. But a child unlike most others.
As you will already have guessed, if David was a youngster today he would have been diagnosed as autistic. The term Autism Spectrum Disorder was originally applied to a range of symptoms just a year before David was born. Consequently nobody thought to suggest the boy was suffering from ASD. He was just a shy kid who didn’t seem to fit the mould of what was then considered ordinary. He was just different from other children of his age. Since then however an assortment of symptoms have become the condition known as ASD. And that is a truth I have to own - because I am the David in this story.
There comes a moment in everyone’s life when we begin to prepare for death. Not in any mawkish or morbid sense but in the realisation that life must be lived to the full and embraced with a passion because it is so very short. For me that point arrived the day my mother died. My father had passed away a few years prior to that and I had grieved silently. But on this day I felt intensely alone. This was a weird feeling in itself because by that time I had eight wonderful children as well as a trio of grandchildren.
But then something inexplicable and quite miraculous happened. I had begun to turn my attention to the legacy I wanted to leave behind. Feelings of fatherhood receded into a suite of distant memories as my life in Thailand with a woman half my age began to shape an altogether different destiny. The endless concessions and diversions that invariably arise from being a parent no longer interfered with my newly-discovered serenity. Until fate took a hand...
Nico, my ninth child, my third son and a miracle baby, was conceived. We had not planned for this. How could we? Having recovered from cervical cancer and then months later an ectopic pregnancy that ended with major surgery, Suna had been told not to expect any more children. She had a beautiful 12-year-old daughter from her first marriage and would have to be content with that. Ha! So much for medical science and certainty.
Experiencing fatherhood after a gap of seventeen years is profoundly dissimilar from before. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Filtered through many more perspectives, a degree of discretion that was previously missing and, hopefully, a trifle more maturity, I give myself permission to be calmer and more tolerant these days - even when things fail to transpire as I had envisaged.
I am also fortunate in being able to consciously choose to spend more time with Nico than I did with my other children. Of course I love all my kids unconditionally and remain incredibly proud of their individual achievements. But I do regret the fact that I might have seemed like a total stranger to the first batch during times when I was most needed. Fortunately I am privileged to have children who care enough about me to treat me as a friend, who tell me what a kind father I am, who forgive me my faults without question, and who show affection towards me in spite of my conspicuous absence from their lives when they were growing up.
But if Nico’s arrival was an unexpected gift then fate was about to warp our joy in a way that reminded us not to take too much for granted. For just as I was taking pride in the fact that my youngest son had the most striking good looks, had started to walk at the age of ten months, kicked and threw a ball with ease, scaled the outside rim of the stairs with a sherpa’s sense of balance, swiped an iPad like a veteran techie, shared his toys with visiting kids, displayed the most gentle character imaginable, and generally expended more energy during the day than a gaggle of puppies, a dark shadow was about to fall across our unbounded love.
By the time he was two years old Nico had invented his own language. We didn’t think too much of this. After all he heard three languages around him much of the time. It would take awhile for him to sort out and make sense of three languages we reasoned. Besides, he was a creative little boy.
We were slightly more bothered by a tendency to throw himself to the floor with such melodrama when he couldn’t get his own way or make himself understood. At first we assumed this was a phase he was going through. After all he seemed to understand everything we said to him and appeared quite normal in most other ways.
Then we began to notice other signs, of a more disquieting nature, indicating his emotional development was much slower than it should have been. Although he mostly appeared to be a happy little soul he would often walk around the house on tiptoes chattering to himself. Echolalia slowly crept into his invented language. He would ignore us if we gave him an instruction, as though he hadn’t heard. He seemed forever distracted and in a world of his own. His behaviour now began to attract comments from friends who also had children. So-called normal children. Children who could talk fluently - some of them bi-lingual. Clearly it was time to get some professional advice. Nico was almost 3 years old.
Nico’s pediatrician had consistently assured us that he was fine. Trust your instincts he would urge us. Nico is alert, smart, loving, healthy and physically adept. Give him time. It was true that he seemed perfectly ordinary if a little nervous in a hospital environment. And slow to speak of course. Don’t worry, I told Suna. I didn’t utter a word until I was four years old - but now you can’t stop me talking!
Such reassurances were comforting for a while. But soon additional questions and awkwardly expressed concerns from family members reignited previous misgivings. In truth we did not know what to do. To us Nico was simply a loving child who was developing slowly, particularly in terms of his speech. To others, we now know, he seemed an oddity – a withdrawn and hapless deviant possessing tics and barks reminiscent of a mad person.
Our anxiety reached a peak as we tried to find Nico a suitable environment, such as a kindergarten, where he could socialise while learning how to play with other kids. This search proved futile. A refrain repeated over and over and which we came to anticipate from every school we visited was that Nico was a child with special needs and that their school was not equipped to deal with such cases. We quickly grasped their meaning: a child with special needs is a euphemism for autism. As one door after another slammed shut in our faces we decided to do what we had been resisting for so long. We would have Nico tested by speech and behavioural therapists to rule out the possibility of it being ASD or Asperger's Syndrome.
Even that is easier said than done - at least in a country like Thailand where most psychological conditions are spoken of only in hushed tones. Finally we found a group of specialists we felt we could trust. Some baseline tests were done and we waited for the initial diagnosis. Of course nothing can ever prepare you for news you hope never to hear. The clinical statement was delivered as a matter of fact. Your son is autistic. No wavering. No possibility of an error. No doubt. The verdict was absolutely clear. Nico was on the spectrum. Therapy was recommended and it should start as soon as possible.
I was lost for words. I was vaguely aware that Suna was asking questions, choking back tears, and just trying to make sense of what we were being told. Even now I can not account for every single emotion I felt in those first few moments where I learned the "medical truth" about our son: stunned, angry, defiant, frustrated, self-pitying and sorrowful certainly. I began to lament the fact that Nico had been born. Unwittingly I had saddled Suna with a child who would be an impediment she would regret for the rest of her life…
But then an epiphany! One that I will always remember. Nico rushed out of the adjacent room, laughing excitedly and holding a model airplane for us all to see. Let’s go he shouted, heading for the door. It was as though I was looking in a mirror with a time delay of some 65 years. Suna and I glanced at each other and smiled. The heartache that so recently threatened to stifle any hope we had of a happy and fulfilling future for our son lifted in an instant. The real truth of our situation dawned upon us both. Here was our beautiful son imagining an airplane flying through the sky and deriving untold pleasure from sharing his joy with us. He was alive with electrical energy.
Only then did it dawn on me what a crazy neurotic state we had helped contrive. We were almost persuaded that a disparate set of symptoms which happen to occur in more than 15 per cent of the population should be considered unusual and required urgent medical treatment. Worse still was the realisation I almost allowed an inconsequential acronym - one that undeniably strikes fear in the hearts of so many parents, yet means different things to different people - to define and shape my expectations of a 3-year old boy I adore.
That is not to deny the fact that some children are extremely disabled by autism and benefit greatly from the help they get from behavioural therapists. Nor is it to deny that Nico may need some help with his speech. He will. And it’s also quite possible a course of behavioural therapy will help him overcome some of his more, shall we say theatrical, traits. But right now I celebrate the fact that Nico is more like me, particularly in his sensitivity towards others, his gentle and loving nature, than I or anyone else had fathomed. And I aver that is not a bad thing.
As a consequence, and taking into account the upbringing I had as a child, the wonder of learning, the fascination I developed for all living creatures and the sheer appreciation of “I” as an experiment for trying out new ideas, I no longer have any desire for Nico to be normal - whatever that is - nor that he should conform to other people’s conventions or stereotypes. My son is the mirror image of me at that age.
Over the course of the past 60 years particular traits such as excessive reserve, nervousness or introspection, coupled with out-of-the-ordinary or repetitive behavioural patterns, have been singled out as being unhealthy - anomalous and therefore in need of correction or treatment of some kind. But who decides what or who is normal? Why the professionals of course.
In today’s competitive business climate it has become commonplace for most industry bodies and peak associations to protect their niche, in accordance with their members’ interests, by broadening the scope of activities that fall within their jurisdiction. Professional bodies representing healthcare practitioners, clinical psychologists and behavioural therapists are not immune from this expansion in the scope of their pursuits. This is tantamount to putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank. As a direct consequence it is no surprise that we see healthcare professionals consorting with drug companies, insurers, investors and research scientists in an effort to classify increasing numbers of symptoms as abnormal disabilities. In the field of mental health it is widely acknowledged that individual traits, once viewed as features characterising individuality, are now routinely portrayed as psychological conditions to be remedied with cures from drugs or therapy or counselling - or whatever happens to be the latest fad.
In the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, autism is defined as a lifelong developmental disability that affects how individuals communicate with, and relate to, other people as well as how they make sense of the world around them”.In other words ASD has become a convenient treasure trove for the health care industry to exploit.
My son Nico is unique. I am proud of that and I hope he retains his charm and character throughout his life. In our eyes he is not a child with special needs but a very special child with an inimitable personality and incredible potential.
But if psychologists persist on burdening him, and those like him, with labels signifying little more than shyness, introversion, or a tendency to focus on repetitive play, I hope that he will have the courage to look them in the eye and tell them he actually wouldn’t mind being as smart as Albert Einstein, as gifted as Bob Dylan, as imaginative as Stanley Kubrick, as funny as Robin Williams, as wealthy as Bill Gates, or as kind and considerate as Yves Saint-Laurent – all of whom suffer or were diagnosed with ASD. Or, for that matter, that being like his dad was as a kid is just fine by him.