While I don’t condone senseless graffiti, especially when it is scrawled on a wall in your own lounge, the phrase “Good afternoon, your mum looks like Kim Jong-un” did make me chuckle – once I’d got over the fact that I’ll need to repaint the room.
Was the sudden urge to write all over the wall a sign DS1 was struggling? Or was it a homage to Banksy?
We’d just returned from a few days in Bristol, home to the subversive street artist. Our destination appealing to his new-found interest in the spray-paint activist, who they were studying at school.
We spent a day walking the streets of Bristol in search of Banksy artwork. Together with DS1’s friend Joanne and her mum, we thought this would also give us the chance to see some of the city’s sights, while keeping DS1 on the straight and narrow with a purpose to the full-day wander.
Well, that was the theory anyway. Yes, we did walk all day; yes, we did cover a fair bit of ground across the city; and, yes, we saw a lot of Banksy paintings. But did we see anything else – erm, that will be a ‘no’.
The first painting we went in search of – the Grim Reaper – is housed in the city’s M Shed museum. The artwork located, picture taken and list ticked, we – that being Joanne, her mum and me – being in the museum, thought we’d take the opportunity to see what else was on display.
But, oh no. “We are only looking at Banksy’s,” declared DS1, as he grabbed Joanne’s arm and hauled her towards the exit. A sense of purpose etched on his face.
“If Joanne wants to look at other things in the museum she can,” I tried to reason. But in vain – he was already through the exit before I’d finished my sentence.
Still, it was a pleasant amble through the streets, looking at places of interest from a distance.
Later, when Joanne and her mum wanted to peruse the quirky thrift shops along one stretch of road between artworks, DS1 was livid.
“We are not going shopping. She is so selfish,” he seethed.
Instead, DS1 and I marched on to the next Banksy stop, where we then had to wait in the cold for the others to finish their shopping expedition; while DS1 muttered away to himself about their self-serving antics. Pot and kettle sprang to mind.
“This is a Banksy tour only!” he reiterated, as if I wasn’t aware of his beef.
To make matters worse the Banksy we’d stomped off in search of was currently on an overseas tour.
(Sausage) roll with it
Isambard Kingdom Brunel is also a current DS1 favourite. Bristol being home to many examples of the ingenious 19th-century engineer’s work – none more so, than the “ship that changed history”, the SS Great Britain.
A visit to said ship and adjacent museum were an undoubted triumph, as DS1 absorbed himself in life on board the passenger steamer.
Clambering into the narrow bunks; laughing at the recreation of a woman being seasick; having his arm decorated in fake blood and glass to recreate a typical wound – that undoubtedly would have led to amputation with a hacksaw back in the day; collecting boarding passes of some of the famous people to have travelled on the ship; amused by a quote in the ship doctor’s diary: “Saturday – great mess on board ship getting the broken spars down. One man broke his leg and another lost his finger, so we are now about 10 hands and one finger short.”; and spending ages listening again and again to a recorded voice telling you to “Go away” because the occupant of the room you’d just tried to enter was having a number two.
Four hours and an expensive trip to the gift shop later, we ventured into the museum cafe. It was rammed. DS1 immediately looked uncomfortable.
“Can we leave?” he whispered.
“Of course,” I said, knowing there would be no point trying to talk him around. It was a sensory overload – too much noise, too many people – and we had to get out now.
Normally, this would mean straight out the door and keep going until we were safely back behind our own front door, do not pass go, do not collect £200, do not get to eat a tasty-looking pasty.
“Shall we sit outside?” I enquired – my mind still on that pasty – not expecting a favourable response.
We headed out of the door and he made a beeline for the furthest away outside table and sat down.
This was a significant step. Not only had he recognised that the busy cafe wasn’t for him and he needed to evacuate before it became too much to cope with – sausage roll or no sausage roll – but that there was a solution, which meant he could be comfortable and still enjoy the rest of the day.
That evening, striking while the iron was hot, we suggested going out for some food.
“Ohhhhh,” came the predictable reply. Maybe it was a step too far and we should have quit while we were ahead.
“It’s a sausage restaurant,” I tentatively informed him.
Miracles do happen.
As we entered the restaurant, the noise was deafening. It was packed, and the hum of chitter-chatter enveloped us.
I feared the worst.
“Where do you want to sit?” I asked him, giving him the chance to remain in control of the situation.
He chose a table right next to the door. Not ideal, but I guess it allowed a quick escape route. Surprisingly, it was next to a big group of noisy people, dogs and all.
But, it seems, sausages win out over anything.
Bangers duly consumed, an immediate departure was demanded. Gulping the rest of my pint, while still chewing on my last mouthful, we hurried for the exit.
Ghost in the machine
So, let’s go for (another) long walk around the city, at night, with a stranger, while talking about ghosts.
There are a number of things wrong with that suggestion as far as the boy is concerned. Namely, walking, the dark, interacting with an unknown quantity and ghosts – which he is adamant do not exist, so what would be the point of this whole escapade.
Surprisingly, he was all over the idea like a rash. It’s amazing what having a friend with him can achieve.
Not only was he enthralled by the whole tour, he hung on every word of our excellent storytelling host, John. And even, I think, began to believe that ghosts could exist – especially when he saw the picture of the mysterious face in the fire that John showed us.
One thing that struck me, though, was his processing time. Although I know that he requires longer to process what people are telling him than the considered norm, there is always that tendency as a parent to think he isn’t listening to you. Either because he’s engrossed in whatever it is he is doing or, more likely, he doesn’t want to do what you are asking him to do, so he is just ignoring you.
But, I reached a state of enlightenment on this tour. As John regaled us with his ghostly tales, frequently DS1 would turn to me and say, “What?” and I’d have to repeat the story for him until he grasped its meaning.
He just couldn’t process the information at the speed he was being told it and he got lost along the way.
At one point I wondered if he was enjoying the tour… but it was spooky to see the enthusiasm with which he recounted the tales to the wife on our return home. It showed that he had thoroughly immersed himself in Bristol’s dark side. He particularly liked story of the boy ghost that haunted the theatre, and the one about some monks from centuries before that walked through a building housing soldiers during the war. Then there was the cinema manager who had been murdered in his office, who was seen sitting in the auditorium, watching a movie, before walking through the wall. Then, there was… well, you get the idea – he had absorbed it all. Eventually.
Two incidents one evening demonstrated that however well you think he is coping the autism never leaves him.
Wanting some time to himself, he started playing a game of Scrabble against a pear. Yes, you have read that correctly.
“Will you win?” I asked him.
“Yes, the pear is clueless,” he replied in all seriousness.
Later, having asked the kids what they wanted for tea, I began to cook Joanne some sausages.
“She can’t have those sausages,” DS1 protested. “They are mine.”
“No, we brought those sausages for everyone,” I explained.
“You can’t give them to her. Only I can have them,” he insisted.
“No, they are for all of us… I can cook some for you as well if you want.”
“I don’t want them,” he answered, dismissively.
“But…” Oh, forget it.
A trip to Cheddar Gorge showed the two, or rather three – maybe even four – sides to DS1.
Scrambling up steep hills, over rocks, to heights he wouldn’t normally contemplate in a million years showed how his confidence had grown over the week.
But then contrast that to a lunch stop at a cafe in the village that saw him baulk at the entrance. He just couldn’t go in. Unsure of what lay behind the door.
So, DS1 and I retreated, going for a walk away from people… until he spotted some monkeys in the window of a gift shop. Toy ones, not real ones.
One orangutan later, we returned to the cafe. Clutching the ape, he bounded up the steps, waltzed in and sat down for a hearty meal. Not a care in the world.
A trip into a cave was greeted with excitement. But a couple of hundred yards into it, he started to panic.
“Can we go?” he asked, appearing fearful.
This time, I wasn’t having it.
“We’ve only just got in here,” I said. “Just give it five more minutes and then if you still want to leave, we will.”
He started to head for the exit.
“No, we have to go around this way to get out,” I lied.
Still complaining, he reluctantly turned around.
Distracting him by pointing out a site of interest, he seemed to forget whatever it was that was troubling him. And soon raced off with Joanne in search of the actors, who were dotted about the tunnels, entertaining the kids, who were tasked with asking them questions to solve a mystery.
He immersed himself in this quest, not in the slightest bit concerned about engaging with Dracula, Bill Sykes and Frankenstein’s monster. Eagerly writing down the answers to the clues they were uncovering.
The boy had grown – literally, as evidenced by his trousers, which now seemed to be two inches above his ankles.
Given that he hadn’t even wanted to go to Bristol in the first place, this was quite a turnaround.
“I’m not going to Bristol. You never told me we were going,” he had protested vehemently in the week leading up to our departure. It took a mammoth effort of gentle persuasion and getting Joanne to cajole him into going (through the medium of WhatsApp) to get him (reluctantly) into the car.
Now we were struggling to get him to go home.