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(the following contains graphic descriptions of an eating disorder which may upset some people)


I realize I haven't posted anything to do with my youngest son (see-Growing up with Autism ) for some time. This is because lately he has been going through a bad patch in his life and for a while I simply didn't know what to say.

On his last trip to the GP it was discovered that my son had lost two and a half stone since last December. This was not exactly news; for the previous six months he had been regularly spitting out most of his food and dumping it in the compost. This accompanied by a grotesque and fortunately gratuitous gagging sound that could be heard in the next room. No one could figure out why, his eating was the one thing he'd never had a problem with. His Befrienders professed themselves unwilling to take him out for a meal in public, saying it was too embarrassing, so after the visit to the GP I decided to try my luck.

My son was wound up tight after the doctor's office and I thought a walk might help. We set off down the towpath next to the canal in town with my son as usual legging it 50 meters ahead. Nothing wrong here I thought to myself, and suggested we go next to the local arts center where they have a coffee shop upstairs that is usually quiet in the afternoon. My son proudly ordered hot chocolate and a big piece of cake, and I steered him toward a table in a secluded corner.

All went well for a few moments, and I was congratulating myself on my obviously superior relationship with my son, when he began shooting glances toward the door. Next his leg began to piston up and down which is a bad sign meaning a rising tension, and he bent closer to his plate and spat out a mouthful of cake. The ensuing dialogue went something like this.

Me: You mustn't do that, it's not polite

Son: (growling) I like to do it.

M: well , it bothers other people

S: I like to bother people

M: If you don't stop, we'll have to leave

S: (rising volume) I'm not leaving!

This went on for several increasingly chaotic moments. It didn't help that the arts center is located near to my son's old Special Needs school and the other patrons, about half a dozen or so, were being carefully deaf dumb and blind to the exhibition as only British people of a certain class can be. Finally came the penultimate.:

M: OK, then, I'm taking your hot chocolate and cake and we're leaving.

S: (with utter sincerity and at top volume) you BASTARD!!

I marched out of the place without looking back and after a few moments he followed me. For the whole ride home he said not a word, and when we arrived he stomped into his house and slammed the door.

Feeling like a prize idiot I gave it a few moments to get my temper under control and followed. You have to realize that, Autism aside, my son tops my modest 5- 8 by a good few inches and this was a moment most fathers of twenty-something sons encounter sooner or later: the moment when you realize that a physical confrontation is something you really would like to avoid if possible and you start counting up how much capital you have in the Father bank .

When I entered his kitchen my son was slumped over the table crying his heart out. With a sigh I pulled another chair over, sat down beside him and did my best to comfort him, mentally calling myself all kinds of bad names. You have to understand that I had put him in an impossible position- there was, literally, nowhere he could have gone, no one he could have appealed to. He was utterly at my mercy and he knew it. And less excusably, so did I.

My wife, who is a child therapist, has tried several times to come up with an analogy for what it is like to grow up with Autism. It is like being born blind to sighted parents, she said once. Your parents have a way of experiencing the world that from the moment you are born you can never understand. Similarly, you exist in a world of heightened senses of touch and hearing that does not even exist for them. You grow up helpless and unable to assert your individuality in any meaningful way- frustration and anger and 'acting out' become almost a given.

Since then there has been an improvement in my son's dietary habits. A trip to a flouroscopy clinic at a nearby hospital confirmed that there was no physical reason for my son to have difficulty swallowing. We concentrate on making sure his food is easy to chew and give him lots of milkshakes with vitamins, which he likes, but as one of his Befrienders remarked, this is just the latest in a long line of rebellious behaviors. Then she added with rare insight and compassion, 'You can't really blame him, can you?'