Nearly half-way through the summer holidays and restored by a few decent nights’ sleep, the flood of emotions that followed the end of term is just about sinking in. Sheer relief at surviving Rusty’s first year of school (and my tenth as a teacher) mingled with pretty nauseating pride at his glowing reports and handwritten notes from teachers and assistants, positively gushing about his endearing personality and almost unfathomable progression – it is more than we ever dreamed was possible. But while I am immensely proud and relieved, there’s also a lingering sense of unease because, although extraordinary, this has been but one year. Those early weeks and months, when he almost stopped talking, could barely be coaxed into engaging with the real world and exhibited signs of intense anxiety, are still such a raw memory that it is painful to think the pattern could repeat itself indefinitely. So whilst determined to enjoy every moment of this summer break, I might not start shouting from the rooftops quite yet – one day at a time.
I have been thinking about memory a lot lately, having come to the realisation a little while ago that, while Rusty has an enviable capacity for recalling processes and sequences as well as a strong association with place, he doesn’t actually seem to remember much about his life before about a year ago. Why this particular point in time? Because the explosion in his speech that began last Spring changed everything. The neurological link between language development and conscious memory is a well-trodden field of study and, when you think about it, makes complete sense. Not only was he previously unable to verbalise his thoughts but the lack of language would have, in all likelihood, severely limited his ability to process memories.
Just consider how the world must seem when your own recollections, far from providing reassurance, points of reference and perhaps most importantly, warnings, only actually serve to confuse – like an album documenting your whole life where the photos are unorganised, without any labels to provide context.
And memory is nothing if not fickle; subjective, often selective and prone to distortion, depending heavily on the emotional connection to an event. Whilst we are busy #makingmemories or feeling nostalgic because our babies are #growinguptoofast, the ability to forget trauma or blank out periods of intense stress, upset or pain is critical to maintaining a healthy mind. Based on our experience so far, I would also imagine that an underdeveloped emotional intellect can exacerbate the situation further, meaning ASD children are particularly poor at selecting which memories to keep and which to filter out. This may explain why, for the longest of times, Rusty showed no sign of remembering even his closest of relatives but knew beyond any doubt that a hand-dryer would frighten him.
Pause for thought.
Not surprisingly, our house is littered with photos of Rusty and Baby A and just recently, he has started to recognise himself and understand that they show him at different ages which, to begin with, took him right to the point where anxiety and excitement collide – a nervous assertion “that’s Rusty when three” accompanied by a slightly maniacal smile. He also got his hands on an album of his baby photos and studies it intently, telling us all about the images with a well-rehearsed narrative “R when zero (years old)… Daddy hold baby R… R asleep“, as though he is piecing together his past, rather like an amnesia sufferer following an accident.
So now it’s time to build on a solid(ish) foundation; to effectively re-introduce him to people and to document his experiences in a way that helps him understand the world and his place in it. Piece of cake!