Autism Awareness Week: a personal reflection

Autism is something I am aware of on a daily basis so I thought I would share our experiences.

On Sunday, my grandson was 10 years old. He was diagnosed as autistic when he was 5 after exhibiting ‘challenging behaviour’ in mainstream school. Later, at 8, he was also diagnosed with ADHD and is now on medication to control the extreme anxiety he feels as a result of that. The medication dampens down his behaviour to some extent and he is more than happy to take it. Fortunately, he is not showing any signs of the physical side effects that can lead to stopping the medication.

We are also fairly sure he ‘ticks all the boxes’ for PDA (pathological demand avoidance) which is a subset of autism. Our local child psychiatric unit is one of those that does not believe in extra labels and will not apply PDA as a label within their diagnosis. I understand their reluctance, and indeed everyone’s reluctance to label children at all, but an ‘official’ diagnosis of PDA would be helpful for schools in providing some direction for their management of the child. Because our grandson is extremely clever, all the management techniques have been those normally used for what used to be called Asperger’s syndrome (also a subset that the clinic do not use). PDA plus ADHD is not a combination that responds well to this approach.

A year ago the school and local authority managed to get J into a special school. This is a school run by a private trust, taking children from a number of local authorities. It is not specifically a school for autistic children but rather for children with challenging behaviour. There are a few absolute criteria a potential pupil must meet. They must be deemed capable of following a normal curriculum, and they must not be an ‘escape’ risk as the school has no desire to resemble a prison. They should not be adamant about refusing to attend school. The classes are tiny, the teachers and support staff are highly trained and motivated, and so far, things are going well.

The school effectively treats the PDA in its normal approach to dealing with challenging behaviour. The rules and sanctions (and rewards) are consistent and fair, and the children respond well. There tends to be some disruption whenever a new child joins the class, but things settle down once their needs are being met. We are thrilled with the progress, both academic and social, that J is making.

The school is 5 – 16 so we are hoping to avoid what could be a nightmare of transition to high school at 11. We also know that the school readies the pupils for a normal GCSE range of subjects, although the options are slightly limited purely because of staffing constraints. This is not the case in any of the special schools that the local authority provide (they claim to prepare students for exams but these tend not to be in ‘academic’ subjects) so they fund J’s attendance at the private institution. We just have to hope the funding remains in place until he is 16.

We know we are lucky. We have a child who is academic and who is finally beginning to shine as he should in the classroom. He reads at an adult level and helps the support staff with their spelling… His handwriting, after years of struggle in a mainstream school, is now (one year on) exquisite, though he still prefers typing. His comprehension is excellent though his autism means that while he will immediately understand who, what, when, where and how, the extra question of why something happened will often mean very little to him. Maths is still his favourite subject and he has expressed a desire to be a maths teacher, though I don’t think he would ever have the patience, or be able to deal with children who were struggling with the subject. However, we have high hopes that he will find a career in maths or IT. He also loves art but his main artistic interest is in creating cartoons for online use. He is learning French, enjoying music, and excelling at science.

An ideal 10-year-old to be proud of? Yes, of course, but he is still only at the level of perhaps a 5-year-old in his social interactions and can be difficult to manage in social situations. However, he has friends, both at school and outside it, and seems to be making progress, at last, in this sphere too. If he had to attend a mainstream high school I think he (and we) would sink under the stress. As he will, by then, be at perhaps a 6-year-old’s level of social interaction, you can no doubt imagine how a large high school would impact on him – and how he might impact on them.

We know a number of children who have faced school exclusion as a result of behaviour that in retrospect was probably due to being on the autistic spectrum. Autistic children (and adults) react badly to change, to extreme noise and movement, to any kind of sarcasm or attempt to explain anything with figures of speech. They tend to respond to questions very literally: ‘would you like to open the window, J?’ is likely to get the answer ‘no’ with absolutely no intent to be unpleasant or impertinent.

I think probably autism awareness week is a good time to reflect on the changes we, as a family, have experienced during the year. It also, as I said, coincides with J’s birthday. If we look back at the last twelve months, J is much happier, sleeping better, more self-aware, and increasing his self-esteem on an almost daily basis. He is consciously trying to modify his behaviour and reactions to fit in with the expectations of both adults and children. As a result, although he is not always successful, the entire family is under less strain and we have high hopes for the future.

Portugal: the October fires and an update on my life.

I thought it was probably time I updated readers here and on Facebook about the October fires in Portugal and our personal disaster.
Anyone who follows me on Dreamwidth or LiveJournal need not read the LiveJournal material – skip to the text below the link.
Rather than writing everything all over again I’m giving a link to my posts on LiveJournal. I left those unlocked so that people who don’t use social media could visit them. I locked the similar ones on DW because that’s where I chat with most of my close online friends and I didn’t want them to feel suddenly in the ‘public’ eye. There are three long posts, all uploaded on the same date.

https://moth2fic.livejournal.com/2017/11/17/

Since then, we’ve had the full insurance pay-out plus some compensation for the fruit trees, though that’s on hold until they see which (if any) have survived, in the spring. We are still bringing things home, or at least my husband is. There’s a limit to how much weight he can get in the van on each trip. He is taking stuff out for people there and acting as a one way courier is helping to pay for the travel, which, of course, insurance doesn’t cover!
I don’t go with him because he stays in an apartment which belongs to a friend who is in America. The apartment has bottled gas and running water but no light, and no adequate heating. Certainly no hot water unless he boils a kettle. However, for him, it’s a cheap and convenient option.

It’s been five months now, and I have been in a state of shock, and was unable, at first, to write. All thoughts led back to the disaster, which skewed everything and made normal writing impossible. It also impacted on my social interactions with people both online and offline. I was unable to stop talking about it and felt I should retreat rather than impose my emotions on others. Recently, things have improved and I have been able to start writing again. I have fewer nightmares and my sleep patterns are settling. Someone pointed out that because everything is still in a state of flux I have no real closure, so the disaster has remained and remains very current for me.

Our UK house is in chaos with boxes everywhere – our own, and deliveries for my husband’s next trip. We had, of course, replaced our furniture and now have to decide what to keep, what to move around, and what to dispose of. The boxes, as well as containing books and china, tend to have a liberal sprinkling of rat dirt, wasps nests and ash. Not pleasant! And most of the time I’m on my own. Not easy!

Needless to say, it’s more difficult than that for many of our friends in Portugal (a mixture of Portuguese, English, Dutch and Belgian). Internet and phone contact is still erratic and I can only guarantee contacting my husband on the days he goes into town to see the council or the estate agent. Some of our friends are rebuilding. Some are looking elsewhere. Some are trying to keep their businesses going while the area gets back on its feet. So I’m living through all that vicariously as well as through our own problems.

There are ‘trivial’ problems, too. We have had to employ someone to remove trees that are still standing from our land, though we are not allowed to remove olives. The electricity was, of course, cut off, and we are not being charged, but the electricity board refuses to believe that there are still live wires which are in fact making part of the ruin live. We need electricity, to filter the pool which was undamaged but filled with ash. We are thinking of solar panels. The banks – in Portugal and UK – are making a fuss about moving our insurance money from one country to another and we have to prove we are not money laundering. With no phone service everything needs a trip into town. The road to town and the longer road to the border were badly damaged and repaired too quickly so are now miles and miles of potholes.

I have just read a novel set in Portugal (and have reviewed it here, separately from my monthly reviews) that made me feel a lot of emotion connected with the countryside there. But as well as triggering some distress it made me acknowledge that it is still a lovely country and its people are worthy of admiration, not least for the way they have coped with the tragedy of last October.

The photograph at the head of this is the view from what was our house. Now, we have a view and a ruin for sale.

Forest Dancer: a review

I’ve just read an amazing book and wanted to share it with everybody.
Forest Dancer by Susan Roebuck is very special.

The story is set in Portugal where Flora, a ballerina with career problems, has inherited a cottage. This turns out to be inhabited by a woman who may or may not have been Flora’s father’s mistress and a child, Raquel, who may or may not be Flora’s half-sister. Raquel has leukaemia and Flora is tested to see if her stem cells will be a good match for a transfusion.

Flora is drawn into helping stage a cultural event in the village, which is at risk from fracking. Marco, a forest warden, helps to stage the show. Gil, a Portuguese TV star, comes to open the festa. Both men are interested in Flora. Gil is also interested in the standing stones by the forest lake and the legends and mysticism that surround them.

Raquel has leukaemia and Flora is tested to see if her stem cells will be a good match for a transfusion.

Lots and lots of interesting themes, including a very small mm sub-plot, and I couldn’t stop reading. I had to know what happened to the major characters (including the escaped budgerigar), and I even put my own writing on hold while I finished the book.

It’s extremely well written and brings the Portuguese countryside vividly to life. The author clearly knows and loves it. As well as the brilliant world building and fascinating sub plots, the basic romance is beautifully handled, always very realistically and with the lightest of touches. There is anxiety, not only about relationships but about the fate of the village, and Raquel’s health. There are amusing moments, too, sometimes poignant as when most of the villagers have their heads shaved to support Raquel, and when the children are rehearsing their dance under Flora’s direction.

I personally know Portugal well and was transported to the village where Flora was staying. However, I think anyone could enjoy this glimpse of the Portuguese countryside which includes an introduction to the language which Flora is practising. There is plenty to interest anyone who loves dance, nature, and stories that explore both culture and relationships.

Altogether a delightful novel and one that I hope will do really well for the author.

Films in my head

I was recently doing one of those memes for my personal (friends-locked) blog – one of those lists of questions that attempts to explore aspects of your life that you weren’t keeping secret but had never thought to share with anyone.

In the course of it, I mentioned that my fictional characters arrive in my head and talk to me.

It would appear, from the reactions of my friends list (a lot of whom are writers) that there are two kinds of people. One sort give a relieved sigh and say something like ‘yes, me too’ or ‘thank goodness it’s not just me’ and the other sort are fascinated but bewildered.

I thought I’d go into more detail here to see what other have to say.
Whenever I write, my characters spring fully formed into my head, just as if they were people I’d met and talked to. But like those people, it takes time to get to know them and I have to question them to get details. I also ‘overhear’ them talking to each other and sometimes they are quite critical of the way their story is progressing. I usually let them take over. Obviously there are limits. If I’m writing a detective story I have to start with some idea of what the crime was, how it was committed and how the investigation proceeded. I don’t always know who the villain was.

The voices and images in my head are quite clear. I know, if I think about it, that they have to be aspects of my subconscious, but at the moment of hearing and seeing them, they seem quite real, like actual friends. I am never tempted to blur fiction and reality and know perfectly well that they are ‘just’ characters, but they are often loud, and very assertive. They tell me all kinds of things that don’t necessarily pertain to the current story, and often have strong political opinions. I remember reading advice from Diana Wynne Jones that a writer should interrogate their characters to find out all kinds of things about them, such as their favourite socks, to build up a mental picture that would make the character in the story more three dimensional. Well, there are all kinds of things I can and do ask them, but as for the socks, I just need to look.

I can see them in motion, too, and when they tell me how a specific scene plays out, I can watch it like a film rolling in my mind’s eye. I also retain detailed images of all kinds of places I have visited and can play with these mentally to provide settings for my stories.

I was very surprised as I grew up to learn that not everyone has that kind of visual imagination and that some people, including very imaginative creators in all spheres, think largely in words, not pictures.

I think I would get quite distressed if my internal films disappeared. This is, incidentally, also the way I think about everything, from a planned shopping trip or meal to a conversation I need to have with e.g. family or friends or, at one time, lesson plans for teaching.

All this results in something I have mentioned previously. My stories are planned in my head, and the ‘notes’ are in my head ready to be referred to so any writing is a kind of copy-typing though of course I edit too. For example, I won’t let my characters use too much repetition, or tell each other things they should already know. I also encourage my betas to tell me when things that are obvious to my characters (and to me) need clarification for my readers.
When I have finished a book, the characters take a back seat, but they don’t disappear (apart, of course, for the ones like the murder victims). They allow the characters for the next work I am embarking on to take centre stage. Usually. There are one or two who feel they should comment on everything I do which is interesting but can be distracting.

Getting to know my characters is part of the pleasure of writing. It can feel as though I have a lot of friends. Well, I do have a lot of friends, but most of them have their own schedules and can’t always be contacted at times of my choosing. My fictional friends can.

The Visitor

Here – have a poem. A cat lives a few doors away from us but visits us frequently. Recently, it snowed. And yes, that’s my house but the photo was taken last time it snowed heavily, not this.

The first day
of heavy snow
there were no prints and the cat
had clearly voted with his paws to stay
at home, warm.
The second day
I heard a tap at the door,
faint, as though gloved,
but I was doing something important
and did not respond.
There might have been more
taps but as I say,
I was busy that day.
The third day the garden was still full
of lumps of white,
car-shaped, pot-shaped, shrub-shaped.
A cat
might have ended as a cat-shaped lump
if he had sat on the doormat or a stump,
but I let him in.
He shook drops of snow
(probably caught from a gate or rail)
around
like a liquid cat-herine wheel
then pushed a damp determined
forehead against my hand
for stroking
or kneading.
When I looked
outside there was a line
of paw prints, from his house
to mine.

February reviews (2018)

The weather in UK (and, I think, most of northern and central Europe) is dreadful, so I suggest everybody curls up with a good book.

Films, Theatre and TV

Hamilton*****
I booked for this ages ago and went to London to see it with friends. Fabulous! The style – a kind of rap against a background of melody – echoes Sondheim’s Into the Woods but where that twists fairytale Hamilton twists history. Except that it doesn’t, really. It tells the actual story of the US Founding Fathers but shows the men and women in a different and more personal light, and the diversity casting (plus the songs of King George III) make us focus on both issues of immigration and of independence (and Brexit). All the cast were magnificent and I can’t really pick out anyone as special. The dancing was amazing, and the staging was intriguing and impressive. Five stars plus, and if you’re going to see it, enjoy! If you haven’t already booked, you’re too late, in UK, anyway. It’s deservedly sold out.

Spiral*****
The double bill season finale was wonderful, as always. I adore this French cop show which is not just a police procedural (although there is always an involved case that takes all season to solve) but a look at policing, lawyers, politicics, personal relationships, etc. It’s an ensemble cast but I have to admit I was on pins in case they decided to write out either Laure (Caroline Proust) or Gilou (Thierry Godard). After all, it’s the kind of show (like Spooks which I also adored) in which nobody is safe – in the previous season we lost Pierre (Gregory Fitoussi) – admittedly to the demands of Hollywood but the French chose to kill the character off. The underlying theme of this season was parenthood, and it ended with Laure literally running, finally unable to cope with her baby’s much desired survival. Superb.

The Book Thief****
Absolutely beautifully directed and acted. However, the book didn’t completely grab me and neither did the film. I think that for wartime dramas I prefer those based on fact (e.g. Schindler’s List) rather than fiction, however artfully presented.

Books

The excellent (all mm romance this month):

Two Feet Under by Charlie Cochrane. *****
The teacher and his policeman lover get involved in a murder uncovered at an archaeology dig in this third volume in The Lindenshaw Mysteries. Excellent as usual. I love the way this series is absolutely right about modern schools in UK so that I then trust the author about details for other things like policing and archaeology. I may have mentioned previously that I also love the dog. The writing is very assured with a flowing style and plenty of world building. I like the way the mm romance element is presented as normal, and is the background rather than the focus of the story. I feel as if I know the characters and am looking forward to the next volume in the series. Highly recommended but start with Book 1.

Lessons for Idle Tongues by Charlie Cochrane *****

This is in the Cambridge Fellows series. It’s hard to talk about this episode in the lives of the Cambridge dons turned amateur detective. The entire story hinges on whether or not there was a crime (or crimes) in the first place so anything further about the plot would be a spoiler. There is, however, a definite sub-plot involving the kidnap and eventual rescue of a wooden cat. You’ve probably gathered I’m very impressed by Charlie’s books. The same applies to this as to the Lindenshaw Mysteries: gentle mm romance underpinning interesting crime investigation and a cast of fascinating supporting characters. The writer transports the reader to pre-WWI Cambridge and London, and it is a wrench to return to the 21st century when the book is over. I have already bought a number of books in the series and am trying to make them last. Highly recommended, but again, start with Book 1

When First I Met My King by Harper Fox *****
This is Book 1 in the Arthur Trilogy and since I love Harper’s style lyrical, mystical and yet down to earth at the same time) and love Arthurian legend (well, yes, and have written some myself) I had to read it. It didn’t disappoint! The author twists the legend so that Lancelot’s story is set against a background of Northumberland, where the author lives and where I grew up. This makes it all even better, for me! Of course the details of the setting are exactly right, and the whole premise of the story so far, making young Arthur and young Lancelot tumble head over heels in love with each other, makes sense of some of the other legends. I have bought Book 2 and am already worrying about how Guinevere will interrupt the idyll. But I haven’t started it yet.

Agent Bayne by Jordan Castillo Price *****
This says it’s Book 9 in the Psycops series and I am fairly confused because I think I’ve read them all and there are more than 9. But maybe novellas don’t count? Vic (who sees and talks to ghosts which can be useful in a crime investigation) is now a federal agent like his lover, Jacob. The stories, which are all told from Vic’s point of view, are engaging – he is a very real character – and the crimes are interesting. This volume concentrates on Vic’s early days as a Fed, and promises to take the series in new directions. As for the Charlie Cochrane books, highly recommended but start at the beginning of the series.

Caught by JL Merrow *****
Played by JL Merrow *****

These are the first two books in the Shamwell series and probably need to be read in order. They are standalone mm romances, but the same characters do appear in a supporting role, so it helps to be aware of their story.
In Caught, Robert, a teacher trying to escape his past falls for Sean, a pest control agent. The story is sometimes poignant, sometimes funny, and always exciting as we hope they will sort out their misunderstandings and get together in the end. Well written and highly recommended.
In Played, Tristan, an actor spending the summer sorting out an inherited cottage in Shamwell, ends up involved with the local amateur dramatic society and with Con, the local handyman. Con is dyslexic and Tristan coaches him for a part in a play. The play within a story makes a delightful theme, especially because it is Midsummer Night’s Dream, which also contains a play within a play as well as giving plenty of opportunity for puns and other humour. Very well done and I enjoyed the story immensely, but I have to say I think the author is at her best when writing in first person (in Caught, and in the Plumber’s Mate series). Still, highly recommended.

The very good (two, only one of which is mm):

Dragon and Phoenix by Joanne Bertin ****

This is the sequel to The Last Dragonlord and I enjoyed the story. The dragons are lovely and the weredragons are well developed characters. The book deals with how the weredragon who thought he was the last dragonlord, along with his newly discovered soulmate and their other weredragon friends need to rescue a dragon and a phoenix who are being held captive to power the magic that supports a tyrannical regime in a foreign land. However, this book took me ages to read. It was a print book and was set in a type so small I had problems, even with my reading glasses. As I don’t, at the moment, need new glasses, this annoyed me intensely, especially since the blurbs for other books (from the same publisher) at the end were in perfectly readable type. I see the book is now available as an e-book and wish I had waited, but because it was first published in 1997 I suspected it wouldn’t be brought out in Kindle format. Also, the sequel, which I presume is the last in the series, is not in Kindle so I won’t risk buying it. I don’t think I could plough through another volume in that excruciatingly small type.

Christmas Wishes by RJ Scott ****
A writer, deliberately isolating himself in a remote cabin, finds a young father and baby on his doorstep after a car accident in a snowstorm. The common tropes are delightfully expanded into a story that is in some ways fluff but is quite engrossing. I was disappointed by the end and would have liked to follow the new family a little further into their planned life together. Recommended as a nice Christmas story (and yes, I do know it’s now March and I read this in February).

The reasonable:

Christmas Scavenger Hunt by Aly Hayden ***
Another Christmas story that got missed in December. This one was quite sweet and nicely written but too short to interest me deeply. It also struck me as being to some extent an excuse for the final explicit sex scene. Not particularly recommended but read it if you trip over it…

And the dire(Avoid):

Bakeries and Bones by Nic Roberts*
This longish short story presented itself as a free sequel to the Westford Bay B&B series of ‘cosy mysteries’. As a mystery, it lacked much in the way of mystery or investigation. The characters were uniformly silly about everything from relationships to murder. The author warned the reader that the characters lived in London so Brit English would be used. Well, they probably altered the spellings to Brit English but the speech patterns were ignored and the vocabulary was suspiciously American. Guess who won’t be buying any of the series!

The Tinner’s Corpse by Bernard Knight
I abandoned this after a few chapters. I usually enjoy mediaeval mysteries and was looking forward to it but I hated the style. Every time a new character was introduced the author stopped the story to tell us what they were wearing and what their hair and eyes were like. The whole thing could be used for a creative writing class session on Show Don’t Tell. I see the author has a number of these mysteries (centred on a coroner in Exeter) published and well reviewed. I won’t be reading any more.

Fanfiction.

Most of what I read this month required an in-depth knowledge of the original books or shows the fanfic was based on, so I won’t even review it. However, there are some exceptions.

As usual, Small_Hobbit provided entertainment, this time in the form of a gift fic for me. Mouselet and the Rather Fat Dragon *****, which you can find at http://archiveofourown.org/works/13682490 , has the animals in this Sherlock Holmes alternate universe putting on a play or tableau.
Mouselet is one of my favourite characters in this ‘universe’. She has her own series in The Ocelot Collection at http://archiveofourown.org/series/57591 and also contributes to the Marylebone Monthly Illustrated which is at http://archiveofourown.org/series/256591 This tongue-in-cheek publication also includes excellent short articles and stories by okapi who writes as Inky Quill, a porcupine. All the entries are short so go and enjoy them bit by bit!

I finally finished the stories so far available in the Seasons series by asparagusmama (another fandom friend). The series can be found at http://archiveofourown.org/series/16074 and although it is entirely based on the characters in Lewis (TV) I think it will stand alone as a series you can read without any real knowledge of the show. All you need is to know that Lewis and Hathaway are Oxford police officers. The rest is clarified in the stories which are gripping, and at times rather grim but with a lot of hope in the ending. If you like cop-buddies-turned-lovers with some genuine case stories thrown in, then go and enjoy!

I thought I would also warn you that not all fanfiction is worth spending time on. In the course of a plagiarism investigation for the archive I volunteer for I came across a story on a rival site: Name to forget, face to remember by kamikaze fox. I read to the end (or what purported to be the end because it left the reader up in the air) because it was in many ways a train wreck (or kamikaze mission?!) and I was fascinated. The story has a soldier in the WWI trenches killed and transported to Zootopia (an animated series with animal characters who walk and talk). I thought it sounded interesting and the concept was, but the execution was dire. The author claimed people had helped them edit but I’m not sure who missed the sentence about how ‘he grabbed his shit and wrapped it around the wound’… I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. There were a lot of other typos but that was the one that stood out. The protagonist found himself reincarnated as a wolf and couldn’t get used to having paws instead of hands, resented having to steal clothes to be respectable, and found socialising with rabbits nerve-racking. There was no attempt to explore the psychology behind these conflicting thoughts. I was left assuming there was to be a sequel but will not be reading it. The plagiarised version, which we had, of course, to delete, was actually better written, though I didn’t get as far as the fight scene with the wound. It claimed to be a parody, but used far too much of the text of the original.