Sawyer was a lovely baby. He didn’t think much of sleeping at night time, but I hear they rarely do. He would happily lie in his pram for an hour when we went out for walks, and in the evenings he would kick around on the floor with his nappy off, gurgling and cooing. He started sleeping through the night at about 7 months old and once he mastered it, he would sleep from 6pm until 7am every night. Sometimes he would sleep for 14 hours in one go. Those heart-stopping moments when you wake up of your own accord and instantly panic – what’s happened to them?!! Then the next day, he was off again. I would describe him as a wind-up toy back then – as soon as I lifted him out of his cot and on the floor the next day, the very second his feet touched the ground, he was off like a shot. Another day.
I would say that for the first year of his life, Sawyer met all the ‘targets’ that you would expect. He had a fairly low birth weight for an overdue baby (6lb 5oz) but he gained weight steadily and it was never a cause for concern. He got his first tooth at 5 months, and he was saying Mama and Dada by the time you would expect him to. Aged one year and one week, he took his first solo steps, and at that point life for us changed forever. Drastically, without warning. Forever. But before I get to that, let me rewind a couple of months.
Sawyer – aged 10 months
With hindsight, the first ‘signs’ of Autism showed when Sawyer was about 10 months old. I remember it well because it coincided with a UK break we had taken with our friends and their 5 month old son. We had booked a lovely town house in Gorleston, close to the beach and with a little shopping centre and local pubs nearby. I remember that it was the first experience I had where I realised something was a bit unusual about Sawyer.
We all hear that life changes once a child starts to move around, and that you have to move everything out of their reach. Of course we expected that we would need to adapt our surroundings and make allowances for him, but what came next for us was far more than I’d anticipated. Sawyer simply wouldn’t, or couldn’t, stay where you put him. Inside the house, he was beyond destructive. Anything he could find that wasn’t nailed down, he would pull on to himself. I lost count of the amount of times he fell and hurt himself. He pulled curtains down, coffee tables were pulled over on top of him, he would climb up on to the window ledges and grab at ornaments, etc. But this was only one part of this break that made me think something wasn’t quite right. Pub lunches were impossible because Sawyer wouldn’t sit in a high chair any longer. Now he knew how to move, it was all he wanted to do. We would barricade a section of the pub with tables and chairs but nothing worked, he just wouldn’t focus. He wasn’t interested in the food unless it was something he could hold and eat whilst running around. Perhaps a trip to the beach instead?
On the beach, under glorious sunshine, families sat and played with their children on the sand. We reached a clear spot and laid the blanket out with snacks and drinks. Our friends’ little boy, at 5 months, sat happily on the blanket and kicked his feet around, all smiles. His parents lovingly checked his sun cream, adjusted his hat, and generally revelled in this special first experience with their son. On the other side of the blanket, was Sawyer. Sawyer showed no interest in playing with the sand in the way that other children seem pre-programmed to do. He didn’t want to touch it and explore it, or build sandcastles on it or anything of the sort. He simply wanted to go somewhere else. Anywhere else. He crawled off, we moved him back, he screamed, he ate sand, he just wasn’t…. he wasn’t content. Was he missing something? Children are supposed to love this stuff. Maybe he needs a nap?
Back at the house I stood alone in the downstairs hallway, pushing his buggy back and forth, tilted back so he was fully reclined, with a towel draped over to make it dark. The child just could not switch off. He was overtired beyond belief, hot and bothered and upset, but it was as though his mind could not switch off. He was beside himself, and so was I.
Looking back on that holiday now, I think that I was seeing the first signs that Sawyer had some difficulties. Of course we will never know for sure, but I look back and wonder if being taken out of his usual routine could have, even at that young age, disrupted something in his mind and set him on some sort of anxiety trip that none of us could explain. All three of us were emotional and tired by the time we got home from that trip.
Sawyer – aged 1 year and 1 week
Like any parents, we were elated when Sawyer took his first steps. There really is no feeling like it. He was only a tiny thing so he looked a bit like a giant baby running around – because that’s what he did from the moment he learned to walk. He ran. He ran away. He ran in to things. He fell. He ran at people. He ran inside gardens. He ran behind shop counters. He ran out of the house. He ran. I can think of many examples from this point on, where I knew something about Sawyer’s behaviour wasn’t normal, but I will tell you about one in particular that still haunts me to this day.
Another friend of mine has a son 4 months younger than Sawyer and we saw each other whilst on maternity leave, and then later, on my days off from work. We decided to go to a local coffee shop, where there was a children’s play corner with toys and books to keep the children amused. The idea of course is that busy Mummies can drink a cup of tea while it’s still hot, and children can play together. Sawyer had screamed the entire walk there because he had developed an absolute hatred of his buggy. Half way there I decided to let him walk a little way in the hope he would stop screaming (it did), but instead of walking alongside me, holding my hand as I’d seen so many other mothers with toddlers do, Sawyer simply ran away. Towards the road mostly. And so he had to go back in to the buggy, screaming the rest of the way there.
When we got to the café, my friend and I bought snacks and drinks, and sat down near to the children’s corner. My friend’s son went over to the toys and started playing with another boy of around the same age. Sawyer ran in the opposite direction, through in to the adjoining function hall, where he proceeded to run around in circles, refusing to leave. My sausage roll went cold, and he ate nothing. We left, and he screamed the entire way back again. On my way home in the car that day, I called my husband in tears and I distinctly remember at that point sobbing in to the phone ‘it’s just not fucking normal’, with Sawyer, confined to his car seat, screaming in the background. My brain hurt. I was tired. I got home and counted down the next couple of hours until I could put him to bed. At that age, I did that a lot. I couldn’t face the battle of the highchair that night, so he ate his toast (the only thing he would eat without a fight, but that’s another blog post) whilst running around the house maniacally.
And there we have it. The first signs (I think) that Sawyer had some issues beyond the level of comprehension I had at that time. When he was screaming at being in the buggy or highchair, it never felt to me like he was having a tantrum. It seemed like he was scared of something. It was as if he could not comprehend why I would make him do that when all he wanted to do was be free. When I explained the problems out loud to people I recognised even myself that it sounded like I was describing most other year-old boys. I’d heard many people joke about their active toddler boys, yet somehow I knew there was something more to it than that.
I just didn’t know what yet.