One of the hardest things about being a good mum to Grace is knowing when she's being a stroppy pre-teen and when she's being an Aspergirl.
Grace was formally diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome only last year, after five years of waiting lists, inconclusive assessments, repeated questioning and a lot of shoulder shrugging. By then Grace's dad and I had years of rationalising that we suddenly needed to re-examine and recalibrate: from how we reacted to the little eccentricities to how we dealt with odder behaviour, to coping with the bigger things we really worried about. Even now we're only at the start of figuring out what's AS and what's not (and we don't always agree.)
For a long time we thought Grace's distance and 'otherness' might be a reaction to us divorcing. We put down to eccentricity her fear of dogs and balloons and hand-dryers (we've since learned that Aspies are extraordinarily sensitive to their surroundings -- what we heard as loud noise was really painful to her.) Her inability to read people, or to show curiosity about them or participate in conversations was of course classically autistic and seems so obvious now that I berate myself daily for not realising it sooner and tell myself to be more sensitive in future to her behaviour.
So -- when Grace greets me at the school gates with a glare and the words "I'll kill myself if you make me do piano practice" do I accept that she just has no filter for her sentiments and is anxious that she may not be able to play something new? Or do I tell her off for being rude to me and put it down to a ten year old's melodrama?
When she refuses to eat her dinner because I have forgotten about her dislike of houmous (bad middle-class mum!) and put it in the centre of her plate, where it has touched other foods, do I scold her for over-reacting and tell her to eat the rest? Or do I calm her down and get her a new plate?
Last week on our way home from school Grace was railing about the unfairness of being told off by her teacher for lashing out at a classmate (and familiar foe) who was taunting her (again.) In fury Grace had pulled this girl's hair - and received a whack from her by way of compensation. They were both reprimanded and warned not to do it again. Grace was baffled by this and felt a huge injustice had been done to her.
As she sat in the car shouting that her life wasn't fair I tried to reason with Grace that she shouldn't have touched the girl who was teasing her -- no matter how hurtful or annoying. Grace just shouted louder, fists clenched on her lap and the colour rising in her face: "This was the WORST day of my LIFE."
At that I saw red and shouted back: "For God's sake Grace, how could you possibly think it's ok to go around pulling people's hair? What planet are you on?"
For a moment she paused then her face crumpled -- and she looked like a confused 4 year old again -- then bent her head and sobbed. Loudly. Then more loudly. Then wailed and yelled louder still. In the confined space of the car the amplification of Grace's rage and hurt was overwhelming and unbearable, like an audio bomb had gone off.
Navigating rush-hour traffic I barely saw, I felt panicked and sad. Grace really is on a different planet from the rest of us -- it's how Aspies see themselves. A widely-used and popular online forum for the autistic and Aspergers community is www.wrongplanet.net. For a child, being on the wrong planet must be even more frightening and confusing. Had I made a terrible, insensitive blunder and compounded her feelings of separateness and worry? How then should I teach her to rein in the kind of behaviour that looked to others as self-centred and wilful? Was it one or the other or both?
At home I fretted and frowned while Grace played piano (flawlessly) and I cooked.
Over the dinner table we faced each other in tentative silence. Then Grace said: "Hey, Mummy --" and pulled the silliest face she could imagine. I laughed, and she laughed, and baby Betty cheered and threw food in excitement.
It was a mistake to try to separate bits of my daughter into comprehensible compartments. She is the sum of her parts. She is Grace and she needs patience and understanding and love. Lots of love.