Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Watermelon

I'm back in the school office.

It's early in the morning and from my seat in the waiting area I watch a procession of tiny, scrubbed children pattering past in buttoned-up cardigans and plimsolled toes, a nominee from each class proudly taking the morning register to the school secretary. The air is bright with the start of the day and warm with the scent of baking brownies from the home economics room.

Members of staff pass me and smile warmly. The headmistress sees me and comes over to say hello and twinkle at me. Adversaries no longer, we acknowledge each other in the delighted pleasure of success. She thinks Grace's statement will arrive in a matter of weeks now that we have been given the go-ahead for a statutory assessment. It is a relief to lay down arms.

Grace's teacher comes through the door. It is her day off, and she has come in to talk to me about my daughter's progress because I can't make it to next week's parent's evening. Young, beautiful, her hair and skin gleaming, she is all enthusiasm and smiling cheer. She ushers me into an empty room and produces some of Grace's school books to show me her work.

We discuss the social situation first: Grace's relationships with the girls in her class and her progress in navigating playtime. She is calmer and more controlled. There are flare ups with unkind children -- school will ever be thus -- but to her teacher's and my delight, Grace is holding her own, holding her temper, extracting herself from danger. She has become a good judge of character over the last year's assault course. Now that she can pause and step away from conflict she is able to use that skill to perceive others' motivation and react accordingly. My Asperger's girl is learning.

As her teacher talks to me, she leans towards me and I see her eyes shine. I clutch my handbag tightly and will away the prickle at the back of my own eyes. Grace's teacher tells me how pleased she is that we have secured Grace the support she needs. She tells me how lucky Grace's learning assistant will be to have such a funny and interesting child to work with. She tells me how lovely my daughter is and what a treat it can be to sit beside her and teach her. I swallow hard and I thank her for all her work and her patience. I tell her this has been a journey for all of us and that I as much as anyone else have come a long way in understanding Grace and what she needs.

At the end of our meeting her teacher produces Grace's creative writing folder. She opens the page at the last exercise, when the class was asked to write a poem about a piece of fruit. This is what Grace has written:

The watermelon is a green-bottomed boat filled with red velvet
and tiny black people sinking into it.
The ice-cold taste sends me through happiness
and the sweet scent works me up into joy.
The circling shape is like a football. The smoothness drops me into a dream.

The teacher and I smile at each other. I want to to hug her, but I don't.

Outside, as I walk back to the car, the birds are singing.

Grace Under Pressure: going the distance as an Asperger's Mum, will be published by Piatkus Books in October

Monday, 19 March 2012

Things I hate about swimming

I have been banned from running until my injured back is healed. Thus in order to maintain my fitness levels ahead of the marathon I have for the first time in months put on a swimming costume in order to exercise rather than bronze. In so doing I have realised that I really, really hate swimming. I hate it because:

1. It's not running.

2. There are slow people in the fast lane. (They are usually men, usually over 50; often with tufty ears. They are impervious to being lapped regularly. They are wondering why the club allows ladies to use the facilities.)

3. There are slow people in the medium lane. (They are usually women, usually having a chat with another slow person at the end of the lane. They are impervious to hard stares.)

4. You never know when the person 20 yards in front of you will stop to clear their nose.

5. I am 40 years old and I still can't do front crawl.

6. It's not running.

7. All the men in the jacuzzi are unable to hide the fact that they're checking out every woman who walks past.

8. All the men in the steam room are unable to hide the fact that they're checking out every woman who walks past.

9. It takes 45 minutes and 89 laps to complete a mile, instead of 9 minutes in a straight line on green grass in fresh air.

10. I always end up with goggle marks/Wurzel Gummidge hair/chlorine burps.

11. There is always someone swimming back stroke and presuming the rest of us will get out of their way.

12. No matter what you do, you will smell of chlorine two days and three showers afterwards.

14. It's not running.

15. It's not running.

16. It's not ...

Friday, 16 March 2012


Grace and I are waiting to hear our fate.

For her, the outcome of today's panel meeting at our local authority could mean the difference between two lives. A group of people who we don't know and have never met made a decision today on whether to grant an assessment of Grace's case. If they said yes then we have made vital progress towards a formal agreement to provide extra learning resources, her own learning assistant, and a place at the best secondary school in our area for her. Her world will open up again, her fear of new subjects and social situations diminish.

Or they might have said no, there's no case here.

It puts me in mind of the film Sliding Doors. In one scenario the train doors open and Grace is allowed to walk out into a happy ending. In the other, she is confined to an endless, dreary round of stops and starts and airless confinement, boiling with frustration and sadness at the limitations of her surroundings.

Yesterday I telephoned her case worker to ask how soon today we would have a decision and how soon I could contact him to find it out. Another member of the team picked up and told me that the man I sought was on holiday, and not back until next week. She told me I could look for him again on Monday. I have begun to see this man, another key player in this farce -- who again I have never met -- as the Scarlet Pimpernel, at each call or visit from me flinging himself out of a window or shimmying down a tree, to escape in a coach and four.

So I must wait. I wait for Grace and I wait for myself. Running would allow me to feel some kind of progress: with four weeks until the London Marathon this is peak training time and my fundraising pot for the National Autistic Society brims with generous donations. But I cannot run. The twang of early tendonitis has been supplanted by excruciating back pain that came on during last week's long run. I completed 17 of the 18 miles demanded by my schedule, the last two of which I ran bent and crablike, tears of frustration and fright on my face as every step with my right leg sent knives of agony through me. My trainer banned me from all further exercise until I had a formal diagnosis.

Two days ago I went to see osteopath Gavin Burt. I had not slept for almost a week, kept awake by the knives and the fear of finding out that I could no longer run. (There is one thing worse than running the London Marathon, I have discovered, and it is not running the London Marathon.) Gavin, an erect, compact man with a firm handshake, greeted me, assessed me, then lay me down and mapped me with his practitioner's fingers. He diagnosed sacroiliac joint dysfunction - the bit of my tail bone that connects to my pelvis was askew and jammed tight on the right hand side. The good news: he could fix it, in around four weeks. The bad news: I must not run until he had fixed it. I lay on the treatment table leaking more tears into my hair as I looked at the ceiling and took in the weight of his diagnosis. The next time I can attempt double-digit mileage will be on April 22.

I want to fret and fidget and panic. I want to talk, endlessly, about how frightened I am and what will we do if they won't assess Grace and how will I look after her and how can I find a good school for her and how will I do the marathon and what if I have to walk it and what if I have to crawl?

Instead I breathe steadily. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Running has taught me this. If you panic on tough terrain you are done for. Instead I put my shoulders back and I tense down to the core of me, feeling the strength I have built up these past weeks, and I keep waiting, gradually, minute by minute, until I find I can endure.

Grace Under Pressure: going the distance as an Asperger's mum, will be published by Piatkus in October 2012

Monday, 5 March 2012

Onwards and sideways

A few days ago I found myself lying mostly naked in a darkened room while a young man with long, dextrous fingers surveyed me with an eager-to-please expression.

From somewhere behind me Billie Holiday crooned gently. The air smelled of rosewater potions and hot wax. I should have been in seventh heaven. Instead I was utterly despondent.

The young man, a blackbelt in the art of sports massage, advanced upon me and whispered gently: "Can you show me the area which is hurting you?"

The previous week had seemed so promising.

Full of fresh excitement about my abilities I had bounded into the next phase of my training with new resolve. After the Brighton Half Marathon I had discovered with respect my body's capacity for learning from the training I was pushing myself through. I was no longer going to play it safe. I was not going to plod along at the back of the crowd. I was going to really run, damn it.

The next long run was an epiphany. Rather than hiding my James Bond GPS watch under my sleeve to ignore it and try to forget the distance I had to run -- I would cautiously peer at it after 16 songs, or the third hill, and hope to be pleasantly surprised by how little I had left to do -- I used it to monitor and improve my performance. (Cue chorus from the run-o-sphere: well, DUH!) Holding myself to a strict time target for each mile: checking my watch and not allowing myself a gentle jogging breather at the top of inclines or a more stately pace across uneven fields I sliced almost four minutes from my half marathon time and continued to keep pace for a further two miles.

Cue jubilation at hitting 15 miles in two and a half hours (yes, yes I know -- but if you're so fast why are you reading this and not out with your Olympic colleagues at some pasta party?) It was swiftly followed by extreme pain. It wasn't agony, not quite. The top of my left leg -- that peculiar little twang from a week ago -- had developed into something so sore that I couldn't walk or stretch without grimacing. So I walked, stretched, took a long bath and decided to ignore it.

The next day I went to the gym and did lots of lunges and squats. The day after that I ran 7 miles in a whisker over an hour. The evening after that the pain in my leg was so bad that I asked my trainer for advice, batting away flutters of panic as I did so. She asked me lots of precise questions. Then she said she thought I had tendonitis. The cure: stop all running, entirely, immediately, for 6 to 8 weeks. Unless you're in the last 7 weeks of training for a marathon.

I took two days of rest, iced my leg, stretched it, submitted to an embarrassing (if rather lovely) massage. I bought anti-inflammatory drugs, pain relief rub, magnesium muscle spray, "mobility" bath salts and a waist-high stack of power bars to give me extra strength. I tried not to think about it too much. I thought about it all the time.

The evening before my next long run -- the 17 miles circled on my training programme -- I ate chicken, brown rice and a mixture of peas, leeks, broad beans and spinach. That night, I counted every grain and pulse back out again, bent groaning in the bathroom through the wee small hours as the norovirus struck. My husband, similarly afflicted, and I shuffled in and out of that room for the next 24 hours like the figures on a Swiss clock (BARF! It's three o' clock!) then spent the following 24 hours immobile and groaning.

Today I have eaten lunch but am not sure how I feel about dinner. I have to go and stretch and rub the leg that is steadily throbbing as I write this. And tomorrow I have to go and do sprints for an hour or so, the first day of training in five days. I should be in the hardest and most intense period of my marathon training. Instead I am feeling like my fourteen year old self when school sports day came around with its weary inevitability: how am I going to get through this without revealing the depths of my uselessness?

But on my desk in the next room is an envelope, propped against the bulging, overspilling file of documents about my daughter. It holds a letter from the council that says they will meet to consider her case on March 16. A group of strangers will take five minutes on that day to consider our request for extra help. They need to see proof that we really, really need it and that we will really, really fight them for it.

To them my daughter is just another case.

It's all the reminder that I need of why I'm doing this. So tonight I'm packing my bag for the gym.

Grace Under Pressure: going the distance as an Asperger's mum, will be published by Piatkus in October 2012