After moving to Australia over 30 years ago, I had never thought of returning to England. However, my father developed Alzheimer’s and needed my help. So in August 2014, I moved to the UK with my son, Jamie, who has high-functioning autism, formerly called Asperger’s. He was then 19 and it was a big decision for me to take him with me while I was away.
Jamie’s main problem is not his Asperger’s but his severe speech and language impairments. After my work with his communication (see my book, Talk to Me: Conversation Strategies for Parents of Children on the Autism Spectrum or Speech and Language Impairments), he passed his driving test, got his own car, had a part-time job at a nursery and went out for regular social nights at a local pub. Although I was concerned about how he’d get on over in England, I had faith that he would become the independent soul I’d worked with him to be.
I decided to return to England for a year to take care of my father. I knew I wanted Jamie to come with me – I would simply have missed him too much. But how could I tear him away from his friends, habits, job and hobbies? This was the problem before me.
Firstly, I made my arrangements very clear in my head. How long was I going back for? Where would we be living? What would Jamie do there? What would I do? I wrote down all my plans and then told Jamie. I informed him as if it were a fait accompli.
“Jamie, we’re going to England.”
“Oh… Right.” Then, as is Jamie’s way, came the questions over a period of hours and days.
“Where will we live? …. What will we do? …. Will I still drive? …. Will I work?”
We were lucky in two main instances – my sister and her children (now in their 20s) all lived in the same town and Ellie had just taken over a pub. This meant that Jamie had a ready made group of friends – or cousins – and my sister was prepared to offer him a job in the kitchen or as bar staff. So my replies were factual and reassuring: “We’ll live in Malvern near your cousins. And you’ll get a job in the kitchen at Ellie’s pub.”
Wherever possible, I answered honestly and clearly. I got Google maps and photos out and we looked at the place we would be living. I took out photos of the cousins and we Skyped them to get Jamie familiar with their voices and homes. I found that Jamie, while not embracing the idea of moving away, generally accepted it.
As far as the flight went, I tried to let Jamie take control. I questioned him as to what information we needed and guided him to the screens or gateways to find out the answers. In fact, we took two other flights during our stay in Britain – one to Paris and the other to India – and during both I tried to involve Jamie. But he finally said to me, “Mum I can’t do it. Can you, please?”
Then I realised organising a process or procedure was too far beyond him. At least at this stage. I will certainly take up the practice again when we next travel by plane.
What I found more difficult was settling Jamie into a routine he was happy with at home in England. The question was: how was I to get him used to a different country, home, social life, climate and working life?
The first thing to settle was his work. My sister had taken over a pub and needed a kitchen-hand. Jamie had never done anything like that before and I was quite anxious, but his cousin, David, was a very calm chef and before long, Jamie was accustomed to loading and unloading the dishwasher, labelling foodstuffs in the fridge and peeling the vegetables. What amazed me was how quickly he developed an instinct for what needed to be done.
That kind of initiative is rare in Jamie so it was pleasing to see it in him. In order to make him feel more ‘at home’, I did make sure he continued his former activities: we got an X-box for him; he enrolled in a gym; and he visited a couple of pubs which offered weekly bands. With his cousins’ help, Jamie settled down very quickly and expanded his skills in ways I had never believed possible.