The assessment

It’s Spring and the city light is squinty bright. We’re driving up winding streets with seascape views so stunning I almost forgive the traffic crush. My stomach is aching with nerves and my hands are shaky.

We find Building 2 after being buzzed in at the boom gate. It’s an industrial complex with a café and a bushblock next door. I can smell the heat on the gums, banskias, natives flowering. Double-storeyed monoliths loom. We take the lift to the second floor.

Inside we say goodbye and I sit in the corner on a black vinyl couch. The magazines are old and domestic. Cakes and clothing and gossip and body size.

I unwrap my half eaten sandwich and crouch over a paper napkin. The first resuming bite slops tomato on my light pink top. I pad at it with the napkin and manage to both squash and spread it further.

The receptionist at the front desk is chatting to another staff member. They’re comparing shoes. They have worn “the same” as each other, though to me they look quite different. There’s detailed talk (so much of it!) of footwear and driving to their work meeting later that day as neither “want to walk in high heels”. I look at my broad sandalled feet.

My name is called and I’m ushered down the corridor and into a windowless room. The walls and carpet are yellowish beige and there are two noisy canvasses hung. Four itchy blue chairs circle a coffee table. “Please take a seat”.

The day begins and on it goes in various forms till the mid afternoon. There’s talking and answering all sorts of questions and discussing such a range of topics that I’m genuinely surprised. My mother is phoned for an interview part way through and I retreat to the café to guzzle peach iced tea and answer more questionnaires. My head is now spinning.

When I return to the room there’s still more discussion. Then, finally, as we limp to the finish line, the assessor delivers her diagnosis, my diagnosis: you have autism spectrum disorder. You have had it since birth, you will always have it and it is not ambiguous. You are not borderline, it is not a maybe, it’s very clear. Here are my findings and here’s my reasoning and here are some recommendations.

Though I know she’s a clinical psychologist specialising in autism, I hear myself nevertheless asking how long she’s been doing these assessments, you know just in case she has no idea. She smiles and says “six years”.

She hands me some paperwork and leads me to the lift. Down I go to the afternoon sun and sit out by the gate waiting for my husband to collect me. He arrives with our daughter and a block of chocolate.

We drive back to the seaside suburb we’re staying in and he heads out to collect the boys from their robotics day. I’m alone in the apartment, an art deco place with terrible acoustics. I make a rattling cup of tea and wait.

Soon there’s a knock on the door and I open it to the four of them. First my oldest son who too has autism. He is beaming. His mouth seems gorgeously huge – his face is all smile and shining eyes. He doesn’t say hello but simply bursts with “so I hear you have autism – that’s awesome!” and wraps his arms around me so tight and for so long that I’m quite sure it’s the longest he’s ever hugged me. Then our second son, who is also autistic. “Hi mum, you’ve got autism. Cool.” And he slides past nodding to himself. Our daughter’s next, tugging at my arm “we bought you flowers mummy!” and then my husband stumbles in carrying bags and hats and water bottles…“Hey bella” and I fall into another embrace that seems to last forever.

 

A little letting go…

In what seems such a short while, we’ll be seeing our littlest one start her school days. I’ve had one of those unexpected delights hanging out with her for these almost five years. She’s hardly ever driven me crazy – despite expecting kids to. There’s an ease with her that I still can’t explain. I am cheesily utterly blessed and still stunned by this fact. It’s been an Instaworthy time…if I could’ve been bothered.

I watch her tentatively step into the world without me. Those preschool days filled with crafting and busy with routine. The cardboard constructions – toilet rolls and boxes becoming magnificent somethings. The paintings scrunched in her bag – each explained later in detail. The flowers, butterflies and “mums” in pinks and purples and yellow. The drawing crammed to the edges with hearts – “because I tried to paint infinity love hearts for you”… the tiny wrapped gifts and sudden hugs and her singsong voice.

All of this seems a mini preparation – a practice – for those bigger goodbyes. I can feel the next one lurking. Just over the New Year’s horizon. As Summer closes it will fold us in.

And I know she’s not really going anywhere. Not quite yet. But I’ve seen it before now, twice, and I know the changes school brings. As soon as it starts something exquisite ends. That private cocooning…the dreamy sleepy snuggling…days stretching out and on…witnessing those tiny flickers of light come into flame.

She’s been trying on her brother’s uniform. It almost fits.

I am slow to enrol her. I procrastinate over the paperwork. I find it all too perfunctory. I don’t want to let go of her soft little hand – warm in mine. I can feel a resistance, which I must wrestle quietly.

I know how quickly time dissolves once they start school. How much it drags when they’re still babies – “the days are long but the years are fast”… how I seemed to sit forever in the stewing mess of tiredness and nappies and showerless days. Cold cups of tea gone grey on the sink. 24 hour rotations. Isolation. Sleep deprivation that ate at my body and soul. Self-recrimination. Muddledom. Days that could turn on a dime.

Then the giggling. The delight. The toddling chubby legs and the lightness of their feet.

Now the weight of my older sons’ bodies. Their legs long and feet heavy. Their movement – a little toward and a little away. Me waiting in the wings just in case. I’m here if you need me but sometimes you don’t and that’s how it’s meant to be…adoring on the sidelines of their growing lives.

The juggernaut of school. Notes to lose and lunchboxes to fill. The homework to scratch out. The weariness and push of it all. The relentless term time rhythm.

But here she is. This little pint sized pup. Her big brown eyes so liquid deep.

Here she stands shining in the kitchen. Her little apple cheeks. Her hands so small yet already so capable. She has dressed herself and found her purple shoes. She’s washed some berries for a snack. Her ankles peek out from her pink tracksuit pants. Her legs too long for them now. I try to ignore this.

She’s saying something that’s missed in the morning mayhem. I’m grumbling about lost school hats again and threatening ludicrous consequences. And she stands in the kitchen light trying to speak. I catch her voice – what do you want? Expecting another request.

“I just want to tell you that you’re the most beautiful mum in the whole wide universe. I love you so much – all the way to the planet that’s so far away that it has aliens on it. You’re the bestest mum ever and your hair looks dazzling.”

My throat catches and my hand automatically reaches for my greasy ponytail. I feel ashamed of my gruffness and teary with tenderness. She’s not mocking me. She’s not being silly or trying it on. She’s watching me earnestly nodding her blondey-brown bob.

I wipe my breakfasty hands on my dressing gown and reach down to hug her. “Thankyou sweet pea I love you too.” But she’s already wrapped her little arms around my legs and is nuzzling me.

This morning honour. This sunlit treasure. I am filled to brimmingness.

Thank you and thank you again.

I drink it up knowing that soon enough we have to let go…that these mini goodbyes are flushed with the joy of growth – of change – of what should and will be. Yet they also carry a hint of our biggest goodbyes. The final letting goes that will one day come. The leavings that wait…just out of sight…

Bereft. I won’t be lost or bored or empty without you here. For life is full and fascinating. But there’s grief in amongst this milestone nearing. Having walked this before I know not to underestimate it.

And here is today’s one perfectly formed offering – held out to scrambling me…the warmth of a child’s arms wrapped around my knees as I stand teary in the kitchen chaos…

Knowing she will leave soon enough, but right now, here she is…here we stand a little longer…