On the whole JJ seemed to enjoy pre-school. He was going with another little
boy, whose mum I’d known since I was very young, and they used to play
alongside each other. Most of the children there were toilet-trained; JJ
wasn’t, but as the nursery didn’t stipulate that children had to be clean and
dry before starting, I didn’t think it would be an issue for them.
Toilet-training, and a child’s readiness for it, is one of those things that
nobody can ever really explain to you. Friends would just say ‘you’ll know
when he is ready’ and ‘look out for the signs’ etc. Well, I didn’t
instinctively know, and I certainly didn’t see any of these mysterious ‘signs’.
I just saw a boy who was quite happy weeing and pooing in a nappy, and then
sitting in it. I started to worry about it, and during the summer of 2014 when
he was just turning three, a I had a go with a potty. I was a spectacular
failure. He refused to engage, seemingly oblivious to the importance or even
the existence of the small plastic pot, so I assumed he must not be ready. I
decided to listen to my instinct and gave up.
One afternoon at the park when JJ was about three and a half, a grandmother
looking after her grandchild struck up a conversation with me. She must have
seen JJ’s nappy poking out of his waistband and asked his age. She asked if he
was at pre-school, to which I replied yes. ‘Wow’, she said ‘So they accept them
at his age when they’re not potty-trained do they?’. I could feel myself
blushing and becoming defensive. But the truth is I knew what she was implying,
that something here wasn’t right. Again, I strongly suspected that it was me. I
was missing something, not doing something – perhaps I wasn’t very good at this
motherhood thing as I kept suspecting.
There was a particular woman at nursery who thought that JJ should indeed be
clean and dry by the age of three and a half. I would drop him off in the
morning, in a fresh nappy, and she would glance over at me with a steely-stare
and in a monotone voice utter the words ‘Has he been?’. My stomach would
clench. She was talking about his morning poo. And by the look on her
unimpressed face, she didn’t enjoy changing his nappy. This went on for weeks,
until one day she sneered ‘You do KNOW that he’s starting school in September,
don’t you?’ I felt like she’s slapped me round the face. Of course I bloody
knew. I was already worried and embarrassed enough without hearing it from her.
JJ was a big boy and could have easily passed for a school-aged child, and I
knew he SHOULD be in pants by now. What was I doing wrong? I quickly left, my
face flushed and hot tears burning behind my eyes.
At the same time as failing to potty train him, I was failing to come to
terms with the fact that he was supposed to be starting school in the autumn.
Every time I thought about it, my stomach flipped and my head buzzed. He was
far too young, I knew that. He was verbal, but still didn’t have as many words
as he should. He still hit out at other children frequently, acted impulsively,
was afraid of noise and gatherings, had separation anxiety and sometimes seemed
in his own world, much more so than his peers. I investigated not sending him
in September, when he would be four years and ten days old. But in 2015, the
only mitigating circumstances by which you could apply for this was if your
child had SEN. And as far as I knew, he didn’t. He was somehow happily flying
under the radar.
In May 2015, we went on holiday to Centerparcs. It was there as I sat on the
grubby floor of a disabled toilet with JJ – wrestling him into a nappy and sobbing
that I was a huge failure – that I decided enough was enough. We returned home,
I took a few days off work, and decided to crack it. To be honest it nearly
broke me. I remember calling my best friend two days in and saying ‘I want to
give up! He doesn’t get it! He’s not ready!’. But she encouraged me not to give
in, so I ploughed on and finally, by the end of the week, he was clean and dry.
Three years and ten months old.
Was he ready? No. Did I force him to be ready? Yes, I think so and I’m not
proud of it. Would I do the same again if I could go back in time? Definitely
not. Physically, JJ was able to cope, but developmentally and emotionally he
was not ready to grasp the concept or to comply with the demand.
Often it feels like JJ would have had a better early childhood if we’d have known he was autistic. I feel really uncomfortable thinking about the time we refused the offer of speech therapy when he was at his two-year check. Because we thought we knew our son, and thought we knew better. Could this early intervention have opened the door to a professional picking up on autistic traits? We’ll never know.