Autism: 'I have waited four years to get a kiss from my son. Now he's kissing everyone'
Raising Cahir, who has autism, is a rewarding challenge, writes Anita Guidera
Cahir Coyle posd for his school photograph this week, like thousands of other children who have just begun their primary school journey.
For his mum, Kathleen, this annual ritual of the junior Infants' class picture, which will be published in the local newspapers, is an important milestone for her five-year-old son, who has autism.
"Getting the class photo is absolutely fantastic.
"Parents of children with autism feel at times that we are living in a different world, but we have to fit into both worlds.
"We are trying to bring our children with autism into our world, our society, and at the same time there is so much stuff we have to do for them, that other people don't understand.
"The class photo is just a way of getting the two worlds to combine," she explained.
Cahir, who was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old, doesn't speak, doesn't play with other children and most of the time, doesn't even notice they are there.
Earlier this year when he learned to kiss and drink from a cup for the first time, the feeling for the family was like winning the lotto but then began the tough process of teaching him appropriate times for his new skills.
"We have to teach him, no, we don't kiss the taxi driver and no, we don't kiss the postman. I waited four years to get a kiss from my son and now he's kissing everyone.
"The same goes with drinking from a cup. "If Cahir is thirsty and he sees that cup, then he'll take that cup no matter what's in it or who owns it," Kathleen explained.
Getting him ready for the Little Angels' Special School in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, was a team process that began months ago.
"We have been working since February to prepare him.
"Before this, he attended the Woodlands Autism Unit preschool for two years.
"Staff showed him pictures of his new school. He was taken to see it. We dressed him in his new uniform. I talked to him about his new school but there was absolutely no way of knowing how he was going to react."
The mother of four had gone through the first day at school with her three older children, Clara (15), Aidan (13) and Bryan (11) so she was familiar with the mixed feelings of sadness, pride and anxiety that were welling up inside her when the first day arrived.
But she had no idea what to expect from her youngest son that day.
"Cahir is my sunshine. It's my special name for him because every morning when he wakes, he's always smiling and you can't help but smile back, but he wasn't so bright that morning. My wee sunshine got out of bed a very grumpy bear indeed.
"He sat at the kitchen table crying and my head started spinning. Maybe he's sick. Maybe he knows he's going to school and doesn't want to go.
"I haven't a clue. It's times like these that I find really hard. I haven't a clue what my child wants. I don't even know if he's sick."
Kathleen did the only thing she knew that worked when her son was upset. She ignored him.
"I have learned from experience not to go near him. This is from many a day sitting on the kitchen floor hugging him with tears running down both our cheeks.
"That's what a mammy is meant to do. They are meant to hug the tears away but with Cahir, these hugs only distress him.
I can't comfort my child like this so I have to find other ways to comfort him."
Cahir ate his breakfast and was dressed in his new school uniform but his distress showed no sign of easing.
"When Cahir is annoyed, he will twirl a spoon or chewy tube and walk up and down the floor, the whole time humming. If he had nothing in his hands, then he'll flick his fingers. He does this to block the world out.
"When I put on his uniform ,he cries. I try to calm him. I tell him 'It's OK. You're going to big boy school.' Last year Cahir's school jumper was red, this year it's navy. I believe he was hearing the word school but he wasn't seeing the red jumper and this confused him. This is part of autism."
While waiting for the school bus to arrive, Cahir watched some Mickey Mouse cartoons and his smiles returned. The bus, an important part of the school routine, came and the driver and bus escort greeted the little boy.
"I wave goodbye. Cahir doesn't wave back. He never does. He doesn't even look."
A half hour later, Kathleen headed over to the school and met the smiling teachers and special needs assistants.
She stayed a little while and then said goodbye to her son.
"Cahir didn't cling to my leg. He didn't cry. He didn't run after me. He didn't even look as I walked out the door. Cahir didn't look near the other children. I knew he wouldn't. He ran straight to the bin and started flicking it. He made his way around the classroom flicking tables, chairs, anything that lay in his path. He was checking out his new classroom," she said.
A week later and she is over the moon with how he has settled in.
"He is up in the morning smiling again. As soon as the uniform goes on he knows he is going to school and he stands at the window smiling and waiting for the bus to arrive.
"It is absolutely brilliant. The school is such a warm and loving environment and I know he is happy there. He is doing all sorts of hand-on-hand activities like painting and baking."
Kathleen pointed out that going to school for children with special needs would not be possible without the assistance of a team of people.
"Every member of that team is one of Cahir's special angels," she said.
Cahir is in a infant class of six with a teacher and a Special Needs' Assistant (SNA).
He is now one of 54 pupils at Little Angels' Special School, who range in age from five to 18.
Ten teachers and 26 SNAs make up the school staff and while the number of SNAs is not under threat, funding is an ongoing challenge.
Principal Angela Keane's husband and son, Pat and David, are currently climbing Africa's highest mountain, Killimanjaro, to raise much needed funds which will be used to purchase IT and other specialised equipment.
Knowing that Cahir will be at Little Angels until he is 18 years of age has brought Kathleen peace of mind but she prefers not to dwell too much on the future.
"He is five now and he is still not talking. I don't know will he talk.
"I know he will need life-long care but I just try to live day by day.
"Cahir was born Cahir. He has always been this child and we love him for who he is. Acceptance has been the hardest thing.
"Now we just get on with the day to day living," she said.