Wednesday, 18 February 2009

My Autistic Son - Part 5 - a traumatic incident

To read this story from the beginning, click here

Winter, early 1992.

3 am.

The bomb blast had almost destroyed the entire front of the building. 20m of shop front had been reduced to a black hole framed by tangled aluminium window frames and surrounded by an almost luminous concrete and tile shell. 60m² of reinforced, bomb resistant, plate glass had been reduced to pebble-sized lethal fragments or dagger-sized shards. The white, decorative, exterior tiles were either missing or cracked, giving an overall impression of an insane mosaic.

My city centre shop, the flagship of my business, had been decimated.

Colm looked at me and asked, in his usual truncated manner, “Why bomb, dad?”

I had no answer.

I could not explain the logic behind destroying lives, livelihoods and property in the name of a political agenda. The IRA, the perpetrators of the bomb attack, would give reasons, but to me there was no logic behind their actions. How could I explain this to Colm?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In the years following Colm's diagnosis (that he had glycogen storage disease and was, in the terminology of the time, mentally handicapped), the hospital continued to carry out tests. However, the frequency of the tests diminished over time. Although none of the tests supported Colm's diagnosis, it was still “official”. It wouldn't be changed, I was told, until a more fitting diagnosis was found.

Colm, age 4

In retrospect, I can see that Colm's autism was becoming increasingly obvious as he grew up. He had most of the classic symptoms but somehow health professionals failed to notice them. He also exhibited symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome. When he was about 10 years old, Colm began to have epileptic fits. Quite common, we were told, in mentally handicapped children. (It is even more common for children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder.) This was easily controlled with medication. It was also around this time that a family doctor became a regular client of my business. We became quite friendly and I told him about Colm. The doctor had a son who had been diagnosed as autistic, and I learned that he had many of the symptoms Colm had. I began to wonder if Colm was autistic and looked up some books on autism at Belfast's reference library. Not written for the layman, I found them hard to understand and dropped my research. My own family doctor, when I mentioned the possibility of Colm having autism, told me that it was “most unlikely”.

In 1980's society in Northern Ireland, women still predominated as the main care-givers in the family unit. This was very noticeable in the way I was treated by the health professionals and social services. My wife cared for our son's daily needs at home, but left everything else to me. I was happy with this arrangement and was surprised that so many others found it unusual. When social workers called, they always asked for Mrs ____. At the hospital, which Colm attended for regular check-ups as well as various tests, the receptionist always called for Mrs ____ and was surprised when I would present myself. “Is your wife not well?” I would often be asked!

Colm had progressed from Mencap Nursery to a junior special school (now called “Special Needs” school) and from there to a Parkview Special School in Lisburn. Lisburn is 8 miles from Belfast and the Health department had arranged transport between the school and our house.

Health department? Yes, in Northern Ireland physically and mentally “handicapped” children were considered a health problem, not children in need of the education! This situation only changed in the early 1990's after the British government took over responsibility for Northern Ireland's internal affairs. However, making educational opportunities for children with disabilities equal throughout the United Kingdom was yet to be achieved. I discovered that when he became 16, Colm would have to leave school. His only options were to stay at home and vegetate or go to an adult day centre where he would be “suitably occupied”. In England, however, his education could continue until he was 23. Part of me wanted to move to England for Colm's sake; but a bigger part of me didn't want to give up my successful business, my hilltop house with spectacular views and reduce contact with other family members.

Colm, on the left, aged 11 enjoying life at school

But the direction of our lives began to change one cold, dark, winter's morning at about 2.30 am...

All was quiet in my comfortable hilltop house, about 10 miles out of the city in a scenic country area.

My family and I were fast asleep.

Ring-ring, ring-ring, ring-ring....” It was 1992 and most telephones still had bells. The ringing was incessant and eventually stirred me from a deep, peaceful sleep. The phone was beside my bedside clock. Who could be ringing me at this unearthly hour? I answered the phone with a slurred “Hello?”

Is that the owner of the Emerald Electronics shop in Belfast city centre?”

Who wants to know?”

It's the Police. There has been a large explosion in the city centre. Your shop has been severely damaged. The premises are insecure. We need your attendance as soon as possible.”

I was fully awake now, sitting bolt upright in the bed. In the shadows, I could make out Colm approaching. The phone had obviously wakened him up too.

Why phone, dad?”

It's the police, Colm. There has been a bomb. I have to go to the shop now.”

Bomb?” he asked in his high-pitched voice indicating incredulity. “I come too.”

There was no point arguing with him. He wouldn't go back to bed now, anyway. Instead, he would wake up the entire household. I dressed myself, helped Colm to dress, told my wife where we were going, and had left the house within 10 minutes.

We were in bomb-blasted Belfast city centre 15 minutes later. Utter devastation surrounded us. The entire street was a mess of broken glass mixed with roof tiles and pieces of masonry. It was lined by destroyed or damaged vehicles. As I surveyed my ravaged premises, I had an acute feeling of emptiness. It was as if the IRA had destroyed part of me as well as part of my business. I felt so bad that I lit up a cigarette – the first since I gave up smoking a couple of years earlier...

The darkness was illuminated only by the red and blue flashing lights of the security services or the amber flashing lights of workmen's trucks. The street lighting had also been destroyed and there was no electrical supply in the surrounding area. A policeman was guarding my premises (no longer a shop) to prevent looting. When I arrived and identified myself, he left. A random workman approached me and asked if I wanted the premises boarded up. I had forgotten to bring a torch, so I couldn't investigate the interior of the premises. There was nothing I could do until daylight. I gave him the ok and as if by magic, a team of men appeared with huge sheets of wood and began to attach them to the building. Apart from the noise created by workmen and occasional vehicles moving carefully around the d├ębris, the area was unnaturally silent. There were few onlookers. No-one had been injured in this huge blast – a warning had been given – so the news media had only been marginally interested and local people had become used to this kind of occurrence. In fact, most would already be asleep again.

Colm wasn't used to bombs. He had seen the results of them on the TV many, many times, but he never expected them to affect dad's business. The bomb which had wrecked dad's shop was a major event in his life. He talked about it frequently and often had nightmares about it. Colm, although he didn't understand it, felt less secure.

Two years later, there was another incident which was even worse for Colm. One which would change all our lives forever.

Now go to Part 6


♥ Kathy said...

You just amaze me with your strength.

Crystal Jigsaw said...

It beggars belief that human beings could cause such pain.

It also worries me, in the background at present, that my daughter who as you know is autistic may develop epilepsy. I am epileptic, as is my sister and other members in my family. We had her tested 3 times when she was much younger but all tests were negative. This is still at the back of my mind and I have been thinking recently about talking to a specialist about it.

CJ xx

rosiero said...

I sure remember those days of IRA activity - both in Northern Ireland and on the British mainland, particularly in London, where I worked in the civil service. Our offices were always at risk! As you say, it became so commonplace that in the end, people went on about their business without turning a hair. I can imagine how you felt though, what with seeing your business literally in tatters.

Robert said...

Kathy - Thanks for your comment. I'm really just an ordinary guy who lived through some extraordinary events.

CJ - Colm started to have "absences" when he was about 9 or 10. I took him to a specialist who did an EEG. There were no signs of epilepsy. Two years later he had the first grand mal. Again, tests showed no abnormalities. However, this time he was put on a very low dose of medication and the fits stopped.

He has only had one fit since then and that was when he was taken off meds experimentally. Back on the meds again, and his epilepsy is totally under control. He is one of the lucky 70%

Audry who works for me has uncontrolled epilepsy. Her medication reduces the frequency of her fits, but cannot stop them. She gets everything from brief absences (with a recovery period of several hours) to grand mals. She gets no warnings, so her activities are somewhat curtailed. However, her quality of life is good. Lots of epilepsy-free people fare much less well.

I can understand that you worry about your daughter becoming epileptic, but really - what's the point? The odds on her inheriting epilepsy are less than 2% according to most experts. From my experience, tests will not rule out epilepsy occurring at some time in the future. Even if it was predictable, what could be done about it? If she gets it, there is a very good chance that it can be controlled. Best to bury the worry at the back of your mind and live life to the full!

I hope I have helped even a tiny amount to allay your fears.

Best wishes.

rosiero - Because I wouldn't take sides in the conflict (being a pacifist), I was paradoxically more at risk of some sort of attack. I was living under constant stress, but because it was constant, failed to recognise it until I removed myself from the situation. The bomb I described didn't ruin all of my business interests, but it removed a big chunk of it!

Blogger with Ocd said...

I am just learning about your family, but this experience is very scary.

Turf Dad said...

Living in the U.S. has sheltered me from so much of what is going on in the world. I really can't imagine going through some of the things that others go through. My children and I watched the second plane hit on 9/11. Talk about getting a dose of reality, and that was on TV. Actually having a bombing down the street would be unthinkable.