Faith, hope and an autistic meltdown in church

As the parent of a ten-year-old autistic boy, author Fiona Carswell moves heaven and earth to stick to routines. Sometimes, though, things go wrong and a dreaded meltdown ensues...

It’s Sunday morning and my heart is pounding. Six minutes to park the car, make the sprint across to the church door, charge in, china-shop-cattle-style, rattle our way up the steps and secure our pew at the front of the balcony. Six minutes. Doable. Breathe.

There is little that is contemplative, peaceful or introspective about our weekly attendance at Mass: my elder son, who is autistic and needs routine in the same way that we need sleep and water is, to the untrained eye, a religious zealot.In fact, he’s not. He’s simply a rules guy, and in the same way that he recently reported a loved-up young couple to the lifeguard for kissing in the local pool (against the rules), he will happily (and loudly) let fellow church-goers know when they are late – greeted by name from the balcony on-high -- will tell toddlers and babies to shut up so he can hear the sermon, and was livid when the remiss priest once forgot to ring the bell to herald the start of Mass.‘God doesn’t check attendance’ goes the saying. Indeed. But my son does, and our local church – full of the sorts of people who make the world a genuinely better place to live – know it all too well. They also now know the scripted answers to the questions they’ll be asked, without exception, every week.One truly saintly lady is quizzed every Sunday – often during the most sacred parts of the Mass – about the exact location of the bagpipes in the Remembrance Day procession (that event was three months ago now, but we’re both reliving it, and already planning for the next one).Another long-suffering member of the congregation once made the unforgiveable mistake of failing to smile at my son: her mood is now monitored and commented upon weekly, as she’s reminded that she is indeed “happy this week” and “not a grumpy old lady.”A friendly, chatty chap once shared his diabetes diagnosis with my son. His state of health is now our business as much as it is his, and woe betide anybody who approaches him with chocolate.You see, having my son in your gang is very much like having a private army: on the one hand, it’s the ultimate protection, offered by somebody who is loyal to the last and who will have your back. Forever. On the other, once you have that protection, there is no chance of slipping the net. Ever. And of course, armies are volatile things.My lad’s ability to recognise people from astounding distances is quite phenomenal, and he uses this power to run his unsolicited personal protection service. We regularly make local acquaintances jump out of their skin as their name is called, loudly and repeatedly, from a moving car, and usually followed up with a question, hollered at speed. It’s just the price you pay for being in the gang. And I’m discovering that people will pay it, willingly.Now, usually, what our church community sees is a lad who is admittedly idiosyncratic, rigid, routine-led, anxious and clearly neurodivergent – but who is basically calm, regulated and relatively well-controlled. That’s how we like it: not just us though – that’s how all humans like it. We put our face on and we head out into the world, hoping it all stays together whilst ever we’re in front of people.One Sunday though, things did not stay together. Simple logistics. The high street was shut for hanging of lights; we had to drive the long way to church; we were late parking up; we arrived with one minute to spare; Mass had started two minutes early; the entrance hymn had just finished and the priest (two that day, in fact) were giving their welcome to the quiet congregation.The peace was exploded by my son – already stressed by the change of journey, and undoubtedly by the tension he could sense in me – as he managed to slip my hold (he’s ten, sturdy, and determined), charge down the aisle to the altar and shout some expletives at the clergy before I managed to wrestle him out.He was inconsolable: not only dealing with an autistic meltdown, which is intense, distressing and brutal in its force, but also, then, the trauma of what he had just done whilst mid-meltdown.Long story short, we made it back into Mass (going home is not an option in these situations: the planned activity must be completed, otherwise it’s simply another change of plan, making everything worse), took our seats, and made it through the service, albeit punctuated by sobbing, intermittent emotional outbursts, processing and painful reliving.That’s the worst bit of meltdowns for me, I think – watching your child try to process what’s just happened even as they’re still grappling with the intensity of the event.That day, despite everything, my son was asked to do the offertory procession with the gifts for communion, just as he usually is.It didn’t matter to the kind lady who organises such things (she of the bagpipe quiz) that he had, just half an hour previously, charged the altar: she could see how upset he was, and she seemed inherently to understand that he needed routine and normality. I could have kissed her.And it wasn’t just about helping to regulate my son, but about her unerring faith in him in that moment. Of course, my heart was in my mouth – after all, the last time he’d headed up the aisle had been at break-neck speed and turning the air blue – but her compassion and faith moved me no end, and was, I’m sure, felt, if not understood, by my son.After Mass, the routine is set: a bit of chocolate from the table in the adjoining hall; some standard questions for particular lucky parishioners; a quick peek in the vestry where the priest retires to after the service, before an attempted break-in at the baptismal font; some checking of the plentiful candles (the day that holly appeared around them in Advent did not go well); and an all-encompassing nosey around the church, before attempting to switch on the microphone and deliver an invariably left-of-field speech to the departing congregation.That Sunday – the Sunday – I disappeared into the vestry as my son deep-dived Remembrance Day details with his willing victim, and made our apologies to the priests for our rather unconventional entrance.I was reassured not to give it a second thought. I was told that the church feels lucky to have my son in their congregation and that they were just sorry he’d been so upset. I was told that he is an important part of their lives and that he matters to them.Some showed their care with a squeeze on the arm; others with a wink; some with tender words, and some with welcome jokes about our ‘amazing entrance’ to lighten the load. However they showed it, the sentiment was universal and we could not have asked for more.Oddly, I left church that day feeling more a part of their community than ever before. And that’s not to say that I wasn’t still shellshocked – mortified, even. After all, charging the altar and swearing at multiple clergymen had not been in the plan. But the mask had come flying off, they had seen us at our worst, and their reaction was to pull us closer.There may well be nothing overtly peaceful, contemplative or introspective about our weekly church visits, but they are no less for that, and if Christianity is about a spirit of kindness, acceptance and generosity, then there are surely few places it could be found in such abundance. As one wise friend put it, “the Gospel in action”.Fiona Carswell’s first book for children, The Boy Who Loves to Lick the Wind, is published on 7th March by Otter Barry Books (£12.99 hardback)