Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas


I've been in a relationship with a wonderful woman for a year. I'm divorced and have a seven-year-old son who visits at weekends. My partner and I want to live together, and it would work financially too. The problem is that she has a severely autistic son of 15 who can be very unpredictable. He can never be left on his own. Now my son, who is quite frightened by my partner's son, has said that if I move in with her, he doesn't want to visit me. My partner says he has to live with difference, but I'm uncertain. What do you think? Yours sincerely, Martin

Virginia says... Your first duty is to your son, above all else. He is clearly frightened by your partner's son, and has been very brave in putting his position clearly to you. And whatever your partner says about "having to live with difference," it's difficult enough even for us adults to live with difference, sometimes.

I have been in a house in which there lived a severely autistic girl who wandered around shouting and waving a knife. Her parents assured me that she was harmless, but my heart raced every time she approached. How- ever good I am about "living with difference", my body had other ideas and I started shaking, went white-faced with anxiety, and found it extremely difficult not to recoil, terrified. And I'm an adult.

I have no doubt that if I'd lived in her home for a long time and worked out exactly what I could expect of the girl, and also understood how to handle her, or had got some kind of relationship with her, or if I'd nurtured her from birth, her behaviour wouldn't have been frightening. Almost certainly I would have become very fond of her. But I didn't have that history with her. And nor has your son.

If you want to move in with this woman during the week, forget financial considerations if you possibly can and keep your own place on, so you can see your son there in peace at weekends. Perhaps you could let your flat out to someone who would only need it five days a week.

You don't want your son to grow up having virtually no contact with his father or always associating visiting his father with fear and anxiety. If you wished, you could ask if he'd visit your partner and her son every month with you for a short period, perhaps, so that he could very gradually get used to the situation, but remember how vulnerable seven-year-olds are, and how daunting even a normal 15-year-old can seem to someone so small.

When he's older, your son will be able to cope with the "difference". He'll be physically stronger and he'll realise that being grown-up often involves hiding fear or overcoming it in order to put in place more kindly feelings.

But he's too young. You wouldn't let your son drive a car. You wouldn't let him down a bottle of whisky. Don't expect him, at this young age, to handle this situation, either. Or, even worse, to give him the impression that you prefer a comfortable love life to your role as his father.

Readers say...

Find another way


Please do not do this. Your son has clearly and quite bravely let you know how he feels. There was a similar age gap between me and my brother, who also has severe autism. I lived in constant fear of him and his unpredictable behaviour to the extent that I used to wish I could be taken into care to get away from him. f you pursue this course of action your son will not come and stay at weekends and I don't blame him. Find another way.

Jane By email


I was attacked

When I was about seven I was made to visit a lady who had an autistic girl a little older than me. I was attacked. She couldn't help it, but it was very traumatic.

A boy of 15 with autism can be very strong and difficult to control and quite terrifying for a young child of seven. While I agree that we should all learn to live with differences, I think it would be better for Martin's son to be spared the anxiety that he will surely experience on his weekends with his dad.

Monica By email


Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia, I cannot believe I am writing with such a hackneyed problem but although I used to get on with my mother-in-law when I was first married, now I've had my first baby, I find her constant presence intrusive and irritating. Sometimes I could lose my temper completely. She's always around "trying to help" and sometimes I feel she's competing with me to be the mother of our baby. It's her first grandchild so I try to be understanding and I do love her, but I want to tell her to back off without upsetting her. How can I do it? Yours sincerely, Jo

What would you advise Jo to do?

Email your dilemmas and comments to dilemmas @independent., or go to Anyone whose advice is quoted will receive a £25 voucher from the wine website Fine Wine Sellers (

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