Gabriel's 18 and off to college. But he's no ordinary boy. Kate Rankin explains why she has mixed feelings now her autistic son is leaving home ...
My son is leaving home. He will be 18 next birthday and has been offered a place at college so is soon to become a student. Well, nothing unusual about that - except that no GCSEs, nor A-levels, were needed for him to be accepted at this college. No particular skills or talents were required to gain entry. Quite the reverse. This college is for people who have special educational needs, who experience severe and complex learning difficulties and "challenging" - the latest euphemism for bloody difficult - behaviour.

This college has a 24-hour curriculum and cares for its students 52 weeks a year with 1:1 support for each student. My son's qualifications are his autism, his challenging behaviour and profound mental disabilities. Gabriel is leaving us to begin a lifetime of full residential care and will only come back for visits.

Friends and relatives assure me that this is wonderful news, that I must be feeling relieved and looking forward to a life at last unfettered and unconstrained by a child who has demanded so much care and attention for so long. Of course, they're right - and years ago I would have agreed wholeheartedly. I could not then have imagined that when this time came I should be as sad and anxious to see him go as I am pleased. A strange alchemy has taken place since those days when I could hardly wait for this moment to arrive.

For us, as for most parents of a handicapped child, when we realised gradually (with autism the realisation is usually gradual) that there was something wrong with Gabriel, it was a blow for which we were quite unprepared.

It struck hard. I knew exactly what it meant to say "my heart sank to my boots" the day when what we had suspected and feared was finally spelt out to us - "severely mentally handicapped, probably autistic". It sank even further when, in reply to my tentative query as to what that implied, the paediatrician said gently, "My dear, you have a very difficult time ahead."

She wasn't exaggerating. The following years were often desperate. It is not for nothing that autistic children are sometimes referred to as enfants sauvages - wild children. That description certainly fitted Gabriel.

He was never still. He didn't speak and appeared to understand nothing, not even his name. He ate with his hands. He ignored the lavatory. He screamed. He took his clothes off when and where he pleased. He climbed out of windows and ran away. He sniffed at people like an animal and pulled their hair. And he would only sleep on the floor - when he slept at all. Equally difficult (and typically autistic), he seemed totally indifferent to us and his two brothers. He hated to be held or touched or even to meet our eyes and there seemed no way of reaching him. I could have looked after six normal children more easily.

At the same time, I was plunged into a veritable morass of emotions - some of them very difficult to admit to. First there was grief for the normal child I never had. Then there was guilt. The first book I read on autism blamed "refrigerator" mothers. Then there were feelings of apprehension for the future, self-pity, isolation, rejection and, not least, an impotent and inexpressible rage. Rage, as I saw it, at the way my life had been ruined. I would never be comfortable again.

Friends and acquaintances tried to be helpful. Full of good intentions they would mention some "amazing new therapy" they'd read about or seen on the television. Or tell of a dedicated mother who NEVER GAVE UP but devoted herself to her child "... and now he lives on his own and can drive a car. She always had faith in him."

These stories only added to my confusion. Should I try harder, spend more time with Gabriel? (We already felt stretched to the limits, and what about our other boys, would that be fair on them?) Still, such therapies are sometimes successful. Miracles do happen. Perhaps we should make an appointment with this professor, or try that new treatment. We'd have to go to America for it, raise thousands of pounds. Or should we try vitamins, prayer, healers or, or - or is this all clutching at straws?

Maybe it's at this point that a small chink of light finds its way in - the beginning of acceptance. For this is not a tale of triumph over adversity. There haven't been any breakthroughs. Gabriel still doesn't speak - he's still incontinent and sleeps on the floor. True, meal times are a little less hectic. He's not quite so hyperactive. But adolescence brings new behaviour - such as masturbating in the sitting room. He's stronger and more assertive too - and is now agile enough for such hair- raising escapades as climbing on to the roof of the house!

No, the fact is far more prosaic and unremarkable than any miracle - it is time that has brought about a change in attitude. It is time that has ground away anger and resentment and replaced them with acceptance. With acceptance comes a wider perspective and then having an autistic son is no big deal.

And so, gradually, Gabriel changed from being a monster to being just a member of the family. A very idiosyncratic one to be sure - who relies on others utterly, for he still cannot even wash his own hands and face - but one whose innocence and, yes, charm have enriched us all. However, while we have grown to love him he is too difficult to manage at home any longer and now that the moment has come for him to leave I am full of apprehension.

How will he manage without us? Will they understand what he wants and be kind to him? Will he miss his home and family? Will he understand we are not abandoning him to strangers and that he will see us again? Or, perhaps worse, might he even forget who we are? And what about myself? No longer will I be indispensable.

Still it's a new life for him, too, and though he doesn't realise it he is extremely fortunate to be going to such a place. Not so long ago the only future for Gabriel would have been in a long-stay hospital ward with his behaviour controlled by drugs; before that, even a straitjacket. So this is real progress and I'm sure that with the love and patience of his new carers he will continue to grow and develop - for that is what his college is about. It's about learning according to ability, learning to make a cup of tea, say, or to use the lavatory (sad though I'll be to see him go, I admit I won't be sorry to see less of his bottom). So, good luck Gabes, here's to college and to the future. Yours and mine.

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