We’re just a couple of days off the start of World Autism Awareness Week and I would like you all to consider a small donation to the National Autistic Society – you can donate here at this link – I somewhat accidentally raised over £14k + Gift Aid with ‘I Stand Quietly’ over the past year; I would really love to build that total to £20K by the end of 2016. Go on, go on…
There are many autism charities, of varying calibre and ethos. I have chosen to raise money for the National Autistic Society as they are big enough to have influence and they listen to autistic people, ironically not all autism charities do. They aren’t perfect I’m sure but I believe their intentions are good.
What am I going to do to justify asking for your money?
Fuck all. I daren’t risk it.
I know I bang on about it but that ‘I Stand Quietly’ shizzle is by no small margin my most successful foray into “Charity Stuff”, and I think that’s probably my luck all run out.
For the last decade, my charitable deeds have been limited to the anonymous-safe-distance-direct-debit variety as previous attempts at ‘getting out there’ have ended in bitter scenes of very dark tragicomedy, so this year I am going to ask you to donate to keep me off the streets.
Confession time below – very dark comedy warning – if it makes you laugh, please donate, if it offends, apologies, but I’m not sure what you would have been expecting…
As a teenager, I volunteered at a residential “hospital” for “mentally handicapped” people (you could call it that then and so I use the term deliberately for that reason).
I did have a genuine desire to help but I admit there was also a strong motivation to hang out with my mates who also volunteered there, smoke the odd illicit fag and discuss boys.
So this is perhaps 25 years ago. At the time, I didn’t overly judge or analyse the methods or surroundings, perhaps that was rather unsophisticated of me but I was quite busy being a moody teen. With a more educated hindsight, a lot of the accommodation and treatment of the residents was pretty fecking basic, bordering grim, but maybe not unusual for the time. I don’t know.
Importantly for me, I never saw any malice or lack of effort from the volunteer team I worked with, there were a lot of very loving people, trying their best to make a difference.
Mostly the volunteers helped with outings. I wasn’t very good at it. I also generally tend to attract unfortunate events.
One of the low points was a trip to the park with a tiptoe-walking girl who had no speech, no eye contact and couldn’t bear to be touched (I was informed she was autistic, I’d not heard that word before that).
We were lagging behind the main group already, I was out of my depth, guiding her in approximately the right direction by semi-circling around her with my arms out whilst she made angry warning noises at me. It probably looked slightly like a goose courtship ritual gone wrong.
She suddenly went to walk into the road in front of a car and I grabbed her arm – an impulsive reflex and I’m still not sure how else I would have handled it – and caused her to have a meltdown. Awful. She screamed and screamed but I was too scared to let go of her arm in case she ran in the road again.
Before I could do anything about it, still in the throes of panic and adrenalin, an old lady rushed up and started hitting me with her handbag because she thought I was beating the poor girl up. (Fair enough, I looked pretty dodgy, I was in a bit of a Goth phase.)
So there I was, outside a parade of shops, down on my knees being bashed about by a pensioner, desperately hanging onto a screaming girl and absolutely crapping myself.
Everyone laughed it off bar me and the girl, I don’t think anyone considered that she might have complex feelings, let alone that non-verbal doesn’t mean non-cognitive and that she was probably desperate to communicate how she felt by another means.
I reflect on that often, with all that I know now, thankful for how far we’ve come…
2. Mr Race-For-The-Cake & Mr What-Am-I-Going-To-Bake
We also used to go on “special bus” trips to Asda and wander around the aisles then maybe have a cup of tea in the cafe if no one had got too agitated.
I was a brilliant wheelchair pusher and conversationalist and on those trips both I and my assigned resident generally had an ace time once their feet, fingers and elbows were protected from my crap cornering ability; but if given walking charges – especially on the typical 2 to 1 ratio – it generally went royally wrong.
I hadn’t the experience or talent to get one independent mind with limited reciprocal communication skills to agree to go in the same direction as me, let alone two.
The last time I went, my limitations partly acknowledged, I was buddied up with two lads who were reasonably articulate, good sense of humour, needing a bit of guidance rather than full on supervision.
We were negotiating well and mostly going in the same direction.
One preferred to proceed more slowly, interested in looking at what was on the shelves; the other basically saw the supermarket walk-round as a mandatory race to complete as quickly as possible so that you could get to the cafe and have that cup of tea and a cake.
In the end I decided it would probably be OK to let Mr Race-For-The-Cake go slightly ahead of Mr What-Am-I-Going-To-Bake and I flitted backwards and forwards between the two…
I was just asking Mr Race-For-The-Cake to wait as we’d reached the last aisle when there was the most horrendous shouting and hollering and I raced back to find Mr What-Am-I-Going-To-Bake in one of the freezers stuck face down squidged in the produce with his legs kicking in the air; he was fairly short and stocky and I can only assume that as he’d reached over into the freezer to look at something more closely, his centre of gravity must have shifted just enough that he pivoted in and then he couldn’t right himself.
Unsurprisingly there were no offers of help. In the end, I part-climbed and was part-pulled in there with him. There was no other way to free him, I’d already accidentally pulled his trousers down trying to yank him out.
I was “spoken to” by the chap in charge of the expedition who had been berated by the supermarket manager as all the produce had to be binned because I’d put my shoes on it.
Worse, I was getting the silent treatment from Mr Race-For-The-Cake as he didn’t get his beloved cafe stop as we’d all been sent straight back to the bus because Mr What-Am-I-Going-To-Bake was understandably distressed by the freezer experience and worse still, was also now hysterical at the sight of me.
3. Jingle Bollocks
Several years later, husband and I: double-income-no-kids, decided it would be a good idea to give up our typical indulgent Christmas and help at a homeless charity’s temporary ‘Christmas Centre’ in London.
Please be aware that this is just my unique, biased, experience, no reflection on the charity as a whole…
My first impressions when we arrived were overwhelming. Guests were welcomed in with respect, warmth and affection and shown towards well-equipped shower blocks; there were then tons of new clothes and shoes to choose from, hairdressers, doctors and so many other services, hot food and drinks and plenty of people to talk to… an amazing achievement.
Shift one, I worked mainly as a server at the tea and coffee “hatch” and revelled in letting out my inner Barbara Windsor (my husband is adamant that I was born to be a barmaid).
I met people of all natures, backgrounds, intellects and beliefs, normally superficially disguised by the same outer crust of “homeless”, now washed clean; all with a unique story of why they were there, several by choice, and I learned A LOT. Everyone I met was lovely, some broke my heart.
So it wasn’t until my second shift that I really met many of the other volunteers. To be candid, some of them
were freaks beat the homeless guests on ‘diversity’ by a country mile.
No one and nothing else to do that Christmas, some very aggressive, some with terrible histories to tell, needy and generally with no boundaries. I didn’t much enjoy working up a sweat mopping out the toilet block whilst a fellow volunteer stood and pointed out the bits I had missed in between telling me I was a sinner and on my way to hell.
Nor did I particularly enjoy listening to graphic tales of sexual abuse and prison violence and would you like a surreptitious swig of neat vodka out of my hip flask from the bloke who was technically my supervisor. He was a really nice guy dealing with a lot of baggage but ho fricking ho hum…
Shift three: a night-shift. Many hours pretty much just sat still on a chair in a dark warehouse watching the vague shapes of loads of homeless people sleeping in lines on the floor, listening to the breathing, coughing and sounds of nightmares, waiting to offer help or intervene if something kicked off, knowing that earlier that day someone had thrown someone else down a flight of concrete stairs.
Crapping myself, listening to my heartbeat in my ears, I had to make my excuses and get out into the yard to get some air.
I was greeted by a cheeky-faced lad who seemed nice enough, struck up a conversation, he was pretty funny. After a couple of minutes, he asked for a hug – it was Christmas! – I felt it would have been really rude to decline. He held onto me really tight for ages, it was a bit uncomfortable, his body started jerking and he seemed to be wracked with painful sobs.
I felt so bad for him as he apologised and ran off.
A couple of minutes later, my supervisor came up to me and warned me about a young lad who had been barred from the centre because of his behaviour, but who they suspected had somehow got back in.
Apparently he wasn’t homeless, he was “a local pervert”. He’d been repeatedly caught trying to masterbate through a hole inside the pocket of his tracksuit bottoms whilst cuddling female volunteers who’d been charmed by his seemingly innocent cheeky-faced banter.
Had I seen him?
Yes. I believed I had.
Supervisor kindly offered to go find husband leaving me, wailing and rapidly losing my composure, in the protection and care of my old mate “you are going to hell” who (despite the temperature being just above freezing and me wearing several fleeces and a padded jacket) berated me that it was my fault for being such a brazen temptress by flaunting my ample bosom.