New Year’s Eve 2015 and we’re at the Harry Potter Studios.
It’s pouring with rain outside. And I mean, really sheeting it down. Nature’s own precipitation is putting the studio’s special effects snow to shame. The porch of 4 Privet Drive has turned into a waterfall.
Instead crowds of families huddle over the shared realisation that they’ve just spent five quid on a butterbeer …and it tastes disgusting! But towards the back of the café comes a raised voice.
“Look at the state of you! You’re SOAKED.”
People look without looking as though they’re looking. A boy of 9 or 10 is being stripped of a dripping sweatshirt, his hair plastered to his head, his face ashen.
The raised voice – the boy’s dad – starts swearing. “I f*cking TOLD you NOT TO GO IN THE F*CKING RAIN. WHY DO YOU HAVE TO TAKE THE F*CKING P*SS?!!!”
The collective psyche of the crowd shifts uncomfortably in its plastic seat.
If there’s anything the English don’t like it’s swearing in front of children, never mind at children. But we don’t want to get involved. We just want to the voice to stop. And we hope to do that by looking whilst pretending we’re not looking.
“I don’t think he appreciates just how hard it’s actually raining,” my sister whispers. “That poor boy.”
The trip had been a present for my sister – 39, but a Potterphile since the first book – and for SP’s 8-year-old sister, Amy, who was just getting into the books. I’d debated long and hard about taking SP too, but at 4 he qualified for a free ticket, so we played it by his mood on the day.
It’s a lose-lose situation though when it comes to days out with a combination of neurotypical and ASD kids. You don’t want other children to miss out, but feel guilty if you leave the autistic child at home (even if that’s where they’re happiest). But take them too and you’re on tenterhooks all day, constantly a hair’s breath from a public meltdown.
And so it had almost been at Harry Potter. During the film clips at the start of the tour SP clamped his hands to his ears. As we left the Great Hall he wanted to go home…until he discovered the green screen flying motorbike.
We spent a long time watching that bike revolve. And then another long time watching kids cast spells. (Twice we queued up to cast spells too before deciding not to.) And then back to the motorbike and then he discovered touchscreen carrot-chopping in the Burrow.
After the backlot though, SP was done. “Go home now.” Not even the buttons to press in the special effects department could distract him. “Go home NOW!”
Amy and my sister were lagging behind, wanting to soak up everything. The animatronics failed to engage him. “GO HOME NOW! GO HOME NOW!”
We were getting looks. The same we’re-not-looking looks that the soaked boy’s family had got. A realisation: as far as other people were concerned, we were the same as them. We were the sort of family that you notice…and not in a good way.
I tried to keep moving, slowly enough for Amy and my sister to not feel cheated, quickly enough to keep SP convinced that we were indeed going home. A member of staff started talking to us about Neville Longbottom’s prosthetic teeth, because Matthew Harris had come out of puberty just that bit too good-looking for the role of geeky pupil. I held my breath throughout the conversation, as though my lung function would stop SP from going into a meltdown.
At the model of the castle SP made a break for it as I tried to take a picture. More looks.
We gave the shop a miss, SP and I, and instead installed ourselves at the base of the foyer’s Christmas tree.
And there they were, out of all the thousands of people at the studios at the moment, the family from the café pulled up next to me. The older daughter was sullen, despite a huge carrier bag of goodies. The boy, now drier, straddled a Nimbus 2000 as his mum minutely directed a photo. The dad still moaned that the shot wasn’t right.
You can’t help but notice some families, and not in a good way. And I’m going to have to be aware that, thanks to SP, we are going to be one of them wherever we go.
This weekend we’re going to Disneyland Paris. For five days! Never mind Big Thunder Mountain – we’re going to experience far greater emotional roller coasters, I fear. Is it normal to feel anxious before a holiday? And if not normally normal, then normal within the realms of autism?
I’m braced to do certain things time again, in the same order each day. I’m prepared for meltdowns and a pace set by SP. I’ve plans to overstock on familiar snacks, to have iPads and bubbles at hand and to be unable to capture those heartwarming shots that Pinterest do so well.
I suspect that with the best will in the world we’re going to be noticed at times. And not in a good way.
I just hope that when I notice other families I can do it without looking as though I’m not looking. I’ll let you know how we get on.