Saskatchewan·Point of View

Working from home with an autistic child has been the greatest challenge and the greatest eyeopener

Mark Taylor has worked in busy newsrooms and offices and learned to block out blaring televisions, ringing phones and loud colleagues, but he never imagined his own home would be the most challenging work environment. Taylor has a 12-year-old autistic son, as well as another child.

The pandemic has given my family a deeper understanding of my son's needs and brought us all closer together

The writer's son, Jack, peers outside using binoculars. His parents have had to repeatedly deny his requests during the pandemic to go to the playground across the street. (Mark Taylor)

I've worked in busy newsrooms and offices and learned to block out blaring televisions, ringing phones and loud colleagues. I've covered many difficult and dangerous stories that left me physically and mentally drained. I never imagined my own home would be the most challenging work environment I've ever been placed in.  

For the first few weeks of this pandemic, every day I had to explain to my 12-year-old autistic son, Jack, why he couldn't go to the playground across the street. Making it even more difficult was the fact that other kids never stopped congregating there. It made Jack think he had done something wrong not to be allowed in the park. He just couldn't understand why something my wife and I have always encouraged him to do is all of a sudden forbidden.

He no longer asks to go to the playground; he just watches it through our front window with a pair of binoculars.

Jack learns through repetition. He'll ask the same questions over and over, sometimes 40 or 50 times a day. 

  • "Why do kids wear winter boots?" 
  • "What does it mean when someone says, 'He's 10?'" 
  • "Can I get a yellow hoodie?"
  • "Are there cars coming?"
  • "Can they see me?"

All of those questions demand answers, so we end up repeating the same replies over and over, too. 

  • "Kids wear winter boots to keep their feet warm in winter."  
  • "If someone says 'He's 10' it's because they think the boy is 10."  
  • "Yes, you can get a yellow hoodie." 
  • "Yes, there are cars out there."
  • "No, they can't see you."

Completely non-verbal until he was four, it was a dream come true when Jack finally started talking. It's heartbreaking telling a kid we thought might never speak to be quiet so we can take a call or write an email. 

In this new bizarre world we found ourselves begging Jack to play video games — an activity we loathe and have never encouraged him to do — in a desperate bid to get caught up on our work. 

Jack gets fixated on things, like short scenes in animated shows. He rewinds then replays them, often at full volume, over and over. The effect makes him laugh hysterically but is distracting to anyone else watching or trying to concentrate on anything else. Jack's worn out several remote controls doing this and has to be told, over and over, to "Turn it down and let it play." 

'It's heartbreaking telling a kid we thought might never speak to be quiet so we can take a call or write an email,' says Mark Taylor, who, like many parents, has faced challenges working from home with his son, Jack (right). Taylor also has a nine-year-old, Max, who has come to engage with and help his older brother more. (Mark Taylor)

Jack gets upset easily and often. The other morning he decided a T-shirt he's loved and worn for years is too baggy. He got so worked up that he threw a dumbbell across his room then began crying and punching himself in the head.

When his meltdowns are over, performing even a simple task, like doing dishes or laundry, can be difficult. Jumping straight into a Zoom meeting after such an episode is a whole new ballgame.   

It's been tough, but it's also given us a deeper understanding of Jack's needs and brought us all closer together.

Jack and his nine-year-old brother, Max, rarely played together before Covid-19. Max excels at pushing his big brother's buttons. Recently I was taken aback to find them just sitting on the couch having a conversation. No devices, no toys, no bickering; just them sitting and talking, completely engaged. I'd never seen them do that.

Before, when Jack had a meltdown, Max would ignore him. During a meltdown the other day, Max helped calm Jack down by hugging him and telling him everything will be OK.

Taylor says Jack has accomplished a few things he thought may never be possible, and certainly never imagined those happening during a global pandemic.  (Mark Taylor)

Over the years Jack has attended numerous daycares, four different schools and countless therapy sessions. He works harder than anyone I know. But he's just never been able to grasp math, even simple equations like "one plus one." Like many working parents now, we carve out time every weekday for some kitchen table homeschooling. Last week, for the first time ever, Jack successfully completed a series of simple equations. Like talking, we weren't sure that day would ever come. We certainly never thought it would come during a global pandemic. 

As long as I'm homeschooling my kids, phys ed will be no less important than the three Rs. Fewer cars and people on the streets have allowed Jack to be more independent. Lately he's been taking long solo walks around our neighbourhood and skateboarding down the middle of our recently re-paved street. 

During "recess" the other day, out of the blue and without saying a word, Jack picked up his brother's baseball glove and put it on. This was surprising because Jack has never shown any interest in baseball, my favourite sport. So I tossed him a ball. He caught it and fired back a strike. We went on like that for 10 minutes. I had no idea he threw left-handed. Despite the challenges, I will look fondly back on these days as the first time my first born and I ever had a catch.    

Yes, these are the toughest working conditions I've ever encountered. Yes, I know there are a lot of people who have it a lot tougher than I do. But when this is all over and we go back to whatever we were doing before, I know I'll be wishing I was still at home with the people who I need, and need me, the most.  


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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About the Author

Mark Taylor is an instructor, internship co-ordinator, Crow magazine design director, social media editor and department head at the University of Regina's School of Journalism.

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