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For the last few months there has been some quiet activity going on in the background of our lives here: a hall booked, a band engaged, and invitations sent out. Last weekend it finally happened: our family had a party.

We are not the kind of people who have a lot of parties. We’re quiet, and even before Julie got sick we would rather have had teeth pulled than arrange a big event. But when Julie got sick, we became very very unsociable indeed. We just didn’t have the time or the energy to talk to people, or even begin to explain what was happening to us, or how terrible we felt about it. We could scarcely get to work, or look after ourselves, let alone share a cup of coffee or send a Christmas card. It was only very imaginative and very determined friends that managed to keep in touch.

It’s been five long years and for the last couple of years we’ve gradually started to dig ourselves out of our shell. We lost some friends during the bad years, but adversity meant that we made some new ones that have become much dearer to us. We’ve recognised how vital friendships are, and that different friendships have brought us different things, the value of which is not always obvious at first. Sure some people shared our grief and pain, but we’ve also learnt to appreciate the people who didn’t really get it, but still stopped to talk to us, and offered help. We’ve got better at talking, and better (and bolder) at talking specifically about mental illness. We’ve also learnt to incorporate a near-permanent state of crisis into our life and carry on regardless.

This year, I decided I wanted to have a party to celebrate everything we have achieved, and to mark the fact that we have survived (so far) and that we do have such good friends. At one point, feeling very unwell and forced to have an operation, I almost called it off, but I’m so glad I didn’t.

It was a fantastic party: everybody was on good form, the food was great (not my cooking, but caterers!), the music was brilliant. People came from great distances, everyone stayed until midnight, people brought out guitars and jammed with the band, teenagers fell in love. The next day we just sat around and dissected it endlessly, reliving the funny moments and the nice moments, while other people sent us dozens of emails to say what a good time they’d had.

It was a brilliant night – a night to remember. Now when I look back on these years I won’t just be remembering the rubbish bits, I’ll be able to say, “Do you remember when we had that party?”. And we did it all by ourselves.

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This week I am not going to talk about myself but about my friends Sue and Paul and their daughter Eliza (obviously, not their real names). And for once I’m going to post this simultaneously on both my blogs because I know different people read them.

Eliza, a couple of years younger than my daughter Julie, has her father’s height and her mother’s dark good looks, likes films and train rides, and is also nonverbal and severely autistic. In parenting terms, this means that Sue and Paul have been dealt quite a difficult hand, but they have accepted this challenge and developed their own ways of managing her condition. And the remarkable thing is, that though their life is necessarily different because of Eliza’s autism, Sue and Paul don’t let this define them. They are a joy to visit, very attentive to guests, funny, observant and generous. Paul still manages to work outside the home, they live in a wonderful (if anarchic) old farmhouse, and they still make time for Eliza’s younger brother. And they have often been extremely kind to my daughter Julie, going out of their way to help her see that there is a good life to be had out there beyond her own immediate troubles.

Julie and Eliza were thrown together at school. Our local authority, lacking any specialist provision for autistic children, arranged for Eliza to attend mainstream school, where an entire team of adults was employed solely to supervise her. In practice Eliza, like Julie, was mostly unable to attend mainstream classes, and so was largely confined to The Centre, a tiny (and cramped) in-school unit, catering for all ages and disabilities. Some of Julie’s friends were registered blind, some were in wheelchairs, one had cancer, some had learning disabilities, and Eliza had autism.

Eliza might not speak very much, but the girls struck up a quirky sort of friendship. After so much adult supervision, Eliza clearly preferred the company of someone her own age, and revealed an unexpected sense of humour. It was a natural step for us to start visiting her at home, where I would enjoy a cup of tea with Sue while the girls bounced on the trampoline together, Eliza shrieking with pleasure.

The story of how Eliza came to leave school and end up out of education altogether is a story in itself, but all I will say here is that Eliza developed epilepsy, and didn’t tolerate the drugs given to control her seizures very well. It was too much for the school: she was sent home. Sue and Paul coped, and educated Eliza as best they could themselves – because after all what else could they do?

But the physical illnesses meant regular trips to hospitals, and trips to hospitals with autistic children often entail some friction. Sue phoned me out of the blue last week, desperate: Eliza had been taken ill, they were at the local hospital, but Eliza, distressed by the wait, the lights, the noises and her assessment, was trying to leave, and the staff wanted to have her sectioned. This is the English term for being detained under the Mental Health Act. She phoned me because she guessed (rightly) that I had some acquaintance with this process. A psychiatric assessment team had been called, and they would have the power to detain Eliza, probably in a mental hospital, and give her treatment against her will (one could guess this would involve sedation).

I have some acquaintance with the Mental Health Act, but not much that was relevant to Sue. For someone like Julie it is better to avoid sectioning if you can: once you have been detained involuntarily, you can then be legally discriminated against for the rest of your life. We have always avoided the curse of sectioning so far by simply consenting to treatment. When Julie was Eliza’s age (underage) we consented for her. You can do this with a clear conscience of course if you already think this treatment is in the best interests of your child.

It was only when I hastily looked up the Mental Health Act for Sue following her phone call that I even realised that it applied to people like Eliza. Eliza is not mentally ill (as far as I know), but she could be categorised as having a mental disorder. If you have a learning disability, you can be sectioned if your disability is “associated with abnormally aggressive or seriously irresponsible conduct”. I feel ashamed not to have realised this, despite following Sara Ryan’s blog, which last year described her son going through exactly this process. This puts Sue in a very different situation from the one that I faced with Julie. My daughter was distressed and heading for mental hospital anyway: I could consent. But Sue’s daughter is autistic, she does not belong in a mental hospital. It is not in her best interests to be separated from her family. And I did not dare tell Sue that once in mental hospital, Eliza’s sedation and restraint would be almost inevitable. After our experience of local mental hospitals, I cannot see what alternatives they would have, when faced with the arrival of a traumatised and highly distressed Eliza on a Friday night.

Now this story does have a happy ending. To our great relief, common sense did prevail for Eliza. Although the regular hospital staff clearly felt out of their depth in dealing with her, once the psychiatric assessment team finally arrived (many excruciating hours later), they quickly recognised Eliza’s condition and rejected their request to have her sectioned. Their job was then to persuade the regular staff to attempt to treat her again, making allowances for her autism, and her high stress levels. How they managed to persuade them to do this must be one of their professional mysteries.

It is a nonsense and an abuse for us to threaten autistic people like Eliza and their families with sectioning because she does not conform to our rules of behaviour. We are not Victorians, and detention of autistic people is barbaric. We know a good deal now about how autistic people experience the world, the difficulties they have in adapting to it, and why they might behave in ways that we find inconvenient as a result. Tearing Eliza from her close and supportive family, and moving her to a new place with unfamiliar people would have been the worst of all possible decisions.

Thank goodness the psychiatric team agreed. But they should not have been faced with the decision. The Mental Health Act should not be available for use in these circumstances.

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My daughter has a new friend, Heather, and Julie has just invited her to the house for the first time. Huge anxiety for Julie! It is a long time since she had a friend round.

Some people who only known my daughter slightly might be a little bit surprised at her choice of friend. Julie is a seventeen-year-old grade A student, who hopes to study at university eventually; Heather has a serious learning disability, and would like to find work in catering. On the face of it, they seem an unlikely friendship. Is Julie just being kind? Can these two possibly have anything in common?

Julie is not just being kind and this is a real friendship. It is around friendships with people her own age that Julie’s disability becomes most evident. Unable to attend mainstream school, she met Heather in the learning unit where they study. Julie may look like a normal seventeen year old, but she is officially a vulnerable young person. Both girls struggle with tasks that most of their peers mastered years before: catching a bus, buying a coffee, visiting a friend, to name three examples.

Friends are very thin on the ground; attempts to keep alive old friendships have met with mixed success. It is not that her old friends mean to be unkind, but they have moved on in that way that teenagers (should) do. Julie has been ill for over three years, has been in and out of hospital, and takes heavy medication. She is not at all interested in sex, the drugs having switched that bit off for now, she dislikes vampire movies because she cannot be quite certain that they are fictional, she falls asleep by nine. She struggles to keep up with rapid conversation, cannot drink alcohol or take recreational drugs, hates loud music, and is petrified by crowds. But above all – and this is what sometimes undermines her with other teenagers – until she gets to know you, she is serious, solemn as a judge, guarded. Once she knows you she is funny, creative and generous, but her young contemporaries often move too fast to discover this.

What Julie most craves in a friendship is in short supply at this stage of life: reliability and loyalty. She is naive; she has already been taken advantage of by shrewder students, manipulated and bullied. She needs the companionship of someone who is not too demanding, who likes routine as much as she does, someone who understands that a successful 20-minute bus journey is a triumph. Enter Heather.

The visit to the house went well. The two girls were both very anxious, but when they calmed down, decided they liked it so much they would extend the visit by another half hour. The return match, to Heather’s house, has been planned for the weekend.

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