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“They can’t all be, can they?” asks Duncan, somewhat desperately, “I mean, it’s not statistically possible.”

I can see Joe’s shoulders start to heave with silent laughter, “Maybe it’s something in the water.” he says, hastily leaving the room.

We are discussing the astonishing fact that virtually the whole population of girls in Duncan’s year group – a couple of hundred girls aged 16 – identify themselves, when asked, as bisexual. Duncan knows because, for reasons best known to himself, he seems to have personally asked every one.

I very much doubt that this is based on a whole load of sexual experience – of any kind. Or that it predicts much about their future sexual experiences. It probably speaks volumes about the ambiguity that young girls feel about sex. At this age, everyone talks about it, but it’s hard to work out how much is bravado. Rather than admit in public that they don’t feel ready, don’t know what they want, and even find the whole thing a bit scary and repellant, girls can adopt a badge of convenience. If they declare themselves bisexual then they sound sexually sophisticated, while having a ready made excuse for rejecting any offers. And of course it testifies to the popularity of Orange is the New Black.

I am more surprised to hear that none of the boys in the year group seem to define themselves as gay (or bisexual). This group don’t seem to have any hang ups about homosexuality – they all know openly gay adults, including parents and teachers, and they genuinely seem to find it difficult to understand how it could ever have been a problem. But accepting homosexuality as a normal part of life is one thing – it appears that it’s another thing, in the maelstrom of being male and sixteen, to declare yourself gay. Unless they really are statistically odd, the likelihood is that there are some kids in the group (of either gender) who will eventually be very comfortable defining themselves as gay. And a lot of gay people in adult life will attest that they knew they were gay by sixteen. Why the boys don’t define themselves as that right now is anybody’s guess: perhaps they don’t know, perhaps they aren’t sure, perhaps they regard it as private, or perhaps they don’t feel safe. Or perhaps, like the girls, they feel ambiguous about the whole thing.

Or perhaps it is something in the water.

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I have been quiet for a while, immersing myself in keeping the household running, and everyone on an even keel while they sit exams. We are about half way through now and so far no one has missed breakfast, and no one has run screaming out of an exam hall. So that’s a success in my book.

Most of my (at home) job is reactive at the moment: I sit around being available for the next person who needs help with revision, or to go on a walk, or just to be distracted for a bit. We have watched lots of films (Julie) and documentaries (Duncan) and a lot of very silly sitcoms (everyone). I have explained calculus in words of one syllable, learnt the German word for mobile phone and copied out quotes from Lord of the Flies.

Meanwhile I have been having a battery of medical tests. How can so many tests involve fasting? It is cruel and unnatural. But the results of these tests are that I am in rude good health. Any pain I experience now is either imaginary or cannot be explained by current medical science. How charming to be told that lots of women of my age report similar pain – no hurry to try and find out what the problem is then. But the main thing is, I’m not going to die from it.

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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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This week’s post is back on my old blog Julie’s Mum because it is much more directly relevant to that side of my life. To be honest, if Julie had never suffered from mental illness, I would never have believed that wards like the one she was admitted to even existed. Little specialist units like the one in which LB died are largely invisible, often unknown even to other services. And as we found, in these isolated pockets of the NHS, unhealthy practices can persist.

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The two words you dread to hear when you rely on mental health services: budget cuts.

It’s not as bad as all that: the specialist service that supports Julie at the moment will now give her two years of support, not three. I mull it over – trying to get used to the idea of a second transition so soon after the last one – before she even finishes school. I do feel dismayed: this team is so good, especially compared to what went before. This team specialise in treatment of psychosis: they understand it, they are not afraid of it, they are confident and encouraging. When Julie was treated by mainstream psychiatric services for young people, psychosis was not well understood: it was either ignored or suppressed with ever larger doses of antipsychotics. But this service teaches you to just get on with your life, take the psychosis in your stride, make the best of it, work out strategies to cope with the difficult bits, and take control of your own medication.

I am not quite sure when our two years are up (the transition into this service alone took nearly a year); I am afraid of what will come after; and I want to hide some of this fear from Julie. But then I start to wonder: how much of this is just good old fear of change? This service was never meant to be a permanent support: it was always meant to lead to independence. She is changing so rapidly, it is really possible that within a year she (and I) will have learnt all we needed to learn anyway. A year ago she was managing just an hour a day at school, could not be left on her own for twenty minutes, and I was terrified the school would give up on her again. Fast forward to this October, and she loves her sixth form, cycles there unaided, has fantastic support and is forming a new group of friends. Every day my daughter grows a little more before my very eyes.

I am bound to fear for Julie’s future. She suffers from a condition which is life-threatening, and also stigmatised; she takes several psychoactive drugs which have serious side-effects, some of which are also life-threatening; she has missed years of normal life. I know that she has to learn not just to navigate through adult life, but also to manage her illness, and I know there will be mistakes ahead. One day she will have to take control of her medication, and some day I am going to have to trust her to look after herself. The illness may eventually recede, but it may also have some nasty surprises in store for us. She may need extra support and care from us for years; she may make a partial recovery into a rather vulnerable adult; she may make a full recovery into independence. There is no way of knowing what she will have gone through by the time she reaches sixty.

But she is just at that stage of life – poised before the jump into adulthood – where there are always risks and fears, even for the strong, healthy and confident, who have never known more sorrow in life than their acne. No one does know what life is going to bring. Of course in an ideal world there would be a safety net of services to catch people like Julie if they fall – but if we cannot have that, then we will just have to make her as self-reliant as we can. Then trust to the kindness of the future.

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Is teenage unique to humans? Are there teenage cows? David Bainbridge, in “Teenagers, a Natural History” says that our teenage stage is what makes us human.

Duncan is going through the teenage explosion at the moment. He is discovering the entire world simultaneously – novels, science, girls, music, politics. His world is a bewildering kaleidoscope of new ideas, new sensations, new meanings. Fifteen years old, and his world holds an infinity of possibilities.

His teenage is different from mine. I absorbed everything I could lay my hands on, mopping it up: but he wants to master it, to conquer it. Is this a boy thing? I read books because I wanted to escape to different worlds, he reads books because they are long (The Count of Monte Christo, 1400 pages) or have shock value. But whatever his reasons he does read them, he is amazed by them, he falls under their spell, he talks about them. “What’s a really difficult author to read?” he asks me. “Try Kafka.” I say, offhandedly, and a few weeks later he is insisting on reading yet another bit of Kafka to me, “Mum, you’ve got to listen to this.”

(I can’t tell him how much I loathe Kafka; next time he asks I must swear to him that Jane Austen is widely known to be the most impenetrable of writers; that it is a unique and highly regarded achievement to read all six of her novels and the juvenilia.)

He doesn’t just learn information, he wants to test it, to see if he can break it. There is no subject on which he does not have an opinion, often several opinions, the more outlandish and shocking the better. Next week he will have a different opinion, but he is not likely to have just accepted any given piece of information as settled fact. He will espouse every political shade of the spectrum, sometimes simultaneously, as long as he can provoke an argument. He is furious about quantum mechanics: how can the heart of matter, the truth about the world around us, be so weird, so incomprehensible? Watching television with him is a nightmare: he challenges every statement. (“How do we know his mum is dead? I bet he’s just saying that. Now there’s no way the judges can vote him off, even though he can’t f***ing sing!”)

Some weekend nights I let him stay up a bit later to talk. He’s a night owl – he loves that spooling out of conversations into the late hours. When he’s a student he’ll want to talk through the night with friends. I try to keep any arguments gentle, not too rough – I’m too old and tired for that. Anyway, I want him to learn how to argue, how to spar, how to disarm his opponent, not to bludgeon them over the head. But I also want him to think round and check his opinion is on solid ground, and be able to abandon it. That’s a good point, I say, but have you thought what would happen if…

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I love this time of year – especially those September days when the heat of the summer is gone but the days are still long and bright. It is a good time to start something new, a time full of energy and promise. The school year starts again, the sins and omissions of last year are forgotten, and everyone plans to work hard this year and do well.

Summer strolled past slowly, but the last week has vanished in a flash. Julie started at sixth form: a big challenge after three years out of normal school. Her new support team, who seem good, are in touch with me every day. She needed extra support in the corridors, and some lessons. But she is making new friends and loves the work. I let the balance of my life swing back slightly towards home and away from the office: what you don’t want is to be absorbed by some project at work just as the crisis hits.

Duncan has another year to sixth form, and his last year in school uniform. A difficult year lies ahead, full of public exams and teachers driven beyond the limits of patience to draconian punishments. He is not going to become a good student – and I should be sorry if he did, for it is that streak of originality, that remorseless questioning of the status quo, that I secretly treasure. It is going to be a difficult year for him, for his teachers and for us at home too. But if he can only survive this, and not fall into the trap of despair again… Next September, when he moves to sixth form, and has more freedom, really holds the promise of something better.

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