I Taught my Autistic Child to Speak, writes Fiona van Dokkum


AS far as life achievements go, teaching your autistic son to speak has to rank among some of the greatest – especially when you are not a trained educator.

Here we talk to Fiona van Dokkum, auhtor of From the Inside, who dedicated her life to enhancing her son’s. Her journey, which led her to devise her own teaching exercises, saw her nurture her son from autistic child to “strong and gentle” young man.

In her book, Fiona shares her experiences for the benefit of others, and what you find is a truly inspirational story.

So, Fiona, you recently released, with Emu Ink, From the Inside - Raising teaching, loving an autistic child – what has been the public reaction to it so far?

So far it’s been good. Feedback has been very positive. 

The book is about you using your own techniques and exercises to teach your son to speak, tell us about Ian? What kind of a person is he?

Ian is strong but gentle. Laid-back. A pretty calm, phlegmatic kind of guy. He likes to do his own thing – what autistic child doesn’t? – but he enjoys sharing his time and participating, too.  That’s not to say he can’t be as stubborn as a mule if he feels like it!

When did you first realise he was autistic?

I knew something was up before he was one, but the diagnosis only came later, when he was two and a half.

How did you cope with that?

I cried. I panicked. But then I lifted my head and squared my shoulders. I’m the kind of person who would rather avoid a battle, but if I have no choice, I’ll meet it head-on. I read everything I could find, and got myself informed. It was worse not knowing what was going on; once we knew, we could educate ourselves and make proper, informed, decisions about Ian’s future.

What did you find were other people's reactions to him?

Mostly, people were just curious. He was such a cute child. People stared because he did odd things, made strange noises sometimes. If someone asked me about him directly, and I told them about the diagnosis, they always seemed to know of someone who knew someone whose child had had autism but had been ‘cured’ or ‘grown out of it’.  You occasionally have to deal with that. 

Was there ever a time when you had to defend Ian publicly?

No.  Ian always behaved well in public. My children had to behave to my own standards first and foremost, and my standards were high.

How has Ian's autism affected his brother Rory?

Rory thought his brother was annoying! Well, he found the autism annoying. It was a barrier, something which came between the two of them. We tried to encourage them to share things, but it was hard. We also didn’t want Rory to feel any of the pressure of responsibility while he was growing up. As the older brother, he was aware at an early age that one day we wouldn’t be there to look after Ian, and decisions about Ian’s future would rest with him. We tried to shield Rory from this for as long as we could.                                                                                                

What is their relationship like now?

Today Rory is great with Ian, and generously steps in to help when he can. This means that every now and then, Neil and I can go out together and enjoy dinner or go to the cinema, and know that the boys are okay together. We even went away last year, for the first time since our honeymoon 22 years ago! It was only five days, but Rory was fantastic and looked after Ian really well.

How would you describe your relationship with Ian?

Today? We are still close. We still hug every day and share jokes. He has grown up a lot in the last year, and I guess I try to give him more space. He may be autistic, but he’s still a nineteen-year-old man who doesn’t want to be ‘mummy-ed.’ It’s a juggling act between the inner and outer person.

So, with the initial help of a dedicated team, you taught Ian to speak. Do you think Ian can appreciate the enormity of that?

No, not at all! But I think he loves being able to speak because it makes his life easier. He may be aware of that. Ian sees everything that goes on around him – it pays to remember that, always – but he doesn’t share what he learns from it. I don’t think he sees being able to communicate as ‘big,’ he just enjoys being able to do it. If you can ask for stuff, you get stuff.  He likes that.

How did you come up with the exercises that encouraged him to speak?

This isn’t easy to answer! It’s a bit like asking a writer how he came up with the idea for a story…  I needed Ian to use the language I was teaching him, and I would lie awake at night, thinking about things I could do, within the limitations of our ‘school,’ that would encourage or persuade him to speak. He had a lot of words in his head; I had to show him how to put them together so they made sense. Some of it was straight repetition, learned sentences that gave Ian something to say in response to normal conversation or everyday questions, but the more creative stuff was a bit obscure. I just never wanted him to be content with one-word answers when he had full sentences in his head.

What attributes/education of your own, do you believe enabled you to do this successfully?

I was already a creative person and was lucky enough to go to a Rudolph Steiner/Waldorf school, which focused my creativity and guided me towards sharing it. At such a school, if someone is particularly good at something, they are not lauded for it, singled out or held above others, they are asked to help someone else in the class who may be struggling. We were all encouraged to be teachers, I suppose you could say.

What sort of support systems did you have?

My husband, of course. He is my rock. And friends and family. I don’t find it easy to ask for help. When you’re self-sufficient, of course, you have no choice but to cope on your own. It is a hard way to live, I accept that. 

Were there times when you wanted to give up?

No. I believed in what I was doing, and Ian’s progress was so encouraging I loved working with him. Every day was different and sometimes it was really hard to remain optimistic, but then Ian would do something extraordinary and I would just want to shout from the rooftops! Those times were wonderful and always made me keen to get back into the classroom and do more.

Tell us more about the writing process. How did the book come about?

While I was working with Ian, I would often talk about the things we were doing together and people would say to me, ‘Oh, you should write a book,’ and I’d smile, and say, ‘One day.’  Then my father died. I was really close to my dad. He had a heart attack in the garden on a beautiful late spring day. It was so sudden. I was devastated. Three weeks later, I sat down at my laptop, and just started writing.

How long did it take to write?

Two weeks. I suppose it had been sitting in my head for a long time, and the words were all there. It’s been added to a bit since then, but essentially the book appeared pretty much as it stands today within those two weeks.                                               

Do you write fiction at all?

I have experimented with fiction over the years, and written a few short stories. Recently I found a document on my laptop which was simply a couple of paragraphs, the beginnings of something, and before I knew it, my fingers were flying over the keys and I was continuing the story. It turned into my first fiction novel, ‘And a raven named Horatio.’                                          

Tell us a bit about your blog.                                                         

Well, the blog is a bit multi-faceted. I hope to give something to people who have read my book, and expand on what I wrote about, but I also want to give something to people who haven't read the book, and perhaps encourage them to read it.

If you had one piece of advice when it comes to being a mother what would it be?

One piece? Oh no! Love a lot. And give lots of hugs. And laugh. Always. Remember to laugh.  All mothers believe in their kids; sometimes you’re just called upon to believe a little harder than most.

If you could, would you do anything differently?

Knowing the things I know now? Maybe. But knowing me, probably not. I would still have worked with Ian. Perhaps I would have stepped in, taken him out of school sooner… who knows? 

What's next for Fiona the writer?

Fiona the writer is enjoying writing pieces for her blog! Writing is writing, it doesn’t matter what form it takes. But I have a plan in my head for another novel. Whether I can squeeze it out into something workable, we’ll see...





From The Inside is available
in paperback, ebook
and to rent digitially