When Margaret Hodder’s daughter became inconsolable on the Aberdeen to London train, she felt completely helpless.
It was December 27 and the train was busy with festive travellers, including one couple who turned to her and said “can’t you shut that child up?”
Mrs Hodder took 18-month-old Catriona – who was later diagnosed with autism – to the toilets in a desperate attempt to calm her, but it was the kindness of another passenger which finally helped.
Now, more than 20 years on, Mrs Hodder works hard to ensure other families do not go through the same experience or feel like they are alone.
This has been particularly important this year, since many groups that support families with disabilities have been unable to meet.
Kindness of strangers can go a long way
And as we approach the festive period, the Grampian Autistic Society is urging people to be more caring, kind and autism aware by lend a helping hand to anyone who may be struggling.
“Catriona had a meltdown on the train and there was nothing I could do,” Mrs Hodder recalled. “I didn’t know she was autistic at the time.
“The loud humming noise of the train was something we couldn’t obviously hear but she could. Everyone was all packed in to the one space.
“The couple in front of us, all they did was moan and the woman even turned round and said ‘can’t you shut that child up’.
“She walked up and down with her on the train where her dad could see her. He was dealing with my son at the time.”
That moment “meant the world” to Mrs Hodder and she’ll remember it forever.
With the festive period fast approaching, the Grampian Autistic Society is urging people to help a neighbour or friend who have a child on the spectrum, or who may be on it themselves.
As both, Mrs Hodder – who is a board member of the society – knows all too well the struggles and challenges of isolation, and hopes people will try to be more autism-aware in the run up to Christmas.
“For people looking in, please ask how the family is doing – ask how the child is doing,” she said.
“Ask if they need support, if they need anything. It is exceptionally difficult to take a child shopping at this time of year.”
Many people on the autistic spectrum struggle to cope with change as it becomes overwhelming and Mrs Hodder said there needs to be more understanding about those challenges.
“Home is very much a safe space and it is expected to be the same,” she said. “Suddenly the Christmas tree is up and there is flashing lights. Home is then very different and they just want to go to their bedroom to get away or have a meltdown.
“Extended family might not get it and think the child is just being naughty.”
Christmas can be an even more isolating time for families as the normal routine changes, with many families avoiding festive events or shopping incase it causes too much distress.
Charity’s Zoom calls have become “lifeline” for families
During the pandemic, Gary Wade from the charity set up an online voluntary support group for adults and it quickly grew from 100 members to more than 260.
The service, described as a “lifeline” for many, gives members the chance to socialise over Zoom.
Now Mr Wade is considering setting up a Christmas Day session to ensure nobody supported by the group feels lonely.
He said: “People will cope but unfortunately there will be casualties as people will struggle.
“It is difficult, and I can speak from personal experience, when you have a child on the spectrum – you feel very isolated.
“When anything changes that can have a huge impact – it can lead to meltdowns. This can then impact on any other children, it affects everybody in the family.”
The pair agreed that asking something as simple as “can I help you?” can be all it takes to make someone’s day a little bit easier.
Mrs Hodder added: “Be more caring. Be autism aware and be kind to each other – that’s what Christmas is all about.”
Case study: Single mum feels isolated due to lack of support network
A single mum whose daughter is on the autistic spectrum has revealed she feels completely cut off since moving to the north-east.
The woman moved to the region four years ago, and admitted she feels lonely and isolated.
She says she has struggled to find a support network in the area, and that bullying has now become an issue for her daughter at school.
For her, the Christmas period will be no different – the family will still be on their own.
“As a single parent on a low income, living in an affluent area with no support is difficult,” she said.
“Having a child with ASD makes life more lonely. She was bullied at school, which was not taken seriously and she became a school refuser.
“I am her carer and we only have each other – there is no support networks such as One Parent Families Scotland.
“There is a stigma against single parents, being on a low income and austism.
“Not having a car and my daughter’s anxiety about public transport also limits where we can go.”
Although the woman would love to go out and volunteer or work, her daughter struggles with being left on her own – and becomes highly anxious. It has a detrimental impact on her mental health too.
The Grampian Autistic Society can help families like this, but need support to continue their work.
The charity seeks to ensure the provision of the best possible education, care, support and opportunities for people of all ages with autism and support families, while improving the understanding of autism.
This Christmas, the charity is appealing for donations to buy a £10 sensory toy for the children it supports. To help, visit justgiving.com/grampianautisticsociety