No drainpipe has gone unscaled. Trees are ascended in minutes. Every inch of the garden fence has been climbed, while wardrobes, doorframes, curtain poles and kitchen cupboards are mounted with ease.
Heights as great as 15ft are conquered without a trace of fear. Little wonder, then, that six-year-old Ethan Broughton has the nickname ‘Spiderboy’.
Severely autistic, his condition has led to him developing an obsession with climbing, something doctors have struggled to explain, much less cure.
Ethan Broughton, pictured with his mother Sharon, has developed an obsession with climbing and has been dubbed ‘Spider-Boy’
Ethan is severely autistic and his condition has led to him developing an obsession with climbing, something doctors have struggled to explain, much less cure
Ethan Broughton’s autism has led him to develop an obsession with climbing anything he can at his home in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire
All of which leaves Ethan’s mother Sharon, 36, with her heart in her mouth any time she turns her back on her precious, but challenging, boy.
Astonishingly, apart from knocking out his two front baby teeth aged three while jumping off a windowsill, Ethan has never had a serious accident. However, Sharon believes it’s only a matter of time. ‘Worst is when he escapes out of the back door to scale the drainpipes,’ she says.
‘They only have to come away from the wall to cause him serious injury. I caught him trying to climb out of a top floor window — he was half out. Now the windows are permanently locked.’
But the impact of having a son like Ethan has been far greater than just a few extra grey hairs. For Sharon’s life has changed immeasurably.
A much-loved former career as a manager of a care home for young adults with learning difficulties had to be abandoned when Ethan was three because he became so demanding. Family holidays, or even a trip to a restaurant, are impossible thanks to his dangerous behaviour.
Sharon’s arms and legs are covered in bruises, scratches and scars where Ethan — usually in a rage after being prevented from climbing — has lashed out, biting, kicking and head-butting her.
The condition leaves Ethan’s mother Sharon, 36, with her heart in her mouth any time she turns her back on her precious, but challenging, boy
Ethan’s mother, Sharon, said she can’t turn back on her son for a ‘second’ because he is always looking to climb
Most heartbreaking of all, Sharon confesses her marriage to Ethan’s father, Richard, 38, a firefighter, with whom she also has a four-year-old daughter, Sienna, has ended. Richard left last year, after Ethan’s wild antics put enormous pressure on both his parents.
Life can be lonely for Sharon, with her every action adjusted for Ethan’s behaviour. When she welcomed me to her neat three-bedroom home in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, this week, her security measures were more akin to a prison than a family home.
‘Ethan’s so quick to escape I can’t take any chances,’ she said apologetically as she let me in, checking the alarm, before locking, bolting and chaining the front door shut again.
So isolated does she feel that this week she made a public plea for help in the Mail, asking if any expert knew of a cure or even if there was another parent who had a child like Ethan.
She received a slew of advice from fascinated readers, with some saying Ethan’s antics were just ‘what boisterous little boys do’. Others suggested he should be a professional climber. Recommendations, from changing his diet to disciplining him to stop him being so ‘naughty’, were also mooted.
‘If only it were that simple,’ sighs Sharon. For clearly her son’s behaviour is down to more than just sugary foods or a lack of authority within the home. ‘Ethan has the face of an angel. People are always saying how beautiful he is. But it’s only when they spend time with him that they realise what a unique child he is,’ says Sharon.
‘Even his medical team call him unique. No one — even doctors with years of experience in autism — has ever come across a child quite like him.’
Six-year-old Ethan, described as ‘amazingly agile’ climbs up a doorway in his family home
Sharon’s arms and legs are covered in bruises, scratches and scars where Ethan — usually in a rage after being prevented from climbing — has lashed out, biting and kicking her
Since speaking publicly about her plight, another mum from Cheshire has come forward who has a child similar to Ethan.
‘We’ve swapped notes.’ says Sharon. ‘Her autistic son climbs, too, and drives her mad, just as Ethan does. Just knowing I’m not alone, having someone to talk with, has been amazing.’
Her previous career gave Sharon a better grounding than most. Yet she admits, as much as she loves Ethan, that no amount of training could ever have prepared her for parenting him. Her life is split into two periods — before Ethan, and after Ethan. One is utterly unrecognisable from the other.
Today, Sharon — who used to love running, drawing and visiting family and friends — provides round-the-clock care for her son. Even in the small hours, peace is rare, as Ethan is able to function on very little sleep.
‘He often wakes in the middle of the night and crashes around in his bedroom for hours,’ she says. ‘There’s no quiet time. He’s unable to sit and watch TV or listen to a story.’ Still in nappies, Ethan, who attends a special needs school, has little understanding of language.
‘Occasionally he turns his head when I call his name, but no one’s sure if he understands that Ethan is his name. Certainly he doesn’t understand simple commands such as no, and only has one word — “go”. Often the only way to stop him doing something dangerous is to physically pull him away.’
Reasoning with him is impossible. Just going to a park, Ethan is strapped into a secure wheelchair.
‘He doesn’t walk, he runs — and then he climbs. He’s incredibly fast and amazingly agile. I cannot turn my back for a second.
‘He will zip up a tree. He doesn’t understand danger or feel fear, and has no concept that roads are dangerous or that he shouldn’t approach a lone dog. He can’t understand what you say, so his behaviour cannot be controlled.’
Devoid of any fear Ethan scales a drain pipe at his family home in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire
Consequently, caring for Ethan centres around making his surroundings ‘safe’.
Sharon’s living room contains only soft furnishings. Shelves and tables have been removed. Ethan’s bed, made of enclosed padded walls, is nailed to the floor. Dangling light fittings — too tempting to grab — have been replaced with ones flush to the ceiling.
CCTV cameras monitor his bedroom and are connected to Sharon’s mobile. Builders are to relocate the drainpipes so Ethan can no longer shin up them.
As for such normal family staples as Christmas decorations, birthday bunting, even paddling in the sea, all are impossible.
‘We can’t visit friends’ or family’s houses,’ says Sharon. ‘Holidays are fraught with worries, as hotel rooms, villas and chalets aren’t equipped for a child like Ethan.
‘It seems sad to have him continually strapped into a wheelchair, but it’s the only way we can go out on odd day trips.
‘He is just fixated with climbing. We don’t know why, but doctors say he’s obsessed with the feeling of being high up, of swinging with his arms.
‘If I try to stop him, he’ll have a meltdown. I don’t mean a normal sort of tantrum, but a full-on physical attack on me. Even in the summer I wear long sleeve tops and jeans because the scars and bruises are very noticeable.’
In the face of such challenging behaviour, Sharon appears positively beatific. But make no mistake, Ethan has brought her close to the edge. For as well as his constant climbing, he has another obsession: Sharon herself.
He constantly wants to be by her side and endlessly checks where she is — day and night — something she admits contributed to the break-up of her marriage to Richard, whom she wed in 2014.
Ethan with his mother Sharon, who said her worst fear is that he will be ‘locked up in an institution or like a zombie on drugs’
‘As a firefighter, Richard has a stressful job and found it impossible to come home to more stress every day,’ she says. ‘When he was here, I was wrapped up in Ethan. There was never any time for us.’
Matters came to a head in June last year when Ethan went through a particularly aggressive stage. ‘He was regularly lashing out, spitting, running off. The final straw came when a family who used to look after him once a week to give us a break suddenly said they couldn’t cope with Ethan either.
‘That time we had been able to have together had been a lifeline. Without it, Richard said he couldn’t cope and moved out.’
As ever, Sharon shows almost saintly control of her feelings. ‘It’s so sad. Even now I find it hard to talk about Richard. We still love one another and he’s a great dad.
‘Yes, I do feel angry he’s left me on my own. No, I really don’t know if we will get back together. But I understand why he left as family life was — and still is — so hard.
‘I feel so guilty because the attention Ethan needs means Sienna doesn’t have enough of my time. This week was half-term. My mother took her on holiday to Singapore. It’s the only way she can have a holiday, but I feel heartbroken she doesn’t have her mummy with her.’
Caring for Ethan centres around making his surroundings ‘safe’. Sharon’s living room contains only soft furnishings. Ethan’s bed, made of enclosed padded walls, is nailed to the floor
Resolute, Sharon tries to see the silver lining in spite of it all. ‘However, I’m lucky that unlike some autistic children Ethan is often very affectionate. It does help make up for the difficult times.’
After a normal pregnancy, Ethan was born in December 2011, weighing 7lb 15oz. However, soon after his birth, doctors belatedly realised Sharon had tested positive as a carrier of the Strep B bacteria, which can transmit to a baby during labour and cause a variety of illnesses.
‘Until the birth, no one had noticed the result. It meant Ethan had to have antibiotics for five days,’ says Sharon. He was a beautiful baby. ‘He’d wake up smiling and gurgling, holding out his arms to be picked up. He was gorgeous. But I do wonder if the strep infection caused his autism.’
Little is known about what triggers autism. A developmental disorder that, broadly speaking, affects how someone communicates with and relates to other people, it affects around 700,000 in Britain to varying degrees.
Typically, autistic children progress normally until about 18 months old.
However, Sharon believes Ethan’s autism exhibited when he was just six months.
‘I had just returned to work after maternity leave and noticed his development seemed to be going backwards. He was no longer burbling as he used to.
‘Shortly afterwards he became obsessed with a toy with a wheel, spinning it round over and over. He also began to make strange grunting noises.’ Ethan was eventually referred for tests and was diagnosed with autism at 15 months. ‘It was a shock, but also a relief. I felt now we knew we could begin to help him,’ says Sharon.
But three months after his diagnosis, aged 18 months, Ethan’s climbing obsession began.
My worst fear is he ends up locked up in an institution or like a zombie on drugs
Despite his diminutive size, his love of climbing quickly increased. ‘He was standing on radiators and pulling himself up using door handles, even using pictures on the wall to climb up.’
In April 2012, Sharon discovered she was pregnant with Sienna.
‘It was an anxious time. For a while, doctors thought Sienna might be autistic, too. She would wave her arms around and walk on tiptoe as Ethan often did.
‘Fortunately, when she began nursery, it became obvious she’d simply been copying her brother. She’s a normal little girl.’
A few of the excesses of Ethan’s behaviour have been tamed by a cocktail of drugs. But while Sharon receives help from her sister, Katie, 33, who lives nearby, ‘every day is a battle’.
‘I start by changing Ethan’s nappy, washing him, and then feeding him like a baby. Thankfully, while he’s at school, I have some precious time with Sienna, until the same battles to get him fed for tea and in bed ensue.’
Sharon said: ‘Whatever the future holds, I feel Ethan was sent to me for a reason. I love him as much as ever. I will always be here for him.’
Despite her emotional strength, even Sharon admits she has experienced some desperate lows.
‘Last year, when Richard left, I reached rock bottom. I wondered what I’d done to deserve this. Now I am more pragmatic. If Ethan wants to climb into a cupboard, I let him unless he’s in danger.’
She admits the future ‘terrifies’ her. ‘Will he be seeking out skyscrapers and bridges when he’s an adult? My worst fear is he ends up locked up in an institution or like a zombie on drugs. I focus on my hope that a breakthrough will enable Ethan to eventually live some sort of normal life.’
Exhibiting the sort of all-powerful love only a mother can, Sharon adds: ‘Whatever the future holds, I feel Ethan was sent to me for a reason. I love him as much as ever. I will always be here for him.’