Monday, March 26, 2012

This Evening

This evening I decided to take advantage of the extra hour of daylight and go for what the Victorians used to call a perambulation. It was a lovely evening - almost t-shirt weather - and the sound of birdsong and horses hooves made me feel as if I was in an episode of Midsomer Murders, without the murders.

It almost made up for an otherwise shitty day, during which my wife and I decided to pull our oldest son out of the school system.

It has taken me a while to realise what a difficult time we've had. I've known several people with autistic children and compared to them, our life was a breeze, so I think I turned a blind eye to the fact that my son struggled to cope with normal, everyday situations and I kept looking for easy answers.

It was confusing. My son doesn't neatly fit into any category, but exhibits symptoms of several syndromes. Sometimes I think he has something that hasn't been named yet. At others I'm more inclined to agree with R D Laing's view that mental illness is a social construct (I'm not denying the existence of full-blown nutters, but there is a general consensus that neurotic and psychotic illnesses are exacerbated by modern, urban life).

Would my son's behaviour be regarded as problematic if we lived in a traditional community? Judging by his skill at computer games, he'd be an excellent hunter-gatherer.

It does feel as if we're in a big sausage machine sometimes, where people are sucked into a system that squeezes them into the right shape so that they can function in a modern, urban, post-industrial society, and if you're a square peg in a round hole, then you're diagnosed with a syndrome.

I don't know; I feel more confused than ever. If I hadn't had a second child I might have gone to my grave thinking that I was one of the most useless fathers in existence, but my younger son is completely different. Indeed, if he'd been my only child I might have been unbearably conceited.

I've met those smug parents who seem to delight in telling you how Lily or Hector love visiting the Tate Modern (when they're not busy having viola lessons) and then go on to show you the Matisse-influenced drawings they did when they got home. It always gives me a huge sense of satisfaction when they have a second child who turns out to be a complete 'mentalist': welcome to my world,.

I'm not quite sure what's going to happen next. Obviously my son's education is important, but his mental health comes first. Getting him out of the front door is the first challenge (and I think that getting a dog may be the answer), after which I hope that my son will rediscover his curiosity about the world around him.

Meanwhile, his brother is downstairs doing maths games and designing a birthday card for his former childminder. His only worries seem to center around the number of people who want to be his friend. Also, the schoolwork isn't challenging enough.

Life is such a lottery.

PS - Feb 2013. Almost one year on, I can see that the decision to remove our son from school was the right one.  The last eleven months have been a struggle, but there has been a gradual, steady improvement that fills us with hope.


lucy joy said...

My brother had a very difficult time during his school years. From the day he started, until the day he left, he hated it. Nobody seemed to understand him, including my frustrated parents. Emotionally, socially, physically and mentally, none of his needs were met at school. The experience scarred him so much, he wouldn't even collect my son from school lest he had to face his former teachers.
I'm pleased to say, that despite occasionally encountering similar problems with some employers and colleagues, he has always been in employment since leaving school.
Aggressive behaviour, refusing to eat, obsessing over computers (even in the '80s) blaming all his problems on others, isolating himself, all this lasted until his late teens. Something changed, gaining independence seemed to help.
A dog is a great idea, I think. We had a dog, my brother would take him out for hours. Another turning point was him getting a skateboard, a hobby which he could indulge in alone, and master skills slowly.
My brother now has 2 children and is a great multi-tasker with bags of common sense and patience. A far cry from the extremely difficult, troubled and very unhappy and, dare I say, 'odd' schoolboy he was.
Sorry to go on and on, but I hope some message of hope filters through my essay!
Your son clearly has very dedicated parents, sometimes professionals leave you to it because you don't seem to need the support louder, moanier parents receive.
I wish you, your wife, and son a more settled period.


Steerforth said...

Thanks - I'm very grateful for your long comment because that's exactly the sort of thing I need right now: proof that there's some light at the end of the tunnel.

My wife spends hours on Mumsnet (although she'll deny it) and the dog idea has received a universal thumbs-up there, so I'm resigned to spend the next ten years picking up poo.

Anonymous said...

Dear Steerforth

I was very moved by this post. My brother, (too!) was a miserable teenager and basically stopped speaking for several years. He was just left to get on with it, which was very odd I think now, looking back, and never really recovered (he probably has some unique syndrome too, anything new or unknown seems to be difficult for him), so I think removing your son from the source of his misery is definitely the right course. He is young enough to find something/where that makes him feel good about himself, and everything builds from there. A hobby a lot of boys that age like is geocaching. (see Its like an outdoor treasure hunt using GPS, is free, and once they get the hang of it, they can do it alone. I think physical exhaustion is very good for mental health (!) Best of luck, Natalie

Steerforth said...

Thanks Natalie - I've just looked at the website and it sounds promising, with attainable goals that aren't going to make him even more stressed.

At the moment he has an obsession with a game called Minecraft, which he plays with other people and talks to them via Skype, so he is getting some sort of interaction. It's just the real world that's problematic.

I'm sorry to read that your brother never really recovered.

Sally said...

A close friend of mine has done the same thing - her daughter has such a complex combination of so many things from ASD to Anxiety. She's seen a huge difference in her - from having to DRAG her out of the house to school, she now loves Home schooling, has started horse riding at a place that specialises in SEN kids.....could be the best thing you ever did.

My 7 yr old has ADHD and some days the world is impossible and frustrating and I too feel like the worse mother in the world. My 5 year old I'm not so sure about - some days I just think he's being a little horror cos he sees his brother get away with it....

Parenting children is the hardest thing I've ever done. My husband had undiagnosed ADHD all his life - left school with nothing, had a hideous time at school.....and he's now Head of Science at a National Museum and has me and our two boys. How amazing is it that at least our kids have support and diagnoses and in our case, medication to help them?

Hang in there.

Steerforth said...

I didn't know anything about ADHD until my son's CAHMS psychiatrist turned to me and casually dropped the bombshell "Do you think you might have ADHD?"

I read up on it that evening and several pennies dropped, so now I'm being screened.

How fantastic that your husband has ended up where he is, married to you, with a great job and two children. Your comment, along with Lucy and Natalie's, makes me feel more hopeful.

Parenthood certainly is a lottery. Some people seem to have very easy children and go through life congratulating themselves on being good parents. That's fine, but what I can't stand is the looks they give my wife and I when our son's having a meltdown, or the stupid comments from certain people like "Well if it was up to me, I'd just make him go".

Sarah said...

I know what you mean about those smug parents and their seemingly perfect kids. Slap. Face. Wet. Fish.

Sounds like you've made a good decision for your son taking him out of the source of trouble. There may be other homeschoolers in your area you can get together with sometimes.

Best of luck.

Mrs Jones said...

My eldest niece has Asperger's Syndrome and mild Tourette's (the tics, not the swearing, fortunately). She was fine at middle school and had a helper who sat with her, but when it came time to go up the local three-times larger comprehensive (or whatever they call them these days - the school you do your GCSEs at) she went totally to pieces, had fierce tantrums, wouldn't leave the house, would run away from the school, made life hell at home for her mum and neurotypical (i.e., 'normal') younger sister.

In the end, her parents decided the best thing they could do was take her out of school. Luckily, in the same village where she lives is a fantastic special needs school (Gosden House) who, with the help of her social worker, assessed her and decided they could help so she started going there 3 days a week. It took her a little while to settle (she doesn't board although the school would like her to do some overnight stays) but it's been the saving of her.

Also something seemed to 'click' with her when she reached 14 and did the opposite of teenagers everywhere. She went from being difficult and shouty to suddenly being smiley, happy, apologising to her sister for having been mean to her for all those years, she's become much more sociable, outgoing and even does after-school clubs now. She's also, finally, learned to tie her own shoes (mainly because she's now discovered fashion and the shoes she likes don't have velcro straps!). She's always been a smart kid - she reads voraciously and her drawings are incredibly detailed and intricate - and given that she's been dealt a less-than-ideal hand in life, it's lucky that she's high-functioning.

I can't remember if you've posted about getting your boy a social worker but my niece's one was very helpful in terms of getting her the education she required and organising a therapist for her so she could air her grievances to someone who wasn't related or in authority and therefore not going to judge her.

A small word of warning - as mentioned by one of your other commenters - her younger sister did see what her older sister was 'getting away with', i.e., not having to get up to go to school, getting her way through tantrumming, and started to do the same thing, so you might find your youngest also thinking it's a good idea. Oh yes, the youngest also had therapy so she could air her troubles and sadness about being so badly treated by her older sister, and this has helped as well as she's become much more understanding of her sister's difficulties. Older sister is now almost 15 and has done a complete turnaround from the troubled, angry, distressed, isolationist child she was to a bright, happy and sociable teenager. So, yes, there can be light at the end of the tunnel.

BTW, my mum (the grandmother) has been reading and says it's a goldmine of information.

Steerforth said...

Mrs Jones - I've heard several people say the same thing - that puberty seems to prompt a positive change, with some kids even deciding to return to school. I'll keep my fingers crossed.

The younger brother is already complaining about going to school, so we're going to have to nadle things carefully.

My son has OCD/Tourette's and a general anxiety disorder and although he doesn't qualify as Asperger's he doesn't fulfill a lot of the criteria, so I'll try the website you recommended.

I don't think we need a social worker yet, as the school and CAHMS are being very helpful, but if things change it's good to know that there's another option.

Thanks for taking the trouble to write a lengthy comment. As I said earlier, it really helps to read anecdotes like yours.

Sarah - Apparently there are quite a few in Brighton, so my wife will join the appropriate Yahoo group.

I suppose that there are two types of homeschoolers - those who do it for ideological reasons and those who are driven by circumstances. I shall try to find people who fall into the latter category.

Steerforth said...

Re: my last comment, I meant handle, not nadle (although I like the idea of a new verb, to nadle). Also I meant to write that my son does fulfill a lot of the criteria.

You can see where he gets it from.

RAMAN said...

Dear Steerforth,
I generally read ur n other native English writers' posts to read naturally made use of English words, phrases and clauses but today i can't help saying that the content of ur present post has touched me. Well, i m not as fluent n precise in using words as u r but i must say that though this is a very difficult time fr any parents but for the person of ur courage n determination, i mean one who can leave his job and start afresh, can overcome any hurdle in life. I m sure u will emerge victorious from this unfavourable time also unscathed. Though God tests honest and faithful people like u but He keeps an invisible support with them. I wish peace and strength to u n ur family.

Steerforth said...

Thank you Raman for your very kind words. They are much appreciated.

Chris Matarazzo said...

Steerforth -- The comment you made about the evalation of yourself as a dad was something I could identify with. Some evaluators of my own son have hinted at ADHD and I know he has had issues with anxiety, including apparent symptoms of OCD. But -- and this may sound strange at first -- I think kids with these issues are in good hands with literary-type parents. I find that I have some great successes in "reading" my son's behaviors and gaining a sort of real-life character-analysis of his motivations and reactions. (Of course, understanding where he "comes from" is helpful in bringing him down when things are difficult.) Having your son home more will allow you to connect with his tendencies and quirks even more deeply than you already have. Certainly, we all need to be careful of being overzealous amateur psychologists, but writers with a real insight in to the world around them (which you clearly have, based on what I have seen of your work) possess that balance of scientific and instinctual observation that a child like your son (or mine) really needs. The resources and websites and support groups are great, but have confidence in your instincts as an interpreter of the nature of humans and of your own son. I have found that when I do this (as a writer/lit teacher/dad, myself) it proves very effective. Logic, insight and love are the perfect formula for helping a challenging child. And, often, these kids are exceptionally intelligent; as they say, it takes one to know one. For what it is worth, your choice seems to be the right one. (And, for the record as well, my younger son is Mr. Smooth-sailing, as well. Ah, life...)

Steerforth said...

Thanks Chris - I feel a lot less isolated than I did 24 hours ago, thanks to yours and other people's comments.

As far as having more insight goes, most of the time I feel as if I only have a clearer sense of my own inadequacies, but I hope that I'm more empathic than some fathers.

I think youre right about the need to combine "logic, insight and love" - being clear-headed about the science, but recognising and valuing the uniquness of the individual.

There are lots of child psychology books around (and my wife has read most of them), but it feels as if each child needs a book all to themselves.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

"He was just left to get on with it, which was very odd I think now, looking back..." Story of my life!

Horseriding sounds good, and a dog (getting outside, doing something physical, interacting with animals). Something physical and structured might be good too - Tai Chi or martial arts. Knowing you have control of yourself physically gives you confidence. Good luck with the home schooling!

Syndromes are just a name given to a bunch of symptoms and characteristics. We're all on the spectrum somewhere.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Sorry to hear of your latest troubles Steerforth. I cannot add to the wise words of your other commentators, except to agree I think a dog will also help bring your eldest out of himself, give him something else to focus on (which even more importantly needs him to love and care for it in return) and will motivate him to leave the house and keep active - important in boosting Seratonin as well as Vitamin D levels. I'm sure his younger bro will love having a pet around too. I promise you it will grow on the less enthusiastic members of the family. I know a genteel lady in her 70s who ended up inheriting a pug dog. Not previously an animal person, she and this incongruous-looking beast quickly became inseparable and she was heartbroken when it finally died. She now has a priceless portrait of it grinning at her from atop the mantelpiece which makes everyone smile whenever they see it. The unexpected bonus was how many people in the park started talking to her whenever she walked him. Dogs are also a great ice breaker.

Steerforth said...

Richmonde - I've been down the martial arts route and oddly enough, when he was youger, my son was more open to things like that than I ever was (I turned down a 10 bob bribe to join the cub scouts when I was seven). It always went wrong because my son had to interact with sporty men - not usually the most flexible of people. So I think animals are the answer.

You're right about syndromes. We live in an age which is supposedly tolerant, with legislation to prevent discrimination on grounds of race, gender or sexuality, but there seems to be more pressure to be 'normal' (i.e an extrovert, high achieving 'team player') than ever.

Laura - I'm a huge dog fan, so I didn't need much arm twisting. You're right about the vitamin D - we're struggling to get him outside in this beautiful weather and the end result is that we can never go out together. I hope that once he has a dog, he'll have the motivation to re-engage with the outside world.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Such a beautiful poignant post, Steerforth. I think you are on the right track with the idea of using animals to help. When my father was in a nursing home (excuse me, protected accommodations, to be more politically correct) I used to take our dog down with me when I went to visit. There was one elderly gentleman who hadn't spoken a word for months, who spent ages telling me all about all the dogs he'd owned over the years, all the while stroking Barney's silky head.

I was also reminded about the wonderful series on horses that Martin Clunes did, showing horses being used as therapy animals.

There is something about animals that is both comforting and non-threatening at the same time that it engages our interest.

Good luck with this, and please keep us posted. We are all pulling for you and hope things go well for your family. All the best, Carol

Steerforth said...

Thanks Carol, I'll certainly write an update in a couple of months' time.

We can't buy a dog before June because we're supposed to be going to Spain then. How we're ever going to even get my son to the airport is another matter! I'm tempted to cancel the whole thing, but still hope that things will have improved by then.