Friday, 18 February 2011

I'm not clever, I'm autistic

I'm not one for daytime television, but when I am not at work I tend to put on the Wright Stuff in the morning while I have a late breakfast. I like topical debates and hearing other people's opinions and experiences and now and again they'll be a subject discussed which will be close to home.

While I was making my coffee, putting on a bit of makeup and tidying up, I was listening to the show. They talked about branding children who suffer from shyness and find making friends as having Special Educational Needs. The controversial issue was of course putting a label on these children when they may not have any educational difficulties. But then there was mention of being able to teach them how to talk to others, share, not obsess over one subject and learn when it is appropriate to speak.

My son is eight years old. He is quite chatty, good at school and plays well. Most of the time. Then now and again I am reminded that he cannot say 'hello' to friends in the street, he plays well by himself but not so well with others, and he can recall numbers and information at the a drop of a hat.

Going back to when he was at nursery, I was a single mum working hard and trying to make life as 'normal' as possible. I was always shy myself growing up, right to now. I wasn't fantastic with other people's kids and mixing with other mums, but I did what I could for my child. He is an only child so I ensured he went to a pre-school a few mornings a week to mix with other children then nursery at the age of three to prepare him for school. I knew he was shy which made me anxious, but as he was getting bigger it was becoming apparent that he found it hard to play well. In fact, at nursery he was quite disruptive - throwing objects across the room, pushing books off the tables, and lashing out at other children. I was mortified he was doing this. He was fine at home and he was fine with adult guidance, but left to his own devices he didn't know what to do other than cause chaos.

Physically he developed normally, but he was a bit late with his talking. It wasn't a concern and when he did talk, he learned very quickly. He learned his colours and he learned to count. He noticed numbers everywhere he went and would obsess over house numbers, asking random people what number their house was then remembering it. He wasn't interesting in reading books, just the numbers at the bottom of the page and how many pages there were altogether. He had to have his favourite toy with him at all times, he had a fixation with the colour blue (everything had to be blue, even down to his socks), he was a stickler for routine every day, and I had a nightmare getting him out of nappies.

To be honest, a lot of this behaviour went unnoticed. I struggled to take him shopping as he would have tantrums, but that was what all kids were like, right? Of course sometimes I would only kid myself when my friends children were angelic. I just knew that my son was clever. He could count past one hundred before he got to school, he could recall his favorite songs from different CD's and tell me what number the track was and he was starting to learn how to tell the time. He was even beginning to learn his times tables - I couldn't do that in primary school!

But the nursery staff were a little more concerned than I realized. I thought he would grow out of being naughty, and he was just a little later than others to be potty trained. But they wanted him to be assessed by the Educational Psychologist. Okay, that was fine. If it would help them, then I had no problem with it. I went in to see her and the Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator from the nursery after she had spent a morning with him. He was three years and two months, and was scoring as high as a five year old when it came to numeracy and construction. But he was a low as a two year old with communication and social skills. Well, you can't be good at everything - it's not possible.

We spoke about his obsession for routine - the blue items, the order he does things in a day and I boasted about how good his memory was. No one seemed impressed which I couldn't understand. I knew there were issues with him as I'm quite a realistic person. I'm as matter of fact as they come. I spoke about that morning - something I did which I never did before: I drove to the nursery using a different route, and he screamed at me to go the usual way. She appeared concerned so I explained why I thought he was the way he was. 'I brought him up to have a routine, I'm just the same' I told her. 'He's just strong-willed'. But she wasn't convinced.  'You might call it strong willed' she replied back to me, 'but I call it Autism. He could see any doctor and they may tell you differently, but it won't ever change my mind.'

I'll never forget those words to this day. She was harsh, but then I was in denial. It hit me later on when I was home, and I broke my heart over it. I felt guilty though - it didn't make him a bad person. I shouldn't look at it in a negative way. But I felt foolish thinking he was bright and intellegent when all along his brain was just programmed to think that way. Then I started to worry about what he'd be like as a teenager - would he be different? I remembered the kids at my school who were picked on for not being cool - because they had some sort of difficulty.

Over the years, I studied up on Autistic Spectrum Disorder. My son has never had a diagnosis, but he is on the Special Educational Needs register, and gets extra support at school. But if he does have Autism, it's mild. Like I said, it's only now and again it is noticeable. I'll always worry about him. I looked at some of his traits, and even I do similar things - I can't cope out of routine, and I was shy as a child. So many adults are probably walking around with it, without even knowing it and they're fine. But it's made me aware and slightly more educated on a complicated disorder which effects different people in different ways. Parents now complain about going over the top when labeling children and I'm still in two minds about it. I won't know anyone now with a child of the same generation who hasn't got some form of disorder, but does it mean there are more kids now with them than ever before, or are we just more aware now? You can blame modern day living, change in diets and hyperactive children and you can argue that labeling causes bullying. But then, so does ignorance. I'm not an expert - but what I do know is, I know more now than I did before my son was thought to have it.