Today, my son was diagnosed with ADHD, in addition to his autism spectrum condition (ASC). This blog is for all the individuals who love both children and adults with these conditions.
It was a fresh autumnal morning today and as we drove into the grounds of Springfield Hospital my anxious eye was drawn to the architecture scattered throughout its sprawling campus. There are the modern ‘investment’ buildings, characterised by their mix of soft wood and warm brick, sitting alongside older clinics of concrete grey, but above all I was struck by the imposing Victorian grandeur of the former Surrey County Lunatic Asylum. Most of this vast building appears to be maintained, but certain wings are derelict, their exacting rows of wired-up windows containing the ghosts of the misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and broken spirited.
I suppose it was something to do with my own recent history of undiagnosed Asperger’s, the fact we were there for my son’s assessment and the long chilly shadow of my father’s fear that my younger sister, with her learning disability, epilepsy and autistic traits, would – in the not so recent past as well as the 19th century – have been incarcerated in such a place. As an autistic woman, I am aware that far too many of my autistic sisters have been, and continue to be, misunderstood, ignored and misdiagnosed. The fear of institutionalisation haunts many at society’s most vulnerable cross-sections: the elderly; the mentally ill; the disabled. Thus, with my own brain wiring (diagnosed autistic, self-diagnosed ADHD) the mere act of walking from car park to clinic lit up many different areas of memory, light and dark, in my brain. The thoughts danced in and out of focus, before fading into the ether as we entered the clinic and hard reality pushed its way to the fore.
The psychologist was full of warmth and welcoming, her heavy Spanish accent charming. She observed our son whilst conducting conversation, note taking, making marks across her assessment papers; a process that I suspect she made appear deceptively easy. In the course of the history taking several examples were clearly overt indicators – anecdotes which made her look just a little more keenly, write a little more urgently. We spent some time describing how we had read to our son from a very young age. As the day has gone by, I realised how precious these memories are to me and how this habit, established young, for varied reasons, continues to offer its original benefits and comfort, even as our son grows older.
You see, from a young age, I read a lot to my son. This wasn’t about early literacy or being a pushy mum: no, no, no! It was to stop him moving. Our little boy probably didn’t realise when the stork briefed his baby cohort about developmental milestones that they applied to him also. My son commando-crawled quite happily, then at around 10 months went from lying on his belly to standing up in one disconcerting week. Unsteady steps followed shortly before he launched himself fully into his toddler career as a directionless human cannonball. Ricocheting from exhausted to Duracell bunny mode he was a child of extremes: no middling for our son, an average-averse child.
I left the house armed with the usual toddler accessories and supplies, additionally weighed down by various books (toys and puzzles too!). These books were appliedjudiciously, urgently, frequently, in a bid to reinstate balance in an off kilter world. Have you tried reading when stress makes you shallow breathe and grind your teeth? No, me neither – because you can’t. Reading demands an unclenched jaw and steady breathing, which felt (still feels) like the tide turning: from on-edge overwhelm the chemical tide would gradually recede, in both my son and I, through the physical presence of one another, he under my arm, our breathing would regulate, our lives slow down to a comforting pace. As the familiar patter of a well loved story moved from my mouth, I grateful for the shape and taste of every syllable, and fell into his still, quiet ears, we made ourselves a shelter from the fractious chaos of life, gently held in beautiful balance by a good book.
The acquisition of books was also a pleasing activity for my son and I, a trip out that worked for us both. We regularly visited the local library: I studiously and anti-socially avoided Rhyme Time and coffee mornings, preferring to visit at unconventional times when I could encourage my son to be quiet, act appropriately, seek books that interested him and sit – his white blond mop of hair hanging into the welcoming V of an open book. Those brief moments afforded me a gasp of time to indulge in my own passions and interests – for after all, it doesn’t take long to grab a novel with an attractive cover, or a hardback with glossy photos. Greedily, I’d gather a small stack of Mummy Books and we’d make good our escape before that balance began to turn, before the negatives outweighed the positive gains.
But what did we read? Well naturally, there was plenty of Julia Donaldson but there was plenty of Shirley Hughes too – Alfie a firm favourite. The only book signing I have ever attended was to meet Shirley Hughes and there is no star in Hollywood whose signature I’d prefer! Having been introduced to the delightful illustrations of Inga Moore via ‘Six Dinner Sid’ I found ‘House in the Woods’ which is a strong personal favourite and one which I am resigned to eventually reading purely for my own pleasure! The TV show Abney and Teal led me to Joel Stewart’s enchantingly quirky stories ‘When a Zeeder Met a Xyder’ and ‘Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie’. My son was, and remains, very interested in trains and so Benedict Blathwayt’s ‘The Little Red Train’ series provides a real visual treat as well as some nice little touches of dry humour. ‘Frog on a Log’ by Kes Grey was a birthday present that makes me laugh every time I read it and maintaining an amphibian theme Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad stories are just perfection. Last but not least, I must namedrop the now sadly closed Lion and the Unicorn bookshop in Richmond which provided us with ‘The Noisy Book’ by Soledad Bravi. An instant hit, due in part to its bold colour-popping graphics and the repetitive structure ‘The snake goes hiss... the owl goes twit twoo...’, it proved as satisfying for our son to listen to as it was easy and comforting to read. The spine eventually broke; at present, I believe the replacement purchase is in a similarly critical condition on a bookshelf somewhere in the children’s bedroom.
As we left the clinic today, our son walking between us, I looked at him and realised that as his mother I had known him all along. I could ‘read’ my own son. Yet, crucially, I needed to understand and furthermore have the conclusions we, as parents, had drawn: to be validated by the process of an official diagnosis. Both ASC and ADHD comprise traits and behaviours which are part of the human condition itself, yet if an individual has a sufficient quantity of those traits their experience of life becomes quantifiably different (the outward indicator being their behavioural response to their life and its challenges) and chances are they will benefit from being diagnosed. As I watched my son, it dawned upon me that he is, simply, his own unique little person – as are we all – and that allowing him to march to the beat of his own drum is perhaps the most loving thing I can do for him.
Zoe Vail Smith hails from London. Recently diagnosed as autistic, Zoe blogs about the arts, the world and family from her neurodivergent perspective.