‘My son loves school,’ says Inner West Mum Alex. ‘He really loves school. I now have teachers and parents approaching me at the school gate to praise my son. It’s hard to believe it but it’s true!’ Alex’s tone of voice is proud, bemused and relieved all at once. It’s been a long road to reach this point.
For much of his life, Alex’s older son, now seven years old, attracted attention for the wrong reasons. Even as a baby, her son stood out, she says. ‘My son wasn’t settled like the other babies in my mothers’ group. He often made a loud, high-pitched squeal. He just seemed different.’ By two, a common feature of her son’s behaviour were epic tantrums. He was physically strong and regularly hurt himself during these wild, angry outbursts. Alex and her husband sought the opinion of a paediatrician, but since their son was meeting his milestones, and had an uncanny knack of cooperating during professional appointments, his behaviour was said to be age appropriate. The challenges only continued, though. ‘At family day care, from the age of three and a half years, he often got into tussles and became a biter. He seemed quite clumsy too,’ Alex recalls.
It was at this point that Alex undertook an intensive parenting course. ‘It was a 12-week course at a facility more than an hour’s journey from my home. Once again, my son was on his best behaviour during these appointments, and I was told there was no issue. Unfortunately that experience only made me wonder whether it was actually me who was failing as a mother. But I have another son who did not exhibit the same traits … In my heart I really did feel that something was different. I started to become distressed and lose hope.’
Alex’s son’s difficulties increased further after beginning school. ‘He suddenly had to share the attention of one teacher with 20 other children for 30 hours a week,’ explains Alex. ‘He was so frustrated and was regularly disruptive and physical with other kids. He often told us he hated school, us, even himself. It is so shocking to hear your own child say those words.’ Alex also became isolated from the school community. She felt that other parents believed that her son was negatively impacting on their own children’s school experience and that her and her husband’s parenting was poor. But Alex insists that their approach to discipline is ‘always united, and firm but fair’. ‘We have to be!’ Alex laughs. Then, she adds, soberly, ‘It was tough on all of us, to put it lightly.’
In early 2016, with her son now in Year One, Alex and her husband decided to meet with the class teacher and principal. ‘Our son had been in a fight. But along with the social struggles, his schoolwork was below par. He just could not concentrate,’ she says. ‘I knew we had to press on, try to get answers.’ To Alex’s surprise, the school recommended that the family get another developmental assessment done. First they met with the school counsellor whose tests on Alex’s son returned high markers for ADHD and ODD (oppositional defiance disorder). And at the paediatrician’s appointment, this time their son’s behavioural difficulties were plainly evident. ‘He was on my lap but couldn’t sit still, was kicking his legs. The paediatrician recommended that we start our son on Ritalin.’
Initially, the idea of medicating her then six-year-old son did not sit well with Alex. But she and her husband felt they needed to give it a try. They explained to their son that his brain is wired differently, and that makes it difficult to sit still sometimes and focus. They told him the doctor had recommended he take medication to help him with this challenge, and asked his permission to give it to him. Their son said yes. He began Ritalin the next week.
In addition to the guidance of their paediatrician, Alex and her husband enlisted the help of the school counsellor, and began to see a dramatic change in their son’s behaviour. ‘He’s come ahead in leaps and bounds. The improvement in his schoolwork is nothing short of remarkable. I have been overwhelmed by the response of the school staff and parents all wanting to praise his progress.’
Twice during her journey, Alex posted in the Inner West Mums Facebook group seeking support and sharing her progress. She’s now passionate about encouraging other parents who have concerns about their child to seek appropriate professional advice. ‘If your child is struggling, it’s possible there’s more going on,’ she says.
If you are concerned about an aspect of your child’s academic, social, behavioural or emotional performance – or perhaps even all of these areas – please do take up those concerns with a qualified paediatric specialist – a developmental paediatrician or mental health professional with expertise in development and behaviour.
If you would like to learn more about ADHD, here is an excellent list of resources, kindly provided by Inner West Mum and neurodiversity advocate Kristen Gislason Callow.
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An Extraordinary Child: Our Family’s Autism Journey