–What age was Ian when he was first diagnosed with Autism?
Ian was just over two and a half years old when autism was first suggested. This diagnosis was finalised over the next couple of months – not that we had any doubts by then.
–When did you begin to feel that Ian may not be progressing as quickly as other children his age?
I felt that Ian was behind by the time he was one year old. Of course, I had only one other child to compare him to, and our other son, Rory’s milestones were on the early side so it was always an unfair comparison. But there were other things as well, things which were more subtle, more to do with the way he was, his isolation, his lack of engagement, the way he played, etc.
–What thoughts went through your mind when you were originally told of Ian’s diagnosis?
Initially? Probably very few! Shock, of course, but relief too. I’m a fighter, but you can only fight effectively when you know what you’re fighting against. The emotional response kicked in later. Coming to terms with something like this, a diagnosis like this, can be a slow process.
–I am aware that you spent some time living in South Africa, what country were you living in at the time of Ian’s diagnosis?
My husband is South African, and both my boys were born there. That was where Ian was diagnosed.
–What spurred your decision to move back to Ireland?
I love that Irish people always assume we have moved ‘home’, it is a beautiful thought, but neither of us has any Irish roots at all. We moved here because of an interest in Irish history, a desire to live in a safer environment in which to raise our children, and because we knew that Ireland was a visually beautiful place in which to live. We haven’t been disappointed in that at all.
–When it was time for Ian to begin school, did you have difficulty finding a school that would be suited to his needs?
Initially, we didn’t go down the school route at all. We implemented an early intervention programme in our own home, starting before Ian turned three. We kept this going for about two and a half years, and Ian made enormous strides, intellectually, verbally and socially. About six months after that, we moved to Ireland.
–What age was Ian when you made the decision to remove him from school?
Ian was six when I first home-schooled him in Ireland, simply because there was nothing else available for him at that time. When a place became available, I sent him to an Autism Unit at a nearby school.
–What was the basis behind your decision to remove Ian from that school?
Mostly because Ian regressed. I knew he needed more than was being offered. I had seen the joy Ian took in a particular style of learning, and even just from the act of learning itself. The autism unit seemed determined to treat him as if he were … not mentally competent … when I knew my child had a working mind in there that was open to learning. Ian loved knowing stuff – how can you deprive such a child of the opportunity to learn more? I couldn’t, so I took it upon myself to teach him.
–How many schools did Ian attend before you made the decision to remove him from school?
Just the one. It was enough.
–There is no doubt that home schooling any child is hard work, what did home schooling Ian entail?
You want a blow-by-blow? We would go into our ‘classroom’ together and sit at the table, and I would offer Ian his work for that morning, work sheets I had devised which might encourage him to think, participate, and speak. And he would read to me, and learn new words, and answer questions. And we would play games, and count, and do exercises, and name things, and draw, and write, and cut paper, and thread beads, and ……. Do you want me to go on? What should ANY child learn in school? Those are some of the things we did. And we laughed. Ian is funny, he has a highly developed sense of humour. He made me laugh a lot.
–How many hours a day did you spend specifically working on his education?
We usually did about three hours, but it was pretty intensive. He had breaks, ‘time-out’s between tasks, when he got to look at a book or play his keyboard or line up toys, or just jump about if that’s what he wanted to do, but they were short – in intensive one-to-one there’s no time-wasting like there is in normal school. Everything was focused on Ian, and keeping him present, listening, talking, paying attention. Intense, as I said. Three hours of that and you feel it. But it is so rewarding, and with each reward comes new energy, a new desire to continue.
–Did you ever struggle to keep a balance between Ian’s education and your day-to-day family life?
Yes and no. I was very aware of it. Ian’s education pretty much swamped my thoughts, both day and night, but I was careful to be mummy too. There was ‘school’ and then there wasn’t school.
–When did you begin to see that Ian was making much more progress than he had been in school?
Oh my word! You could see within a week! Just focusing on him properly, and giving him the time to answer properly, expecting him to answer properly, made a huge difference to him. Ian loved to learn, he loved knowing stuff, and he loved being able to give the right answers. And I would cheer and clap, and he would grin from ear to ear, sometimes laugh at me. We had lots of fun. I think teaching autistic kids should be about the child being quiet and the teacher being noisy – encouraging and praising. And there should always be laughter. Lots of laughter.
–Can you explain your feelings when Ian began to talk?
One thing you learn as the parent of a child with special needs, you recognise a miracle when you see one, and you accept it as exactly that: a miracle. It is huge, and humbling, and emotional. The first time Ian greeted me, on his own, in his own way, well, I cried. It was really quite over-whelming.
–What stage is Ian’s speech at now?
Ian has thousands of words in his head, but prefers not to use them. That is his choice. I respect that; sometimes I don’t want to speak either! Mostly he uses language to ask for what he wants – he likes being able to do that. If you can ask for stuff, you get stuff! But he USES language, which he wouldn’t have done otherwise. Sometimes we have conversations. They’re a bit strange, and often very short, but they are proper conversations. It’s always a joy when that happens.
–Do you think your method of educating Ian is the way forward in autistic education?
That’s an awkward question to answer. Every autistic child is so utterly individual – what’s it Hans Asperger said – ‘If you know one child with autism, you know one child with autism’? However, I do think it is necessary to move autistic children away from the syllabus which is currently being used and which is geared towards disabilities across the board. Autistic children are not the same as Down Syndrome children, nor are they brain damaged. They are unique. And there must be progression in their teaching – when I was working with Ian, if he answered a question correctly three or four times, he knew it, and I moved on, generalised it or increased the challenge or changed direction. Seeing Ian’s file from the school he attended with a year’s work in it, and it was merely the same few tasks over and over again, day in and day out, for a whole year, made me utterly depressed – and angry too. Where was the progression? Where was the challenge? Where was the child’s mind, in this sea of nonsensical repetition?
I wouldn’t say ‘my way was right’, not at all, but I do think there needs to be an attitude shift towards a greater recognition of the working mind within the autistic child.
–When did you make the decision to write about your experiences in a book? Did it take you a long time to decide you wanted to share your experiences with the public?
I wrote the book seven years ago. I had been thinking about it for a while, and when I finally sat down to write, it poured out of me in just two weeks. I don’t think I ever really focused on ‘sharing my experiences with the public’, I just hoped that my book might inform, and hopefully help. If I have helped even one person, helped them to think differently, or helped change the way they approach an autistic person, then I’m happy.
–I’ve been informed that you are currently writing a blog? Can you tell me a bit about the blog itself and the content?
The blog is really to expand on what’s in the book, and to share some background information, my thoughts since writing the book, and things which aren’t in it. It alternates between reminiscing and informing. Always, I hope to guide people towards a better understanding of the condition, of the idea that we always treated Ian like a normal kid with a few strange behaviours. I feel really strongly that people in services treat the condition, and not the child. I find this abhorrent. My son is a person, he is not ‘autism’, and he deserves to be treated like a thinking person and not a diagnosis.
–What is your opinion on the Irish education system and its support for Autistic children, and how do you find Autism awareness in Ireland?
The thing that breaks my heart is to read about parents being kept waiting for services. Everybody knows now, early intervention is the way to go – but being kept waiting for months, even years, makes a mockery of this. Nobody wants to be told they have to take the reins of their own child’s education – heavens, this is a welfare state, one has a right to expect appropriate help! But when that help doesn’t come, what can you do? I hope that my book might encourage people to realise that they know their child best, and that you don’t have to be a professional to make some kind of a difference. Any difference is a difference, if your child just learns to sit quietly for a few seconds, or point to something, or glance at you when you say his name, or finish a puzzle, or sit with you while you read a book … Any small thing is a step forward and worthy of a cheer. It doesn’t matter what it is. The next day you hope for another small step, and then another. And so on. There’s no ‘big picture’ here, just a succession of small steps. I’m just a mother who loves to teach, but I did it because I believed it was the right thing to do for my son, and I managed to make a difference to him, and to his life. I have no doubt there are other people out there who could do the same for their own children.
Generally, people in Ireland know about autism – these days I think everyone knows someone who has an autistic child, if it isn’t directly in their own family – but understanding what it means is hard to explain. My son is 19 and he behaves like a child. BUT he’s 19, and I can never forget that. You cannot treat him like a child because he’s not a child. There’s a duality there. Behaviour is just behaviour, it isn’t the core of who he is.
–Thank you, Fiona.
You’re most welcome.