Deep down, we knew there was something different about our boy. But getting the diagnosis was still tough.
Around the time William was supposed to be ticking off infant-age developmental milestones, I had a feeling something wasn’t quite right.
The most obvious thing to me was that he rarely looked me in the eye.
He was also horrendously difficult to get to sleep.
My wife and I would spend hour after hour trying to get him to settle, and nothing seemed to work except for prolonged periods of bouncing him gently up and down.
The hours of repetitive movement we spent soothed him, but by God it took its toll on both of us.
As a toddler, he’d simply retreat into his own little world, but as William grew older he became more difficult to deal with.
Most kids would respond instantly to the sound of their parents’ voices. We’d be calling out three or four (or seven or eight) times before our voices penetrated the little bubble he was in.
I began to stress about it pretty early – and finally, when he started acting up at daycare, we took him to see the doctor.
The news wasn’t good.
Our little man is on the autism spectrum, and has ADHD.
I felt like a terrible dad
For me, this is the hardest part of this whole experience. Because this is the bit where I had to deal with my own perceptions, my past actions, my little man’s diagnosis and try to smoosh them all together to make sense of the past few years.
I have always had a very short fuse. Combine that short temper with having a normal toddler, and you’ve got the classic ‘angry dad’ scenario happening.
But combine it with a child who’s on the autism spectrum, and the ‘angry dad’ rulebook goes out the window.
The moment the doctor told us William had Asperger’s and ADHD, it all made sense.
Full disclosure… I have ADHD.
Also, I’m really, really socially awkward unless I’ve had a few drinks, and even then I can’t look people in the eye when I talk to them.
I have to rely on keeping my hands busy with something tactile, even in a professional setting, just to talk to my family, friends or co-workers. And don’t get me started on talking with people I don’t know. Unless I’m drunk, that’s never going to happen.
Clearly, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as the old saying goes.
William looks just like I did at his age – blond hair, uncoordinated, and so skinny that it looks like someone on a hunger strike decided to split one of their lower limbs into two.
So it all made sense.
But the diagnosis nearly broke me.
William was four years old when we got an official piece of paper from someone with a PhD to tell us what was wrong.
It took me a week to process it and, when I finally did, I rang my wife and cried down the phone.
I remembered every time I’d shouted at him because he wasn’t behaving properly.
I can vividly remember losing my temper with him, holding him by the shoulders and trying to catch his gaze as I yelled at him when he did the wrong thing – and the complete lack of understanding in his beautiful blue eyes as I did that.
I had assumed my son was ‘normal’, and was just being a difficult little bastard – which, with the benefit of hindsight I realise doesn’t excuse my behaviour, regardless.
I was wrong – and I spent several years shouting at a tiny little boy who had a very limited idea how to understand other people’s emotions, let alone his own.
When the reality of that set in, I felt like a complete and utter prick. I shudder to think of the damage I caused.
I remember the night I caved in to my emotions about it, and cried while talking to my wife. I was finally able to put myself in his shoes, and apply my own limited understanding of how people express themselves emotionally.
And all I could see, from his perspective, was a dad who shouted a lot, for no discernable reason.
He’s a good kid. I can see now that all he wants is to be loved, and to make mummy and daddy happy – but he’s been hamstrung in terms of how he makes sense of the world around him.
A world where his father shouted at him when he didn’t respond.
I’ve shed a lot of tears about this.
After the diagnosis
Here’s where things got better for him, and for me as a dad.
From my perspective, once I knew he was wired a bit differently, I knew that I needed to take that into account when he acts up.
William’s difficulties lie in changing from task to task. So getting him to stop playing on the iPad to put his shoes on so we can go to the park is a 30 minute transition that would test the patience of the Pope himself. And the iPad and the park are two things he loves.
Likewise, heading home from the park (even with promises of more iPad time) will involve 20 minutes of negotiations similar to those I suspect were behind the recent sanctions by China against North Korea.
But I know it’s coming – so it’s my job as a dad to factor it in, and do my best not to lose my rag when William decides to dig his heels in and be a complete bastard about getting off the swings and into the car.
From his perspective – even though he doesn’t know it – he’s actually got it pretty good.
William gets extra help at school, including an hour a week with a dedicated helper. Plus, he’s got an education plan in place at the school, which means my wife and I have regular meetings with his teacher to see how he’s progressing. The good news is that he’s doing really well.
He’s got some really good mates at school – nice kids who think the world of him.
The downside is that, to get his ADHD to manageable levels while we work through his treatment for Asperger’s, he needs to be medicated.
I’m not a huge fan of medicating small children with what is essentially pharmaceutical-grade speed, but it seems to do the trick. Most of the time.
I’d say we’re very lucky. He’s a good kid – super-bright and with loads of energy. Sure, he’s a challenge some of the time, but at the end of the day, he’s still my little man.
And I’m always going to love him, because I’m his dad.