Swimming Upstream

"Asperger's" is not a dirty word to be whispered. It is part of my son's makeup, the same as his brown hair and his hazel eyes.
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Mainstream education is highly overrated. Pulling my Asperger's Syndrome/dyspraxic son out of mainstream and placing him into a special school was, alongside marrying my husband and opting out of a nose job, the best decision I ever made. Our son was 7 years old at the time. We have never looked back.

Now my son, age 16, is nearing the end of Year Eleven. He is practically done with his GCSE exams, which have been spread module style over two years. He has gained thus far a string of A stars and A's, an astonishing feat when I think of how far he has come. I still nurse painful memories of being told by his Year One French teacher that he was "unteachable." The head of his posh North London primary school told us that he was a "danger to other children," and punished him daily for eating with his hands (severely dyspraxic, he could not maneuver cutlery) by banishing him from the school cantine.

Now, our son is a school prefect. How far he has come. Wasn't it Thackeray who said, "revenge may be wicked, but it's natural"? I often imagine taking our son's recent 100% Physics and History GCSE papers and waving them in his former teacher's disapproving face. Unteachable? Hardly! Highly teachable IF handled with care!

So, whom do I have to thank for my son's academic success? This is where an Oscars-style speech could and should begin. I will forever be indebted to the Moat School in Fulham. The school took a gamble when they accepted our son, then a highly impulsive and volatile 11-year-old. He could read but not hold a pencil; he had an impressive vocabulary, but couldn't relate to his peers. The incredibly devoted, supportive and highly trained specialist teachers at the Moat have taught my son how to learn, how to analyse data and how to craft his thoughts succinctly into cohesive written form. The school's speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, and devoted form leaders have helped my son learn to manage his anxiety, and have taught him to navigate daunting social interactions by carefully breaking them down into digestible, accessible steps. Above all, I have my son, himself, to thank for his immense progress. He possesses both a phenomenal intellect and a mind-boggling work ethic. IS there such thing as a "tiger child"? If there is, I have one. His drive and focus are truly admirable.

If life were a river, then I would have to say that my son and I have spent the past decade and a half swimming against the current. Our adversaries in these "upstream" battles have included not only judgemental head teachers but also unsympathetic parents, ignorant therapists, and thick bureaucrats. It has been a tiring journey, but I feel the current slowly changing.

No one is more surprised than I by the fact that this coming September, my son will start his A level study at a mainstream school, a small, independent school in central London. MAINSTREAM. I am terrified. My son, for some reason, is not. He is looking forward to this big next step, and came out of his trial day at the school remarking on how calm he felt there. "Look," he told me that same day, as I anxiously weighed the pros and cons of this monumental transition, "At some point I will have to make the move to mainstream. This feels right. I am ready to do it." As both his mother and his advocate, I must trust his instincts.

Fortunately, my son is comfortable with who he is. This is key, and this is why all special needs parents need to take their heads out of the sand and embrace their children's differences. My son's Asperger's Syndrome, along with presenting its unique challenges, is part of what makes him brilliant, charming and quirky. "Asperger's" is not a dirty word to be whispered. It is part of my son's makeup, the same as his brown hair and his hazel eyes.

Do you have a child who is dyslexic, dyspraxic, has ADD or is on the autistic spectrum? If so, I beg you to accept and embrace these differences. Only then will your child start to feel good about himself. Denial is both a waste of precious time and detrimental to your child's vital self-esteem. You may feel that you are swimming upstream, but the current will only start to change if you do your part, and face your challenges head on.

I will miss the Moat School. Miss King and her indomitable staff have given my son the most precious gift on earth -- the gift of belief. For this, I will be eternally grateful.