Friday, 18 July 2008

The verdict

It felt for all the world like being given the results of an exam in a subject we knew nothing about. The three people sitting on the other side of the small, round table were all experts who had devoted their careers to the development of autistic children. Opposite them were Magteld and I, whose understanding of autism could best be described as hazy. Yet it was us who had been given the responsibility of raising an autistic child. All they could do was proffer advice.
The doctors did an immaculate job. They guided us calmly and clinically through the intensive three-day assessment that Euan had undergone, which had led, after much discussion, to the conclusion that Euan is classically autistic with some learning difficulties. We heard how Euan had struggled to understand complex instructions; how he had preferred simple toys to more complicated one; how he had been almost oblivious to the presence of other children. How he had focussed on a narrow range of interests, mostly to do with numbers, to the total exclusion of anything else that might be going on. All of these were things we had observed with our own eyes on countless occasions, yet to hear it from a dispassionate trained observer was somehow far more unsettling.
It was the mention of learning difficulties that knocked me sideways. It's a phrase that has you fearing the worst: will my child ever be able to look after himself? Galling to think that a generation or two ago, this discussion might have ended with a recommendation to commit Euan to an institution, where his life would effectively have ended. Thankfully these days the emphasis has shifted. So Euan will enter mainstream school in August and stay there for a few months, after which a further assessment will be made. He may end up being taken out of primary school into a more specialist environment, but even this is no longer the dead end it might once have been.
At the end of the session I asked a question I had to wrench from the back of my throat: how severe is his autism? I had to ask, because while the discussion had been strong on detail and suggestions for how he could be helped, it lacked a focal point. "He's quite severe" was the short answer - severe in his learning disabilities and his social interaction, though his behaviour was less of a cause for concern.
It was hard to know what to think after the diagnosis was given: it was broadly what we expected, yet still felt like a punch to the stomach. For several hours we were barely able to look at each other. Magteld took Adam out, Euan watched Toy Story 2 for the umpteenth time, and I sat on the stairs and cried. Once Magteld came back I went for a six-mile run. Only then did I feel ready to face up to the daunting new future that we had been prescribed.

No comments: