So tortured, it stifled her reading and writing

At first, everyone assumed Maria's volatile behaviour was a symptom of her artistic temperament

At first, everyone assumed Maria's volatile behaviour was a symptom of her artistic temperament.

"There were times we would struggle to get her into school," said her mother, Shirley. "She would have tantrums and fly off the handle. But we just thought: she's artistic, she's highly strung."

Sixteen-year-old Maria has been diagnosed with anxiety and social phobia. Anxiety is not unfamiliar to Shirley, who occasionally finds herself unable to speak in stressful situations, such as job interviews. Maria's anxiety, however, is much more extreme.

She was bullied over five years at her primary school in East Anglia, but had been afraid to tell her parents or the school. By the time she enrolled in her local grammar, she was terrified of writing in her exercise book, for fear that both handwriting and content would be found lacking.

And she had a horror of speaking in class. "One German teacher expected all children to speak out loud in every lesson," said Shirley. "It was the ultimate torture for her, knowing that she was going to be forced to speak.

"She cried when she gave up German, because she loved languages. But there's little sympathy for someone who struggles to do what everyone is expected to do."

Despite Maria's difficulties, no teachers picked up on her problem, or asked to see her parents. Eventually, she refused to go to school. Teachers did not offer any additional support, so Shirley was forced to give up her job as an agricultural researcher and attend lessons with her daughter.

Since then, Shirley has enrolled Maria in a smaller, private school. "They allowed her to ease in gradually," Shirley said. "They didn't force her to conform to what everyone else had to do. She still has wobbles. She is hyper-sensitive, so she finds it difficult to make friends. But she talks to people, talks to teachers. Their attitude is: `Whatever you do, we'll help you.'"

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