He's just being John

18th October 1996 at 01:00
It's not easy being the parent of the naughtiest boy in the class. Adrian Mourby tells how a medical diagnosis has helped. . .

Last week I was listening to a radio report of Gillian Shephard's Conservative conference speech about discipline in school and the need to crack down on disruptive children.

"Did she say me?" my six-year-old son asked. John knows the word "disruptive". It's not easy being the parent of the naughtiest boy in the class. Collecting John from school is an experience to make you very wary. "So you're John's father," says another parent and you jump. Has their child told amusing tales of my son out of school? Or was he the child John attacked that time?

Arriving at the classroom door can be even more nerve-wracking. My wife and I always dreaded asking "how's he been?" When the school started giving John gold stars for any days that he actually co-operated it was such a relief. Gold star: good. No gold star: post-mortem time.

We all like to think that we are reasonable parents and, inevitably, our offspring's behaviour can feel like a judgment on us. Had it not been for the fact that we had an elder daughter who was a model pupil at another school I think my wife and I could have easily sunk without trace under the weight of guilt.

John is no trouble at home. Only at school does he refuse to do what he's told or get angry when thwarted. The only time we encountered problems was when he met other children. He found communication difficult and would lash out if these toddlers would not do as he wanted. By the time he was two my wife was beginning to suspect that he had problems. But it took her many visits to paediatricians, behavioural pyschologists and other experts before we discovered that John had a recognisable condition.

In the meantime John had started school. His teachers seemed confident that they knew how to cope with all manner of children, including naughty boys. Initially the school dealt with him as if he were an attention-seeker. Then they treated him as if he were the class bully, in need of a firm hand. This didn't work either. It was like watching doctors using medicines that had always worked on other patients instead of first pausing to make a clear diagnosis.

Fortunately, a medical diagnosis was finally forthcoming. John has Asperger syndrome, which is a mild form of autism. He is one of those people who will always be happy if left to get on with his own projects but who finds other people, and institutions, baffling. Slow in learning to communicate, but more than averagely bright, John has been unable to express his objections to a routine that manifestly doesn't suit him and so he refuses to co-operate in class activities, hits out at monitors and runs around screaming and laughing when he should be silent .

Having his syndrome diagnosed hasn't made John any less notorious. Scientists may have created a category which describes him. They may even have discovered that children like him have an antibody which affects certain neuro-transmitters. But he is still the naughtiest boy in the class. Other pupils tend to egg him on to do things they wouldn't dare. John, wanting to fit in, seizes these opportunities and has become the class fool.

His work is way behind what it should be. This is partly a result of his condition but also of his refusal to co-operate. The first time we held a birthday party for him we feared that other parents might actually keep their children away. But John is no less popular than any other child.

But giving a name to our concern has helped us psychologically and it has also helped John's school. Recently they sent his teacher on a training day with a local specialist unit which has particular expertise with Asperger. What the unit was able to impart to her, and she has been able to put into practice, has already made a big difference in his attitude to school and his behaviour. John can only be John. But now that his school is finding ways that he can be good as well, he is behaving better and is happier.

I would never suggest that all Mrs Shephard's problem children have medical conditions but it is worth looking twice at the naughtiest boy in the class.

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