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Misdiagnosing Benjamin

  • 22 February 2010
Spider-Man helmet set squarely on his head, feet on pedals, my three-year-old son, Ben, is set to race his luridly green pushie down our street and around the block. I break out into a slow jog, clinging to the handle mounted on the back of the bike.

Ben is a powerful little bloke and progress, especially downhill, can be too rapid for my taste. Would that it were so in all aspects of Ben's life.

With my wife, I've sailed blithely through parenting our daughter, six-year-old-going-on-30 Emily Georgia, apart from a jeremiad of teething woes and some other health scares. We came aground with Ben, who's now three and a half.

Ben often resides in a daydream kingdom of Bob the Builder, Winnie the Pooh, Dora the Explorer, Roary the Rustbucket etc. When you meet the lad, depending on his mood, you may or may not be acknowledged. He alternates between shyness and exuberance. Engagement and detachment. This has brought strident critiques of the boy from his educators.

Last year I was sitting uneasily with my wife in a room overly crowded with good intentions, early childhood educators and hypocrisy. The subject of discussion was Ben, then two, who was acting out in his preschool room.

Deplorable crimes, a litany of sins omitted and committed, were detailed 'in the interests of your child': Ignoring his teachers' directions. Zoning out if he didn't want to play or conform. Doing a runner if they were taken outside the classroom. (I had to repress a smile at the thought of his teachers trying to catch the little bugger. He's fast.) Pinching toys from his classmates (mostly little girls) and knocking down their sandcastles. In short, Ben was not behaving as his educators wished. At two.

The behavioural problems were ones we were fully aware of and were addressing at home. The grief that came from the meeting and lasted for more than a year came from the misdiagnosis of autism and Asperger's Syndrome. Waves of fear, anger and worry still wash over our nocturnal conversations when, lying in bed, we talk about the two most loved people in our lives.

The meeting ended with my wife in tears and me seething inwardly while maintaining my plastic smile. A considerable amount of pressure was stacked on our shoulders, especially my wife's, to schedule further meetings and take Ben through a battery of testing procedures.

The end play was to either