It wasn't until Matthew reached 11 that his ADHD was diagnosed. His mum Fiona wishes she had discovered the root of his problems sooner.
I had known for years that something was wrong.
My son just didn't seem like other children – but I was the only one who seemed to think so. Everyone else, including his father, would tell me that he was "just a normal boy". Perhaps they secretly thought I was fussing, or worse still, neurotic, but a mother's instinct told me there was a problem.
Other children could sit nicely at the table and eat their dinner and then wait until everyone else was finished. My son could barely sit still long enough to eat his food. I had long ago given up trying to keep him at the table while everyone else finished – what was the point? In the big scheme of things it was not that important – I had to choose my battles otherwise we would be arguing constantly.
Other children also knew how to behave appropriately. They all had their moments, but mine had them so very often. My son would forever embarrass me by fidgeting, talking, interrupting, not doing as he was told.
I learnt to avoid certain situations. A meal at a restaurant was out of the question. I could not bear the embarrassment of my son's behaviour.
I loaded on the guilt and blamed myself for his behaviour. I was too soft on him; too hard on him; I should have been a stay-at-home mum rather than worked part time. Whatever my crime, the net result was the same – I must be a terrible mother.
I would often feel extremely upset, frustrated and, on some days, totally hopeless. I was at constant loggerheads with my son in a vain attempt to get him to ‘behave'. I didn't just leave him to run riot, I tried really hard to parent him, but nothing seemed to work.
Getting him to do his homework was a nightmare. He could barely keep his concentration long enough to answer a single maths question – although he was average or above with his school results. He was distracted by the slightest thing.
He was often in trouble at school. He was rarely 'naughty' in the accepted sense, but in class he would fidget, call out, annoy other children, talk incessantly, and generally be a huge distraction to the teacher and his classmates. He lost almost any pen, pencil or book given to him and frequently found it impossible to stay 'on task' for the required amount of time.
Everything in isolation seemed sort of normal but when a child displays all of these behaviours, you realise that something is not quite right.
Seeking a diagnosis
I had been doing some research and getting an inkling of what may be the matter with my son. After visiting one particular website and following a checklist I was convinced I knew what the problem was – it was getting someone else to agree with me that was the problem.
Thankfully, he had a teacher who, rather than just try to manage him in the class, wondered if there was a root cause for my son's behaviour. When I suggested that my son be assessed he readily agreed.
I arranged for a paediatric psychiatrist to assess my son. He confirmed my suspicions; Matthew had ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).
My immediate reaction was two-fold and quite contradictory. First; terrible sadness for my son, who'd spent years being constantly told off and nagged at for things that were beyond his control and was facing life having to deal with a disability. Secondly, strangely enough, elation; I was not a terrible mother after all – nor neurotic – there was a reason for his behaviour. Now that I knew what the problem was I could work on finding out how best to help him.
There is a huge amount of ignorance about this condition and indeed some people still believe that it does not exist. It's very strange, but when a ‘mental' diagnosis is made, people feel qualified to challenge it.
Due to the lack of knowledge about ADHD, parents are advised to become experts on the subject, so I threw myself into reading any book I could get hold of and googling into the small hours! I now feel prepared for any question on the subject.
Learning about ADHD
The consultant recommended a parenting course in association with a support group in Havering called Add+Up. I can honestly say that the course changed my life; it made an amazing amount of difference.
I discovered that the worst thing you can do with Matthew is argue. You mustn't goad him into carrying on. You've got to accept that he sometimes acts before he thinks – I learnt to deal with it by asking why isn't it a good idea to do that? It's important to make him think about his actions rather than just tell him off. Before doing the course I felt so stressed all the time – but afterwards it was like someone had deflated me. Instead of blowing up I felt so much calmer and in control.
I have much more tolerance and patience with him. If we are out anywhere and he is fidgeting like mad I don't get stressed about it any more – I just ignore it. Asking him to stop is pointless as he can't help it (that was one of the first questions I asked the doctor).
It may be slightly annoying for people sitting near him, but is he really causing any harm? If anyone looks awry at him while he is behaving inappropriately I need not get embarrassed and apologise – I just explain that he has ADHD and that I am dealing with it in an appropriate way.
The medication issue
Medication is often the thing that parents struggle with most, especially when there is such negative press – sometimes it makes my blood boil! The best people to speak to and listen to are the doctors who can give you all the information you need.
It also helps to speak to other parents. I spoke to as many as I could – probably about 20 people – 19 of them were medicating their child and 19 agreed with it and found it helpful. I decided that if I didn't try it I would never know if it could help, in which case I might be holding Matthew back.
Deciding to use medication is a very personal choice and parents need to find out what works best for them and their child. The professionals all seem to say that a ‘multi-modal' approach of medication and suitable management at home and school work best – and I would have to agree.
I wish I had had the courage of my convictions years ago and decided to get my son assessed when I first suspected there was a problem, rather than let myself be talked out of it and battle on.
I truly believe that my son will have a much easier life now that we know what his problem is and how we can help him. Already he is far happier at school. Can you imagine how agonising school is for a child who finds sitting still and concentrating a huge problem? It has been suggested that if you were to think of the ultimate torture for a child with ADHD, it would be the confines of a classroom. Just a few simple techniques and the teacher's understanding of the condition can make a huge difference. My son has had lots of support at school since his diagnosis and tells me he understands more and, most importantly, is happier.
We have a long way to go; I need to fully implement all that I learnt on the parenting course and try to help him overcome some of the difficulties that he has. It will be hard work for both of us as the parenting will still be very challenging and it will sometimes be very hard to follow through. I have a huge incentive though – the happiness and well-being of my son. I just wish I had known what the problem was years ago so that my son could have been helped sooner and his life made easier.