It's Easter Sunday here, and I am manfully, or womanfully, trying to forgive and forget in true Christian spirit. There are all sorts of people I need to forgive but let's start with my husband bringing home HomeBrand (unbranded, like Tesco Value) from the supermarket yesterday. To be honest, I am struggling. There is Christian tolerance but there are limits.
We've just had our Easter egg hunt, the annual confirmation that if developmental milestones were measured in ability to hunt down chocolate, our boys would be not just discharged from the paediatrician's care but possibly enrolled in a Gifted and Talented cohort study. There is something wonderful about small nappy-clad children wandering around a garden shouting "Egg! An egg!" and waving sticky, foil-covered fingers at you. Mumsnet, I note, is this year filled with parents insisting that their children only NEED one bite of chocolate, the rest of the Easter spirit joylessly supplied with one knitted egg from Traidcraft or whatever. In further evidence of my Christian backsliding, I believe that Easter is about fun first and restraint second. We supply plentiful eggs in this house, and then if they aren't used up in a few days I make chocolate cornflake crunch with the leftovers. (Again, I realise, it is one of the benefits of children with SN. You stop worrying about the possible moral connotations of too much chocolate and just enjoy the fact that they have ALL understood the idea of finding stuff in the garden, and that no one has wandered in having eaten cat poo by mistake. Although given my husband's clear lack of taste in tea, perhaps I should not be so sanguine, for all I know he might have mistaken weedkiller for chocolate this year).
It's been a complicated week. My eldest had his IEP on Monday - which was a bit alarming, as he has been so happy and settled I was expecting good reports all the way. They were lovely, and all agreed he was lovely - which he is, like a great big cuddly talkative teddybear - but suggested we revisit the whole ADHD question.
This should not have shocked me as much as it did. In realistic terms, I could not have been more prepared. At our last paediatric meeting before leaving England, the paediatrian sighed at the fact he had been discharged from ADHD clinic without diagnosis and asked me please, please, please, to get this reinvestigated when we arrived in New Zealand. So this should have been a gift, but in fact it was a blow in the stomach, because I had been rather hoping we'd dodged that bullet and that his issues had magically improved. (I am not immune from the parental disease of denial). I was astonished at how low I felt. I thought I was past that dreadful diagnosis-shock, I complained to a couple of friends. But of course, as they pointed out, every new diagnosis is about going back to the beginning, revisiting your view of what the child needs and what strategies are going to help.
Which brings me to the big bad elephant in the corner: Ritalin. As it happens, I am pretty sure my son won't need it. He is happy, he is learning, and we are managing him well enough at home. No reason to put him on Ritalin that I can see, and school agree. Diagnosis, if it happens, will be about strategies, support, qualifying him for extra help. But I've been shocked by the number of people who have said to me, as soon as I have mentioned that yet again ADHD is a possible diagnosis "But my God! What are you going to DO? You're not going to medicate! I mean, Ritalin is a DRUG!" as if I had proposed to throw my son off a cliff. Even more judgemental than those who don't want their children having a morsel of Easter chocolate this year.
Ritalin is what it is. We all know it's a drug, it's not ideal, it's the last resort, messing with a young child's brain chemistry at an age when they are unable to give consent, yadayada. But I would do it in a heartbeat if I thought my other children were at risk, his education was being destroyed by his behaviour, or I felt he was not safe to keep at home. I would do it because I believe foster care and illiteracy are known harms. Ritalin is a potential one. As a parent, you have to weigh up the pros and cons. There are of course cons to Ritalin, big ones. I am sure that in the States in particular it is often overprescribed, a first resort rather than a last. Even in the UK, Ritalin is too often prescribed BEFORE the serious behavioural therapy that the National Institute of Clinical Excellence recommends, you know, the type that is underfunded and completely lacking in most areas. So my ideal prescription for these kids would be more behavioural therapy.
But the parents I have known who use it, by and large, aren't idiots. Most have tried other strategies, seen them fail. The doctors who prescribe Ritalin aren't doing it for fun, or because they haven't noticed that it's a drug. They're doing it because they have taken a pragmatic decision that the known harms of violence and despair and failure outweigh the potential harm, longterm, of a still-new drug.
They may be wrong. Who knows? But I am not going to judge any parent who has taken a deep breath and said, at the end of a long battle with the alternatives, "actually, yes, medication may be what my kid needs." The people who "don't believe in ADHD" tend not to know what they are talking about. I know that, because I used to be one of them. Working with American schoolkids as a tourguide, I was horrified to see these really bright kids with a diagnosis. But they were so intelligent, I would say. They were the interesting ones. How could THEY be a problem? Of course, I was childless and cocksure. I didn't have the responsibility of raising them, I didn't see what they were like in the routine of a classroom as opposed to on the European trip of a lifetime. So this possible ADHD diagnosis is a bit like karma, if us Christians believed in karma, or divine judgement, if us Christian liberals believed in God sending us nasty surprises just to give us a fright. I guess what I should call it is "awkward." So you know, I have suspended my previously firm belief that medication was always, in every situation, a bad idea. I have looked at the evidence, of the families I know, and seen the mums at their wits end - often on medication in order to cope - the dads who leave, or take medication in order to cope - the kids who are beaten up, because every single sensible parenting strategy has failed, and even decent parents get to the end of their tether and lash out - and I try to take a rounded view.
And you know what I have learnt, talking to real parents who have used it? Responsible parents don't try Ritalin without having given EVERYTHING else a good shot first. Moreover, many of them don't want to drug their kid indefinitely. Which is great, because for short-term use it can be transformative. Ritalin doesn't have to be a lifetime sentence. From the cases I know, it can be the opposite. It can be about giving a kid a short-term boost, allowing them the breathing space to learn the behavioural strategies to manage longterm. And it can sometimes save a parent's sanity, or a sibling's emotional health, or a marriage. In short, in small doses Ritalin can be a godsend. Like chocolate at Easter.
Of course, some marriage-threatening problems can't be solved by medication. Sadly for our marriage, I know of no pharmaceutical preparation which would cure my husband's taste for revolting tea.