“It`s good to be different”By Gina Verhaart 8th April 2010
It has required a bit of ‘rewiring’ on our part to create it.
His dad Peter, an investment manager, and I, a secondary teacher, despite our own education and life experience, had a very steep learning curve to come to realise how we could achieve it.
When we started to realise that James operated differently than most of his peers (at three) and that it was called Aspergers Syndrome, it slowly became apparent that we were about to embark on a different journey of parenthood than we had anticipated.
Aspergers Syndrome is a form of autism and each person who has it is unique in how they exhibit it but there are some common factors.
We still remind him to say hello when he first meets someone. We have had to do a lot of nurturing to encourage his emotional development which has not just “naturally” developed, for instance, tantrums extended right up until he was six.
He sees the world in a much different way from us. Details pop out at him, like he notices ants feeding on a worm as he goes up some steps, while he often misses the bigger picture.
He might say “Where are we Mum?” when we are standing outside a library we have been to, many times before.
He has his own development timetable that does not correspond to any schedule in a parenting book or school curriculum. His sensory system is so highly tuned that he can tell what luncheon is 95% fat free and what is not by smelling it.
The most challenging aspect has been to figure out how he learns. What we have discovered so far is that he needs to learn 3 dimensionally on topics that are of high interest to him when he is able to concentrate 100%, so this means no distractions – particularly sound.
Here in Raumati, where we had already lived for 15 years before James was born, we have been able to create a lifestyle for ourselves that is enhancing James’s growth.
Once it became obvious that James needed to be homeschooled to reach his potential, we built a small studio at the back of our home that acts as the classroom. (We had one disastrous trial in a small school when he was almost five to see how he would go.)
I have made teaching James my next career step after focusing on teaching secondary students for 16 years. Both have been challenging and exciting.
Thankfully our sanity saver has been another family who are homeschooling two children who are on the autism spectrum. It is vital to have someone who “gets it” so you can pour your thoughts and feelings out to them during times of stress and moments of break through (just like in any other job).
We have planted vegetable gardens, put in fruit trees and acquired four chickens to help James learn about food production. He loves to eat fresh vegetables out of the garden. A flying fox and play gym and other bits and pieces give James and his many friends outdoor activities.
And living parallel to the beach has provided us with the biggest adventure playground! Pet ownership has gone crazy and we are proud owners of three dogs, three cats, three rabbits, two guinea pigs, tropical fish, goldfish and an aviary of canaries and finches -plus a frog and an ant farm.
Autistic children often need to learn more directly about empathy, so pet ownership en mass (in the absence of siblings – years of fertility treatment only gave us one miracle – James) has given James lots of opportunities to learn about caring for other living things. James’s huge pride when he takes visitors round to visit his pets shows this has been a big success.
We have been able to use the local community in educating James. It seems that once we became comfortable with James being James, so did other people.
We pointed out that his differences came with an explanation – a neurological difference. People in the community have been only too happy to provide us with learning opportunities.
For example, James has done a photo essay of someone visiting our local dentist, and our pharmacist has shown James how he dispenses medication.
James is thriving and people who have known him since he was small comment on how well he is growing up.
Our fulfilling family life here on the Kapiti Coast has been possible due to thinking beyond what we thought was going to be our norm.
James recently said, “It’s good we are all different Mum, otherwise life would be so boring”. We could not agree with him more!