My brilliant bundle of energy, Sidney, is four years old. He has a complex receptive speech and language difficulty and is currently pending a diagnosis of ASD.
When Sid was around two years old, the manager at his nursery raised some concerns about some of his repetitive behaviours and possible developmental delays. On some level, I knew Sid was a little different, but as my only child, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time.
Fast forward to a few months later and Sidney had been enrolled in speech and language therapy—my wife and I also had a list of specialist appointments as long as our collective arms.
While it was a head-spinning venture, I was happy to embark on the journey—I was up for the challenge.
Being pulled from pillar to post and having heaps upon heaps of information thrown at you isn’t easy. But, at the time I was comforted in the fact that there was somewhere to aim with Sid, ways in which we could help him progress and navigate the world on his terms.
The only problem was, I put too much pressure on myself, and in some ways, it had an adverse effect.
Despite trying to settle into a new location and negotiating a mounting workload, I decided to take on the mantle of Sidney’s developmental guide and teacher when he wasn’t at his speech and language sessions or nursery. Of course, if you’re a parent that is a part of the job description – but I hired myself for the role in a formal sense.
I would read endless resources in the evening and set up sections of the house like some sort of specialist academic obstacle course to help Sid thrive in a world that isn’t necessarily tolerant of the way he experiences it. But, in my pursuit to help Sidney, I had kind of missed the point.
Burned out and stressed, I overlooked the aim of the game: to help Sidney progress in a way that suits him and the way he thinks or feels.
At this point, I would like to say that I was never forceful or overbearing in my approach – I became rigid and uninspiring more than anything. After a few gleaming minutes of engagement, Sid would lose focus and go into his own world. The more I tried to steer him out of it, the more he stimmed, the more he locked himself out. And, then I would feel like a failure.
Fortunately, these methods only lasted for a short while and after a period of bashing my head against my own needless brick wall, I decided to lean on my innate strengths: being the silly, energetic daddy that likes to go outdoors.
Shortly after I changed my ways, Sidney’s social capabilities, language, and inquisitiveness came on. I also learned that turning up, tuning in, and making an effort is essential – but there’s no real room for stringent targets and clock-watching in SEND parenting.
Like any SEND mum or dad, I don’t know what the future holds, exactly. I don’t know when Sidney will be able to converse with me like most of his peers can or learn any morsel of danger awareness. But, I’m here for the ride – I’m here to help him support his passions and pursue his talents the way he sees fit while protecting his mental wellbeing, first and foremost.
Here are a few things I’ve learned over the past couple of years or so.
Nature, nature, nature
All children with SEND are different, and I know that going outdoors isn’t always the most comfortable option.
But, I’ve found that if you can’t go out to nature, you can bring it indoors (to an extent—I wouldn’t let a herd of elephants loose in my lounge).
Sidney loves being outside surrounded by grass, trees, and plants. So, we hop in the motor or set out on foot with our wellies on and getting among some form of nature whenever we can.
For the most secluded spots, we have to drive a little out of the city, but we sing and spot things along the way. And, when we’re on our adventure, we’ll jump in streams, climb trees or just walk around in endless circles pointing at things. Flooded with happiness, Sid is quite receptive when he’s in nature, which often gives me the opportunity to throw a little language game or listening technique into the mix naturally, without pressure.
Oh, and if it’s piddling down outside, we’ll put on a YouTube fish video or nature documentary at home. A chance to kick back and enjoy animal-based content that doesn’t revolve around Peppa Pig.
Loosen the ritual
When Sid’s developmental challenges were brought to my attention, I went into a panic and guilt overdrive. Did I do something wrong? Should I be doing more? Even if not, I’m his dad so I’d better pull my socks, bigtime.
This whirlwind of thought flooded my consciousness every single day. These thoughts or feelings never truly go away—but, I’ve learned not to let them defeat me. I understand that these thoughts are quite redundant and have no place in my quality time with Sid.
I used to stress about TV time and how many hours of structured play I did each day. As I said, it didn’t get me too far and didn’t really benefit Sid a great deal.
So, I decided to stop tallying and quantify everything, to let Sid perform his repetitive rituals and seek out sensory stimulation, guiding him gently and tapping in at opportune moments.
The best play is seamless. These days, I have a vague plan and see where it meanders, taking turns, playing games, and trying out speech and language techniques while doing practical things around the home (Sid loves to help feed the fish and clean the tank—although he did once try to eat our pet shrimp during the process).
Having a plan and being on the ball is beneficial, but I’ve had to tell myself time and time again: steps are small, victories are hard-won, and things rarely go exactly as you want them to—basically, fitting a square peg into a round hole won’t work.
By loosening my parental ritual, things have been better all round.