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Day 4: Urgh. (Dyspraxia, Secondary School and Non-Alcoholic Wine)

So, I'm back. I had two days without internet, while away celebrating the in-laws' golden wedding anniversary. Hard to imagine half a century of marriage, and probably best not to try.

My in-laws were, as always, the most extravagant of hosts, and the wine was flowing -- not to mention the vintage port, cellared by the family since 1963. I stuck to water on the first night, then somehow convinced myself that non-alcoholic wine was a brilliant idea. It wasn't. The Tesco Finest Chenin Blanc - non-alcoholic, but with potentially redeeming BUBBLES - was comfortably drinkable if you pretended it was very sweet fizzy pop. However, even I struggle to pretend that it is absolutely fine to drink fizzy pop with a delicately flavoured, painstakingly prepared and terribly sophisticated four-course meal provided by a private chef and served beneath the chandelier of a Victorian Rectory. On the whole, Sprite may have been a better choice. I held off on the Belvoir Shiraz Without the Hangover (yes, that's a real product name) until today (Monday). I had the most wonderful realisation that I could indulge my life-long dream of wine for breakfast now that the wine was non-alcoholic, and poured a glass around ten this morning. I then decanted it into a mug, as I thought The Big Boy might call Childline if he spotted the fishbowl glass so early in the day. Anyway, the fake Chenin Blanc had led me to expect lovely sweet grape juice, so I was sorely disappointed to discover that Belvoir had actually attempted to make their stuff taste of wine, by adding spice to the mix. Not for me, I'm afraid. From here on in it's H2O with ice and a slice, unless anyone has a better idea.

So what can I say about the last few days? I haven't had a drink, although I've felt the need. And I was very smug to be only slightly tired while pretty much every other member of my husband's extended family suffered with a severe post-party 'virus' on Sunday morning. But I'm also realising what a stupid thing it is to think of the luxury of a glass of wine or even Pimms, my previous lifeline, as a 'need'. Things are tough for all three of my oldest friends at the moment, and I think of them every time I feel even remotely sorry for myself, then feel wretched for being caught up in things that really don't matter. (Sometimes I tell myself off out loud, which is something else I hope to keep from Childline.) What matters, then? Family. Health. Mental Health. Safety. Not much else, in our over-privileged lives, when we mostly take food and shelter and clean water and air for granted. It's a long time since I studied Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, but I don't think he took Pimms into consideration when thrashing out his theories.

But today, my babies were scared and sad, and I was near undone. Why scared and sad? Because tomorrow is the return to school. The Cat and The Dog begin Year 4 with new teachers and new TAs, and The Big Boy heads off to Year 7 and his new life as a secondary student. When I say 'Big', he only turned 11 in late August, and right now that feels far too Un-Big to be setting off anywhere in a blazer and tie. Many who know The Big Boy have happily told me that he can't really have special needs because he is too clever, he has done well at primary school, he's in a football team and so on. And yes, he is a smart cookie and he does play football. But what they don't see is how much more exhausted he is after school than other children, and how hard he's had to work to hold things together all day. And most of these people smile kindly upon his clumsiness and his staggering inability to organise himself, finding it somewhat charming, it seems. I appreciate this warmth directed at my boy, but it's not just some kind of 'add-on' amusing character trait. It's Dyspraxia and it's cruel and it chips away at the self-esteem he should have, given all that he achieves.

Dyspraxia doesn't mean he struggles to read or spell (that's dyslexia) or to work with numbers (dyscalculia). It is, like those other conditions, a lifelong neurological disorder, that can be supported or managed, but will always impact upon his daily life. Also known as Developmental Co-ordination Disorder (DCD), it occurs when messages from the brain are not correctly transmitted through the body. People with dyspraxia have issues with motor skills, not only appearing clumsy in larger movements and struggling with fine movement, but also having motor planning and sequencing issues, so not being able to work out the simplest way to complete a physical activity. As young children they fall over a lot, or step on people, or struggle to climb or ride a bike. Tying laces comes very late. Zips and packaging, keys and tools, and pen grip for extended periods are all hard work. The Big Boy has pretty much nailed this side of things, although the occasional door-frame will jump into his path, resulting in bruised elbows or stubbed toes, or a step might appear where he hadn't noticed one. He is incredibly determined and I love that he finds his own way through physical challenges.

What is perhaps harder to understand for many people, though, is that his brain makes it nearly impossible for him to be organised. 'Executive function' and 'working memory' are key phrases here. Time management  and day-to-day organisation fall by the wayside. Here are just a few of the challenges:
  • remembering instructions with more than one step
  • trying to remember where he has put his belongings
  • planning a piece of work, then remembering what the notes meant
  • time management
  • completing work
  • handing work in
  • reading maps or timetables
He can literally have his giant school rucksack one moment and have lost it the next. We leave home and it's on his back; we get to school and it's gone. He can think he's put on his shoes but come out in one sock. Or put shoes on and then take them off again, forgetting that we're about to leave the house. Homework is done at great emotional expense, goes into the bag, and is never seen again. (Thank the lord for computers and e-mail and good relationships with his primary teachers!)

Many dyspraxic people also struggle with sensory processing. Basically, the five senses you know (taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing), plus a few others that are more complex, can be out of kilter. The scratchy sock makes it impossible to concentrate. The noise that nobody else notices - the hum of the fridge, the tick of a clock - crashes through the brain at the expense of all other input. A tiny piece of onion might set a mouth on fire, or a texture like yoghurt may occasion retching. Ice cream in our house MUST NOT SOFTEN. And don't even mention soup. Or, heaven forfend, a stew.

So let's imagine a nightmare scenario for the Big Boy. How about, for example:
  • a blazer, a tie and a buttoned shirt
  • a timetable, and a fortnightly timetable at that!
  • a map
  • the need to move from one place to another in a timely manner, and actually to get to the correct destination rather than just 'some other place'
  • bells 
  • time restrictions
  • a whole selection of different teachers and about 240 children his age
  • books and more books, which vary from lesson to lesson and day to day and week to week, and must not be lost
  • trying to have a pen ALL DAY
  • switching different subjects on and off all day
  • homework from more than one teacher, that needs to be prioritised, completed and handed in
  • a planner that must be used all year without disappearing or being covered by absent-minded doodles or stepped upon or torn
Oh dear, I've just described secondary school, and that seems to be on the calendar for tomorrow and as far into the future as I can see.

So yes, we're both terrified. He's scared of the change, I'm scared of him accidentally walking to town instead of home. Wearing one shoe and somebody else's tie and leaving his bag, phone and tablet in a hedge. But I have to say, his form tutor seems lovely and has put up with a succession of rambling messages from me before school has even started. And there's always the chance it'll be fine. I hope. Perhaps.

The best news of all is that thanks to the people sponsoring my 90daysdry, I can't be tempted to have vodka for morning tea tomorrow. Thank you everyone for saving me from myself.


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