Tuesday, 13 December 2011

My Child isn't Perfect. Part Two.

Last week I reacted to the ITV's airing of part one of a two part series named My Child isn't Perfect

My reaction at that time was just that, reactionary. I was pretty angry about the production of the programme and it's message. I didn't provide any deep insight into another reality of raising a child whom the ITV deem not to be perfect because that would take forever. I did, however, fail to give any information on the show for those who haven't seen it so here is a fleshed out version along with more comments. These comments are largely negative I am afraid. I wanted to write objectively about the combined programmer but the manner in which the information, the experiences and the impression left on the viewer is still maddening. My heart is also still recovering from an hour long session with my son last night where he broke down in tears. In lieu of his annual peadiatrician visit, he is feeling frustrated at being different. I tried my hardest not to cry when he looked at me through his tears and said to me that he just wanted to be perfect. Just like everybody else.

From the ITV website:

Episode 1
In episode one we meet Katherine, a lively little six year old who is the life and soul of the family at home. However, as soon as she passes through the school gates each day, she becomes mute. Unable to speak a word for eight hours a day, her family embarks on a course of intensive speech therapy to get to the cause of her resistance to talk.

For 16 year old Henry, the problem isn’t talking, it’s what he says: Henry has Tourette’s Syndrome. Diagnosed just over a year ago, following a sudden seizure, Henry and his family’s lives were turned upside down in an instant. Unable to control either physical movement or vocal expression, he’s coming to terms with the impact of this incurable condition and seeking alternative therapies to manage it, while studying for his GCSEs.

The programme also features Charlotte, who has been searching for a diagnosis to explain her ten year old son Adam’s behaviour. Convinced that something just ‘wasn’t right’ since he was a baby, she has come to the mental health unit of the Priory in Cheadle, near Stockport, to meet Dr Faeza Khan. She assesses Adam and diagnoses him with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, which comes as a relief to his mother, who has spent his life searching for a diagnosis which will hopefully enable the family to access services and support to formulate a long-term care package for him.

Episode 2
The programme follows a 15 year old girl struggling with bulimia. Hazel is sick up to 20 times a day and can’t seem to escape the cycle of binge eating and vomiting. She has been under the care of the Maudsley Hospital, one of the UK’s leading NHS institutions for child and adolescent mental health services with a specialist knowledge of eating disorders. Hazel has attended therapy sessions for the past twelve months, and with her GCSEs approaching, she’s desperately trying to take control of her condition.

12 year old Lewis has immersed himself in the silent world of photography because his stammer, which he has suffered with for the last four years since changing schools, means that talking is an internal battle, one which he constantly loses. Lewis attends a three day intensive course using revolutionary breathing techniques to try to overcome his stammer.

Tracy has known her daughter Maddy was different since she was just eight months old. Her aggressive behaviour, inability to make friends and constant defiance has threatened to pull their family apart. Early intervention in any mental health issue is vital, and now she is eight years old, Maddy’s parents realise they don’t have long to get her a diagnosis and hopefully help her control her behaviour. A thorough assessment under the care of the world renowned child psychologist Professor Stephen Scott and his team at the Maudsley Hospital diagnoses ADHD and he prescribes a multi-pronged approach to managing the condition including medication and arming her parents with some new parenting techniques.

Before I start I would like to point out that none of what I have to say is NOT a direct slur on any of these parents. It is hard and I know their hardships. My comments reflect what I believe was the way on which their individual circumstances was portrayed by ITV and what the general public will have taken away from the programme. I also focus more on the representation of ASD and autism as that is what I know most about. 

So, the intention of the programme is to highlight the difficulties that parents of children who are 'different' face. There is even a minor attempt to deal with public perceptions of conditions that they do not understand. A reading of the programme as this is too forgiving and certainly not the message that is communicated by the programme as a whole. The programme did show one thing that previous coverage of disabilities and behavioural problems like these hasn't until now, is that yes, even children of Middle Class parents can have what the programme makers refer to as behavioural problems. It is not solely confined to your scheme dwellers, your single parents and your teenage parents. 

I found it hard to relate to the parents in the programme. Yes, people need to hear about our experiences as parents of children with disabilities but they need to hear about it in a what that creates empathy. The public need an insight, they need to see you struggle and they need to see you coping to grasp a glimmer of what life is really like. Giving ITV soundbites like "I wish it was a brain tumour. At least that could be cut out" and "Why do they get to have normal children and I don't" does nothing to change public perception of us as parents or of our children. I really felt that the message that came across was that these parents were struggling to cope with or at least accept who their children are. I admire Henry's mother for attempting to help him out using holistic methods rather than the drugs that he grudges taking. But calling herself a reiki master is a bit of a push, isn't it? While the programme's is intention to highlight the hardships that the parents face, I do not think that I would be incredibly far off the mark in saying that the children are sidelined to create pity for the poor parents who have to raise them. The programme also lacks any real opinion or commentary from the children themselves. Henry is lucky in that he has a wonderful support network of friends. He is able to articulate himself incredibly well and seems to be coping admirably with the late onset at such a difficult phase in his life. 

Also a major problem is created in the editing process of both episodes. We are told in the opening of each programme that the children with the psychological conditions have been struggling with them for a number of years. However, relatively little work within a short space of time reveals a startling transformation. Katherine, after only one session talks to her speech therapist in her classroom setting, then moves on to a friend and then a small group. Lewis' programme in Sussex lasts only three days. Hazel after being able to talk through her obsession with food, decides she is going to change and does. This is fantastic news. Finally these beautiful children can progress and grow and get past their obstacles. However to the lay person this creates the impression that these obstacles were relatively minor if they could be treated so easily. 

In their interaction with professionals, their resources are distinctly Middle Class. None of the actions are typical and are certainly not ways of coping, treating or dealing with any of these disabilities are that accessible to all. Henry's mother spent over £10,000 on dentistry. It is not clear whether she has sought help for this on the NHS or has forked out for this herself. Adam only receives a diagnosis when his mother eventually stops lounging by the pool and takes him to the Priory. The parents of the girl with Selective Mutism wait after she has completed two full years in primary school before they seek any intervention. And either they are incredibly fortunate to be in a local authority where a speech therapist would come into her school three times a week or they paid for that themselves. Again in the second part, Lewis' parents are able to pay for him to attend the Starfish programme in Sussex. 

I still struggle with the intentions of the two programmes. A wide and varied range of disabilities, conditions and mental health issues are dealt with and perhaps this is it's fault.In their intention to cover a myriad of problems, they have covered too much and so the overall message is lost, empathy is lacking and any real understanding of the problems themselves or what life is like for the parents is still as muddy as at the start of the programme. Adam's lack of diagnosis is illustrative of a great number of children on the autistic spectrum but there are more people who have to fight for support for their children and who cannot access a private institution like the Priory to facilitate a diagnosis. Maddy is another example of the realities of having a child with a neurological condition. The fact that somewhere along the line she was actually misdiagnosed with Attachment Disorder and her poor mother was told that it was all her fault, might be shocking but is common. Less than 50 years ago women were being told that their parenting was the cause of their child's autism. 

The buzzwords of the programme are behaviour and difficulties. This muddies the line between neurological conditions, psychological conditions. Something that is treatable, curable and something that is not. Indeed the choice of showing three children in the first programme, two with diagnosable neurological conditions and one with a psychological one suggests that they are similar. Ergo something that you can be counselled out of. ADHD, ASD and Tourette's are very, very different to Mutism, Bulimia and Stammering and perhaps the programmes would have been better if they had separated them. Also, I cannot recall the word disability every being used in the programme. That is what these children are.

I didn't start out with the intentions of being so negative about both programmes but I am so disappointed with them. I am not the only one who is disappointed with the programme or in the message that the soundbites have conveyed. A charity that focuses on brain tumour research have registered a huge number of complaints to Ofcom about the soundbite which was actually shown in the official trailer as well as in the main body of the first episode. I think that anything that highlights what the kids have to go through and cope with is admirable but a corporation of this size, with its resources could have done a much better job. Viewers will sit down for two hours, mutter "aw...that's such a shame" and flick over to the next programme with very little thought. 

1 comment:

  1. i agree i didnt think much to it either.


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