BY CHRISTEN SHEPHERD
It was a scorching day so I’d taken my children to a splash pad. I was watching my daughters dancing in the water, when out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of my nine-year-old son, Allan, dart into the parking lot. He ran right in front of a moving car, which had to swerve not to hit him. I bolted over and grabbed him by the arm.
“Why would you do that? You could have been killed!”
This came as a surprise to Allan. He’d spotted a bee at the splash pad and run from it, not thinking for a moment that hurtling through the parking lot held far greater dangers.
Allan drifted through his days, coming downstairs in the morning wearing yesterday’s dirty clothes, never closing cupboard doors or drawers, forgetting to zip his schoolbag as he headed out the door with his hair unbrushed. Every interaction was tinged with frustration, and I felt I was failing as a parent. None of the tricks that I’d learned parenting my two eldest sons worked. Almost immediately after Allan came into our family, it was clear to me something was very wrong.
Nine years ago, when my husband, Trevor, and I set out to adopt, we had two stipulations: The child must be able to live independently one day and must not have been exposed to alcohol prenatally. From what we’d heard in our adoption classes, alcohol exposure created a muddle of impossible behaviours, far beyond what we could handle.
In the end we didn’t end up adopting a child—we adopted four children. The siblings we fell in love with from the moment we were handed their profile were aged 3, 5, 7 and 9. In the kids’ profile photo they had optimistic smiles, and when we got to meet them in person, we discovered they had endearing personalities to match.
On visits, they loved spending time on our farm—running around gleefully in the barn and fields, gently hugging our cats and chickens and patiently feeding grass to our goats and ponies. I knew it would be an adjustment to go from a family of four to a family of eight, but aside from having to cook twice as much, I expected things would carry on the same in our home—just with double the life and love. I couldn’t wait.
People say: “If you adopt older children, rather than babies, you know what you’re getting.” Well it turns out we didn’t. The anticipated mess and noise of our four new kids was compounded by giant tantrums and all kinds of surprising behaviours. Each child added unique elements to the hurricane: one punched holes through walls, another ran away during thunderstorms, another screamed at an ear-piercing pitch for hours at a time.
Allan was the biggest puzzle. He raged over small things: One time I told him dinner was still a few minutes away, so he leaped toward a pot of water boiling on the stove and almost burned himself. A trip to Niagara Falls left him sitting on the curb feeling sick and sticking his fingers in his ears, to block out the chatter of the crowds. And even though his classmates had long since twigged about Santa, Allan still wrote him earnest letters.
Allan spoke as articulately as other boys his age, so we initially pitched our expectations for him far beyond what he could manage. It was hard not to compare him to my eldest sons, and as we grappled with more and more behaviours that we couldn’t understand, I began to worry that he didn’t want to mature or try at anything in life.
Night after night of homework battles made us push for psych-educational testing at the school. It took a year to materialize, but finally Allan was diagnosed with intellectual delays. While the Children’s Aid Society told us this likely stemmed from a turbulent ride through the foster-care system, we were convinced there was more to it. Every aspect of life was such a struggle. After I presented our social worker with a list of Allan’s deficits, she finally referred us to a doctor trained in diagnosing fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).
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