My child's different: 'It's still too easy for kids like mine to be written off as naughty'

Lucy Denyer
Author Elaine Halligan with her son Sam, a former 'alphabet kid' - JNVisuals

When I arrive at Elaine Halligan's house in a leafy London suburb, it is her son, Sam, who shows me into the kitchen. Tall, affable and welcoming, he chats lightly about what he has been up to since graduating from Oxford Brookes University in May - driving to the border of Algeria and then around Europe with some friends; working on his own business, selling classic cars; and applying for a job with a US start-up. Polite and relaxed, he is the epitome of a well-brought-up young man.

You would never guess that this was the boy who, aged seven, had been thrown out of three schools because the teachers couldn't cope with him, and who, by age five, had been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum and labelled with a string of behavioural issue-related abbreviations - SID, PDA, ADD, ODD - that had left his parents wondering what to do with this "alphabet kid". So what happened? As Sam is just an easy-going young man today, were those labels "real", or just the symptoms of a society that increasingly likes to overdiagnose its children?

These are questions that Halligan attempts to answer in her new book: My Child's Different, subtitled "The lessons learned from one family's struggle to unlock their son's potential". Part confessional, part parenting manual, it is interspersed with professional advice from Melissa Hood, Halligan's co-director at The Parent Practice, a coaching company that offers courses to help parents tackle different issues with their children (a role Halligan, a former accountant, took on after everything she'd learnt from parenting Sam), as well as interjections from Sam himself.

The book contains some genuinely useful advice, although it is clear that Halligan remains tormented about some aspects of Sam's educational ­experience and, like most parents, ­carries a lot of guilt. Writing it all down was, she says, "an incredibly emotional experience".

Elaine Halligan with her son Sam at six months in 1996

She is quietly adamant that Sam's childhood problems - which began with excessively disruptive behaviour and tantrums when he started nursery aged two - stemmed from specific, complex needs. He was severely dyslexic (initially undiagnosed), and suffered from "sensory integration dysfunction" - he found things like itchy socks or sticky labels on his clothing unbearable in the extreme. Adding severe anxiety into the mix didn't help.

When it comes to the other labels, however, things get a little hazy. Both Halligan and Sam firmly reject the notion that he was on the autism spectrum - although she does confess to using the label "autistic" as a quick-route way to getting people to understand the issues she was having with Sam (she later says parents should never use a label to excuse certain behaviour). I confess I was a little sceptical about a couple of the things Sam was diagnosed with, not least "pathological demand avoidance" - aka refusing to do what's been asked, even if you normally like the activity - and "oppositional defiant order"; hostility towards adults, basically. Surely these are just the behaviours of any small, strong-willed child?

"What we had was a child who was non-compliant, at home and at school. But, of course, many children can be uncooperative at times," Halligan acknowledges. Nevertheless, she adds, "Sam was non-compliant to the extreme, where he would pathologically avoid things in the classroom. That is not a diagnosis, it is symptomatic of a child who is suffering from extreme anxiety, huge frustration and being in an environment where people don't understand his specific needs - that's what causes the non-compliant, uncooperative behaviour. Add to that a temperament that was really sensitive and very impulsive and intense, and..."

If it all sounds confusing, that's because it is. What seems to emerge is that, yes, Sam did have some additional educational needs, which, combined with teachers who weren't trained to handle them and Sam's naturally explosive temperament, ended up in things going off the rails.

While the Halligans were certain that Sam did not suffer from everything he was diagnosed with, they were prepared to use the labels they had been given to help Sam get the help he needed. "Unless you have some sort of diagnosis and understanding of where the behaviour is coming from, it's very easy for parents and adults to look at a child like Sam and just write them off as being naughty, stupid or silly," says Halligan.

Having a diagnosis (that Sam was on the autism spectrum and suffered from dyslexia and dyspraxia) meant the family could get a statement of special educational needs (SEN) and secure additional therapy and, crucially, funding. All of Sam's education, including his time at the fee-paying Knowl Hill School and later More House School, was paid for, including the daily 70-minute taxi ride each way to the former, thanks to the SEN statement (which Halligan later fought to have rewritten, as she knew it was incorrect in labelling Sam as on the autism spectrum). How much of that, I wonder, was the result of good old sharp-elbowed, middle-class parenting?

Halligan is defensive on this point. "He needed specialist education to enable him to access the curriculum. He couldn't be educated." She acknowledges that it can be pot luck depending on where you live. But what about children out there who don't have advocates or family members who can fight for them to the extent she and her husband did? "It means our educational system needs to be much more aware of learning needs. Teachers get very little training in SEN, so very quickly lots of kids are dismissed as 'naughty'."

So what does Sam think about all of this? Throughout our conversation he sits quietly, occasionally interjecting, standing his ground when his mother disagrees with him. He's happy being dubbed "severely dyslexic". He's forgiven his parents, he says, for the things they got wrong - and he doesn't seem to mind that his most embarrassing childhood deeds are on paper for all to read. He concludes that he wouldn't change anything, and feels he'll be a better parent as a result.

A relief, then, for any parent who's worried that their tricky child might struggle in life. Just because a label is stuck on, it doesn't mean you can't pull it off.

My Child's Different (Crown House) is available for £12.99 plus p&p from books.telegraph.co.uk