Over the shoulder of girl studying

Tom's story about his daughter Annie (18)

My daughter’s final year of school was really difficult for her and for me, because she found the exam regime stressful and because she has Asperger’s Syndrome.

Annie was diagnosed with Asperger’s when she was really young. She’s quite outgoing, but does have trouble with socialising and also with calming herself and dealing with stress. Her mother and I are divorced and we decided she should come and live with me for her final year of school.

We get along really well. Communication is a really big part of this: I always say what’s on my mind and I expect my children to do the same to me. I’ve always set clear boundaries for them – they know what is okay and what’s not acceptable in my house. And when I talk to them I try to be honest. For example, if they ask me something and I don’t know the answer then we’ll look it up together.

About halfway through Year 12, when she was doing her mid-year exams, Annie started to feel the pressure. She’d come home from school and have a meltdown. For Annie that means crying, yelling and screaming and retreating to her room. She also has a couple of repetitive physical behaviours – I call them tics. One is that she flaps her arm up and down, often hitting her leg so hard she’ll bruise it. That gets very intense when Annie is under stress.

The first thing we did was to talk to her paediatrician. Annie takes some medication to help with her symptoms of Asperger’s and we thought maybe tweaking the meds might help her. But we decided not to go down that path, as ordinarily her medication works quite well. I tried talking to the student welfare woman at Annie’s school but I didn’t feel that she gave me much practical help. So it was up to Annie and me.

The way I dealt with it is by helping her organise her study routine, by being patient and sometimes just by giving her a big hug if she felt overwhelmed. If I noticed Annie seemed like she’d come home from school in a bad mood I’d give her about 15 minutes in her room to calm down, then I’d go in there and ask about it. We set up a study plan with blocks of time for each subject, and we put it on a chart above her desk in her room. She found that helpful because she felt more in control. And every night we’d have dinner together with no TV, no phones, no gadgets or gizmos on the table. That was always a good chance to talk.

Some days were harder than others, but she came through the mid-year exams and it was choppy but we sailed through until the end-of-year exams, which she found difficult but with the same strategies and a bit of patience we got through those as well. Now she’s at uni and I couldn’t be prouder of her.

Over the years I’ve developed ways of coping with her Asperger’s. I’ve read lots of books and learnt through trial-and-error. The biggest thing I’ve learned is not to yell back when she gets angry. It only ever makes things worse. When I stay calm, she eventually comes back to my level. I asked Annie what she learned from her difficult final year of school and she told me she’s got more confidence in herself. She doesn’t stress as much about study because she knows she’s capable of getting through it, she just needs to take a bit more time.

When you treat your children with respect, saying please and thank you and being there for them when they need you, that’s the best way of weathering the tough times.

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