Wishful thinking: Sink or Swim

In a matter of seconds, his eyes glaze over and I see it coming. "I'm here," I shout, pulling forward my fabulously cupped bathing costume. He's sick inside it

Hands up, if you've got special needs. If you're not sure, try this simple test.

A. Do you sometimes have difficulty expressing yourself?

B. Do you often find it difficult to concentrate?

C. Do you find it hard to switch off?

If you answered yes, congratulations, you've got special needs. There's no need to call your GP. Have some more chocolate and comfort yourself with the knowledge that we've all got them. It's just that modern usage has turned those two little words into a political and social debate. We expect this simple conjunction to carry a life package of Government- backed measures enabling my son Henry, for instance, to lead a full life and reach his potential. Excuse me while I snort!

Here's an example of what special needs can do to you. Because he's mentally handicapped, Henry's are at the very top of the caring agenda now that he's about to start school. But where should he go? The Government is terribly keen on this integration lark. It means shoving as many SNPs (special needs persons) as you can into the mainstream and seeing what happens. Henry's team says he can't manage mainstream. The team, by the way, consists of a clinical psychologist, a consultant paediatrician, a speech therapist, an educational psychologist, an occupational therapist, a community medicine consultant and a GP. Oh, and his parents. All this for a child with only "moderate" learning difficulties.

Last week, we had a case meeting. All of us, except Henry, climbed the narrow staircase to the tiny, drab meeting room at the top of the Family Psychiatry building. Everyone's quite fat, so the sight on the stairs is big. Some teamies have their hair tied neatly with clips. Others have sensible shoes. Although we sit on tiny chairs, none of us can keep our knees together and no-one can smoke. We've got an hour to discuss Henry's future. And it's looking good. He can draw an orange now. But he can't talk like his peers and they haven't got time to wait for him to find the words. This doesn't sound like any other toddler you know, does it? He'll have to go to a special school they say. Henry is being defined by his condition - the Mentally Handicapping of Henry.

But the fact that his peers, aged four, have cottoned on is argument enough that if you can't communicate like the rest of us, you've had it. The job of Henry's team, of course, is to take the time to listen, but the idea that all his communication is to the good is what identifies him as different.

This identification process is the same in the real world. Henry's leisure time is punctuated by ordinary people doing everyday things that drive him into a frenzy of frustration. Swimming is a good example. The chaos usually starts in the changing room because no-one changes fast enough for him. So while I'm unravelling my tights he's growling. The noise level rises steadily until he can't hear me saying that if he doesn't stop we'll have to go home. The changing room door opens and we are met by a sea of faces. Cautious adults and frightened-looking children. I'm not sure whether of me or Henry. It's only a small boy and his mum. What was that noise, they wonder?

Henry throws himself into the water on to whatever or whoever happens to be in the way. But people do behave unusually in the water, don't they? Really, everything's going swimmingly. The growling's stopped. I can't hear him screaming with excitement because I'm too embarrassed. And he's found himself a little, green teddy-bear float. Brilliant. He throws his little body deep down into the water and lies flat, face down long enough to drown. But Henry's got character, so survives. He hasn't got any sense, though, and surfaces retching. Keeping his mouth shut is not one of Henry's strengths.

This happy family scene sours as the teddy-bear float drifts away, in an unguarded moment, and is snatched by another toddler. Whoops. Henry thinks it's funny because she's bound to give it back. He swims around her and her doting parents, thrashing at the teddy, laughing and crying. Now he's thrashing at all of them and mum and dad close in around their daughter in an effort to protect the teddy. "I'm sorry," I say to them appealingly. "He doesn't understand what's happening. He just wants his float back." They're sorry Henry doesn't understand, but their little girl's got it now and she's not giving it back. Do I say: "He's mentally handicapped. Give it back. She can play with the other three."? No, I try other tactics. They all fail. His cheeks swell up. In a matter of seconds, his eyes glaze over and I see it coming. "I'm here," I shout, pulling forward my fabulously cupped navy blue and gold starred bathing costume. He's sick inside it.

We do our best to clean up in the public shower at the poolside. Sick floats down the drains and bottles of local authority antiseptic arrive. The swimming party is over. The little girl and her parents are nowhere to be seen but the teddy-bear float is still there having a cool time.

It's difficult to know what or who defines a special needs person. On balance I prefer the sensible shoes and hair grips approach to the problem. I also need a new bathing costume, a private pool and ...

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