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For the last few weeks I have been reading ‘Far From the Tree’ by Andrew Solomon, which is my excuse for not writing a great deal. At 976 pages it is a fairly hefty read! But the pages fly by quite quickly – the writing is simple and vivid – and thank goodness, it turns out that the footnotes take up half the book!

Solomon is exploring what it is like to raise children that are different from you (and, sometimes, what it is like to be those kids). His idea is that we all have multiple identities, and some of those are vertical – inherited from our parents – such as nationality, religion, or red hair. But some are horizontal – unexpected traits that are not shared with parents – such as being deaf, dwarf, or autistic – and some of which, like his own account of being gay, may be rejected by parents. He tackles each of these categories in its own chapter, describing the unique challenges and strengths of the group, and some of the science, intermixed with people he has interviewed at length about their experience. It is the case studies that make the book: some of these characters leap off the page, and there are some extraordinary stories. Solomon makes a very sympathetic interviewer: he spends time with his subjects – not just an afternoon, but returning to visit again and again over years, building close relationships that often become real friendships. He stays in their homes, he keeps in touch, and it does feel as if some of his subjects – especially the most poor, isolated and discriminated against – gained a real sense of validation from his involvement.

Later in the book, Solomon deliberately moves away from what we all think of as “special needs” families. He looks at families where children are prodigies, or the product of rape, or become involved in crime. There were some good points here, and the interviews were thought-provoking, but I’m not sure he made such a good case for some of these categories. The chapter on children of rape, in particular, felt as if it needed a book all of its own. As Solomon admitted, the real connection here was amongst the mothers, not the children, and this group sat uneasily amongst the rest: a story to be told, yes, but perhaps in a different way. It didn’t help that while many of the families in the early chapters were similar to each other (mostly American), in this chapter, Solomon travelled to Rwanda to explore the subject of rape in war. Changing cultures so dramatically is pretty jarring – how can we relate these women’s experience to mothers in New York? This section felt very compressed, awkward and uneven.

But even just for the first half, I’d recommend Solomon’s book to anyone who has found themselves parenting kids who are “different”. Much of the time, parenting odd kids feels isolating and thankless, but this book is full of parents struggling to raise such children. Amongst these pages you find people you recognize, muddling along from day to day, sometimes showing amazing courage and tenacity, sometimes laughing at themselves, sometimes giving up and hiding under the duvet. But for most of these parents, amazingly, once they had got the hang of it, a lot of them seemed to gain from the experience. It was hard, and they grieved at first, but they no longer wanted their child to be any different.

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I’ve been a “special needs” parent for a while now – since my son was about seven, and my daughter thirteen – and I’ve got the T-shirt. I’ve been to special needs conferences, I’ve battled through the statementing process and I’ve got the school SENCO on speed dial. All schools use terms like “special needs” or “different needs” liberally these days, and a large secondary school will have a small armies of additional adults called teaching assistants (TAs in the lingo), helping individual children.

So it’s sobering to hear what my children think of the word “special”, after a lifetime growing up hearing the term bandied about by adults, especially in relation to them themselves. One of my children had to fight to be included in the “special needs” camp and win funding for her very own TA; the other child has spent the last few years fighting to keep out of the “special needs” category, struggling to evade the SENCO’s grasp.

It can come as no surprise to anyone who knows children (or who was ever a child) to find out that “special” has joined that list of words that are changing use rapidly, and generally heading south. Just as Obama wise-cracked about “the Special Olympics” (and then had to hastily apologise ), you can bet there’s a teenager near you telling another teenager that they’re “a special”. Is it only a matter of time before “special” goes the way of words like “spastic”? When I was a child the word “spastic” was perfectly respectable (as in The Spastic Society) before sliding into taboo.

So no kid wants to be “special” these days, but of course as teenagers they are also anxious to find out what it is that makes them different from everyone else. This may be partly because we educate them in such huge cohorts – my kids are at a school over 1500 strong. Even though they seem to prefer to do everything in packs, they are simultaneously hunting for that elusive personal signature.

This is a challenge for any kid who has ever been labelled “special”. They can embrace that label and identify themselves by it, but that’s not always a very successful strategy. If you decide to be assertively Aspie, for example, that only works as long as you feel that having Asperger’s Syndrome is generally positive. You might feel enthusiastic if you credit it with giving you mathematically superior powers, but more reluctant if you think it puts off prospective sexual partners. Reject it, and you redouble your efforts to find another way to define yourself.

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