We were sitting in the doctor’s office, listening to his description of a little boy and our hearts were sinking more with every minute.
For us, this was the culmination of a three year process to adopt our first child, a process that had been fraught with frustration and doubt. And now this doctor, with his sober suit and professional manner, was telling us that the little boy we’d been matched with probably had severe learning difficulties and might never be able to live an independent life.
The doctor seemed so reasonable and knowledgeable. In a carefully conciliatory tone, he told us that this little boy had what the professionals call “global developmental delay” and that his case was severe. On all the tests they have – language, cognitive skills, fine motor skills, gross motor and social skills – he was behind over 99% of other children they’d tested – and the gap was getting bigger each time they tested him.
He told us that, since the potential of our brains is set at birth and could not be changed, it was unlikely that there would be much improvement in the prognosis for this little boy.
He was a professional paediatrician who spent his days dealing with this kind of problem. It seemed reasonable to take him at his word. At the very least, it was obvious that we would have to accept a large amount of uncertainty.
I was scared. Very scared. How would I be able to cope with that? Nothing in my life up to that point had prepared me for it. I was clueless. And honestly, I have enough trouble keeping myself together. My wife, however, was incensed. How dare this doctor label and write off this little life so glibly?
We were pretty much this little boy’s last chance. He was getting older, was male, and had a serious issue. In adoption terms, those factors added up to high a likelihood that he would spend his life in care if we didn’t take him.
We talked it over. We disagreed and we even argued a little. But we decided to go ahead.
We didn’t take it lightly, however. What we also did was begin learning everything we could about child development.
It wasn’t long before, in more recent neuroscientific research, we came across something called brain plasticity. If you’re a regular reader here, you’ll have heard me talk about this quite a bit. This little boy is the reason I learned about it in the first place.
Brain plasticity is the ability for our brains to change throughout our lives, at any age. Change can be positive or negative. But the existence of the potential for change means that we can take an active hand in whether the change in our own brains – or those of the people around us – is positive or negative.
The more I read, the more I allowed myself to hope. The clouds had parted. Suddenly, there was a real possibility that we could make a difference for our little boy. A possibility that the doctor was wrong.
From the beginning, we took an active part in our son’s development.
Every day, we took him out into nature so that he could experience new things: splashing in puddles; running through leaves; stroking horses; climbing trees. We got hold of everything we could find to help him grow, both mentally and physically. We bought all the educational toys we could find and spent time teaching him how to thread a lace through a hole, build a tower of blocks, identify shapes, make simple jigsaw puzzles. Every day was filled with stimulation and learning.
As you might expect, I spent quite a bit of time drawing with him, an activity I still credit with a meaningful contribution towards his mental development.
What we witnessed, especially over the first year he was with us, will stay with me for the rest of my life. Already as I write this, I’m having to wipe away tears.
When he first came to us, because of his situation, he had just about every form of support the health authorities could provide. By his fourth year, he had been officially signed off from all of them. He was within normal range for everything. He had overcome his delay.
An unexpected gift
This little boy gave me an incredible gift. He taught me, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that we’re not limited by what we’re born with – or even by what we have now, whatever point of our lives we may be at. He taught me that with the right kind of stimulation, we can learn and improve beyond what we might assume is possible. I saw it happen in front of me, day by day. It was the most powerful lesson I could have had on our potential for development.
He gave us a greater gift, too. We get to have him in our lives. We call him our sunshine boy, because that’s what he brings into our days. He wakes up singing, laughs all day and goes to bed asking questions (both deep and ridiculous) about a world that fills him with wonder. “What would happen if you had ten legs, could you run really fast? What would happen if you didn’t have any bones? Why is dying in the world? Are dreams real?”
Now, as much as I’d love to take credit for being an amazing parent, we didn’t do a lot more than most loving parents would do. And as well as having nature (in the form of brain plasticity) on our side, there was one other major factor that was holding him back before he came to us.
Up until we adopted him, he had spent almost all his time in a playpen. It’s a sad truth that whilst the health authorities do what they can to help the children in their care, sometimes the care those children receive is that in name only. A large part of the reason his development took off so quickly was that he’d previously had so little stimulation, so little basic human interaction that his natural development had stalled.
The walls of his playpen had defined his world, and they had defined the limits of his growth.
The truth was that he had never had any learning difficulties at all.
Our own walls
I’ve been writing on this website since 2005, when I decided to make a concerted effort to teach myself to draw and paint realistically. The journey has been far from easy, longer than I thought and fraught with uncertainty and doubt.
Many times I lost hope. Sometimes I stopped trying altogether. In my weakest moments, I believed I just didn’t have the talent I hoped for, that I would never be able to reach the heights of the artists I admired.
I accepted limitations that weren’t real. I came up against closed doors and I took them for walls.
If we’re not careful, we can make our own walls; walls made of our assumptions of what we’re capable of, of how far we can grow. We limit ourselves if we believe that a lack of talent can hold us back. Talent in a particular area is no more than a brain that’s been deliberately developed in a specific direction, optimised for a specific set of skills.
You can choose which direction you want to develop your brain in, simply by taking an active part in your development. Like a child who has been too long in a playpen, all you need is the right stimulation.
If we’d accepted that doctor’s advice, we might never have believed that the bounding bundle of exuberance that greets us every morning was possible. We might never have adopted him in the first place. He might never have grown as he has, into one of the brightest little boys you could ever hope to meet. And the doctor’s grim prognosis would have been his reality.
So let this year be the year you look beyond the walls of your own assumptions about what you can achieve. Those walls are illusions. You don’t have the same obstacles this little boy had to overcome, and neither do I. He’d had a terribly bad start in life, but he still overcame it, mostly through love.
Undoubtedly you will have obstacles. But perhaps, like this little boy’s problems, they might not be as insurmountable as they seem. Perhaps you can overcome them.
Perhaps you’re older, and you’re feeling that you’ve left it a little late. If that’s the case, there’s more good news for you. Brain plasticity isn’t the preserve of the young. Along with discovering that our brains grow and develop with experience, those nice people in lab coats have discovered that the process happens throughout our lives. You can teach an old dog new tricks.
So this is my wish for you in 2016: Don’t be your own misinformed doctor, unquestioning of perceived limitations and accepted wisdom. Don’t allow untested assumptions to limit your development.
Love yourself. Be patient with yourself. Take things one step at a time and build slowly.
Who knows how far you might go?
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
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