Tuesday, May 15, 2007

THE BOY WHO WAS RAISED AS A DOG by Bruce D Perry and Maia Szalavitz

For a short time in my life I was a science teacher. Some of the classes I used to take had quite a sizeable proportion of children with EBD (emotional and behavioural difficulties). These children were difficult to engage in a class of over thirty others and were generally distracted by the trappings of a chemical laboratory.

I had trained for eighteen months to be a teacher but my training didn't prepare me for this. Some of my EBD pupils could not sit still, others found it difficult to keep quiet, others seemed to be deliberately wilful, some would not look you in the eye, others would ape around and continually act the fool. Each one was a challenge, but my biggest challenge was a boy whom I shall call Steve. Steve had such severe emotional and behavioural problems that he had not gone to mainstream school before and was starting secondary school as an experiment to see if he could cope. He couldn't. Unfortunately he was assigned to my tutor group. Not a wise decision on someone's part. I had only just qualified as a teacher and although I was enthusiastic I was, of course, inexperienced.

Poor Steve. His reputation came before him. His older brother had just left the school and that young man had spent his entire five years sitting at the edge of the classroom refusing to engage with anyone. Steve was worse. He was, apparently, 'a very naughty boy' and we all looked forward to his arrival with some apprehension.

In the end he came in like a clown, a rather handsome one, a great floppy grin and a loose uncontrolled walk. I greeted him and his grin spread further - like a liquid in the way it seemed to flow across his face. He didn't say anything, just looked at me vacantly when I showed him where to sit - next to some of the more mature and sympathetic members of the class - who regarded him with consternation. I hoped they would take him under their wing but they didn't. They just moved as far away as they could. For a few minutes the classroom went quiet as if they were all waiting for something to happen but nothing did. Steve just sat there and grinned so I went back to my register and continued to call out names.

Somehow Steve managed to scatter people. It was as if he took up too much room with his chaotic movements. No one could tell where one long arm or leg would fall - and neither could he. Chairs fell over and he would look at them stupidly, books would slide from the bench, taps would turn themselves on when he accidentally nudged them - and words would drop from his mouth: sometimes uselessly, sometimes provocatively or rudely, and always inappropriately.

He stayed less than a year; throughout that time he was in and out of some senior teacher's office for some small offence or other. After a few weeks I hardly saw him even though I was supposed to be his tutor.

His final misdemeanor, and the one which got him sent back to 'the unit', was that he was caught teaching a recent emigré all the bad language that he knew.

I thought of Steve today as I read this book: THE BOY WHO WAS RAISED AS A DOG. It is one of the most interesting. moving and inspiring books I've ever read. The author, Dr Bruce D Perry, is a child psychiatrist, and in the book he describes his cases. He explains exactly why children who have experienced trauma are damaged - how it changes the brain - and the behaviour that results. He also describes his unconventional treatment and why it works.

The infant who is deprived of touch in his early months never experiences a positive association between touch and being comforted and in consequence brain scans show that the lower part of the brain is underdeveloped. However, if the child is 'caught' early enough, it is possible using massage and music, for the child to catch up. Recovery can be incredibly fast. Within two weeks the boy of the title, who had been brought up in a cage with dogs, began to walk and talk.

The process that follows, however, is more painstaking and I imagine the therapists involved must have an incredible amount of patience. But gradually, with repetition and a lot of loving care, it is possible fror these damaged children to recover. The boy brought up as a dog eventually went to a foster home and within a few years was ready for school - whereupon he sent Dr Perry a photograph with 'Thank you Dr Perry' written on the back in crayon. Dr Perry says that upon receiving this he cried - and so did I when I read the story. When Dr Perry came across the child he was caged in his cot, smeared in faeces and so violent no one would go near him - but Dr Perry did. He could see the humanity there and seemed determined that it should come out.

As I read I kept wondering what Dr Perry would do with Steve. Like all the children in this book I am sure Steve had been damaged during infancy. In common with several parents of this school Steve's parents were drug addicts. I expect that both Steve and his brother had been left alone to fend for themselves. Steve's brother seemed to react to this by retreating into himself - a process known as dissociation. It is the way a brain reacts to stress, flooding it with natural opiates. Steve, however, reacted more flamboyantly - every social situation seemed to be a puzzle - perhaps he had never had the chance to learn important lessons from his mother's face.

It is sad that children are damaged in this way, and sad when there is nothing done to help them. Steve went back to some unit or other and I doubt very much he would have been lucky enough to receive Dr Perry's recommended treatment: holding, comforting, touching, being allowed to play and learning to trust others. Without all this Dr Perry describes the result: a boy he met in jail, a normal child brought up by a lonely and mentally inadequate mother. Out of ignorance she left the baby in his cot alone every day for his first year of life and took his older brother (who turned out just fine) for walks. After a few weeks the child stopped bothering to cry. Later in his life he related to no one, and one day lured two teenage girls into a flat where he raped and then killed them. I do hope the fate of Steve and his brother is happier than that.

The book ends lamenting the way we live today which leads to these tragedies. The rapist's normal brother owes his normality to the existence of his extended family. When the poor mother felt unable to cope there was someone to take over, but when baby number two came along her husband's job forced them to move out of the familial neighbourhood and she was unsupported. Again I can sympathise with this. When my first son was born we had just moved to a new part of the country and knew no one. Futhermore, since I have few relatives my son was the first baby I had ever held in my life, and although my sons seem to have turned out fine (well, mostly!) I wish I had read this book before attempting to rear them - I think I may have done things differently.

A fina point: apart from being hugely informative this book is also beautifully written - which is presumably due to the work of Maia Szalavitz, who is a science journalist.


Blogger Marly Youmans said...

Grand review, Clare--
Sympathetic, and makes me want to take a look.

Wed May 16, 12:06:00 am  
Blogger Kirsty said...

Not to make light of Steve's plight, Clare, but if teaching another student all the swear words one knows is reason to be shipped off to a 'unit' then I'm afraid my entire grade 9 class should have been packed off accordingly. We took our cue from an episode of Grange Hill to teach the newly arrived German student every swear word we knew and, even worse, we told him they were appropriate to use when greeting someone in authority.

Wed May 16, 02:02:00 am  
Blogger Lee said...

Beautiful post, but oh dear, yet another book to buy...and read!

Wed May 16, 07:16:00 am  
Blogger Lee said...

An additional note. I always think of my years in Africa when I read such things. An infant and young child is never left alone - never traditionally, and even in difficult urban settings, quite seldom (I personally encountered no such case) - and always strapped to someone's back, even for hours at a time well into to toddlerhood.

Wed May 16, 07:59:00 am  
Blogger Angie said...

I remember have seen a documentary on a real case of a young boy that has been raised by wolfs. I think this was in the USA but nowadays the person is quite old.

Thu May 17, 01:13:00 pm  

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