Jenny Young is in her kitchen, listening to a radio phone-in show. Jenny herself is the topic of the day, following her startling declaration that if her ten-year-old-son Ryan were a dog, she would have him put down. One caller says she doesn't deserve Ryan, who has severe learning difficulties and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Jenny points a finger at the radio. 'Let them take him then,' she says, with a bitter laugh. 'Come on, who else would have him?'
Jenny, whose three other children also have ADHD, is unrepentant about the comments that have provoked such outrage — and, as we talk, it's clear there are plenty more where those came from. She says she wants Ryan moved out of the three-bedroom terrace house she owns in Hertfordshire and into residential care. 'I don't want to be doing this when I'm 80 and he's 40,' she says. 'You see people like that and they just look exhausted.
'The other option — if I could get the money to do it — would be to buy a place with an annexe, where Ryan could live with a carer but I'd still be around.' While many of us would say that parenthood is, by its very definition, a selfless vocation, Jenny is angry at what she feels is a lack of recognition for the devotion she's shown Ryan over the past decade. 'Where is my diploma, where is my pay rise, where is my promotion?' she says, somewhat inexplicably. 'Just think what I could have achieved if I'd spent ten years in a career.'
During our interview, a social worker calls and asks Jenny to consider whether Ryan might be upset by her comments. 'I wish he was! I wish he could understand, but he's oblivious!' she says, pointing to Ryan, who is sitting on the floor playing with a Postman Pat toy. Uncomfortable pronouncements such as this punctuate our interview. But what about saying she'd have Ryan put down if he were a dog? Now that she's had time to reflect, perhaps she thinks her choice of analogy was insensitive? 'No, I stand by what I said.' Ryan seems a sweet, quiet boy who, during my visit, repeats to his mother the words 'I love you' and is clearly completely dependent on her. Jenny, 53, undoubtedly loves her son, too. Her wince-inducing comments would seem to be the result of a straight-talking personality combined with the fact that she has reached breaking point. Nevertheless, coming from a mother, they are disconcerting and suggest disappointment — anger even — at the way he has turned out. Jenny says Ryan attacks her on an almost daily basis, pulling her hair, scratching her arms, punching her. Since the furore over her outburst, she has appointed herself unofficial cheerleader to despairing parents of children with special needs.
'I'm glad it's out there now,' she says. 'It needed saying, and for every comment castigating me, I've had five which are supportive.' She's certainly keen to share the sometimes grim realities of caring for a child with special needs. When I arrive at her home, she is cross because that morning Ryan had not made it to the toilet in time. 'He had got it all down his pyjamas and all over the floor, and I had to clear it up. Why can't he just use the toilet? This is what my life's like.' Ryan, who was born at 38 weeks weighing 3lb 11oz, has severe learning difficulties. Today, aged ten, he has the mental age of a two-year-old. As well as attacking Jenny, he tips over furniture when he gets frustrated. Of course, whether this behaviour is caused solely by his learning difficulties or by other influences in Ryan's life is not clear. Jenny has been married and divorced three times. She married her first husband, an office worker, in 1976 when she was 18. The marriage fell apart after just four years (she says she was too young), and in 1984 she married a lorry driver called Dave, the father of her eldest three children, Douglas, 24, Greg, 23, and Josephine, 19. She says all three had inexhaustible energy, which she believes was caused by their ADHD — a disorder characterised by behavioural symptoms which include inattentiveness, hyperactivity and restlessness.
Jenny said she loves her son dearly but that unlike pet owners, mothers of disabled children do not have a choice about their situation While many parents and experts will testify to the prevalence of ADHD, others are sceptical, suggesting that it is merely an excuse for a lack of discipline and lazy parenting. But Jenny is quite certain that ADHD is real, and was even diagnosed with it herself when she was 40. 'The children and I would be up at dawn baking cakes, and then go to the park. They were always on the go.
'The boys would fight like puppies. It was impossible to get them to bed. In the end, I gave up and would go to bed before them. It was non-stop, relentless. Doug was the class clown. He was up and about in the classroom because he couldn't stay still. Josie was extremely demanding of my attention and wouldn't leave me alone. All three of them were insatiable. You couldn't calm them down or shut them up.
'People would see them being full-on, tearing about, and say to me "Oh that's what children are like.'"
Yes, but isn't that so? Aren't all healthy young children 'non-stop'? I ask Jenny how to distinguish a child who has ADHD from one who hasn't. She considers. 'It's non-stop to the nth degree,' she explains. 'With other children there is some let-up, but with children with ADHD there is none.'
Yet the timing of the diagnosis is curious. For years, Jenny and Dave had been rowing, until in 1997, after 13 years together, they divorced. The following year, when the children were aged nine, eight and four, all three were diagnosed with ADHD. Jenny will not entertain the possibility that her children's problems were linked to her marriage break-up, even though this was suggested to her at the time. 'I was trying to get help to find out what the problem was, and took a lot of flak. A lot of blame was put on me. 'They were picking holes in our family life. I was trying to get more educational support for the children, but one educational tribunal report said the only thing wrong with the children was not having a father around.
'Oh really? So it would have been good for them to watch me and their father argue all the time, would it?'
Jenny took her children to see NHS experts, but no diagnosis was forthcoming. It was only when she sought help at a private clinic in Essex that ADHD was diagnosed. Sceptics might see this as evidence of their suspicions that ADHD has proved very profitable to private doctors and to pharmaceutical companies. The children's father, for one, did not accept the diagnosis. 'He'd say there was nothing wrong with the children, but how would he know?' says Jenny. 'He worked away for weeks at a time.'
After the diagnosis, Doug, Greg and Josie were prescribed Ritalin. The drug has a host of side-effects, with suicidal thoughts and psychosis among the rarer ones. At least two young people have committed suicide while taking the drug. 'Josie became very emotional on it,' admits Jenny, 'and we took her off it after a few weeks. But the boys stayed on it — and it helped them.' Not long afterwards, Jenny was also diagnosed with ADHD at the same clinic. While it is very rare for adults to be diagnosed with the condition, Jenny says she was told that it can be hereditary.
Over the next few years, Josie, in particular, became very difficult. 'At the age of five, she was refusing to go to school and would throw her school uniform out of the window. When she was 11, I managed to get funding to send her to a boarding school in Norfolk that is very good with children with behavioural problems. She absolutely thrived there.'
Josie is now at university studying event management. Greg is a welder and Doug is a carpenter. Jenny met her third husband, Peter, a prison officer, at a Bible study retreat in the Lake District in 2002. Following her divorce from Dave, she had become drawn to the Baptist church. Later that year they married — and soon Jenny fell pregnant, aged 43. Her friends were surprised. Why would you have a fourth child in your 40s when your other three had been such a trial?
'Sometimes I wonder where my brain was, getting pregnant again, but Peter really wanted his own child and I wanted him to be happy.' But the pregnancy did not proceed well. Doctors told Jenny the baby was not developing properly in the womb and that they needed to deliver the child as early as possible. So Ryan was born by Caesarean section at 38 weeks weighing just 3lb 11oz. Ryan's development was halting over the next few years. Doctors didn't know what had caused his problems, and at first Social Services thought I wasn't feeding him properly,' says Jenny. 'Eventually, when Ryan was five, the doctors discovered he had a very low level of growth hormone in his body. He now has to have daily growth hormone injections. Those social workers owe me an apology.'
In 2007, when Ryan was three, Jenny split from Peter. 'I think the demands placed on us by Ryan may have contributed, but it would have happened anyway.' A year later, Ryan was diagnosed with severe learning difficulties. 'Of course I was devastated,' says Jenny. 'I went through a grieving process. But there are some things that he can do by himself, because I’ve persevered with him, such as running his bath.’
She says her son becomes aggressive when she tries to get him to break off from whatever he’s doing. ‘He’ll be fine, but in an instant, that can change. He will bite into my arm or pull my hair. I am his punch bag, the target of his frustration and anger — and because I’m his mum, I have to put up with it.’
It was this violent behaviour that prompted Jenny to make her now notorious remark, widely greeted with disbelief, about having Ryan put down if he were a dog. She told a magazine: ‘If he were my husband and behaved like that, we’d be divorced by now. And if he were a dog, I’d have him put down.’
On Tuesday of last week, Jenny appeared on ITV’s This Morning to defend her comments. ‘I wouldn’t be without Ryan, but I was trying to make the point that when you’re the mother of a child like Ryan, there is no choice. There isn’t a refuge for battered mums. You just have to get on with it.'
She says now: ‘I’ve had comments from people saying their child has special needs and they wouldn’t change them for the world. Well, I wouldn’t swap Ryan — but I would certainly prefer it if he didn’t have special needs.’
After lengthy court proceedings regarding access — Jenny does seem prone to conflict in her life — her ex-husband now sees his son every other weekend. ‘Peter used to say to me, “He’s fine with me,” as though I were somehow at fault, and I would reply that I’m the one pushing him, making him do things by himself. I’m not the one playing Father Christmas.’
Last September, Ryan was diagnosed with ADHD at a private clinic in West Sussex. He now takes Ritalin, which Jenny says has helped him. Once a fortnight he attends an overnight respite facility, and Social Services provide funding for a child minder for six hours a week.
Jenny receives £59 a week care allowance and gets by on that and maintenance from Ryan’s father. She believes the State could do more for her. ‘Financially, it’s hard for us,’ she says. ‘I would love to work but I am limited in the hours I can do because of Ryan. It’s a vicious circle. ‘I’m trying to get a business off the ground, teaching people to sew, but it’s not making money yet.’She sees putting Ryan into full-time residential care as the way forward. Such a move might be perceived by some as an attempt to offload the challenges of caring for Ryan on someone else, but she insists it’s the right thing for him. ‘These places are better than they sound, with therapists on hand to give children like Ryan the help they need. ‘I will be able to see Ryan all the time, but I will get a break.’
Whether her son will feel the same contentment at being separated from his mother is another matter.