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Fighting the good fight - a father's story

In honour of Father's Day, we bring you the story of Peter Schlager.

Photographs: Unsplash / Elene Miella Photography

Text: Michaela Medveďová

Being a father to three kids with special needs, all while living with his own diagnosis, he chose to help other parents in the same circumstances find the strength and support they need.

Hurdles on the way to help

Their journey began about six years ago when Peter and his wife divorced, and he moved away with his children. Meeting new people and making friends wasn't easy, but they got by - until Peter's oldest started having trouble getting up for school. "The first reaction, as someone who didn't know anything about autism, was to push him to school." It took time and a lot of fighting, but his son was diagnosed with autism and ADD and got an offer from a suitable school.

However, Peter's younger son started experiencing the same problems. This time, Peter recognised the symptoms and tried to get help early on - but getting a diagnosis was a struggle. "Psychiatrists don't take ADHD as seriously as autism. But my son was not getting better, so I asked for him to be examined for autism. The physician told me I was just keen on getting a diagnosis for my kids." But eventually, his son was diagnosed with autism as well.

In the midst of this, Peter realised he might have ADHD, the inheritance of which is relatively high. He was right.

When Peter's daughter started struggling, he was prepared - but was told she was simply acting out because of the divorce. "Eventually, they gave in and sent her to get examined. Unfortunately, she has ADHD too, and hopefully, will attend a new school soon."

Need for stubbornness

After a lot of fighting with the system, Peter has been able to get all his children proper help. "But I am actually one of the few who has never been forced to complain about the municipality's decision. Maybe I'm just more stubborn, but I got help for my kids by plain fighting."

But he realises how lucky he is. "There's a lot of stigmas and a lack of professionalism in the municipality system." That began 15 years ago when, after a systemic change, municipalities took over people's affairs with special needs, and the number of experts decreased. "People who actually look at the children that may need a diagnosis don't have the knowledge. They only see a troublesome divorce and only look at one isolated problem. They lack a different, bigger perspective."

The fight to get proper help understandably took a toll on Peter's life - professional and personal. "I couldn't go to work because I had to take care of my kids. I wouldn't leave them."

Finding your tribe

There are a few adjectives Peter uses to describe his journey. Weird. Full of sadness and worrying. Lonely.

To combat them, his advice for other parents in similar situations is to go online and find a social media group that would be able to give them a supportive network. "It's like finding your tribe. You get a high degree of understanding and feel seen unlike anywhere else. However, it can be quite lonesome on this road. Sometimes, you are asking yourself: Am I going crazy? Am I overdramatising this? This way, you can get some comforting confirmation. For this, you cannot rely on your friends or family to fully understand your situation."

Besides emotional support, the groups can also provide practical assistance or legal advice, making the journey towards proper help a bit shorter. "It just helps you keep on fighting and hoping."

Luckily, Peter found his tribe. He's been a part of #enmillionstemmer, a movement fighting for the rights of people with disabilities and mental vulnerabilities as the social system in Denmark has been failing them since almost its very beginning three years ago. He got to know Monica Lylloff, one of the co-founders, when he sought answers in various support groups on Facebook. Monica, also a mom of three kids with special needs, was answering lots of questions. "All these people were seeking help and answers for the same things. So why not make a group for everyone to share? Make some noise so we can get some change? So I told them: When I get on my feet a little more, I will help you. And one day, I was fed up with everything and wrote to Monica: I'm ready now."

The five parents behind the movement see their purpose clearly: get the message out, get the ball rolling. As many parents with special-needs kids don't have the energy to put up a fight, #enmillionstemmer is doing it for them.

As winding as their family journey might have been, Peter now can share his experience with other parents. "My kids taught me more than I can ever teach them. I never used to have a second thought about anything. The kids made me look at life a bit differently - I'm feeling it in a whole new way. It's real."

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