Passion for gardening helps Merchiston pupil cope with Asperger’s

2018-12-10 17:05
A part of Mudrat Village, a garden that Nathan Swift started three years ago at Merchiston Preparatory School.

A part of Mudrat Village, a garden that Nathan Swift started three years ago at Merchiston Preparatory School. (Ian Carbutt)

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On the surface, Nathan Swift is your typical 13-year-old.

He chats with his friends, plays basketball, and has a passion for gardening.

However, it has been a rough ride for this Merchiston Preparatory School Grade 7 pupil who is now set to take on the challenges of the next phase of his life.

Nathan was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was two years old, yet despite the challenges, being born with Asperger’s syndrome is not what has defined him.

Asperger’s syndrome is a label given to some pupils who fall within the autistic spectrum. Pupils labelled with Asperger’s syndrome typically experience communication differences, struggle with change and transitions, and have intense and absorbing areas of interest.

“His development in speech was late. We went through all the channels and experts and it took a couple of years before the specialist got the right diagnosis,” said his father Brad Swift.

Merchiston principal Jenny Thompson said: “I clearly remember that nobody actually knew if it was going to be the right place for him.

“With constant visits from his occupational therapist, his behavior has improved tremendously.”

Thompson said when Nathan first started Grade RR at the school, he would often feel overwhelmed and struggled with the transition.

“He used to have a little tent outside the classroom. When he couldn’t cope with what was going on, he would go into his little space and he knew that was where he could gather himself.

“As he’s gone along, he’s fitted in more and more. It’s been a rewarding journey,” she said.

The tent had been one of Nathan’s occupational therapist’s fundamental ideas to assist in dealing with his behaviour.

“I think at one stage everyone wanted a tent,” his dad said with a laugh.

Throughout his primary schooling, Nathan’s biggest reward had been Mud­rat Village, a therapeutic garden he started three years ago.

Swift said that like his mother, Nathan is a green fingered person and it came as no surprise that gardening was one of his therapeutic areas of interest.

Merchiston gave Nathan a garden bed with several plots where he planted indigenous plants.

“At first the pupils were wondering why I’m gardening. I told them it was a passion. I wanted to leave something that people could remember me by. They made fun of it, but they eventually started to like it.”

Swift said: “He got very much into cultivating Bonsai trees. He still cultivates them and the love for gardening developed from there.”

The school hopes to preserve the garden in memory of Nathan’s time at the school.

His father admits that when Nathan was first diagnosed,they had to read up and understand the syndrome as they knew very little about it.

“Asperger’s was a new terminology to everyone, not just to us. Only specialists spoke of it, and the way they spoke of it was scary. They could only diagnose the spectrum where he was as time went on. He could have been low functioning or high functioning and we just didn’t know where we were going to fit in. Fortunately, he is definitely in the high functioning grouping.”

While it was difficult for Swift and his wife Tanya to find local schools which cater for Asperger’s syndrome, Merchiston was more than willing to welcome Nathan and had made him a part of the family.

Nathan said when he first joined the school, his biggest challenge was making new friends.

“When you are different sometimes people choose to keep their distance from you. It was hard because I was also bullied but I’ve made very good friends.”

Nathan will be going to Maritzburg College next year, and while it may seem like another hurdle, his parents are confident he will be able to cope.

“He has embraced the syndrome and he has no problems with people knowing. We always tell him that if he doesn’t embrace it, it will eat at him. It [going to high school] is a new challenge but we know he’ll conquer it again,” said his proud father.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg

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