Five Christmas gifts to give to a special needs parent

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I used to think it was only children who were asked in December ‘what would you like for Christmas?‘. It seems as a parent I still get asked this. I tend to answer like most parents do with a simple ‘oh I have everything I need already thanks’ or the soppy mum variation of ‘my kids are all I could ever want and more.’

Both are true to an extent. My life is very full of smiles, blessings, love and joy but as a full time carer for two children with extra needs life is also very full of other things like hospital appointments, meetings, therapy and endless paperwork!

So what would be good Christmas presents for a special needs parent like me?

How about the following:

1. A listening ear.
We all have our own burdens to carry and none of us are without problems in life, yet so often we become so engrossed in our own busyness we forget to take time to listen to others. Giving me your time to just talk while you listen without judgement or trying to ‘fix’ things is one of the greatest gifts I could get all year round. Come visit me at home while we have coffee, or sit with me in the hospital waiting room. I may seem like I am coping but silently I pray for someone who cares enough to listen to my worries and my struggles. If you can’t physically be with me being at the end of a phone or even letting me let off steam via email or message is such a precious gift. You may not be able to wrap up your ears under the tree but if you could loan me them sometimes that would be amazing.

2. A shoulder to cry on.
Some days are just overwhelming. Some mornings by the time I have managed to get the children safely to school I am exhausted and emotional. Lack of sleep, worry for the future and constant battles on behalf of my children become weary. I, like so many other special needs parents, long for a safe and tender place to cry where we feel free and accepted to pour out our hearts. We need that release in order to gain strength to face another day. We need to let the stress come out in our tears knowing there is no shame in showing weakness. Could you be those shoulders? Will you let me cry without question and hand me the tissues without needing to tell me I am over reacting? That would be a gift that can not be measured this Christmas.

3. An encouraging word.
Few people truly realise how negative the world of special needs parenting can be. Forms ask for things your child is unable to do, assessments focus on your child’s shortfalls, teachers comment on how your child is not hitting targets like the others. Hospital appointments bring news that breaks your heart and even the simplest appointments like the dentist are utterly draining. Then add the guilt that your child can’t talk, or walk yet or play like other children. While other children achieve at sports, or drama or art your child excels more at loud outbursts, screaming endlessly or staying awake all night. Encouraging words are few and far between in my world so a little text, or message or a simple smile goes a long long way to helping brighten my day. An unexpected card saying ‘I care’ is like an oasis in a drought. It is beautiful, precious and priceless. You simply can’t give this gift often enough to a special needs parent.

4. Practical help.
I would never expect anyone else to have to see to my children’s personal needs nor do I expect anyone to be up all night long with them. However, there are some small very practical things though that anyone can do for a special needs parent that can make a huge difference. How about holding the door open when you see them pushing a wheelchair? Or holding the lift to save them waiting longer with a distressed child? If you see them carrying a child into a car seat in the supermarket car park why not offer to take their trolley back for them? These small gestures of kindness mean the world to someone who often feels ignored or invisible. Kindness and practical support never ever go unnoticed to a special needs parent and they restore our faith in humanity. Christmas is an ideal time to make a special effort to help the special needs parent as places are busier, louder and more chaotic than usual but remember a little help all year round would never go amiss.

5. Finally be respectful.
It is so easy at this time of year when the weather is awful and time is tight to just park in that disabled space for two minutes while you just nip in for bread. You may never ever think of doing that at any other time but for me as a parent of two disabled children this is a time when I need those spaces even more so. The same with the disabled toilet. I understand this time of year means most public toilets have queues and you don’t mean to upset anyone. However, these facilities are so precious to families like mine and our loved ones need that space and privacy to have their personal needs met by someone else. We don’t have the privilege of being able to wait. Please don’t push that disabled trolley away in your haste to get to the smaller on at the back. Having a soaking wet trolley may be annoying to you but to those of us who rely on specialist seating for our disabled children having an icy, snowy seat prohibits us from going shopping at all. Your thoughts and respect at Christmas mean a lot.

I realise now I do actually want a few things for Christmas this year. I want friendship, time, love and respect and those are not things money can buy, yet they are the most special and perfect gifts any special needs parent could want not just at Christmas but throughout the year.

Could you give me any of these? Do you know a special needs parent who could do with some Christmas magic? Let them know you care today. It could make this Christmas the best one they have ever had.

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This post first appeared here

The secret epidemic affecting special needs parents

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I had a message from a fellow special needs parent this week. Two words of that message have impacted on me greatly. She wrote:

I’m struggling

It is so common for me to hear this. It is the centre piece of every support group, the most common theme on online  forums, the single most heard words when I meet up with people.

For some of those parents it is so bad that I encourage them to see a doctor for support.

In my years as a special needs parent I have found there is a secret epidemic affecting so many special needs parents and it needs talked about: We need to talk about depression.

Depression in the special needs mum or dad is so understandable but too often goes unnoticed.

People see a mum crying and think she is having a bad day. What they don’t know about is all the other nights she cried in private and no-one knew.

My eyes are more tuned to see people struggling since I have walked that path. I know what it is like to look at my child and worry for his future. I know what it is like to feel there is no hope. I recognise that feeling of failure when you realise your child is just not developing as they should. I know the pain of taking your child to hospital when they should be outside playing with friends.

It is isolating when your child has special needs and it is ok to admit that.

Society sadly expects us to be positive, upbeat and encouraging and often I see parents who are so emotionally overwhelmed, so sleep deprived, so beaten down by the system, that they have so little hope.

When you have a child who struggles in school everyday, a child who won’t eat, or has no friends, or is being bullied for being different, or who can not play in a park as the equipment is unsuitable for their needs, how would you feel? If you child was denied the support they need, or could not communicate, or is living in pain every day would you not be heartbroken?

Is it any wonder there is an epidemic of depression among parents of children with autism?

While so many are on medication, and this is vital, we also as a society need to recognise that special needs parenting is exhausting and draining.

Medication is wonderful but what about better support and understanding for our children, better care for those in society who are full time carers, training for staff so they can better meet the needs of the most vulnerable, and a society less prone to judge and quicker to encourage?

The current epidemic of depression among autism families is concerning but what worries me more is that continual budget cuts and ignorance in society is breeding not only depression among the parents but sadly I am now seeing siblings, and even special needs children themselves, struggling with the same issues.

We need to recognise this epidemic and do something about it now.

Don’t ever be afraid to tell someone you a real struggling. Don’t ever be afraid to ask for help. Together we can support each other and help make a better future for us and our children.

 

This post first appeared here.

What if you can’t be Santa to your children?

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I wandered into the shop happily but walked out with silent tears.The music played ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’ and it was just too much. What do you do if Santa Claus can’t come to your town? What if you DON’T want it to be Christmas every day?

What if you can’t be ‘Santa’ to your children?

I am not sure at what age it dawned on me that all those years of having gifts from ‘Santa’ were in actual fact from my parents, but once you know things change. For some it becomes anger that they were lied to, for others disappointment that life is not quite as fairy tale as they would like it to be, and for some it brings a greater respect for their parents as they realise how much they sacrificed to make them happy growing up.

Then you become a parent yourself and this whole ‘Santa’ thing becomes something altogether different. I must admit I have never made a huge thing of it to my own two children but somehow it just seemed the ‘done’ thing that even on their first Christmas (when they were in actual fact just seven weeks old!) they had something from that man in red.

And so it continued year after year with little thought or reflection. No-one wants to have the only kid who got nothing from ‘Santa’. Friends, family and even strangers spent the last week of the year asking children ‘what did you get from Santa?’ Parents smile smugly as children rhyme off expensive gifts and the entire contents of Christmas stockings to anyone who will listen.

I want my children to be able to do that. I want my children to be happy. But this year I can’t be Santa to them.

Now before you get all upset and feel sorry for my children this is not what this post is about at all. My children are blessed. They are happy, warm, loved and have an abundance of toys and games. They haven’t asked for anything hugely expensive this year nor have they demanded something that is out of stock the world over.

In actual fact they haven’t asked for anything because one is non verbal, they both have autism, and one has significant learning difficulties and developmental delay.

What if you can’t be ‘Santa’ to your children because they have no list yet again this year, they have no desire for toys or games and no idea what Christmas is about?

They would be happy watching glittering lights sparkle sitting on your knee or looking at a book together. They gain value more from the touch of your hand in theirs than a pile of neatly wrapped presents from a stranger who apparently came down the chimney during that night.

I can’t be Santa to my children because they have no concept of him. Sometimes that brings silent tears to my eyes when the world is full of parents rushing about checking off lists and hoping and checking for new stock online so as not to disappoint their child.

My silent tears are not for me though. They are in fact for those very parents, who like so many before them, are desperate to be the best Santa their child could dream of.

I am so incredibly blessed. I am so infinitely content. I can’t be Santa to my children but I get to be mum to them instead. I get to read the real Christmas story to them while they happily gaze at those twinkling lights; I get to sing carols to them while they smile up at me; I get to hear their laughter and joy all the time thankful for their health and happiness for another year. Those are things Santa could never bring.

Parents, enjoy being Santa to your children this year but never forget that your gift of time with your children and your love are things that may not be on your child’s Christmas list this year but those are the things they will remember much longer than any toys or electronics.

We can’t always be Santa and give our children everything in life they desire but that is OK. Opening up the latest ‘must have’ toy may bring immediate smiles but lasting joy and contentment comes from parents who provide all year round not just on 25th December.

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