The week time stood still

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This week has been a battle of an entirely different sort. I am used to battling the system, fighting to get my children the services they need, coping with the demands of autism, living with the uncertainty of neurofibromatosis, sleepless nights and fussy eating; those are just the norm here. But this week brought an entirely new challenge: a very sick child.image

For five days and five nights I battled to keep my six-year old’s temperature at bay. I battled to get her to keep down fluids and to stay out of hospital. I would have given anything to see her flap, repeat phrases from the TV or line her toys up. I held her, I willed her to get through it, I begged her to drink. And when she dropped off to sleep I cried.

Everything just stopped.

Time stood still.

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I was so thankful that the Easter spring break had just finished and Naomi’s twin brother was able to go back to school. Naomi needed all of me and she needed me day and night.

I carried her twice to the doctors. She just kept getting worse. My poor little baby is now on her third set of antibiotics in three weeks. This time it is a longer course and we seem to have finally brought her temperature down.

The diagnosis is atypical chest infection which has built up immunity to the common antibiotics. Her body is weak.
Meantime as life seemed to carry on in slow motion everything is ‘on hold’. A recent meeting in her school highlighted the fact she doesn’t drink and barely eats in school at all. Now because she has been so poorly all her targets have been adapted and strategies will be put in place on her return to try to help her regain her physical strength. The fight for her health is far from over even when her medication is finally completed.

This is when it really hits you.

Having a child with such restricted food and drink intake is serious.

So many people see autism as a minor developmental condition. But for many, like my daughter, it can lead to quite serious health conditions. Autism did not give her a chest infection but her limited diet, constant anxiety and lack of nutrition has weakened her immune system and made her susceptible to infection.

And until she is well again life is on hold.

She is only able to drink one drink right now. And now is not the time to even think about meddling with that. Physio is on hold, her education is on hold, home visits are on hold and so are all her brother’s appointments too. Time is standing still.

And when it starts to move again everything will be different. We will be playing catch up for a long time to come.
But at least I can hopefully be mummy again rather than nurse. I can’t wait to see her playing like this again. It is so hard to believe this was only 9 days ago!

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To the woman on the helpline

I called you today in desperation.

Yes, I am stressed and sadly you got to witness that in all it’s glory. Thankfully we will (hopefully) never meet. I ended today’s conversation in tears and there was so much I didn’t get to explain. The fact I even got to speak to you when both my children were in the same room as me is pretty amazing in itself. You probably think I am crazy so I hope this shows I am maybe not as crazy as you first thought. If I came across as emotional, stubborn, even perhaps agitated, I hope this letter makes you realise it wasn’t you I was getting at. I am just a mummy desperate to help my baby and today that happened to involve you.

I honestly don’t make a habit of calling helplines and crying for assistance. Sometimes I just don’t know how else to make my child better.

You see when I called you this was what my six-year-old was doing:

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She is sick. Again. For four weeks now she has had a cough that just won’t budge. She is already underweight. The doctors say she has a chest infection and the day before I called she was given her second dose of antibiotics in just two weeks. No mum can bear to see their child unwell. It is like a stab to their own heart and they would do ANYTHING in their power to get them better. The thing is to get better my daughter needs to eat and drink. Unfortunately this is a real challenge at the best of times and a hundred times worse when she is sick.

She has a very limited diet. She always has done. The only two things she has drunk since coming off breast milk is cows milk and a certain brand of orange squash that happens to be made by the company who employs you.

The doctor said milk would make her condition worse. So that only left the juice. I went to make her some and realised we had just run out. Her dad popped to the shops for some. He couldn’t find any. So he drove to another shop. Same problem. We just could not understand why this was, so he tried a few more shops. Still no sign of the juice. I tried tempting my daughter with so many other drinks. She would not take anything and was crying for her favourite orange drink.

When Naomi gets something in her head nothing but nothing will shift it. She smells everything to make sure it is right before it passes her lips. She examines what it looks like and often feels the temperature and texture too. She has sensory difficulties which affect her eating. She has rigid thinking which means she likes things as they always are. She struggles with change. She needs routine in order to feel safe. She has a condition called autism. She wanted her juice and would dehydrate rather than drink anything else. My heart was breaking for her so I thought I would just call and ask if you knew where I could purchase some of her juice.

I wasn’t intending crying on you, honestly.

Then you told me the worse thing you possible could ever say. And that is why I cried.

You told me you had stopped making her juice and you had no plans to make it again. Just like that you broke my daughters heart. And that broke my heart.

In the six and half years of living with my children’s autism I have rarely been so desperate. I remember pleading with you to help me. I remember saying she has autism and yet you said there was nothing you could do. I had to hang up I was so upset.

Your company now see me as a pest. I have written on your social media sites about my daughter and created a storm you don’t like. Kind people from throughout the UK have been looking out for the juice, buying, posting, bringing it to my house and giving me online links to buy it. There is a massive autism community out there and we stick together.

Today it was my daughter and your company. Tomorrow it could be another child and another company.

It is not my daughter being stubborn or obnoxious refusing to drink anything else. This is autism. It affects children and adults. Change has to be gradual, supported and is a process, sometimes taking years. It can not be done when someone is unwell. Sometimes, despite everything we try, change still never happens until the person is ready.

You shook my little girls world. You devastated mine. I do understand you were simply the messenger, the call handler, the employee. So I am sorry you witnessed this mamma breaking down.

My world is fragile. My daughter is fragile. I just never realised quite how fragile we both were until I called you.

Thank you for understanding,

One stressed and emotional mum.

P.S. Naomi is now much better thanks to us getting some juice eventually. We took her to a shop today but she refuses to walk down the drinks aisle because her juice isn’t there anymore. And she keeps repeating ‘why can daddy not buy my juice?’.
I just can’t answer that one.
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It takes a man

20140521-110434.jpgManliness : the traditional male quality of being brave and strong. Synonyms include: virility, vigour, strength, roughness, muscularity, control, power (Google definition)

Most men have the physical ability to father children. Not all men make good fathers. The exact same can also be said of woman.

I am very aware that the majority of my readers are of the female variety. I am in no way putting woman down or saying that any of the following things can only be carried out by the male species. In fact it is the exact opposite.

What I do want to do though is particularly honour those men who are bucking the trend by supporting, nurturing, caring and standing by not only the mothers of their children but also their very unique, and at times very challenging, children. Those very fathers who have perhaps had to give up jobs, lost careers, livelihoods, friends, and positions, to be there full-time for their child or children who may never live independently, or be employed, or get married. It takes courage, bravery, and strength to father a child who may never call you daddy, who you may never teach to play sport or see graduate from university. This is for all those men and for all those woman having to find the courage to be a man too.

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Because it takes a man to be patient with a child who has yet to learn his own name.

It takes a man to still dress your child and carry out intimate care on your son or daughter beyond the age when a father or mother would be expected to.

It takes a man to teach your child right from wrong when their body is many years older than their mind.

It takes a man to try to teach your child to walk safely when they are pulling at your clothes and screaming at you.

It takes a man to wipe your child’s tears away and hug them after cleaning up their bodily waste from walls, bedding, toys and their own body. It takes a man to refrain from shouting when anger bubbles inside you.

It takes a man to allow professionals into your home to criticise your parenting and question your ability and not physically remove them from your home.image

It takes a man to sit at the level of your child and gently support them to do tasks a child many years younger is able to do without hesitation. It takes a man to push his own personal choices aside and allow the child to create how they want, knowing they will never win any competitions or awards for their endeavours.

It takes a man to take pride in a simple scribble when other men are boasting of their offsprings masterpieces.

It takes a man to keep pushing a grown child in a swing designated for babies and watch other people stare.

It takes a man to be willing to push your beloved child in a wheelchair and not be ashamed.

imageIt takes a man to stay at your child’s bedside while they fit, or scream or have needles attached to them.

It takes a man to be willing to fight for your child because they have no ability to do it themselves.

It takes a man to attend meetings dominated by females who are not always willing to listen.

It takes a man to be willing to sit up with your child right through the night, watch the same ten seconds of whatever it may be on repeat over and over again, and make the same meals day in day out.

It takes a man to be willing to clean, wash, iron and cook to allow the mum a break.

It takes a man to continually take your child to hospital appointment after hospital appointment and still have no answers.

Raising any child takes courage. Raising a disabled child takes extra courage. It takes bravely, strength, control, dignity, patience, character, and vigour. It takes a man or a woman of valour and power.

It doesn’t just take a man. It makes a man too.

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Pass it along…and leave it to mum

imageWhat qualifications did I need to become a mum? Very little, if any.

Teachers study for years, as do speech therapists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, social workers and psychologists.

I am just a mum. I don’t mean that in any way to put down what I do. But my role is very different to the specialists named above. My job is to love, nurture, support, encourage and guide my children to become the best that they can be in life.

For my children with additional support needs that means I will be changing nappies much longer than average, still teaching basic sounds and numbers long after others, and spending that bit longer supporting my children (possibly way into adulthood). That I can, and am happy, to do. I will happily spend my evenings singing nursery rhymes, playing board games and doing homework. I have no issue with cooking, cleaning, washing and other seemingly mundane house hold chores.That is what being a parent entails.

But increasingly I feel I am being asked to be way more than a parent to my children.

As financial pressures increase upon the services my children depend upon to support them, there is a current trend of ‘pass it along’. Basically for so many professionals their time with my child is very restricted. Their roles are goal oriented where after a few sessions it is expected they can record progress and show they are making a difference. Then they show me how to do what they have started and move on.

So for example, the speech therapist may visit and introduce some basic visuals. He or she may check my son or daughter appears to understand, then proceed to give me a quick demonstration and hey presto…they vanish off the scene leaving me to do their job! They have little choice really. They have referrals coming out their ears and fewer resources at their disposal. So ‘pass it along and leave it to mum’ is the only way for them to survive.

So now I am a parent and suddenly a speech therapist too. That adds a bit of pressure.

My daughter was finally seen by a physiotherapist this week. She was lovely and very thorough. We now have a much clearer understanding of some of my daughter’s physical difficulties. More referrals will now be made (the hospitals must think we have a season ticket!). When I asked specifically where we go from here I was told that hopefully someone can show the school some exercises and we will also be sent leaflets full of things to do at home too. No time to come and teach me. It is expected I will be able to work it out myself, without all their years of specialist training. No time, no resources, not enough staff. Pass it on; discharge.

So now I am a parent, a speech therapist and now a physiotherapist too? I can sense the washing pile mounting up more and more!

The occupational therapist came this week too. Her case load is more than some schools have on their entire role! There was insufficient time (as usual) to complete the paperwork she wanted to do that day so a pile was left for me to complete as soon as possible. And of course she left us with more practical ideas to support the children. No time to teach but ‘the sheets will explain’…where have I heard that before?

Now I am a parent, a speech therapist, a physiotherapist, and an occupational therapist!

Do I really need to tell you what sort of thing the psychologist meeting was about? I think you get the picture!

Of course I could easily chose just to default and be ‘simply’ mum. But the reason my children were referred and accepted by all these professionals is because there was a need for their services. Their input could apparently ‘add value’ to my children’s lives. They could apparently help us.

So while I am left with not only the raw emotions of finding out my child has yet more physical issues and needs, and passed to yet more health professionals and departments, I am also forced to take on roles I am neither qualified or trained to do.

And when it all unravels and my child still can’t talk or use visuals in years to come, or my daughter is still unable to carry out certain physical tasks or is still crippled by anxiety who will accept responsibility?

They will say the have done their best. They did exactly what the system expected them to do. They passed it along…and left it with mum.

Meanwhile poor mum has little time left just to be a mum. She is far too busy trying to be the professional needed for her children.

It’s just she has no-one left to pass it all along to.

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Respite is not failure

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It is one of the many ironies about having children with additional needs: we fight long and hard for respite but when we do get it we struggle emotionally to accept and embrace it.

Let me get this straight right from the offset: respite is not failure!

The dictionary defines respite as: “a short period of rest or relief from something difficult or unpleasant”

I want to start by saying I do not find my children unpleasant. Neither do I wish to cease being the parent of two special and unique children. But the reality is my life is very intense. My children need so much more extra support just to get through every day, they have far less independent skills than they should for their age and we have more appointments in a month than some families have in years.

Physically it starts to take a toll at times. My son is three-quarters of my height now and a third of my body weight. Yet he is only six. I still have to physically dress him like a baby, support him climbing stairs, change his nappy and dry him after his bath. His behaviour can be physically challenging and his latest ‘game’ of pulling hair until it comes out into his hand is painful. At times he requires restraint and as he has no concept of personal space he thinks nothing of climbing over me or sitting on my knee for a cuddle like a baby. I still need to lift him in and out the bath and sometimes help him onto a chair. He can not even put his own shoes on.

Sometimes, just for a little while, my body needs a rest. Respite enables my body to recover from the difficulties and gain strength to do it all again tomorrow.

Emotionally it takes its toll at times too. Only this morning I found myself walking home from the local school in tears. I spend a few hours there every week volunteering and today I was working in the class of children my son’s age. As they sang to me in French I realised my six-year-old could still not sing the same song to me in English. That has to affect you. While the children talked to me about Egypt I realised that my son can’t even talk to me about his day at school. And the reality is he may never even say his own name. Everyone needs time to cry sometimes but parents of children requiring extra support need that time even more. The pain is raw, real and is right in front of your eyes everyday. The emotional toll of hearing your child cry because no-one plays with them, or dealing with the emotions of someone laughing at your child in public, watching your child harm themselves in frustration, or dealing with professionals who don’t seem to be listening; it all drains you emotionally.

Sometimes, just for a little while, my emotions need a rest. Respite enables my heart to recover from the stress and gain strength to face it all again tomorrow.

It takes its toll on relationships too. I read recently that parents of children with extra support needs are twice as likely to divorce than others. Wether that is true or not I can sure testify that raising special needs children tests your marriage in ways you never thought it would. How do you find quality time for another adult when your children’s needs are 24 hours a day? How can you support someone else when you often struggle yourself? We all deal with stress differently but getting precious time to regroup and discuss things is very rare when you are either dealing directly with your child or attending meetings and appointments to discuss them.

Sometimes, just for a little while, I need time for other relationships. Respite enables me to be a wife, a sister, a daughter and a friend, all of which make me stronger, happier and healthier and help me be a better mum.

I am so blessed to get three hours respite a fortnight. It is the most treasured highlight of my fortnight. It is no exaggeration that it has saved my marriage, restored my physical health and given my emotions time to settle. It is also helping my children learn that others can care for their needs and help them just as much as me.

I need respite. That is not a sign of failure but in fact a sign of success. It shows I know my limits and I am not too proud to admit them. It shows I am willing to let others support me. It shows I am human.

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I tried to find myself and realised I was lost

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When you have children you expect it to be all consuming…for a season. It comes with the territory to have more nights in than nights out, to swap posh restaurants for McDonald’s and to exchange studying for homework with the children. The pre-school years are supposed to be difficult, tiring and challenging. But the light at the end of the tunnel is that one day soon they will go to school and you will start to get your life back…at least to a degree. And as they go to high school and later college or university and gain more and more independence, so as a parent you get more and more ‘me’ time to restore the balance in your life.

But sometimes the child you gave birth to, held in your arms and sang nursery rhymes to, just isn’t developing like they should. And one day you realise the likelihood of them living independently, marrying or holding down a full-time job is a reality not entirely guaranteed.

I love my children, but I found the pre-school years of raising my twins very challenging, physically as well as emotionally. Somewhere during that season I lost myself.

I lost my excitement in the continuous nappy changes (which are still ongoing).
I lost my spark in the hours of never-ending sleepless nights. (Still having those too!)
I lost my enthusiasm in the cooking, cleaning, bathing and caring for two growing children who required so much attention. (Still doing all that too!)
I lost my heart in the discovery that both my babies had autism.
I lost my hope in finding out my child had an inherited genetic condition causing him to grow tumours throughout his body.
I lost countless tears trying to teach my child to speak (He is still not speaking)
I lost friends when we realised our lives were going in different directions and I could not join in the parenting boasting game.
I lost sleep worrying how my children would ever catch up with others and survive in school.
I lost my pride begging for help when it seemed overwhelming.
I lost my strength in the never-ending battles for support.

Caring becamee all-encompassing. Autism became a way of life. When the day came and my children finally started school I was sat writing social stories, printing out visuals, finding games to support them or researching online to help them. And when I wasn’t focussed on my own children I was supporting other families in the same situation. I had redefined ‘me’. I lost myself in my children and their needs. I lost part of me to autism.

A friend asked me recently how I was enjoying my free time now both my children were both at school. I had to think twice about what free time even was!

I thought my children were lost in the world of autism. It turns out I have been trying to find myself recently and realised I am just as lost as they are, if not more.

There is more to me than being a carer. There is more to me that being an autism parent. For my own sanity and mental health I need to find who I am again. Did you know you can be a wonderful parent, a great carer and even a warrior autism mum and still do something else besides look after your children full-time? In fact I am sure the more I actually find myself the better I will be at the rest of it all.

I have gained so much as a person, a mother, a wife and a friend these last few years. Raising two children with autism is making me stronger, more confident, more out-going and more aware of others. I have become resourceful, educated, thick-skinned and bolder. I cry more but I also celebrate more. I have learnt to listen when there are no words to hear and pray like I have never prayed before. I am a different ‘me’ to the one I was six years ago.

I tried to find myself recently and I thought I was lost. It turns out I have just been cocooned in a world of caring, disability, the high support needs of my children and everything else that has entailed. It is now time to take hold of all I have gained and rediscover me.

I want to thank these two for making me a better ”me’ than I ever thought I could be.

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My best friends…the beautiful flowers

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Sometimes I just don’t want to know about my daughters day at school. It seems contrary to all good parenting advice but when I asked my six-year-old whether she had any friends the other day she told me she spends her outside social time at school talking to and looking at the “beautiful flowers”. I just can’t bear to hear any more.

I know the school well. I know the names of every single child in her class. I even volunteer within the school for several hours a week. I talk to the Head on first name terms.

My daughter is not being bullied. She is just unable to play with the other children. Her social skills are limited. She takes what the other children say in a very literal way. She is vulnerable. Her interests are far different to the others of her age and ability. She is socially isolated and happy in her own world. She is surrounded by children who know and understand popular culture, current television characters and have physical skills she has yet to even attempt. She has only one current interest which not one other child in the class have even heard of. She is a little girl with autism in a world of mainstream children.

Her perception of what goes on in school is so different from the other children. Where others listen to a story she will home in on that one child who is biting their nails and tell me at home how biting your nails is not good and that child should have been told to stop. It is only when I deduce that the children were sitting on the carpet that I figure she was perhaps having a class story. Her tales of school are all about what children did to break the rules, whose name was taken down the tree today (a behavioural chart used in the class) and who touched her and when (she hates being touched!).

Try as I may she can not grasp that the world can be seen another way. Her autism prevents her from seeing things from other people’s viewpoints. And this is impacting on so much now. Even in the simplest tasks like reading. When I asked her the other night why she still had the same few words home to practice when I was confident in her ability to know those words she said, “I read them to you mummy so why do I have to read them to the teacher too?” It was a genuine question. In her mind she knows them. She knows that and I know that so why would her teacher not know the same thing? She is genuinely ‘blind’ to the fact the teacher will not know she knows them without her reading them to the teacher. The same way she thinks I know exactly what goes on in school because she does so why would I not too?

This is happening to so many children. ‘Inclusion’ is the way to go apparently. It is a very delicate balance between what is right for my child (and many like her) academically whilst balancing the child’s social and emotional wellbeing. School is like a mini real world where she will be misunderstood, become confused at things others find easy and just interpret everything in a different way.

She is the proverbial round peg in a square hole. It is about allowing her to be her, allowing her to be autistic but balancing that against her mental wellbeing and self-esteem when she seems so different. It is a very difficult balance and one that needs very careful monitoring.

So today as I walked my beautiful daughter home from school, with trepidation, I once again asked her how her day had been. “Oh mummy, wait until I tell you what happened to my friends today…” It was beautiful to hear her happy, animated and excited and talking about that elusive thing we call ‘friends’.

Has someone lost a tooth, had a birthday, had a new baby brother or sister, or even asked her to play I silently wondered.

“My friends, the beautiful flowers, opened up for the first time today and now they look even more beautiful!”

Maybe I have it all wrong. There is an area in her playground full of greenery, shrubs and flowers. But the one flower my daughter noticed was the one that was different. Because it was more beautiful, more noticeable and something very special indeed.

I think today she just told me the most beautiful thing about school I ever heard.