If there is one thing my son Isaac has taught me in the last 8 years it is this:
Communication is much more than words.
Isaac has severe autism. He has no spoken language. He has global delay, significant learning difficulties and NF1. He struggles with lots of things in life ,but yet there is one thing he excels at and has done for a few years now: he has taught himself to communicate via google street map!
It is a different way of communicating, but for him it works much better than speech or any traditional communication app.
Wherever I take Isaac, wether it is somewhere he is familiar with, or hundreds of miles away to a place he has never been before, he has a special talent of retracing the exact route once home using just google street map and his incredible memory.
In the summer of 2014 when he was just six year old we went on holiday to a cottage 120 miles from home yet a week later he retraced the exact route we travelled including stopping at the very same service station we took a comfort break at!
I was amazed that a child who has no understanding of numbers or letters and barely turned when his name was called could hold such an incredible talent. I was sure it was a one off.
He attends a school for children with complex needs and is transported there in transport alone for his own safety due to challenging behaviour and seizures. His school is 14 miles from home yet he takes himself there by memory via google street map every afternoon once home and sitting in ‘his’ chair. I put this ability down to the fact he does the same journey daily. I wondered if he had the location stored.
One day I watched him.
What I witnessed gave me an insight into part of his world I can never be a part of and which he could never tell me about. Watching him use google street map gave me peace of mind as he showed me step by step the route his taxi goes and even where the car parks to get him out…in fact he even took me to the door of the building he goes into! All without speaking a single word
He uses google street map for his every communication need now.
If he is hungry he goes onto the street map and travels from his home address to a restaurant nearby and brings his iPad to me to show me.
If he wants to go out he uses google street map to show me where he wants to go, from the church he goes to every week, to the train station, and the local park. He takes himself to his grans house and to shopping centres to tell me he wants to go and watch lifts.
He has discovered he can enter a local hotel using google street map and this has opened up new unique ways for him to communicate too.
He tells me when he requires his continence products changed by taking himself to the hotel, going inside and finding the toilets!
He goes into rooms in the hotels and finds an ensuite to communicate he wants a bath at night. When ready for bed he moves around the rooms until he finds a bed and points to it.
He finds my car in the driveway to ask to go in the car.
He finds a clothes shop in the high street to ask me to get him dressed.
When he was highly distressed one day and I could not stop him screaming I put on google street map and he moved around until he found a house with a door open to show me that there was a door open somewhere he could see and this was what was causing his distress! I was in awe of his ability to find such an ingenious way to communicate.
Two weeks ago though he shocked me once again. He was more lethargic than usual and quiet (he may not speak but he makes a lot of noise!). He came and sat beside me and used his skill on google street map to take himself to the doctors surgery! For the first time ever he was able to communicate that he was feeling unwell! This was incredible. I cried. It was nothing serious thankfully but to be able to say he communicated he was not feeling good to a doctor was amazing.
Isaac is not a genius. He can not write his own name, dress himself, read or write or use cutlery. He requires round the clock care. He can not speak one word. He is severely autistic yet he has found a way to connect with others that is as unique and special as he is.
Google street map has helped millions find their way in life but none more so than one non verbal autistic little boy named Isaac.
If you ask people what jobs never get time off at Christmas and the majority will list those in the emergency services or health service. These are vital services that we all expect to work through public holidays to ensure our health and safety at all times.
But among those working tirelessly on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and throughout the new year celebrations too are full time carers; unsung heroes who sacrifice their own holidays to care for the needs of others, often at little or even no pay.
Christmas for full time carers comes with so much extra stress as services they usually rely on throughout the year come to a halt for the festivities. When day care, special needs schools, home help and respite centres all have times of closure for staff to have annual leave the full time stay at home carer is the one left to pick up the pieces, work longer hours and ensure continuity for the person they care for.
Then you have the fact that pharmacies, GP surgeries, dentists, clinics and out patient appointments all cease for a few days too. For full time carers coping with loved ones with complex medical conditions this not only causes complications but extra worry. Out of hours call centres have often never heard of genetic conditions or have the training to deal with patients who perhaps are unable to communicate. Taking a person you care for who has complex medical and communication needs to an out of hours GP with little to no knowledge of their medical history brings risks and worries for a carer so they often care for someone at home when otherwise they would be able to access medical support. Getting a person who is wheelchair bound or who does not cope with new environments into a clinic they are unfamiliar with presents extra stress and anxiety for a carer who is perhaps already exhausted themselves.
Christmas comes with an expectation of giving to family and friends. For a carer who devotes their entire life to someone else this brings a huge challenge of finding time to do all that is expected as a friend, a mother or sister whilst juggling the continued needs of a loved one. There is only so many hours in a day and the pressure on carers to be everything to everyone can take it’s toll.
Carers are incredible people though. They take on the role of so many professionals without the pay or training. They do physiotherapy, speech therapy, play therapy and occupational therapy without realising. They provide stability of care, reliability of routine, love and attention that no other service or person could provide. They feed, dress, take care of personal needs and befriend some of the most vulnerable in our society at a time when these people are so often forgotten.
This Christmas Day thousands upon thousands of full time carers will be preparing specialist Christmas dinners for someone they love, who for many reasons, is unable to use cutlery or sit at the dinner table with family. They could be providing pain relief, ensuring oxygen is supplied properly or talking to a loved one as they come out of a seizure yet again. They could be changing nappies or pads, dressing wounds or unwrapping gifts for someone else who can not do it for themselves.
They do it out of love. We owe them our love and gratitude too. It may not be our loved one they are caring for right now but one day it could be.
I am one of those full time carers at Christmas and I know the extra stress that this time of year brings.
To all those caring this Christmas know that you too are cared for. I see the extra stress this time of year brings and I care.
I see you care.
Know that I care too.
This post first appeared here
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.
This post first appeared here
I had a message from a fellow special needs parent this week. Two words of that message have impacted on me greatly. She wrote:
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.