When Something Isn’t Right And Your Child Can’t Tell You

It’s Monday morning and I’m trying to dress my non verbal ten year old while he screams at me and makes it abundantly clear that he isn’t wearing uniform today and he doesn’t want to go to school. I persevere, despite his protests, and remind him gently that ‘today is Monday. First school, then home’. I know he understands but he still clearly doesn’t want to go.

His transport arrives and with a LOT of persuasion he finally accepts the inevitable and off he goes to school.

Half an hour later here I am sitting drinking a cup of tea and secretly congratulating myself that I made it through another Monday morning and I got my son to school despite his protest.

But then, with my warm cuppa still in hand, I read this online and I gasp audibly.

https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/17510158.parents-kept-in-the-dark-over-teacher-struck-of-for-force-feeding-toast-to-autistic-boy-at-south-lanarkshire-primary/

What if my non verbal son was trying to tell me something wasn’t right this morning and I didn’t listen?

This story hit home because I know of the school, but even more personally I know one of the families. The cover pic above was a picture that appeared on my social media the day it happened. I cried the day I saw that pic, and years later reading what actually went on to cause the bruises, I am crying again. That child could have been mine…same age, same diagnosis, same location, both non verbal. I have used the photograph with full permission from the family, who quite rightly, want people to see the damage that was caused.

While the full story isn’t mine to tell what I can say is that even with obvious injuries, parents who were proactive and highly concerned, and professionals keen to support, it has taken four years to get this case to the point where the teacher has been struck off for six months. When the child came home from school looking like he did above both parents immediately knew something serious was going on, but when your child can’t communicate and doesn’t have the cognitive understanding or social ability to know when something isn’t right where do you start?

For years my friend faced every school morning the same way I did, and she too would remind her son ‘first school, then home.’ We are both, sadly, used to seeing our son’s struggle and we believe professionals and schools when they tell us ‘everything is fine’ and ‘our children are just wanting to stay home because it’s an easy option’, or ‘they are struggling with the transition or sensory difficulties’.

There was far more damage done than bruises to my friend’s son’s face. Four years later he is still on medication for anxiety and it took over two years to get him him to go into school happy again. It’s taken multiple amazing teachers and support assistants to undo the damage one teacher caused. The damage to the trust of the parents will last forever.

The abuse didn’t start the day the child came home covered in bruises. For months the child screamed and withdrew and refused school yet, just like I did this morning, they encouraged and persuaded their child to go anyway. The guilt of that can not be measured.

The authority may have apologised to the family but it has taken four years to get any sort of justice, though a six month suspension doesn’t feel like justice for what they went through. In that four years the family had no idea of the true extent of what went on until the case came to the general teaching council for consideration. Not only could their own child not communicate the full account, but those that could have told them chose not to until they finally heard in a courtroom four years after the event.

Children like my friend’s son, and my own son, are among the most vulnerable in society. They are transported to schools miles from home, unable to say if they are injured or even shouted at. When they have challenging behaviour we are told ‘it’s all part of their condition’ and when they don’t appear to want to go to school we are told to push them, cajole them and persuade them.

But what if something isn’t right and your child can’t tell you? What if your intuition tells you things are not all they seem?

My intuition told me this morning that my son had just enjoyed a weekend at home eating his favourite foods and watching what he wanted on YouTube and he didn’t want that to end. Despite my gut telling me he is ok at school there will always be that nagging feeling that perhaps everything isn’t as I hope it is.

I don’t ever share stories like this because I am not an advocate of spreading fear However, this goes way beyond that. There are lessons here for everyone.

1. Schools who are privileged to have our most vulnerable children need to make sure they have everything in place to safeguard them. Staff who whistleblow must be given protection. As parents we need to know there are adults who genuinely care for our babies.

2. Parents need to trust their own intuition. If something seems ‘off’ never dismiss it.

3. Parents must be listened to…by everyone. There is too much at stake not to.

4. Schools, authorities and investigators must stop hiding the truth from parents.

5. As a society we need to take the responsibility seriously for making sure the most vulnerable, especially those who can not communicate, are looked after. If you witness abuse report it, always.

I made some silly excuse today to drive the 14 miles to my sons school to unexpectedly call in. I just needed to do so for my peace of mind. I peeked into the class where he was smiling, engaged in an activity he was enjoying and the room was highly staffed.

He’s fine, but so many others aren’t.

If you have concerns that your child is being abused in any way, wether in school or anywhere else, speak up. Contact professionals involved with your child, contact the police, gather evidence and information and inform the management of the school immediately. Have everything in writing and find organisations who can support you.

It’s vital that cases like this are talked about ,though it must be stressed that things have now changed in the school concerned and the vast majority of people working with children like my son, and my friend’s son, are amazing and kind.

Sadly as a parent to a childI with high support needs who is non verbal I will always have that worry:

What if something isn’t right and my child can’t tell me?

With thanks to the family involved for their bravery in allowing their story to be shared.

Why It Appears I Let My Autistic Son Get His Own Way

As usual my son is the first to wake up. It feels like I have only just got to sleep. I probably have. As he makes his way downstairs he switches every light on he passes, takes a handful of teddies with him and finally settles down on his chair with his two iPads before screaming for the TV to go on. His presence defines the household. His demands can seem relentless and his screaming earth shattering.

To almost anyone who reads about him, comes into my home or works with him, the impression is the same: I let my autistic son get his own way.

What people see is just the tip of the iceberg and the reason I am writing this post is to show that what can seem on the surface one way isn’t always the case.

My son is ten, he has severe autism. He has no spoken language. He has epilepsy. He has a progressive genetic condition. Most importantly for this post he also has something known as violent and challenging behaviour.

Violent and challenging behaviour in children with additional needs like my son is much more common than people realise. The reason is simple: people don’t talk about it. There is a shame that comes with it, as well as judgement, embarrassment and fear.

My son used to injure me. He would kick, punch, pull my hair, bite, destroy things, scream, harm himself and throw anything he could get his hands on. He was frustrated, angry and violent, both to others and himself. I couldn’t ‘have words with him’ as his understanding was (and still is) that of a one year old. He had no concept of being grounded since he never left the house without me or went anywhere and taking things off him proved counterproductive as he made absolutely no connection to the removed item and his behaviour.

I needed to understand him better not punish him. I needed to realise what was driving his behaviours, even when he couldn’t tell me.

His behaviour was similar in school and home so this wasn’t simply a parenting issue or an education issue, this was a behaviour issue that needed addressed consistently and with a lot of patience.

So what changed?

Well firstly I realised my son wasn’t being controlling. He was anxious.

He wasn’t being hurtful or selfish when he injured other people or property, he was dealing with emotions he had no idea how to cope with.

He was confused, upset, had unmet sensory needs, frustrated at an inability to communicate and be understood and he showed this in the only way he knew how.

Behaviour is one of the biggest and most effective ways we all communicate.

He needed things to change and that change started with me. I put in place a very low arousal home life. To the outsider it may look just like my son gets his own way but realistically we are actually all getting our own way instead because the entire family is now safe, our property is safe, and most importantly my son is safe.

My son does get to wake when he wants, watch TV when he wants and choose his meals. He has access to his iPad from the moment he wakes and when he wants a bath I bath him.

People can think what they like but by responding to his natural body clock and going with the times that suit his natural rhythm he is calmer, happier and more settled.

By allowing him to watch the TV he wants I am actually calming him as he uses the schedule of a well know children’s channel to know when his school transport is due, when it is time for his bath and when mealtimes happen. This eases his anxiety and helps him make sense of his world.

By letting him choose his meals he feels much more in control and less anxious as he then knows not only what is coming but when it is likely to come too. Surprises make him anxious, and therefore more likely to be violent.

As for the iPad: well it turns out this is his very means of communication, his voice so to speak, and without this he has no means of showing me what he wants or even if he is unwell. To deny him that is taking away the very tool that allows him to be understood.

Then there’s the bath: this is fundamental to his mental well-being and triggers him to know it is time for winding down for bed. By making this a time for arguments or battles because the time wasn’t convenient for me was one of his biggest triggers for his behaviour. I was inadvertently saying to him that it was my way or no way, which made him feel invisible, out of control and helpless.

Low arousal for us is about letting my son know that he is understood, loved and accepted for who he is. This is his home and he needs that place of sanctuary and escape to be able to recuperate and relax in order to face the world. He needs to feel like his needs are met and that the atmosphere is one of calm and love not anger and frustration.

Many would say I am doing him an injustice by allowing him to ‘have his own way’. The argument is that in the ‘real world’ this is unrealistic. I understand that totally but my child’s ‘real world’ isn’t going to be about an employer, a spouse and following the rules of the road as a driver. My son will have carers, support workers and respite staff and it is vital that they are not attacked in the way I used to be.

Low arousal isn’t about letting your child dictate. It’s about understanding, listening, responding and meeting the needs of our most vulnerable children when they need it most. It’s about responding to the communication that the challenging behaviour and violence actually is and recognising that a child is struggling and needs help.

You might see a child appearing to get his own way. I see a child who is understood, calm and happy.

Until you have lived through what I have you may never understand. I don’t judge you for that, I just hope you never have to experience it.

Who Will Fight For The Rights Of Less Able Autistics Like My Son?

This week the autistic community achieved something quite incredible. News began spreading earlier this week that a large government body had changed the wording on their site that said that anyone diagnosed autistic was now forced to inform the driving and vehicle licensing agency about their diagnosis potentially risking their driver’s licence.

The autistic community responded to this and rallied together defending their rights incredible well. They tweeted MP’s who battled for them, they started petitions and shared them everywhere, they made sure the leading charities supported them and they even looked into the law on the matter. As the wife of an autistic man who drives daily, and who I even taught to drive, I found it heartening and wonderful to watch a community come together and demand action. Days later the wording was changed back to its original wording that means autistic drivers, like those with any other condition or disability which could potentially impact on driving, only need to inform the agency if they feel their autism would affect their driving. Brilliant news indeed and a massive win for the rights of autistic drivers.

However, despite having an autistic husband who has been driving over 11 years I was very quiet online about the campaign even though I fully supported it. (I did sign the petition obviously.)

There was one simple reason for my silence and that was this:

It was great to see the autistic community defending themselves, and rightly so, but would the same autistic community, and society in general, be so outraged and campaign so valiantly if the violation was against the less able autistic community like my son?

I can’t help but think who will fight for my son’s rights?

Will his fellow autistics or those in society defend him, write petitions to ensure he is protected and contact members of parliaments about things that affect him? Will the public be so outraged and vocal about things that affect his rights? Would campaigns for the less able autistics get as much media coverage?

One thing is certain: my son will never be able to advocate for himself. He has no ability to speak, diagnosed with co-morbid learning difficulties and epilepsy and developmentally a young baby. Yet still every bit as worthy as a human being.

This week autistic drivers defended themselves. The very fact this group passed the drivers test, many having had to also pass a theory test too, proves a level of cognitive understanding and ability that makes them capable of self advocacy and defending their own rights well. I’m not a huge fan of ‘functioning labels’ but the very ability to drive means the group targeted have a level of awareness and understanding that my son will never reach. This in turn meant they could rally so much public support.

My son won’t ever be able to vocally speak up for himself.

He won’t be able to tweet anyone to come to his aid.

He won’t be able to start or even sign a petition. He likely won’t even know what one is.

He won’t be able to lobby for change.

I 100% stand by and support what was achieved this week but I also can’t help but wonder would we be so outraged as a country, as a community, if an agency violated my son’s rights like happened this week?

You only need to look at campaigns and petitions for things like making sure the police are trained in autism to help protect the most vulnerable autistics, campaigns against autistics being held in assessment and treatment units for mental health patients, campaigns to stop unnecessary force when dealing with autistic children and young people with learning difficulties and/or challenging behaviour, and even campaigns for the dignity of autistic children like my son to have suitable ‘Changing Places’ bathrooms with a hoist and a bench, to see that such campaigns need more support both from self advocates and society in general. What are the charities, celebrities, members of parliament and media doing to support campaigns such as these which are and do affect less able autistics like my son?

I advocate on my son’s behalf but many in the autistic community find that offensive saying my son needs to be enabled to advocate himself. The fact is he won’t ever be capable of that level of awareness or understanding. I have to be his voice. Until the day I can no longer do so I will fight for my son’s rights as a human being, child and eventually an adult. I will do everything in my power to see him respected, treated with dignity and be understood.

I just hope that if the time ever comes when his rights need defended that others within the autism community, and in society as a whole, will come together and stand up for him in the same way they stood up for themselves this week.

He’s autistic too, even if he won’t ever work, pay tax, raise a family or even drive.

He’s still every bit as worthy, valuable and he should have just as much rights.

If we say we support the rights of autistics are we fighting for the rights of the less able as much as for those who can advocate well themselves?

Will you stand with the less able autistics like my son?