Living in Fear as a Special Needs Parent

The following piece has been submitted anonymously for obvious reasons. No parent should have to live like this but sadly this is the reality for so many parents of children in the U.K. with additional support needs. It is vital stories like this are heard.

Why I live in fear.

Fear is the emotion I identify with the most. Some days it is all I feel.

I have two boys, let’s call them Harry and James. They both have additional needs. Harry is autistic and is not in school, he has been excluded several times and now refuses to go. James is undiagnosed but probably also autistic, he goes to school but has severe anxiety and is very unhappy there. 

Harry has an EHCP, but it is totally inadequate. To get it changed I have to take the local authority to court.

I am afraid we won’t win, and that the fight to get the right help will be too much for me.

Meanwhile he is not in school (because his needs have not been met for so long) and his absences are being marked down as unauthorised.

I am afraid that I will be prosecuted.

I have asked for help from every conceivable agency. We have been turned down for a social care assessment because Harry is not ‘disabled’ enough.

I am afraid that we will be left until we reach crisis point and then suddenly we’ll end up under Child Protection, despite the fact we’re allegedly coping well enough right now.

Sometimes I’m afraid of Harry, because his behaviour can be very violent and challenging.

I do everything I can at home, but I cannot control the school situation which is causing so much anxiety and driving his behaviour. I am too afraid to tell anyone how bad it is, because I’m scared he’ll be taken away.

I am afraid of the effect this is having on James. My happy little boy has become serious and quiet and cries often.

I live on my own with my children and, because Harry is not in school, I am with one or both of them 24 hours a day without respite. Their needs are very different and there is only one of me. I can only ever meet the needs of one of them at the expense of the other.

I am afraid they are being robbed of the happy childhood they deserve. 

I am afraid Harry will end up in the criminal justice system.

He is vulnerable to influence and bullying.

I am afraid that people will not be able to look past his extensive vocabulary and see his problems with social interaction and receptive language and jump to all the wrong conclusions. 

I am afraid that my children will not have the happy future that they deserve, because rather than access to early intervention services we will be pushed beyond breaking point and irreversible damage will be done.

I am afraid that people won’t see my children for who they really are: Sweet, loving and kind little boys that still call me mummy and enjoy watching Paw Patrol, despite their age.

I am afraid for my future.

I gave up a well paid job to be a carer. I have no pension, I don’t own my own home and I have no savings. At least one of my children will probably still be living with me well past the age you would normally expect. 

I am afraid of growing old alone, as the opportunity to meet someone feels like an impossibility right now, and it feels like I have been alone forever.

I am afraid what will happen to my boys if something happens to me, because no one could love or protect them, and no one understands the nuances of their behaviours and care needs, like I do. They would be so frightened, alone and confused if I wasn’t here anymore. 

Some days all I feel is fear. 

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Why I no longer grieve for my autistic son

Four and a half years ago I wrote a blog titled ‘grieving for a child I haven’t lost’. It has been read over 100 thousand times since I wrote it and appeared in a number of books and on some popular websites. It’s been one of the most commented pieces I have written and evoked very strong feelings from people, both good and bad.

Time has passed and feelings change. Some advised me to delete that blog. But why would I be ashamed of how I truly felt at the time? You can’t eradicate history and it’s not healthy to pretend something wasn’t real when it was. I stand by every word I wrote back then and I know by being so brutally honest it has helped thousands of others feel less alone and more understood. Four and a half years ago my son was non verbal, smearing, screaming for hours, unable to read or write and needed 24 hour care. He was still in nappies at 6 and a half, having seizures, his behaviour was ‘challenging’ and every single day felt never ending.

He’s now 11. He’s still not toilet trained, still smears, now officially diagnosed epileptic, still has challenging behaviour and still non verbal. He still screams, he still can’t read or write or dress himself but something fundamental HAS changed: I no longer grieve for him.

I refuse to debate wether ‘grief’ is the right word to use for what I went through. I am the one that went through it and I know the intensity and depth of my feelings and the struggles both my son experienced, and in turn I felt as his mum and full time carer. The day I sat on that park bench and poured my heart onto paper was a day of truly understanding the reality of the pain, heartbreak and despair I felt. No-one has any right to undermine that unless they were living my life. My feelings and thoughts are not up for debate and never will be.

But things have changed now. A few days ago I took my son a trip to his favourite place. He now has a means of communication and I have learnt to listen. While he still can’t communicate verbally, after a lot of frustration and heartbreak, he found his own way of sharing his world through unconventional means. For him this is a unique combination of you tube, google street map, photos and using items of reference. He shows ingenuity and creativity daily as he tries to convey what he wants to wear, eat, and do. I have had, in turn, to be wiling to put my prejudices aside, be patient, and be willing to listen with more than just my ears.

Many misunderstood my grief as not loving my son. The opposite was in fact true. It was my intense love for him that made me grieve what I was missing as a parent and also the reality of what he will miss throughout his life.

But back to our trip and why I no longer grieve for my autistic son.:

He woke up on Saturday and made his way downstairs to ‘his’ chair. He pressed his iPads on (yes he has two!) and scrolled through his history of videos in YouTube until he found the one he wanted. He then used the other to go on google street map which is set to begin at his own home. Within minutes he had taken himself to the local train station on one iPad whilst watching local trains on the other.

I know my son and I know where he likes to go. Together we have a deep understanding now that has helped us both feel happier. He learnt that communication was worthwhile and I learnt the importance of allowing him to decide and control more about his life.

So I took him on a train to his favourite shopping centre to see lifts. On the train I watched as he flapped happily and looked out the window, holding his favourite teddy up so he could see too. He held my hand to get off the train and he took me to all his favourite lifts. We had lunch together in the food court and he dragged me by the hand and pointed to what he wanted. Then when he’d had enough we came home.

I’ve accepted that this is what makes him happy. He’s accepted that I actually have a use and by communicating other ways instead of screaming (which was his communication) he can achieve more.

I struggled but he struggled more.

Love helped us through. We both needed time.

In the four and a half years of us both needing time and changing I noticed something very important: attitudes to autistics are changing. We are much more accepting of difference now and the need to accommodate. Unfortunately though that acceptance still doesn’t seem to apply to parents as they journey through all the emotions involved in caring for, and living with their autistic children.

I am no longer grieving for my autistic son because I have come to accept and acknowledge that his life will always be different, as will mine, and that is OK. But it’s important that that is seen not as a ‘changing sides’ or ‘finally being positive’ but more about a natural journey of learning, patience and love. I haven’t suddenly become ‘accepting’ it was a process of coming to terms with the fact that my entire life will mean caring for my child and his entire life will involve others caring for him.

My son didn’t scream once on Saturday nor did he self harm or even show challenging behaviour. He was happy and so was I.

It’s still difficult at times, for both of us. But instead of sitting on that bench crying we now walk hand in hand past it as he flaps and laughs and drags me back to the car. He’d rather have fun at a lift or be eating lunch than walk around a park with his mum. That’s not something I grieve about now. It’s something I smile about instead.