What Being Discharged From Services Feels Like For A Special Needs Parent


I’m standing at a cliff edge crying out for help for my child. My voice echoes back to me in the chill and darkness of the valley ahead. I feel alone, cold, worried. Has anyone been here before? Can anyone help?


A tap on my shoulder from a speech therapist. A slither of hope in an otherwise wilderness. ‘Tell me about your child.’ So I do; readily, enthusiastically, because, after all, it’s my specialist subject. She huma and haws. Will she leave me back at that cliff edge again or bring me into safety. She offered me little really: Some visuals posted out to me to help me with my non verbal child. No working with the child. No courses available at present.


Discharged.


Like a knife wound to an already injured animal. Powerless to fight, alone, frightened. The word echoes on in the valley. Left alone again.


A pull on my clothing. Dare I turn around? Is it possible someone else may be there? Could this be the help I need so urgently, so desperately for my child? ‘Tell me about your child’. With tears running down my face, my heart beating fast, the fear evident with every word I utter: The paediatrician listens, refers on, moves on, one retires and we never see her again. It’s a fight for another appointment. Months past, years past until I realise what had happened:


Discharged.


Like they are washing their hands of my child. Nothing more they can do apparently. Hope disappeared. Back at the cliff point once again.


A whisper of my name. Hospital clinics this time: Neurology, medical paediatricians, ENT, eye clinics…in the end we’re just a number. In, out, maybe back again another time, maybe not. They might do further tests or they may send us to ‘no-man’s land’ also known in medical terms as ‘watch and wait.’ It’s another name for ‘do nothing and hope for the best.’ Some doctors we see more than once but not many. So much repeating our story, so many different faces. One day they all seem to come to an end and you age out, or they realise they have seen you too often, they start to recognise your face so it’s that time:


Discharged.


Like taking the trash out for the binmen because you have no more use for it. Like taking your old clothes to charity hoping someone else will one day see them and think they are of value. Either way you are no longer wanted. Off you go, but don’t hurry back.


Back at the cliff edge calling out for help again. Your own voice echoes back like it’s haunting you. Your child has aged, you are still pushing them in a wheelchair, progress was slow, your disabled child morphed slowly through the system to a disabled adult. Every time you passed go you collected another diagnosis.


Did anyone really help? Oh people referred on, people send out forms and ticked boxes but it never took long to be alone again. Services started, services ended. Funding run out, appointment drew further apart or never came at all and some professionals vanished like magic.


Reasons given range from lack of progress, no longer meeting criteria, too complex, not best use of time, or simply lack of resources. Rarely is it actually due to no loner needing the service.


Discharged.


Like a slap on the face, a stab to the heart, a sinking alone feeling that your child really doesn’t matter.


I stand at the cliff edge crying out for help for my child. My voice echoes back to me in the stillness and darkness. Oh there once were a few tugs, a few dull whispers, a few taps on my shoulders…but they are all long gone now.


I scream out: ‘Where is everyone? Please help me! Why did we get discharged?’


The echo comes back to me in the valley..’discharged


So we go it alone. Again.

Having A Child Who Is Forever Vulnerable

Vulnerable: to be weak, without protection, easily hurt physically or emotionally, easily influenced, prone to attack, naive, easily taken advantage of.

 

I used to think of vulnerable in terms of a small child unable to defend themselves, an elderly person living alone unable to fight off an intruder or a homeless young person who could easily be taken advantage of by others.

That was until I had a disabled child of my own.

My son was born vulnerable. Smaller than average due to being a twin, a little premature and struggling to regulate his own temperature.

He remained vulnerable as a toddler still crawling when all the other children were walking and in danger of being tripped over or having his hands trampled on.

He started nursery vulnerable, relying at three to be carried still, needing adults to guide him, feed him, change him and dress him.

He started school still vulnerable unable to speak, not understanding the world yet and still needing adults to do everything for him.

This year he finishes primary school and he’s STILL vulnerable. Still non verbal, now with significant learning disabilities, diagnosed autistic, complex medical needs, visually impaired, epileptic and still requiring adults to dress him, brush his hair, wash him and see to his bodily needs among many other things.

We can all have periods in our lives when we are vulnerable, perhaps driving in an unfamiliar town, starting a new job, living alone, walking in the dark or feeling unwell. Having periods of vulnerability keeps us humble and human but it’s uncomfortable, frightening and damaging to our self esteem. Most people go out of their way to avoid being vulnerable because the feeling of helplessness is disempowering.

Now imagine how it feels to have a child who will be forever vulnerable.

He will forever be prone to danger.

Forever be weak.

Forever without protection.

Forever easily hurt physically and emotionally.

Forever easily influenced.

Forever prone to attack.

Forever naive.

Forever easily taken advantage of.

That’s terrifying.

When people see special needs parents like myself and say things like ‘she’s very over protective’ or ‘still holding his hand at 11? I’d never do that!’ or ‘you need to give him more independence’ I wonder if they understand vulnerability? Can they see the fear in my eyes, hear the fast beating of my heart and notice the never ending worries swirling around in my head?

I can’t take my eye off the ball.

I can’t stop being concerned.

I can’t ‘back off’

I can’t die.

My child can’t go out to play, be alone, be sent to the shops for me, go out on a bike, see his friends (he hasn’t got any anyway), or even walk to school. He requires adult supervision all the time and always will.

He can’t speak, he can’t read, he can’t write, he can’t ask for help and he can’t get himself food. He’ll never live independently or work or marry because he will be forever vulnerable.

He was born vulnerable, he has grown up vulnerable and he will die vulnerable. My job as his parent is to protect, advocate, nurture, guide, teach and put in place everything needed to ensure he remains safe throughout his life.

The world is a scary place when you are alone, in the dark, unwell, somewhere new and always reliant on others for everything. Now imagine you had a child who was forever like that.

That’s what it’s like having a child who is forever vulnerable.

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.

When animals and prisons have more rights than those with autism and learning disabilities

There are some blogs that tear me apart to write. This is one of them.

Today a government report was published with the title “The detention of young people with learning disabilities and/or autism.” You can read the report in full here: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt201920/jtselect/jtrights/121/121.pdf

I read about it in the press today and cried. My own child has autism and learning disabilities. He’s non verbal, epileptic and he is doubly incontinent. I am not ashamed or embarrassed to say that at times his care needs are extreme and I struggle. Reading the introduction Members of Parliament wrote to their own report was like reading a diary and a glimpse into a future that could so easily happen to my family. Could this be your story?

Too often the pathway to detention is predictable. It begins from before diagnosis. A family grows worried about their child. They raise concerns with the GP, and with the nursery or school. It takes ages before they get an assessment and yet more time passes before they get a diagnosis of autism. All that time they struggle on their own with their worries and without help for their child. This pattern continues throughout childhood as families are under-supported and what little help they have falls away when the child reaches the age of 18. Then something happens, perhaps something relatively minor such as a house move or a parent falls temporarily ill. This unsettles the young person and the family struggles to cope. Professionals meet to discuss what should happen, but parents are not asked for their views. Then the child is taken away from their home and the familiarity and routine which is so essential to them. They’re taken miles away and placed with strangers. The parents are desperately concerned. Their concerns are treated as hostile and they are treated as a problem. The young person gets worse and endures physical restraint and solitary confinement – which the institution calls “seclusion”. And the child gets even worse so plans to return home are shelved. The days turn into weeks, then months and in some cases even years.”

The report says “we are inflicting terrible suffering on those detained in mental health hospitals and causing anguish to their distraught families.” It makes recommendations that it says are ‘urgent and not complicated’ but that ‘We have lost confidence that the system is doing what it says it is doing and the regulator’s method of checking is not working.

Let’s stop there for a minute. Here we have some of the most vulnerable people in our society having terrible suffering inflicted on them with our own government saying it has lost faith in its own system to protect them.

Would you believe me if I told you that the 2,250 children and adults with autism and/or learning disabilities detained in such places have LESS rights than animals or even prisoners?

Seriously!

Some basic research into the rights of animals showed me that they had the right to:

• need for a suitable environment

• need for a suitable diet

• need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns

• need to be housed with, or apart, from other animals

• need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.

So why are children and adults with autism and/or learning disabilities denied a suitable living environment, a suitable diet, the right to exhibit normal behavioural patters, housed appropriately and protected from pain suffering and injury? If we (rightly) wouldn’t accept this treatment of animals why are we accepting it, as a society, for those with autism and/or learning disabilities?

What about prisoners who have committed crimes, broke laws and harmed others…none of which I might add apply to those with autism and/or learning disabilities locked up in these so called hospitals?

Prisons are inspected and prisoners have strict human rights including:

• protection from bullying and racial harassment

• being able to get in contact with a solicitor

• healthcare – including support for a mental health condition

All prisoners should be able to spend between 30 minutes and an hour outside in the open air each day.

Did you see that? Even prisoners MUST have time outside every day. Yet so many of the 2,250 children and young people wrongly detained in hospitals with autism and/or learning disabilities under the mental health act are denied this.

It tears my heart and souls apart to think that an animal or someone who has killed others has more rights than my non verbal autistic son.

I can’t accept that.

Can you?

Are We Diagnosing Learning Disability Often Enough?

Over his ten years of life so far my son has ‘collected’ a fair list of diagnosis. First he was given ‘severe autism with global developmental delay’, then six months later the genetic condition ‘Neurofibromatosis Type 1’, then a few years later two complex eye conditions, a year later a third eye condition (a tumour on his optic nerve), two years later epilepsy and in the last few months cortical dysphasia which at first appeared to be a brain tumour! Every one of those diagnosis was given by medical professionals, geneticists, therapists and neurologists. Yet one diagnosis seemed to just ‘happen’ over time that everyone knew about yet no-one spoke about: learning disability.

I knew my son was ‘behind’ others from as young as a few months old. He was ‘late’ to hold his head, give eye contact, respond to his name, speak, interact with his environment, crawl, walk, use a spoon and so on. There wasn’t anything in fact that he wasn’t late at. Before he was even two years old I was told verbally he had the woolly and hopeful diagnosis of ‘global developmental delay’. Wether intentional or not it very much gave the impression that one magic wonderful day my son would suddenly ‘catch up’ with everyone else and all would be perfect. When autism was talked about that became the ‘dominant’ issue and the global delay was rarely mentioned.

Until suddenly without anyone saying anything I received a standard letter from an appointment listing my son’s diagnosis and on it I read ‘learning disability.’ There was no appointment to diagnose, no waiting list to join and no discussion. His ‘global developmental delay’ just magically changed to ‘learning disability’ and that was it.

Yet for so many others that two worded diagnosis seems to never be mentioned. Why is that?

Party it seems to be due to an increase in genetic knowledge. We can now break down genes to an amazing level and more and more children and adults are being diagnosed with rare genetic conditions. While these conditions remain rare it is common for all ‘symptoms’ including learning disability to be generalised under the umbrella of the genetic condition. While years ago the opposite may have been true and the person had a general learning disability now we see the genetic abnormality to be the cause and therefore often lump everything under that one diagnosis. Perhaps as more people get diagnosed with the same genetic conditions we may find that not everyone with that condition actually has learning disabilities and therefore adding ‘with learning disability’ would be a more helpful addition to any genetic diagnosis.

Another reason seems to be the increase in autism diagnosis. I see more and more children diagnosed on the autism spectrum who do have clear learning disabilities but who can not get the latter diagnosed because of a (wrong) assumption that ‘it’s all part of autism’. Yet according to the National Autistic Association, the leading UK charity for autism here are the facts:

Between 44% – 52% of autistic people may have a learning disability.

Between 48% – 56% of autistic people do not have a learning disability.

Autism, on its own, is NOT a learning disability.

Autism, according to Wikipedia is described as follows: ‘Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties with social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behaviour. Parents usually notice signs during the first three years of their child’s life.’

Where as ‘learning disability’ is described by Mencap, the leading charity for people with learning disabilities as: ‘A learning disability is a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities – for example household tasks, socialising or managing money – which affects someone for their whole life.People with a learning disability tend to take longer to learn and may need support to develop new skills, understand complicated information and interact with other people.’

Mencap goes on to say that around a THIRD of people with a learning disability may also be autistic. By default that means two thirds are not.

Autism and learning disability are two very different conditions.

I am thrilled that we are progressing with genetic knowledge and diagnosing more and more genetic abnormalities and differences. With knowledge comes power. I am also delighted that we are becoming better at picking up both children and adults who are autistic. But I do hope we continue to make sure that everyone, like my son, gets a diagnosis of learning disability when necessary because without it we are denying both present and future support (it’s a life long condition), limiting educational support, and leaving children and adults feeling failures because they don’t understand why they are struggling.

Oh and let’s not only make sure we continue to diagnose learning disability when necessary but let’s make sure more parents, professionals and medical experts explain that global developmental delay is unlikely to mean ‘catch up’ and actually is just a fluffy pre-diagnosis to learning disability.

Let’s tell people the truth. There is no shame in learning disability so why hide it?

My son isn’t hiding his learning disability and neither should anyone else.

When Special Needs Parents Are Told: ‘We don’t have money for that!’

Earlier this year my son became very ill. A routine MRI carried out under general anaesthetic found a large area of concern in the right frontal lobe of his brain. He underwent 6 hours of brain surgery where a segment of his brain was removed for biopsy and it took months for him to recover. Add in the fact he has severe learning difficulties, severe autism, epilepsy, a progressive genetic condition and he’s not able to speak and might you understand why I was extremely concerned about his return to school last week.

It wasn’t until two days before school was due to start back that I finally heard about his transport arrangements, and when I did I immediately felt sick. I had just spent three months caring for him since his operation, and over ten years caring for him before that ,and I knew instantly that the arrangements to get my child to school were unsafe and put him, and others, in danger. Yet despite numerous calls, emails and letters, plus the backing of medical professionals and social work later and I was faced with the decision to either put my son in that multi occupancy vehicle or keep him home. Taking him myself isn’t an option due to distance, the fact I have another child and the fact it is logistically impossible to be in two places at once.

Why were my son’s medical, development and mental health needs ignored in favour of the cheapest option? Because, as I was told numerous times when I requested single occupancy transport,: ‘We don’t have money for that!’

Now I get that my son is costly. In the last six months alone he has had thousands of pounds of medical treatment free on the NHS including scans, tests, appointments, consultations and brain surgery. He’s had a hospital stay with twenty four hour nursing staff. Everyday he has very expensive anticonvulsant medication just to keep his epilepsy under control. He was issued a wheelchair free of charge and he receives incontinence products delivered to the home at no cost. No-one ever once said they couldn’t treat his brain mass that was making him ill because ‘we don’t have the money for that!’ No-one has ever said he can’t see his neurologist or neurosurgeon or any other specialist due to cost.

Yet all his medical and communication needs can be ignored in favour of the cheapest bid when it comes to school transport?

Then there is trying to ensure he has an assistant with him at all times in the school day. Apparently my local authority don’t allocate named one on one staff preferring the cheaper option of general classroom assistants to help wherever the schools feel necessary. Why? Because it’s best for the children, ensures every child’s needs are met and gives them the best chance of success while being kept safe? No! Because it’s the cheaper option.

Despite being non verbal at ten my son hasn’t received any input from speech and language for years. He’s never been assessed or offered an alternative communication device that could help ease his frustrations. Why? Because of lack of money!

I list so many more times when I have been told that what my child needs in order to be safe, nurtured, included, and able to achieve isn’t possible…because ‘we don’t have her money for that!’

I haven’t ever met one parent of a special needs child (or children) who hasn’t been told at one point or other ‘we don’t have money for that’ wether it’s respite, educational support, sibling support, mental health support or adaptation to their house.

‘Lack of funds’ is the single most given reason why families with special needs children struggle. It’s what affects the mental health of parents (and children) the most. It’s what deprives millions of opportunities, vital support and independence.

Yes there isn’t an infinite amount of money in the world but should the most vulnerable in society be the ones to suffer?

When you tell me ‘we don’t have he money for that’ what you are really saying is my child doesn’t matter. His safety doesn’t matter;his welfare doesn’t matter; his life doesn’t matter. You are saying society doesn’t care.

Everyone has potential. Every life matters. Should there be a cost attached to vital support? What if that was your child put at risk?

What if someone said to you that you didn’t matter, you were not worth investing in, you should just accept what is given wether it meets your needs or not? Would you accept second best because someone said ‘we don’t have money for that’?

There are too many children with needs being put in school transport that is unsuitable, unsafe and transporting them for way over the government guidelines of time just because their parents are told there is no money for any other option.

There are too many children struggling in education, having to be withdrawn because of inadequate provision and placed in mainstream when it isn’t right all because of lack of funds.

There are too many families denied vital respite putting lives at risk all because of lack of money.

There are too many children and young people denied access to support such as speech and language, mental health workers or occupational health all because of cutbacks.

Our children matter. Our young people matter.

You can’t put a cost on the importance of a life.

My child deserves so much more than your glib and thoughtless comment of ‘we don’t have money for that!’

Your child deserves better too.

A letter To The Parents Of A Struggling Child

Dear parent,

I know at times you feel so helpless and alone as you watch your child struggle. When we give birth and hear our babies cry for the first time from that moment on we want to help them and make everything right for them.

We don’t want them to be ill.

We don’t want them to be unable to eat.

We don’t want them battling for breath.

We don’t want them in pain.

We don’t want them to be the last to meet milestones.

We don’t want them emotionally or physically or socially struggling.

There is something about watching your child struggle that tears your heart in two. That feeling of uselessness, helplessness, having no control over things. That feeling that you should be the one to fix it all for them, comfort them, make it all better…but you can’t. That feeling of not being able to meet your child’s needs, whether that’s feeding them, holding them, carrying them or teaching them. That feeling of having to accept help for the sake of your struggling child.

I’ve been there too.

I know that feeling of failure well. That gut wrenching feeling as a parent when a nurse, therapist, teacher or doctor is the one that gets your child’s first eye contact or enables your child to say their first word. I understand that feeling of being robbed of something that should have been your privilege, not theirs. I’ve experienced that feeling of despair, the wanting to give up, the inadequacy that comes with having a child who is struggling.

I’ve cried so many tears and I’m sure you have too.

No-one wants to be the parents of the child who isn’t talking when all their peers are. No-one wants to be the parents of the child who has failed their six week check up, two year check up and even their pre-school check up. It’s a kick in the teeth for all the hard work and investment in your child when all they see is still a struggling child.

I know the fights. The fights to prove you are a good parent and your child’s struggles are not due to neglect. The fight to get your child help. The fight to be listened to. The fight for the right educational environment for your child to thrive. The fight for basic equipment to help. The fight for support. The mental fight to get through each day.

I know the fears: for the future, for their education, because they are so vulnerable.

When you are the parent of a struggling child it means you struggle too.

Too many judge.

Too many are ignorant.

Too many refuse to understand.

Too many ignore.

Having a struggling child is lonely. It’s isolating. It’s heartbreaking.

But I also know you are doing everything you can and more. Your determination, courage and strength shines through you. No-one could love, encourage or support your child more than you do.

You’ve got this.

My child struggles too. Their struggles may not be the same ones your child faces but that doesn’t matter. We are still in this together.

Stay strong my friend. There will be better days ahead.

Your child may be struggling but that’s not your fault. Hold your head high and show the world who you are.

You are not a failure for having a struggling child.

You are not to blame.

You are a wonderful parent.

Never ever forget that,

Yours,

A fellow parent of a struggling child.