Why I told my Autistic Daughter There is no Santa

I love the magic of Christmas. I love the way it changes people and they think about others much more. Charities often make more money in December than the rest of the year and children sing carols and cheerful songs at school. Although it is very commercial it can be a real time for families to come together and children can have an excitement and anticipation as they look forward to a special day.

So why would I ruin all that by telling my sweet blue eyed daughter that there really is no such person as Santa?

Firstly I am not advocating this is right for every child. My daughter has autism so I chose to explain there is no such person as Santa for the following reasons:

1. Her literal thinking was causing her so much distress about Santa.

Books, TV programmes and all her friends at school talked about Santa coming down the chimney. We don’t have a chimney and no made up story of magic keys or flying through windows could change the fact that even the song talks about Santa being stuck up the chimney! She took Santa’s grotto as literal too so became very distressed and confused that Santa could be in the middle of the shopping mall, at her school party AND in the North Pole making presents all at the same time? Why did some Santa’s wear glasses and others didn’t? Why would some be tall and thin while others were short and tubby?

There is no enjoyment in the make believe of a story when your child sees everything in black and white and will not ‘play along’ just for the sake of it.

2. Her anxiety over all things Santa was stopping her sleeping.

The very thought that a stranger would enter her house while she was asleep utterly horrified her. Even though the whole story of him leaving gifts for her should have eased that anxiety she was worrying over how Santa would carry everything, wether his reindeer would get too tired or even if she would be forgotten (cheers for that one Peppa Pig!) The very mention of Santa was not exciting my child or making her suddenly want to be on the ‘nice list’, it was in fact causing her to stay awake at night worrying and making her jump every time the door bell rung.

I could not continue to see her so nervous and anxious over something that was meant to be a joyous and wonderful occasion.

3. The social expectations around Santa were all too much for her.

Ok so I know she never had to go and see Santa in his grotto anywhere but when he arrived at her school fair or party she found the whole social aspect very upsetting. Having spent years trying to get her to understand basic social rules such as we don’t talk to strangers and we certainly never sit on other people’s knees all of a sudden she watched in horror as every other child she knew broke all of these social rules just because the ‘stranger’ was dressed in a red suit. Her autism makes breaking any sort of rule horrifying and very distressing so Santa became linked with people doing very strange and confusing things indeed.

4. Her defensiveness and love for her brother was more important that any belief in Santa.

This was the crux for me and the reason I found myself sitting with my daughter on her bed while she cried begging me to tell her Santa was not real. You see my daughter has a brother who has complex needs. He can not speak and has a long list of diagnosis. Part of that means he often has very challenging behaviour for medical and developmental reasons. Her brother had just had a very difficult weekend where he had caused hundreds of pounds of damage to things in the house. He had killed her full tank of tropical fish by pouring bubble bath into the water, yet she still loved him fiercely. So when someone heard about her brother’s behaviour and happened to tell her he would be on Santa’s naughty list and would not get anything for Christmas she hated Santa more than she has ever hated anyone ever before.

So I had to tell her.

Telling my young daughter there is no such person as Santa has been the most magical thing I could have done for her. All of a sudden everything now makes sense to her. She can now reason in her mind how ‘santa’ can be in the shopping centre, the local school and somehow in the North Pole at the same time. She realised that the chimney stuff is all a story and there is no need to fear a stranger coming in her house while she is asleep. She understands why children suddenly want to sit on someone’s knee and tell them what they want for Christmas because the man in red is actually not a stranger to them at all. But most importantly of all she knows without a doubt that her brother will have gifts this year regardless of how challenging and difficult his behaviour can be.

I actually wish I had told her there is no such person as Santa earlier. Now she knows Santa is all made up she is happier and more excited about Christmas than she has ever been before.

She knows she is getting presents, she knows who buys them and she knows how we get them.

For some children with autism the magic of Christmas is actually in finally finding out Santa is not real at all.

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A Day In Mainstream School For My Autistic Daughter

I am so grateful that my daughter can talk and that she shares freely with me her worries and stresses of school. This day in the life has been written with her full consent and approval to help others see how challenging mainstream can be for some children with autism and how they can perhaps ‘hold it together’ all day but explode at home. 
img_2266Morning preparation 

I wake up and come downstairs and try not to think about school too much. I get my iPad or toys and set them up just how I like it. I know I need to get dressed and eat but until things are ‘right’ I can’t think about those things. I need to do one thing at a time so please leave me alone. Let me do it my way. Constantly asking me questions is so stressful as is nagging me about time. By the time we need to leave I am already stressed and anxious.

 
In the playground

I am scanning. This is so hard to see who I need to see when everyone is dressed the same and moving around. The noise, the unpredictable movements, the bags on the ground…that’s a lot to take in for me. I only want to find my best friend and the longer it takes to find her the more I get worried. What if she is off sick? What if she has an appointment today?

IMG_2395The bell

Bells panic me. They mean I have to move somewhere quickly and I sometimes get stressed. Bells mean pressure and children running and they might push me over. I stand in my line and face forwards making sure I don’t look at anyone. The teachers shout about not talking and standing straight but I am doing those already and not sure what I should be doing differently. I turn to see if everyone else is doing what I am doing and now my class is pulled up for me facing the wrong way! I feel to blame. I feel so anxious. I feel different. 

 
Getting to class

I have to remember to put my bag one place, my packed lunch somewhere else and then hang my coat on the right peg. It can be confusing to remember all that while others are talking and moving all around me and the lights are so bright inside. Sometimes I wait until most of the others are in the class but then I worry I will get shouted at for taking too long! Sometimes I forget I have my school bag as it is on my back and I can’t see it! How can everyone else do this so quickly and easily and I can’t?

Class

I listen so much. In fact I listen so hard to everything that sometimes I can’t do my work because I need to stop and listen to everything the teacher says in case she is talking to me. I want to write neat because I don’t want a row but then they say I need to work faster and I can’t do fast and neat. It is hard to concentrate with others so close to me. They move about and talk and turn pages and it is so distracting sometimes. The walls have so much stuff on them, I can hear the tap dripping and I can hear people walking about.

I am scared to talk in case I get in trouble.

Sometimes I just can’t do the work. Yesterday they wanted us to do a senses poem about fireworks. They told me to imagine being at a bonfire with fireworks but how can you do that if you have never been to a bonfire before? I haven’t. They told me to write about what I would touch but you are not allowed to touch fireworks so I can’t write anything. They told me to write what I can smell but all I can smell right now is disgusting school dinners and I can’t even spell that. I just leave that one too.

Then the teacher gets me in trouble for not doing the task. I want to cry. The tears won’t come out.



Playtime

I don’t understand this bit. You play with toys so why call it playtime when there are no toys? Just call it ‘talk time’ or ‘stand in the playground time’ instead. I take my own toys out. Then it rains and we have to come inside and I can’t play with my toys and it is so confusing for me. I don’t like changing things. I get cold at playtime because it is hard to fasten my coat and if I take my time the people tell me to hurry up and go outside so I just can’t fasten it up now. I have one area I like to stand and play with my one friend. We play the same game every day. We like it that way. I want to play with others but I can’t because I don’t understand what they are playing. They don’t have toys. I can’t work out made up games like that.

Lunchtime

Lunchtime is horrible. We have a short time for everyone in the whole school to eat and they want us all to line up and take turns and sit at huge tables with other children I don’t know. I just want to sit down and get time to eat and not have to hear chatter chatter and smell what everyone else has that I don’t like. It is far too noisy and busy and yet no-one will open my yoghurt or peel my banana. I feel lost and confused and just want out of there. 

P.E

I hate PE so much. I never know what we are going to do. Sometimes we do balls and sometimes running and sometimes sports. I hate it all. I know I can’t do it and people laugh. How can I catch a ball when there is so much else going on in the same hall at the same time? I can’t focus. I am so cold. My legs don’t like not having trousers on. My arms miss my cardigan so much. I once fell and hurt myself in PE so I don’t run now because running is dangerous plus they said at assembly to not run in school so I don’t run. Then they tell me to run and I want to ask ‘but you said not to run in school’ but my voice won’t work. I want to cry. The tears won’t come.

I do like school. I like learning and I like doing work. I like having a desk and I really want to be star of the week. I like the other children though I don’t know if they like me. I want to tell you about things that have bothered me like being told to work quicker or not eating. I am tired from it all and now I feel safe. I want to cry. This time the tears will come so please let them. 

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I am ok. I just need to let the day at school wash away so I can rest.

School can be hard but then everyday can sometimes be hard when you have autism like me. 

She is NOT a ‘spoil brat’ she is a child with serious food aversions!

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Have you ever joined any food groups on social media or watched food programmes on television? I have to say I usually avoid them as someone who generally has little time to watch TV and who struggles to cook.

However I was chatting to a friend today who had been watching TV recently and heard a famous chef on prime time TV talking about ‘fussy eaters’ and saying that it was all down to the parents ‘giving in.’ She felt she had to say to me as she knows the struggles I face daily with my daughter.

Just minutes later a fellow blogger posted how she was outraged having read on a huge Facebook group relating to food that a professional was advocating ‘starving’ fussy children until they gave in and ate!

I should be used to this by now but it still hurts. People feel so open about judging my parenting and my cooking and even my mental health because I happen to have a child who has serious food aversions and struggles to eat.

It is a daily battle for me to remind myself I am not to blame!

IMG_1851Every parent wants to feed their child. It is fundamental to their welfare and brings us so much satisfaction to know they are happy and nourished. My daughter was a wonderful breast feeder and despite having low birth weight, she was settled, happy and growing on breast milk. Then I began weaning and suddenly everything changed! From the very start she refused solid food and eight years later we are still struggling.

We have seen paediatricians, dieticians, health visitors, mental health nurses and psychologists and we are still struggling.

If I put food in front of her and tell her ‘it is this or nothing’ she would starve.

If food touches she has a huge meltdown and stops talking and interacting. It traumatises her beyond belief.

Every single day is a struggle. People say it is my fault, like that helps. People say she is controlling us, like that will make her eat! The worst ones are those who say she is a ‘spoilt brat’ when in fact she is a child with extreme anxiety and food aversion! It is heartbreaking.IMG_1850

We have a few foods she will eat and those are saving us from the added trauma of a feeding tube (a trauma that could result in no food or drink ever going in her mouth again). She has only two things she will drink. Her weight is a serious worry as is her health as she walks a fine balance between being ‘well’ and ‘we may need to intervene’.

We have days she will eat and days she won’t.

Her food aversion and eating issues are complex and related to many things and not just ‘fussy eating’.

If I am to blame then why does her twin brother have no issue with food and in fact will eat anything out in front of him?

There is no history of eating disorders in my family.

My children are not fed on junk.

My daughter is not a spoilt brat and neither will I allow her to starve. That is known as abuse!

Food aversion and eating disorders are REAL. TV personalities should know better. Professionals should know better. Ignorance is rife about this matter and it is destroying children and families everywhere.

Please stop judging!

My child is NOT a spoilt brat! She is caring, loving, gentle, beautiful and kind. She also has food aversions and an eating disorder.

Unless you live with this it is hard to understand. Ignorance from professionals and TV personalities is not helping.

Food aversions and eating disorders are no laughing matter. How would you feel if it was your child or someone you loved struggling?

 

A version of this blog first appeared here

 

The ‘scaniexty’ I live with when my child has NF1


He was four years, three weeks and five days old when I left the hospital with a piece of paper with the words ‘neurofibromatosis type 1’ scribbled on from a doctor I had only just met.

 
The more I googled the more upset I got.

 
Would you not be anxious if your baby was diagnosed with an incurable progressive genetic condition? 

 
IMG_1043Back then my biggest worry was seizures. The cafe-au-lait marks on his little body had meant nothing at all until that day but now I read that their presence was a key marker for diagnosis. Another one we could tick was developmental delay, another large head, and still another freckles under his arms. It meant the doctor was right and as I read on about complications and tests my mind began to panic. The condition causes benign tumours to grow anywhere on the nerves of the body causing a large variety of difficulties including scoliosis, vision impairment, bone deformities, epilepsy, learning difficulties and facial deformity. 

 
As the tumours can only be seen properly by MRI my first thought was should my little brown haired boy have to have anaesthetic to have a brain and body scan?

 
This was my first taste of the form of anxiety that is common with parents whose children have NF1: SCANIETY, a form of anxiety that is associated with having scans and waiting for results. You won’t find that word in a dictionary but parents of children with NF1 understand it and struggle with it so much.

 
You may never have heard of it but we live with it none the less. 

 
Before our child ever has their first scan we still suffer with it. The ‘what-if’s’ of thinking should he/she have an MRI and if so how do we convince doctors to give them one? In some areas it is standard procedure to scan a child soon after diagnosis to have a ‘base line’ to work from but for so many others this expensive test is only given when there is a clinical need. Parental anxiety is not always recognised as a clinical need so many families find themselves fighting for a scan to find out if their child has any internal tumours and if so where.

 
My son was 7 years, six months, one week and two days old when he finally had his first MRI. From the moment I received the appointment I was anxious. It was going to be the first of many times he would require anaesthetic. How would he cope? How would I arrange care for his sibling? Would be need to stay overnight? What might they find? When will we get the results?

 

Scaniexty is scary.

 

My whole life was suddenly out of control and everything rested on the results of this scan.

 
Two weeks and five days later I had a phone call from the doctor. Could we come to the hospital the following day as a matter of urgency to discuss the results.

 
Scaniexty hit again with a vengeance. They had found something. 

 
They discovered a number of things from that first scan. My son had a serious eye condition unrelated to his NF1 which meant he had no sight in one eye. On the other eye he had something called an optic glioma which so many NF parents dread: a tumour on his optic nerve. A group of oncologists discussed my child’s case and decided, for now, no treatment was needed. We were sent home.

 
Scanxiety never left me though.

 
In six months time we would be back for another scan. My mind could not ignore that. He had a scan, they found a tumour, next time there could be more.

 
What should have been a six month wait until the next one turned into an agonising ten months before we finally had our next scan on 3rd March this year. The scaniexty of waiting for that second scan was awful. The day of the scan was awful. Waiting on the results is awful.

 
When your child has NF1 scaniexty never leaves you. 

 
This time the results showed the original tumour was stable but he also has brain lesions, one of which is large, and these are a direct result of his NF1 too.

 
We live with the constant worry he may one day need chemotherapy. We live with the worry he could go blind due to his optic glioma since he has no sight in his other eye at all. We live with the worry they may one day they could find a tumour that keeps growing.

 
I live with anxiety as a mum to a child with NF1. That anxiety is deeply connected to the fact my son needs ongoing scans for the rest of his life.

 
There is no cure for NF1 and there is no cure for the scaniexty it brings either.

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There is nothing ‘high’ or ‘functioning’ about her autism at all.

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My daughter attends her local mainstream school. Her grades are average and her behaviour perfect. She is mostly happy to go to school and is never later with her homework. She appears to be an ideal student and school report ‘all is well’.

But all is far from well with my child!

She no longer receives occupation therapy, or speech therapy or any other support in school. Her grades are considered a reflection of the fact she is coping well and therefore her autism is deemed to be ‘high functioning’ simply by the fact she can answer simple times tables questions or write a story.

But there is nothing either ‘high’ or ‘functioning’ about her autism in any way!

The dictionary defines high as “great, or greater than normal, in quantity, size, or intensity.”
My daughter has high ANXIETY, high EMOTIONS, high SENSITIVITY but not high autism!

She struggles with noise, touch, change, lights, attention, demands placed on her, eating, drinking, toileting, self care, socialising and understanding the world. Just because she can read a book, sit quietly in a classroom and sing in assembly does not make her autism any less.

The dictionary defines ‘function’ as “the kind of action or activity proper to a person, thing, or institution; the purpose for which something is designed or exists; role.” Is it ‘proper activity’ for a person to break down in tears and make herself sick because the school has changed her gym day for a few weeks? Is it ‘proper activity’ for a child to be unable to interact at all with other children in the school playground? Is it ‘proper activity’ for a child to stop eating and drinking completely due to anxiety?

Her autism does not disappear when she is at school. All that happens is she conforms. She ‘follows along’ like a sheep in the hope that no-one notices. Inside she is breaking up, welling up and churning up but all anyone sees is a child who can write in a jotter, sit on a seat and tidy up when asked.

A child with autism in mainstream school should never be assumed to have ‘high functioning’ autism simply by the fact they are in a ‘normal’ school classroom. Just because they have the same uniform on as all the others does not mean they are the same.

Inside they are either feeling sick, shaking with anxiety or screaming. The flickering light is causing them pain, the humming of the radiators is making them want to cry and the child next to them leaning on their desk or touching their pencil case is causing them to want to run away. Can you see any of that or do you just see a child with a pencil in their hand writing?

School don’t see the pain in her eyes when I pick her up at three o’clock. They don’t see the teeth grinding, the skin picking and the disengagement. They don’t see the lining up of everything, the screaming and the cowering in a corner. They are not dealing with the sleepless nights begging me to come in bed beside her or the full on food refusal because her anxiety is making her ill.

They look at test scores, conformity, and academic skills and decide that my child at best has ‘high functioning autism’ or at worse is ‘fine.’

She is neither.

She has autism. Simple as that. She is every bit as autistic as her non verbal brother who has severe learning difficulties and attends a special needs school.

Don’t dismiss her struggles based solely on the school she attends.

School can say what they like but there is nothing ‘high’ or ‘functioning’ about her autism at all.

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Being mum to an anxious child

What is it like being mum to a child with severe anxiety?

It is helping her downstairs every morning despite the fact she can do it herself. It is reassuring her, yet again, that she won’t fall just because once, several years ago, she heard mum fell down the stairs and hurt herself.

It is encouraging her to dress herself when she is afraid she may fall over because that happened once before and she never forgets.

It is reassuring her that her clothes have been washed and that she has worn them lots before and said they were ‘OK’. It is showing her, as always, that the labels have been removed so they won’t hurt her, the trousers are soft enough and the socks have no sharp bits. It is telling her she is beautiful so often in the hope she will one day believe me.

It is letting her see the breakfast cereal in the box otherwise she will refuse to eat it in case you have somehow bought another brand by mistake. It is pouring out just the right amount in case some accidentally spills over the bowl because she lives in fear she may somehow get in trouble even though she never has.

It is brushing her teeth religiously because the dentist said she should do it twice a day and she worries what will happen if she doesn’t.

It is walking to school making sure we avoid uneven ground because she may just fall and hurt herself and that would be a disaster.

It is going over and over all that the day at school holds because she is worried you may have forgotten her PE kid (we checked three times before we left the house) or she may have done something not quite perfect in her homework the night before. It is the heartbreak of watching her become mute as she walks through that school gate holding your hand like you are sending her into the lions den.

It is watching her walk (never run as you may be pulled up for that!) to her line, avoiding eye contact or body contact with any other child in the playground in case they say something that upsets her or they accidentally touch her. It is looking at her standing facing the front, arms straight by her side like a soldier as she lines up, terrified she may lose points for her class because she is not forming a straight enough line.

That was just the first hour of our day.

My daughter will bite her lips, chew her tongue, barely eat or speak but conform to everything school expects of her. She will inwardly break her heart if she spells one word wrong in a speaking test (and break down about it that night at home), she will freeze during gym lessons when they ask her to stand on a bench for fear of falling. She will take a school dinner as she doesn’t want to be seen as different yet she will hardly touch it. She would never ask for someone to help her cut it up as she is too anxious she may get in trouble for doing so. She would even eat something she was allergic too if she felt it would make a teacher happy.

Living with that level of anxiety is not healthy yet so many children experience anxiety on that level daily.

I can reassure her. I can encourage her and prepare her for change, but I can not take her anxiety away.

Watching her refuse to eat because she had a wobbly tooth was awful. Hearing her cry because she can not read a word in her new reading book breaks my heart.

Sometimes you may see me climb on soft play with my seven year old and think I am crazy. Sometimes you may hear me say I laid beside my child until she fell asleep and you may feel I need to let her grow up. You may see me lift her on and off escalators and think I am keeping her a baby. If you knew I held her in my lap and cradled her and wiped her tears last night would you perhaps think I was over protective?

I am not an overly anxious person and it is so hard to parent a child who fears every moving animal is out to bite her, every child is out to hurt her, every adult is wanting to get her into trouble and every broken toy is her fault.

Her anxiety is huge. Her worries are real.

Today I will do my best to help her as I do every day. Tomorrow she will be just as anxious and I will try yet again to help her. We get through one day at a time.

I acknowledge her anxieties but I also help her overcome them.

That is the role of a mum to a child with severe anxiety.

That is what it is like being mum to an anxious child.

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The day my five year old changed her class without saying a word

imageLike every mum I was terrified when my baby started full time school. Even as I dressed her in her shirt and tie I wondered yet again if mainstream was going to be the right place for her.

I had more reason than most to worry as she left that day still unable to dress herself and not yet potty trained, diagnosed with autism and selective mutism, and despite having had an extra year at nursery already, she was still one of the smallest children.

On top of all that she carries a heavy burden wherever she goes even at the tender age of five.

I often wonder if professionals realise the daily weight that siblings carry on their shoulders every day?

As well as her own diagnosis my beautiful blue eyed girl is the twin sister of a boy with even more complex needs. He has tumours, severe autism, challenging behaviour, global delay and is non verbal. She has to live with that at the fragile age of five.

How would she manage without him as his school placement was 14 miles away from hers? How would anyone know to meet her personal needs if she was unable to talk? Would her anxiety, vulnerability and tiny size make her an easy target for bullies? Would her home life stress cause issues with her learning?

I worried. And wondered.

But something changed that first week she started school. And one day her classroom assistant told me that my special, fragile, silent girl had actually changed that whole class of new starts without even saying a word.

It turns out there were two other children in her class who were also silent, but for a very different reason: they were unable to speak English. For ease of teaching my daughter was sat next to these children so the one assistant could help them all. But none of the teachers spoke Russian and everyone was still trying to work out the best way to help this group of children who due to inclusion had all been placed in the same mainstream class.

The teacher taught a lesson and the children sat on the floor. My baby girl sat and listened intently and returned to her seat. The class had been asked to draw a picture and write their names at the top of the sheet. As all the eager children started to pick up pencils and pens Naomi just sat there. She watched as the classroom assistant struggled to help the two others who had no understanding of what had been asked of them.

As another child momentarily distracted the assistant Naomi got up from her seat and walked over to the two children. She took the water holder from the middle of the desk and pulled it beside them. And silently she took each child by the hand and pointed to their own name and then pointed to the top of their paper. She then picked up a crayon and began to mark their paper every so slightly and pointed to what the others were doing.

She waited while they took in her attempts to communicate without language and slowly they began to copy down their name and begin drawing. She looked at them and smiled. And only then did she return to her own chair to try and write her own name.

The classroom assistant cried. The teacher watched.

The most unlikely child in the class had taught them all a lesson that day. The child diagnosed with a communication disorder actually showed them all how to communicate.

She still does not know one word of Russian. But living with a non verbal brother with complex needs taught her something that changed her entire class of children without her saying a word: it doesn’t need words to help people.

I still worry. But I know that in all she lives with she is somehow managing to turn ashes to beauty. And I could not be more proud of her.

This article was originally published on firefly and can be seen here: http://www.fireflyfriends.com/special-needs-blog/specific/raising-kids-with-special-needs-without-saying-a-word

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