Who supports the parents?

imageAnother letter. Another meeting. You know, the ones where everyone and their dog meets to discuss YOUR child? Now don’t misunderstand me here: I am so grateful for professional input, I appreciate them taking the time to come and I value their opinions (mostly).

The thing is though, they are doing what they are paid to do. They come dressed for the occasion, prepared, fresh and professional. And I just can’t compete with that.

I know I am ultimately the ‘expert’ on my child, but I don’t always feel like that.

I come to the meetings a very different person to them. I am mostly harassed, sleep-deprived, emotional and ill-prepared. I have not had the liberty of having a relaxed breakfast or had 15 minutes to apply my make-up. I have not even have a minute to use the bathroom in peace!

The times are set to meet their schedules, not mine. While I know the challenges involved in getting so many people together in the same place at the same time, I also know there will have been emails flying around, telephone conversations and tweaking of times and days among themselves to find a point of agreement. None of which I will have been involved in yet I am expected to just be there.

And I always am. Because it is what we do as parents and because I know these things are important for my children.

And so the meeting will go on. Each person will say what they are doing to help and support my child and reports will be circulated. It may well be minuted and if I am lucky I may even get a copy. Then they go their separate ways, each back to their own office, or base, or classroom and proceed with their day.

While I go home to cope with the everyday demands of two special needs children. Whilst in school my child appears to be well supported I wonder, not for the first time, about who supports the parents?

We are the ones dealing with the challenging behaviour, the meltdowns, the endless screaming, the not sleeping, the sensory difficulties and the food refusals. We are the ones who do the personal care, fight to get the uniform on and battle to get them to school. When the holidays come we are left alone and everyone at the meeting carries on with their day.

We are the ones fighting with schools, dealing with transport issues, and filling in forms. We are the bottom line and the most important people in it all. Our opinions matter hugely, our insight is important and our knowledge crucial. We should be valued, respected and acknowledged. We are the true professionals, the best experts, and have the most invested in our child. But we also deal with the reality so much more than anyone else.

I love that so many people support my children. But I do wonder sometimes when I watch other families going through the same thing as I do, when I hear so many parents of special needs children struggling with depression or crumbling with the stress of it all;

Who, in all this, is supporting the parents?

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Am I doing the right thing?

Self evaluation is a very positive skill to have. All good parents stop and think at times ‘am I doing the right thing’ right from the very moment their child is born. Decisions about wether to breast or bottle feed, what sort of clothes to put on your baby and where they will sleep are all everyday personal decisions all parents face. And there will always be others who feel you are doing it wrong.

But what if your children are not meeting milestones? Or they receive a diagnosis of any sort that makes ‘normal’ development more of a challenge? What should be a time of needing more support and encouragement often becomes not only the time when others judge and question you more, but it also brings with it an even greater level of self-doubt as a parent.

Did I do anything wrong when pregnant? Was my birth to blame? Did I feed my baby the wrong foods or give them inoculations that damaged them? Should I not have gone back to work so early? Did I not bond with them enoughh or sing to them the right songs?

So many of us have been there. I have too. And even though my twins are now 6 I am still asking myself almost daily ‘am I doing the right thing’?

It seems that at times I am controversial without even meaning to be. Even blogging publicly about my children seems to make some people feel I am damaging them. I am not naive. I am well aware that one day my children could read my blog. In fact I will be letting them both have a copy when the time is right. This is my journey but it is very much their journey too. I actually hope having a written record of how far they have come is helpful to them in their own way as they begin to understand more and question who they are and what their diagnosis means to them. Naomi aimagealready shows much more awareness and we talk together about her autism, her brothers autism and her brother’s neurofibromatosis. I don’t believe in hiding these issues from her and there is not one blog I would be embarrassed for my children to read one day.

Naomi has recently been assessed and approved for a wheelchair. I never really thought that would be controversial either. No-one seemed to question when her brother got one months ago but somehow because she can talk, she can walk and she attends mainstream school it seems that I am ‘making’ her disabled by putting her in a chair. Maybe I am more vocal about her brothers difficulties, maybe they are more obvious than hers, or maybe the fact he attends a special needs school seems to make it more ‘acceptable’ for him to use a wheelchair. But Naomi has her own struggles and I am not pushing her to use a wheelchair if she is not comfortable doing so. I have asked myself many times if I am doing the right thing pushing her around places where she may be seen by others in her school or community. I know the impact this could have on her far more than she understandimages at just 6. But her safety, her pain level and her comfort also must be taken into consideration. And whether she is in a wheelchair or walking she will sadly always come across people who will stare, laugh and bully. It is my job to help her cope with this as she grows and develops greater awareness.

My son loves lifts and hand dryers. He craves them much like a smoker craves a cigarette. And so I take him to them. And I let him press the button to turn the dryer on or call the lift for someone. It brings him huge delight. And the majority of people I meet are happy to let him have that pleasure. But the other side of this is that sometimes in life we go into a shop and we have no need to use the lift or the dryers and therefore his sensory craving can not be met. And that results in meltdown of epic proportion. And then I once again question myself ‘am I doing the right thing?’ Do I allow him to have his craving in small amounts to allow me to achieve other things I want, or do I insist on carrying on with my business and that he has to learn that life is not always about him? Everyone has their own opinion on this and people will judge the fact I have deliberately taken him to retail parks just to see lifts and not buy anything. It is a balancing act and I have to live with my son and my decision. So I do what is right for me and him and my family.

People may be shocked to know I have resorted to feeding my six-year-old baby food at times just to get her to eat. I have allowed both twins dummies way beyond an age where it is publicly acceptable, and I have seen to their personal hygiene needs from the back of a car many a time. And just yesterday I took my eyes off my son for a second and found him alone in a supermarket lift (he is non verbal and could have been anywhere!).

Everyday is a challenge. Everyday I am making decisions based on today’s needs and tomorrow’s future. I live for today but am very aware of the future repercussions that my actions may have on both my children.

And I know I may get it wrong. And so will you.

Because I am human. As as a mum I have the future of two very special children in my hands. I take that very seriously.

It is ok to disagree with me. It is ok to worry about how things I do now may affect my children’s future. It’s even ok to do something different with your own children.

Just know I love my children. And I am doing what I feel is best for them. Both now and in the future. And every single day without fail I am thinking to myself ‘am I doing the right thing here’ because my children never came with a manual. None of them do. And when they have extra support needs that makes things so much more complicated.

Am I doing the right thing? Time will tell I guess.

Why is it always about children?

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March is fast becoming my busiest month. Last year, quite by accident, I found myself making a video to mark autism awareness day on April 2nd. Within 24 hours I had been sent over 150 pictures of children from throughout the UK, mostly by people who I had never met in person, and within a few days I put them together in a video along with some music. It was all new, and hurried and compiled without a great deal of deeper meaning. And in my enthusiasm, innocence and haste I never really gave it too much thought. I was more worried about copyright laws and technical issues of teaching myself how to make a video and upload it to you tube than I was about thinking about any deeper questions. But a year later I look at that video and ask myself one question?

Why is it always about children? See for yourself…

We are approaching autism awareness day once again. And if anything it highlights to me again how much it always seems to be about children. You would think autism was a childhood condition. You would assume that at 16 or 18 autism ceases to affect someone. But that could not be further from the truth. My children (yes they are still very much children and so I am as guilty as the next autism parent of making it about children) will both grow up to be adults with autism. It is a life long condition. There is no cure.

There are reasons why it may seem we hear so much more about children with autism than we do adults. Here are some of my thoughts as to why that is:

1. Children touch the heart-strings more. Charities get more money when children are involved. The innocence and vulnerability of little children seems to open up even the coldest of hearts. So like any condition, if it affects children, everyone is keen to go down that angle. A crying child, a clearly disabled child or an ill child seems to be so powerful. And with autism being a hidden disability it can be so tempting to show children in this light just to bring our cause to the forefront and show that autism can be just as devastating to a family as many other conditions. I have done it myself. And so much publicity about autism does it too. Because it works.

2. The majority of people with autism are diagnosed in childhood. When you first find out your child has any condition your natural instinct is often to find out more and to find others in the same position. And so support groups are born. It is natural to want to promote your cause when it has suddenly became all-consuming to you. Newly diagnosed families often need time to talk, vent and ask questions. Professionals don’t have the time and the after care is seldom there. So when opportunity comes to promote awareness parents of newly diagnosed or young children are often the first to want to be involved. They are desperate for support, inclusion and a sense of being part of something that makes them feel like they are helping their child.

3. Young children are not so aware of what is happening. This is something I am acutely aware of. My son has classic autism with learning difficulties and severe delays. He currently can not speak. His awareness of the world around him is very limited and although that may increase in time he is unlikely to understand difficult concepts like public perception, peer pressure, vulnerability and susceptibility. He may never understand, for example, the implications of having a mother who blogs about it. His twin sister, however, may one day be much more aware. She may have embarrassment, anxiety or upset at the thought of her image being used to promote autism awareness at some point. And I would be wrong to ignore her feelings on the matter. So parents of older children and adults are faced with the issues of protection and permission that parents of small children are not.

4. The more children grow up in a society of inclusion the more they do not wish to be seen as different. As more and more children and young people with autism attend mainstream schools and colleges the more pressure there is on them to not stick out. For many older children and adults autism awareness brings with it the reality that they have not actually been able to overcome their difficulties and somehow their disability is still visible. For a few this will bring major anxiety. For some adults this would involve admitting to work colleagues, neighbours and friends that they have a condition they have yet to discuss. So they would much prefer anonymity. That has to be respected.

5. After years in the system weariness can set in. Can you imagine 20 plus years of lack of sleep? Can you imagine having to fight every day of your child’s life for twenty plus years just to get basic support? Some of these families have been through so many campaigns, so many fundraisers, so many promotions, that they can almost feel it has seemed pointless. They hear stories of families with younger children still fighting for things they fought for many years before and it can become so disheartening so they disengage. But we still need to be aware of them. And we still need to support them.

6. Not all awareness is positive. Parents of older children and adults have come to realise this more and be using wisdom more in how to make people more knowledgable of autism. There is something to be said for this maturity.

As we approach autism awareness day remember, like everything else, we all deal with autism differently. We are all on a journey and sometimes it can appear to just be about children. When you next see an image like this bear in mind that there is a reason why you are seeing a child. But this girl will still have autism when the toy rainbow has long been forgotten. And she will still have autism when awareness day has passed by too.IMG_2182

An autism nativity

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An autism nativity

If everyone in the Christmas story was on the spectrum…

Let’s start with Mary and Joseph. The story goes that they were not married.
Now that is easy to understand if they are on the spectrum! They would not like change for a start. And the social anxiety surrounding planning and attending a wedding would be very daunting for someone with autism. As bride and groom they would be the centre of attention and be forced into a social situation they would find overwhelming. The sounds, smells and traditions would all be so confusing. And then Mary would have the stress of changing her name. So it makes sense to not get married.

An angel appears to Mary and tells her what is going to happen. The angel even tells her what to call her baby!
Perhaps God knew how to lessen her anxiety by giving her a clear timetable of events? First become pregnant, then have a baby boy called Jesus. The angel may not have had visuals but the sensory experience of seeing an angel would sure help Mary to remember the events clearly. God even took away the anxiety of having to choose the name for her child.

Caesar Augustus wanted to list everyone in his empire.
An obvious case of someone on the spectrum needing to list and order. I wonder if he even lined them all up? Numbers were clearly his ‘thing’ and he needed to have everyone just where he wanted them.

Miracle of the Virgin birth.
If you know anyone on the spectrum you will know that sometimes the unexpected happens. Non verbal children can all of a sudden start saying words, a child who has struggled to talk in school suddenly finds the confidence to speak up, a child who has not been able to understand the concept of toilet training suddenly has a breakthrough. Never underestimate what anyone can do, especially someone with autism! Miracles happen every day.

Shepherds were guarding their sheep.
Great occupation for anyone on the spectrum! Simple routine day in and day out, solitary job and with the calming sensation of the noise of sheep, who are by nature very predictable and calm animals. They were right where they always were that night. The predictability is so reassuring for people with autism.

Angels appears to the shepherds.
After introducing a sudden sensory experience and change the first thing the angel did was lessen the shepherds anxiety. They immediately calmed them by saying it was good news they were bringing. Then they outlined a very straightforward sequence of events with enough detail to help the shepherd find the special baby. Perfect example of how to help someone with autism. Calm, reassurance and knowledge of what is ahead.

Shepherds pass on what the Angels had said.
Even after a length of time the shepherds remembered word for word what had been said to them. Exactly like so many people on the spectrum who can relay with confidence exact words from DVD’s, stories or conversations. Perhaps the shepherds even had echolalia, a very common speech issue for lots of people with autism.

Mary kept thinking.
Some people on the spectrum take longer to process things and can think things over for many months or years. Mary remembered what had happened in great detail and, although overwhelmed, could recall details in incredible accuracy, similar to many people with ASD.

The wise men see a new star.
Clearly these men were experts in their field, almost it would seem, obsessional. They knew everything there was to know about astrology in order to notice one different star and understand what it meant. Obsessional behaviour like this is very common with people diagnosed with autism.

The wise men went straight to king Herod.
Well that is protocol and one must always do exactly as the rules state! There was no thought that the king could be anything different. People with autism struggle with social imagination and just like the wise men can often continue doing things the same way they have always been done because they can not ‘imagine’ how they could be done any different.

The wise men give gifts.
Once again they did thing as protocol and rules stated. They could not imagine coming empty-handed. The gifts were given in an orderly and controlled manner even though they were presented to a young child. It was all ‘just so’ as you would expect for someone on the spectrum.

Mary and Joseph did everything God commanded.
They were very obliging, non confrontational and obedient even when asked to do things that made them uncomfortable. So much like my own daughter who is so eager to please and afraid of upsetting anyone.

Throughout the story God is the perfect example of a therapist. He has it all planned and lays out those plans to each person as he feels they need. He gives them daily schedules, sensory breaks (the shepherds travelled through the night in the dark after having seen a bright angel, Mary and Joseph get the comfort and peace of a manger after the difficult journey), and he keeps it all in order.

This may be written for fun but it does make you think. People on the autism spectrum are just ‘normal’ people like you and I, or the shepherds, or wise men. They are all important and they should all be valued by society.

As you hear the Christmas story this coming week please think about the fact that just like Mary and Joseph had a long and difficult journey to Bethlehem, some children and adults with autism will have had a long and difficult December with all the changes and stresses of Christmas. And let’s believe for some wonderful Christmas miracles of love, acceptance and support for everyone with autism, learning delays and disabilities.

Wishing you all a peaceful and blessed Christmas.

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Does her anxiety look big in this?

image Last year, a week before her fifth birthday, my beautiful daughter was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. She understands the world very differently. She struggles with changes to routines, has sensory issues, has balance and co-ordination issues, loves repetition, and struggles a lot in social situation, but more than any of these she mostly struggles with severe anxiety. She is anxious every minute of the day, and even through the night.

But unlike physical difficulties which can be plain to see, anxiety is a silent, hidden disability.

Can you tell from her photo she struggles so much with anxiety?

It is well-known adults can have mental health issues. Most people will know someone who seems that bit more ‘stressed’ or anxious about things than others, or who seems very low in mood. There are even medications, both prescribed and off the shelf, for adults who struggle with anxiety, sleep disorders and depression. But what about a young child whose anxiety is just as crippling, whose fears are just as genuine, and who struggles daily with stress?

For so many children with autism this is daily life. The ‘traits’ of autism manifest even more when anxiety is increased. With my daughter that means she clings to me even more, struggles even more with sleep and lines up her toys even more than normal. She withdraws into herself more and her eating becomes even more restricted. She is snappy, uninterested in life and always exhausted. Just like if an adult had no appetite, stopped sleeping, withdrew and had a low mood a doctor, or loved one, would notice something was wrong. Thousands, if not millions, of parents are watching their children struggle with the same thing and there seems to be so little help available.

We are fortunate to already have a diagnosis. We already have a team of professionals involved. Yet when my precious baby girl became so anxious at the transition of starting school she began having severe panic attacks and nose bleeds no-one seemed to know how to help her. Advice was so conflicting from keeping her off school to insisting she went to learn to face her fears. Those who observed her in the school environment reported back that her anxiety was so obvious that she spends all day chewing her tongue. She may be in a mainstream school but I know in my heart it would not matter where she was educated she would still be on constant high anxiety.

So while others have left their infants by the gate from the second day of starting school and went home crying in pride, I had to wait fifteen weeks later before my little one felt ready to take that step alone. Until then I had to hold her hand right up until the moment the school bell rang and she was lined up with all the other children.

Now she is panicking about all the changes involved in the run up to Christmas. Will I remember to come to the play, will she know what to do when her anxiety overcomes her seeing so many people watching the nativity, why are they going to a pantomime instead of doing reading and number work in school, what if a child is off and she wants to give them a Christmas card, why are they having a party, will she have to go see Santa….and so on. Real worries, real fears and causing very real stress to a just turned six-year-old.

I can reassure her. I can prepare her. But I need to balance that by not feeding her fears and allowing them to become even stronger.

She can tell me some of her worries. Many other children with autism can’t.

In two weeks time we have our first meeting with the children’s mental health team. We only got referred because ENT have completed all their tests and concluded her severe nose bleeds have no medical basis and they believe they are directly related to her anxiety. Then her panic attacks were so severe she was struggling to breathe some days. That was back in August and we are only just getting seen in December.

There are days when I hear her laugh and play and read her books to me and I wonder if this can be the same child who becomes distraught if I leave the room to use the bathroom. But you don’t always have to be sad to be stressed. You don’t always have to be house bound to be anxious. And you don’t have to be an adult to struggle with mental health.

We need to recognise that so many children with autism are struggling with anxiety. And we need to have help to support them.

That starts by realising that even when we don’t see it, anxiety is still there: the silent, hidden disability.

Can you see it? Does her anxiety look big in these pictures?

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This is home

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They say home is where the heart is. Home is the one place you should be relaxed, loved, accepted and free to be yourself.
It is where children should be free to play, relax, unwind, receive physical and emotional nourishment, be safe and be able to have fun. Where goofing around, laughing, tickling, cuddles, love and forgiveness should flow freely. A place where growing up and making mistakes is accepted both for children and adults. The one place where you can truly be yourself without judgement.
Yet so often my home is filled with screaming, tantrums, shouting, stress and tension. And sometimes the reason for this disharmony is because home is no longer becoming the place it should be, for my children or for me. The one place that should be free of judgement and pressure is becoming encroached upon by outside influences. In our case well meaning professionals.
Now before I go any further, please give me a minute to explain. I am the mum who writes daily in my children’s home/school diaries, I am on school committees, I attend every meeting about my children, I am continually fighting to get their needs met, and I spend many hours working with them both to help them achieve all they can be. I am a huge believer in working with the professionals and continuing where possible the work they are doing at home. My son has laminated photos all over the kitchen cupboards to help him communicate, my daughter has social stories read to her daily, I read books to them, sing to them and play with them both all the time. But there comes a time when I have to say that ‘this is home’ and we just chill watching a dvd or play tickle monster or just watch my son as he looks out the window watching the rain. Because as much as my children need therapy, and support and training, they also need to be able to be themselves and relax and be allowed to just be children. And home is the one place they should be allowed to do that more than anywhere.
So right now I am clashing with the professionals dealing with my daughter. Because for the first time I am not implementing the same strategies as her team of professionals are. This happens to also have been the first time her ‘team’ have discussed such strategies without us, as parents, having been invited. That could be another blog all to itself! But that outrage aside, the sheer intensity and stress of the current programme for Naomi is such that I have had to say ‘enough is enough’ and just let the nursery carry out the plan there alone. I know this will affect her development, her confidence and the whole continuity of the aims of the plan but I can not, and will not, allow anything that happens to one of my family affect the entire family in such a way as to cause my home to no longer feel like home for everyone.
You see, while I want to move my children on and support them all I can, I must balance the needs of one child with the needs of the entire family. And I need to remember that this is home, not school, or nursery, or a treatment centre or a training course.
Home should not be about constantly meeting targets, or analysing everything that is said and done, or recording every sound, or completing educational objectives. Home is fun, relaxing, and being yourself. My children should not be so stressed at home that they cry every time you look at them.
When I had a bad fall down stairs four months ago and required weekly physiotherapy I scheduled every appointment around my children’s school and nursery times. And I did the exercises as and when I could. Life did not stop at 4pm daily while mum does her 30 minutes of ham string exercises. Because the reality of home life is not like that. You don’t get a ticket at home, wait until your name is called and then have your half hour of therapy 1-1. It has to be worked around household chores, caring for children, hospital appointments, paying bills and phone calls. This is home.
So what is this intense strategy we are not doing? Well the professionals involved in my daughters care have decided to start an intense toilet training regime with her. She will no longer be wearing nappies at nursery and will be taken to the toilet every twenty minutes regardless what she is doing. Today that meant she was taken from a game she was playing with other children after much encouragement to join in, only to come back from the toilet trip to find the game had finished and she had lost. She was then taken during snack and therefore missed out on a drink (how ironic when this could have aided their toiletting plan!), and many other times that she can’t remember as her stress levels had escalated so much. In fact her stress became so high she had a fall in nursery and banged her cheek on the corner of a table. And you know what, never once did she manage anything in the toilet but she still had an accident. And she came home from nursery distraught.

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I am supposed to be taking her every 20 minutes at home too. And nappies are only supposed to be for bedtime. And on top of this we are supposed to record on a daily chart when she is wet, or has a bowel movement, or if anything happens on the toilet. Every twenty minutes from waking to sleep. But I just can’t do it.
Naomi’s twin brother has severe and complex needs. He has seizures, is non verbal, requires support at all times and is also in nappies. I need to cook, clean, eat, attend appointments with my children, leave the house, and play with my children. And I need to keep my marriage going in all this too.
My daughter isn’t coping with the intensity. My son is not understanding mum always seeing to his sister every twenty minutes and not being there when he needs me, my husband is stressed trying to cook, clean and continue life around 20 minute clock alarms and none of us are happy. Home is no longer a place of safety, or fun, or laughter. And going out is a nightmare.
So to everyone’s relief the pull ups are back on. Toilet trips are worked around everyday life and if she isn’t ready, then so what.
This week it was toiletting, a few months ago it was my physio, the year before that we had to record every morsel my daughter ate for the dietician, and next year it could be homework from school shifting the balance.
Whatever it is, the value of home life will always stay strong with me. Home is where we should all be able to be ourselves, be loved and learn through play. Without stress, pressure or targets to meet. Without alarms ringing to call us to the next thing, or without filling in forms every 20 minutes or having to record everything your child eats or says.
It’s getting the balance really. School is school. Hospital is hospital. But here…well here is where you kick off your shoes, wear your pyjamas when you want, cover the living room in train sets, watch dvd’s of lift doors opening and closing as much as you want, make mistakes, be forgiven and be loved whatever.
This is home.

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