My Severely Autistic Son DOES Have A Bright Future

Six and a half years ago when I took my toddler to a clinic and left with a diagnosis of severe non verbal autism , pica and global developmental delay my heart broke. It didn’t end there either. Six months later he was diagnosed with a progressive genetic condition. A year later he added vision impairment to his list. At seven he added an optic glioma, a form of brain tumour and at nine, epilepsy.

As I write this he is ten, with the developmental age of a one year old, the speech of a nine month old baby (he is non verbal), he isn’t yet potty trained and requires round the clock care. He has to be medicated twice daily to keep major seizures at bay. He needs six monthly MRI tests to monitor his brain tumours.

On paper his future doesn’t look good.

I have spent so much time breaking my heart for my son and all he will miss in life. He likely won’t fall in love, get married, have a family, have a job, learn to drive, attend college or university or live independently; all the things parents expect from their children as they grow. He can’t yet write his name, he’s never attended mainstream education and his care needs are so high I have been his full time carer since he was born.

So given all that information how can I possibly say my son has a bright future?

Quite simply this: Quality of life isn’t determined by what other people think.

I thought my child should find a partner, perhaps have a family of his own, get a job, drive, contribute to society in some way and make a difference. I thought he should go to school, perhaps onto college or university then find happiness and fulfilment in a career of his choice.

But who says any of this is a bright future? Who determines these things as quality of life?

In actual fact my son has an amazing future ahead of him, one very different to how I imagined, but even more incredible!

He’s never going to carry the burden of responsibility so he won’t stress about interest rates, taxes, mortgages or company shares.

He’s never going to become embroiled in complex relationships so won’t experience the heartache of divorce or family breakups.

He will remain blissfully sheltered from many of the awful things that life carries with it like murder, abuse, political turmoil, homelessness, drugs or wars.

His simple life will be the envy of many.

His needs will be met, either by carers or myself, for as long as I live. He has a sister who adores him and who I know will do all she can to make sure he is looked after too.

He will spend his future not in the drudgery and stress of daily commutes to work or long shifts but in doing what he loves most. He’ll be taken swimming, the cinema, cafes, shops, garden centres and day trips. It will be like he’s retired without ever having to have done the fifty plus years employment first.

Clothes and food will be provided for him. Other people will arrange whatever finances are required, drive him or support him in transport and make sure he is happy and well.

His future is, in fact, what so many of us would dream of. He will watch what he wants on TV, explore the world via google street map and see family often.

He will, as he already does, be surrounded by love, respect and support.

I’ll take him to as many lifts as he wants because his years of education will be complete.

I am not deluded. I am not just looking at life from rose tinted glasses. I am fully aware that my son will always need a huge level of care and that I may not always be around to give him that. I, more than anyone, understand how vulnerable and naive he is and always will be. I know i will fight budget cuts, endless complex forms to have control of his finances and health needs and that I will likely get little to no respite when he passes from children’s care teams to adult care teams.

This won’t be easy for ME but for HIM the future is bright.

We are so quick as a society to assume that anyone with learning disabilities, severe autism or complex needs is a burden. We see their quality of life as somehow less because it doesn’t follow the tradition path of higher education, work and raising the next generation. We see their inability to pay taxes as somehow awful and view them as beneath others.

My son, and thousands of others, walk a different path in life. They face a future quite different to that which we see as ‘normal’. Yet their future, their existence, their needs, are not in any way less or second class.

My severely autistic son’s future is full of life, love and fulfilment. That to me is the epitome of a bright future and quality of life.

I am looking forward to it and if he understood what the future was I know he would be excited too.

Blessed with a different child (A caravan holiday in peak season with a disabled 9 year old)

Back home we live in our own world: You go to school in a town far away and I take you to quiet places where few people go, like the park early in the morning or swimming much later after dinner.

Here we can’t do that.

Here it is obvious that I am blessed with a different child.

Caravan parks don’t isolate the disabled children like education does. Caravan parks don’t give you preferential treatment or appointments like the health service does. Caravan park restaurants won’t let you order mashed potato for breakfast like I make you at home. Here you are the same, but different. A bit like the caravans which on the surface all seem similar yet every single one is different.

When we arrive and unpack those around see I am blessed with a different child even before I park the car. There you sit in the back flapping with excitement and chewing on the nose of your cuddly toy. It’s not something 9 year olds do really and you look…odd.

I forget that others see you and stare. It makes me uncomfortable and reminds me why I don’t take you out as often as I should.

Is taking a disabled child to a busy caravan park in the summer holidays the right thing to do?

I think it is.

I take you to the on-site pool. Other 9 year olds are swimming unaided, playing with friends, drying and dressing themselves and doing hand stands in the water. You are lead by the hand by your mum, still using swimming nappies and a rubber ring and you giggle just sitting at the side dipping your feet in the shallow toddler splash pool. You are every bit as happy as all the other children, just in a different way.

I watch you and smile. Being blessed with a different child has taught me to enjoy your happiness every single day. As I look about I notice a life guard watching and smiling. Your different-ness has made them smile too.

I take you to the busy park. Other parents sit nearby chatting and drinking. I am lifting your legs, guiding you to the steps each time, and encouraging you down the smallest of slides so that children 7 years younger than you can take their turn. You make happy baby noises and wave your hands with excitement. Some parents move their children away, some children leave of their own decision but some carry on regardless. I am not embarrassed by my child but I am embarrassed at how others respond to him.

What’s so bad about seeing someone blessed with a different child?

Being in a busy caravan park with a child who is noticeably different to his peers has made me realise something:

My child is not the issue, the issue is how others respond.

I have not helped my son or my community by going to places others don’t. So from now on I promise to change that.

I am blessed with a different child and I won’t hide that anymore. If he wants to swim at peak times that’s where I will take him. If the park is busy what have I got to be afraid of?

I’m done with the isolation. If I can cope with a busy caravan park in summer season with a nine year old who can’t dress himself, can’t speak, can’t jump and still eats with his fingers then I can do the same back home. If he has a seizure in public so what? If he has a meltdown why should I apologise? He is a child just like any other child. He is beautiful, funny, full of mischief and entitled to play just like any other child.

I thought I was making things easier for my son by protecting him from comments and stares but in reality I have made both more likely because children like my son need to be seen more to be accepted more.

I am blessed with a different child and it’s about time the world saw a lot more of him!

I’m so glad I took him to a busy caravan park in the height of summer season. It gave me confidence and delight to be the one blessed with the different child.

Six things you may not know about my child with developmental delay

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The first diagnosis my son ever had was ‘global developmental delay’ and like so many I understood this to mean he was a little bit behind his peers but would probably, in time and with support, be just fine.

He was only one year old when we were told he was struggling and not meeting key milestones like sitting up unaided, making attempts at speech and playing with toys.

I was in denial. I was sad.

I stopped taking him places (probably one of the worst things I could have done in hindsight) and I ploughed through each day willing him to learn skills others mastered with ease. I blamed myself. I cried myself to sleep at night. I sang to him, read to him and played with him for hours, but very little changed.
As years went on we collected diagnosis like a stamp collector collects stamps.

The term developmental delay is now slowly being replaced by his doctors to ‘learning difficulties’and I have come to accept now that he never will catch up with others.

Over the last seven years I have found so few people have any understanding of what developmental delay actually means. It is such a huge, all encompassing, spectrum ranging from children with mild delays in some areas to children of school age still unable to weight bear or even support their own head. It covers children who are behind in reading and writing, to children who are fully wheelchair bound and unable to speak. It can be a stand alone diagnosis or the effect of other more complex issues like cerebral palsy, autism, Down’s syndrome and many complex genetic conditions (some we have yet to name!)

Though every child and situation is different, here are a few facts about developmental delay as it applies to my son:

1. Some children DO catch up, other’s don’t.

My beautiful son, will forever be developing at their own unique pace and time and will always need support right into adult life.

2. As a child gets older the term developmental delay is likely to disappear and instead be replaced by some form of learning difficulty or perhaps simply referred to in terms of severity of other conditions such as severe autism.

This does NOT mean the child no longer has delays just that the way of describing those delays has changed.

3. Although my son’s development is way behind others there is so much about him that will always be ‘age appropriate’.

For example he started eating solid food at the exact same time as other babies at around six month old. He lost his first tooth at aged 5 and he wears clothes for his chronological age, not his developmental age. His body continues to grow and develop even if his mind and skills are years younger. He will still go through puberty as he grows and he eats just as much as any other child his age.

4. Developmental delay is often unseen and therefore can often be classed as an invisible disability.

This does not make it any less difficult for the child or adult or the carers. If you see a much older child still being supervised in a toilet or not talking when you speak to them please think about the fact they may look ok but they could be struggling to understand or communicate.

5. Milestones are worth celebrating whatever age they happen.

Child development has stages that almost every child goes through regardless of when it happens. A child with developmental delay will go through the same stages just at a different time. For example they learn to sit, then crawl, then stand, then walk. Or they learn to make noise, then babble then the first word. If your five year old is babbling for the first time this is wonderful because at some point they may change that babble to a word. If your four year old can stand unaided then one day soon they may learn to walk.

6. Developmental delay does not define anyone.

Society may put pressure on people to succeed and compete but that does not mean that we have to. Life is not about the destination but about the journey. For some they are just enjoying the journey at a slower pace and that is every bit as wonderful as those who choose to run.

As Martin Luther King Jn says:
“If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

That, I can assure you, is what my son is doing. If he can move forward then I can too. However long this journey takes we are enjoying it together.

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The ‘R’ word I dread as a special needs parent

I don’t use the word dread lightly. This word fills me with fear and apprehension. Ever time I hear it is makes me feel physically sick. To hear this word spoken over any person, child or adult, is utterly heartbreaking. Yet parents of special needs children, especially those of children with progressive conditions affecting cognitive development, hear it often.

Regression.

I dread that word. It is a sad word. It signifies loss, going backwards, the lack of ability to do something the person was able to do before. And it is very, very real. And at times it is scary.

Every now and again I get accused of over sharing. Some people feel I video and photograph and talk about my children perhaps more than I should. But one of the reasons I do that is because of this dreaded ‘R’ word. It is because I NEED to remind myself my child was able to do something at some point because today he has no idea about it once again.

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Memories are what keeps me going.

So all children regress sometimes they say. That is very true. Stress, trauma, neglect, illness and change in family circumstances can all contribute to moments when any child can regress. It is common for a toddler, for example, to ‘forget’ the skill of toilet training when a younger baby is born. Or for a young child to take a few first steps only to lose nerve and go back to crawling for a while. It is widely understood that during illness or even long school holidays children can forget reading skills or physical skills they had long ago mastered. I get that. This is temporary regression. And, as hard as that is to live with, almost all children regain the previous skills and ‘make up time’ when their health, education and daily life return to a stable place again.

But how do you live with the fear of regression permanently?

What if every single skill your child gains you live in fear he will never be able to do again?

I have a video of my six year old son putting numbered pieces into an inset puzzle. It was a huge achievement for him and I shared the video on social media. Now a year later, and presented with the exact same puzzle, he has no idea how to do it.

And that is why I share.

He doesn’t master skills and then move on to better ones. His development is never that straight forward sadly. I need to be able to know he once did it. I need other people to know he once did it too. He has potential. It is just inconsistent.

He once said ‘mummy’. Last week he was saying what sounded like ‘oh no’. Some days he can point to letters in a book if I ask him to. School even sent a video home a few months ago of him ordering the months of the year with support. I have a video of him using a game on his iPad to put letters in the right place to make words.

Today he has done none of those things. Some days he crawls up stairs like he has forgotten how to climb them. He now uses a straw to drink out a cup because he often forgets how to drink out of an open beaker.

As fast as we gain one skill we often lose another.

My son has global delay, autism and neurofibromatosis type 1.

According to professionals this happens.

Regression.

I dread that word.

Respite is not failure

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It is one of the many ironies about having children with additional needs: we fight long and hard for respite but when we do get it we struggle emotionally to accept and embrace it.

Let me get this straight right from the offset: respite is not failure!

The dictionary defines respite as: “a short period of rest or relief from something difficult or unpleasant”

I want to start by saying I do not find my children unpleasant. Neither do I wish to cease being the parent of two special and unique children. But the reality is my life is very intense. My children need so much more extra support just to get through every day, they have far less independent skills than they should for their age and we have more appointments in a month than some families have in years.

Physically it starts to take a toll at times. My son is three-quarters of my height now and a third of my body weight. Yet he is only six. I still have to physically dress him like a baby, support him climbing stairs, change his nappy and dry him after his bath. His behaviour can be physically challenging and his latest ‘game’ of pulling hair until it comes out into his hand is painful. At times he requires restraint and as he has no concept of personal space he thinks nothing of climbing over me or sitting on my knee for a cuddle like a baby. I still need to lift him in and out the bath and sometimes help him onto a chair. He can not even put his own shoes on.

Sometimes, just for a little while, my body needs a rest. Respite enables my body to recover from the difficulties and gain strength to do it all again tomorrow.

Emotionally it takes its toll at times too. Only this morning I found myself walking home from the local school in tears. I spend a few hours there every week volunteering and today I was working in the class of children my son’s age. As they sang to me in French I realised my six-year-old could still not sing the same song to me in English. That has to affect you. While the children talked to me about Egypt I realised that my son can’t even talk to me about his day at school. And the reality is he may never even say his own name. Everyone needs time to cry sometimes but parents of children requiring extra support need that time even more. The pain is raw, real and is right in front of your eyes everyday. The emotional toll of hearing your child cry because no-one plays with them, or dealing with the emotions of someone laughing at your child in public, watching your child harm themselves in frustration, or dealing with professionals who don’t seem to be listening; it all drains you emotionally.

Sometimes, just for a little while, my emotions need a rest. Respite enables my heart to recover from the stress and gain strength to face it all again tomorrow.

It takes its toll on relationships too. I read recently that parents of children with extra support needs are twice as likely to divorce than others. Wether that is true or not I can sure testify that raising special needs children tests your marriage in ways you never thought it would. How do you find quality time for another adult when your children’s needs are 24 hours a day? How can you support someone else when you often struggle yourself? We all deal with stress differently but getting precious time to regroup and discuss things is very rare when you are either dealing directly with your child or attending meetings and appointments to discuss them.

Sometimes, just for a little while, I need time for other relationships. Respite enables me to be a wife, a sister, a daughter and a friend, all of which make me stronger, happier and healthier and help me be a better mum.

I am so blessed to get three hours respite a fortnight. It is the most treasured highlight of my fortnight. It is no exaggeration that it has saved my marriage, restored my physical health and given my emotions time to settle. It is also helping my children learn that others can care for their needs and help them just as much as me.

I need respite. That is not a sign of failure but in fact a sign of success. It shows I know my limits and I am not too proud to admit them. It shows I am willing to let others support me. It shows I am human.

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What if the hare doesn’t nap?

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Most of you will be familiar with the age old story of the Hare and the Tortoise, one of Aesop’s fables. The story being that a hare and a tortoise race. Of course the hare, being by far the fastest, takes a very early lead and, not seeing the tortoise anywhere behind him, decides to take a nap. Meanwhile the tortoise continues slow and steady and in doing so passes the hare and wins the race. We can all pick out the moral easily about not being over confident in life and that there are advantages to going slow and steady.

I am a mother of two children with additional needs. We are living every day like the tortoise and moving at a very slow pace. We have missed more childhood milestones than we have reached so far. But we keep moving even if at times it feels impossible to catch up with others.

This last week my son got to go to mainstream school for the first time. Except, like so many other things in his life, it came years later than it should. And even then it was only a fleeting visit. But, just for once, I got to walk both my children home from school. It was beautiful. But it won’t happen as a daily occurrence. Because although I can dream and pray, the reality is he will never catch up with the hare’s in life.

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Because in real life the hare doesn’t nap.

In real life other children won’t take a ‘nap’ from their development to allow him to catch up or even overtake. They won’t stop learning, or maturing or gaining new skills. Life is not a fable, and there are no fairytale happy ever afters.

But that does not mean it is all sad. It just means I have learnt to accept that the race is not for winning but rather for taking part in. We are not all equal. But my job as a parent is to make sure my children never feel like failures because they are taking the race slow and steady. It could become easy for them to become intimidated by the speed and ease at which the hares are moving along. They could get frustrated, depressed or feel overwhelmed at the never-endingimage struggle just to master a little skill others did years ago. So my job is to make a huge deal of everything the hare takes for granted but the tortoise finds so hard.

Like the fact at six years and three months old my son finally worked out how to build a tower out of bricks. So what that he failed to do this task when assessed at his two-year check up? So what that babies younger than a year have mastered this skill with ease? He moved slow and steady and finally did it. He actually got to the end of that race even if it took years to get there. They just assessed him on the skill years earlier than they should have.

Like the fact at age six his sister mastered jumping for the first time. The himageares did this before they even started nursery and they are now onto skipping, hopping and riding bikes. And most of this probably went unnoticed. But we celebrate everything in this house. We celebrate the first snowman ever built:

We celebrate every little noise that may vaguely be the sound of a word. We celebrate getting invited to a hares birthday party because being with the hares is so good and often so rare too. There were fleeting times that it was hard to tell the difference between the hare and the tortoise at the party as both sat together to share food and drink. Hares are beautiful, agile, and wonderful. Just like the tortoise is too.

The hares may be winning the race with ease but I have no bitterness or anger about that. Because that is what hares were made to do. But my children are tortoises. They are hardy, colourful, strong, like their own company and move carefully and thoughtfully. Sometimes they just hide inside themselves for a while until they feel confident.

Meanwhile the hares don’t nap.

And neither they should. Life isn’t a fable. But we can still learn lessons along the way.

Why does my brother have to ruin everything?

The nativity was done, the presents bought and the food all ready. When your twins are six they ought to be excited about Christmas Day. One of mine was. The other was totally oblivious to it all.

But we bought him gifts regardless.

The day started badly. Pretty badly to be honest. Isaac refused to come downstairs even though we had changed and dressed him (in his school t-shirt and jumper as he still refuses to wear anything else). So while Naomi was embracing the magic of it all and loving the fact she had received the very toy she wanted, there was a noticeable absence in the room. I should have suspected something. But I didn’t want to miss that magic of seeing my daughters face when she opened her gifts. Plus she wanted me there.
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It was all too late. Isaac was busy upstairs, in my bed by now, having a party of his own. His ‘gift’ was of his own making and the smell was overpowering. The bedding, his clothes, his body from head to toe, and anything else nearby needed urgent attention. So while I attended to a screaming, fighting child, a filthy room, and smelly clothes, I was missing out on my daughter’s special moments. Moments I will never get back. And her happiness at getting presents was tarred by the fact her mum was not in the room to share it with her.

‘Mummy, why does he do that?’

Stress, lack of attention, sensory seeking? Who knows really. He can’t say and I can’t mind read. It wasn’t a good start though.

He came down and saw her new toys and tried to attack her. Despite him having plenty of his own he showed no interest in any of it and started screaming again. Naomi wanted to defend her toys but having sustained quite an injury from her twin less than a fortnight ago (which still has yet to fully heal) she was scared. So she started crying.

‘Mummy, why won’t he leave my things alone?’

Jealously, lack of understanding, curiosity? Who knows. He can’t say and I can’t mind read. How do you support siblings when a child can be so unpredictable and violent?

Later on we went out to grans for dinner. He ate a bit then climbed on a bed in a room, as he always does. He was extreme sensory seeking (use your imagination here) and was not going to be stopped for anything. Finally he returned to us covered in sweat and pulled me to the kitchen. By process of illumination we found he wanted a pineapple. As he pulled the leaves off and played with them, despite having lovely new toys there to play with, his twin sister once again was curious.
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‘Mummy, why can’t he like toys like I do?’

Lack of imagination, developmental delay, sensory issues? Who knows. I can’t always answer as eloquently as I should.

We returned home and I prepared a light tea for everyone. Lots of snack foods and treats. But no meal is complete for Isaac without mashed potato and gravy. And I had not made any of that. And because it was laid out as a buffet his plate was sitting empty (so to him he wasn’t getting any. Why did I not think about that?). He went crazy! Cue screaming, crying, food flying, crockery smashing and a huge amount of stress. So maybe I should have made mash and gravy but he had already had it twice that day and it was all food he usually loves. Surely we can have one mealtime without mash and gravy? I was exhausted, angry, stressed and frustrated. I walked away.
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The son screamed and lashed out more. The daughter cried. The husband’s stress levels were at boiling point.

I returned to comfort my daughter. Through tears she snuffled,

‘Why does my brother have to ruin everything?’

I met that question with silence.

We tried. We failed. I’ve came to the conclusion tonight that Christmas may be best done in private with my daughter in her room. It isn’t fair on her, on us, or on her brother. I have 365 days to work out how to make it better for her.

It starts with the tree coming down tomorrow.