Why I No Longer Tell People My Children Have Autism (even though they do)

I always thought I was a proud ‘autism mum’, unashamed of my children and spreading autism awareness wherever we went. It turns out I have actually been harming my children, and the autism community, without even realising it.

Let me explain.

It’s the school summer holidays and both my children are autistic. One of my children has severe autism. He has also recently been diagnosed with epilepsy. At 9 he has no spoken language so he often screams. He chews his cuddly toys, flaps, spins, claps and makes repetitive noises. His twin sister has anxiety, is selective mute, freezes if someone talks to her or even looks at her and is very much in her own imaginary world.

Yesterday I took them out ten pin bowling followed by a trip to a well known fast food restaurant.

When we arrived at bowling, despite pre-booking the lane online to save waiting, there was still a queue. My daughter panicked and became anxious and distressed, asking a million questions over and over again

‘What if it’s too busy mum and we can’t play?’

‘What if all the lanes are broken and we need to go home?’

‘What if there are no staff because they are all sick?’

‘What number lane did you book because I can see people on lanes and they might be on our one…’

And so on.

Meanwhile her brother was wandering, flapping, chewing the nose of his teddy and otherwise just acting happy and excited in line with his developmental age of around 18 months or younger.

This time last year I would have not stopped talking. In fact I would have been similar to my daughter who was saying so much out of sheer anxiety. Except my anxiety was different as I was much more socially aware and I felt I had to ‘explain’ my children’s unusual behaviours. I would have turned to the strangers behind me and said something about how both children have autism and find waiting difficult and my son can’t speak. Even if they were not even looking at the children or even bothered by them in any way I still told them anyway! I then would have made a big deal of announcing to the person at the counter how the children had autism and global delay and my son could not speak and this and that and…well more than she or anyone else actually needed to know!

I truly thought I was helping. I thought I was explaining behaviours and educating strangers. I believed I was spreading ‘autism awareness’.

Actually what I was doing was embarrassing my children, portraying autism as something that needed excusing or apologising for and exposing my vulnerable children to the world. Would I have felt the need to broadcast my children’s difficulties if they had been wheelchair users? Would I have shouted it to the world if they had a hidden genetic condition or a medical condition like diabetes? Yes my children were noticeably different but by mentioning that fact I was actually drawing MORE attention to it and not less. My anxiety was making things worse.

This year things are different. Naomi is asking question after question, Isaac is flapping, wandering away and chewing his teddies. They are openly different.

But now I keep quiet.

Now I no longer tell strangers my children have autism even though they do.

I am not ashamed of my children, neither am I embarrassed. Never. Not even for a second. In fact I accept them totally and wholeheartedly for who they are. That is why I stay quiet.

My children deserve respect and privacy. Society should accept them without any justification.They should not be accepted because ‘they have autism’ but because they are wonderful, beautiful and unique just like everyone else in life.

So yesterday we were issued a lane (number 19 if you really need to know) and I supported my precious children to take turns, use a support frame to push balls down the lane, and to watch excitedly as pins fell down (much more often when they rolled than when I did!). No-one stared, no-one asked questions or even really cared about us much and I never once told anyone my children have autism.

When we had had our ten games I helped them into the car and I drove to the nearby well known restaurant. I ordered nuggets and one ate just the skins and drank only milk while the other licked the table as well as his food! Still I never once mentioned autism to anyone. Both children clapped, flapped and made baby noises. I still never mentioned autism.

My children haven’t changed. I have.

Last night I apologised to both my children. I can’t say how much either of them understand how my own anxiety caused me to feel I had to tell the world about their diagnosis when in fact it was no-one else’s business. If THEY wish to tell someone about their own autism (I understand my son is likely to never reach this stage due to lack of spoken language and severe learning difficulties but he still deserves the same respect and I treat him as if he does understand anyway) one day that is THEIR choice. If my daughter (or son) wanted to wear clothing stating they had autism again that would be their choice.

But until then I have no right to disclose their diagnosis to complete strangers just because I feel the need to justify and explain their behaviours. Everyone is different and we should all just accept that without explanation or labels.

I am learning. I am not anxious anymore. So I no longer tell people my children have autism even though it is obvious they do.

It is making for a much more relaxed life for everyone.

P.s. They both beat me at bowling…I wonder how I would feel if they told everyone I was rubbish at bowling…

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When your child is diagnosed with autism and then dumped

img_6296When I broke the news on my social media that my child had just been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder I had a mixture of comments. Some people were sympathetic, others shocked, and others commented along the lines of ‘this should help you get him all the help and support now.’

It is incredibly common to hear that. But it is a myth.

Both of my children were diagnosed with autism and then dumped.

Having a diagnosis has not enabled them to get the support they need.

Even with a diagnosis my non verbal son still can’t access NHS speech therapy.

Even with a diagnosis neither of them are currently receiving occupation therapy despite both of them having acute sensory needs and neither able to do self care such as dressing themselves.

In actual fact BECAUSE my daughter has a diagnosis of autism she has actually been REFUSED access to mental health services.

They have been discharged by educational psychologists claiming there is no need for ongoing support.

Despite being diagnosed their educational support plans are continually threatened with closure.

Even our trusted community paediatrician who has been monitoring their development for almost 8 years is suggesting discharge since there is apparently little more she can do to help.

On the actual day of diagnosis we were handed and leaflet and sent on our way. This is happening to so many thousands of others and it needs to stop. Families are emotionally vulnerable, confused, desperate for support and looking for hope. One leaflet is not ok.

IMG_2182My children had more professional support BEFORE they were diagnosed than they have had after!

Before they were diagnosed we had an abundance of meetings, successful claims for dla with huge backing from every professional we came into contact with, access to specialist nursery provision, comprehensive educational support plans in place for them both, a weekly visit from a learning support teacher, fortnightly speech and language and physiotherapist and occupational therapists support. We had six monthly paediatrician clinics and referrals to any other services we needed.

After diagnosis everyone seemed keen to discharge us.

We were diagnosed and just dumped.

We are not alone.

The system seems to come to a crescendo after diagnosis then leave families hanging…alone, confused and vulnerable.

No wonder so many autism families feel let down and despondent.

We were build up and emotionally prepared for diagnosis only to be ignored afterwards.

Families need much more than a leaflet when their child is diagnosed and better ongoing support needs to be in place.

Only then can we perhaps stop this awful policy of diagnosis children and dumping them.

This article first appeared here

When You Still Get Flashbacks To Diagnosis Day

img_0034Some days stay in your memory for a long time; the day you gave birth, your wedding day perhaps, or even the day you graduated from high school or university. Unfortunately for me one of the days that is stuck in my mind is the day my precious son was diagnosed with autism. I am not alone in that either.

I put it to the back of my head most days. I rarely read the report I was sent as it always brings me to tears. Time passes. My child grows and develops, but still some days I look at him and I am right back there in that waiting room when he was at just three years old waiting on his final assessment for a life long diagnosis. I knew before they said the words. I thought my heart and my mind were prepared. It turns out I was wrong.

I was utterly devastated to hear my son had autism.

People tell me I should not have felt like that. I have been told that he would pick up on my feelings and feel rejected, that autism is just a different way of processing things and that my son is still the wonderful boy he was before that day.

I still cried.

I cried for the child I thought I would have. I cried out of fear and worry. I cried at the thought my son would struggle more than I ever wanted him to. I cried that my instincts as a mother had been right all along. I cried not for my son..I cried for me.

Autism was something that would stay with my son all his life. That can be difficult to comprehend when your child is not even at school yet.

When he was diagnosed he was only just walking. He had no language and little awareness of the world around him. He didn’t know his own name. I had no idea if or when any of that would change. He was diagnosed and then we went home. No-one offered me hope.

It was a dark day.

I could take you to that building even now despite four years and five months having passed since we were there. I still see the waiting room in my mind, I can smell the sterilised toys and the wiped down plastic seats, I can hear the voice calling my sons name. It was like time stood still that day.

As my beautiful boy sat in yet another waiting room last week, on yet another plastic chair, I had a moment of flashback to diagnosis day again. Except this time I didn’t cry at the memory, it was more of a shadow in the background.

It has truthfully taken me many years to get to that point. Some days I hate even being referred to as ‘am autism mum’ as that just makes me think back to that defining day when they mentioned autism for the first time.

My son has autism. I can say that now.

Today I say that with pride and a smile. My son is still non verbal, still not potty trained and still requires round the clock care. He has no idea of what happened the day he was diagnosed and probably never will. That day in 2012 never affected him in any way, but it defined me as a parent.

Wether you have fought for the day for a long time, or came away from the appointment in total shock, diagnosis day is huge.

I know I am not the only parent who has taken years to process my sons diagnosis. I am not the only person to have flashbacks to the day they told me my son had a life long condition with no cure.

So what helped me the most to stop those flashbacks and memories from taking over? Hearing this brown eyes boys laugh, watching him smile and realising that he may have autism but autism in no way defines him.

We are doing ok. We are a team. I help him and he helps me too. He is replacing the memory of that day with better memories every single day of his life. I hope I get flashbacks to his hugs for many years to come.

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More than a diagnosis

It is a true honour to know a lot of families who live with autism. To mark autism awareness month this year I asked over 100 of those families to describe their children to me in one word or phrase. I collected them all together to make a video and to share with you all here.

Their answers are powerful, beautiful and inspiring.

  1. Funapril92april7
  2. Lovely
  3. Affectionate
  4. Courageous
  5. Strong
  6. Emotional
  7. Always smiling
  8. Helpfulapril19
  9. Marvellousapril41
  10. Train lover
  11. Intelligent
  12. Awesome
  13. Horse lover
  14. Precious
  15. Great artist
  16. Sweet
  17. Energetic
  18. Gorgeousapril6april50
  19. Contented
  20. Mischievous
  21. Loves outdoors
  22. Socially rigid
  23. Beautiful
  24. Cleverapril53april116
  25. Loving
  26. Caringapril71
  27. Cat lover
  28. x-box addict
  29. Informative
  30. Routine lovers
  31. Toothbrush facinationapril20
  32. Gentle
  33. Chatterbox
  34. Kind
  35. Light of my life
  36. Bus obsession
  37. Minecraft crazy
  38. Charming
  39. Giggly
  40. Anxiousapril8
  41. Quiet
  42. Dalmation collector
  43. Harry Potter’s greatest fan
  44. Cheeky chub
  45. Dancer
  46. Mummy’s boy
  47. Fragile
  48. Joy
  49. Smartapril15
  50. Special
  51. Animal lover
  52. Complex
  53. Cute
  54. Loud
  55. Thomas Tank engine fan
  56. Little monkey
  57. Quirky
  58. Aspiring authorapril124
  59. Cheeky
  60. Amazing
  61. Best friends
  62. Horse lover
  63. Happy
  64. Funny
  65. Creative
  66. Bubblyapril18
  67. My world
  68. Sunshine
  69. Handsome
  70. Simply the best
  71. Gifted performer
  72. Hard working
  73. Unique
  74. Jokestar
  75. Perfection
  76. One-armed woodworkerapril57
  77. Lively
  78. Determined
  79. Superhero lover
  80. History Buff
  81. Incredible
  82. Talented
  83. Dinosaur loving
  84. Brave
  85. Wonderfulapril63
  86. Water baby
  87. Minion fan
  88. Teddy loving
  89. Figure obsession
  90. Blessing
  91. Brilliant sense of humour
  92. Inquisative
  93. Excitable
  94. Calm
  95. My hero
  96. Loved to the stars and beyondapril110
  97. Big hearted
  98. You tube lover
  99. Always on the go
  100. Texture seeker
  101. Endearing
  102. Adorable
  103. Bundle of energy
  104. Timid
  105. Extreme sense of fairness
  106. Carefreeapril32
  107. The reason I live
  108. Heart of gold
  109. Nothing gets in his way
  110. Talents outshine his difficulties
  111. Laid back
  112. Sensory
  113. Full of character
  114. Lego lover
  115. Little princess
  116. Everything I could want and more

So many children, so many families and each one of them different and unique. There is one important thing to note though: every one of these precious children is much more than a diagnosis!

You can see them all here

Have a wonderful autism awareness day!

How do you respond when you hear your child has autism?

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How do you respond when you hear your child has autism?

We are all unique. It is what makes life interesting. Yet right from childhood we are expected to fit in and become the proverbial square peg in a square hole. We are programmed to react sad to bad news, excited and happy at good news and relief at hearing something is either not as bad as we thought or if it confirms what we have been expecting. As complex people we can even experience all that in just one go and often remain composed and professional on the outward appearance.

I have twice sat in rooms with various professionals and been told my child has autism.

How am I meant to respond?

Should I cry because my world has just turned my upside down; so many dreams I had for my child shattered as they have just been a life long diagnosis that could potentially limit them?
Should I sit in silence remaining composed while I am told all the deficits and difficulties my child has?
Should I look the person in the eye while they talk to me about their assessments that day and what other professionals have said about my child?
Or should I be relieved that my child just thinks a different way to others and count myself blessed he is just the same beautiful and loving child I brought in an hour before?

Am I wrong to keep my feeling to myself and keep the news confidential? What if I feel I want to share with immediate family only for support? Is it acceptable to update my social media with such news right away?

Should I ring a help line, search the Internet or immediate join a support group? Is there books I should real or pamphlets I take away with me?

What can I do about this? Should I be trying to change him or should I accept this? Should I be investigating private therapies or wait for further investigations or referrals?

What will this mean for my child’s education? Will this affect his health? Will he ever speak to me? What about the future?

While all this and so much more ran though my head on both occasions I heard myself thanking the person, shaking their hand and then finding my child to take them home.

I am never really sure if they expected me to cry. I wonder if they felt I was not hearing what they said. Maybe I even came across as uncaring or in denial? Would professionals have slated me for telling people, and even worse updating my social media that very day?

This week I heard more news on my children. Once again I found myself thanking the people concerned and shaking their hands. It seems the right thing to do. I have been programmed to be professional, not take up their time, and be dignified.

But we are all only human.

Never, ever let anyone tell you how you have to respond to that type of situations. It is ok to cry. It is ok to grieve. It is ok to retreat, tell the world and everything in-between. It is ok to feel trauma. It is ok to feel numb, or even relief.

Hearing your child has a life long condition with no cure is tough. Yes your child is still the most amazing, wonderful, beautiful child you took in to the clinic that day but things still change.

They change. You change.

However you respond when you hear your child has autism is the right way. There is no wrong way to respond. Even if you leave with a huge grin on your face dancing all the way home that is still ok. If it takes months of crying non-stop after the event that is also fine. You are all right. You are human.

In time how you feel changes. Then sometimes, like I had this week, you may have a co-morbid condition added on too. Then the whole emotional roller coaster can start all over again.

We are all unique. Your child is not a square peg but let me tell you something…you don’t have to be either. Be who you are. React how you react.

How do you respond when you hear your child has autism? There is no wrong way.

The day I first heard the word Neurofibromatosis

 

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Diary entry December 2012:
I have just moved house with my newly turned 4 year old twins this week. We are living out of boxes and working our way through a garage full of our belongings and now we need to take time out today for yet another hospital appointment.

I am tired, stressed and hoping to simply receive the results of my son’s most recent 24 hour EEG. I already know he has classic autism and delayed development and last month marked a year since he took his first steps. He has yet to speak. He has yet to be potty trained. I have been reading. I know autism and epilepsy can be linked and I am praying if this is the cause of my baby’s seizures we can get this sorted today.

We arrive at the hospital. We wait.

Then they call his name.

I carry my baby boy into that doctor’s room kicking and screaming. There are two doctors in the room and I feel uneasy that something seems’off’ just looking at the thick notes the specialist has in front of her about my son. This is my baby; my longed for child. I ought to see a pile that thick of photos of him eating and playing and having fun, not a pile of medical reports about him. My son won’t stop screaming.

So we wait.

The doctor starts with asking about any updates. Have we noticed any further seizures? How is his general health? She then gently and carefully explains how my son’s EEG has come back ‘abnormal’ and that there was a lot of seizure activity noted. I don’t understand the technical reasons behind it but I do hear her saying ‘not epilepsy’. I start getting the children prepared to go home.

But she just sat there.

Somwe wait.

‘Are you aware your son has an abnormally large head?’

Well, yes I was very aware of this, especially compared to his twin sister.
‘Have you noticed any birth marks on him at all?

Well, yes doctor, but I would not worry about them as his dad has them too.
‘Would it be ok to have a look at them?’

I look at my son happily sitting on the bed pulling at the blue roll covering it for hygiene reasons and playing with it between his fingers. He would happily strip naked so he is never going to object to having his clothes taken off.

I sit there watching on as two medical professionals look in detail at my son’s body.

There is a way medical people look at each other when something isn’t right: a knowing look, a silent ‘are you thinking what I am thinking’ look, a look that says ‘will you tell them or me?’ We had seen that look just six months prior at the autism diagnosis. I never want to see ‘that’ look again. I am scared. I am curious. I am confused.

We wait.

And I am even more confused now the doctor isnasking if she can see my husbands birth marks too. He is 55. He can drive, live independently, has a job and no medical issues. It was just some marks and spots on his skin. What is the deal here? She asks my husband a few questions and then sits back down at her seat. My son returns to tearing up the blue roll and his sister sits on my knee quietly.

And then she says it:

‘Your son is presenting with autism, learning difficulties, seizures, a large head and, most importantly for us, over 8 prominent cafe au lait marks on his skin. Given the family history (what family history I wonder?), we both strongly suspect your son has a condition called Neurofibromatosis type 1. You will be referred to genetics and I will arrange for a nurse to come and do a home visit as soon as possible. Like your sons’s autism this is lifelong and there is no cure. Your son has simply inherited this from his father. I will see you again in six months time. Thank you for coming.’

At that we leave.

So that is it. At least she wrote it down for me.

From that day on we have waited. We wait to see if his health remains stable. We wait to see if any more tumours grow. We wait to see if his sight is affected.

On 3rd December 2012 I found out my child had neurofibromatosis type 1. All I can do now is wait. It is unpredictable and no-one can say how my son might be affected. All we can do is wait.

 

They never told me THAT at diagnosis!

imageThey never told me THAT at diagnosis!

So I am a ‘special needs mum’, more by accident than choice. I have six-year-old twins who have an array of medical and developmental diagnosis. There have been a number of occasions when we have sat down with doctors, specialists and psychologists to receive spoken, and later written, diagnosis and each time brings a huge array of different emotions. But over time you realise that while professionals may give you a ‘name’ for what your child is experiencing there is so much else they DON’T tell you. Here are a few things no-one told me when my children were diagnosed:

1. This won’t just affect your child. It will affect the entire family.
Having a child with a genetic condition, or a developmental disability or who requires on-going support, puts a huge strain on everyone in the family. Parents have to walk through their own private journey to come to terms with, and hopefully eventually accept, that life is not going to be quite how they planned it. And siblings have to cope with perhaps not getting the same attention they need or facing seeing their brother or sister go through things no child should ever have to. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, and extended family members don’t always know what to say or how to support and so sometimes appear to criticise or upset when perhaps they never intended. It is like dropping a pebble in the ocean and seeing it ripple out way beyond where it first dropped. No-one told me that at diagnosis. I wish they had. I may have been more patient with family if they had.

2. This will put a huge strain on your relationships.
Even couples who are incredibly close and resilient struggle when you add in the added complication of a child with a diagnosis. Blame, jealousy of the child’s needs, extra financial pressure and lack of sleep, make it so difficult to maintain a healthy relationship on top of the caring responsibilities of a special needs child. Then there is the strain put on friendships when you can’t make as many social events or you cancel things at short notice. Social gatherings such as weddings, parties, and christening become quite a burden to a family who can not readily get a babysitter for a child with additional needs. I wasn’t prepared for how a diagnosis would affect my marriage and my friendships. I wish someone had told me. I may have been more understanding if they had.

3. This will stretch your finances beyond recognition.
Raising children is expensive. Raising a child with any sort of diagnosis is even more expensive. Hospital visits cost not only in travel and parking costs but often in food, treats for your brave soldier and perhaps time off work. For many families giving up work to become a full-time carer is the only option and that brings with it a drop in income that never seems to get replaced. Private therapies cost and toys with the words ‘special needs’ in front seem to double or triple in price. Extra heating to keep a sick child warm, ongoing clinic and therapy appointments, carers, equipment, specialist clothing, continence products and replacing broken communication devices all put a huge strain on the financial situation of a family. I had no idea about this when we first had a diagnosis. I wish I had known. I may have been more prepared for it if I had.

4. Everyone you speak to will now be an expert.
When I had no ‘name’ for my children’s challenges people were happy to listen, offer a hug and at the most perhaps suggest a few things they thought might help. But mostly people just felt sorry for me or my children. But once we received that all important diagnosis (especially for some reason when one of the diagnosis was autism) everyone seemed to suddenly become an expert! We needed to urgently start this therapy or that therapy! It was because we had the kids vaccinated! It was the stuff we fed them! They knew someone who had the same thing and they took this vitamin or read this book and now their child is cured. And so on. We were judged, and corrected, and criticised for everything from the moment we mentioned the diagnosis! No-one told me that at diagnosis! I wish they had. I might have developed a thicker skin quicker if they had.

5. Diagnosis is the start of a journey not the completion of one.
When you have spent months and years fighting to get your children’s needs recognised and acknowledged, when you have been on waiting lists for so long you can’t even remember the person’s name who referred you in the first place, when you have put your heart and strength and fight into this one thing, you can easily see the diagnosis as the end of a very long journey. It is three years this month since we were told my son had classic autism, global developmental delay and severe learning difficulties. Three years on and I am still fighting his corner, still trying to get people to listen, and still pushing for more support. I naively thought everything would ‘fall into place’ after we had a diagnosis. Sadly that never happened and I have discovered it rarely does. They never told me that at diagnosis. I wish they had. I would have saved some of my strength and stamina if I had known.

6. There will be days or years later you will still be sad.
I expected to cry the day we were given the diagnosis. What I didn’t expect is that years later there would still be days I would look at my child and cry. That does not mean I am not a happy person. My children fill me with pride daily. They are achieving in their own way all the time. But some days I watch them struggle. Or see something another child does easily that they have yet to master (like talking or waving goodbye) and the tears come easy. And I have realised I am not alone. Some days I relive that diagnosis day and it stabs me in the chest as much as it did the first day I heard it. I don’t live there anymore but I still hurt. And that is ok. It’s just no-one told me that on diagnosis day. I would have kept some tissues with me had I known.

7. Diagnosis doesn’t change your child. Love does.
I looked at my child differently the day they were diagnosed. I saw a child struggling with medical issues or developmental issues and I worried for the future. I saw a life mapped out for them I never planned nor wanted and that broke my heart. I thought the diagnosis would somehow define them. But years later I realise that has not happened. As time has gone on people see my children simply for who they are not the name given to their communication difficulties or social struggles or medical challenges. When I introduce my children I just call them by name. That is who they are. That is who they will always be. They never told me THAT at diagnosis. Maybe if they had I would have realised it would all be ok.

They gave a name that day for the collection of difficulties my child presented with. But that was all. A name. A word. Something I could learn more about to help them. They took my breath away for a moment. But they never ever took my child.

My children are awesome. But they never told me THAT on diagnosis day either. That is ok though. I tell them that everyday anyway!
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