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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seriously!

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

• need for a suitable environment

• need for a suitable diet

• need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns

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

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

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

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

Prisons are inspected and prisoners have strict human rights including:

• protection from bullying and racial harassment

• being able to get in contact with a solicitor

• healthcare – including support for a mental health condition

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

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

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

I can’t accept that.

Can you?

Do you ever wish you could ‘switch off’ your child’s autism?

Sometimes I do.

When I just need to get bread and milk from the local supermarket and I’m tired, in a hurry and just want ‘in and out,’ I wish I could ‘switch off’ my child’s difficulties with the music, crowds, smells, his absolute NEED to see the lift and his inability to stay beside me safely. Just ten minutes without autism would make that task easier…for us both.

When he’s crying in pain and unable to communicate why or where it hurts. How frustrating and distressing that is for us both. I wish I could ‘switch off’ his communication difficulties just long enough for me to be able to understand and help him.

When I am attempting to make a packed lunch for a school trip and I’m in tears because ‘lunch’ to him means a hot meal and I know everything I make will be refused. Just a half hour meal with autism ‘switched off’ would be a blessing for me, but more so for him. I know he doesn’t want to be so rigid but he just can’t prevent it.

When there’s roadworks and I need to drive a different route. To watch his face screw up in disgust and confusion followed by the onset of tears and challenging behaviour is torture for us both. I wish we could ‘switch off’ autism, just during the journey, not forever.

When I need to get medication into him. Just one minute of autism ‘turned off’ would allow vital epilepsy medication to be swallowed so much easier. While things are improving it is often very challenging and distressing for everyone. Antibiotics leave us both traumatised.

Right now though more than anything I wish I could ‘switch off’ severe autism as we face a period of very challenging medical difficulties. My non verbal son has recently been diagnosed with a growing brain tumour. He needs multiple anaesthetic’s and a brain tumour biopsy followed by possible treatment that will be invasive, challenging and intensive. I want him better; he needs to get better. The alternative isn’t something anyone wants to think about. . The presence of autism complicates even the simplest of procedures and we don’t have the time to ‘mess about’ right now.

Time is not on our side so having three months of acclimatising to new surroundings isn’t an option. Printing visuals of all the doctors we need to see, making timetables of when they will be seen and watching videos of procedures before hand to prepare my son just aren’t options any longer. I can’t just say ‘I couldn’t get him out the car’ to his neurosurgeon when they have theatre all prepared and scheduled for a brain biopsy. When appointments suddenly need changed due to things progressing fast I can’t say to specialists ‘well it’s not on his timetable so he won’t cope.’ ‘Sorry he stayed awake all night again as usual last night so we need to sleep today’ just isn’t an option when there’s an MRI machine booked for yet another scan, or nurses waiting to run more tests. There’s no option to say ‘don’t worry about his meltdown. I’ll just sent out another appointment in six months and we’ll try again then’.

We haven’t got time to put any communication device in place for my non verbal child any more, not that he has taken to any in the last ten years anyway.

Medically we are facing a crisis and severe autism doesn’t ‘do’ crisis. My son doesn’t do ‘sudden change’ or even just ‘change’. He doesn’t cope with new people, new places, being touched, sitting still while people talk, having needles put in, waiting around in clinics, or even having a simple plaster on!

I fully accept and love my son, autism included. I’ve never had an issue with flapping, watching the same thing lots, communicating in his own unique way or even needing routine. In fact I’ve developed strategies, patience, and understanding and I really wouldn’t want him any other way.

But I would be lying if I didn’t say that right now, in the middle of medical difficulties that can not be ignored or delayed, I would not love to ‘turn off’ autism just for short periods of time to make things easier for him, and also for me.

Autism can be a blessing and it isn’t something I hate but it can also make life challenging and right now we have enough challenges to face treating his brain tumour and we could do without the struggle just to get him inside a new hospital or the inability to wait for his name to be called and the terrifying fact his autism means he can’t communicate when or where something even hurts.

I thought in the past I’d like little moments of being able to switch autism off but right now I’ve never wanted that ability more. Autism is making an already challenging situation so much harder, not just for me but for my son. I’m not wanting my son to be non autistic just less rigid, less anxious, less ‘stuck’ during a time when co-operation, flexibility and communication are vital.

99% of the time I have time to do what he needs to help him. Unfortunately right now we are living in that 1% and I can not even adequately express how much simpler things would be right now without the added issue of severe non verbal autism.

Have I ever wanted to switch autism off? Right now for my son’s sake…yes! Most of the medical staff treating him would probably agree with me too.

How did we get here?

As I sat holding my frightened 5 year old daughter in the back of an ambulance at 2:30 in the morning, for a split second, in the midst of fear and exhaustion, I wondered how exactly did we get here?

Here I was giving details of my daughter calmly to a stranger in a green uniform when all my body craved was sleep. I would say adrenalin was taking over, but medically this is impossible as I live with a potentially life threatening condition which means my body does not produce stress hormones. Moments earlier I had been lying in my bed praying silent prayers. It seemed at that moment they were not to be answered.
Naomi had been struggling for the last 24 hours with nose bleeds. At the tender age of 5 she had experienced them before. But nothing on this scale. I had already been in to her 4 times since she had been put to bed. But they just kept restarting. It was getting scary, for her and for me, and for my husband. Dad was becoming frustrated that his baby girl was not able to let him help. So he let me deal with this one. But this one was never ending. And then she started vomiting up blood. Again and again. I have never been so terrified. So I called for an ambulance.

So that was how we ended up at accident and emergency in the middle of the night with one of my babies.

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As I look in the mirror at the scratches and bruises on my neck caused by my five year old non verbal son I once again wonder, how did we get here?

How did we get to the place where he punches us, kicks us, bites us, scratches us and throws things at us? When did it all start? When did I start dreading reading his home/school diary because his behaviour has become so challenging? Sometimes things just gradually creep up over time until you realise it has become overwhelming. One unpaid bill soon leads to another, one moment of shouting at your children soon becomes the norm, one day giving in to their food fads leads to constant demands for chocolate for breakfast. One day Isaac having one tantrum and finding it funny to kick something has lead to him repeating this behaviour often. One reaction from someone, negative or positive, has lead to challenging behaviours becoming a daily occurrence. One day having mashed potato for dinner leads to constant demands for the same food to be repeated. Then one day we had no mashed potato left.

So that was how I ended up with bruises and scratches on my neck from my five year old autistic son.

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As I find myself in yet another meeting with professionals discussing my daughters personal needs regarding going to the toilet I once again wonder to myself, how exactly did we get here?

With only 7 weeks left until she finishes nursery and only 4 months until she starts school, yet here we are talking with a group of professionals about strategies that might help her come out of nappies. Did I ever think I would have 5 year old children still wearing nappies day and night? No. Did I ever think I would need professional help to potty train a child? No. Did I expect both my children to have additional needs? Not at all. She seemed so perfect at birth. And later on I just thought she was slow to walk. In fact, I had very few concerns about my little princess until she started nursery school at 2 and a half. It was quite a shock to realise that my beautiful blue eyed girl had autism, and with it bowel and bladder issues, high anxiety and gross movement difficulties. It is funny how you soon adjust to talking about your child to professionals like it is a daily occurrence. In fact, for me, it pretty much is a daily occurrence now. You get used to the paperwork, and the forms and constant phone calls. You even refer to some people on first name terms like you have known them since school. You learn to ignore some of their ideas, you learn to adapt other suggestions and you know who to chase up for the missing paperwork. You learn the talk and the lingo and the laws you need to quote. And even though it breaks your heart, you learn to call and order nappies for your school aged child because you know you are still going to need them. You’re on to the fourth attempt at potty training now and you know it is going to be, like everything else, a long journey ahead.

So that is how I am still discussing pants and toilet cards and reward charts for potty training my 5 year old.

How did we get here? I still ask that every time we visit yet another hospital, or visit the dentist or eye clinic as we do every six weeks, or when we now add in the ENT referral for Naomi. If the NHS did reward cards like MacDonalds do for their hot drinks I would be high on caffeine by now. It feels like we have our own parking space at the clinics these days.

Life happens. Sometimes it can feel overwhelming. Sometimes it is relentless. Sometimes you just find yourself in a place you never dreamt you would be. But it is ok. If someone had told me I would have been in any of these places this week when I first gave birth to my beautiful twins in 2008 I would have struggled to believe you. It is a journey. We cope with today, look to the future, pray, hope and keep on going. One day soon I will be back on the mountaintop celebrating with my children in some new amazing thing they have achieved. And I will enjoy it all the more for having been through these valleys.

And you know what, even in the great times I will still wonder, how did we get here?

How? Because through it ALL God is there. That is how I got here and that is how I will get out of here too.

(Naomi lost a lot of blood but was released from hospital that night and is now recovering. We have strategies in place at home and school to deal with Isaac’s behaviour and there is some minor progress towards toilet training one of the twins)