He is there

imageCompanies often have silent partners. Many businesses and charities do too. It is a highly successful strategy that brings stability, maturity, and grounding to an organisation.

Yet people are quick to judge when it seems a marriage has the same balance.

Sometimes I go to meetings for my children on my own. I send emails on my own and answer and make phone calls mostly on my own.

But that does not mean I am truly on my own. You may not see him, but my ‘silent partner’ is there. My children have a father. I have a husband.

And there is a reason why he is more ‘behind the scenes’ than some people would like.

Everyone copes differently. That does not mean that any one way is right. And we all have different strengths.

I find social situations quite enjoyable. My ‘silent partner’ does not.
Meetings rarely make me nervous or intimidated. My soul mate finds them heavy, frustrating and stressful.
I find talking openly about my children’s difficulties fairly straightforward. Communication is one of my strong points. My husband finds this difficult and draining.
I quite enjoy form filling. For my partner this is like sticking pins in himself.
I find multi-tasking comes as second nature. For my lover this is confusing and he would much rather finish one task before moving onto the next. Interruptions like unexpected phone calls, cancelled meetings and children’s illness cause him to become anxious and flustered.
It is second nature to me to put the ‘right’ jumper on the right child, make sure the food is not touching on the plate, and do up the buttons on their coat in the ‘right’ order. But the stress of ensuring things are ‘just right’ for our autistic twins can become overwhelming for my husband. The slight change of detail can throw either one of our children into a screaming meltdown that lasts all night, so his fears are both real and understandable.
Homework is a mystery for my partner. He struggled though school and finds modern ways of doing things confusing.
Dealing with a screaming child who can not speak limits my partners patience. And I totally understand that. I am far from perfect and my patience runs thin at times too.

It doesn’t help that both our children have complex needs. They both thrive on routine and have rigid ways of doing things. They are more relaxed when the same person does the same thing everyday. They need the same words used, the same voice, the same physical touch and way of doing things. So they both cling to mum as if their life depended on it. In many ways it does.

But they know, just as much as I do, that dad is still there. He may seem in the background. But he is there.image

Some of you will be saying right now that my ‘silent partner’ is just a typical man. Some may be annoyed he is leaving more to me. Some of you may even wonder if he understands it all. A few may even feel he doesn’t care.

Let me tell you something: He cares. He loves. And he sees. He is very much here.

But there is something I feel people should know about this very important ‘silent partner’ in my life: My husband has neurofibromatosis type 1. The exact same genetic tumour producing condition our son has.

Some of his struggles are due to his upbringing, his personality, his age, or his lack of support in school. But some of it is because he has NF1. That affects his way of thinking, his behaviour, and his personality. It is part of him. It makes him less confident, means he struggles more with some academic things and he may seem less social. It is all too easy to judge his ‘silence’ as lack of caring or interest. That could not be further from the truth. I never knew he had NF when I married him. But even if I had it would not have affected my love for him.

Sometimes the most amazing support comes from someone just silently holding you, listening as you pour out your heart. Often that silent partner is the one with the wisdom, insight and calmness to hold it all together. Sometimes the most powerful thing anyone can do is just be there.

He has neurofibromatosis. He isn’t as ‘in your face’ as I am. He isn’t as known to all the professionals dealing with our children as I am. He doesn’t write in the home school diary, or read the bedtime story.

But he does something very important. For me. And for his children.

He is there.

And we all love him.

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When everyone wants a piece of you

Another day. Another appointment. Another night of being woken through the night. More phone calls. More screaming. More bodily waste to clean up. More pressure. Never-ending stress.

Every parent gets stressed. Everyone needs a break at times from the 24-7 demands of raising children. But sometimes the added pressure of having children with additional support needs just becomes overwhelming when the days and nights become one, the paperwork piles up and everyone wants a piece of you.

What do you do when a professional calls you and you need to take the call yet your child needs your urgent attention at the same time (I could list any number of things they could be doing here like smearing faeces, climbing in a bath of water fully clothed, feeding the fish a tub of sudacream, eating frozen food from the freezer or escaping out of a window or door)? What do you do when you HAVE to find the time to complete urgent paperwork but your eyes can barely stay open and your mind can not focus due to exhaustion? How do you explain to a child with very limited understanding that their routine needs to change to go to yet another hospital or clinic appointment? What do you do when one professional says one thing and another disagrees and you are caught in the middle? How do you cope when mealtimes make you cry because your child just won’t eat and the other one just won’t stop eating? How do you remain at peace when your child comes home from school wearing clothes for the opposite sex because yet again he has gone through four pairs of trousers in a school day even whilst wearing nappies?

Everyone wants a piece of me.

I am expected to turn up at meetings and act professionally even when at times my heart is breaking. Crying is meant to be reserved for the privacy of your own home and only makes professionals question your mental stability if seen in public.

I am expected to follow through programmes designed by professionals who think they know my child better than me and who think I have nothing to do other than run with their latest plan.

I am expected to answer phone calls and emails in a timely, professional manner as if working in an office environment while the washing machine is spinning in the background, the children have technology at full blast (what other volume is there?) and the window cleaner is knocking my door asking for money.

I am expected to turn up to the right appointment, at the right day and time, with the right child, focussed, prepared and calm with a child who is alert, receptive and willing to participate in whatever therapy they are having today. And all this with a smile on my face and an enthusiasm for the programme.

I am expected to do homework with my children, take them to activities to ‘broaden their horizons and stimulate their interests’, give them a healthy diet and exercise, nurture their talents and spend quality time with them, when in reality we spend our evenings making chicken nuggets for tea again, watching the same programme on TV for the fiftieth time and coping with screaming children, toys and technology being thrown across the room and being physically attacked because I dared to run them a bath!

Schools expect me to jump at the first mention of ‘parent involvement’, hospitals expect me to fly my children to appointments (well they certainly don’t expect me to park given the lack of spaces they provide!), social workers expect to come to a house that is well run, clean, yet homely and comfortable, and my children need me to hold them, love them and help them all the time.

Yesterday I had one meal. It was one of those days. And the fact is I am not alone. There are so many parents in the same situation. Living with stress that is incredibly high, balancing meetings, appointments, therapies, professionals, children and the demands of running a home whist caring 24/7. Because despite the volume of people involved with my children it will still be me tonight who cooks them both tea, has clean clothes for them to wear to school tomorrow, reads them the bedtime story and kisses them goodnight. It will still be me who lies with them through the night while they cough or cry or scream.

It is me who knows them, protects them, loves them.

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Everyone wants a piece of me. But these two have a piece that no-one else can ever have. They have my heart. Every other piece of me can just wait while I take a moment to hold them. The phone can keep ringing, the post can wait a moment and the emails can stay unread just a little while longer. Whoever else wants or needs me these two always come first.

Why can’t they take away his tumours?

I try not to think too much about my child’s medical condition. His classic autism I can deal with (well most of the time anyway), even the fact that at six years and six months old he has no language is just about bearable. The fact he has global delay and has the understanding of a young toddler is hard, but something that might improve. But when I talk about the fact my child has this condition called neurofibromatosis type 1 my heart still breaks, even though we have been living with it for over two years now.

This is not easy to write about but if it helps just one person then I feel I have to talk about it.

This handsome boy, full of life and energy and mischief, has a body that keeps making tumours!

imageAnd there is absolutely nothing I can do about that!

You see I know about autism. I can sit with him and work on that. He might never speak but there has been huge investment in autism and so many resources available. I can use the internet to access photographs, or even take some on his iPad that he can have instant access to. Then there is picture exchange communication that one day he may be able to understand. There is also makaton and British sign language. He can take me by the hand to things he wants and we can help his socialisation skills by taking him to a wide variety of places and hopefully in time introducing basic social stories.

I know he will always have autism. But the likelihood is he will improve, even if not by a lot.

I know about his global developmental delay. We can work on his physical skills, one day eventually we may even be able to toilet train him, and in time he may be able to use cutlery, wash himself, dress himself and learn basic life skills. Children with global developmental delay, especially to the level of Isaac, may never catch up with their peers but he will improve, even if he always needs support.

But his neurofibromatosis type 1? Well that is just another thing altogether!

I am educated and willing to learn. I know about the physical features like his large head, his skins marks (cafe au lait marks because they look like coffee stains) and his small height. I know that some of his learning difficulties is also due to his NF1 and that genetically he inherited the gene from his father. I see glimpses of how his body may look as he ages by looking at my husband. We know he will most likely get freckles under his arm pits, his cafe au lait marks will increase and grow, and he will most likely have fibromas (small tumours on his skin). Those are all things we can cope with. And I am sure Isaac will cope with them too.

imageimage imageIt’s just the unknown. The fact that when you say to people he has tumours the first thing they say is ‘does he have cancer?’, followed by the inevitable, ‘why can’t they take them away?’. That’s the hard bit. No he doesn’t have cancer, for which we are incredibly thankful. But he also can’t be cured. And should he develop certain tumours on his spine, or eyes, for example, he may one day require chemotherapy. But unlike cancer, there will never be the option of no longer having tumours.

He will always have autism. He will most likely always have global delay (although that may change to learning difficulties as he ages) and he will always have neurofibromatosis type 1. But unlike the others his NF MAY be stable, mild and not require treatment or it may throw up hurdles we don’t want to even think about. Of course we hope and pray for the former and reassure ourselves this is how it has been for my husband.

Why can’t they take away his tumours? Sadly he would just produce more. And more. And more.

Do I want a cure for autism? Sometimes when I have tough days and my son is not able to be understood and is frustrated yes. When I spend longer watching lift doors with him than I do sleeping some weeks? Maybe. Would I like a cure for his global delay? Partly, but then he is slowly achieving things and I know in his own time he will get there. Would I like a cure for neurofibromatosis? Yes I would.

But then I look into these big brown eyes and I think I couldn’t possibly love this boy any more than I do. And I know whatever the future holds…well we’ll get through it…one lift at a time!
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Just don’t ask my neighbours!

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Most of the time I am happy that people don’t know what really goes on behind my front door. I live in a quiet dead end street in an end terraced house with neighbours either side of me. Ordinarily that would be fine but I also have two children with additional support needs. Between them both they have diagnosis as long as my arm including autism, global developmental delay, neurofibromatosis type 1, anxiety, visual impairment, learning difficulties and a whole heap of sensory issues. One of the twins is non verbal.

Maybe one day I will tell my neighbours some of their issues. But right now I am having fun wondering what they might tell you about us.

The lady two doors down might tell you about the morning she saw me wave my daughter goodbye to nursery on the bus while she happened to look out her window just as my son was running down the street flapping wearing nothing but his red school jumper! If you are going to talk to my neighbours it may be best to avoid that one.

The previous neighbour to my right that moved out last year may not have been a good choice to talk to either. He might tell you about the time he caught my son standing at his camper van licking it clean! Thankfully he sold up and moved out a few months later so I might not hear about that one again.

Mind you the couple and their son who moved in after him may be best avoided too. They would only tell you about the screams they hear from my children most nights like they are being killed. I could tell them I am only cutting heir nails or washing their hair but somehow I doubt they would believe me.

The neighbours the other side are not the best choice either I’m afraid. They could tell you about the time they had friends over for a BBQ and turned around to find my son helping himself to the food while they were all busy chatting. Please, please avoid the wife! She was sunbathing one day and as she looked over her hedge she saw my naked son running along side the hedge with his eyes right up against the bush peering through it. I maybe should tell her he is visually impaired but unfortunately she isn’t, so she probably thinks the naked child requires more of an explanation. She hasn’t been sun bathing as much this year for some reason.

The elderly lady across the road could tell you a good few stories. Like the time she saw us manhandle our child into a taxi and wave goodbye to him and he screamed in sheer horror. One day I might explain it was a different colour car that day and he could not cope with but in the meantime it maybe best to keep your distance. She has also saw us a few time wave our hands in glee as the children left for nursery or school and I have a feeling she thinks we look too happy to see them go. There could be some truth in that some mornings.

When we moved into this street we were reliably informed that it was quiet and that there was very little movement in terms of people selling up. It was seen as sought after. We seem to have pleased the estate agents though as since moving in at least three houses on the street have changed hands. We must be a good influence I think.

I’m quite sure my neighbours wonder why my son always wears the same school jumper everyday. Or why we have so many ‘visitors’ who come for around an hour a time and then go again (Social workers, occupational therapists, speech therapists, physiotherapists). They are maybe suspicious of the plain white van that drops huge boxes to us once every two months (nappy delivery month), or wonder why we get our refuge collected once a week when they are on a fortnightly schedule (that’ll be those nappies to blame again!). If they knew where we were going they may wonder why we take the kids to hospital appointments so often or why if they come to the door it is always locked and the key hidden away (think back to the half naked child escaping). They may wonder why my son never talks to them or my daughter won’t look them in the eye. They may even wonder why they see me regularly carrying six year olds who are screaming and trying to bite me. They have no doubt not seen many parents hang out bedding that is half eaten before or hear a child so distraught because you dared peg an item of clothing out without the pegs matching. If they saw my weekly shop they may even judge us for buying only the same select few things every week. A balanced diet in this house means a biscuit in each hand sometimes!
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I’m not sure my neighbours have heard of autism. But I do know they have heard my children! If you want to find out about me please talk to me and whatever you do…just don’t ask my neighbours!

I’m still a mummy

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I watched the little girl shuffle across the floor on her bottom the exact same way my daughter used to do. So pretty, innocent and delightfully happy. I approached her mum and commented on what a wonderful way it was to get about. Mum didn’t seem so sure. The baby was only just over a year so I shared with her how my own daughter used to do the same and what a smart way it was to get about as it allows you to see where you are going and take things with you in your hands, both of which are much more difficult when crawling on all fours.

Mum seemed reassured when I spoke about how my daughter walks, talks, goes to school and is doing well academically. We smiled at each other, looked at each other and the conversation flowed. And then something changed. I mentioned, almost without realising, soon after, that my daughter has autism. And the conversation pretty much ended there. Any confidence and reassurance I had offered about her daughter seemed to vanish instantly. Somehow I wasn’t in a position to support or encourage because my child had some sort of disability. I am sure she probably just didn’t know what to say or felt awkward or maybe thought that somehow her daughter’s shuffling in the same way as mine may mean I was suggesting her baby may also have autism. Who knows. It just changed things the moment that word was said.

It isn’t the first time that has happened too. Neither of my children are potty trained and I find other parents avoid even talking about that when I am around. And some even find it strange if I offer to take their child to the bathroom if they require help. Maybe they think I won’t know what to do as my own children are still in nappies or maybe they feel it may upset me. Neither of those are true. When I mentioned to another friend how my son also loved being in a ball pool as a baby and still loves them now she seemed to want to change the subject. Maybe the thought my six-year old was still enjoying what her one year old likes felt weird. I am not really sure.

I sometimes want to say to people that just because my children have difficulties does not exclude me from the mummy club. I am still a mummy. My children still breastfed, had wind, were sick, went through teething, cried though the night, spat out solid food when they first tried it, learnt to sit and stand, walk and crawl and drove me crazy with noisy toys. They still pulled clothes out of drawers, fell asleep when I least wanted them too, loved throwing food from their high chairs and needed nappies changed at the most inconvenient of times. They were still children. And I am still a mummy.

The only difference is my children did these things at different times. I remember the breaking back pain of having to hold your babies hands to help them learn to master walking. It is just I was doing that with a heavier, slightly taller three-year old rather than a lighter, smaller one year old. But I still did it. Because even when children have a delay or a disability they mostly still have to go through the same stages of progress. They still have to master standing, balancing and confidence before they learn to walk. They still have to master sounds and listening skills and facial movements before learning to talk. It’s just my six-year-old got stuck somewhere when the one year old sailed through that. They still have to go through toilet training whatever age that gets mastered.

Identifying with you in your child’s progress does not mean your child has the same thing as mine. It just means my children are just as normal as yours. I still had to enrol my children at school. I even saw one take part in a nativity this week. And my children will still hate the sprouts for Christmas dinner like most other children.

I guess I just feel sometimes only going to things for disabled children, or ones with autism, or neurofibromatosis, or whatever, isn’t helping. It is often the only way we can access things and so I am all for making accommodations for families like mine. But it has the negative effect sometimes of making people think we are different. In some ways, of course, we are. In the community I live I would find it very hard to find another non verbal six-year-old or a six-year-old still in nappies for example. But I could easily find another six-year-old just like mine who doesn’t like doing what he is told, likes playing on an iPad and hates wearing a hat. I could easily find a six-year-old like my daughter who likes books and Thomas tank engine and baking cakes.

This Christmas please see my children the same as yours. Children with dreams and hopes and a bright future. Children who will wake up on Christmas morning to new toys, whatever they are, and who may end up playing with the box longer than the toy. Not because they have autism or developmental delay, but because all kids love boxes!

And just like every other mummy I want to make my kids happy. I want to hear them laugh and I want to have quality time with them. I want to be included with other parents too. Everyone is different but kids, disabled or not, are still kids.

And I am still a mummy.

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Because it never ends

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I woke up this morning. Once again it was far too early. One again the alarm clock never got a chance to ring as screaming became my wake up call. My mornings, like so much of my life, are very predictable.

In a few weeks it will mark six years of it being like this. I thought children were supposed to sleep through the night at some stage?

I guess that is one of the things about my children having special needs. The early waking never ends.

So to stop the screaming I dress him. In the exact same things he wore the day before. So it may be a school day but it really doesn’t matter because he wears the same jumper whatever day of the week it is. Sometimes I can shrug that off, laugh at it, even smile at the predictability of it, but other times it gets to me deep inside. We’ve been doing the jumper thing since August 2013. It is one of the hundreds of things we are ‘working on’ just now but getting nowhere. It just seems relentless. And sometimes pointless.

On a positive he has still been saying his first word ‘on’ that we spent an entire week learning last week at half term. It still isn’t fully pronounced but he is trying. And with massive prompts he is using it for the DVD player, the iPad, and his jumper. But like everything, it is all consuming, all encompassing; exhausting. I can’t let it go because if I just do things without having him try and talk I will be training him that there is no need to speak; no reason to communicate. So now we have started it has to continue. And if we manage to, by some miracle, add in a new word, it will be the same again. We HAVE to take every opportunity we can to help him. It’s just sometimes I would like a break from it all.

We’ve had some problems with the national oral health programme. Not surprising when the simple task of daily teeth brushing is a battle for both children. So now both children have to attend a specialist dentist every six weeks for ‘familiarisation and treatment’. For one of them that means dragging him away from the lift in the waiting room every six weeks. And sometimes that is just another battle that never ends.

It just adds to the myriad of appointments we have anyway; Eye clinics, paediatricians, clinics, home visits, school meetings, training courses, genetics, opticians, and regular GP visits. And unless we want them to have hair like Samson then we have six weekly hairdressers visits too. For most of these we are still struggling to get past the lifts and the automatic doors. Sometimes I could punch the person who invented such things.

I know, I know, this is my life, and I need to get on with it. Lots of folk have it worse. I know that. And I am not depressed. In actual fact I had fun tickling my son and watching lifts with him on his iPad at 4:30am.

It’s just that knowing that this is for life: Autism, genetic conditions, learning difficulties, neurofibromatosis type 1, developmental delay. They are relentless. They put stress on families and make everything seem massive. They add strain to marriages and test the patience of saints. They require more energy than the national grid can provide. They can’t be cured. I can’t walk away.

Forgive me for blogging in a negative way. Please understand I am not feeling sorry for myself. I am exhausted. I am surrounded by battles many of which I may never win.

I now understand why so many marriages struggle when there are children with special needs involved. I know understand why so many parents of children like mine are on anti-depressants. I now understand why so many are begging for respite.

The reason is this: because it never ends.

Come on son, I know you can do it!

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When you have a child who is seriously struggling you would expect therapists, teachers and support staff to do everything they can to help. You put your faith and trust in them. They have years of training and experience behind them and have skills that a humble mother couldn’t possibly have. You send your child to school believing they will push him, encourage him and motivate him to bring out the best in him. You are in fact handing over your most precious possession to them in the belief that they have the necessary skills to help them. They have expensive technology, highly trained staff, a vast array of agencies at their beck and call to support them and the facility to give my child undivided attention.

If only life was that ideal. The reality is that budget cuts, lack of interest and time restraints often mean that some children fall by the wayside.

So when my son’s school notified everyone that the speech and language therapists were no longer going to give my child one to one intensive therapy and direct support, when his individual education programme showed no signs of pushing him to learn to speak and was heavily leaning towards getting him to point and use some pictures, when even his legal support document was threatened with being closed I decided I had no choice but to show them what I believed my child could do.

It seemed impossible.

While the staff and professionals working with Isaac all have the luxury of a full nights sleep, I am functioning on a few hours a night and some night less. While they are entitled to regular breaks, have the support of other staff and get paid a salary, I am balancing life with two children with autism, have very little training and get paid nothing more for working intensely with my child. They can go home at the end of a frustrating and emotional therapy and forget about it. I have to wipe my own tears, internalise my own fears and deal with the heartbreak of knowing this is not just any child I am working with, this is my beloved son.

It may not matter to them if they never hear my child’s voice. But it mattered to me.

Just weeks before his sixth birthday, not having spoken any recognisable word for over a year and a diagnoses of classic autism, Neurofibromatosis and global delay, the odds were not on my side.

But I had to try. It helped that he took a sudden interest in hand dryers and hair dryers but could not work them. So during half term week I decided to do some intensive interaction with him to try and get one word. I found him one day on my bed pointing to the hairdryer. Now was my chance. I modelled the word lots and let him see my mouth. I said the word and then turned on the dryer. His excitement showed I had a motivator. So every time he went on that bed I got into the room with him and worked with him to say a simple word. One syllable, just two little letters, not much to ask. But a massive mountain for my boy to climb.

Here is what day 5 was like: he was trying so hard:

But I wanted to show he could actually speak. I want to prove to everyone involved it is worth continuing to teach him to speak. I want them to see he is worth believing in.

And here is day 7:

It may not be too clear but he certainly vocalised a sound not unlike ‘on’. It may only be for the hairdryer, but it’s a start.

I am exhausted, physically. mentally and emotionally. Some days this week I could have easily given up. But love carried me through. And it was so worth it.

Don’t stop believing. Every child has potential. Despite funding issues, staffing constraints and time pressures I refuse to let anyone stop believing in my son.

He has so much potential. And I intend to prove that. I just need Isaac to do this with me.

Come on son, I know you can do it!