Having A Child Who Is Forever Vulnerable

Vulnerable: to be weak, without protection, easily hurt physically or emotionally, easily influenced, prone to attack, naive, easily taken advantage of.

 

I used to think of vulnerable in terms of a small child unable to defend themselves, an elderly person living alone unable to fight off an intruder or a homeless young person who could easily be taken advantage of by others.

That was until I had a disabled child of my own.

My son was born vulnerable. Smaller than average due to being a twin, a little premature and struggling to regulate his own temperature.

He remained vulnerable as a toddler still crawling when all the other children were walking and in danger of being tripped over or having his hands trampled on.

He started nursery vulnerable, relying at three to be carried still, needing adults to guide him, feed him, change him and dress him.

He started school still vulnerable unable to speak, not understanding the world yet and still needing adults to do everything for him.

This year he finishes primary school and he’s STILL vulnerable. Still non verbal, now with significant learning disabilities, diagnosed autistic, complex medical needs, visually impaired, epileptic and still requiring adults to dress him, brush his hair, wash him and see to his bodily needs among many other things.

We can all have periods in our lives when we are vulnerable, perhaps driving in an unfamiliar town, starting a new job, living alone, walking in the dark or feeling unwell. Having periods of vulnerability keeps us humble and human but it’s uncomfortable, frightening and damaging to our self esteem. Most people go out of their way to avoid being vulnerable because the feeling of helplessness is disempowering.

Now imagine how it feels to have a child who will be forever vulnerable.

He will forever be prone to danger.

Forever be weak.

Forever without protection.

Forever easily hurt physically and emotionally.

Forever easily influenced.

Forever prone to attack.

Forever naive.

Forever easily taken advantage of.

That’s terrifying.

When people see special needs parents like myself and say things like ‘she’s very over protective’ or ‘still holding his hand at 11? I’d never do that!’ or ‘you need to give him more independence’ I wonder if they understand vulnerability? Can they see the fear in my eyes, hear the fast beating of my heart and notice the never ending worries swirling around in my head?

I can’t take my eye off the ball.

I can’t stop being concerned.

I can’t ‘back off’

I can’t die.

My child can’t go out to play, be alone, be sent to the shops for me, go out on a bike, see his friends (he hasn’t got any anyway), or even walk to school. He requires adult supervision all the time and always will.

He can’t speak, he can’t read, he can’t write, he can’t ask for help and he can’t get himself food. He’ll never live independently or work or marry because he will be forever vulnerable.

He was born vulnerable, he has grown up vulnerable and he will die vulnerable. My job as his parent is to protect, advocate, nurture, guide, teach and put in place everything needed to ensure he remains safe throughout his life.

The world is a scary place when you are alone, in the dark, unwell, somewhere new and always reliant on others for everything. Now imagine you had a child who was forever like that.

That’s what it’s like having a child who is forever vulnerable.

Living in Fear as a Special Needs Parent

The following piece has been submitted anonymously for obvious reasons. No parent should have to live like this but sadly this is the reality for so many parents of children in the U.K. with additional support needs. It is vital stories like this are heard.

Why I live in fear.

Fear is the emotion I identify with the most. Some days it is all I feel.

I have two boys, let’s call them Harry and James. They both have additional needs. Harry is autistic and is not in school, he has been excluded several times and now refuses to go. James is undiagnosed but probably also autistic, he goes to school but has severe anxiety and is very unhappy there. 

Harry has an EHCP, but it is totally inadequate. To get it changed I have to take the local authority to court.

I am afraid we won’t win, and that the fight to get the right help will be too much for me.

Meanwhile he is not in school (because his needs have not been met for so long) and his absences are being marked down as unauthorised.

I am afraid that I will be prosecuted.

I have asked for help from every conceivable agency. We have been turned down for a social care assessment because Harry is not ‘disabled’ enough.

I am afraid that we will be left until we reach crisis point and then suddenly we’ll end up under Child Protection, despite the fact we’re allegedly coping well enough right now.

Sometimes I’m afraid of Harry, because his behaviour can be very violent and challenging.

I do everything I can at home, but I cannot control the school situation which is causing so much anxiety and driving his behaviour. I am too afraid to tell anyone how bad it is, because I’m scared he’ll be taken away.

I am afraid of the effect this is having on James. My happy little boy has become serious and quiet and cries often.

I live on my own with my children and, because Harry is not in school, I am with one or both of them 24 hours a day without respite. Their needs are very different and there is only one of me. I can only ever meet the needs of one of them at the expense of the other.

I am afraid they are being robbed of the happy childhood they deserve. 

I am afraid Harry will end up in the criminal justice system.

He is vulnerable to influence and bullying.

I am afraid that people will not be able to look past his extensive vocabulary and see his problems with social interaction and receptive language and jump to all the wrong conclusions. 

I am afraid that my children will not have the happy future that they deserve, because rather than access to early intervention services we will be pushed beyond breaking point and irreversible damage will be done.

I am afraid that people won’t see my children for who they really are: Sweet, loving and kind little boys that still call me mummy and enjoy watching Paw Patrol, despite their age.

I am afraid for my future.

I gave up a well paid job to be a carer. I have no pension, I don’t own my own home and I have no savings. At least one of my children will probably still be living with me well past the age you would normally expect. 

I am afraid of growing old alone, as the opportunity to meet someone feels like an impossibility right now, and it feels like I have been alone forever.

I am afraid what will happen to my boys if something happens to me, because no one could love or protect them, and no one understands the nuances of their behaviours and care needs, like I do. They would be so frightened, alone and confused if I wasn’t here anymore. 

Some days all I feel is fear. 

Can We Take Autism Acceptance Too Far?

My husband is autistic. Both my children are autistic. I am a huge advocate of autism awareness and acceptance. However I am also a realist and deeply honest and something that has been worrying me more and more is the fact that we seem to be moving perhaps too far in our pursuit of autism acceptance and I am now wondering if the scales are now tipping too far the other way?

What do I mean?

Well for many years the voices of autistic adults were ignored and suppressed. In more recent years, thankfully, this has been changing and some of the most successful advocates for autism are now autistic adult self advocates. This IS a good thing and I don’t want us to stop hearing from autistic adults. I have learnt so much from them and I would love my own daughter to emulate some of them as she matures and grows.

However, there is a balance and with the growth of self advocates there has been a real suppressing and abuse of parents of autistic children (and adults) who have been threatened and bullied because their thoughts seem to clash with the autistic self advocates.

You see autism is a very different experience for different people. For some adults it is just seen as a different way of thinking or a unique way of looking at the world and for them that is absolutely fine and right. Then there are parents, like myself, of children who may never talk themselves and who have extremely high care needs and require round the clock care, diagnosed with the same condition, yet living very different lives. For those families, and I say families because it affects everyone not just the autistic child or adult in these cases, autism is a huge disability and they have a right to voice that too.

Here is a good example of how things have changed:

Six years ago when my son was just four, screaming all day, smearing, non verbal, still in nappies and attacking me I would read posts on support groups which read ‘Help My child is always in meltdown, attacking me and stimming. I’m exhausted and struggling.’ I could identify and I would say so. So many others said similar and the person posting was validated in their struggles while a few would give some ideas of things that had worked for them. Everyone wanted to help both the child and the parent but at no point was the parent made to feel awful for struggling.

Fast forward six years later and the same post in the same group gets very different comments because things have changed. We have been told by autistic adults how much they need to stim and how we need to accept them for exactly who they are and embrace their differences. While that is absolutely right it has also lead to parent bashing and now the same parent gets comments such as ‘how dare you make this about YOU!’ They are called a martyr mum for struggling and some even go as far as to threaten to report them for abuse claiming the child is struggling because they are such an abusive parent. What then happens is the parent feels worse than ever, even less equipped to support their child and even more isolated than before.

Then there is the cases of genuinely concerned parents desperate to help their struggling children asking about therapies in order to help their child make friends, communicate better or cope better in school and they are jumped on by autistic adults who were damaged by certain therapies as a child and who say the parent isn’t accepting or loving their child as they are because they want to change them.

We are fast reaching a point where parents are no longer allowed to be human, or ask for support or want to help their autistic child. We are no longer allowed to mention anything that even hints that our child struggles or that they have any difficulties or we are accused of ableism.

Apparently I am not politically correct and ableist by saying my son has severe autism, he is non verbal at ten, not toilet trained and has the academic ability of a baby. However that IS exactly what he has. He has low functioning autism and his reports even state ‘severe mental impairment’. Stating that he won’t get married, have children, live independently and need 24 hour support all his life is suddenly taboo and offensive because his autism is just a different way of looking at the world and nothing more. According to some self advocates I should have my son removed from my care because I dare to say his autism is a disability. Apparently none of his difficulties are actually his autism and all other conditions. They say my attitude is what disables him and not his autism.

We need the voices of autistic adults, as parents we need to know what to avoid and how best to support our children BUT we need to also be allowed to struggle too. The seesaw of acceptance has to swing both ways.

For a long time parent voices out weighted those of autistic self advocates and that was wrong. Now I feel we are in danger of swinging the opposite way and parents who are sleep deprived, heartbroken at watching their child self harming or struggling with suicidal thoughts, or just exhausted by the same ten seconds of a video on replay for 8 hours, are vilified for daring to say autism can be difficult.

Can we take autism acceptance too far?

If we continue to see it just as a different way of thinking or seeing the world we are in danger of losing educational support for so many struggling children and throwing them into mainstream because ‘autism is not a disability’.

We are in danger of losing vital financial help for families because they are too afraid or programmed not to admit their child’s struggles.

We isolate struggling parents leading to an even bigger chance of vulnerable children being abused and parental suicide.

We cut back vital adult services for those who need it because we see anyone with autism as just different and not therefore in need of support.

We need a balance and an acknowledgement that autism is experienced differently by different people and that’s ok. Some need very little support while others need much more and that includes parents as well as autistic children and adults.

Until we accept that the balance of autism acceptance will never be right.

When Little Ears Hear More Than They Ever Should

Last summer I showed my then 9 year old how to answer my mobile phone. Her twin brother was having major seizures and she wanted to help me. I tought her to answer and when possible pass the phone to me. Despite being autistic she worked it out and did exactly what I needed her to every time.

She was proud of herself and felt like she was helping.

I was proud of her too.

In the last year she has started to answer calls on the home phone too and is doing a great job of saying who is calling and passing the phone to me when needed. It’s a huge life skill and one which she has been excelling at. Up until today though I had no issues with her answering any calls.

Today I was driving with just the two of us in the car. I was on my way to collect her friend with her for a play date. Not long before we arrived at her friend’s house my mobile phone rang and Naomi readily answered it. Unfortunately it was a call she should never have heard.

Naomi’s twin brother is sick, very sick in fact. He has a brain tumour and is about to have invasive surgery followed by treatment. While I have spoken to Naomi about this in ways she understands (she describes his tumour as slime in his brain) the phone call today was one she should never have heard. Apparently the call started by asking if it was the family of Isaac. Of course my daughter answered ‘yes’. The caller then said that Isaac was to come to hospital immediately to be admitted for an undecided period of time so that he could have some urgent tests and then surgery on his brain. I don’t in any way fault the hospital as they had no way of knowing they were talking to a ten year old but the things said in that call were not ideal for little ears.

The day before I had taken both my children to another medical appointment. This time it was a community paediatrician who had never met my children before. Both of my ten year olds had to sit though a very long conversation between myself and that paediatrician while I outlined my concerns about them both. While the conversation was necessary, once again it wasn’t suitable for little ears.

So many children with additional support needs are hearing things that little ears should never hear. They are in meetings when adults discuss concerns, missed milestones, social difficulties and medical issues about them all whilst their ears can hear. I’ve been talking to my daughter so much about this as I try and help her work through her issues but as she says even sitting in a waiting room isn’t ideal: ‘Even if I was outside waiting or in class it wouldn’t matter as I would still know I am being talked about mum.’

Children hear a lot more than we realise. They overhear phone calls, hear discussions of adults while they play and they hear when medical staff mention things. They hear above TV, YouTube and other background noises. They pick up vibes, atmospheres and worries. Sometimes they even answer calls you would prefer they hadn’t.

I’m trying to help my child process the fact her twin brother is ill but now I need to help her understand and process things she has heard that she really should be protected from.

What goes into little ears changes children. Some of those words become their inner voice, other repeat loudly like an echo for years to come and others affect their self esteem for the rest of their lives.

I’m not a huge advocate of sheltering children from life completely. I don’t think that helps prepare them for the world they will live in as adults very well. However I am a huge advocate of protecting little ears from things that they are not ready to hear yet because their minds are not fully ready.

Right now I am having to work through some difficulties with my ten year old because her little ears heard more than they really should have. Sadly I am not alone.

We put parental controls on technology to prevent little ears from hearing words we don’t want them too, we have children’s TV channels designed to protect vulnerable children from the adult world yet we put our most vulnerable addition needs children in situations daily that cause their little ears to hear more than they should.

Isn’t it time we thought of a better way forward?

A letter To The Parents Of A Struggling Child

Dear parent,

I know at times you feel so helpless and alone as you watch your child struggle. When we give birth and hear our babies cry for the first time from that moment on we want to help them and make everything right for them.

We don’t want them to be ill.

We don’t want them to be unable to eat.

We don’t want them battling for breath.

We don’t want them in pain.

We don’t want them to be the last to meet milestones.

We don’t want them emotionally or physically or socially struggling.

There is something about watching your child struggle that tears your heart in two. That feeling of uselessness, helplessness, having no control over things. That feeling that you should be the one to fix it all for them, comfort them, make it all better…but you can’t. That feeling of not being able to meet your child’s needs, whether that’s feeding them, holding them, carrying them or teaching them. That feeling of having to accept help for the sake of your struggling child.

I’ve been there too.

I know that feeling of failure well. That gut wrenching feeling as a parent when a nurse, therapist, teacher or doctor is the one that gets your child’s first eye contact or enables your child to say their first word. I understand that feeling of being robbed of something that should have been your privilege, not theirs. I’ve experienced that feeling of despair, the wanting to give up, the inadequacy that comes with having a child who is struggling.

I’ve cried so many tears and I’m sure you have too.

No-one wants to be the parents of the child who isn’t talking when all their peers are. No-one wants to be the parents of the child who has failed their six week check up, two year check up and even their pre-school check up. It’s a kick in the teeth for all the hard work and investment in your child when all they see is still a struggling child.

I know the fights. The fights to prove you are a good parent and your child’s struggles are not due to neglect. The fight to get your child help. The fight to be listened to. The fight for the right educational environment for your child to thrive. The fight for basic equipment to help. The fight for support. The mental fight to get through each day.

I know the fears: for the future, for their education, because they are so vulnerable.

When you are the parent of a struggling child it means you struggle too.

Too many judge.

Too many are ignorant.

Too many refuse to understand.

Too many ignore.

Having a struggling child is lonely. It’s isolating. It’s heartbreaking.

But I also know you are doing everything you can and more. Your determination, courage and strength shines through you. No-one could love, encourage or support your child more than you do.

You’ve got this.

My child struggles too. Their struggles may not be the same ones your child faces but that doesn’t matter. We are still in this together.

Stay strong my friend. There will be better days ahead.

Your child may be struggling but that’s not your fault. Hold your head high and show the world who you are.

You are not a failure for having a struggling child.

You are not to blame.

You are a wonderful parent.

Never ever forget that,

Yours,

A fellow parent of a struggling child.

My Disabled Child Is Still A Child

Before I had children of my own I genuinely thought parents pretty much stuck together. I mean after all aren’t we all in the same situation struggling with lack of sleep, worrying for our children’s future and tidying up toys every day?

Then I had a disabled child and I discovered that somehow that changes things.

Other parents no longer talk to me about standing on Lego because they assume I won’t relate since my child can’t play with Lego.

Other parents don’t mention all the activities their child does after school and how they feel like a glorified taxi driver taking their kids to dance, swimming and karate. They know my child isn’t able to do these things so they don’t bother to share about them with me.

Other parents don’t message me for advice even if my child is older than theirs because they assume I won’t know anything about normal child development since my child is disabled.

I could go on. I’m sure you get the point though.

There is an assumption by other parents and society in general that my disabled child is somehow not really a child like other people’s. They assume my parenting is nothing like theirs.

So let me tell you something very important: disabled children are still children.

They still have toys.

They still watch TV.

They still try and get away with more time on technology than they should.

They still turn their nose up at sprouts, throw toys in frustration and demand all our time.

They also outgrow clothes and shoes quickly, lose teeth at the same time as other children, go to school and learn, hate homework and catch the cold like other kids.

Yes every single child is unique, every life is different and my child struggles to do many many things other children do naturally (like speaking for example) but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear about your parenting issues nor does it mean I won’t relate.

You might be surprised to know we actually have more in common than you realise.

I have a disabled child. That may mean some parts of parenting are a little different to others but at the core my son is just a child like any other and I am a parent like other parents too.

Please treat me like any other parent. Please see my disabled child as a child just like yours.

We are all in this together and we have much more in common than we both realise.

Oh and my son may not play with Lego but I can still appreciate how sore it is to stand on. You have my sympathy there.

My Ten Year Old Son Doesn’t Know What Christmas Even Is

As his twin sister races downstairs eager to open another door on her advent calendar, excitedly counting down the days to Christmas Day, you watch TV flapping like any other day.

As your twin sister practices Christmas songs after school in preparations for her Christmas show in two weeks time you watch the same ten seconds of lifts on you tube and rock in your seat as you always do.

Christmas means nothing to you.

No letters to Santa, and definitely no visits to any grottos.

No decorating a tree with the family or even any concept of what tinsel is.

No singing Christmas carols or dancing to seasonal pop songs as they play in the shops.

It all means nothing to you.

Your world is oblivious to the hype, the busyness, the traditions that consume society at this time of year.

You would eat turkey and all the trimmings if it’s put in front of you, but you would equally eat any other meal presented too. It’s just food to you, nothing more, nothing less.

My autistic ten year old has no understanding or interest in Christmas. He is still consumed by his own world, dependent entirely on routine, not communicating verbally at all.

Honestly, some days that breaks my heart. I know we should not compare children as each child is unique and individual but at Christmas you want your child to be excited, happy, expectant. Instead my son is uninterested, unconcerned and unaware.

Christmas isn’t his ‘thing’. Neither is Easter, his birthday, the tooth fairy or any other number of occasions you can think of. None of it enters his world.

He won’t write any Christmas cards (he can’t write any letters let alone his name) and he likely won’t receive any either, family events and get togethers are too much for him so I stay home with him. The only Christmas event he will come to is the church service but even then he gets very upset because it’s different to how he perceives church to be. He doesn’t know Christmas carols and he wants the usual songs he is used to back.

He doesn’t like the changes.

He doesn’t like new stuff.

He doesn’t like Christmas.

I can’t change that. It’s who he is and how he is. I could cry my eyes out every day for years but it won’t change things. I’ve had a decade of crying and wishing things were different. I have accepted that Christmas just isn’t something my ten year old understands nor does he wish to partake in it.

Even if I bought him presents he would never open them. He’s never opened a birthday or Christmas present in his life.

I could pretend it’s all ok. I could move a tree near where he is and take a picture and pretend he’s part of it all. I could put seasonal clothes on him and imagine he chose them. I could buy and wrap stuff for him and dream that somehow the magic of Christmas would change him overnight. All that would do is break my heart more.

I don’t need that. He doesn’t need that.

So while I decorate my daughters bedroom with her and revel in her excitement, while I buy and wrap gifts for her eagerly looking forward to seeing her face on Christmas morning, while we sing and laugh together as we practice Christmas songs the other side to my life is that I am playing down everything as much as possible to keep my son at ease.

I walk a fine line of trying to celebrate and embrace Christmas with one twin whilst ignoring it’s very existence with the other.

My son has severe learning difficulties, severe autism and epilepsy. He can’t speak. He can’t care for himself.

He is full of life, full of fun and the love of my life.

But at ten years old he still doesn’t know what Christmas even is…and he most likely never will.