Postcode Lottery

I’ve always thought of myself as fortunate. Opportunities have landed in my path. My parents bought a house in the catchment area for a good school. My teachers saw to it that I got into a good university. That good education got me a job that I love. I have three beautiful children. My husband works hard so that I don’t have to choose between my career and spending time with my children. Childbirth aside, touch wood, I have never needed a night in hospital. I have not yet been reliant on benefits. We have been able to choose, get a mortgage for, and afford a deposit on, a perfect home in a stunning part of the world.

Benjamin looking contented, wearing a warm jacket in a SN buggy

Comfy in his new buggy

Now we have Benjamin, still, we are fortunate. The healthcare he receives is second-to-none. He gets all the therapy in the community that he needs. All the equipment that he requires is also provided (albeit a little slow to arrive at times). He attends a wonderful SEN nursery and will attend a wonderful SEN school. He has a dedicated pair of support workers who keep him safe (and give him many, many cuddles) whenever I am not with him. Social care-funded agency carers help us for six hours a week, Benjamin gets two nights a month in a specialist respite care unit, and we have the support of our children’s hospice whenever we need it. Benjamin gets disability living allowance, we have a car through Motability and a blue badge. Our house will soon be adapted to suit Benjamin’s needs and the local authority will fund 80% of the cheapest option as quoted by the cheapest supplier; moreover, the work will should be completed by the time we really need it! Yes, we had to fill out some forms and write some letters. Yes, we had to dig around to find out what we were entitled to and we had to fight a little to get some of that. Yes, once or twice I have had to write to my MP and the local paper. But, generally, we get what Benjamin needs and what we as a family need. We are indeed fortunate, or so I thought.

Benjy in his kitchen chair, with Caitlin sitting on his lap, her hand on his chest as if doing chest physio

Expert physio

Then, I started talking to other parents. Some families, in local authorities not too far away, get 12 hours nursing care a day. Some families get additional care in the school holidays. Some families received an automatic referral to psychological support to help them to deal with the trauma surrounding giving birth to a child with severe disabilities. Some families get twenty new syringes a day. Some families get liquid drugs so they don’t have to faff around crushing and grinding tablets to within an inch of their life to ensure they don’t block the feeding tube… I started to feel less fortunate. I started to feel jealous.

Then, I started talking to other parents. Some families’ only respite centre is being closed down. Some families have to self-fund essential equipment such as a suitable wheelchair. Some families can’t get a blue badge even though some days their child can’t get out of bed. Some families have to fight and fight and fight and go to court and pour every ounce of their energy and resources into fighting to get their child into a school that simply meets their needs. Some parents are forced to give up that battle, give up their career, and home-school their children. Some carers are carrying 50 kg children up and down stairs, or risking their backs lifting them into the bath because adaptations plans have stalled. Some families are crammed into a single room in a bed-and-breakfast because their local authority can’t find, won’t build, or refuse to adapt, a suitable property for their needs. Some children have seen half-a-dozen different paediatricians and never the same one twice. Some children have been discharged from all the services that might be able to help them. Some parents are accused of faking their child’s condition, or of poor parenting. Some are pushed so close to breaking point that they fear having their children taken away… Some families have their children taken away. I started to feel like the luckiest mother on earth. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

Why does it have to be like this?

Why do families at different ends of the same street, let alone different ends of the country, have to meet different criteria to get the same support? Why do families in very similar circumstances receive such vastly different levels of care (if any)? Why are we placed in these situations where we feel jealous, or guilty; where we have to compete? Why can’t there be a level playing field? Why isn’t access to support – health, education, social care, housing, advocacy – based on need and not on where you live, how deep you dig for information, how hard you’re prepared to fight, how well educated you are, who you know, who you can afford to employ, whether you are able to give up work, even whether you earn little enough to qualify for support (yes, it can work both ways)?

A circle of reusable nappies in a range of pastel shades

‘Why does it have to be like this?’ I asked Jenny Gilruth MSP at a recent round table discussion at the Scottish Parliament, Getting it Right for Parents of Children with Exceptional Healthcare Needs. She said I couldn’t expect everything to be centralised. But I’m not asking for provision to be centralised, I’m just asking for the rules, the criteria, the tick-boxes, the ‘decision making tools’ to be standardised. It could be as simple as saying ‘which area provides an example of good practice in terms of [insert essential service here]? Let’s employ their strategy across the board.’ How can it be so difficult to ensure, for example, that all children with continence needs should receive enough suitable continence products to meet their needs from the same age? Presently, some NHS boards provide pads from age three, others age five; some areas won’t supply pull-ups and others won’t supply cloth nappies; and some children get three pads per day while others get an unlimited supply. It should be as simple as every relevant organisation paying more than lip service to GIRFEC (Getting it Right for Every Child, in Scotland, or its English and Welsh equivalent Every Child Matters).

We might live at different ends of the country, but unlike some politicians, policymakers and bureaucrats, SEN parents do talk to each other. We know there are discrepancies, huge discrepancies. We share as much knowledge and as many tricks as we can to help each other out, to level the hideously uneven playing field we find ourselves on. We try to get around the borders that divide us and to fight as a team, while the system tries to make us compete to be the loudest voice clamouring for limited funding and limited support. We know it’s a postcode lottery, and we know it’s all our children that are losing out.

Lottery tickets, a pen, Euro notes and coins

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Just a cold

The males in our household have been stricken with a cold. My husband has adopted the standard attitude of shuffling around the house looking sheepish, occasionally being wracked by paroxysms of coughing that needlessly shake his entire body, and ostentatiously ironing handkerchiefs and boiling kettles for uncertain purpose. This in itself is pretty hard work for the females of the family (with the exception of the guinea pigs who seem remarkably unbothered by the whole thing).

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No preschool today

Benjy, however, takes it to another level. It usually begins with a sudden dramatic increase in secretions (i.e., snot). During his morning physio routine, a white froth starts pouring from his nose. He’ll need suctioning every half an hour, day and night, rather than twice a day.

He’ll be uncomfortable – as you or I would be – but he cannot tell me so. Instead, his muscles will tense, he’ll be stiff, hot, jumpy and irritable, making me fear a seizure. He won’t sleep, and neither will I.

After a couple of days the secretions will thicken and he’ll wake choking in the middle of the night. This is the scariest time, frantically suctioning a frightened boy to clear enough of his airway so that he can breathe. His heart rate rockets and so does mine. I try to remember that, despite all his complex requirements and specialist equipment, Benjamin is still just a little boy with a cold. I give ibuprofen and Calpol, drop Olbas oil on his pillow and place bowls of steaming water in his room.

Then the wheezing starts – ‘viral induced wheeze’ they call it. Although his secretions are clearing, his oxygen levels are dropping. So it’s sixteen puffs of his salbutamol inhaler a day – twelve at scheduled times and four to keep in reserve for that middle-of-the-night panic.

A week in, and when most of us would be starting to get over it, the rest of his system starts to respond. This is what would have put us in hospital last year but now we are (hopefully) equipped to deal with it at home. With Benjy – and this is typical of jejunum-fed children, I’m assured by our patient specialist gastrointestinal nurse on the phone – his output of stomach juices and bile increases dramatically. So dramatically that they can’t all drain out into a bile-bag, but end up being vomited out of his mouth and nose. Now I know all our kids are superheroes, but sometimes I really wish Benjy’s superpower wasn’t firing green slime out of his nostrils onto his poor unsuspecting support worker…

IMG_20171220_221317_051.jpgWith the vomiting comes an increased risk that Benjamin will aspirate his stomach contents into his lungs and cause a chest infection. Our amazing team of ‘rapid response’ specialist respiratory physios come to the house to assess him and take swabs for analysis. We embark on a cause of strong antibiotics in addition to the prophylactic antibiotics that he is on permanently through the winter, just in case. We put Benjy to sleep on his side (worse for his back, better for his lungs). I ‘sleep’ with the video-monitor inches from my face, ready to leap up when I hear him cough. I wonder how we’ll manage in the New Year when we move him to a downstairs room.

The antibiotics have their usual effect of (without going into too much detail here) producing nappies that require an entire change of clothes, several times a day. I resort to sitting him on an incontinence pad to save washing his chair, car seat, or buggy. And I double his daily dose of Imodium. But he goes 48 hrs between bile-vomits, which is an improvement. We feel safe to send him to our wonderful NHS respite centre for a couple of nights. I feel glad they will be dealing with the nappies. I keep my fingers crossed they don’t panic and send him to the hospital.

I don’t know how much it has cost the NHS to see Benjamin through one simple cold – providing us with a sats monitor, suction machine, catheters, nebulisers, inhalers, medications; giving us the expert assistance of doctors, pharmacists, nurses and physios. I know it’s cost our family about a fortnight’s sleep, two swimming lessons, one meeting about Changing Places toilets and a whole lot of Christmas shopping.

But for all of us, this is infinitely better than having Benjamin in hospital, splitting our family up and putting him at risk of catching all manner of other winter bugs. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved, and I’m grateful for the equipment and training we’ve been given and the trust that has been placed in us, to keep Benjamin safe at home. Team Benjamin has risen to the challenge, so far.

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On the mend

The long haul

The world is closing in around us. Around my son, his siblings, and me.

My children are all growing up so fast. I can hardly believe Benjamin is four – he’ll be starting school next year. My eldest is already a grown-up P1 girl and loving it. And my littlest is walking, running, and jumping with boundless energy. As a mother, I’m moving out of the cloistered new-born weeks for the final time. The world should be opening up with opportunities for all of us.

A three-year old boy, smiling, in a special needs buggy, wearing glasses, a woolly jumper and smart new blue boots with velcro straps

Pleased with his new shoes

Benjamin is doing spectacularly well. I won’t bore you any more with the medical interventions we’ve employed which have got us to this point. We’re just so chuffed to see him putting on weight, and length, and developing a personality (even if that is characterised by pretending to be asleep to get out of things he doesn’t want to do). I’ve had to ask for a new chair, a new stander, a new wheelchair, and new shoes – and I’m immensely grateful to have been supplied with these without question. He needs bigger nappies and that means a trip to Primark (no expense spared!) for bigger trousers. We are even starting to think about having to hoist him to protect our backs.

We’ve moved on from ‘He won’t survive his birth,’ and ‘He’ll likely not see his second birthday,’ through ‘He’ll be in and out of hospital until he’s five,’ to the gobsmacking (in a good way) pronouncement of our consultant last week: ‘He may well remain stable until he hits puberty.’ This is amazing! Every extra day with Benjamin is a bonus – so the prospect (fingers crossed, touch wood) of years more smiles and cuddles is just a dream come true. And this new-found, hard-earned, and still-surprising health should pave the way for him to get out and about in the world.

But. The world is closing in around us. Because the world isn’t built for us. Let me go back to the hoists. This might sound like a small change – but actually it’s a massive leap. The transition from lifting to hoisting is a tipping point. It marks the end of being able to take Benjamin anywhere, in a backpack, baby carrier, or buggy, to being limited to places that are wheelchair accessible and – if we stay for more than a few hours – have a bathroom with a bench and hoist. My mother-in-law has kindly invited us to holiday with them next summer – but by next summer I don’t even know what kind of accommodation we would be able to stay in. Certainly it won’t be long before we’ll have to pay over-the-odds for a wheelchair-adapted room or cottage.

Now toilets really aren’t the focus of this post, but they are a good marker of how inclusive and accessible our country really is: and there are only just over 1000 fully accessible Changing Places toilets that Benjamin can use in the UK (that’s roughly one every 90 square miles. That’s fewer than half the number of toilets in Wembley Stadium, as Our Inclusive Home so tellingly pointed out). Finally, thanks to the efforts of an incredibly dedicated band of campaigners, Changing Places did hit the mainstream news in recent weeks, and have been discussed everywhere from Facebook to the Houses of Parliament. But is this going to lead to change? Ikea and Wetherspoons are leading the way. Center Parcs are following suit. Yet most of the major supermarkets, cinemas, and department stores couldn’t give a ****, or so it seems.

A three-year-old boy in a special needs buggy, squinting into the sun, in front of a grassy lawn and a ruined castle wall, beyond which is a blue sea and sky

Getting out and about

So, the world is closing in around us, because if we want to go out with Benjamin we are very soon going to be limited to those 1000-odd places, including Ikea and Wetherspoons of course, so at least we can get a beer and some ödmjuk… Soon, our children’s grandparents are going to have to come to us if they want to see us, because we won’t be able to get Benjamin into their houses. I can’t imagine we’ll be able to camp for much longer. The number of friends we’ll be able to visit will become vanishingly small. I won’t be able to take Benjamin to try on those trousers in Primark, or to the cinema, on a long train journey, or to the zoo.

I’m readjusting my already readjusted life plan. In good ways – thinking about where Benjamin will go to secondary school – and in ways I’m not so sure about, like installing a modern wet-room in our characterful Victorian house, like wondering whether I’ll ever, realistically, go back to travelling the world for work. And I’m readjusting for my daughters too. I need to get them used to the long-term idea of having a disabled brother. Undoubtedly they will miss out on childhood activities – holidays abroad, camping trips, family hikes, even family days out on our local beach. Will Benjamin become a millstone around their necks when I am gone?

I have so many questions now. How will society treat Benjamin when he’s no longer a cute little boy, when he’s a hairy, hormonal teenager, or a grumpy old man? What on earth will he do all day when he leaves formal education? How much of an environmental impact do decades of disposable nappies have and is it worth fighting for an alternative? Will he get PIP when he turns 16? And, what if I die before him?

I don’t have the answers. I do know that these are not really questions about Benjamin but questions about society. Any problems we might face over the coming years are not because of Benjamin and his disabilities, but because we live in a world that values profit and popularity over people, that pays lip-service to equality but neglects to make reasonable adjustments towards inclusion, that celebrates diversity but assumes the only purpose of prenatal testing is to facilitate the eradication of ‘diseases’ such as Downs Syndrome.

To those who would say, ‘We warned you. You asked for this. You knew at 38 weeks what was coming. You had the chance to avoid all this so don’t come running to us complaining about the impact on your daughters and asking for a bench and hoist….’ No. NO. The value of my son’s life has nothing to do with the impact he has on anyone else’s. Nothing, nada, zilch. However many days, weeks, years we are blessed with, his life is 100% worthwhile. He has a right to life and a right to live life to the full, and it’s up to us – all of us – to make it work.

A four-year old boy, beaming, wearing a silly hat and surrounded by balloons that say '4'

Here’s to the next four years and beyond

Portrait of a three-year-old boy squashed into a brown corduroy coat and woolly bobble hat, looking grumpy

But do I have to go out when it’s snowing, mum?

So if I’m going to have to write a few more letters (Fort Kinnaird, Edinburgh Zoo, Dobbies, you’ll be hearing from me again), if I’m going to have to host a few more Christmas dinners rather than travelling to others’, if my daughters are going to learn first-hand the value of neuro-diversity instead of biodiversity, sobeit. We are, a thousand times over, the fortunate ones. We have three beautiful children, and the longer we get to spend in their presence the more blessed we are. I will cherish every minute, be grateful for every day, and fight for everything that is right. We’re in it for the long haul.

What should a four year old be?

At four, Benjamin should be a cute, tousle-headed, tearaway by now. In and out of the paddling pool all summer; under my feet all winter. Chattering nineteen to the dozen. Learning to pee on a ping-pong ball. Spoiling his big sister’s games, and being too rough with his little sister. Big enough to be making his own way at preschool; still just little enough to creep into my bed for cuddles. Except, according to the doctors’ first predictions, he shouldn’t even be here at all.

I wonder what Benjamin would say about what he should be?

“Well mum, I am definitely tousle-headed and I’m totally cute – and don’t I know it? You can see I’ve got an eye for the ladies, brunettes in particular. I give them a wink, a sideways glance and that lopsided smile and they’re smitten. But if you’re there, mum, I’ve only got eyes for you.

“And I do love the water. I might not be in and out of the paddling pool but I love it when you trickle the bathwater over my chest. It’s a rare treat that we go swimming – but when we do I can stretch out my stiff muscles like nowhere else. Please take me more? I know you’re nervous that you can’t support my head. But I trust you. Trust me? I’m lighter in the water and you might feel stronger if you try it.

“I know I’m under your feet all the time. My chair, with its sticky-out wheels and sticky-outer handle. My medicines, with their sticky drips everywhere. My tubes and wires, always getting tangled and caught up. I know it takes you longer to do everything, because you can’t just potter around the house, you have to take me with you, moving me from room to room, chair to chair. Your constant shadow. I love to be your shadow. I love to watch you work, listen to you hum along to the radio. I love it when you let yourself have a little dance. I wish you would dance more (although I wish we didn’t have to listen to Radio 2 all the time).

“I might not chatter but you understand me, mum, even though I don’t talk or even make baby noises. You know when my body language says I’m uncomfortable. You know when something has caught my eye. You know when I’m tired. I wish you would trust yourself more because you know. You’re my voice, mum. I know you’re tired of advocating, questioning, pestering, and fighting. I feel bad, mum, that you have to do all that for me. But I know you wouldn’t have it any other way. I know, when you’re in the mood, you love a good fight against the world.

“I know I’ll always depend on you to change my nappies, to feed me, dress me, bathe me, to make sure I get the right medicines at the right time, to do my physio and to clear out my lungs when I can’t cough for myself. Sometimes you just get on with it, silently: I’m just another task that has to be done. Sometimes you linger over it, taking the time to kiss my eyelids, to massage my feet. To drink in my special scent. I drink in yours too. You are my world.

“I love my sisters. I know each of them by sight, sound and scent. I hope they don’t resent me. I know that by my very existence I spoil more than just their games. I cherish the times when they come to me, lay their heads on my chest, and kiss me. But I love just to watch them too. They are so colourful, so shiny, so busy. I’m never bored when I am with them. I light up when Jackie gets home from school, or Caitlin wakes up from her nap.

“I hope you’re proud of me, mum. I work so hard. I know you are proud of me. I hear you tell people over and over again how good I am at holding my head up now. How I can look to the left and hold it. How I wave hello (but only you know that’s what I’m doing). I hope you know, mum, that at the end of a therapy session, when I’m so exhausted all I can do is dribble, that I’m proud of myself too.

“I know you’re scared to let me go to preschool, mum. You think ‘They won’t know him like I do. They won’t keep him safe. What if something happens?’ But I’m four now; within a year I’ll be at school. And we both need some space, mum, and you will feel less guilty about skipping my therapy if I’m getting it there too. I hope that might mean you have more time for cuddles. Because even though I can’t creep into your bed, I live for your cuddles. When my whole body is tense and fighting against itself, in your arms I relax. When you stroke my hair I feel special. When you rub my feet I feel like you and I are the only people on earth.

“I know this wasn’t in your plan, mum. But when does life ever go exactly to plan? Especially when you bring children into the mix. All I can do is live from day to day and I wish sometimes you would too; maybe then you would worry less, dance with me more, and cuddle me tighter.”

Four years of teaching from you, Benjy and I’ve still a lot to learn. Big cuddles from mummy on your birthday xxx

An earlier version of this article was highly commended in the Carers UK Creative Writing Competition 2017.

In the shadow of Storm Brian

“You on your own then?” (I hasten to add this isn’t a #metoo story; this was a genuine expression of surprise/concern).

“Well my husband will be here soon [before it bloody rains, selfish ****]. He’s cycling from Scotland.”

“Ah (eyeing the back end of a five year old that has already spotted a rabbit and is disappearing across the caravan park at the speed of light). He knows which side his bread’s buttered.”

“Well there wasn’t really room in the car for him anyway, what with all the medical equipment, and, erm, children. And wine.”

“Aye. I can see who wears the trousers in your house.”

And with that, the master of metaphor sauntered off to show me the only island of grass that was suitable for tents (i.e., not under water) in this ridiculously late part of the season. Is the end of October even in ‘the season’?

Once I had unloaded the boot, laid the tent out, and fed the girls an entire week’s ration of Quavers in a vain attempt to stop them walking goose shit into the car, said husband did arrive.

“How was your journey?” I asked. “Bit of a head wind. I can recommend the cake at the Chain Bridge Honey Farm.” Cake? You stopped for cake and left me here with three kids singing ‘the baby’s done a poo, the baby’s done a poo’ (thanks Nick Cope, we do all love you really) and a pile of goose shit, waiting for Storm Brian (a fitting name for Britain’s answer to Hurricane Ophelia) to piss all over us? AND you expect a space in the car on the way home??

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Nice weather for ducks

Miraculously, we got the tent up before the night’s deluge hit. Miraculously we cooked up pasta and reheated Bolognese sauce without setting fire to the tent, and fed it to the children without spilling too much onto the pristine (ha! Of course we didn’t clean the tent before putting it away last time – it took us a fortnight just to get it dry) groundsheet.

After tea we got Benjamin ensconced in his mound of pillows and snuggled in his sleeping bag with a few blankets thrown in for good measure (think ‘The Princess and the Pea’ but with an inco-pad and a bobble hat on) and then the two still very excited girls snuggled into their sleeping bags. One of the advantages of camping at this time of year is it’s at least dark when you put the children to bed so there’s more of a chance of them sleeping. On the other hand, if one of them decides to play boobie-tennis and sing Old MacDonald all night long it can seem like a VERY long night. Time to grab a quick shower before the party…

_20171102_223107.JPGYou know you’re in for a treat when the campsite bathroom comes fully equipped with a mop and a bucket of stinking water… Actually the showers were wonderfully hot and remarkably clean and despite the lack of any form of screen or curtain only a small river escaped into the rest of the room. Which I managed to drop my pants in. Every. Single. Time.

“How did you get on last night?” asked the site manager (somewhat smugly, I thought). “We all stayed dry!” I said, thinking this was quite an achievement given the torrential downpour that had lasted all night (and omitting to mention my pants). And certainly an improvement on our first night here last year… “Forecast has changed,” he smirked, “Storm Brian’s been delayed until today.”

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Storm Brian has been delayed…

I hurriedly put the kettle on for what might be our last cuppa before the Great Flood. Then followed the usual debate: “How can a kettle take this long to boil?” “We can’t be running out of gas already?” Gives gas canister a shake. “How do you tell if a gas canister is getting empty?” “Weigh it.” “We haven’t got any scales.” “Maybe it’s just too windy.” “Maybe you filled the kettle too full.” Kettle eventually boils and we are none the wiser as to why it takes so long to do so when camping, but the gas canister never appears to quite run out.

Children washed and tea drunk, we embarked on our ‘holiday activities’. As the days passed and the mud deepened, the site owner strove to prevent anyone getting their vehicles stuck, by parking increasing numbers of caravans over the roughest parts. I understand the intention, but the result was that we had to drive – slowly enough not to hit any of the protruding parts of said caravans, yet fast enough not to get stuck in the mud – in an increasingly complex set of manoeuvres like something out of the computer game Worm, where you end up going round in ever tighter circles until you run into your own tail.

But with a bit of perseverance, a bit of swearing, and some very muddy feet we managed to get out and about. Our first place of shelter was Barter Books. After we’d mistakenly followed Google into an industrial estate and turned around in Aldi then again in a carpet warehouse, we finally found our way into this warren of a secondhand bookshop in the impressive old station building at Alnick. We had a fantastic lunch in the ‘station buffet’ (I don’t know many station buffets that do thrice-cooked chips) and then the girls and Daddy went book shopping while Benjy and I sat by the fire . Caitlin was enthralled by the model railway running around at ceiling height, playing peekaboo between the bookshelves. And my husband bought himself a tea towel, so everyone was happy.

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Budding train drivers in Barter Books

On Day Three we discovered the delights of driving to a beautiful beach and sitting in a nice warm car with the radio on drinking coffee and eating brownies / licking an enormous lurid green ice cream with a flake in it (natch), according to taste, with big thanks to Benjy and Caitlin for falling asleep on the way and giving us an excuse for such behaviour. Eventually we braved the beach, and the winds, and despite Jackie’s initial uncertainty that her ears would stay attached to her head, we were rewarded with a simply breathtaking view and plenty of mud to play in.

Back in the shelter of the campsite we had half an hour or so before tea to indulge the girls in stalking some wildlife, and to indulge ourselves in the cuteness that is a toddler starting to speak in sentences. “Wabbits!” “Wheredawabbits?” “Wabbitshere!” “Wabbits!” “WabbitsHERE!” “Mama, WABBITSHERE!” … “Wabbitsgone…” sniff… “Wabbitsawgone”. Teatime girls. “No. NO. WudgafudgaWABBITS.”

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Stalking wabbits

On Day Four we were joined by an old friend and his daughter. Having as usual forgotten how ridiculously busy England can be on a sunny (if very breezy with a threat of rain later) weekend in the school holidays, we cheerfully set off for the picturesque village of Low-Newton-by-the-Sea. Selected by my husband on the grounds of its ‘wheelchair accessible nature trails,’ it was only when we passed a sign advertising The Ship Inn and Brewery that I realised the true reason we were visiting. Nonetheless it was a very picturesque village with a very picturesque pub serving very lovely food including some thoughtful children’s options. I slightly marred the picturesqueness for everyone else by changing Benjamin’s nappy on the village green, but you can hardly expect a cramped mediaeval pub at the end of a dead-end road on the Northumberland coast to have a Changing Place…

We did manage a stroll through the nature reserve, my husband and our friend taking the girls further along a rather less-than-accessible path to the beach whilst Benjy and I sheltered in a hide and did his physio. The hide was decorated with statistics of bird sightings and identification charts for everything from a wren to a golden eagle, but we managed a sum total of a solitary black-headed gull (everything else presumably still sheltering from Storm Brian).

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Really not into birdwatching

Storm Brian having finally passed, although I’m not sure exactly which portion of the wind and rain could be attributed to him, and left colder air in its wake, our final night in the tent was spent frantically trying to keep warm, and frantically checking that the sleeping children were warm enough, without cooling them down by opening their sleeping bags (not a problem for the girls because they always manage to kick their sleeping bags off anyway, much as they do our duvet when sharing our bed back home).

We gave up on our usual sophisticated evening routine of sitting in the dark drinking wine out of plastic mugs and eating salt and vinegar crisps, because the groundsheet was just too cold to sit on, and retired to our sleeping bags. Five minutes after my husband had fallen asleep next to his whisky, Caitlin awoke demanding milk. It was impossible to fit both her and me into my sleeping bag, so we spent the night squirming underneath it, with either my bottom or hers sticking out into the cold night air depending on which breast she was attached to. Suffice it to say, if that had been the first night and not the last, there would have been no nights two, three or four. But at least it justified the number of blankets and woolly hats I had packed.

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After a breakfast of instant noodles and leftover cake, our wonderful friend took the girls on an ‘adventure’ (i.e., another wabbit-hunt) to enable us to pack up (i.e., argue) in relative peace. If anyone has invented a method to remove all the contents from a tent, pack the tent up, and stow the tent in the bottom of the car boot underneath all the other contents, in the rain, without everything getting soaking wet in the process, please let me know. However, thanks to the fact that we are now experienced campers (having been twice this year), said watering of all our equipment was achieved in double-quick time and we even found room – and the good grace – to fit my husband in the car on the way home. As Bugs Bunny himself would say, “That’s all folks.” Until next year.

When you love church but your child hates it

The Christian Church is far from perfect.

I, and my family, are so lucky to have found in St Anne’s a small branch that is growing, thriving, outward-focused, community-centred, accepting, caring and inclusive. We are fortunate that Benjamin, although ‘complex,’ is not ‘challenging.’ Yet I am confident that, even if he were noisy, disruptive, violent, or anxious, our church community would do everything in their power to welcome us; that they would see this as a shared problem to solve, not a personal problem to ignore.

This isn’t always the case. It’s not easy being a SEND parent, and the Church can be a great support – but it can also be a challenge or even a hindrance. I’ve been asked this week to share an anonymous post written by a fellow SEND parent and a fellow Christian (if I am honest, a more committed Christian than I, who lives and breathes the Spirit in her life and in her writing). I am both saddened and excited to share this post.

Saddened that not everyone is treated they way we have been – with gentleness and compassion.

Excited that through sharing these words I may be able to help encourage and promote change in the church and elsewhere. Every group – perhaps especially every church – can always do more to avoid becoming complacent, cliquey, and to foster inclusion for all members, especially those who no longer show their face or raise their voice.

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“My faith means everything to me. Church has always been a huge part of my life but now I wonder if I should continue going.

I went faithfully every week before I had children. When my daughter was born I continued to take her from the first Sunday she was born. She remained with me in the service until she was toddling and then she attended the crèche where I took turns helping out.

Everything was going well until it came time for her to leave crèche and start going to Sunday school instead. I went with her for the first few weeks but she really wasn’t enjoying it and I reasoned with myself she was perhaps still too young or just struggling with the change.

I spoke to the person who was running the crèche and they agreed my daughter could stay in crèche a few months longer. We tried again but she still hated Sunday school so I would bring toys with me and keep her in the service with me. In the beginning it wasn’t too bad. She would look at books, play with her happyland figures or sit on my knee for a cuddle.

Then she started getting bored and disturbing the service so I would stay in for the worship and slip out to the foyer with her and her brother for the rest of the service. If I am deeply honest I hated it. I hated the fact I was no longer included or could listen to the sermon. I was upset my children did not like Sunday school and that all of a sudden I seemed invisible.

I have had church in the foyer for six years now. My daughter is now 9 and still hates Sunday school. But something has changed: not only does she hate Sunday school she now hates church completely.

At 5 she was diagnosed with autism. I used to be able to stay in the service for the worship but now that stresses my daughter so much she screams. The music is so loud, the church is so busy and the lights are so bright. I rarely manage through the first song before I find myself back out in the foyer with my children because my daughter is crying and screaming.

I loved church for years but now my daughter hates it and I am heartbroken.

My eyes have been open to things I never noticed before. It seems churches want children who will take part in nativity plays, sing choruses with actions at Easter and fully engage in summer holiday clubs. They want children who can fit in with the programme, who require no additional support and who respect the volunteers. They want the children who run enthusiastically into the hall when it is time to go and bring out lovely crafts to show their parents when the sermon is finished.

What about the children having church in the foyer like mine? Children who find church difficult, who find social situations a huge challenge, who get overwhelmed by noise and crowds and change.

The very mention of going to church now makes my daughter anxious. She recently told me she doesn’t feel welcome there at all.

That broke my heart.

No amount of toys or technology or books can convince my daughter to come to church with me any more. Bribery has lost its appeal now and I fear I am damaging her spirit by forcing her to come against her will.

Yet my faith means everything to me still and I want to be in church.

I am broken hearted that church is not the place of love and acceptance to my child with autism that it should be.

Until that changes I have to put her first. So from now on I won’t be at the place I love on a Sunday anymore.

My daughter will be happy. I am heartbroken.”

What a difference a drug makes

I’ve often joked that Benjamin is my easiest child. At least, alongside a five-year-old who will burst into tears if you suggest she watches CBeebies instead of Youtube (or, God forbid, actually turn the TV off), and a one-year-old who will literally climb the furniture to get at anything she shouldn’t have.

He doesn’t answer back. He doesn’t scribble in Sharpie all over the sofa, or helpfully make a trail of wood shavings from the guinea-pigs’ hutch to the kitchen. In fact a lot of the time, day or night, he’s barely awake…

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‘Just resting my eyes’

Maybe he exhausts himself working against his dystonic muscles? Maybe he’s out of sync, and waking lots during the night? Maybe he’s not really sleeping, he’s just pretending so he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to? He certainly seems to have a stubborn streak (no idea where he gets that from). No matter how much you try to wake him up, he just won’t have it. His heart rate drops and his temperature with it. He’ll sleep for 48 hours, wake up for an afternoon, then doze off again before bed-time. Keeping him warm with blankets, hot water bottles, body heat or whacking the heating up to max helps a little. Nothing seems to stir him.

Well, change is in the air – or in a little packet of pills. One simple drug has made him into a different boy! Based on some slightly anomalous blood results during previous hospital admissions (par for the course with Benjamin, who has never had a normal result in his life), a couple of months ago we were referred to yet another team (on top of neurology, respiratory, gastrointestinal, ENT, haematology, immunology, and the enigmatic ‘medics’): endocrine. The hormone doctors. They did several more blood tests and – surprise surprise – most of Benjamin’s results came back ‘borderline.’

One of the tests that came back borderline was a marker of the functioning of his thyroid gland. The thyroid produces hormones that, among other things, increase the metabolic rate, speed up the heart, increase body temperature, and regulate sleep.

So, just as an experiment, Benjamin has been prescribed a small daily dose of one of these hormones – thyroxine. And – once we’d explored with the gastro team how exactly to give the tablet through a feeding tube (guess what, they’ve never had a child like Benjamin needing this drug before… ) – the results have been astounding! His heart rate is no longer clinically low. His temperature is practically normal (as we come into winter that’s a big worry off my mind). And he is awake! He now maintains a relatively regular sleep cycle – he sleeps at night, has a nap around the middle of the day, and a lot of the rest of the time he is awake!

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‘Morning everyone!’

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‘Just because I’m awake doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it’

Crucially, being awake means Benjamin is aware of what is going on around him. He can observe, interact, and learn. His latest report from preschool reads: “What a difference in Benjamin this term! Benjamin … enjoys play experiences and interactions with his peers … has been showing clear signs of engaging more with those around him. He appears much more alert and aware.” And, as they continue, “When well and alert, Benjamin can explore cause and effect. There is more body language and less passive behaviour.” I’m sure we all often wish we had a few more hours in the day. Benjamin has literally gained a few more hours every day, thanks to one tiny tablet, and with pretty minimal side effects (just don’t mention the nappies).

And being more awake means he’s (ever so slightly) more mobile, more able to clear his secretions, more able to keep his feed moving down in the right direction. This is one of a number of small changes – regular chest physio, prophylatic antibiotics, the switch to a G-J tube which has dramatically reduced his reflux and consequent aspiration of feed into his lungs – which have helped keep him out of hospital (touch wood) over the summer. Now we just have to see if they will be able to hold firm against winter’s onslaught of bugs (touch more wood… can I get some more wood from somewhere?).

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Thank goodness for Shane the log-man

He’s still my cuddly, snuggly boy, but now we also get to see his beautiful brown eyes! We often even get a wave and a smile. Yes, he’s still tired and grumpy by the end of the day (show me a preschooler that isn’t. Or preferably a five-year-old, an eighteen-month-old and a husband). The drug deemed ‘worth a try’ has turned out to be the drug that’s making all the difference, not just to Benjamin’s health, but to his development and enjoyment of life.