Ten things you may not know about SEN parents

This post was written for the #SEND30daychallenge, day 2: ‘Ten things you don’t know about…’ I’ve changed it to ‘Ten things you may not know about…’ because I’m sure some of my readers – especially those who are SEN parent themselves – will know every one of them! What would you add?

  1. We are brave. This might be different for everyone, but I hate making phone calls – in fact, unless it’s to my mum, the thought of phoning anyone terrifies me. But that’s a fear I face head-on every day: scheduling therapy sessions, rescheduling outpatient appointments, ordering prescriptions, organising respite, chasing transport providers, … Not to mention that we face life-and-death decisions head on without flinching (at least until after its all over).
  2. We are warriors (or at least terriers). We will stop at nothing to get our children what they need. Healthcare, education, support, a diagnosis, a pair of boots that fit, a medication that works, toilets they can use, playschemes they can access. We will keep on fighting, bruised though we are, because the fights never end. And because we’ve got in the habit, we are often found fighting other people’s battles as well. If you’ve got a battle needs fighting, ask a special needs mum.
  3. We live in a state of perpetual organised chaos (or should that be chaotic organisation?). Yes, I have a row of files labelled ‘medical,’ ‘education,’ ‘direct payments,’ ‘charities,’ ‘equipment,’ etc., but I also have a pile of papers several feet high waiting to be filed in them. Yes, I have a diary, and a calendar, and a to-do list on my phone, and a paper to-do list, and a list in my head, but sometimes things don’t get done because they are on the wrong list, and sometimes things don’t get done because there simply isn’t enough time (see also point #9).
  4. We are physically strong. Because we have to be. Benjamin is 19 kilos and he’s not getting any lighter. His buggy weighs a similar amount and needs humping in and out of the car boot daily. Chairs, benches, suction machines, crates of specialist milk, … who needs a gym?
  5. We spend a lot of time on Facebook. But we’re not (always) watching videos of cats rollerskating or uploading our holiday snaps. Social media is an amazing support network and a source of information. Some of our best friends we may never have met, but we are there for each other across the ether. So if we’re not asking a question or ‘venting’ about how crap the system is, we’re probably answering a question someone else has posed, or giving a virtual hug at a time they need it most.
  6. We feel guilty all the time. Guilty that we’re not doing enough therapy with our SEN child. Guilty that we’re not making home-cooked meals every night. Guilty that we’re not giving our other kids enough attention. Guilty that we’re spending too much time on Facebook. Guilty that we’re wasting time feeling guilty…
  7. We have wet wipes and muslins in every room of the house. Nappy explosion in the bedroom? Check. Bile-bag leakage on the sofa? Check. Food-throwing meltdown in the kitchen? Check. I should have got shares in Pampers.
  8. We live on coffee, chocolate, and wine (or gin). Every time anyone comes to my house, be they friend or therapist, I ask them if they would like a coffee. Please, please say yes – then I can have one too.
  9. We spend less time on self-care than we should (see also #8). We eat on the go. We sleep with one eye open. We don’t do enough cardio (unless you count running upstairs to get another clean nappy), yoga or mindfulness. My bras have lost their elastic, my hands are cracked and my toenails need cutting. Last week I got my hair cut for the first time since Caitlin was born (she’s eighteen months old).
  10. We slip up sometimesoften: I forget when it’s World Book Day at school, I forget to take a snack when I pick the girls up from nursery, I forget to brush their teeth, I go out without Benjy’s rescue medication, I go out without my keys, I go out with my dress tucked into my pants (if this is the case, please do tell me)..

    I’m sure I left my child around here somewhere…

  11. We know our children better than anyone. The medics might be able to tell from his sats and his blood tests that he’s ill, but I could tell 24 hrs earlier from his demeanour. I know his normal colour, his normal temperature, his normal muscle tone, his normal eye movements… I can recite his daily medications and feed regime in my sleep. I can recall all his hospital admissions quicker than you can find them in his file. We are grateful to the doctors that listen to us. We trust the ones that ask us questions. We remember the ones that ignore us.
  12. As you can see from the above, we are a mass of contradictions, but…
  13. … we are people too. We’re not superwomen. We’re not scary. We might have less conversation-starters about Breaking Bad or Love Island (are those even things people watch? I haven’t a clue) and more about bowel movements and medication regimes, but we’d still love to chat – even if it’s just about the weather.
  14. We can’t count.
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Wet wipe emergency!

#send30daychallenge

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Therapy for two

To be honest, I’m terrible at making time to do therapy with Benjamin. A quick stretch while I’m changing his nappy. A couple of rolls when we’re getting dressed in the morning. Plonk him in his chair facing in a slightly different direction each day, give him some toys to look at and that’s about it.

To be honest, by the time I’ve done all the treatments that keep him alive – the inhalers and the nebulisers and the chest physio and n-p suctioning; by the time I’ve given him his medication six times a day and made up his feeds and checked his stoma and washed and dried all the syringes; by the time I’ve done the day-to-day essentials – washed him and dressed him, brushed his hair, changed his nappies, set up his sleep system, carried him from room to room, there doesn’t seem to be much time left for ‘therapies:’ the things that won’t keep him alive but will help him develop. The things that will stretch him, mentally and physically. They drop to the bottom of the list, somewhere between making sure everyone gets fed and catching up on the endless piles of paperwork that come with having a child with complex needs.

To be honest, putting him into shoes or splints or getting him onto a gym ball is quite hard work – he’s not getting any lighter or any more flexible. Getting him into his standing frame is really hard work. Sometimes even keeping him awake or finding a toy that grabs his attention is really, really hard. I’m scared of hurting his stoma, fearful of pulling out his feeding tube. I’m worried I might drop him!

And I don’t want to push him – we’ve spent too much time in and out of hospital to want to push him. Too much time wondering if his seizures could be caused by overstimulation. Too much time fearing that rolling around on the floor during physio would make his reflux worse and therefore make his chest worse. Two days a week he goes to nursery, which is brilliant but exhausting for him: there’s no way he’d manage any exercises on top of that. There’s usually at least one other day in the week he’ll have some kind of therapy anyway – a physio visit, or a session with the visiting teacher, and after 45 minutes’ intense interaction with them he’s shattered. Maybe he’ll be a bit off colour one day; another day he’ll have had a bad night and just need to sleep. And then it’s the weekend – surely he deserves a break on the weekend? Or is that just me?

Because Benjamin is classed as ‘life-limited,’ I justify it by the reasoning Saira Shah, author of the Mouseproof Kitchen, calls upon when speaking about her daughter, Ailsa, before she passed away at the age of eight. “What’s the point of giving her therapy which would give her 20 per cent more muscle tone when she’s 50? This is what she loves … being held, being rocked, being dangled upside down. I don’t see why she can’t have a life where she is just cuddled.” But for us this has degenerated into a life where he just sits and watches me work.

Our physiotherapist is wonderfully understanding. ‘Don’t see it as a therapy programme,’ she says, ‘you have enough on your plate. Just do it when you’re sitting with him anyway.’ But when am I ever ‘just sitting’ with him? When do I ever sit, alone or with my children? When do I stop rushing around and connect with any of them?

And then, then there are the girls. They are both part of the problem and part of the solution. It is so hard to find time to focus upon Benjamin, who just sits there passively, dozing, when there are two caterwauling bundles of energy, one stout and curly, one lithe and blonde, pulling you in opposite directions with opposite vociferous demands.

But, no thanks to my lax approach (and partly thanks to our sessions at the Bobath Centre), he’s getting good. He really is. He can look to both sides now – and hold it. He can sit straight and tall with only a minimum of support at his lower back. He can bring his head up with you from lying. He can hold his head up when you lean him sideways. I hadn’t really noticed until I was watching his physiotherapist working with him one day. It’s much easier to see when you’re watching from a distance. And suddenly I thought, hang on, I want some of that.

It was like a switch flipped in my head. Doing Benjy’s therapy isn’t a chore, to be got through as quickly as possible, to be ticked off the list. Benjy’s therapy isn’t in conflict with enjoying him – it’s time to enjoy him, to let him show me what he can do. It’s precious time to spend with him, revelling in his achievements, building a better connection. Just as I spend time with Jackie reading stories before bed, or building Lego. Just as I spend time breastfeeding Caitlin and pushing her on the swings.

I guess I’m starting to appreciate this a bit more now he’s getting older and I’m not necessarily with him 24/7. With his carers, nursery, respite, and time at Rachel House (not to mention time in hospital), we’re slowly dividing his care up between more and more people, which means less and less Benjy-time for me. I need to start claiming some of that time back in ways we will both enjoy and benefit from.

And could it even help me to slow down a bit? Instead of rushing around the house could taking half an hour to ‘just sit’ with Benjy also be a half hour for me to breathe, relax and regroup?

And could it actually be of benefit to his sisters too? Instead of leaving them in front of some uncensored crap on YouTubeCbeebies could we at least and watch Cbeebies together, in the same room, and talk about what we’re watching, while Benjy’s practising his moves? I could learn a lot from Benjy’s little sister, bouncing up and down on her tiptoes in front of his chair going ‘Jenjy – uh – uh – uh – Jenjy’ and demanding to have him lowered down to her height to play. Because that’s all his therapy is, really, play. It’s not arduous, it’s not unpleasant. It’s a bit of stretching out, a bit of rolling on a gym ball, a bit of singing nursery rhymes and doing the actions, a bit of looking at things he likes to look at. What am I making such a meal about? Why am I putting it off? Therapy isn’t in conflict with the cuddles, it’s a way to cuddle him more. We could all do with a few more cuddles in our lives – and Benjy-cuddles are the very best.

The best of both worlds

It’s a common complaint among carers of children with complex needs: I spend so much time being a nurse, being a therapist, I sometimes don’t get a chance just to be a parent. I don’t want only to interact with him through a feeding tube, a syringe, and a set of physio exercises in a pair of uncomfortable boots; I want to play with him, cuddle him, enjoy him like my other children, take his boots off, rub his feet and stroke his hair.

So much of our day is taken up with Benjamin’s immediate medical needs – chest physio, suctioning, administering medications, giving tube feeds; not to mention his personal care – nappy changing, dressing, bathing – that sometimes the benefits of longer-term therapy seem so far off, so intangible, particularly for a life-limited child, that it gets pushed to the end of each day and then forgotten.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate – so much – the guidance of our physio, speech and language therapist, community nurses and visiting teachers. I am so grateful to be able to keep Benjamin at home rather than in hospital. And I do want him to be the best he can be, now and in the future, of course I do. But sometimes I just want to be his mum.

What if there was a way to do both?

A way to do therapy that had immediate impacts as well as long-term benefits? A way that integrated therapy into everyday life? A way that combined therapy with play, and with communication? A way in which ugly equipment has its place, but sitting together on the sofa can be just as useful? A way in which tiny changes can make a big difference?

We’ve just spent six gruelling weeks travelling back and forth through the roadworks on the M8 to Glasgow’s Bobath Cerebral Palsy Centre, to take part in their Big Lottery-funded, Right Start Programme for children aged 2-5.

We did learn exercises we can do with Benjamin on a ball, on a bench, in a stander, when we want to and he wants to and we have time. But we also learned how to warm him up before exercising, so that he gets the maximum benefit with the minimum effort. We learned how to challenge his head control when picking him up, how to raise his awareness of his own hands whilst putting his jumper on, how to stretch out his hamstrings while changing his nappy, how to relax his fists while washing his hands. In short, how to be a mum and a therapist at the same time, without even thinking about it.

We learned how to use our own bodies to support him in different positions – how boobs and a belly can be more supportive than a chair and more responsive than a ‘memoryfoam’ mattress. How to do ‘peekaboo’ or to pretend we’re going to let him fall then catch him. How to play, or sit together, or even watch TV together, without feeling guilty that we’re wasting therapy time.

We learned how small changes can make an immediate difference. Simply checking his posture, rolling his shoulders back and opening out his chest when he’s seated in his chair or in his buggy can set off a chain of muscular adjustmentsthat help him to hold his head up better, to control his eye movements, and ultimately to interact more meaningfully with those around him (if, that is, he can see past his fringe). Immediate rewards that provide the impetus to keep going even when the long term goals seem so distant.

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It’s not rocket science. In fact I’m sure most of the things we learned could have been taught by our NHS physiotherapist or speech-and-language therapist. But the six weeks of intensive contact time we spent at Bobath would take them maybe a year to achieve with their overfilled, underfunded schedules, and it’s harder to make progress without momentum.

In actual fact, I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of what Bobath has taught us. In the thick of an intensive course, with three hours’ driving for each appointment, on top of two days’ nursery a week and the usual hospital appointments and home visits, none of us – least of all Benjamin – really had the energy to get home and practice much more than a few stretches before bed. But armed with a DVD and a personalised instruction manual (complete with comedy photos of Benjamin and I in all sorts of positions) I hope over the weeks and months to come we’ll be able to build on the improvements we’ve already seen in his head control and visual focus, his more relaxed hands and body awareness.

I can’t thank the team at Bobath Scotland enough, for putting up with me and my army of grubby children, for supplying a good cup of coffee each morning, for treating Benjamin with respect and for believing in his potential, and for encouraging me to cut his hair.

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‘If only there was always a nice lady to hold my hair out of the way…’


The Bobath Scotland Cerebral Palsy Centre is based in Glasgow. Their Right Start Project is funded for five years by the Big Lottery Fund. But they rely on fundraising for 85% of their income in order to keep doing the work they are doing across Scotland, from the Highlands to the Islands, supporting the 15,000 people in the country with cerebral palsy and related conditions. If you’d like to support their work you can donate £5 by texting HIGH05 £5 to 70070, or you can find details of how to donate at www.bobathscotland.org.uk/donate.