Seasons of Change

I see summers of small girls’ past, mine, the Glory’s and my decade old darling

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This post appeared  before the summer holiday, on Huffpost

 

The summer holidays are fast approaching. School will soon be out.

The weeks have been filled with trying to cram in as much paid work as possible, organising personal assistants, booking holidays and filling The Glory’s expectant cardboard box with university essentials.

This holiday is the beginning of huge change in our family. One will leave, one will go back into mainstream from special education, and one will enter her last year at a fabulous primary school.

My two girls, the first who has been stymied by acute anxiety, whose perfect 18 year old body she mistrusts, despises and longs to change.

The smallest, full of self esteem, whose body is unpredictable, whose muscles are not trustworthy. I am in awe of what she makes it do, through practice, persistence and sheer bloody mindedness.

My own menopausal body, which has thrown up surprises, moods and huge chemical imbalances. I am in awe of that too, and its production of three independent minded beings.

Perhaps it’s the sense of approaching change, but I am filled with deep unspecified yearning.

My go to strategy at such times is to ramp up activity (half marathon training anyone?) Add a couple of blog challenges, plan career development and start a few projects.

Experience tells me that distraction will work in the short term, but that carrying on at this pace will lead to burn out. The sensible part of me looks around for a cause.

This morning, when I woke up suddenly in the middle of a dream, I realized. It’s Pearl. It’s always Pearl.

In ten years of life together,this child has taught me plenty. We are inextricably linked. She needs me in a way that my other children simply don’t.

Someone once told me that when babies are first born they don’t know where you end and they begin. Having so recently been part of you, they think they still are. They quickly grow out of this stage and make bids for independence.

Pearl is one of the most independent minded people I know, she still seems to believe I am part of her. On tired days she gives me a spoon and uses her hand to guide mine to her mouth. She snuggles deeply into me when life is tough, as if trying to merge straight back through the skin and become part of me again.

I know Pearl’s body like I know my own. By 10 my other two were becoming private, dressing themselves and choosing clothes. Telling me if bits hurt.

I see all of Pearl everyday. Changing soiled nappies, noticing differences in muscle tone. Fighting tight calves into splints. Noticing her body preparing for approaching womanhood – I too don’t know where I end and where she begins. The smell of her hair, the feeling of her in my arms is always present.

Pearl, is non verbal but anxious to communicate. Gesture, vocalisation, the superb PODD book all used daily, permeate our lives. She though would prefer me to be her communication aid, and retains a simple belief in my psychic abilities, which are frankly non existent.

All of this strength of feeling and entanglement is now becoming muddled by her hormonal changes, which are leading to the normal mum/ daughter aggravation, further intensified by her need for me. She wants me, she wants to do it herself. She needs me so she can do it herself. It’s all very emotive.

This may go some way to explain my nightly dreams at present. Every single night Pearl talks.
it is always the first time. It is always realistic, her voice, slightly mangled consonants but clear words. It used to be “Mum”. Now it’s been replaced by sudden nouns describing where we are in the dream, followed by incredulity, growing vocabulary and a sense of wonder and relief.

And then I wake up.

Days filled by campaigning, explaining and ardently desiring equality and a proper acceptance of all, replaced by nights of yearning and longing, for my girl to turn to me and speak.

I see summers of small girls’ past, mine, the Glory’s and my decade old darling

Summers of the future shimmering in the distance.

How will my body change, will it remain healthy enough to carry on caring?

Will the Glory learn to love herself as much as I do?

And Pearl herself? Will my dreams come true, sounds turn to words? Will she live a long healthy life? Will her muscles age well allowing her a measure of independence?

Our bodies, perfect in their imperfections, changing with age and experience and fearfully and wonderfully made.

 

 

If you need extra support with caring commitments join the community at Carers UK

 

Zen and the Art of Extreme Parenting.

In which I wake up crying, and try to put it into words.

As you have been graciously following the inane ramblings of a parent carer, I thought you may like to join me on the next stage – how to stay calm while dealing with extreme  pressure to parent fully and effectively.

I have recently become interested in extreme sports and have been considering amazing feats of daring-do and endurance. Maybe this is an age thing (46 as our local paper was keen to pointlessly share) or maybe it’s a growing awareness that life is short.

I suspect it is more to do with the fact that jumping off the side of a bridge attached to an elastic seems a great deal easier than parenting my three children.

Before I start, can I just say that parenting is difficult. All parenting is difficult. Childcare is difficult. It can be tricky, keeping small people safe let alone moulding them into useful and delightful members of society. It can be boring. Anybody who has watched  a friend who is a party loving wild child turn into an exhausted zombie, unable to stay awake after 7.30pm, will know what a baby can do to a person.

My personal view is that if you get to the end of a day, haven’t killed,maimed or lost anyone and  you’ve all been fed, you are a successful parent. If the house is clean and tidy that’s a bonus. If you have completed an improving craft activity with child/children you deserve a medal. If you have managed to arrange some lemons in a ceramic dish, photograph it and put it on Instagram, you probably need professional help.

Let me tell you what parenting in extremis looks like. In my case, qualifying as an extreme parent, includes a preexisting tendency to depression, which is largely managed with careful monitoring. Add a lack of sleep, and constant physical exertion, so that you no longer have the mental resources to carry that monitoring out.

You will be responsible for a small non verbal person, with physical and some health and behavioural issues. (Let’s call her Pearl) She will be prepubescent and in thrall to hormones that she cannot understand or explain. As well as this you will have a filing cabinet (or two) of information on her to keep up to date and in order. Somehow you will also have the role of coordinating all her care, and communicating across disciplines.You may have a Family Support Worker who has roles that don’t appear to match her title, and both she and you are not certain of what they are. Social care ‘support’ will make you want to cry. You will have to travel across counties and sometimes at short notice to a vast array of appointments. You will absolutely not be able to keep up your professional role, and end up doing your husbands admin with a very bad grace.

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You will also be responsible for a 15 year old male of the species. He will cleverly have been harbouring Asperger’s Syndrome until the age of 11. There will have been many signs of this scattered liberally through his life, but as you are busy  extreme parenting the small person, you haven’t noticed. You will continue not noticing until he becomes suicidal at the age of 11, and is advised to leave school at the age of thirteen. You will be expected to deal with having a very sad stressed person at home for 18 months while receiving minimal support. You will lock up all the knives and medication,and live in a state of hypervigilism, realising that the one thing you want for your children, that they would be happy, is not under your control. You,my friend will have to deal with an extraordinarily unhelpful and overstretched CAMHS department, find a new school and ask for  one of the first EHC in the LA (and country). You will learn about autism, watch him become well adjusted and in tune with himself, and try to hold your nerve while he wants to move back into the very mainstream setting which caused him pain, for his A levels.

You now have to guide an 18 year old female, who has taken it upon herself to be The Glory of the clan, through extreme social anxiety, watch as she refuses all help and begins to spiral downwards into depression. At this stage base jumping looks like a walk in the park. Offering support while also giving her room to make her own choices, pushing her academically while recognising that her mental health being stable is so much more important, will be the most difficult balancing act you have embarked on. Her school will be limited in the support it can offer, counselling will be in short supply and variable, and CAMHS, well you have seen the help they offer already.

When you wake up in the morning wanting to cry, out of touch with your own needs and feeling that you, and you alone have caused this myriad of difficulties take heart. In your dreams you may have been a more, Little House on the Prairie type parent. Remember Laura Ingalls running through a sunny field? Do you also remember the lack of running water, decent sanitation and washing machine?

I see you, fellow extreme parents. I see you and weep for you, for your situation, and for the poor and patchy support you are receiving in your taxing, thankless dirty, painful jobs. I have had coffee with some of you, and railed against the system and your situations. I have lost sleep over a country that prioritises academic achievement over the good mental health of its children, and who makes accessing support so difficult that some of you just give up asking.

An older woman of my aquaintance told me that love covers everything, and smooths out any parenting mistakes you may make. I hope she’s right.

So, if you like me have accidentally become an extreme parent what do you do? I expect you are waiting for the Zen moment? I’ll let you know.In the meantime I’ll try to practice Pearlfulness TM and be grateful for Gilmour Girls on Netflix.

 

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If like me you are struggling with extreme parenting take a look at this graphic from Carer’s UK.

 

How to Win Friends and Influence People (L.A. edition)

In which the system is broken, and no-one applies common sense to fix it.

It is a New Year, time to look forward with hope at the exciting times ahead. Much as I’m trying to move forward with a song in my heart and a spring in my step (other cliches are available) I am having some difficulty.

Is this because my youngest daughter has a myriad of health, educational and physical challenges. Not entirely.

Is it because my eldest, The Glory, is beset by mental health problems and struggling to find her way through her tricky eighteenth year? Well partly.

Is it because Aspie teen is preparing to transition from a very supportive Special provision at GCSE back into the mainstream setting that caused him pain for A Levels (his choice) Well take your pick.

But actually the thing that is causing me the most stress, chaos and down right anger is my local authority and the way they choose to implement direct payments.

Have you heard of Direct Payments? They are an excellent idea for increasing independence and inclusion. In theory.

Pearl is entitled to support in our local community by a Personal Assistant.As her needs are quite significant, we are able to access 6 hours direct payments for  support per week in term time and 14 in the holiday.

We are able to use this money in a way that  supports Pearl. Initially she attended Rainbows with a Personal Assistant, and I had someone in to help with housework and ironing too. This was recognised as freeing up my time to spend, one to one with Pearl.

As a parent, you have to be very organised to benefit from this system.You have to keep good records (we have a separate bank account) and all receipts.This is all well and good, after all this is tax payers money and an account must be given.You have to find the PA, set up their contract, submit time sheets and pay wages. In effect you have become an employer.

Every year the situation is reviewed and every year you have to submit all the paper work. Our Local Authority regularly believes that asking a parent to submit all the paper work over a half term holiday, when the child in question is at home, with a week deadline, and veiled threats that benefits will be stopped if the date isn’t met is OK. It isn’t, and also it’s unnecessary and shows bad planning on their part.This however is not the thing that has riled me so considerably today.

Last year it was recognised, that we need more hours.It does tend to benefit the system if Carers don’t break. The money immediately started to flood into the account. Marvellous. Finding a PA isn’t instant. It takes a very particular person to work with my girl.They need to know how she works, what her medical needs are, how to communicate with her, and how to administer emergency meds amongst other things.When someone has been found they need to spend time working alongside us and/or the existing PA  and getting to know Pearl, for their peace of mind and ours. As I was increasingly stressed by my caring role I thought it would help to use some of the money for help round the house while the new PA was being found. But no.The system had changed without me being told.This was now a luxury and not allowed. I was a horrible entitled middle class woman for even suggesting it.

It took 6 months to get a new PA up and running alongside our existing (and absolutely marvellous) current PA. During this time the money was beginning to back up.It is absolutely not supposed to do this, because it proves that you probably didn’t need it anyway you grubby little scrounger (sorry I mean valued Carer) The new PA was good, but has not been able to fit her hours around what we need. More money backed up. I’ve been struggling with appointments for all three children and have not had time to source another PA-there is not a one stop PA shop where you can find them.More money backed up.

Pearl attends a residential  at her school  once a week, term time.Paid for by education,it supports her statement.It is awesome (and before you envy my luck it took two years of ‘negotiation’ with the same local authority to get it put in place).One morning while pondering PAs I had a brain wave, perhaps I could use this backlog as a one off, for Pearl to attend a few extra nights at residential? She loves it.As well as working on Activities for Daily Living (washing and dressing to you and me) she has club activities and spends time with her friends. We could afford three extra nights in total.I reckon she could do two nights once a month. the backlog would have been cleared, she would have benefitted, we would have benefitted. Sorted. In principle education would be happy with this, they are not used to billing parents directly, but if my LA gave us the go ahead, as it was effectively a one off they would explore it.

Well,I have to administer the accounts, find the support,pay the wage bills, train, sort contracts, organise liabilities insurance, and keep records.I am not however allowed to come up with ideas because I’m clearly incompetent. A meeting will be held, a panel meeting where this will be proposed. I am not allowed to attend. It’s  not my job and it is likely to be rejected because it’s not usually done.

As a parent this system, designed to support Pearl,has made me feel patronised, unsupported, disempowered. Guilty. Angry. Stressed.Undervalued and misunderstood.

I have to believe this isn’t the LA intention?

So what can be done?

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Avoid isolating parents.

It  is not enough to have a ‘Parent Partnership’  in existence and then treat parents in day to day transactions like naughty children who cannot be trusted.

Give each parent written instructions of what Direct Payments can be used for.Make it the same for all parents across the county, because do you know what?  We talk to each other.

Give each parent a fixed date annually in advance to produce the paperwork.

Put the use of payments in line with the adult service users agreement.

Give family support workers a clear idea of the system and the ability to implement it.As nothing is set in stone they basically have good intentions and no idea.

Remember that many parents have not had their own business, or worked in management positions,and they are under constant stress and probably functioning in sleep deficit.Give parents support to get the system up and running.

As long as the money is being used for the benefit of the child, ethically and legally let it be used.The system has put in in place because you,LA,recognise support is needed.So support.

One last thing.We know the system is being squeezed, we recognise your jobs are tough and unrewarding, but you get to go home at the end of the day,and retire.

Some of us are in this for the long haul.

 

 

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These boots.

In which my belief that the right footwear is the answer to everything is challenged.

Previously gentle reader, you left us on the wrong side of a two way mirror, enjoying all the benefits of early intervention.

All parents of  children with additional needs will know about time management. As well as the Child Development centre, we were fielding dozens of other appointments, sometimes on the same week, by a range of services, apparently unable to communicate with each other. Over and over again, the exact same questions. Not irritating at all. As I wanted to help the youngest, and as I had been The Professional on the other side of the clip board just a few months previously, I complied with all of them.

Have you ever read The Special Parents Handbook? Go and buy a copy now. Yvonne Newbold points out that the people sending the appointment are Public Servants. We are the public. They work for us. We can choose which appointments are beneficial, change times and ensure we don’t become overwhelmed.(Two appointments in one week may be doable, two in one day. No. Just no).

The latest appointment involved feet.I love boots and am a firm believer that with the right footwear anything is possible.The Physiotherapist must have been of the same mind as she gave Pearl a pair of the sweetest little white boots with pink laces. (A school mum thought they were designer) They were Piedro boots, and as well as being cute enabled Pearl to pull herself to standing. The appointment,and the department that gave us these beauties, has proved to be the bane of my life.

It started well. A fabulous, kind and experienced man, who turned out to be an Orthotist measured Pearl, looked at her gait, and discussed planning forward with her Physio. The boots arrived. They worked. In my mind now, Orthotics was a department that believed in multidisciplinary working, was patient centred and provided killer footwear. How little I knew.

At this point, as I have found so often,there was very little explanation of the service,what it was for and what else it provided. Every eight weeks or so, we were called in, measured, and new shoes were ordered. They were different colours! They were cute! We had choice! I loved it.

Half a dozen pairs of shoes in, Orthotist and Physio exchanged glances and said Pearl would benefit from  splints. For some reason, I assumed these would give extra support, help Pearl learn to walk and then be discarded. Taking Forrest Gump as my reference (Run Pearlie, run ) I imagined one day soon she’d walk out of them and into pair of ordinary shoes. (Insert hollow laugh here)

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For the uninitiated here follows a description of fitting a child with Learning Difficulties for AFOs (splints).

Mother enters Stage Left with child in buggy. Child is interested and curious, she knows the staff and the room has toys in. She wants to crawl around and explore. A new Physio enters Stage Right. The Orthotist bends the child’s wonky foot into a right angle with her ankle. The child is not keen on this turn of events.The new Physio waves toys and books in front of child. The child is unimpressed, but happier when the Orthotist releases her foot. Unfortunately he then returns with a metal bar and wet bandages for casting. Holding her foot at the correct angle, he skilfully wraps her foot below the knee.Mother is fascinated, child less so. As the plaster sets she begins to scream,the Physio waves a book,Mother sings  Twinkle twinkle little star (!?!) with a rising tone of panic. Orthotist cuts off  set cast (more screaming, more singing) and releases the little foot.Child is now crying real fat tears, and buggy, child and mother are covered in Plaster of Paris,as is most of the room.

I would love to say that being cast for splints gets easier with familiarity. I would love to say that.

Let’s go back to the first splint experience. Following Pearl shedding enough tears to wash the Plaster right back to Paris, we got to choose a pattern for the splints.This was more like it.  Design is much more my kind of thing.

Two weeks later we return.The lovely, experienced Orthotist is poorly and someone is covering.This someone doesn’t like me and has decided  I am a flippant idiot. He is very serious. I am very nervous. He shows me how to put on the splint, and tells me to try. I am shaking slightly. He raises his voice.

“No, no,no not like that”

I am a Professional woman, a mother of three in her late thirties. I am not used to being told off like a naughty child.It makes me shake more. I can’t get the damn thing on her foot. Once it is on and I have been suitably humiliated, I am told that I will have to go and buy shoes to go over the splint. Pearl only has one splint,but she can’t weight bear in it without shoes.

I enter Clarks (other shoe shops are available) I am by now in a bit of a state.I take my ticket and wait my turn.The assistant comes to measure Pearl. I explain.The woman looks at Pearl, and  is afraid. She a grown woman is afraid of my non toddling, toddler and her splint.

“I think you will have to make an appointment and come back”

Suddenly shaken back by her reaction into a state of near aggressive assertiveness, I refind my voice .

“Look I am finding this very difficult and I am very upset.She needs shoes, you fit shoes and we will work out together how to do this.The clinic is local and she is not going to be the only child who comes in here needing splints”

Wisely the woman gets a general grip and helps. We have to buy two pairs of shoes-TWO PAIRS, because now Pearl has two different sized feet.It’s alright according to the shop,as they will give us a discount which means that the pair will ONLY come to £50.

So my lovelies what can we learn from this experience?

Mothers and Others

Carry tissues.

Wear waterproof mascara.

 Professionals

Support parents when medical equipment that visibly separates their child from their cohort is required. It may be clever scientifically, it may be part of your working life, but the fact it has a pretty pattern on it does not make it easier.

Start working on training local shoe fitters.

Advise parents on the right style of shoe to go over splints.

Tell them the why.“We are fitting splints in order to enable her to have a straight foot and a flat base for standing.They are also needed to ensure her foot does not become twisted as it grows and to encourage a good muscle stretch”

Tell them the when.”she will need refitting as she grows and may need to wear them for extra support all her adult life, we will keep reviewing and keep you informed”

Tell them the how.”When she needs new splints speak to her physio”or “we will review in 8 weeks”or “here is our number phone when she needs an appointment”

Keep your interpersonal skills honed.

Oh (and a personal bugbear) link up with a medical charity working in developing countries so that splints,shoes and gaiters that are often barely worn can be reused and not go to landfill.

Thank you.

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Note to Self.

Mornings. Generally I love them. I am the most irritating of people, a morning person.

Today however I  woke up to find depression attempting to sneak under the bedroom door and floor me before I even got started. I will be having words.

The rational, fabulous, experienced menopausal woman would like to address you, default teenager who has appeared unannounced, so sit down, shut up and listen!

You can do it!  Yes, you can write, pitch ideas, speak eloquently in public and (whisper it quietly) keep going with the novel. It’s possible you could make  fair fist of running the country given a chance, you certainly have enough opinions. You don’t however have to do it all today. Actually, just make a cup of tea and sit down. Worlds will still be there to be conquered tomorrow.

People like you. You have friends. Make time for them, they are an investment.These friends think well of you, remember you and even pray for you. If they speak about you behind your back it’s because they are concerned,or possibly because those shoes really don’t go with everything. You are actually quite likeable.

Medication. Not a sign of weakness. Yes I know you just watched the BBC programme about overprescribing but you have a sensible GP who knows you and your circumstances. Some people have not been so lucky. Some people don’t make it. Thank Science, God and Big Pharma for synthetic serotonin.

You cannot second guess what other people are thinking about you. Further, you can’t control it and it’s none of your damn business. Some people don’t like you. That’s OK. You do not  have to be universally liked. It’s life, not Miss Congeniality . What would Mrs Pankhurst say ?

Being the universal fixer is a thankless task. Think carefully before taking it on. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Remember being Chair of Governors? Just that. The immigration crisis? Probably not your problem. Brexit? Definitely not your fault. That tax return however…

Other peoples success is not a reflection on you and your ability. It does not make you an abject failure. You think this is the case because today, and only today your self esteem has dried up. Oh and you’re British you have been bred to mistrust confidence and success. Just get over it already. “Rejoice with those that rejoiceth”

The drive to be internationally recognised? May be this is slightly irrational?  Ambition is good, but  not be completely beneficial in this case.The sad truth is you will die one day. People tend to. Enjoy now. Go to galleries and auctions. Read about ceramics. Argue about politics. Run in the fields. Squeeze your children. Make improper suggestions to your husband. Smell everything especially the coffee. This is it. Now. Just this.

Laugh, laugh and laugh again. Watch a comedy a day. Meet up with people who get you. Drink coffee, eat cake and laugh some more. Try to meet up at least once a year with the geographically distant friends who make you laugh so much wine comes out of your nose. Embarrass your teenagers by mispronouncing pinterest, loudly,in public. Swear randomly at your husband, to shock him. Tickle your smallest child until she can’t breathe and then roll around on the floor laughing with her.

Truly some days will be hideous and some glorious. This sadly is the human condition, and no amount of railing  at the sky is going to change it. Roll with the punches and don’t beat yourself (or anyone else) up when you’re just not feeling it. As Mrs O’Hara said “tomorrow is another day” and you have to believe a woman who looks good in vintage curtains.

 

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Take your own advice. Take care of you. Be kind to yourself. How many people have you said that to this week? Wise words for any day of the week. Listen to them, feel them and breathe them in. You are not immune from this advice-in fact you have followed it in the past and it has worked. Remember?

Give yourself a good hard shake. Put the kettle on. Grab a book and put your feet up.

Normal service resumes after the break.

 

 

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Summertime sadness.

In which the summer seems never ending,a biddable girl shows her assertive side,and her mother fails to step up to the plate.

The six week holiday is over,  a collective sigh of relief can be heard from homes all over the country.

A summer holiday with Pearl is generally trying. We spend the first week being bad friends. Pearl expects me to provide  days full of excitement at least as interesting as school. I expect to be able to continue with work, tidying and writing in much the same way as I do in term time. We are both stubborn and unreasonable. Oh, that’s not quite all. Every holiday I have two noble aims. Firstly I will toilet train Pearl. Secondly I will teach her how to speak. Pearl has been in the school system since the age of three. Every single holiday since then I have had the same aims. I have clearly learnt nothing from this experience. Neither has Pearl.

This holiday has been particularly difficult. I ditched the goals in the first week (there was a lot of wee). In retrospect reducing my antidepressant dose was not well timed.We did however do some amazing things (In the Night Garden Live anyone? At least as enjoyable as Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet last summer. Truly) I however struggled.

I had plenty of Direct Payment money saved, for plenty of support from Pearl’s two awesome  Personal Assistants, but I struggled. I was tired, so tired. Nine and a half years of special needs tired. Mr Pearlie J and I went away together overnight, child free .Still I struggled. I just did not want to come back. Pearl went out with her PAs. I did not want her to come back.

For the first time in ages I lacked flexibility, I was tired, I hated myself, I hated my life and I struggled.

Pearl I suspect is prepubescent (Worms anyone? They’re tinned) I am well into an early menopause. This is a heady combination. Being Pearl, full of hormones, cognitively challenged, full of self esteem and non verbal, led to kicking, stamping,  shouting and biting. Independence fostered at her fantastic school resulted in tremendous attempts at achievement any time I left the room to do anything as ambitious as going for a quick wee.Things were spilt, fallen off, broken, and rooms generally trashed. I most fabulous and patient of women,  had none.

If you are possessed of an assertive young person of differing ability things cross your mind when meltdowns occur.

Is she autistic like her brother?  How do I  know?   Would knowing help?

Does she hate me?

Do I hate her?

When she is 46 will she still be doing this?

Is she in pain?

Is she regressing?

How will she cope with puberty when it properly arrives?

Will any of us survive until September?

My default response to these thoughts, which race harum scarum through my head at a mile a minute is a good healthy dose of denial. This holiday someone appears to have taken my denial, and its helpful assistant emotional resilience. I only hope  they had much joy with them.

Our holiday for me was characterised by  a beautiful picture of Pearl I shared on my Instagram page with the following post.

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“This is the proof of the lies that Instagram tells. A beautiful picture of a glorious child taken by her stylish mother. Pearl and I left the house early, dog in tow for a secret trip to Beadnell Bay. I’m such a great mum! Pearl wanted to walk from the car, despite not wearing AFOs (splints) just crocs. She feel over, screamed, I manhandled dog, buggy and screaming dervish onto beach where she continued to scream repeatedly. At this point I noticed that she had horrible dental caries on a back tooth she never lets me brush. Feeling super crap at parenting I encouraged her to play in this hole, she calmed down, I took this picture. This was followed by renewed screaming as the sand had got into the graze, which was much worse than I realised. Bundling dog, 3 wheeler and screaming childback into the car I winded myself on a kissing gate.

Tomorrow I am putting her in bed with Dad and an iPad, while I go out for a run. Alone.”

 

On the morning Pearl went back to school,my shoulders moved away from my ears a good five inches. I missed her. I loved the fact I missed her. All the guilt and anger and fear faded away. When I look back over the holiday I know I will remember the stand out parts, not just the stand out tantrums. I’m mindful of another special boy, who did not make it through the holiday, and hold my bossy, sassy, tiring girl a bit tighter.

I remind myself how far we have come. Pearl is learning. She has changed. We do love each other, oh how this child is loved! She will learn and grow and change again.She is just 9 and her body is getting used to growing into her future womanhood.

These tricky times will be got through. Like the endless holiday, this too will pass.

 

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Exchange

When I was at school it was common to have a few foreign exchange students join us for a week or two. They seemed so exotic. Their clothes were brighter, speech eccentric, even their mannerisms seemed strange and new.

I was never lucky enough to host one of these fascinating creatures, but recently have been enjoying a cultural exchange of my own.

Imagine being air-dropped in a foreign country. Totally fluent, you just fall out of the sky one day. You’re articulate, the locals treat you as one of their own. They assume you understand everything, not just the language but also cultural jokes and idioms. Facial expressions seem strange and don’t always equate to those you saw back home. Gestures you knew to mean particular things make little sense.

The initially friendly residents of this new state become short tempered with you, assuming you are ignoring them, or being rude and difficult. As well as this, all colours seem much brighter, and the volume of everything has been turned up to the very edge of bearable. Textures seem more pronounced, clothes rougher, trees pricklier and worst of all – smells are much smellier.

This is the closest I can come to imagining the world my bright, witty 15-year-old son with Asperger syndrome inhabits. I can tell you now that if I was living with that every day I would be crankier, more tired and have meltdowns on a regular basis. Wouldn’t anyone?

The family he was airdropped into was noisy, opinionated and busy. Oh, and blessed with a permanently sarcastic mother.

I had limited experience with classic autism through my work as a speech therapist – so never suspected my son could be on the spectrum. He was caring, cuddly and very verbal, fond of long complex words; this was not what autism looked like. Being busy with two other children, one of whom had significant special needs, I was quite short-tempered. This boy who didn’t listen properly, willfully misunderstood obvious situations and took everything literally.

I’m known for being perceptive, caring and empathetic (modest too!). In moments of glorious parenting these graces were not extended to the boy.

I could not believe he could not follow simple commands. ‘Your ears are big enough, use them.’ He used multisyllabic words in conversation, but would then ask for explanations of simpler words. ‘Of course you understand it,’ said the ever-loving mother. As for the ‘tantrums’ we thought he was putting them on.

Thomas in Snow

The day I saw him practicing facial expressions, I began to wonder. My guide into this new country was Tony Atwood. As I read The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome the scales fell from my eyes (metaphorically speaking). It became my anthropological guide. Chapter after chapter, another apology to my poor boy.

Attempting to understand his autism has included unpicking everything I perceived and understood to be normal. Things I assumed were right are just cultural or societal, not inherently correct.

I’ll give you an example. Someone recently told me that a member of their church was autistic and non-verbal. The church was very accepting of him even though ‘he always wears a hat, won’t take it off – and of course you can’t wear hats in church.’

I nearly choked on my tea. Who or what decided that wearing a hat in church was wrong? GOD?! This, my friends, is a cultural, not ‘normal’ expectation.

Presumably, our culture has this ‘normal’ expectation too, which allows us to happily go about our lives feeling comfortable and reassured. Now, like it or not, my son is going to have to learn some of these rules to ease his way into society, but actually as a society perhaps it’s us that need to make some adjustments of our own.

Look at our own culture. We live on a small island with a rich literary history. Fond of quotes and metaphors, big on small talk and oblique passive aggressive hints. How would anybody on cultural exchange be expected to know that the correct answer to, ‘does anybody want this last potato?’ will always be ‘no’? Why would anybody peel their eyes and if they did, how would that help them to see better? If somebody looks affronted but says they are ’just fine’, why are they angry if you switch topics?

The English place a high value on social conformity, and are just waiting to be embarrassed, hard if you are wearing the wrong clothes, tapping, flapping or smelling the items in shops.

The boy was reluctant to wear coats. I have taken ages to get my head around this. I am a chilly mortal, and have worn gloves in June before now. He, however, is not me. Also, he has sensory processing disorder. I was astonished to learn that this is really common in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). So, perhaps I needed to look at the fact that he would happily wear a hoodie. A hoodie is, after all, a coat by another name.

Wasn’t he grateful when I bought him two pairs of new jeans as he’d asked? ‘One just the same and one a different colour and cut, just to make a change,’ I assured him. ‘The horror in his eyes as I realised – rookie mistake on my part – that for many people with ASD, a change will NEVER be as good as a rest.

So, as I prepare my boy for transitioning into the wider world, where going shoeless and wearing a 4-year-old hoodie, which only reaches his elbows is frowned on, he also shows me that so many things I thought were important, are really just part of my culture. It is, indeed, possible to wear a duvet outside to keep you warm. Do this in public and the locals will stare at you. Is the staring more uncomfortable than wearing an extra layer? That’s your choice.

I’ve learnt to hold clothes to my cheek before buying, and laugh at idioms. We journey through together, picking through social etiquette, deciphering the most important rules to save, to keep the peace, while trying to keep it real.

 

First published on My Family our Needs as “Unpicking Everything That’s Normal”

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