Playscheme

We survived the summer holidays! Nothing brings home the fact you have three children like having them all at home for six weeks . It is inevitably chaotic and puts all other meaningful activity on the backburner, but it’s also fun. We don’t all have to be up and out first thing in the morning, remembering school forms and PE kits. We can go to new places and hang around in the garden.

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The secret to communal happiness for us (me) is to have some structured activities, ideally not involving me, lined up between the museum outings and home-based craft projects. We are fortunate that Sam’s school runs a two week playscheme in the summer, and even more fortunate that we have funding for him to attend for one of those weeks. We pay for him to go for a second week.

Running a playscheme for kids like Sam is not straightforward – you need a suitable building, loads of staff with the right expertise. They are expensive because the ratio of staff to children is high, which means either schools or councils have to subsidise them or they are prohibitively expensive for parents. As a parent, it is difficult to find any holiday activities for our disabled child where we feel confident leaving him in a new place with unfamiliar people. I will only send Sam to this playscheme because it is at his school, staffed by people who work there so know him well – these are people who are used to feeding him through his tube and can communicate with him. It’s not the closest holiday scheme but it is the most appropriate.

So for the last few school holidays Sam has spent a week at this playscheme, which is exactly the kind of age appropriate, fun holiday activity I’m into. What I’m even more keen on is the typical experience of two brothers who are a couple of years apart in age being able to do the same holiday things, at the same time, and that is exactly what this playscheme offers. They welcome non-disabled siblings so this year Eli went with Sam for four days.

Hurrah, we all shout! Except (and isn’t there always an ‘except’) we need to work out how to get them to and from a playscheme that is five miles from our house each day. Sam is theoretically provided with transport to do the morning journey for one week, but all of my emails to confirm this have gone unanswered and in the week before the playscheme, I still have no confirmation whether the bus is coming and if Eli will be allowed on it. There are some mutterings about insurance (or lack of it) for Eli. As always, I eventually call my contact, Ms A, at the private transport provider who are sub-contracted by our local council to take Sam to and from school during the term. She works her magic, and calls me back the following day to say she has confirmed the crew that usually take Sam to school will be there on Monday morning, ready to take Eli and Sam.

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I cannot overplay the value of Ms A. After weeks of me emailing and calling social services and the school transport service (as I do in the weeks leading up to every playscheme) and getting precisely nowhere, she smooths the path and makes it work with a driver and escort who are familiar to Sam, and with enthusiasm for Eli joining them. People like Ms A are the ones who brighten my days.

And so off they went! Sam went on his own some days, and Eli joined him on others. They swam in the hydrotherapy pool and did some DJing. They made spiderman masks and puzzles.

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One day I collected them and a young woman was accompanying the boys down the corridor towards me. I could see they were relaxed and happy. She introduced herself and then, in a low voice so Eli couldn’t clearly hear, said what a great brother he was. That he’d been friendly to everyone and helpful to Sam, that he’d made some funny jokes. She said her sister had gone to the school and that was how she had got into helping at playscheme. She seemed like exactly the kind of person I want my kids to hang out with.

This is unusual – it is not standard to have access to a playscheme where you feel really confident people understand and can care for your child, where they will be happy and safe. It is rare for non-disabled siblings to be allowed to join in with these kinds of activities. It is unusual to get funding for a week which includes help with transport to get them there. In fact, in a stunning display of bureaucratic madness, a classmate and friend of Sam’s went to the same playscheme each day but for some unfathomable reason was not allowed to travel on the bus with him. Sam’s bus went past the end of his road each morning without being allowed to pick him up, despite there being room. It was the same bus and crew that normally picks him up for school every morning. I despair.

After two weeks of Eli and Sam spending time doing all of the fun the playscheme had to offer, we were ready to spend more time at home. I geared up to organise trips. We did loads of interesting things, but I worked hard. It takes thought and planning to find activities that work for a disabled eight year old, a six and a two year old. Holidays are fun but intense, which is exactly why a playscheme like ours is so valuable.

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There is a temptation to see such playschemes as a luxury but there is literally no other holiday scheme, club or session that Sam can go to without me or a carer. It is entirely appropriate for an eight year old to spend parts of his holiday without his mum, and to have the opportunity to do different things. It’s a crucial part of growing up.

From my perspective it’s brilliant. Sam said that he enjoyed it, and Eli asked if he can go every day with Sam next year. I hope so, my boy, I hope so.

 

 

A Weekend Away

We went away for the weekend in June to the Calvert Trust, an activity centre in Devon. James, Sam, Eli and I spent the weekend being the kind of people you see in adverts for happy families. We canoed, cycled, abseiled and swam.

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The Calvert Trust is fully adapted for people with disabilities to be able to do all of the activities on offer. I think of it as Centre Parcs crossed with a youth hostel in a utopian inclusive world.

James and I took Sam there three years ago. Then, we’d had a good time and Sam had had some extraordinary experiences. It was the first time he had been down a zip wire, or canoeing, and he had liked those things, but he hadn’t enjoyed everything. He’d struggled with the unfamiliarity of it all and the amount of waiting involved in being part of a group. In addition to preparing all of his meals in a bathroom, and getting up with him during the night, James and I were also trying to entertain him between and during the activities. It was a worthwhile but utterly exhausting weekend for all of us. I wrote a blog at the time which is here.

This time we took a night carer with us. And Eli.  And realistic expectations.

The combination of Sam being older and Eli’s boundless enthusiasm meant we had a really good time. It was still tiring, but the kind of tiring that comes of having had a fun day with kids who have enjoyed themselves. We went canoeing with Sam sitting in a special seat. We went cycling on special bikes which was marvellous (apart from the moment when Eli careered off into the biggest patch of stinging nettles in Devon). We connected Sam to a rope and dropped him from a perilous height, and then sent him down a zip wire (videos below).

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As Sam gets older it becomes hard for us to help him to take risks, to really feel a sense of danger and the physical rush of being thrown or falling, which he has always enjoyed. We always tell people he likes speed – when he goes ice skating we encourage the professionals to take him round as fast as they can. When he was smaller we could easily throw him in the air or push him hard on a swing and he loved it. It feels good to give him the opportunity to be dropped from height in a terrifying way – to hear him shriek and then laugh. Just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean you should be mollycoddled, gently pushed over surfaces with small changes in gradient for the rest of your life.

It wasn’t all wholesome fun. We still had to entertain Sam and cajole him into wearing a helmet. He spent some time watching an ipad while others were doing activities he’d made clear he wasn’t interested in. He and I went abseiling which he hated and it made him cry. I took him back to the room while Eli went climbing because Sam was totally over physical activities by that point in the day.

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But really, that’s fine. It was fun! It was lovely to have a weekend of just me, James and two kids (Stella was at home with family). Away from the activities, we spent more time together as four than we have done for years. The comparison to our previous trip, when Sam was younger and less happy, was stark.

It was one of those trips when Eli makes everything more fun. Sam is often happier when he is around and vice versa. New experiences don’t feel as high stakes when you have two children doing them – if Sam can’t cope with it and has to bail, Eli will probably still have fun so it feels worth the effort or vice versa again. And it’s hard not to enjoy yourself when you have a six year old telling you that what you are doing is fun, awesome, and brilliant repeatedly, before, during and after each thing.

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This visit it happened that ours were the only children there and the other groups were of adults with various impairments, some visibly physical, some not. Eli made friends with some of the other guests, playing table football with them and asking them about their days. The kids stayed up late to watch live music, though we all refrained from the disco. I felt so strongly how idealistic a place it is – somewhere where everyone can do the same activities and eat in the same room, regardless of impairment. No-one needs to explain their disability. Conversations are about what people’s access needs are rather than what they can’t do. No-one stares. It’s how the world should be and we’re so fortunate to get to experience that if only for a weekend.

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Lucky

IMG_9945I’m trying to institute a new tradition in our house: on each of the children’s birthdays we will all get up and do birthday breakfast, open presents and be generally celebratory, and then I will go back to bed for at least an hour. I think it is a good idea for all of us to remember that this is the anniversary of these kids coming out of my body and that body could do with a little lie down.

Stella’s birthday a few weeks ago was the first time I implemented this brilliant new tradition, and as I was lying down remembering her birth two years ago, I read an article by Chitra Ramaswarmy about her tendency to catastrophise. It was poignant to be reading about how incubating and then having children affects your outlook on life, particularly if one of your children is diagnosed with a disability.

Ramaswarmy experienced a very tough year in which numerous difficult things happened. By its end she had – after a complicated pregnancy – given birth to a healthy baby, her partner and mother had been seriously ill and recovered, and her son had been diagnosed with autism. Was it a year of disaster or, actually, was her family lucky?

Ramaswarmy describes how she is naturally a catastrophist, and inclined to be anxious about the potential for the worst case scenario to occur. She makes the case that the parenting is an antidote to catastrophising:

‘The hard graft and small, pure joys of looking after a baby and a little boy with autism anchor me to the present. The baby keeps me healthy, makes me feel lucky and gives me a constant dose of perspective. She is also exhausting: I am too tired and busy to catastrophise with as much fervour as the habit demands.’

This rings true for me. I am not a catastrophist. My natural tendency is towards slightly anxious optimism. But there is no doubt that I thrive when I am rooted in the present, and nothing keeps you in the present like having a small child, and then another, and then another. It’s not all rose-tinted snuggles – Sam’s early months were difficult for us all and he was frequently made miserable by reflux and feeding difficulties. But my focus on looking after him meant that by the time I looked up and around we had largely weathered the storm.

I went on to have two more babies and, luckily for all of us (and I mean luck, because these things are just a roll of the dice), Eli and Stella were babies that were easy to please. I have been largely too busy caring for all of them over the last eight years to spend much time thinking about what might have been, or what might go wrong.

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What really resonated with me was Ramaswarmy’s reaction to her son’s autism diagnosis:

Then there is my brilliantly singular, loving and brave son. Before he was diagnosed with autism (that happened this year, too) I feared this moment: how will we manage? What will we do about school? How will he develop? Is everything going to be OK? The mystery and idiosyncrasy of autism can be frustrating, but it is also a visceral reminder that none of us knows what lies ahead and that compassion is the most powerful weapon against anxiety. So, here I am, living and thriving in the future over which I once catastrophised. And you know what? It is not so scary after all.’

We have had Sam’s birth described as a catastrophe, and in purely medical terms that may be true. But it has not been a catastrophe for our family. Sure there are difficult times, and complications, and we are sometimes sad and frustrated, but there is no catastrophe here. Something that was unfamiliar and therefore terrifying has become normal to us, and with familiarity comes an ease (hugely helped by the privilege of having carers to help and living in an adapted house).

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Over Christmas, all the kids were largely at home every day for two weeks, something that is rare, which meant they spent more time together than usual. Stella can now talk and asked about, or talked about, Sam at least every hour. Sam happily tolerated her climbing on his wheelchair, wiping his face, pressing her cheek into his. Eli is currently obsessed with gags about bodily functions and Sam encouraged him by laughing at his poo jokes. Sam let Eli play with all of his Christmas presents. Stella clambered on Eli and ruined his games and he only snapped after such goading that any jury would be on his side. Sam and Eli watched Star Wars for the first time and were scared and excited by the same bits. We went ice skating, for walks, swimming and to the cinema.

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The ‘mystery and idiosyncrasy’ of cerebral palsy can be difficult, but it is also a prompt to live this life that is happening right now, even if it is one that would have counted as a bad outcome at some point. We have three healthy kids, and it’s not so scary after all. Are our family the survivors of a disaster, or are we lucky? Perhaps ask me again when they’re all teenagers, but on the basis of this Christmas we’re extraordinarily lucky.

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A New Standing Frame

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Sam needs a new standing frame. He stands most days – he is unable to stand on his own so the standing frame provides enough support to keep him upright.

On a busy day Sam can spend up to 10 hours a day in his wheelchair. He ‘tolerates’ sitting in a chair really well, He’s happy being able to see around him and his chairs are comfortable and supportive enough for him to be content to spend hours in them, but it’s a long time for his body to be in one position and over a lifetime sitting this much can lead to all sorts of problems.

There are lots of advantages to standing. Human bodies are designed to be upright and although Sam spends about 12 hours a night lying flat, it’s not the same stretch as standing straight. Bodies should ideally experience a variety of positions, and the digestive system benefits from him being upright. Also kids like Sam are at huge risk of their hips migrating out of their sockets and in the absence of daily walking, standing is a good way to bear weight on bones and joints.

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Sam first had a standing frame when he was almost one year old. At that stage he often hated it, and it felt more like a torture instrument than a helpful aid. These days Sam will happily spend an hour standing as long as he has good enough entertainment. The standing frame isn’t particularly elegant, and takes up a lot of room, but the benefits to Sam are worth having it available to him.

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A rep visited recently with a new kind of standing frame for Sam to try. There was normal amount of fiddling and adjusting, but once Sam was in the new standing frame he was happy and his physio was able to see that it worked.

At the end of the session we were asked what colour we wanted the new standing frame to be. Bear in mind that this is a standing frame that lives in Sam’s room, the room that was finished and decorated earlier this year. The room that I am desperately trying to keep as a boys bedroom rather than an equipment storage room.

Sam’s physio said we could have it in black, pink, orange or blue. Blue, I said. That will be best.

Then James said, ‘Um, shouldn’t Sam choose what colour he wants his standing frame to be?’.

Of course he bloody should! What was I thinking? I spend a reasonable amount of my time glowering at people who don’t talk to Sam directly, reminding everyone that just because he can’t talk doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand what people are saying. I tell people that he is a boy with views and preferences. What kind of ally am I?

Except… I have a history of manipulating my children’s choices. When Eli is choosing between two tshirts and one is really ugly, I will unashamedly steer him towards the one that I don’t dislike. I haven’t allowed some things in Eli and Stella’s bedroom because I don’t like them (e.g. massive garish posters).

I had a strong suspicion that given the choice Sam would choose to have an orange standing frame. Orange is his favourite colour. Let me explain that I have a mixed relationship with orange. It’s a hard colour to get right in my view. And the orange of this standing frame was more sickly, pasty colouring paper than cool, vibrant citrus fruit.

Fortunately for Sam he has hugely improved his ability to clearly communicate Yes and No over the last year. Last year it was often difficult to tell whether Sam was answering a question and we estimated that we clearly understood his yes and no maybe fifty percent of the time which is a bit tricky with a binary outcome. Now we would say that we get a clear yes/no about eighty percent of the time.

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So using his latest communication book I talked Sam through the options and asked him what colour he would like his standing frame to be:

Would you like a new blue standing frame, Sam?

No.

Would you like a black standing frame?

No.

Would you like a pink standing frame?

No.

Would you like your new standing frame to be orange?

Yes.

Obviously.

Totally cocking up my interior design aspirations.

Thanks Sam.

Having a laugh in Trafalgar Square

We have recently been printing photos – mainly for a wall in our house where we have an ever expanding, slightly chaotic collection of family photos. There is currently not a single photo of Stella on the wall. She is almost two years old. We need to rectify this quickly, before she’s tall enough to see the photos and old enough to mind.

As I go through the photos on our computer, I get distracted by loads that will never make the cut for the wall. I like to think I am a decent photographer, but almost all our recent pictures are badly composed phone photos of non-compliant kids. So I force myself to focus more on the memory and emotion of when the photo was taken, than on the quality of the composition. Kids don’t care if the background is full of mugs and syringes, they just love a photo of them with their dad.

But this photo, I love:

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It is technically flawed, badly composed. But look how happy Sam is! And look at all the tourists wandering around behind him, oblivious!

This was taken during the summer holidays, just off Trafalgar Square. James, Sam, Eli and I had just been to the theatre to see Horrible Histories at the Garrick Theatre. We had brilliant seats. Sam’s space was just off the foyer, at the back of the circle, so quite a long way from the stage but with a brilliant view. This is everything we look for in a theatre seat for Sam: wheelchair spaces in theatres are often right by the stage which he finds a bit much. There have been numerous times when we have had to leave a theatre early because Sam isn’t enjoying the performance. (His other pet hate is unexpected, roaming musicians in theatrical performances. He likes people to stay on the stage, not appear behind him playing a trumpet.)

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The rest of us had seats either side of Sam, and we all enjoyed the brilliant performance. The boys have watched almost every episode of the TV programme so we knew what to expect. It was genuinely amusing for all of us, with poo jokes interspersed with historical facts, and loads of songs. Who doesn’t like a rap about Henry VIII?

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After the performance we went to a café just off Trafalgar Square for lunch. We sat outside, with the pigeons, and put Sam’s ipod on while we were eating. Understandably, Sam gets bored if he’s just sitting around while being fed, and it’s not possible to talk to him or read him a book while eating a sandwich, so we always have a bluetooth speaker attached to his wheelchair (the pink circle by his head) which is connected to an ipod full of audiobooks. I think he’s listening to a David Walliams story in this picture.

I love the photo because how could you not love a kid laughing this much? But also in this photo I see all of the other ways in which I have changed over the seven years I have been his mother. At the beginning going on a trip like this to central London could be a bit daunting – how would we get there? Could we get Sam’s wheelchair in? Had we packed everything? Would Sam enjoy it? When Sam was very small I sometimes felt self-conscious about feeding him in public. I was really aware of how much noise we were making, and would have felt a bit anxious about playing an audiobook in a public place. I might have noticed whether people were looking at Sam, not because I was ashamed of him but because I was worried about him noticing them looking. Sometimes it felt like the logistics involved in getting us somewhere weren’t worth the risk that Sam wouldn’t enjoy it.

This trip was lovely. We packed what we needed (takes time, but we’ve done it hundreds of times) and drove in to the West End. We were a bit early so we had a coffee in Leicester Square. Went to the theatre, had lunch at Pret. Admittedly we had left Stella at home, as she would have added an unnecessary level of unpredictability to the whole outing.

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Not only do we now not care if people see Sam being fed through his gastrostomy tube, we don’t even notice if people are looking. If he laughs hysterically, loudly, we are chuckling with him rather than being self-conscious about other people noticing. If Sam needs to listen to an audiobook in order to not get bored, that’s more important than whether someone doesn’t want to listen to David Walliams in their lunchbreak.

And what this photo shows is that Sam has a brilliant time on these kinds of trips. We all do. He hugely enjoyed Horrible Histories, and now knows more about the naming of Saxon villages than he did previously. He is able to take advantage of us living in London.

And the general public in Trafalgar Square are largely too busy going about their business, admiring Nelson’s Column or grabbing a turmeric latte, to notice whether our son is disabled, or tube-fed, or listening to The World’s Worst Children.

This is the kind of photo I wish I’d had in a crystal ball when Sam was little and not enjoying life. I might laminate it and show it to anyone who gives us the pity-look and talks about how sorry they feel for him. Don’t feel sorry for him or us, he’s having the time of his life!

Sam is 7!

Sam is seven! We celebrated with, amongst other things, an egg-free chocolate cake that I whizzed up in our blender and gave to Sam through his feeding tube.

With every passing year I sound a bit more like my mum: “I can’t believe you’re seven years old! I remember when you were just a baby!” But it’s true – I am genuinely surprised that we have been parents for seven years and that Sam is so big and tall.

As with all recent birthdays, James made a Sam-themed video of the past year and we watched it with our family, projected on to the wall. I would recommend this as a way not so much of celebrating the child’s birthday, though Sam and Eli enjoy seeing themselves, but more as a way of congratulating oneself on another year of parenting. It is heartening to see how much children have changed and grown over the year, how much you have done with them, and ultimately how justified you are in feeling so tired (excerpt from birthday video below).

The other thing that we realise when we (James) make these videos is that there is always way too much material. We have done too much fun stuff and taken too many photos and videos to fit into one short film. It makes obvious that Sam is living a full life, with variety and fun, surrounded by loving family.

Just after Sam’s birthday he had an appointment at our local rehabilitation centre where wheelchair services, assistive technology and other helpful services are based. There are always all sorts of disabled people coming in and out for appointments. I was sitting in reception with Sam and Stella, waiting to be called. Stella was a bit grumpy because she hadn’t yet had her morning bottle of milk, Sam was happy watching a screen showing footage from four security cameras. A lady in a wheelchair was pushed close to us (and I have written that in the passive deliberately, because the person pushing didn’t ask her where she wanted to wait). She was an older lady, I would guess in her seventies, immaculately dressed and made up. She smiled at us and after a few moments said (as is common):

“You’ve got your hands full!”

I smiled and we had a brief chat about how old the kids were, how cute Stella was, how much she liked milk. Then the lady asked, as she looked at Sam:

“Is he able to go to school?”

“Of course,” I said. “He goes to a brilliant school which he loves, don’t you Sam. We’re just here for an appointment.”

I could see the pity-look appearing so I was even more positive than normal about both Sam and his school. But as she was leaving she said:

“It’s so hard for these handicapped children. So hard for their families. I feel so sorry for them.”

It was one of those times when I felt like I didn’t have the words to be able to explain to her what our world is like, what Sam’s life is like, how we (try to) treat him. I have no idea how or why she uses a wheelchair, or how old she was when she first used it, but clearly she has lived a different experience.

It’s impossible in passing conversations like this to say all I want to, but later I felt so sad that she assumed Sam didn’t go to school, that his life is somehow unbearably hard, that it’s okay to talk about him like that right in front of him. Clearly being disabled in some way doesn’t automatically educate you in how to treat disabled kids in 2016 (or 2017).

I don’t want to minimise Sam’s challenges – loads of things are tough for him, almost nothing comes easily, and much is really unfair. And as a family we sometimes struggle when Sam’s disability makes things more complicated for all of us. But right now, as a seven year old boy, Sam is having a good life most of the time (and really, which child is having a good life all of the time? I mean every kid has to tidy up or eat Brussels sprouts or go home some of the time). He has loads of fun. He laughs most days. He is loved. He is learning. He is thriving.

By way of illustration, between his sixth and seventh birthdays Sam:

  • Had a baby sister: tolerated Stella’s wailing, put up with a third of our attention rather than half, learnt to deal with her grabbing onto his legs and pulling his hair. And then got a new baby cousin, Ralph, who also sometimes likes a bit of a wail.
  • Learnt to cycle his trike on his own: whizzed round in circles, racing Eli and being unbelievably pleased with himself. He is still working on learning how to steer.

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  • Made really noticeable progress with communication: starting to eyepoint using his communication book to tell us things, more reliably telling us yes and no.
  • Made huge progress on using his eyegaze computer: using it almost every day, knowing exactly what he wants to do, reliably choosing stories and then navigating through them like a pro, using communication software to create messages that were totally appropriate to the moment.
  • Went on holiday to Cornwall and France: first flight for three years, loads of swimming and beach time, hanging out with family and friends, getting tanned (and on one unfortunate occasion burned), getting a new passport.

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  • So many jokes with Eli. So many lovely moments between these two boys.

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  • Started staying at a children’s hospice for the occasional night, didn’t seem to be traumatised.
  • Moved house, again. Visited the building site to review progress and try out his new lift. Before he is eight he should have managed yet another move, his sixth since he was born.

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  • Began to be hoisted (rather than manually lifted) for most transfers between chairs and beds: coped much better with this than his mum.
  • Listened to lots and lots of audiobooks: his bluetooth speaker and ipod have become essentials wherever Sam goes, and there’s therefore been less screen time, developed a love for the books of David Walliams (except the highly emotional ending of Gangsta Granny) and late in the year Harry Potter.
  • Finished his first year at a new school: totally smashed it, participated in a whole school play in his walker, another year of loving learning, fascinated by the Great Fire of London.

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  • Was increasingly contented: Sam has spent the last year less fractious and generally happier. We spend less time flicking though films to find the one he is happy to watch, less energy trying to entertain him in public places so we can finish our lunch. This is probably connected to us having more (paid) help, and Sam getting older and more mature, helped – we think – by his surgery in 2015. As long as we explain what’s what is going on or is about to happen, Sam is noticeably more able to deal with unfamiliar or demanding environments. Long may it continue.

As we celebrate another year of Sam being our son, I am so very proud of this boy (and still so very sad that seven years ago he was still in hospital). He is such a joy to us all, so filled with patience and humour and determination. Happy New Year everyone – let’s all hope we come across more Sams, less pity and more positivity in 2017.

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Where kids go to school

Eli started school in September. It has made me think a lot about how we educate kids with disabilities.

Eli’s school is a short walk away from home. It is a typical inner city state primary. Unremarkable for being similar to lots of other schools in London. Remarkable for being like many other schools which are also educating loads of kids with different needs, languages and backgrounds. I have been consistently impressed by how they have calmly settled thirty new kids into school and appear to be totally in control, while I struggle to keep three kids in any kind of order at home. Eli has been learning at a furious pace – generally uncommunicative about his day, he’ll then slip in some comment about how to spell a word, or write something, or tell us about numbers in a way that shows he is really soaking up the things he is being taught.

One of the reasons I liked the school when we originally looked round was because it seemed to accommodate difference well – it has specialist provision for pupils with autism, it has a dyslexia centre. It has the kind of diversity of kids you would expect of an inner London school. I believe these things are important.

(Sidenote: a teaching assistant who we loved at Sam’s old school once told me she chose her non-disabled daughter’s school based on it having a lot of kids with special educational needs and being well known for inclusion. People like that make the world a bit brighter.)

Out of the classroom, and purely by chance, it turns out we live on the same road as two other kids in Eli’s year and as we all troop up and down the hill every morning we have got to know each other. So within weeks of starting school Eli was being invited over, and James and I were getting to know other parents. We bump into parents from the school in other local places and stop for a chat. Apart from this being really fun for Eli, it has meant us being able to ask for favours; when Sam was ill, another mum collected Eli for me and brought him home. This is new to us and it’s brilliantly straightforward.

I was worried about Eli starting at a school where no-one knew Sam. Of course I was wrong to be concerned – within the first few weeks he had described his family with accompanying photos: ‘Me and Sam are lying in bed. Sam’s disabled and my bed isn’t that big so he sleeps downstairs’. Within the first half term the whole class had watched videos of Paralympic athletes and discussed overcoming adversity. As the teachers said at the time, the kids were too busy being impressed with Jonny Peacock’s speed to notice his lack of leg. Eli has the confidence to explain Sam’s disability when he needs or wants to and he knows it isn’t negative or something to be self-conscious about, it just is.

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So far Eli’s school is everything we hoped it would be. It is enabling the small ordinary interactions of living in a community. And in that respect, it is really – and unavoidably – different to Sam’s school experience.

Sam goes to school five miles away. It’s a really good school, and he’s there because we think it’s the best school for him right now. It takes about an hour each way for him to travel there and back every day. That is not that unusual – kids at Sam’s school come from all over London, in every direction.

James, a carer or I take and collect Sam two days a week. We chose to do that, so we see his classroom and his classmates, and have chats with his teachers and assistants. The other days he gets a school bus, like almost every other child in the school since. We rarely bump into other parents at the school.

Years ago, we looked at Eli’s current school as a school for Sam. They were willing to consider it, but he would have been the only physically disabled child in the school and they had no track record of teaching a child like him. We decided it was better for Sam to go to school further away that had proven expertise in teaching children like Sam, in helping them to communicate and in maximising their potential.

We think this was the right decision for Sam, but it means we removed him from his local community. It is only through our efforts to engage him in local activities outside school (and my reliably local family) that he will have any sense of belonging in our little bit of south London. As I have written about before, life is all about human connections and this is more important, not less, for children with disability for whom interacting is challenging.

In some ways this is where Eli comes in, as an unwitting but ever reliable social conduit. He invites his friends over, and then Sam is surrounded by boys playing with helicopters. Those boys, and their mums, dads, sisters and brothers,meet Sam and then recognise him in the street. They ask questions and get to know him. We take Sam to the Christmas Fair at Eli’s school, where he meets Eli’s teachers, other parents and kids, and really enjoys the Salvation Army brass band (obviously).

As ever, the path of inclusion never runs smooth, and Sam couldn’t meet Santa at the fair because the grotto was up two small flights of steps. But never mind – Eli told Santa he needed a present for his brother, who is disabled, and wasn’t there, and Santa handed it over. They both got books about the Lego movie so we are all now clear about exactly why Vitruvius (not that one) is so amazing.

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There’s an argument to be made that it makes sense to group children who need specialist input together (and no-one appreciates the expertise of really specialist teachers, speech and language therapists and technologists more than me). That it makes sense to have a critical mass of similar-ish kids in a school together. It’s kind of obvious, and I have sympathy with this point of view, not least because kids like to be with their peers and for some children, perhaps being the sole physically disabled kid in a school is not necessarily that bolstering an environment. I think it works well for Sam to be somewhere with kids that communicate like him, and professionals experienced in teaching kids like him.

It’s not good enough that at 8am every morning hundreds of children with special educational needs are being bussed around the city, sitting in traffic jams while they try to get an education, driving past the local kids who could have been their friends. It’s not good enough that the families of the kids on the buses don’t get to know local parents. How otherwise are they supposed to forge the kind of friendships that are based on mutual understanding of how you feel at 9am having used the cross voice at least five times to ask your child to put on their shoes/not get run over by a motorbike/stop walking on that bit of wall, when you have run to school as you tried to keep up with your child scooting too fast down a hill, and are now wondering if someone is going to give you a medal for remembering the bookbag?

Obviously, calmly loading your older child on to a bus arriving at your house at 8.15am can sound attractive in comparison to the 9am chaos, but is it right? Is it really the right way to organise an education system? Is it fair for disabled kids? And are we really doing right by our non-disabled children?

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(Unconnected, cheerful picture)

Having a break – the guilt of ‘respite’

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For any parent of a disabled child, the subject of respite is a bit fraught. Often because accessing any is difficult, and will have involved tricky conversations/numerous phone calls with various professionals. Partly because the logistics of organising it and physically getting the child there with everything they require are onerous.

But mainly because it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand we would really like a break. On the other hand we feel guilty for wanting a break. We are on the knife-edge of knowing that the respite place we have carefully considered is able to take care of our child, but also thinking that no-one is going to be able to take care of them properly.

Almost two years after we were first referred for respite provision, Sam has just had his first overnight stay without us. The somewhat casual timescale allowed us time to get used to the idea, due mainly to the first hospice refusing to feed Sam pureed food so us (and yes, I mean us, social services having still not managed to assess Sam) having to find a different place. We agreed to the new referral, then went for a visit, then spent a couple of hours going through aspects of Sam’s care plan, and then stayed there with him for a weekend, then the time came for him to stay there himself.

It’s a nice place. It’s run by nurses, so feels quite medical, but that means they are totally on top of medication and not at all intimidated by disability. It’s purpose-built building with lots of space, bedrooms opening on to gardens, a huge room for craft, fun and reading. Loads of books and friendly people floating around doing interesting things. There are other kids and their siblings, volunteers making bugs and Gruffalos.

To give some context, I am generally quite relaxed about being separated from my children. We are lucky enough to have lots of family in London who are willing to look after our kids. For the first three years or so of Sam’s life he spent one night a week with my mum, he’s spent loads of weekend with his other grandparents. Eli has had ‘sleepovers’ of up to five days with grandparents and my sister and her partner. Stella is somewhat testing the model by being more dedicated to breastfeeding than I would ideally like, but at some point we’ll manage to offload her too. But of course, these people are all in our family. And as Sam has got longer and heavier, and the kit he needs has got larger, it’s got trickier for him to stay anywhere that isn’t our home.

We have therefore shifted the model so James and I (perhaps with a child or two) can go away, leaving Sam in our house with various permutations of carers and family. We realise how fortunate we are to be able to do this.

What the respite hospice offers is an opportunity for us to stay at home and for Sam to stay elsewhere, allowing us to be one child down (which with three of them is a welcome release of intensity), spend more time with the other two, and perhaps get some of the stuff done that we have been planning to do for months but never have time to (e.g. unpack boxes from our house move 2.5 months ago, or actually tidy up our tip of a house). I am keen on this idea.

Except that it also involves Sam staying somewhere else without us or any other family, which makes me feel guilty and nervous.

On the morning of Sam’s solo stay we packed up everything he needed (a full car of stuff) and James and a carer set off. I used Stella as a convenient excuse to not be the one to do the drop off. I called the hospice to say they were on the way, and it transpired that there had been some administrative confusion that meant they weren’t expecting Sam until that afternoon. The idea that Sam was about to arrive for his first stay without us, and they weren’t expecting him, that they weren’t all standing around anticipating the arrival of Sam, made me feel so sad and unsure. Should I call James and get them to turn back? The journey can take up to an hour so that would mean spending most of the day faffing around which would be the exact opposite of respite. As I burst into tears, the nurse said no, they would make it work.

When James got there it was actually okay, and Sam seemed alright, and by the time James and our carer left he was happily entertained and content. We spent the weekend with Eli and Stella, and realised that looking after two kids is much easier that looking after three but still pretty relentless which was quite a helpful distraction. Eli burst into tears on three separate occasions because Sam wasn’t there.

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Then we went out for supper to celebrate our 11th wedding anniversary, and appreciated that organising babysitting for two non-disabled kids is really straightforward. We ate delicious food, drank too many drinks, faded far too early, and came home to Stella screaming in the babysitters’ face. We had called the hospice and they said Sam was okay.

The following day we woke up to a house that only had our kids in it and us. Sam sleeps badly, and we’re lucky to have nightcarers who get up with him during the night and help us in the morning. We also have day carers almost every day which makes our family life possible. But the flipside of having a lot of help is that there is almost always someone in our house. It is a luxury to wake up and potter around in a dressing gown with only Weetabix for kids to think about.

We went for lunch, where we were just about able to have actual conversations with other adults, at tables with benches that wouldn’t accommodate wheelchairs easily. I had fun. But we were with family, and I felt bad that Sam wasn’t there. Even though we probably wouldn’t have gone for the lunch at all if Sam had been, partly because of the wheelchair, partly because trying to go for lunch with all three of our kids and actually expecting to talk to anyone is an absolutely ridiculous idea. We called again and Sam was apparently happy.

When James went to collect Sam that afternoon everything was okay. He seemed relaxed. There hadn’t been any disasters. When Sam got back home and saw me, Eli and Stella he was totally thrilled. Eli was so happy to have Sam back, equilibrium had been restored. Eli was even content to not be able to watch his TV programmes because Sam doesn’t like them.

It was, by all measures, a success. Sam did fun stuff that he wouldn’t have done at home. Eli and Stella got more of our attention, James and I had a bit of a break (it’s all relative).

So why do I feel so guilty about it? It reminds me a bit of Sam’s first week at nursery, when he was almost one. I dropped him off and called James on the way out in tears, saying I would never be able to go back to work because we couldn’t possibly leave Sam at nursery… Am I just further along the continuum of internal conflict that starts at angsting about whether kids should go to nursery or have a nanny (or any childcare at all), and ends at going away for a week with no kids? Or am I just trying to justify something that’s not fair on Sam?

I don’t think there’s a right answer, but for now I’m shattered and have a to-do list that stretches over two A4 pages and Sam was happy during this last stay, so we’ll crack on (as Eli would say) and hope we’re doing the right thing.

Or at least not doing the wrong thing.

 

 

 

 

Playing for laughs (via eyegaze)

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I’ve got three kids! I don’t have much time to write blogs! And we have moved house, again, so things are as relaxed as usual round here.

In amongst the chaos and many, many boxes, Sam has been continuing to use his eyegaze computer. It travels to school with him every day and then he uses it at home for a mixture of entertainment and communication. Sam is building skills in using his eyes and navigating around software on a computer, and much of this is by playing games or other activities that he finds motivating. Like everything to do with kids learning something, anything, it’s best done through play as far as I can see.

We have various activities that he enjoys on his computer; his favourites are, unsurprisingly, stories. Some of which are ‘multiple choice’ where he has to pick the right word to continue the pre-programmed story. Others are computer equivalents of audiobooks where the entire text of a novel is on the computer and Sam can choose the story he wants, select the chapter, and then it is read out to him (in stilted computer voice, but he doesn’t seem to mind). Crucially, he has to keep selecting ‘Speak Paragraph’ in order for the story to continue, meaning that he has to engage consistently.

Sam’s current favourite book to read like this is Mr Stink by David Walliams. We have the actual book and read it to him frequently (actually I don’t, generally because I’m often preoccupied with a smaller child, but others do including my dad who assures me it is great and totes emosh). Other times Sam sits at the table reading it to himself via computer. It’s brilliant.

We hadn’t foreseen quite how fantastic the computer is for Sam and Eli to use together. The laptop is touchscreen and so they can play games like, for example, Splat the Clown where Sam can splat using his eyes and Eli using his finger. There aren’t many activities that they can do together like that, with total parity.

The current hit, however, is the most simple of all. By navigating through various screens within the PODD communication software Sam can get to a page which just has Yes, No and Don’t Know buttons.

Through trying to gauge Sam’s reliability of answering yes or no to questions (Sam doesn’t have a totally reliable yes or no, which is a work in progress for him and something about which I could – and may at some point – write an essay…), James invented a game of asking him sets of related yes/no questions, some of which are totally ridiculous. It is a good way of him practising giving us a clear yes or no when we know he knows the answer. He is definitely making progress on this. The thing we didn’t expect, and which is in danger of slightly undermining our carefully constructed strategy, is that Sam is now giving us the ‘wrong’ answer because it’s funny.

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Oh the laughs! The advent of this game has also coincided with Eli hitting the zenith of his life so far where he can successfully make every member of our family laugh. Let me assure you that watching one of your kids make the other laugh is one of life’s pure joys. Watching Eli make BOTH of the other kids laugh is very, very lovely and makes my heart sing. All the feelings.

So it isn’t just James and me asking the yes/no questions, but Eli too, and Sam bloody loves it.

In this clip I’m asking the questions, and modelling the answer. I think you get a real feeling for how much respect my children have for me.

In this (longer) clip, Eli’s asking the questions and no doubt because I’m videoing, Sam is not answering. Sods law. Then while I’m waiting for him to answer, he navigates out of that page which is autonomy in action, and is the physically disabled equivalent of a child wandering off because they have lost interest. He actually then went to a different yes/no page, through a different pathway in the software (which I didn’t know you could do), and then we continued. His ability to do this, without us mediating, is as pleasing to me as all the chuckling.

In the interests of equity between my kids, I leave you with a video of Eli making Stella laugh. I defy you not to feel cheered by a small child talking nonsense and a baby thinking this is the height of wit.

 

How we learn to talk (part two)

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Recently I complained that Eli talks too much. I caught myself saying it twice, to two different people, in one week. Granted, James was away and I was really feeling the intensity of being the primary carer of all three kids, but what was I thinking?

Eli is, in the nicest possible way, a chatterbox. Some days he will barely stop talking for hours at a time. It’s a charming mixture of questions, statements and analysis of the varying powers of superheroes.

Eli was relatively slow to talk; he just said ‘oh no’ repeatedly for months and as he turned two the health visitor was a bit concerned about his lack of speech. I wasn’t worried. I had spent hours with speech and language therapists with Sam and so knew something of the basics of learning language. I could tell Eli knew loads of words and understood what we told him. He made loads of sounds. I had a feeling he was just biding his time until he started talking.

At two-and-a-bit he started saying more words. Within a couple of weeks he was putting words together. And by the end of the month he had three-word sentences. It was like a miracle, like you could see his brain working and his body co-ordinating itself with an ease and fluidity that was beautiful to watch and hear.

Since Sam will probably never talk, I promised myself that I wouldn’t take it for granted. And I haven’t – there have been numerous occasions when we have been so very grateful for Eli’s ability to tell us what the matter is when he’s ill or what happened at nursery that day.

Meanwhile there have been many times when we have been so very sad that Sam can’t tell us what the matter is, or what he has done that day. We find ways round it by school telling us each day what he has done, and recording messages on a button that goes to and fro with him, but it’s no substitute for independent communication and it’s a clunky way to converse.

We, and his school, are trying our best to give Sam the means to ‘talk’. We continue to model his PODD book with him (a communication book with lots of symbols to represent vocab), and give him access to his eyegaze computer regularly. When he returned to school after Easter, his carer/nanny printed out photos for him to take to school of all the things he had done over the holiday. I programmed new pages on his computer so he could use his eyes to describe what he had been up to (with photos) for his friends and teachers. (SO proud of myself for managing to navigate the software to do this, with only a couple of exasperating moments when I felt like chucking the computer out the window).

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Sam loved all of it – he enjoyed showing people photos of Eli squashing him in the park, and telling them about our easter egg hunt.

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But these things are manipulated by us. We choose which photos to include and which anecdotes to tell. Sam can’t tell people what HE wants to about his holiday he can only share one of the moments we chose to include. Who knows whether we have included the bits he most enjoyed? Yesterday we were talking about when we all visited an outdoor exhibition of massive light sculptures and Eli’s best, most important memory was of the Smarties Grandpa gave him, rather than any of the sculptures. Kids experience the world differently to adults, and often remember the bits we think are incidental.

Or we (adults) don’t realise what kids want to do. When Eli is climbing a tree, Sam will make complaining noises until we ask him if he wants to climb the tree? He then looks at the ‘Yes’ symbol on the arm of his wheelchair, and so we take him out and lift him up into the branches. A year ago he wouldn’t have been able to communicate this clearly something we hadn’t thought of. Or perhaps we weren’t able to interpret what he was trying to tell us.

We continue to hope we can give Sam the means to express what HE wants to say, rather than what we think he wants to say, and he is making progress with the ways he has available.

Each week at school Sam helps create a sentence and they work on the sentence each day, putting the words in the right order. On one of the first days back at school this term, staff in Sam’s classroom navigated him to the Places page of his PODD book. He had to choose the place to complete the sentence ‘I went to the …’ and through careful yes/no answers as he worked his way through the various symbols with an assistant he chose Library: I went to the library.*

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School wondered if he really meant library. We hadn’t mentioned going to the library in our various messages to school. Maybe he was confused, or hadn’t really meant library. After all, his communication can be hard to interpret.

But HE HAD GONE TO THE LIBRARY. The day before! So he had told his class something we hadn’t!

Before Eli started talking it was all in his head, he just had to work out how to say it all so we would understand. Sam clearly has so much to say, but no reliable way to say it. In some ways this makes me sad. In many ways it makes me anxious – it is our job (with various professionals) to help him find ways to talk to us and I feel the weight of the responsibility.

But mainly I feel hopeful. Sam has started to use the communication systems we are providing and has begun to talk independently. It will take time, but he’s making progress. He went to the library!

 

How we learn to talk – part one is here

* Note how many symbols there are on this page, which is one of many in the PODD book. Imagine the skill needed to identify which symbol you want on that page and then communicate it to the person you are talking to using only your eyes. Imagine if you got distracted or confused midway through and needed to start again.