Yes! Follow THEIR Dreams, Not Yours

Blog_Yes

By SB

Children with disabilities too often hear ‘no’.  This was true for our little one who has a neurodisability as the result of prenatal exposure to alcohol – a Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).  Before we understood that his brain was simply not wired to respond quickly or intuitively to a world he found deeply overwhelming, we kept ‘correcting’ him.  Every day he heard in a thousand different ways that his instincts and his responses were somehow wrong. That was our fault, not his.  We moved too fast for his brain to process it all.  Unknowingly, we threw him in over his head time and time and time again. We were too slow to hear what he was telling us, too slow to react to his needs.  His behaviour may have been the focus, but we were the ones who needed to change. He was finally diagnosed with FASD at the age of 10, but even after the diagnosis it took time for us to adapt to the implications of his brain damage.

Things started to improve when we started to listen to him, really listen.  We realized that while he cannot always phrase it well, he has insights into his condition that can help us to help him.  It became a positive loop – the more we listened, the more we understood.  It took some detective work and some professional input, but the more insight we had, the more his anxiety decreased.  The more relaxed he was, the better he could express himself.  Being more able to understand his perspectives allowed us to agree or at least discuss strategies.  Slowly, with this new shared understanding, we all started to come up for air.

One key element was seeing the world from his perspective – understanding the impact of the negatives we were showering over him with our (we thought) gentle ‘helpful’ reminders.  We dropped the ‘no-s’ and ‘don’ts’, and we started to say yes more often.

Accepting he would always need support, we set out quite deliberately to build a network around him, and began to prioritise settings where he was better understood (including moving to a specialist school).  We also came to appreciate that as hard as it was for us to wrap our heads around the diagnosis, it was harder for extended family, friends, teachers, and people in the wider community.  So, we opened up about our lives, his struggles.  We very carefully and consciously helped educate those around him about FASD.  We tried to face it all with positivity.

Life-changing stuff, that turned out to be in ways big and small (even if it is still a work in progress, as readers of this blog will know).  It included me giving up a career of nearly 30-years to work on raising FASD awareness full-time.

But this wasn’t one-directional.  Our son also has stepped up and has led us to a whole new understanding of what he can do with the right kind of support.

I’ll give you a rather extreme example.

Our son doesn’t see or experience the world the same way we do.  But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his own dreams.  All kids do.  Our guy has in his head a definite picture of where he wants to go, what he wants to accomplish.  Specifically, our son wants to play Wembley.  Or the O2.  Preferably with Little Mix.  You probably just smiled.  But please know, he is dead serious about this.

All those years he spent watching Hannah Montana, perfecting the songs and dances.  The hundred times he watched the DVD about how Justin Bieber became a star.  The disappointment when his YouTube channel didn’t get a million views once we set it up, and the belief it still will someday.  Each and every night spent in his room blasting Little Mix, rocking and memorizing and absorbing the music into his very soul.  Engaging his muscle memory, using music to perseverate on something, to focus his mind, to help him relax, to help his body know when and how to keep it all together.  Countless ‘concerts’ in his room with stuffed toy ‘fans’ and toy stage lights aimed just so.  The years of shopping in charity shops for costumes.  Researching stage lights.  Contemplating how curtains rise and fall.  The years of music and singing lessons.  Ongoing involvement in local supportive theatre groups.

Our guy has been preparing mentally for his Tour for a long, long time.  And in his mind, this was and is very, very real.  A dream this big could be heartbreaking. Some might say we should ‘nip it in the bud’ to avoid profound disappointment.  And yet…

There was and is no way on this earth that I am going to tell this child that he will not make it to Wembley.  Because, really, I don’t know that.  He just might.  And he sure isn’t likely to get there if we don’t believe he can.

Over the past several months his conversations about his Tour became increasingly insistent.  He wanted so desperately to perform, but couldn’t quite figure out how to make it happen.  He was becoming frustrated.

So, we thought outside of every box, and decided to give muscle to his dream.  We rallied all those people around him who could help and we simply said yes.

Yes.  We will help you bring your rainbow-coloured Flashing Lights Tour to life.  Yes, people will come to see just you perform.  Yes, seriously!  You can do it.  We told him his grandmother rented a school theatre.  Oh, if you could have seen the light that sparked in his eyes.  He went to work.  He orchestrated it all.  He designed the stage.  He planned, practiced and rehearsed his ten-song set list at school and with his voice teacher.  We designed posters and Tour merchandise.  Thanks to his auntie, he had five costume changes all lined up.  Another auntie agreed to be MC, fully prepared to support him in whatever way he needed that night.  A teacher arranged things in the sound and light booth – not blinking when he said he wanted it to look like the Ariana Grande stage, showing how we could improvise.  About 50 people agreed to attend.

When the night finally arrived, we weren’t sure how things would go.  During the sound check he closed into himself.  He looked frighteningly small and alone on the big stage.  With a thud in my stomach, I started questioning this whole idea.  But in one of the most eye-opening moments of the whole experience, we literally saw him stand taller, more confidently when two of his young friends arrived early and started to cheer him on in practice.  Singing for them, he expanded again.  I knew then that the night would be golden.

It started with the ‘Meet and Greet’ – adoring fans clamouring outside his ‘Tour Bus’ (a superb addition provided by a friend).  His ‘security guard’ then hustled him into the theatre.  Curtains opened and for about 45 minutes our little one filled not just the stage but the whole theatre with his presence.  The audience were armed with tour tags on lanyards, LED lights, glow-sticks, colourful scarves to wave.  Song by song he grew stronger, more confident until the almost impossibly perfect moment during the encore when he became complete amid confetti canons and massive balloons bouncing across the stage and around the adoring and cheering audience.  This was the grand finale he has so often dreamed about!  He floated through the After Show party and during his ride home on the Tour Bus.

For this one night we removed all the roadblocks, and we said one big, huge, concerted “Yes!”  We stepped so far out of the mold it was a bit scary for us all.  It was a risk he was willing to take, so we took it.  We showed him that his dreams can come true, that we hear him, that we will cheer for him in the way he choses to present himself to the world.  Rather than encourage him to fit in to a model that was never created for him, rather than encouraging him to keep his head down so as not to attract attention due to his vulnerability, we said yes.  Maybe it was counter-intuitive … but we did exactly the opposite of what would be ‘safe’ for him as a child with a disability.  We followed his lead and put him up front, under the spotlights, right there on centre stage, precisely where he wanted to be.  Where he deserved to be.

And the unexpected happened.  All the glitz and attention calmed him.  A family member summed it up, “He was totally fulfilled, therefore he was totally at peace with himself. He would have done that performance to ten or 10,000. It was his place, his dream and his achievement.”  (He later said to me, “Mummy, I wouldn’t be nervous, I could sing to 30,000 people.”)  A friend observed, “The people, the songs, the atmosphere – he breathed in (his form of yoga) and found himself calm and in control after the performance.”  It never dawned on me that this was a type of self-regulation.

In creating space for him to give of himself so fully, we all became that much more complete ourselves.  “His zest for life is infectious!” one friend said. “Who else can get a room of adults and awkward teenagers dancing and waving scarves?! We all left with aching mouths from smiling and feeling very proud.”

Another friend quoted Audrey Lourde, “It’s not our differences that divide us, it is our inability to recognise, accept and celebrate those differences.”  For that night, we were united in our son’s world, and boy did we celebrate those differences.  And it was a blast.

The whole evening was full of sparkle and colour.  His effervescent spirit held us all up just that much higher.  We were all there with him, for him, because of him.  This was his 13th birthday celebration – his chosen way to joyfully enter teendom.

I know not every child can get on stage and belt out ten songs in front of a crowd while dancing in glittery costumes.  But every child has some one thing.  Whatever that one thing may be deserves oxygen and sunlight so it can grow.  If we listen closely enough, and help our kids follow their dreams (not ours), we are planting the surety in their souls that they are heard, they do matter, and this world sparkles and shines more brightly because they are here.  Maybe to you my family sounds bonkers.  Yes, we did this Big.  Large.  It was most certainly over the top.  That was a conscious choice.  We chose this, rather than a holiday.  It may be unusual to spend an evening simulating a pop concert instead of going away – but this was oh so much better than scurrying off in a car where he’d meltdown to some place where he would be overwhelmed and lost just because that is what people do for holidays.

The memory of this night will last forever.  Hopefully it will always be with him, deep inside, on those dark nights when self-doubt starts to gnaw away.  Hopefully this experience will serve as some kind of insulation against the relentless onslaught on his self-esteem that we fear the teenage and young adult years will involve.

Come what may, for this one glorious night our little one was up there, giving his all to a room full of people who were quite happy to hear HIS voice.  We weren’t telling him what to do, he was showing us what he can do.  For this night, he was surrounded by the thunderous applause of one huge and resounding “Yes!”  For this night, he shone forth in all his magnificence.  We could see – literally see – the network we created cheering him on.  The thought of that still brings me to tears, even if I was too busy at the time jumping and dancing in the front row to understand then the full impact of the Flashing Lights Tour.

We must have done something right.  The first words out of his mouth the next morning were “Mummy!  I had a dream about going on tour again!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Super Teen with FASD

Blog_Teen
By SB_FASD

I see it sometimes – the future.  A way he might flick his head.  A look.  Some unexpected insight. The way he sometimes asks if I am okay.   My last blog post was about fear.  This one is about hope.  Yes, even as he officially enters teendom as a young person with FASD, I dare to focus this post on hope. In fact, I insist on focusing on hope.  It’s right there in the title of this blog.  It is at the core of everything we do as a family.  We hope.  We learn.

As our not-so-little-one becomes a teen, I am celebrating all that he is and will be.

You are shaking your head.  Yes, you can remind me of this when we hit the bumpy times we know are coming.  You may think I am naïve.  I get that.

But whatever you might think of this bright-eyed jump into the teenage wasteland, please know, I am not naïve.  I am making a choice.  And I am making that choice publicly because I believe we need to change the image we all have of teens with FASD. We have to change the narrative.  Reframe the language.

The statistics are cruel for those with FASD.  This is not the place to repeat them.  I am celebrating a rite of passage.  In fact, today, I defy those statistics.  Today, I celebrate a young determined soul who I believe can find his way forward, with our help and patience and perseverance.

I know he can.  Here is why I know that.

  1. He is identifying his feelings – using GIFS and Tom and Jerry cartoons, he is showing me what he sometimes feels like when rage boils over, when the forbidden words pour out, when he can’t contain the big emotions or when he makes choices he later understands were not the best. If he can find various ways to identify and communicate those intense emotions and begin to analyse them, we can find a way to implement strategies to help.
  2. He is using phrases like “My brain is saying I am not ready for that.” “My stomach doesn’t want that now.” “My body isn’t ready for that.”  He is learning to understand and read his internal signals.  We work with him on this all the time so that eventually he can become more analytical and learn to focus his mind on ways to help redirect his feelings and urges.
  3. The word “dysregulated” has become part of his vocabulary. He understands there are times when his brain becomes overwhelmed, the importance of finding calm in those moments.  He is devising his own strategies, and he knows that we will help him.  This is not to say meltdowns don’t happen, but this growing awareness is the foundation for moving forward to a time when he will be better able to self-regulate.  He is beginning to learn the lingo he will need for the rest of his life.  We do not keep FASD in a box around here.  We embrace it and discuss it and accept what it means when those neural connections that don’t work in the same way as others might.
  4. His school anxieties have dramatically decreased following the move from mainstream to a specialist school. This is an epic shift.  This school year started with some of the most distressing and challenging times we have had as a family.  He was anxious. We worried he was becoming defeated.  Following his switch to a special school in November, the year ended a few days ago with an entirely different reality.  The change happened quickly, efficiently.  I know that all too many are denied this sort of a quick response and that the changes in setting do not always solve all the problems – but his experience shows that if we get it right, even very drastic behaviours and problems can change fairly quickly.  There is hope.
  5. He feels secure in his place in our world. Even as he sometimes wants to run on impulse – “escape” as he calls it – our newly-minted teen knows that we love him unconditionally and this really is his forever family.  He knows this and come what may – remember, I am not naïve, I know there are rough days coming – he will always have our love.  That knowledge hopefully will help guide him through whatever storms may be ahead.
  6. He finds joy. In our son’s case, he immerses himself in music.  He is good at it.  It consumes his thoughts and it links in with movement and muscles and his inner beat.  He dances and sings and performs.  His very being glows while he is doing it.  Every teen, every child has some one thing that they enjoy and are good at.  For our guy, this is his gift.  We structure so much of his life around this and together we can find a space to simply celebrate his achievements.  May he always find joy, I believe that is tied closely with self-esteem.  And it is self-esteem that will see him through to those (in my mind) magical mid-twenties when (we hear) things start to even out for many with FASD as their emotions and social understandings begin to catch up to their actual age. Sitting on a bean bag chair with him, I started to wonder if my rosy picture of life is justified.  As a quick test, I just asked him to choose how he sees himself:

Happy or sad – “happy”

Strong or weak – “strong”

Kind or unkind – “kind”

Good or bad – “good”

Loving or mean – “loving, of course”

Gentle or rough – “gentle”

In these answers, which go to the heart of his self-perception, lies his future.  If you have read this blog, you know our home is not always peaceful and sweet – the fact that even with those times that can be measured on the Richter Scale, our son still understands that he is good and wonderful – he can separate out his brain challenges from the core of who he is.  As one friend, Savanna Pietrantonio (an adult with FASD who co-adminsters the Flying With Broken Wings Facebook group and the Hamilton, CA FASD support group) said recently, this is key.

I know, I really do know that these teenage years can rip into a person’s psyche and tear apart their faith in the future.  I know, really know that good parents, carers, guardians and others trying to support those with FASD sometimes face walls and hurdles that make navigating these years impossibly hard.

The issues compound in ways we are only just beginning to experience here.  I get it that the mix of hormones, accelerating tensions/anxieties, the growing social mismatch with peers, the desires for freedom and experimentation, the challenges of not being able to identify risk and manipulation (especially in this digital world), the coming encounters with a justice system that doesn’t understand FASD, the escalations (and perhaps danger) that can occur once strength and muscle can back up those meltdowns that at times simply have to run their course, the offense that can be caused by impulse, lack of self-editing (aided by increasingly distressing language), the scary realities that can intertwine when sex, drugs, and alcohol are teamed up with a complete lack of cause/effect reasoning.  I know, I know, I know.  Self-harm, suicide, crime, depression, psychiatric conditions, homelessness, early and unplanned parenthood… I know these are very real risks and life can become impossibly hard.  I have read the statistics.  I am in regular contact with people who were themselves contributors to those statistics.  I have open eyes.

And by insisting on hope, I am not judging.  Just as I don’t want to be judged, I don’t judge other families.  Every situation is different, unique, and has its own challenges.  One thing is sadly for sure – nearly every individual with FASD and their families have at some point been disappointed or let down by The System.  There are reasons – too often structural reasons – why so many find these teenage years difficult and demoralising, why even some of those whose families have absorbed all the strategies still wrestle with these years.  The delays.  The times when diagnosis was denied or when calls for help and were turned away.  When a young, vulnerable person was not deemed to be deserving of support and floundered as a result. There are reasons.  None of it is due to a young person or a family who deliberately gave up, no one wanted or desired those sometimes tragic outcomes.

I hear it.  I see it.  I get it.  And yet…

I also see the incredible resilience of those who nevertheless find their way forward through the ‘fog’ (as R.J. Formanek, an adult with FASD sometimes calls it – check out the amazing Facebook Group he co-adminsters – Flying with Broken Wings – for insights).

Until we can look at these teenage years with hope, until we can see the strategies to get us through, until we can join hands with our struggling young people with FASD and show them that they are not alone in their struggles and that there is a way forward, those statistics won’t change.  It’s one of the reasons why I am so inspired by the new National FASD Advisory Committee here in the UK, comprised of adults with FASD who are going to be advising NOFAS-UK on a project focused on Transitions to Adulthood.

We have to match teen’s talents with their potential.  We have to build education and programmes that help them bridge these years into adulthood – even if their walk across that bridge takes longer than for others.  We have to show them role models and hook them up with people who don’t only see their “problems” but who also see their magnificence.  We have to teach strategies for self-regulation and give them (and all those around them) increased literacy of their condition.  We have to wrap them in belief that they can do this, they will do this, that we have their backs.

Our little one is now a teenager.  And I am so excited to be by his side, watching as he unfolds his future.  Our family is united and learning (his 13th birthday presents included a giant bean bag chair, a homemade body sock, and other sensory supports all of which he was excited to receive).  Together we are getting better at navigating and minimizing those truly rough moments.  I won’t say life is easy, in fact it can be extremely hard sometimes.

But without doubt (and our teen knows it), I am proud of his every day and I am so looking forward to watching him rock this world.  I will be the one, front row, cheering him on.  Because he is Super.

 

 

 

Fighting Fear

Blog_FearOfFutureBy @SB_FASD

Help me.

I am a strong woman, from a long line of women who don’t back down or shy away from hard times.  But one thing has the power to bring me to my knees and that is fear for my children’s tomorrows.

The day we received the diagnosis* for our youngest son, my picture of the future imploded.  I nearly suffocated with the news.  We were swimming, uncertain what came next. We dove into Google where I soon kept coming across that one horrible image that is shared everywhere comparing the brain of a ‘normal’ child with that of a child with FASD…maybe you’ve seen it – that image where the folds of the brain seem all flat and shriveled, like the future I saw slipping away.  That photo knocked the wind out of me.   The post-diagnosis period was hard.  It took a long time to get to solid ground.

It took way too long for me to learn that photo no more represents my child’s brain than a flat and two-dimensional landscape represents my child’s future.  (While people share it with good intentions, the photo is an extreme case – a research photo that should perhaps never have escaped medical journals.  No one can live with a brain that looks like that.  It does show the damage alcohol can do when it does its worst, but I will not share the image in case it sets someone back like it set me back at a time when I needed to see forward.)

Fear of the future.  It’s always there.  We can put on a game face and we can meet the challenges head on.  But in a world where even doctors refuse to diagnose and support people who face this life with brain damage due to prenatal alcohol exposure, this journey deflates even the most determined of us all.

It’s pretty darn hard to get up the gumption again and again to push for support and services when those pushing back have degrees dripping off their walls.  The internal scream just builds and builds until my head is reverberating with the thought – this is so unfair!  This is a medical issue.  My son has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, the leading cause of non-genetic intellectual disability in the Western world as noted in a report by the British Medical Association.  It is one of the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD).  FASD is real – it isn’t nothing, it’s not just ‘a label’ to excuse ‘bad parenting’ – it’s a lifelong brain-based disability known to have more than 400 co-occurring conditions.  It leads to devastating secondary disabilities if the underlying needs aren’t met.  And yet parents, carers and guardians are often asked time and again why they want a diagnosis by people who should know better – as if the diagnosis is some kind of optional add-on rather than central understanding needed for people to navigate their lives.

Why isn’t the medical field out there ahead on this, pushing prevention and early detection rather than making family after family feel inept, inadequate and undeserving of diagnosis, treatment and support?  That’s a serious question, one I am still waiting for someone to answer for me with anything that doesn’t smack of stigma-laden prejudice, self-centered justification of a pub culture that can’t look itself in the eye, or a burdened bureaucracy prepared to sacrifice some of its most vulnerable in the name of saving some small bit of money now despite knowing it will cost more in the long-run at the expense of too many promising young lives.

Fear of the future?  Heck yeah, when you are staring out at this world knowing at some point in the natural order of things you will die and your child will live on.  Knowing he will live on in a world that doesn’t care to understand him or his disability, a world that seems more likely than not to throw him in jail rather than support him or make accommodations for his needs.  Fear?  Darn right I am fearful.  I see the shadow in people’s eyes, as this sweet young boy turning toward adolescence is starting to lose his balance, getting swamped by the hormonal storms coming his way, not fitting in the boxes society has lined up for ‘good boys.’  Fear?  Oh yes.  I fear.  I hear too many stories, feel the anguish of too many lost young adults and families when these young souls get caught up in the chaos of young adulthood, the challenges of being emotionally and socially unready in a world that wants them to grow up faster than they are able.

Frightened and fearful.  Yes, that is me.  More times than I may seem.  But I refuse, downright refuse to let that fear stop me from doing everything I possibly can to create the best possible chance for my son to have the future he deserves.  I will stare down anyone who gives him ‘the look.’  I will drown any professional who doubts his right to services with enough paper and proof to convince them to either deal with his FASD or refer him forward.  If someone tells me he is ‘incapable of learning’ as did one educational psychologist early on (pre-diagnosis), that person sure as heck will never be within a mile of my son again.  I will fight against this fear.  And encourage any others I can to hold tough, stand tall, push forward.  Because together, collectively, we can change this.

We are afraid of the future, yes, but we focus that fear to make us more powerful and stronger advocates, determined to learn what we can to create the best possible outcome for our son and the other children with FASD who deserves a chance.

But let’s be honest.  It is lonely and scary to stand where we are on the near edge of the adolescent years.  There is a way to bridge the wild waters of the coming teenage years.  Even as I know the fall down can be hard and brutal, I know there is a way to make it across.  I have the honour and privilege to know adults with FASD and their families who have made it to the other side.  They are good people living good lives – contributing to society in all kinds of ways.  They are loved and loving.  Their lives may not be easy but they are profound. They have truths to tell and songs to sing.  No, I can’t – I won’t – let the fear paralyse me now, or we will stumble, fall, slide.  I will not get caught up in the trap of negativity.

I keep eyes forward.

I walk side by side with our son.  Come what may.

He struggles against me, yearns for an independence he cannot yet handle.

Every step scares the heck out of me.

I hope (and yes, for him I even pray to whoever might be listening) that this walk across these teenage years will be gentle.

If he is in trouble, may he get help not judgement, compassion not intolerance.

If he strays into dangerous waters, may someone offer him a lifeline and not an anchor.

If he loses his way, finds himself drifting or spinning out of control, may someone ground him rather than send him further away from me.

May he not get tangled up in something that can drag him down.

If he calls for help but in a language others can’t hear, may someone see his shining soul and recognise his innocence and bring him home.

This boy had to fight for existence without love for the first 16 months of his life.  The world has already proven once to him how cruel it can be – it left him speechless, untrusting, hungry for something more.

Please, let me suppress this fear long enough to get him to solid ground.

Help me help him.

——-

[*If you are new to a diagnosis – please see this resource: Information for parents/carers following a diagnosis of FASD by Dr. Cassie Hunt, Highly Specialist Clinical Psychologist. You don’t need to flounder as much as we did.]

Ready for the Reset

Blog_WeFindPeace

By SB_FASD

There he was – swirling on a rope swing over a gentle stream, sploshing through the water with laughter and abandon.  Throwing rocks as far as he could (twice as far as me).  Talking with me about yesterday, about how when he feels like he needs to throw things hard, we can always come here.  Here it doesn’t matter.  Here it’s ok to want to smash and throw.  Here is a place where it’s ok.  We’re ok, my child.  Yesterday was hard, these weeks have been hard.  But we are okay.  We can find the laughter.  We can re-center ourselves.  There is always another time, another chance.

How I wish he could see forward in those moments when his world just seizes into the here-and-now-frenzy of “NOT!”  Not hearing.  Not reasoning. Not stopping.  Just riding out that intensity of the NOT! in the only way he knows how as of now – the knock-down, smash-it-out, take-no-prisoners meltdown.  Maybe you know it – the one that leaves you stunned, drained, bewildered…standing outside a door you can’t open but can’t leave.  The one that makes you feel so small in the face of the tangled neural networks that work against the peace you hope to achieve.  The tsunami of emotions that must play out.  The one you can’t let drown you even as you find yourself choking on despair in the face of your loved one’s torment.

FASD is cruel at times.  It’s bald and raw and fierce.

Trapped inside always trying to conform, sometimes it breaks free and just lets fly.

I get it.  I have in my own life wished at times for such abandon.  I have at times wanted to throw, scream, shout my truth whether or not it hurt others or myself.  And I don’t have to squeeze myself every day into rooms that are not made for me, trying to mold my mind to tiny boxes others want me to tick because it’s easier for them, no matter how hard it is for me.  I don’t spend my days clashing against others’ expectations that few people untangle for me so I can actually understand them.  I don’t have to live my life always feeling like I am just not allowed to be who I am.  I have empathy in boatloads. I get it, I do.

Even as the worst of it flies, I get it.

Or at least, I can try to imagine it.  I know I will never really understand it, because I don’t live it.  How very important it is to listen to those adults with FASD who can give voice to what the littles ones can’t yet find the words to say.  How lucky we are that there are those willing to help us understand.  I try, try, try.  To support.  To do better.  To protect.

But “getting it” (or trying to) still doesn’t make it easy.  That doesn’t mean sometimes I don’t want to cry.  The big cosmic stinking situation that left this person facing such challenges through no fault of their own.  It’s not just.  It isn’t.  Sometimes i am discouraged to the core, worn down to the bones from trying and never feeling I have done enough.   No, it’s not easy.

But even still, I am unbudge-able on one thought – there is hope.

I am learning.  I too am growing.  I know I need to be patient.  This is a long game.

These frenzied horrible moments eventually pass.  Sometimes it seems the episodes are shorter.  Less frequent.  Glimmers of the strategies we practice shine through.  I notice tiny progress – or maybe it’s huge?  Maybe the destruction wasn’t as great as it might have been–was there a dawning awareness, a guiding hand, an emerging instinct helping to avoid the worst of it?  It’s hard to know sometimes.  We are improving our ability to speak about it after – we really are learning the shared language of this disability, its dysregulation, and the lingo of how FASD affects brains.  We find peace again sooner – between us, and as a family.  We have learned how to ask for external help when we need it, and we have done the legwork to be sure when we send up the bat signal, as I did yesterday, people know how to help.  They knock on the door.  Like the first responders they are, they rush in when others might run in the opposite direction.

I have learned to shed the resentment, the hurt.  When the moment passes, as it always does – I am ready for the reset.  It always comes.  (May it always come.  If I were a praying person, that would be my prayer.  May we always be ready to repair the space between us.)  That moment after, when we can start again.  Start stronger.  Move forward.  Grow.  I am ready.  And he too is learning to trust that better moment will come.

I am there.  I wait for the tiny “sorry mummy.”  I am ready with the lotion for a foot rub, close by to tuck the covers just so.  There to say for the gazillionth time (because that’s how we measure things around here), “It’s okay.  I love you. I’m good.  Are you good?”  Good. We’re good.

————–

For further information: FASD meltdowns are due to the brain-based issues related to FASD.  They are not tantrums, they are not intentional.  They are not always avoidable.  Anecdotally, we hear from adults with FASD that sometimes they are necessary.  It is essential to try to better understand these if you are trying to support someone with FASD – or if you yourself have FASD and don’t understand why you might have a meltdown.  Not everyone has the violent outbursts, but nearly everyone has that moment of brain overload that leads to an inability to move forward.

NOFAS-UK has a poster (originally from this blog) and some links to resources about meltdowns here.

Some earlier posts on this blog explored meltdowns from different perspectives:

FASD Meltdowns

A Timely Reminder About Dysregulation & FASD

Why a Broken Screen Can Make Me Feel Good

The Building Storm of an FASD Meltdown

 

 

A Shout Out To Our Friends (Yes, That Means You)

Blog Friends

The life of parenting and caring for a child with FASD can be lonely.  Complicated. Too often it’s distressing, the self-doubt is huge.  You can feel scared… overwhelmed..freaked…sad…angry…determined…depressed…discouraged…uncertain…lost…guilty…out of control…small.

I have felt every single one of those emotions in the last week – quite possibly each of them every single day.

Yesterday we had a local support group meeting (a group we started where none existed). It was a casual meeting, just talking with other families for two hours while our kids played together in their “FASD Club” as some of the children have started calling it – kids who normally don’t want to go out, but who all look forward to this.  For us parents too, it’s a kind of club, where we can know others won’t judge, others will relate.  A lunch with another parent of a child with FASD sitting in the rain as if it were natural, because our guy was having a blast in the mud and on the swings.  It was rejuvenating.  Even though I was bone-tired. Even though the topics can be grim. We found hope.

It’s been a long week (thanks in part to a national media blitz so insensitive to those who have FASD and their advocates that it left me stunned, drained, angry – and yes, recommitted). Last night my husband and I were so tired that normally we would have crashed at an early hour.  But a friend had heard about the week – she insisted (took no excuses) – and had our son with FASD over for a sleep over. It allowed us to chill out, spend time with our older neurotypical son.  It was low-key – we stuffed ourselves with Thai take away and Hagen Dazs, watching a newly released DVD.

Yes. I know how amazing that day may sound to those who have no such support. I feel bad even admitting this.  I know we are lucky. Too many are out there feeling too alone.

Remembering where we once were too, and how massively different yesterday was from those early days, it got me thinking how important it is to acknowledge just how amazing a role friends can play.

I take my hat off to those friends – old friends, new friends, family friends, work friends, social media friends, neighbourhood friends, school gate friends, Facebook friends, dog walk friends, smile-in-the-shop friends.  Heroes, one and all, they quite possibly have no idea how much they are appreciated.

Here’s to the friends – the ones with the kettles and the tissues.  The ones who check in regularly.  The friends who actually slow down and wait for you on the street rather than sneak around the corner as if they didn’t see you.  The ones who look past the bags under your eyes and tell you the colour of the crumpled t-shirt suits you.  The ones who make you laugh.  Who let you cry.  The ones who hold a seat for you at the coffee shop, knowing you might not come that day but who are ready just in case.

Here’s to the friends who calmly step over the shoes as they enter your house and who look past the dog hair and the piled-high counters.  The ones who don’t ask what is behind the closed doors and the ones who just laugh at the laundry drying everywhere.  The ones who ignore the unidentifiable smell.  The ones who know where you keep the tea.

Here’s to the friends who didn’t run when things got complicated.  The ones who googled rather than denied.  The ones who asked questions rather than dismissed what you were saying.  The ones who heard your concerns behind your frustration.  The ones who were confused and overwhelmed themselves but who asked rather than assumed.

Here’s to the friends who open doors others slam shut.  Friends who reassure rather than stress.  The ones who don’t tally who is doing the talking and who is doing the listening.

Here’s to the friends who believe you when you say you wish you could do x, but not this week, sorry not today, you can’t because something came up/you’re unable/things went haywire/it’s just one step too far on a day where there is nothing else to give.  They know you’d really like to.  They don’t make you feel bad.  Even when you forgot their birthday because that week there were multiple appointments/illnesses/calls from the school/meltdowns.

Here’s to the friends that tell you when you need a break – the very remarkable few who force you to take the break, and the exceptional ones who make it possible for you to…wait for it…relax.

Here’s to the new friends – the ones you meet through the struggle.  The ones who get it instinctively, who can laugh at a situation without mocking or deriding.  The ones who can give a look or a nod that says more than a speech.  The ones who have walked the walk and who can still help you find the joy on the days when it’s sometimes hard to find.  The ones who help you look forward.

Here’s to the friends who can carry you, prop you up, propel you forward or force you to sit – whether they’re in front of you, on the phone, or at the other end of the computer screen.

Here’s to the friends – the ones who see your child.

The ones who see you.

The ones who are there.

Here’s to you all – here’s one big, huge, poorly expressed, dreadfully tired but deeply felt “thanks.”

You really have no idea how much your support means.  It’s magic.  It gives us what we need to gear up, buck up, stand tall and face this with hope.

And by doing that, you are most importantly giving our child the best gift possible.  You are helping us to help him. You are fueling our resilience. You are breaking past our sense of isolation. You are giving us hope that the community exists.

It takes a village indeed.

Not just to raise a child, but to support a family.

And you are so very, very much appreciated.

So here’s to you, for those times when I might forget to say it.

You’re awesome.

—————-

P.S. – For readers who got this far and are thinking, well that’s nice for them but I don’t have any support, please know we once felt that way too.  After our son’s diagnosis sucked the oxygen out of us for too long, we knew we couldn’t do this alone.  We deliberately started to open up to others about our son’s condition and what this meant for our home life.  People are good.  When they started to understand more, things changed. It wasn’t easy, but we made a plan.  We prioritised it.  It takes a long while, but it helped. 

Here’s a piece we wrote about it: Reaching Out After an FASD Diagnosis.

If you don’t have a local support group and might like to start one, contact the FASD UK Alliance (that’s where we got started): fasd-uk@live.com

For online support – check out the FASD UK Alliance Facebook support group: FASDUK – involving nearly 1300 people just like you. (If you do click to join the group, please keep checking your ‘message request’ folder as an admin will contact you to confirm.)

If you need resources to show to family or friends, check out The National Organisation for Foetal Alcohol Syndrome-UK (NOFAS-UK).

If you need some tips on how to reach out to your family, check out The Auntie’s posts on this blog.

The Samaritans have a 24-hour hotline for any who might feel in crisis – just call 116123 or email jo@samaritans.org

You are not alone.

Lower the Drawbridge

 

Blog VulnerabilityBy SB

Vulnerability.  I hate that word – everything about it.  I run from it. I build walls – miles-high at times – in case anyone might see me vulnerable.

I was brought up by a Scottish-American mother, a force of nature.  I was taught and conditioned to be a strong woman.  I am meant to be In Control and On Top of Things.  This is lifelong and forever because A Mother’s Work Is Never Done.  If something is broken, I am supposed to Fix It.  If something hurts, I am supposed to Kiss It and Make It Better.  I am supposed to have Eyes In The Back of My Head.  If I am having trouble and I am supposed to Pull Myself Up By My Bootstraps.  I am supposed to Cry In The Shower So No One Knows.  As a mother, I am only as Happy As My Saddest Child.  A Clean and Orderly Home Is A Happy Home.  I am supposed to Rule My House with Firmness.  My family is supposed to be My Greatest Work.

You get the point.

I have a constant stream of these messages playing in my head.  They are from an earlier time, a time why my own mother was a stay at home mom in a house of relative ease, with no major issues.  These messages don’t really translate to this life I am living now, raising a child with FASD.  Yet they play over and over and over and over again in my head, every day.  This internal soundtrack sometimes becomes my own worst enemy.  It happened this week, when we were preparing for a home visit from one of the therapeutic services we have finally been able to access.

Family matters are meant to be personal.  We are supposed to Keep Our Business To Ourselves.  If something isn’t quite perfect, we should Sweep It Under the Carpet and Put Our Best Foot Forward.  We are supposed to Show The World Our Smile.

That’s awfully hard to do when your windows are open and all hell is breaking loose, things crashing, a string of expletives coming from a child who is not even supposed to know such words exist.

That is awfully hard to do when you are sitting in yet another appointment, explaining yet again in painful detail about bizarre and concerning behaviours of your child, the details of how you cope, or don’t cope. Discussing the argument you and your spouse had or the time you did it all wrong.

It’s impossible to do as you swing open the door to your home and let in another visitor to observe, wondering if they will notice some doors are actually literally partially unhinged?  When you are feeling kind of good that you noticed and cleaned the dried spit on a glass pane before they arrived, but you are aware there might be other pockets of concern somewhere within view once they arrive.  And while the major puffballs of fur have been recently attacked by the last-minute vacuuming, you are all too well aware you still haven’t got to the root of what you fear is a pervasive smell of Dog.  It’s no longer possible to find every splat of dried bubbles that might have hit the walls or ceiling in the bathroom.  That ship has sailed and let’s be honest, you gave up trying a long time ago.  On the level of biohazards that might exist in your home, stray soap is not on the list of the worst offenders.  Far, far, FAR from it.  You just changed sheets (score one for the home team) so you are pretty sure there will be no food surprises under the covers, should she end up in the bedroom being shown how many flips can be done on the bed (with pulled-back covers).  But still you breathe a sigh of relief when in fact she was shown this trick and nothing fermenting was uncovered or smelled despite the recent episode with the bottle of spilled pickled onions that soaked through the mattress.

No, this home life isn’t at all what you had planned.

There is a tendency to hold back, hold it in.  You know people think you “over share” when you start to tell some story about some thing that is not typical, not the “norm.”  You see their faces take on that “try not to show you are shocked/surprised/repulsed/out of your depth” look.  You have to trust that they will listen and not just take away the more sensational headlines – just like the news media does nearly every single time they cover the lives of people with FASD.

Yes, it’s different.  Yes, it’s hard.  And yes, it is, in fact, your life.

So you have a choice.  You keep that smile on your face while you put your best foot forward and eventually walk right smack into a wall.  Because you will – it is impossible to act like it’s Business As Usual without eventually hitting a wall.  You know this, because you have already been there, done that.

The reality is, you need help.  More importantly your child needs help – will ALWAYS need help (even when you are not here).  By pretending it’s all okay, you are depriving your child the chance at his or her best possible outcome.  They have to learn to ask for help.  They will have to lean on others and let people into a messy and chaotic world.  They will have to TRUST that others care more about them then the state of their house.  They have learn that it’s okay to be imperfect.  And they will learn that lesson by watching you, by repeating whatever mantra it is that is the narrative in your own home.  You have to forget about your mother’s house and focus on the home you have.

That’s where it gets real.  That’s where the vulnerability comes in.  To help your own child, you need to break down those walls, let others see you at your worst.  Despite everything you were trained to do, whatever rulebook you have inherited, you have to shed those expectations.  You must show your vulnerabilities again and again to a too often unkind and uncaring world.

Because out there in that crowd, there are people who can help, people who can understand, people whose bubble splats are up there on the ceiling too.  They will be there, hidden among too many who might not be helpful and who might in fact be judgemental.  You need to armour up and go looking anyway.  You will never find those people your family needs hiding behind the illusion that everything is “normal.”

And the reality is – there’s no such thing as “normal” anyway. We need to teach our kids to love themselves as they are.  That starts with us taking that first step – loving ourselves and celebrating our lives as they are too.

“Welcome to my world” – how many times I have said that as my mother would have, tongue in cheek, self-depracating.  But “welcome to my world” can also be a positive statement of affirmation and a doorway to the future for our children.

Because really, my world is pretty darn amazing too – for those willing to look past the unidentified marks on the walls.  Our house and its striving, growing, messy, manic, chaotic swirl of emotions and movement is a place of love.  And Home is Where The Heart Is.  And Every Man’s (and Woman’s) Home Is a Castle.  I will let down the drawbridge if it means letting in the supplies and help and support that we need, admitting that It Takes A Village to Raise a Child. Showing our children that it’s okay to be who we are.

So, welcome…

 

 

 

 

 

The Same Child Shines When Seen Through a Different Prism

 

Blog_DifferentPrismBy SB_FASD

We’ve said it before, our guy seems to learn in leaps.  It’s never a steady upward curve for him.  He plateaus and then without any seeming rhyme or reason to it, he jumps up to the next level.  Each time this happens, he falls back in other areas.  Perhaps foolishly, each time it happens, we allow ourselves to be hit hard by the regression.

We are in one of those times.  Our home environment is suffering.  Our pre-teen son is increasingly armed with new vocabulary and new attitude, fueled by a new edginess in what he is watching on YouTube.  Social pressures at school are causing him great distress.  He is getting less physical activity now that he is at a new school.  His walks to and from school and his after school activities have been replaced with time spent in a taxi.  He is out of the house and ‘on’ from 8:00 am until 4:00 pm.  It’s a long day for anyone, and especially for him.

When I snuck away to write this blog, I was feeling down.  I was thinking of the rough morning we just had (diverted eventually by a walk along a river). I was still smarting from the rough night we had last night (diverted only by nearly two hours in a pool) and the string of other rough nights and rough mornings we have had lately.  I was thinking of the harsh words between my husband and I, and the dismayed look on our elder son’s face as the tensions mounted.  Again.  The way the dog sometimes gets wide-eyed.  The mess of the house.  Work stresses.  The fact that this morning we rushed out of the house after a meltdown, in survival mode, and I haven’t had a shower.  Again.  How even the bacon sandwich I allowed myself as a ‘treat’ from a café while we were wandering was disappointing and flat tasting.  Yes, when I started writing I wasn’t in a great mood.

Then I remembered that a school report arrived yesterday.  I stepped away from the computer to have a read.  Page by page, my mood lightened.  I was stunned at my own inability to understand what I know.  Yes!  It hit me.  Our son may be regressing at home, but at school he is progressing in leaps and bounds.  These things are never unrelated. Once again, I am amazed at the difference it is making now that he is in a specialist setting.

Last year at the end of the year we wrote about how we were so crushed by our son’s report card, we never let him see it.  In contrast, this time I called him onto the bed where I was writing.  I told him I had his school report and wanted to show him.  He groaned and visibly moved away from me, alarmed and ready to bolt.  I put my hand on his back and said, “No, wait – it’s excellent.  Listen.”  He looked up into my eyes, searching.  And we skimmed his in-depth report together.  He became more and more interactive, more excited.  After one especially positive comment, he whispered with utmost pride, “Maybe I should get a new toy!”  (Proving that at least in some cases he can link some cause and some effect and also showing perhaps not flatteringly that as parents we have not been above pure bribery in the past.)

In a school that understands not all kids’ brains are wired the same, here’s what these new teachers wrote:

  • “He’s an eager and enthusiastic pupil”
  • “He has great ideas”
  • “He is not at all afraid of thinking outside of the box”
  • “His work benefits from his imagination”
  • “He makes his presence felt with his enthusiasm”
  • “He is keen to achieve good results”
  • “He is gaining greater confidence”
  • “He is a talented musician”
  • “He has an ability to create exciting and engaging musical performances”
  • “Polite”
  • “Very able”
  • “His attitude toward learning has been excellent”
  • “His confidence has improved”
  • “He has managed to express his colourful personality”
  • “I am delighted to have a pupil of such creativity and imagination at the school”

Let’s get this straight.  This is the same child who last year was chided in his report for “disruptive behaviour,” for being “silly” and “distracting.” The discouraged boy who was told he “needed to understand” his behaviour was “inappropriate.”  Who was marked down because he couldn’t pay attention for “more than five minutes.”  The kid who we couldn’t get out the door to school because he was under so much pressure we thought we had broken his spirit–this was happening as recently as five months ago.  He’s the same kid.

I was especially struck by the comment on his current report from a science teacher.  Last year, his science teacher commented on his final report that he repeatedly cried throughout the year when given instructions.  Her reports were never positive, she saw only a problem student.  Cue to this year, and here we are: “He has worked hard in science lessons. He generally grasps new concepts quite quickly and enjoys the opportunities to work practically.  He observes scientific experiences carefully…He follows instructions well and can work in a careful, systematic manner.”

THIS IS THE SAME CHILD.

I want to rattle some teachers.  I know, I know all about the pressures you are under.  But shame on you if you have a child in your class that has a disability and you refuse to learn about how to help that child, you turn away offers from parents who seek to help you understand, who offer to work in partnership with you to help you reach that student.  We hear about it all the time.  Those few of you who refuse to grow professionally are suffocating the spirit of our kids who need you most.  (There were many heroes in his mainstream education, but there were also a few who were truly deplorable.)

He was so proud, so very proud of this new report.  He put his head on my shoulder, squeezed hard, while remembering to ask if it was my sore arm.  (These moments of blatant awareness of others are still few and far enough between that they jump out at me.  I was touched that in this moment of triumph he was also then able to think about me. I am sure there is a link).

We also talked about some of the comments that show his FASD is still affecting his ability to access education fully.  He is starting to know these are areas where he always will have difficulty due to his FASD, areas where he will need to put strategies in place.  When he read the bit about how he “can easily become distracted and lose focus,” he said, “that happens sometimes, doesn’t it?” We acknowledged but brushed over the comments that “he has yet to grasp cause and effect” and “he must ensure he always listens carefully to an instruction so he knows what is expected of him.” We will continue to work with him to understand his FASD and also with his school to ensure they understand these challenges are not due to willful disobedience, but because he will always, for life, need instructions broken down – preferably shown in a visual format, maybe even rehearsed. Whereas previously these sorts of comments dominated his reports, this time, these comments were decidedly in the minority.

The most touching moment was when he asked me to explain this comment, the one that made my mood brighten most: “He needs to believe in himself because he already has gained the respect of many of his peers.”  We went over that together, slowly. As its meaning sunk in, he glowed and I basked in this new space.  He’s made great leaps forward.

It doesn’t mean what’s happening at home is not real, not concerning, not demanding attention and strategies.  (Of course, when things are flying and getting broken we must hear what those behaviours are saying and make necessary changes.)  A positive report doesn’t make his social challenges any less difficult (he told me heartbreakingly the other day he will “never be happy again” because he is “bullied every day, every year”).  But seeing this report does help me believe that those educators around him can help him get past that hurdle too.  He may be having trouble with one or two kids, but he also is “earning the respect of many.”  Can you imagine how wonderful that is for a kid who has been shoved aside, jollied or sidelined by too many of his peers throughout too much of his education up to this point?  Yes.  We are on a whole new level.  Somehow, I have been letting down my guard and letting negative thoughts in.  I have been forgetting that with great progress comes some setbacks in other areas.

Remembering that makes it all a bit easier.

At least, it should.

I’m trying.

————
P.S. – To top off the transformation of my mood, I just read this most fantastic piece by Dr. Nathan Ory, “What It’s Like to Live With Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.”  I hope everyone will take a chance to read and absorb his insights.  Share it with the schools.  He sums up in one paragraph why I think our guy is doing so well in his new setting (and it’s a timely and important reminder to us at home to keep smiling even through the hard times):

Children growing up with these types of differences in their thinking and learning processes often become very emotionally fragile. They don’t “get” why people are distressed with them. They experience that others are distressed with them and often mirror or reflect back the very emotion that is being shown towards them. For these children, it is very important to really like them when you are speaking to them. They work more off the emotions of those around them than the words and actions of those who are guiding them. Being emotionally angry towards them always further escalates their behavior….These are not bad kids. Often they are working heroically to overcome their learning disabilities and to participate in the world wherever they are able.

 

Old Photos and the FASD We Didn’t See

Blog_OldPictures

By SB_FASD

My favourite Maya Angelou quote goes something like this, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

But I can’t help but feel sad at times for what might have been had I had more information, more insight, and more understanding into our son’s struggles at an earlier stage.  I love the Facebook “memories” that pop up daily in my news feed.  But this steady drip of what we were doing 3, 5 or 7 years ago stabs my conscience.  Our son was adopted at 16 months.  He was not diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome until he was 10 (he’s now 12).  He had lots of therapies over the years, don’t get me wrong, we were constantly in and out of every sort of appointment possible.  But no one gave us the overall framework to understand our guy’s struggles – we were micromanaging various issues.  No one said, “Your guy’s brain is wired differently.” No one gave us the lens to understand what we were seeing.

As a result, for too many years we just did not understand what he was showing us every day, in every way he possibly could.  How absolutely devastatingly frustrating those years must have been for a child who was struggling so hard to find his voice, to find his place in this world.

In one photo, it’s his second birthday.  We had just moved across the ocean – a huge world-shifting move for us all.  Our little guy is in a high chair, some cake with lit candles is in front of him.  He is beside himself crying, face red, I am down low at eye level – looking at him.  My face is confused, concerned, bewildered.  That photo most of all makes me want to cry.  It says it all – the love, the confusion, the chasm of misunderstanding, his world crumbling – burdened with our good intentions.

There are photos of him holding our fingers and then bouncing and bouncing.  We called it his ‘happy dance’ – since he was always happier after he did it.  He was showing us that he needed deep impact to feed his proprioceptive senses – that it helped him feel more centred in this world.

There are photos over years with a constant bump on his forehead from where he would bang his head – either walking directly into walls, or banging the floor (he also used to poke his eyes).  I now understand what one occupational therapist tried to explain about how when his system was so overwhelmed sometimes that a powerful pain signal would be reassuring, give his system something concrete to focus on.  (Why oh why did they not tell us how to avoid him getting to that point?  There are strategies, we know now, but didn’t know then….)  There’s another photo of him, age 5, smelling daffodils.  He looks more like a 2 or 3 year old, so tiny but we didn’t see that then – not just that his physical growth was lagging but also his social and emotional levels were so far behind other kids.

A video of him in a nativity play at school – perfectly in rhythm with the music, shaking some bells a wonderful teacher decided to give him so he had something concrete to do because he couldn’t stand still, couldn’t follow the story.  So obviously inundated with sensory overload but valiantly there in the mix of the other kids.  What were we thinking?  How do you balance that triumph of his overcoming a moment with the desire to want to cuddle him and protect him from exposure to such an overwhelming environment?  A video of him in a theatre group – perfectly in rhythm with the music from Grease, but so small, looking left and right to see if he is doing the right thing.  (He was.)  The remembering of moves was made easier because they were linked to movement and music.  A sign of his need for multi-sensory learning.

Picture after picture of him in mud, playing with bubbles, in dress up clothes that swirl and provide sensory input, in pillow and blanket forts that give him the needed feeling of safety and comfort.  Some photos of things gone wrong, moments of tensions that exploded.  Holidays where you can see the strain on all of our faces.  Tears at broken toys.  One incredibly heartbreaking photo of him sobbing with distress on his brother’s birthday, unable to understand why he was not getting a present too.  That time on holiday when he made a list of what we would do that day on a toy blackboard – showing us he needed structure we were not providing.  We thought it was cute.  We didn’t realise he was showing us how to stop him from drowning.

Photos over several years where we now see clearly the facial features of FAS and wonder why those medical and other professionals around us didn’t see it too.  Suppressing the bitterness, feeling just maybe they let him down most of all.

I would have done so many, many things differently for the toddler, for the young child.  I would not have forced him to sleep listening to music I chose, or in silence, or with a night light, or in pajamas that had feet in them. I would not have held him to stop his rocking.  I would have better understood his aversion to some foods was sensory-based.  I would have given him more structure, less input. I would have known that his brain was in danger of shutting down with too much input. Most importantly, I would have slowed down.  Changed the environment.  Turned off the background noise.   I would never have taken him into those stores where he always had meltdowns.  I remember my husband spinning a shopping cart with him in it as the only thing he could think of to try to calm our child in full meltdown in one store.  I was mortified but I see now why that probably worked.  (I also see we should never have been there in the first place.)  I would have taught our son differently.  I would have realized those times when we struggled to get him screaming into the car seat were times when we should have helped him calm, we should have reassured him, handled transitions more gently.  I would have listened to him.  I would never, never have put him into those time outs.  (Thanks very much, tv nannies – your strategies actually do not work for all kids.)

It would have changed my world, his world, our world to know then that he was not having tantrums, but in those heartbreaking, adrenaline-infused moments he was incapable of doing what we were asking him to do and we were the ones…WE WERE THE ONES who needed to chill out.

I didn’t know then what I know now.  This steady drip of pictures reminds me of that.  And I struggle with that guilt that bubbles just below.

But then, I look harder.  I also see hope in those photos.  I see the exuberance of a lovely spirit that was not crushed.  I see a child who felt empowered as a part of our family to keep trying to tell us what he needed in those ways he knew how.  I see a strong-willed boy who has always had to battle for himself, to find his own way forward in the face of every external pressure we and the schools applied.  I see a kid who has never given up, though the pressures of the world nearly crushed him last year.

I see a kid day after day, moment after moment seeking answers to why his world is so confusing.  I see a kid who trusts us still, despite what he sometimes says when impulses run faster than social niceties.  I see a fighter.  I see someone who can make it in this world even when the powers that be don’t ‘get’ him.  I see an amazingly brave and resilient soul who has so much to teach us all.

I can’t change the past.  I can’t take back those days of not understanding.  But I sure as heck can do better now.  And I am learning.  Constantly trying to better understand how to help guide our son into his future.  I am sure years from now I will look back at these days and wonder why I didn’t know more.  I’ll need to suppress my thoughts of inadequacy, ignore that simmering guilt, the fears that maybe I am not good enough for this job.

I guess all I can say is this: I’ll do what I know how to do, and when I know better – my dear son I can promise you this – I will do better.

In the meantime, keep shining.  Keep showing us the way.  And I will trust in you too.

__________

Note: For every person with the facial features of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, experts say there are 9 or 10 others on the Fetal Alcohol spectrum – and while diagnosis was hard enough for our son who when finally tested  had 100% of the facial features, for others it is even more difficult – a ‘hidden disability’ that is way too often over looked.

For parenting resources, please be sure to check out the resource pages linked on the left-hand side of this blog.  Two favourites are here:

Information Leaflet for Parents and Carers of Children having Received a Diagnosis of FASD

FASD: Strategies Not Solutions

When a School Rocks

SchoolRocksBy SB_FASD

They cheered each other as each new car arrived with another student.  They were wearing their production hoodies and shirts and school uniforms.  They were buzzing with positive energy – ready for their third performance of the day.  Not nervous, buoyed.  Several kids were introducing our son to their parents.  Some of his new friends broke into huge smiles when they saw us and one gave me a big hug.  The spirit was high.  I was expecting nerves, uncertainties.  But instead this place was alight with confidence and a sense of fun and accomplishment.  These kids were in a good place.  Soon they would be onstage, but in these early moments before the curtain was raised, they were already a team.

Our family has extensive experience with theatre.  The lead up to this night was every bit as intensive a schedule as for a semi-professional or major amateur theatre group.  Before they got to this place, hours of expert direction and guidance took place.  Even before they started rehearsals, these kids were being prepared for their moment.  And that is the thing that brings me to tears every time I think about, sappy soul that I am (or that I am becoming).  The whole school experience for these kids makes nights like this possible.

I don’t know all of their stories, I just know our son’s story.

Our son has always loved music, performing. He’s kind of awesome at it.  He’s now in Year 8.  He attended mainstream school until last November.  In his school’s end of year production in Year 6, he was given I think three words to say, and was placed behind a taller child where no one could see him.  In Year 7 at the secondary school, he eagerly attended the rehearsals for Oliver (he knows every word of the songs) but he had to drop out because the school was not set up to support him through the rehearsals and he was getting into trouble.  Only a few months after he was close to rock bottom having nearly been crushed by the pressures of his old mainstream school, here in this specialist environment, with this team of educators who understand his needs (he has a diagnosis of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome) and have the resources to support him, not only was he onstage but he was in a main role, with more lines than I thought he could manage, and singing his heart out.  And his teacher was literally #intheband!

And as I watched this theatre full of amazing students I was multiplying in my mind his story by her story by their stories, and the full impact of what was happening left me humbled.

THIS IS HOW IT SHOULD BE FOR EVERY CHILD, EVERYWHERE.

There they were, these brave, hard working kids, singing their truth:

I’ve got so much to say,
If only you would listen.
I’ve tried ev’ry which way,
And still you never listen.
Can’t you see I’m hurting?
I couldn’t be more clear.
But I promise,
One day I’ll make you hear.

You know I try, try, try to explain–
I’m not the kid you want me to be.
And yet it’s all, it’s all in vain–
You just don’t want to see the real me.
You think you know what I’m all about–
And yet you just keep shutting me out!

I’ve got so much to share,
If only you would listen.
You could prove that you care,
If only you would listen.
I’m not gonna beg you–
You’ll never see a tear.
But I promise, one day, I’ll make you hear.
(Lyrics, from If Only You Would Listen)

We had a young friend with us, a child who attends our son’s old school.  She said she wished could go to this school too.  She didn’t see anything other than a cool school, with students who were having a great experience.

We were told by the head teacher that while any school should be happy to have a student like our son, this place is perfect for him because he is so very comfortable being who he is.  I wrote about this in the last post, but I just can’t say enough how life-changing it is as a parent to know that your child is in a place that welcomes him, appreciates him, and wants him to be there.

Those words hold power.

They hold the power to change trajectories, to forge positive futures.

I am not saying this performance was smooth throughout.  There were microphones that didn’t work, lines that took prompting.  But what I loved most of all was imagining our son one day being like the lead actor – a talented young man who captivated us all last night – helping another young student like our son remember his lines some day.

More than the cheering each other upon arrival (which was truly awesome), I was deeply, deeply impressed by the way these students guided each other.

That is what this school is teaching.

And there they were!  Some kids for whom even standing up in front of a room full of 120+ people would be a potentially crippling thought…some students who in other places would be mocked or sidelined or silenced – shoved to the back of the room, put into a side room or perhaps even excluded at times…some young adults who have overcome more than most of us will ever have to face…there they were.  Shining.

During the curtain call, when the cast and crew were all onstage dancing and laughing and giving themselves high fives, we saw our son for the first time with his tribe.  These kids weren’t patronizing him, these kids weren’t including him because they were told to, these kids were standing by him, with him.  Together, they made us hear.

AND, they had a confetti cannon.  You have no idea how much it means to our son to be on a stage with a confetti cannon, hearing the applause.

This school rocks.

(Now, how do we make it so every school can rock too?)

Finally!

Blog_WhenOthersGetIt
By SB_FASD

It was the end of the school week.  We were at the school for a serious parent/teacher meeting, a meeting we had requested.  We had hoisted the red flag a couple of weeks ago – our guy’s behaviours at home have been escalating.  We were getting worried. If we are honest, it’s been a challenging couple of weeks (though still nowhere near as hard as it was previously).  He’s been talking about getting bullied. We were prepared for a difficult discussion.

We were ready.  We had print-outs of information about FASD all neatly organized in a binder to leave at the school.  We had a notepad with a list of topics we absolutely wanted to cover.  For the first time since he started attending this new specialist school, school refusal had reared its head that morning (if tentatively). We were there to help nip things in the bud, to explain our guy’s side.  Tired.  Defensive.  Pensive.  Rushed.

I guess we grow used to being parent warriors.  We grow used to having to push, to being overly forceful, cajoling, persuading (I have been known to beg at times) just to make sure those around him are giving our son a chance.  We were on edge.  There are few options out there if things don’t go well at this new school. We were feeling desperate, concerned.

We are not in daily contact with this school, as we have been with other schools. This one is a taxi ride away and we don’t see his teachers very often.  We don’t know them as well.  We do have some phone calls, emails, but we didn’t know what to expect in this meeting. How would they respond to the bat signal we sent out a few weeks ago when we started to see some things deteriorate?

We sat around a table with his teacher and his learning coordinator.  Friday afternoons are never the easiest for our guy, but he was awesome.  He participated in part of the discussion and they praised him for providing the details they needed.  I was impressed – both with him and how grown up he seemed, and with the way they gently reinforced him during the discussion.   After a while, we let him go into the hallway, where he amused himself while we spoke one-on-one with the teachers.

And then, magic.  It took me a little while to grasp what was going on.  I was off balance.  I was having trouble wrapping my head around what these two educators were saying.

I literally put down the pen, closed my notebook, and just absorbed it.  In all these years of formal education, never once had someone spoken like this about our son.

I felt this veil lifting.

They could see him.  I could see that they could see him.

I was floored.  Humbled.  Enthusiastic?  Overwhelmed.  On sadly unfamiliar ground, but ready to do a jig.

They talked about a kid who is helping others to learn, building friendships.  They were talking about a kid who is well-liked.  They were describing someone whose talents are recognised and celebrated by the whole school.  They talked with smiles on their faces about a kid who literally is dancing in the corridors.  They were talking about a kid who is exceptional in many ways.

They were talking about our son.

Most amazingly, they described a child who is so comfortable in himself that he is helping change a dynamic among his peers.  Through his example, he is opening up conversations about each person being unique, not fitting in boxes.

They see him!

They addressed the issues we were there to discuss.  Professionally, competently.  Compassionately.  In fact, we dealt with all those points on my sheet of paper without my having to tick them off one by one.  These educators – the whole school in fact – “gets it”.  I cannot explain what a mind-blowing change of reality that is.  We still haven’t fully absorbed the difference of being in a special needs educational setting.

Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Even if they have not had great experience with FASD, they were interested to learn. They welcomed the fact he is taking on board his diagnosis and told us with a chuckle about the time he cursed at the deputy head, and then apologized, saying he was “dysregulated”.  (We had the distinct impression they are not used to 12-year olds saying that.)  They welcomed our binder-full of FASD flyers, printouts, tips for educators.  They said they would share it with colleagues.

We could see the “aha” moments as we filled in some gaps about things that might be different about our guy from some of their other students.  We explained things like confabulation.  We showed sheets comparing the differences between FASD and other diagnoses.  We talked about how kids with FASD may seem like other kids – for example, those with autism – but still may have some key differences in how their brains work and why they work that way.

It’s not like it used to be – when he tried so hard to conform to other’s standards, barely keeping his head (just) above water despite swimming as hard as he could.

Now he is in a place that doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all approach.  Here, just by being the amazing, unique, lovable, complex individual that he is, THAT is enough.  THAT is actually more than enough – in fact THAT is inspiring others.

In his old school we were worried he was getting lost among a thousand others, overwhelmed.  His spark was going out because he was under too much pressure all the time.  We had hoped that in a smaller setting he might be able to shine.  We never imagined once he started to sparkle again that he could help others do so too.

As we listened we heard the whispers of an emerging leader, a child comfortable in his own skin.  Oh my days! (As our son would say…)  What a wonderful, wonderful, encouraging and uplifting thought.

All our kids deserve to be seen.  They all deserve to have a chance to shine.  We hear time and again of kids being shoved to the back of the room and left unsupported, their needs ignored or side-lined by those whose who are tasked with helping them access education.  We have always had supportive mainstream schools, which is sadly too often not the case for many, but even still our guy had felt the weight of that world on his shoulders, and it nearly crushed him. Inclusion was and is something we believe in fundamentally.  But inclusion is more than simply sitting in a room trying to do what all the other kids are doing.

The difference in this meeting at this school was that rather than sitting worrying about how to fit our son into a box that he cannot fit into, here at this school there is no such box.  He is being lifted up and guided by people who have the training needed to understand him.  Even though there are problems which are quite challenging – I don’t mean to sugarcoat this – here his own strengths are being seen for what they are: gifts to those around him.

As parents, there is nothing more we could ask – there is nothing more important than those around him recognising what we have known all along: Our family/the school/the community/the world is indeed a better place because our child is in it.

That tension inside released a little, and all I could think was … “FINALLY!”