RIP Sir Noel, The Christmas Dog – An FASD Love Story

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By SB_FASD

Once in a while you encounter a being so pure that you simply have to believe.

Four years ago, our youngest son was struggling.  He was in Year 5. At great cost to himself he gave everything he had at school, at home, in clubs. But he walked every day in world that didn’t understand him. None of us understood yet that his behaviours were symptoms of undiagnosed brain damage caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol.

He asked and he asked for a dog. He wanted a friend. Someone who would be by his side. No questions asked.  No demands.  He needed one sure and faithful friend.

Unbeknownst to us (though it later filtered back), he asked Father Christmas for a dog at the school fete. He asked for a dog that wouldn’t “bark, whine or whinge.”  (No pressure there!) It was a difficult decision. If we got a dog and it didn’t work out, it could potentially have a devastating impact on him.

Father Christmas sent our son a special letter that arrived on our doorstep on Thanksgiving Day while our British-American home was full of guests. Father Christmas had found a dog he wanted our family to go meet.

The dog’s name, I kid you not, was Noel.

Our little one was barely able to contain himself when we met Noel, a five-year old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.  Noel’s first action was to lay down to have his tummy rubbed. The grins of that day will stay with me forever.  Our eldest was “euphoric”.  (He was about to embark on a multi-year battle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis but we did not yet know that then.  Noel would be near him on many a day when he was unable to get dressed and go to school, but that is getting ahead of our story.)

We are a family built by adoption (my husband was adopted and we adopted our youngest son). We knew without doubt we had found our newest family member.  He was ill.  He had been rescued from doggie death row in Ireland.  Like our son, he was traumatized by his experiences.  He was compliant, but not beaten.  His spirit was intact.

And … he was silent.  (Just as our son had been when we adopted him at sixteen months.)

Like some scene from Miracle on 34th Street, Father Christmas somehow knew exactly the right dog to send to our home.  Maybe he knew that we were about to enter some very, very difficult days.  Years of them, actually.

Our youngest son was diagnosed with a Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) the following spring. We found out that our son not only had the sensory issues and learning delays that we knew came from his early traumatic experiences, but underlying all of this the connections between different parts of his brain had been damaged before he drew his first breath.  He will forever have problems with executive functioning, abstract thinking, impulse control, adaptive planning. What makes sense to others won’t always add up for our little one. Into Year Six and Year Seven his school life became increasingly torturous.  He kept himself together at school and then bam!  He would explode at home like a can of soda that had been shaken all day and was primed and ready to burst.

Our house was the scene over a couple of years of sometimes spectacular meltdowns.  When our youngest’s brain was overwhelmed the fight and flight instinct would become all-consuming and powerful. He was not coping.  Worse, as he entered puberty, his behaviours were escalating. He started refusing school.  Regressing. He was confused and cornered. It was a nightmarish time. Heart wrenching. He was starting to run away.  He had taken candy from shops. He was fixated on lighters.  When you live it, you don’t always see how these things can creep up over time.

When things would heat up at home, we learned our own little family ballet. Our eldest would put on headphones and block it out via computer games.  Noel would be put out in the garden or in the kitchen where patiently, he’d wait.  My husband and I would tag team, sometimes more successfully than others. These distressing moments would come crashing down around us.

When it was over, Noel would go up to our son, tail wagging, ready for the healing. The first apologies were always for Noel.  How many tears were cried onto that Blenheim coat.  How many hugs he had.

Sometimes our youngest would speak through Noel.  He’d say (in a Noel voice), “Don’t hit Mummy, she loves you.”  “Stop throwing things, they will break.”  “Don’t say mean things, it’s not nice.” “Go to your calm space.”  We are learning about the whole “theory of mind” thing. For sure, Noel helped our son see the world through different eyes.

Our whole family needed this little fur ball. The walks along the river, through the field. The cuddles on the couch.  The impromptu games of fetch in the garden. The big, uncomplicated brown eyes staring up into ours when we too needed a constant in a tumultuous world that could change moment to moment.

He was our shin-high reminder to slow down and just let the positives wash over us.  Our very own walking embodiment of mindfulness.  Noel was our regulator.

As a family, we grew.  We learned techniques and strategies to support our youngest. He learned words like ‘dysregulated’ and became conversant on stress toys and calm spots and neurons that have trouble talking to each other.  We built a support network in our area.  Now there is an FASD Club for other children just like him.  He is not so alone anymore, not so misunderstood.

Critically, one year ago he moved into a specialist school where he is cognitively supported and where they have lots of sensory outlets for him to help him self-regulate (including school dogs).  We have found the right medication to help him focus.  His meltdowns have almost entirely stopped.  We seem as a family to be entering a better place.  Our youngest is more even, calmer, more comfortable in his own skin – though of course we have the teenage years ahead.  Our eldest has come through the worst of his CFS/ME (knock on wood).  I changed from a very stressful job with lots of international travel to one where I now work full-time on raising awareness of and support for those with FASD. We are all of us hopeful that things are on a safer and more settled path.

Sir Noel, the Sweet One walked with us out of the darkness to this brighter place.

Earlier this month we started to notice Noel seemed to be out of sorts.  He had been coughing.  There were visits back and forth to the vets.  Fireworks season here in England in early November really affected him.  His heart never stop racing, his breathing became laboured.

Noel was staying closer to us all – visiting our eldest in his room more often.  He was curling up with my husband more persistently. He very uncharacteristically (once) protectively snarled at the door when the postman came.  I think I knew what I was seeing.  I let him sleep curled up behind my legs for weeks.  My dad had heart problems.  I think I knew.

And so we found ourselves a bit stretched out, concerned as we entered this holiday season – the same time of year when Noel first entered our lives. This year, our youngest and I bowed out of early Thanksgiving festivities and stayed home instead.  Noel spent that day by our son’s side, curled up peacefully for hours next to him on a furry blanket. Our little one had just had a complicated hand operation, trying to give more motion and strength to a hand that had also been damaged by prenatal alcohol exposure. They needed each other that day, those two.  I am so glad they had that time.  So proud that our family had learned enough to not force our son into a social situation that he was never going to manage well. Relieved we have the confidence now to structure our lives to help meet his needs, to change the environment around him to allow him to succeed.  To focus on the positives and not let the negatives consume his whole world as they were starting to do.

The next day Noel was having more trouble. He was quietly seeking sunshine and warmth and simply standing there.  I guess some might say he was moving into the light.  Eyes locked together, that last night I fed him bits of chicken by hand when he was having trouble eating, stayed up with him in the early hours.  Bleary-eyed I went off to a meeting in London the next morning while my husband brought Noel to the vets. He was going to be escorted to an animal hospital for tests personally by the vet, who loved him too.  He died 15 minutes after my husband left.  Noel needed to be alone to let us go.  Just like my dad.

I was in a room full of medical professionals who were discussing FASD at the Royal Society of Medicine when the urgent calls and texts came. These were some leading academic experts on intellectual disabilities, but the thought flashed through my mind, could they understand this? I greatly value their insights but there is no way a book could teach this – the unquantifiable, sometimes inexplicable reality of the ups and downs of life for those living on the FASD spectrum and their families. The tectonic plates had just shifted in our little one’s world. I had to get back before our boys came home from school.  I left the experts to their PowerPoints.

Oh, what a heartbreaking conversation as our little one’s world crumbled. As he locked himself in his room blasting “The First Noel” over and over and over again.  As he called on the genies to make the wind swirl backward in a reverse tornado to bring him back.  As he panicked about whether Father Christmas might be angry that the Christmas Dog had died.  When he alarmingly said he wanted to die and go to heaven to be with Noel.  When we realized he was blaming himself, thinking Noel’s stealing of a forbidden piece of toast with cheese that had been left down low a few days ago might have brought this on.

The next day he once again used a Noel voice to say it’s okay, he had found Grad in heaven, he wasn’t alone anymore and he wouldn’t leave his side.  That he had found a whole field of Greenies (his favourite treat).  Our son was thinking abstractly, and Noel was helping him still to find his way forward. But there is a hole, a huge gaping hole in our little one’s world. It’s one thing to say that love never dies, but another thing entirely to process it.

We are a family that believes in Christmas magic.  While initially we were thinking it would be better to wait before finding another four-legged companion, we realised that due to our son’s perseveration, the way he can sometimes fixate on things, this space needs to be filled.

And, wouldn’t you know it.  A sweet puppy named Joy (I am not making this up – I couldn’t make this up) is coming into our lives in a couple of weeks, right before Christmas. She is traveling to us from Bulgaria.  Another adoption. Father Christmas wasn’t mad at all.  He knew.

Yes, we needed a certain kind of dog to get us through these past four years, and we had the best.  Sir Noel, The Christmas Dog’s love for us and his faith in us was transformative.

But that isn’t the end of this story.

Joy will follow Noel.

 

 

 

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Tears, Support and Bloody-Mindedness

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New! Audio recording

By SB_FASD

Yesterday was the second anniversary of the local FASD support group we set up after our son’s diagnosis of a Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.  We had several families new to the group join us.

We had nearly cancelled yesterday’s meeting. We have been stretched and pulled in too many directions lately, with the added pressures of our little one’s operation throwing an already strained house nearly over the edge.  We both left the house yesterday without our wallets, I didn’t have my phone – an indication of the mayhem that can be our lives.  And yet, two hours later we left the meeting uplifted, glad, invigorated.  Being with others who ‘get it’ does that to you.

One mum new to the group said it had taken her a long time to decide if she wanted to come to a support group because she has never done something like this before.  She reminded me of me … and the first meeting we attended in September 2015 – two months before we set up our own group.

I wrote then, “It is not easy to come forward and to say you or your family need help, that you can’t do it alone, that you need support.  I have always failed those trust tests where you are supposed to fall back and let others catch you. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t want to hear more bad news… And yes, as I had dreaded, it was … a room that held some of my worst nightmares – those things you fear for your child when you lay awake, trying to suppress the panic. The vulnerability of our kids laid bare.  Prison. Sexual violence. Isolation. Ostracism. Self harm. Rejection. And yet, there it was–the mind-blowing and inspiring resilience of people whose loved ones have suffered through those worst things of all. They were saying, ‘We’re still here, we’re still fighting, and look! Our kids are not only progressing, they are doing well.’  You can come through even great darkness to the other side.  I never thought to face down those fears.”

I felt the power of the journey again yesterday as in our imperfect way, our group was bridging those who are in crisis, those whose children are recently diagnosed, and those who have been in crisis but whose lives have entered a calmer period.  The polite go-round where everyone gave the most basic of facts about their families, followed by the raw versions as we delved deeper into discussion.  Fears. Tears. Frustration. Anger. People who try so hard to do right by their little ones, but who can’t find the support, can’t find the professionals willing to help. The dismay at the lack of understanding of FASD and what this precious time being wasted means to our young ones and their families.  It makes you so sick to hear story after story, to know these realities are multiplied by the thousands across the country.  To know that there is proof of what can help but the professionals (not all) in their arrogance (some), in their lack of training (most), in their over-stretched and under-resourced structures in which they work (all), refuse to go that extra step.  To know that even in places like our local area where there are professionals who want to do more and who have the training to do more, even then The System sometimes takes away their ability to act for short-sighted or ill-informed reasons.  That System fails us – and leaves a lonely mum at wit’s end crying silently-strong, but at a loss for how to move forward when every single door gets slammed in her face, and as she sees her lovely child start to crack under the weight of the pressures being put upon him. It is quite simply heartbreaking.  And so unfair.

Families across the UK say they wish they had a support.  I wish they did too.  This situation is outrageous, cruel and dehumanizing.  The System certainly steps up fast enough when a young person goes off the rails.   They find the resources to toss them in a high-cost prison, but refuse to provide funds to diagnose and help support those with brain damage/brain injury at the formative time in their lives.  They cut services, benefits and then come down hard when someone can’t pay rent.  The System waits until good people are at breaking point or until after something is broken irretrievably before thinking the situation is bad enough to trigger the services and support that are critical.

No one, NO ONE will EVER be able to justify that to me.

It simply must change.  Our kids shouldn’t have to break before The System sees them.

That said, don’t wait.  If you don’t have support, you can build it. You don’t need to be an expert. You don’t need to have the answers.  You don’t need to be an experienced organizer. You just need a room, some people, and a belief that sharing this journey with others will help you all – a belief that ‘together we are stronger’.  Here’s how we did it.*

Be patient with yourself.  it can take time to wrap your head around it all.  We went into a kind of depression after our son received his diagnosis in spring 2014.  We didn’t really grasp the full impact of it. We received a huge 60-page report the following spring 2015. We first started by educating ourselves, and then a tight-knit group of family, friends, our son’s school.  It was not until Autumn 2015 that we attended our first support group meeting organized by NOFAS-UK and a couple months later set up our local group.

Who knew then just how much this would change our lives?

At our meeting yesterday people said they were holding back, trying to be ‘polite.’

I humbly suggest, let’s stop being polite.  Let’s stay positive.  Let’s tell it like it is.  Let’s make some noise.  Call a local radio station, call a local paper.

Let’s make life uneasy for every bureaucrat who takes the file of a person with FASD and puts it on the ‘not for action until this one breaks too’ pile.

Let’s let love and bloody-mindedness drive us toward the future we know is possible, the future our loved ones deserve.  The brighter future we insist upon because we have hope.

Yes, some days are hard.  Very hard indeed.  Yes, we can provide peer-to-peer support for each other.  Yes, we can raise awareness.  Yes, we can spread the information and strategies.  But at the end of the day there are elected officials in this country responsible for the well-being of people with disabilities, responsible for young people in care and those who are adopted, responsible for ensuring that those with special needs are receiving the education to which they are entitled by law, responsible for the mental health and well-being of our young people and pregnant women, responsible for ensuring adequate diagnosis and medical care is provided to the most vulnerable in our society.

Sadly, it’s up to us to insist that all of these people Do. Their. Bloody. Jobs.

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* For those in the UK, the FASD UK Alliance has online support and people like us who have set up groups in various ways across the UK who would be willing to help talk you through setting up local support.  For those elsewhere there are networks all around the world.  Google! Or send us a message and we will try to help you find a national or local group.

For an insightful overview of the brain-based issues and some strategies, please watch this video by Dr Cassie Jackson from a NOFAS-UK FASD Wellbeing Workshop.  For materials for schools, please see the Teaching a Student With FASD handout, also from NOFAS-UK.

 

 

Raising a Child With FASD Has Made Us A Stronger Couple

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By SB_FASD

Today is my husband’s birthday. He bought his own presents.  He didn’t wake up to coffee in bed. There was nothing – I didn’t even manage to wrap the presents he had sent to himself via Amazon.  Really, it doesn’t get more pathetic than this.  But I have my excuses.  We were at the school yesterday for a couple of hours.  Our son has been home half days because he is struggling in this post-operative week.  As a result, we have been juggling work commitments, balancing the needs of our elder son (who has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME), and – I kid you not – a dog with a concerning cough.  Life is – as usual – happening fast and furious. We are as ever facing our days left-footed.

I explained to my husband yesterday that I needed more time to wrap things, that I hadn’t actually managed to do anything to make his day special.  He smiled at me and gave me a hug.

That’s when the thought struck me – this FASD journey affects our expectations of each other too.  We have all had to change the way we look at this world.  It is not just about changing how we interact with our son with FASD.  It is also how we interact with each other.

FASD has been brutal on our marriage.  The unpredictable flare ups.  The chaos.  The what-on-earth-do-we-do-now moments.  The concern.  The defensiveness. The tiredness.  The stresses. The depression.  The alternating moments of determination and fatigue.  The feeling that whatever we do is never quite good enough.

The times when we have entirely different instincts on how to handle a situation.  The times when we hit a wall and need to shout, and rather than yelling at a little one, we aim those words at each other because that’s the ‘best’ option in a horrid situation.

Yes, FASD can tear at relationships.  Like water dripping on solid rock, each of these tense moments leaves its mark even on the strongest of relationships.

And yet, here we are.  We’re still standing.  Somehow.  And we are better than we were before.  Perhaps not as obviously shiny and happy as we once were in those days when we were courting.  We were an older couple to start with.  Maybe because we weren’t kids ourselves, we have always been grounded.  Though once upon a time we were carefree enough to hop on airplanes with the blink of an eye to meet each other, to visit others.  We had flexibility and funds.  We were living the life.

Children were a precondition.  I remember standing on a bridge early in our romance, laying it out – saying although it was awkward – that I had to know if he saw children in his future.  I was in my mid-30s.  I was confident enough not to delude myself that this was a question that could wait.  I will never forget the feeling of elation I had when I realized he too wanted children, a family.  We were engaged soon after.  We even talked about adoption at that point (before we had trouble conceiving our first child, including a horrible possible ectopic pregnancy/miscarriage, before the frustrating infertility when it came time to try for our second).  My husband is adopted.  I always said I would adopt one child for every child I gave birth to.  It seemed natural for us to complete our family via adoption.

We had already decided we could raise a child with disabilities when we refused the tests during my pregnancy, despite knowing we were in a high-risk category.  We didn’t shy away when we realized early on that our adopted son was likely to have developmental issues.  We knew, or thought we knew, what we were getting into even if it would take several years for our son to be diagnosed with FASD.

But did we know then how our social life would erode?  How those lovely meals out and trips to the movies, to the theatre would evaporate?  Did we know we would be so bone tired every night we could barely decide which TV show to put on, forget about long meals laughing over candle light like we used to?  Did we know that we would stop traveling together, that our health would deteriorate, that we would take such shortcuts with each other?

There was no way we could have known.

But I am not writing this as a downer.  I am writing this because of the beauty of the moment yesterday, when I told my husband I hadn’t managed to get him a card nor had I even wrapped the presents he bought for himself for his birthday.  That moment when he understood.  That closeness that we have that goes beyond the flirtations of a night out on the town.  That hug by the coffee pot this morning when he jokingly asked where his presents were.

We have always said that we will be great sitting in our old-age rocking chairs side by side, making snide remarks about the state of world affairs.  We are becoming people, through this journey, that we never knew we could be – deeper, more ‘real’, more compassionate, more questioning of ourselves and our expectations than we might ever have imagined.

We have been washed over by a love that is stronger than we could have envisioned – fierce in its protectiveness of our children.  We have learned as a couple to find sustenance in the awe that we share of our two amazing children who show us every day what courage is, what it means to face this world bravely and with dignity.

As a community we probably don’t talk enough about the toll that FASD can take on family relationships and on marriages in particular.  I am writing from the perspective of adoptive parents, but every single family relationship can be stretched – especially if FASD is not understood, if the strategies are not taken on board.

It isn’t easy, but we are better people together and individually because of this path we are walking.  Our marriage is stronger for this journey.  We make accommodations every day, not just for our son with FASD, but for each member of the family.  In learning that patience and compassion, hopefully we are growing into the kind of adults we always wished there might be in this world.

Happy birthday to my better half.  Maybe I didn’t get you a card, but here is a blog post instead.

Mother enough?

Blog Mum enoughBy SB_FASD

Am I mother enough for this day?  Have I strength enough, humour enough, patience enough, faith enough in those around me?  Today our little guy is going to have his hand operated on by one of the UK’s top plastic surgeons.  He is having a ‘web release’ and Flexor Digitorum Superficialis (FDS) Opponensplasty done on his right hand, the hand he cannot use because – as he says – ‘it’s rubbish’.  The hand with the thumb that doesn’t work properly because while he was in utero alcohol washed through his developing system and damaged the joint so badly that his thumb does not extend properly.  Every time he tries to open something, he has trouble.  Every time he tries to do a button, he has trouble.  Every time he tries to hold something with that hand, he has trouble.

They can’t do anything to the bones.  (We were told by an orthopaedic surgeon that he is in fact lucky to have any joint there at all, which may be true but it’s still less than okay.)  Since they can’t fix the irreparable damage to the bones, this plastic surgeon is going to move tendons and work her magic to (hopefully) give him more range of motion, more strength.

Our son is 13 years old now.  He woke up this morning hungry.  He can’t eat.  We have to somehow get him into London, to Great Ormond Street Hospital, without him losing his cool.  Anxious (freaked?), out of sorts, uncertain.  He asked if he would still have the bandage on when he goes back to school on Monday – time has never been something easy for him to wrap his head around.  We have explained repeatedly this means no gymnastics for three months, that he will have to do exercises after this for his fingers, that he will have a big bandage.  But right now, this moment, all he knows is he cannot eat.  And he keeps staring at his little thumb.  The thumb that is 1/3 the size of his left hand thumb.

Am I mum enough for the uncertainties of this day?  The child who we need to give advance notice for everything does not yet know (because they don’t yet know) if he will need to stay overnight tonight in a big London hospital or if he will be coming home.  He worries about his dog.  He worries about things he doesn’t tell us worry him.  Our bag is packed, but somehow, I am feeling uncertain.

Facebook just popped up a memory from years ago, another time he was being prepped for a surgery – a tonsillectomy.  The nurse that day asked me if we were missionaries and if that is why we adopted.  This system can be cruel.  Somehow when we are at our most vulnerable they think that is the time to start questioning adoption, demanding to see papers.  Raising this issue right in front of our child when he most needs security.  This time, I have the papers in my bag.

Am I mum enough?  I don’t know if this is ‘right’ to have this elective operation.  I know there are children out there having far more serious operations to save their lives.  He has managed for 13 years with this hand, are we being foolish in trying to address this issue?  What if it doesn’t work?  What if we have put him through this for no good reason.

Somewhere inside me is a scream.  Why does this poor child have to go through so much pain and why does he have to face hurdle after hurdle where others walk on a more gentle path?  We can’t do operations to fix the parts of his brain that were affected.  Just a few days ago he asked me again about FASD.  He said he wished he didn’t have it.  He said he was sad.  I said I wished he didn’t have it too, and I was sad too.

We are lucky to live in a place that has free healthcare.  We are lucky to live near one of the world’s leading children’s hospitals.  I think everyone this year will get a copy of Peter Pan for Christmas – the royalties from that book have funded Great Ormond Street with its magical waiting rooms and state of the art technology.

But still, here we are.  Getting ready to make a journey that is outside all of our comfort zones.  Trying to fix – or help at least – in one small way at least one of the physical effects of prenatal alcohol exposure.

I wish just one of the self-righteous women who proclaim it’s their right to drink alcohol while pregnant could make this journey with us today.  I’m not talking about the women who don’t know they are pregnant, the ones who are confused about guidance, or the ones who struggle with addiction, abuse.  I have sympathy for them.  I am aiming this at those who accuse us of policing pregnancies when we try to raise awareness of the risks of alcohol in pregnancy.  You can’t possibly know what you are risking.

Come with us today.  And then I dare you to take another sip of that self-indulgent glass of wine.

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See also Prenatal Alcohol Exposure Damages Bones Too

Small Change Adds Up

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By MB_FASD

Things can only get better. Is that right? Is that how it works for families with kids with FASD?

Well no. Of course not. Things are quite often decidedly mixed. But they can change for the better. Nothing is static in life, and with appropriate supports and better understanding of the child, the condition and how to help, things can improve.

Take our son. He’s thirteen now. A year ago at this time, he was in crisis. Life was too much for him. He was refusing school a lot of the time, desperately upset when he did go. He was having daily, twice daily, meltdowns. The stresses on him were intolerable.

So, a year on, how is he managing life? How are we managing? Things are a lot better. We couldn’t change him, so we changed his environment. Also, he’s changing. While he’s socially delayed, he is growing up as all kids do. And that makes a difference. Here’s some examples from this week.

One of the simplest signs both of a growing maturity and of a calmer environment is in our mornings. Previously, we had to be with our son all the time. We had to help him occupy himself almost every minute of the day. Leaving him alone would lead to problems. He couldn’t self-regulate and he couldn’t keep his mind calm enough to do activities on his own. Now it’s much, much easier. Albeit with the help of games on the phone, but also with creative film-making and vlogging, our son keeps himself busy, often for hours on end. Since we both work from home much of the time, this is a positive benefit, and it’s a good sign of how his world is changing for the better.

Another positive development has come through school. We’ve discussed before what a huge change the move to special school was. How it relieved the pressure on our son, and how they let him thrive through the most wonderful theatre and music programmes. That’s all true, and he goes out to his taxi without protest every morning, a far cry from the terrible days of a year ago, even if he wishes for the small netbook his mainstream school let him use in lessons, and moans about “too much writing”. He is still happy enough to go, and is clearly thriving under the care of a fantastic, dedicated and talented staff.

Our little man and his Mum were in a shop this week looking for a drink and some sweets. His mum let him go in alone with £5.00 while she waited outside with the dog.  He looked at the price of the slushy he wanted, and the bag of sweets and worked out that they cost. He then worked out how much change he would have, and before he purchased them he asked Mum if this was ok. To our knowledge, he hasn’t put all this together in this way before. He understands that you have to pay for things in shops, and has sometimes been able to work out if he has enough money, but has never proactively done the maths himself, weighed his options so calmly and asked before spending. That is real progress.

He is learning and applying his lessons to life. It’s tied to school. They have a tuck shop in morning break where the kids are encouraged to bring change and make small purchases. Apparently, it’s succeeding. It feeds in to success in his life skills homework book. He was able to tick off that task as successfully done. Homework that makes him feel better about himself, rather than driving him to tears and despair. That is a novelty. And while its harder than the canteen at his old school (there he paid electronically by fingerprint with no concept of the cost of items), it’s better for him in the long run, as it’s teaching him to cope in real life.

Another example.  This evening, he was partly dysregulated. That’s a word he knows and he sometimes understands that he needs to start using calming strategies or go to a safe space before he has a meltdown. I was offering swimming, but he didn’t want to go. He stated that quite forcefully. Then he started building a marble run. All the while muttering repeated phrases under his breath, most of them bad language. Over and over again. Often a sign a meltdown is coming. And often the plastic marble run pieces will fly as his frustration boils over. I was really worried, but I didn’t want to push him out the door. This usually ends badly. But not tonight. He focused in, and he built two big marble runs. He used a favourite toy to calm himself, instead of letting his feelings overwhelm him. Then he proudly demonstrated his efforts to his Mum and me. That’s real progress. In the past either I would have dragged him swimming to re-regulate through physical activity (still an important option), or he would have had a full meltdown. Now, he’s starting to understand himself. And we let him make the choice. We are learning too.

Two days ago we had to go to Great Ormond Street for a gruelling round of three pre-op appointments for an upcoming hand surgery. A nasty rainstorm had every anxiety ramped up in the drive to the train station.  Before getting on the train we purchased some “lava putty” at a toy shop, and during the whole trip he used this very consciously as a calming mechanism. “I am good with sensory toys,” he said.  And he was.  A few years ago there is no way we would have made it through that day.

None of this means life is perfect. Meltdowns happen. Earlier in this day there were indeed parts of a marble run broken, but we minimised the scene and quickly moved on – to the point that a short time later he was helping to tidy up the mess. The challenges are all very real. We can’t relax our guard too much or things do fly.  We have to work to involve him in family activities, and part of the success in less stress lies in the things we don’t even try to do anymore. We had to let go of expectations. FASD is very real and it affects him all of every day. It affects us too.

But, things are getting better. His world is slowly, slowly changing. We can perhaps start to think about a transition to adulthood that can be managed without devastating trauma. We’ll see. There’s a long, long way to go. He’s growing up, and his world is a little brighter for it – and for the changes we have made in our world to help him, and us, get through the day.

 

Slime, Enchantment and FASD

Blog Slime

By SB_FASD

Once upon a time, and twice a week since then, a little boy would make a mess.  Shampoo.  Toothpaste.  Bubble bath.  Washing up liquid. Laundry detergent.  Perfume.  Powder.  Spray deodorant. Mouthwash.  Flour.  Butter.  Bicarbonate of soda.  Food colouring.  Vanilla extract. Broth cubes.  Salt.  Corn flour.  Sugar.  Fabric softener.  Conditioner.  Bath gel.  Even – in a time long, long ago – some cleaning fluids.  Nothing was safe.

This little boy made messes big and small, smelly and sweet.  Sticky and staining.  Hidden and brazen.

For years his parents chastised and chided.  Hid things and redirected.  Monitored consumption and kept to the script of what we are supposed to do with such things.  Teaching, they thought, that it’s not good to waste, that we don’t play with food, less is better than a lot.

But still the messes continued.  In fact, one window may be forever fogged in the corners from some unknown combination that was once sprayed and congealed.

This little boy grew to be a googler.  He became adept at finding Kids Choice awards, and played over and over and over again the scenes where famous stars are covered in slime.  He found YouTube channels full of people doing challenges where they sit in bath tubs full of cheerios and jelly.

Maybe he had tried over the years to tell his parents where all of this was going.  If he did, his parents didn’t hear.  They just occasionally grew angry when the shampoo was gone, when the bath had to be rinsed yet again from whatever-mix-that-was-this-time.

Meanwhile his parents had been googling and learning themselves.  Doctors helped.  Diagnoses opened minds.  The parents began to see this through new eyes, and began to rethink his relentless ignoring of warning after warning.  They began to see he wasn’t being ‘naughty’ – they finally grasped the behavior as a symptom of a need that he could not express. But knowing that wasn’t enough.  They had to change their approach.  Create a different environment.

So they started to buy cheap items for sensory play: foaming soaps, oozy liquids, cheap whisks and plastic bowls.  To the consternation of some, they enabled the mess but fulfilled a need.

Meanwhile, the happier boy kept googling. He watched hundreds of videos.  He turned his attention to a single focus.  Slime.

It wasn’t pretty.  The house became filled with randomly found containers of soapy smelly stickiness.  But this time the parents didn’t fight it.  This time they planned fun trips to the store with the boy so he could pick the ingredients rather than help himself to Dad’s favourite shaving gel.  They googled to try to find UK replacements for Elmer’s Glue and Borax (the holy grail of slime making), knowing how frustrating and abstract this was for their son to understand that some ingredients were not to be had on these British Isles.

They set up some spill trays and gave smaller bowls to limit the quantities for experimentation.  They lined up saline solution and salt, cheap shampoo and hand soap.  And day after day after day, the boy tried.  And he tried.  And he tried.  He just couldn’t understand why it wasn’t working.  He wasn’t so keen to follow the recipes exactly, he insisted a dash of this or a bit more of that was what he needed.  But though it was not ‘successful,’ he was absorbing and learning using his senses.  He was focused.

The household was under a spell.  There were mixtures in the freezer, in the refrigerator, on the counter, and on window sills.  And still he googled and still he tried.  The boy was happiest when mum was sitting by him, watching the videos and listening to the fake American accent he adopted as he mimicked the kids on the videos.

Day after day.  Powder and flour clouds occasionally rose over the sticky concoctions.

Never did the parents say a negative about the mess this time.  They stayed close and helped clean.  They supported, not critiqued.

And then, after maybe 10,000 mixtures, there it was.

The boy made slime.

Good slime.  Slimy slime.  Goopy slime.  They kind of slime you need to put in a leak-proof container and bring to school to show people kind of slime.  The kind you ask mum to stand next to you, with her own little bowl and spoon, so you can show her your special recipe kind of slime.  And yea, though it was remarkably close to the one she was trying to show him weeks ago, it was so much better because the boy made it himself.

He had to learn this his way.  And low and behold, he did.

On this magical night when proper slime finally was created, as the mum was walking out of the room after the high fives and well-dones, she heard it.

The boy’s voice.  Quiet, clear, and confident.

“I AM a scientist!”

He said it to himself.  It wasn’t bravado.  It was fact.

The words hung there in the night.

And suddenly, the parents knew that all of it was worthwhile.  And they were pleased that though their patience had been tested again and again, this time, they knew they had helped their boy on a remarkable journey of self-discovery.

You might come yourself to this enchanted house.  You might still see the huge tray full of half-mixed concoctions. Yes, there are stains on carpets that are ignored, and you might rightly stare hard at the cups and spoons you are given which may or may not still have traces of the taste of glue clinging to them despite the parents’ best efforts.

But the family hopes that if you come through their doors you will see Progress.  This once dark and stormy house has become a happier, calmer place.  It’s far, far from Perfect Land, this much is certainly true.  But in SlimeVille there are pockets of joy and self-satisfaction.  There are bridges across Sensory and Cognitive Needs to Productive Lives.

And what was once a battle has been redrawn into a shared camaraderie, a past-time that opens doors for discussions between them rather than the flashpoint for shouts and frustrations.

The boy had been trying to say this for years.  Once again the parents were too slow to see what he was teaching them.

But they learned, and it helped.

 

 

Four Letter Words for Help – FASD

Blog_HearBeyondTheWords
By @MB_FASD

Adoption UK carried out a massive media blitz this week based on a survey that said 25% of adoptions risk breakdown because of a crisis fuelled by the trauma children suffered in early life. Trauma which leads to aggression and violence in the adoptive family. It is a picture that a lot of families with children with FASD recognise, although Adoption UK never mentioned FASD in their media work. While not all children with these issues have FASD, it certainly struck a chord with me.

F**k. B***h. S**. Again. And again. At 7.30 in the morning. Or 7.30 in the evening.

Most kids with FASD lack impulse control. That includes over language. Bad language.(There is some research that says language is stored in a different part of the brain to other language, so this may be related to brain wiring too.)

We have a lot of bad language in our house. A lot. And, following the advice of professionals, we ignore it. Most of the time. We have to. If we didn’t we’d be in constant opposition to our son, in constant conflict that would help none of us.

He doesn’t mean it. A very clever educational psychologist once asked us “Why do you assume intentionality?” when discussing some of our son’s seeming acts of defiance. That struck home. We had been assuming that our son was being deliberately naughty. Oppositional defiance disorder is a thing. Some kids with FASD have it. Our son doesn’t. He just can’t control his impulses while dysregulated or partially dysregulated. So a stream of insults fly.

In the mornings and in the evenings, around the edges of his medication, he is partly dysregulated. And at those times the language comes out.

It’s very difficult. We struggle with this in a big way. I do especially. Not because of the words, but it gets really hard as it’s tied up in his refusal to let me help him much of the time. It feels like a strong rejection. (My wife tells me I am not seeing just how often these same words are used in her direction.)

But when addressing me, he always wants Mum. At least, when Mum’s there that’s how it is. He calls for something. I go to his room, and get a string of expletives and what feels to me like rejection.

I bring him food, and he won’t even look at it because I breathed on it. Happened just recently, I made mini-cheeseburgers to eat but I breathed on the food. So it’s covered in germs. Sometimes the reaction is physical and can hurt, but the actual blows are the easiest to take, it’s the emotional ones that are harder to shake off.

It’s really hard not to take this as rejection. I know that many times I don’t do a good enough job of showing that I’m relaxed. That I’m not irritated. That the bad language washes over me. Which generally it does. But the constant pushing away his harder to deal with. At a certain level it hurts.

I know he doesn’t mean it because he often does let me do the foot rubs and the leg scratches. When Mum is away, or just out, then all of a sudden my attempts at cookery are suddenly acceptable, and my help with the latest project really needed.

Our son isn’t proud of these moments – he apologises after the fact, he comes back to build bridges.  He stays close.  (He once famously told a deputy headteacher that he had been dysregulated when he cursed at him, he couldn’t help it then but he was sorry – a pointer to the fact that, with self-awareness, change happens).

The ways in which aggression can manifest itself are complex.

In a drive to highlight a very problem, and look for government action to support adoption, Adoption UK risked leaving an extremely negative picture which will undoubtedly put many people off adopting. As an adopted person myself, I would have done it differently. I would have painted the picture as bleak as it needs to be, but then softened it with hope, and a perspective.  In our house we have elements of all of those things that were splashed across the media following the results of the survey.  It’s not that we don’t get it.  But because we know the reason for our son’s behaviour, we frame our approach accordingly.  Importantly, we have a diagnosis in place as we head into the coming teenage years, something the experts say is vital to chances of a successful transition to adulthood.

Once you reinterpret the behaviours as a symptom of the condition, and learn strategies to address the underlying need, the sense of crisis diminishes.  A year ago we were in an intense period of crisis but things can turn around.

If you can’t change the child, then you have to change the environment around the child. You have to reduce reasons for anxiety. You have to adapt their environment so they can live as calmly as possible as much of the time as possible in that environment. You have to give them the time they need to adjust to change, whether that change is getting dressed for school or moving from one activity to another. We’ve changed his room, put in a quiet space and let him have disco lights that calm him. We let him dress how he wants to go out, not how we would like. We adapt because he can’t. And we’re lucky, friends and family have adapted too.

Things have got much better with time as we have learned to do this. He has learned as he gets older to begin to understand his triggers and to ask for help. He has been helped definitely by meds for ADHD.

No child is unchanging, nothing lasts forever. Situations change. And we have to change along with them. I have to do better at soaking up the bad language, and helping guide our son to a calmer place when dysregulated.

What’s the f***ing choice?

*******
P.S. – Support is available for families who are struggling.

FASD Awareness Day is Every Day

BLOG_FASD AWARENESS DAY IS EVERY DAY

By SB_FASD

FASD Day.  FASD Week.  FASD Month.

The ninth day of the ninth month was chosen to draw attention to Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders and to remind everyone of the importance of avoiding alcohol during the nine months of pregnancy.  In some places, this has been extended to FASD Week or FASD Month.

It’s a good idea.  Around the world and across social media, there are events happening – big and small.  Talks, articles, golf classics, twitter thunderclaps, and acts of personal statement.  All this work is colourful, hopeful, well-planned – a sign of a movement coming into its own, moving into the light after having fought many hard battles just to be noticed at all.  I am hugely in awe of it all and send out congratulations for this good work near and far.  It’s wonderful to have a day to feel part of a growing global effort for social justice and change.

And yet.

For those who live with it, every day is FASD Awareness Day.  The hardest battles are fought not to get an inch in a newspaper or a few minutes of media coverage on one day. Trying to be the news is hard, transformative as it can be.

But harder still is that moment, known to every person with FASD, to every person who has loved and cared for someone with FASD when you find yourself face to face with a person – maybe a medical professional, maybe a teacher, maybe the person at the grocery checkout or the bank, the social service worker or person who determines if you can get financial assistance – some one person who Just. Doesn’t. Get. It.  You want to scream.  You want to run.  You want to lash out at the frustrating injustice, the misunderstandings, the arrogant denials of the reality you face day after day.

But you don’t.

You stand there, and you educate.

You speak your truth.

You arrive early next time with some print outs.  You find a way around the roadblocks they may be putting up in front of you.  You network with others who have experience.  You plan strategies, share information.  You google.  You self-educate.  You believe.

You believe that more can be done.  You KNOW more can be done.  Your determination, your sense of fairness insists that the situation must change.

Each and every day is FASD Day.  That is the real story.  Heroes are out there in this world every day fighting the good fight in the face of some pretty daunting barriers.

FASD is lifelong.  It doesn’t take a break the other 364 days, the other 51 weeks, the other 11 months.

Every single person affected by FASD has to reach deep every morning to find some reason to believe this day will be good, this moment matters, these struggles mean something.  They need to know they can find joy and support and compassion.  They need to be seen.  They need to be heard.  The strength and resilience of this community is astounding.  The acts of courage and bravery are awesome.

✸ A child who has been bullied and ignored at school nevertheless walks into the classroom once again, despite the fact the requested accommodations are not in place, despite the fact they are threatened with detention because they did not follow the instructions that were not broken down in a way they could absorb. Despite the fact that for the hour before they left the house there were tears, anxieties.  That child faces the new school day with hope that maybe today they will be seen.

✸ An adult who left home while still a teen and who had a rough time for many years tries to do the right thing to set up a stable life and once again walks into an office to try to sort out benefits. They are panicked, trying to figure out how their rent will be paid despite recent cuts that make no sense.  Even as they are fighting back the demons they have overcome over the years to get to this clean and more healthy place, they prepare for this meeting and somehow make it there on time, every last nerve raw.  Nevertheless, despite many reasons not to trust the system, this person walks through yet another door, hopeful.

✸ A woman picks up the phone yet again.  She has tried before to explain, she knows she needs help but she is scared if she asks for it she may bring down the weight of the official system on her family.  Despite the fact every time she has raised concerns about her child in the past, her parenting has been questioned and she was made to feel shamed while asking for help, nevertheless she tries once again.  Hoping.

✸ A parent smiles at a young adult.  They had a rough night, a horrendous week full of some really challenging and explosive scenes, heartbreaking incidents, tiring misunderstandings. Despite the fact that this parent is exhausted, scared for the future, overwhelmed, nevertheless this is a new day and they greet their loved one with hope.

✸ A professional walks into a room full of colleagues who are busy, overworked, and skeptical, people who in the past have openly criticized any efforts to bring more focus on FASD.  Knowing it would be easier to simply ignore the need and go with the mainstream, nevertheless this person has come armed to battle for attention in a packed agenda, hopeful that today maybe one key person will hear them and might just free up more time and resources.

There are countless daily acts of courage and bravery in the life of every single person whose world is affected in some way by FASD.  Most of all in the lives of those with FASD who face a clueless and uncaring world way too often.

Whether it’s trying yet again to tie a shoe lace or speaking truth to power, people in my town, my county, across England, throughout the UK, Europe and around the world – person by person, day by day we are changing things, stretching language, redefining the field, raising and sustaining hope.  These ‘small’ moments are the ones we should celebrate most of all.

My wish for everyone of us out there trying to promote FASD awareness today and every day is this: that we find in ourselves each day some one thing to feel good about.

That we celebrate in ourselves what we want the world to acknowledge.  Whatever that is in you, hold it a bit closer today.  Grit. Determination. Strength. Courage. Belief. Insight. Humour. Resilience. Faith. Heart. Bravery. Love.  Leadership. Fortitude. Persistence. Stubbornness.  Vision. Whatever it is in you that you want others to see, today – celebrate that.

Whether or not today is the day for your inch of media coverage (says the woman who was hoping for more), whether or not today is the day you are with others in a crowd standing up for FASD or you are alone at a computer at your wits end seeking answers, help, support – for today, for FASD Awareness Day, chose a few moments of self-awareness.  For at least a few moments, look at yourself in the mirror and say, “Well done. I see you.  And you are doing a good job. In fact, you are awesome.”

Because the importance of this day is not only in marking society’s trek toward greater FASD Awareness.

It’s also stepping back and appreciating all you have done in your personal life to become FASD aware.  That is where the sea change happens, inside our own hearts and minds.  That’s where the revolution begins.  Has begun. Is happening.  Each and every day all around this world. ✸

——–

P.S. Since writing this, another blogger/advocate has written a post she said was inspired in part by this piece. Check out Our Sacred Breath’s latest piece- FASDay: What are you grateful for? and the other amazing resources she has been sharing in the countdown to FASDay.

 

 

Dear GPS: Show Me the Positive Route

Blog Staying Positive is the Way ForwardBy SB_FASD

There I was.  Sitting in front of McDonalds, my 13-year old son in my lap.  Holding him in a tight hug, my chin on his shoulder.  Stroking his arm.  Squeezing his leg.  Rocking him back and forth quietly. Giving him proprioceptive input I know he needed if we had a chance of getting out of here without a huge scene.  I asked him if he knew people could hear him.  When he changed to a lower tone, I understood he was not fully dysregulated and we had the potential to turn this around. Ignoring the looks, I was actively thinking to myself how these days I really don’t care if others stare. They can keep on looking.  My focus was where it needed to be.  It was working.

It’s the last week of summer holidays.  We have nearly run out of our scheduled clubs and holiday programmes: theatre school, gymnastics, movie club.  This week we are more ‘freestyle’ (‘lazy,’ ‘lax’, ‘out of ideas’ are other ways to say that).

Our only plan was to go to the trampoline centre.  This was our son’s request, and he specifically asked that we go there later in the day, when there would be fewer people (I was pleased of the planning ahead and self-awareness this involved).  During the rest of the day, we left him to his own devices for way too long.  (So, yes, maybe ‘lazy’ is the phrase I am searching for.  Or ‘worn out.’)

It was time to go.  Optimistic and eager for an unusual family of four outing, we trundled off.  His elder (neurotypical) brother had decided to come too.  It took all of about five minutes before we hit a literal roadblock.  A traffic jam due to road works meant we had to redirect our route.  Big mistake.

Things, as they say, took a turn for the worse.

England’s bumpy single-lane country back roads are not the best place for a child with anxiety issues who had recently surreptitiously nearly OD’d on ice cream bars.  His anxiety levels skyrocketed.  We were not sure we would be able to continue.  We did eventually get there, barely seat-belted in (the belt and the bumps were making his tummy feel sick). My every bit of maternal patience was at its end (I was travelling in the back seat with him.  His brother was in the front seat.  This is our usual flying formation).  We all had to be quiet. Everything was wrong, disturbing him. He had said at one point, “Maybe I just shouldn’t go in cars.”  This was his way of saying he was really seriously struggling.

I am glad we got there.  On those single lane roads that cut through fields, the reality is we didn’t have much choice.  He had a fun one-and-a-half hours of flipping, twisting, jumping, parkouring and cartwheeling.  I got to see his new aerial move.  His backflip-into-front-flip.  His many hours of premiere gym sessions this summer have clearly paid off.  His mastery of skills is awe-inspiring.  And a great way to get his ‘ya-yas’ out, as we call it.  His elder brother came off after about 45 minutes, saying he has no idea how the little one can do so much jumping for so long.  Neither do I.  His energy has always inspired me. And yet, I could hear from the floor some of our little guy’s more excited sounds increasing as time wore on and the disco lights came on.  I suspected we had passed the therapeutic usefulness of this place, and we might be in for it when it was time to leave.  We started discussing strategies for the ride home even before he got off the trampolines.

Hot and overtired, he insisted on frozen yoghurt and a slushie when it was time to get off the trampoline floor.  We didn’t argue.  We knew we were on razor’s edge.  He didn’t eat either of them.  They tasted ‘disgusting!’  At least they made it into the trash without disaster. I will call that a win.  We had already made a deal with our eldest about McDonald’s.  Which of course meant the little guy wanted Pizza Hut.

And so there we were.  He fixated on Pizza Hut.  Repeatedly insisting he wanted pizza.  I tried to not contradict.  “You can have pizza.  Another night.” Choice words flew back at me as we crossed the very busy car park.  I told myself I was not caring (much) what others thought.  At least he didn’t run.  He didn’t hit or throw or break anything.  There is progress in this scene.  Even as we sat outside McDonald’s rocking together staring at the Pizza Hut which OF COURSE was directly across from us, I was trying hard to stay positive, to not let my own frustration show.

Then, finally, I heard it: “My brain is saying it wants pizza.  Just pizza.”

To an onlooker, that might have seemed like more of the same.  But it wasn’t.  This was a different phrasing.  His way of explaining to me, not demanding.  These are the moments that are coming more frequently.  He is increasingly verbalising his self-awareness. Even if it’s rudimentary, this is a cornerstone upon which much can be built.  This, this was a sign of having reached a short-term goal. I have trained myself to recognise these whispers of hope.  Conditioned my responses (though still not perfect.)

“I understand you want pizza.  I understand your brain wants pizza.” Several times I repeated the word pizza, so he felt heard, validated.  “Your brain is only thinking about one thing. That happens to a lot of people with FASD.  It has a name: Perseveration. You have to train your brain to think of something else when it gets stuck like this.”  Yes, I literally said that to my nearly dysregulated son, while we were rocking together right there in front of the older teenage crowd who were watching us as they were blowing off time at McD’s before the movies.

Sometimes it seems I can feel it or see it when he ‘hears’ something and stores it away.  His body goes a certain kind of still.  There is a pause.  I know even in the state he was in, he heard that word “perseveration” – we will return to it another day.  Many other days.

My husband had ordered a happy meal for him.  We walked to the car.  This time before we got into the potential torture chamber, we all stopped.  I said to our little one: “It’s your choice.  If you aren’t ready to go in the car, we can wait until you are.”  That seemed to work.  He thought about it.  He said he was.  And maybe he really was…until he discovered the lack of BBQ sauce in the bag and a phone was thrown (but not hard, it was not harmed, thankfully and the toss was instantly regretted.  Again, mini-points toward a win).

Seatbelts on, we tried to proceed out of the parking lot without BBQ sauce, but things were escalating and we decided to turn around to get some.  I think that helped, he felt ‘heard.’  Our eldest was a star, gently talking to his brother, without taking it personally this time.  The trampoline park exercise had helped them both.

With the aid of newly acquired BBQ sauce and back on our normal route, the ride home was quiet.  He went up to bed with no further incidents.  The rest of the night was okay.  (Well, with a minor blip of husband losing something leading to a house-wide and unsuccessful search.  Oh, and some last-minute scheduling snafus we only discovered while husband packed for an early morning work trip…Our lives are messy around the edges these days.  Imperfect.  We are winging it more than usual, even for us. We are frazzled. Frayed.  It is very clear we are limping along in the last week of summer.)

Even still, after it all I was left thinking:  I am getting better at ignoring some things and have actually started to train myself to focus on other things.  It is getting easier. I can ignore the stares – or if I can’t ignore them, I allow myself to stare back as I did the other day on the tube, rather than shrink away.  (If you think you can stare at my child, I can stare at you.)  I can increasingly ignore the tut-tuts and the sideways disapprovals.

More importantly, I can listen much more attentively to the nuances of my son’s – both our sons’ – moods and needs.  I explained to our eldest when we got home that I think that was progress tonight, trying to help him see beyond the roadblocks, to see the markers of progress we are reaching.  Six months ago or a year ago we would have experienced total disaster this evening.  As it was, it was awkward.  It was tense.  But it was not a disaster.

So, here we are, nearing the end of the school holidays.  This year it has been better than most summers, but far from ‘easy.’  Some may say I am the eternal optimist/clutching at straws, but that is the only way I can see through to the tomorrows I want for our family.  Like entering instructions into a GPS, this determined choice to take the positive route is the only roadmap that will get us there even if it is not the most direct or obvious way forward.

I believe we are heading in the right direction.  I insist on amplifying and marking these signs of hope.  As the song once said, “it’s got to be the going, not the getting there that’s good.”

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!”