It’s hard being a Dad to a son with FASD at this time of year. You want him to be happy, but the run up to Christmas is stressful for him, and that makes it hard for us. How do you keep him going when the routine at at school is swept away, making him nervous every morning when he wakes up? How can I reassure him that his meltdowns, bad language and FASD-provoked behaviours don’t mean he’s on Father Christmas’ naughty list, with no chance of redemption., a constant fear he raises? I worry that his fears lead to a cycle of worsening anxiety and deteriorating behaviour. I have to do what I can to help reinforce the positive, help build up his confidence and self-esteem. But, oh my, the weeks before Christmas are not a good time.
This year, a whole number of new factors have been thrown into our volatile mix.
Back in late October our son had an operation on his right hand. He’s still recuperating from that. He can’t do gymnastics, or play in soft play areas, or go trampolining, or even go to a playground. He can’t do anything that risks putting pressure on the hand, or injuring it during this recovery period. These are his big physical outlets, things he does all the time. It makes life much harder when he can’t release his pent-up energy. He’s even too worried to go to swimming, I offered to take him last weekend and he wouldn’t go as “the Doctor has to say it’s ok”. He needs these activities to help him regulate his emotions and behaviour. I haven’t cracked this one. I hope as the hand heals his worries will pass and I’ll be able to get him in the pool again, most likely with one of his good friends who also swims like a dolphin.
Another thing we have had to be very engaged with is his school play. This isn’t an average school performance, his school has a performing arts speciality. The quality of their productions is fantastic. Everything is on a professional footing. His first one, last Spring, was a triumph for him and the school. He loved it. This time has been harder. He learned his lines, but wasn’t able to come out of himself to show what he could do in rehearsal. I read through lines with him a couple of times, but it didn’t help. He’s been reserved, silent, not responding properly to prompts. His anxiety is compounded by his voice changing as he goes through puberty. He’s finding it hard to hit the high notes. His voice sometimes cracks, and he hates that. He has perfect pitch, and is hyper-self-critical of anything that he perceives as less than his best. He hears imperfections we don’t hear. His self-confidence takes a hit when he thinks things aren’t right.
Worst of all, a shattering blow to the whole family, Sir Noel the Wonder Dog, our little Cavalier King Charles Spaniel collapsed and died of heart failure. I traumatised a young woman at the pet insurance firm by bursting into floods of tears when I rang to cancel the policy. Noel was the rescue dog who came to us a few Christmases ago. He was so much more than a pet. He was a physical comfort for our son at times of dysregulation and emotional disturbance or upset. He was a tool that our son used to regulate himself, projecting a voice onto Noel was a way for our son to tell himself to behave, to not be rude, to be nice at times when he was cursing or verging on meltdown. Losing his partner in struggles with FASD, one of his biggest comforts in life, was especially traumatic as it came at a time of year when he needed Noel more than ever. He’s still talking about Noel, asking questions, looking at pictures. Needing his Mum and I to provide answers we don’t have. Working his way through complicated issues like has Noel found my Dad in heaven? Are they going for walks together? Apparently, the answers are yes and yes. Noel is happy wherever he is. Our son found these answers for himself. I was a sounding board, nothing more, and his Mum did most of the work.
I have to keep in my head every day that these factors don’t stand alone. They compound to drive up levels of stress and anxiety until, facing overload, meltdowns become inevitable as sensory and mental processing is no longer possible. It’s my job, with the rest of the family, to keep all the stresses and strains to a minimum. To be there, a support, a facilitator.
The brain damage of FASD means that screaming, crying, hitting, throwing terrible meltdowns happen. When a child is overwhelmed by circumstance and simply can’t react rationally any more, meltdowns happen. Our son, in common with others, just gets overwhelmed. The flight and flight centre of the brain takes over. He can no longer control what he does. He needs absolute calm and a lot of time and space to let the thinking part of his brain take over once again. We have to give him that space, make sure he is safe, he knows we are there when he can reach out. Sometimes that is very difficult indeed, but it is what has be done.
At this time of year, these problems are his, our, norm. Those overwhelming moments come more often than not. In an average year the run-up to Christmas is enough to provoke meltdowns. This year it should have been so much worse.
But, it isn’t.
We haven’t escaped entirely. This afternoon dominos have been hurled across the room, and expletives have blistered the air. A few days ago I got in the way during another meltdown and got hurt. Repetitive swearing has been heard.
But these incidents have passed, and passed quite quickly. They haven’t led to big, all-encompassing and violent meltdowns that last hours. These episodes have subsided as quickly as they erupted. Calmness has returned, leg and foot rubs have been quickly accepted. Dysregulation has swiftly become self-regulation once again. Even with the distress at the loss of Noel the Loving, our son has been able to regain lost control. He’s been able to ask for support.
How is this possible? Well, partly he’s changing. He’s growing up. We have worked very, very hard at helping him recognise the symptoms of a coming meltdown. We have had help from experts for a couple of years in giving him tools to manage meltdowns. His aunt the actor helped him through difficulties and taught a technique to hit the high notes even though it’s hard. This made a huge difference when the nights of the play came around. What might have been a step too far just wasn’t. It was hard, right up to the last minute he was saying he couldn’t do it. But he did. Two duets were a triumph. And he spoke his words with feeling and expression. He was able to get to the point where he happily soaked in the applause at the end, even while he watched the snowflake lights spin around the hall.
Importantly, we have listened to the maxim that you can’t change the child, so you have to change their environment. We have changed what we do at home to be more responsive to his needs. We skip events if he can’t handle them (we missed carol singing as I wrote this). We give him space. We leave everything as calm as possible. We haven’t done nearly as much as we should – our house is still cluttered, but what we have done has worked. I have tried hard to modify my behaviour around him. I have tried to learn the techniques that work with him.
I’ve become a different Dad, the one he needs. At least, I’m getting there.
Perhaps most of all, he’s out of mainstream school and into a place that gets him. They help him thrive. The removal of mainstream school curriculum that he couldn’t cope with has decreased stress dramatically. And their marvellous support has helped him grow. The teachers, and the aforementioned aunt, have built up his confidence so he could get to the end of the show and soak up the applause.
So, the takeaway from all this?
Life with a child with FASD is never easy. Being a Dad in these circumstances is a challenge. But things change, he changes, the world around him changes, and if it’s bad at the moment, it doesn’t always need to be that way.
And, even when the worst happens, there is hope. Or in this case Joy. Joy is a rescue puppy who will be joining us very soon. She won’t be Sir Noel the Brave, but she will come to be a support and a companion our son needs.
Things can very definitely get better.