Once upon a time a little boy used to struggle mightily when going on family holidays. He would become so bewildered by the many changes his brain could not process that he would rail against the world, against us. Strong and fierce in his moments of distress, a sadness shadowed us at these times when we were supposed to be most happy. It was heart wrenching. Deflating. Scary. Lonely. But this year, something magical happened. Sometime between then and now, our little guy passed some unknown threshold. He powered up to the next level, became better armed and was more ready for the challenges.
Yes. We had two whole weeks of a lovely and soul-refreshing holiday at the seaside.
It was spectacular. Glorious. An experience I won’t ever forget.
There was a sign at the top of the steep hill we had to walk down to get to the water. “Apologies, beach steps are temporarily closed due to shifting sands. Please use the alternative beach access.” This in a nutshell explained how we got here.
Our son has a Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). His brain wiring was affected by prenatal exposure to alcohol. Like many with his condition, he finds it really hard to control his impulses when he’s under stress, when he processes new information and when his senses are overloaded with unusual sights, smells, textures. In other words, going away on holiday is the perfect storm for a person facing the cognitive challenges of FASD.
Some might think the reasons why our holiday went well this year were just because he’s older now and because we went back to a familiar place. Yes, these things helped immensely. But thinking that was the secret to success would be ignoring the two years of hard work he has done since our last holiday to better understand himself and his needs. It would be ignoring the way we took on board advice and structured this holiday to maximise our chance of a positive outcome.
The game-changer is there are teams of experts helping him, helping us – at the specialist school he now attends, in counselling services for those with intellectual disabilities and with the help of experts who work with him on issues related to gender nonconformity – all of which is coordinated under the guidance of a paediatrician who understands how his FASD and co-occurring conditions all inter-relate. He was diagnosed at 10 and in the time since we as a family have learned alternative strategies via our interactions with experts and others with lived experiences via online and in-person support groups. We have tossed traditional parenting out the window and have tried to create an environment where our little one can relax enough to begin to grow. It has taken years and years to get here.
While each day of our holiday had its challenges and while we have a long way to go, the point is – we did it. We listened. We worked hard. We adapted. And yes, we did it!
I can’t tell you how I want to sing that from the rooftops, now, before we settle back into our less-than-perfect existence. I wish I could send that message back to myself a few years ago, for those days when I thought it would never change. When I looked into the future and all I could see was doubt and fear as to what the tomorrows might hold for our little one.
I want to send out a message to others who might be feeling depressed, like I was then. I want to say, “Hang on. Rattle the system. Make the professionals SEE your child. It’s not easy but it’s possible. If we could do this, so can you. Stay strong. Stay positive. Feed the future with your positivity and belief it can come true. Find a network. Build your support system. Dig deep. Celebrate the successes. They WILL come.”
Special needs parents up and down the country are struggling right now to keep their heads above water, to stay optimistic in the face of some of the most daunting days anyone can experience. There is too little available for children with additional needs during the holidays, too little respite for families who are trying to do the right thing but who need help. For a long time, our son was able to fit into other mainstream summer programmes but as he is getting older the options are less obvious. Facing the lack of an appropriate summer programme for someone with FASD, we are creating a pilot project with some related organisations to see if we can change that too.
What makes me really sad is that the few services that exist function mostly on an emergency basis and too many with FASD are denied access to these services. Our son who had been running away from home, playing with lighters, refusing school, destroying his room and his belongings has now learned some coping strategies and those behaviours are no longer a part of our lives. But he’s still just 14 and there is a long road ahead. Now that he is at a calmer place, surely NOW is the time all these therapists and experts should work more intensively than ever with him to teach strategies for a lifetime – now, when he’s most receptive to learning them. We beg them, please don’t spit him out because he is coping better. His brain damage is not going away. Every bit of support, every coping mechanism he can learn will help him contribute to society in ways big and small. His voice matters in a world that too often refuses to hear or see people who are different. Help us help him.
Everyone is focused on child mental health, at least that’s what the sound bites say. As part of that, let’s really focus on making support available over the long-term for those with FASD. The laughter of a child on a holiday is such a basic rite of passage, but for some it is hard-earned and to be celebrated. Thanks to all who got us to this place and here’s to better tomorrows for all who are struggling to make these summer days shine. The sands do shift, but still it is possible to find alternate routes. And to find joy along the way.
(This post also appeared 15 August 2018 in the Huffington Post UK under the title, “Shifting Sands and Special Needs Parenting”.)