Father Christmas Finds It Hard

Blog Father Christmas loves a teen with FASD

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.


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


[Note: this post also was featured in the Huffington Post UK]

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.




Wrestling with “Death” is Tough for a Kid with FASD…and His Parents

we-love-a-child-with-fasd-5By FASD_Mum

I spent yesterday willing our dog to live, convinced it was succumbing to the heart problems that are common to his breed.  I dearly love the dog, don’t get me wrong, but first and foremost in my mind was how inconceivably impossible it would be to explain to our 12-year old with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome if something were to happen to his Christmas dog.

This dog has been perfect for our family from day one.  Our son wanted a dog desperately.  He wrote to Father Christmas specifically for one that wouldn’t “bark, whine, or whinge.”  Father Christmas had sent him a letter explaining that dogs are special gifts, and involved special procedures.  Like a scene out of “Miracle on 34th Street,” this Christmas magic seemed predestined – there we were meeting Noel (amazingly, that was his name), a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that had been rescued from doggie-death-row in Ireland.  Miracle of miracles, this dog was silent (just like our son had been when we adopted him).  He was calm, unflappable, and oh so friendly.  He was instantly one of us.

They bonded very quickly but we realized early on that our guy was not going be able to be the main carer for the dog.  We had to make adjustments to expectations as our house has grown more chaotic over recent years with some escalating behaviours.  We no longer leave Noel sleeping in our son’s bedroom because despite how sweet it was to see the two of them sleeping side by side, the mornings were unfair to Noel, when our son would be too hyper before his medication kicked in and the dog would get too wound up.   Sometimes we have concerns that such a small dog might get hurt during a meltdown, so we are always aware of where the dog is, and often shift him to different rooms if things are heating up.  Sometimes the dog also ramps up the moment, as he has certainly learned by now how to bark, and his eagerness for walks makes our front door hallway a scene of mayhem sometimes. (This, because our morning routines are not routine any longer.  We cannot know on a given day if our son will go to school on time, if we can get him to walk or if he needs to be driven, etc.  So the dog never knows if he will get an early walk on a given day and puts in his vote strongly at just the time when we do not need more noise.)   Despite his confusion, the dog is still uncannily good-natured, and remains a favourite at the school gates.  Our son proudly shows him off, telling his friends for the umpteenth time that this is his dog, and his name is Noel.  Noel went missing once – that night was one of the longest around here in a very long time. Though we found out later he had tucked up safely in a shelter all the while, that fear of losing him was etched into our son’s being.

As our son gets older, his anxieties are deepening, or at least he is able to vocalize them now.  He lives in fear of Noel disappearing again.  Every walk, every time the door opens, our guy panics, lunges for Noel’s collar – sometimes tackling him with a full body hug.  We had been to a field in the two days prior to this mystery illness.  Our son has been extremely unsettled lately-partly due to a cold but more so due to increasing challenges at school.  He was panicking as the dog would sniff along the tree line, worried he might disappear into the overgrowth.  Of course, needless to say, as I was dealing with one of my son’s outbursts, the dog did in fact wander into the woods.  Sheer distress overwhelmed our guy.  The dog happily came when we called, tail-a-wagging, but my son was devastated by the experience.  The next day he was almost crying when I let the dog off the lead, begging me not to let him wander away.

So, no, I could not contemplate a world in which this dog would leave us so soon.

Uncharacteristically, the dog didn’t budge from one spot on the couch for more than seven hours.  He was barely able to open his eyes when I called his name, giving a half a wag of that tail that usually never stops.  I could see the worry in our older son’s eyes.  I probably should have called the vet sooner, but I was becoming convinced this was heart failure, though I didn’t voice that, and I doubted there was anything they could do – nothing that we could afford anyway. My dad had heart problems.  Our minds do strange things sometimes.

I admit it, I was worried.  Very worried.  And yes, I literally curled up around him for more than an hour – maybe closer to two – hoping my presence next to him might give him strength, pretending to be part of the pack.  It may sound silly, I am not necessarily one of those people who invokes Mother Earth, but I was running on instinct, and I believe in the power of love.  It was all I could think to do.

As it turns out, antibiotics have more power in this case, as an evening visit to the vet demonstrated.  But that was only after a very long day.  My son had a meltdown after school – his reaction, I think to the dog being unwell.  A good friend had come by to help calm the scene (my husband is traveling, I am flying solo, we all have colds, it has been a hell of a week – and when I say that, I mean it).  My sister-in-law (the other Auntie you don’t hear so much about but who is equally supportive) had come by to give a second opinion on the dog.  She was the nudge I needed – she literally dialed the vet and handed me the phone.  She drove us over, and was another set of ears while my overwhelmed brain was catching only half the words.  It’s not the dog’s heart, which is a huge relief.  There is some sort of lump in his throat, but not something stuck in his throat.  It’s unlikely it’s the c-word, though we won’t know for certain for a while.  He had a raised temperature, so we are thinking it is some sort of infection.  The vet dosed him up with painkillers and antibiotics, and I have literally been slowly spoon-feeding this dog while whispering gentle encouragement.  Not yet, sweet dog, not yet.  We need you.  Our son needs you.  Not this week.  Not while our guy is struggling so hard.  Not now, please, please get better.  Willing this dog to eat.  Willing him to recover.

For some reason our son’s English class is studying the Titanic.  For a kid who has a morbid and not particularly healthy fascination of floods, storms, disasters – this story has captured his imagination in a way few subjects at school do.  He is watching and re-watching clips on YouTube, he plays the song over and over again – having learned about its composition.  He asks Siri how old Leonardo DiCaprio was in a given year.  And he ponders mortality.  In the darkened bedroom the other night, when I thought he was asleep, I heard, “I would so totally die if I was on the Titanic.  How old are you when you die?  I miss Grad [his grandfather who died several years ago].  How old was Grad when he died?  What year was he born?  What year was Bebe [his vivacious grandmother] born?  What year were you born?  What year was Daddy born?  What year was I born?  What about my brother?  Why do we die?”  Trying to overcome his inability to wrap his head around time and math, he was struggling with some of those existential questions we all wonder about, but in his own unique way due to his FASD.  His fears were magnified by the fact he could not quite grasp these concepts.  He was in a loop, going over and over and over in his mind, trying to understand when and why we all will die.

When my sister-in-law and I headed off to the vet with the dog, our friend took our son to her house for a sleep over.  We are so lucky to have such a support system, this impromptu change of bedtime plans on a school night could easily have sent our guy into orbit, but he was great (though I predict I will pay for this today after school).  Our friend and her young daughter who is one of our son’s few true friends are lifelines.

So, thankfully, our guy did not see the dog’s massive drooling, his inability to eat food.  Our son did not hear about the lump.  He didn’t see the food scattered all over the floor because our dog cannot eat properly yet.  Hopefully by the time he comes home from school, the dog will have recovered to such a point that we won’t trigger the very worst of the fears.  And thankfully the dog does seem better today, he has more of his sparkle back.  He has eaten more, though he has not left my side.

Our son is a stress sponge.  Even if he cannot name it, or even fully understand it, it was not a coincidence that all of those things from his bedroom were thrown down the stairs yesterday.  It was not unrelated.  Sometimes my head cannot handle it all, especially when I am feeling under the weather myself.  My cold has deepened, and yes the drool had me gagging over the toilet, such a glamorous life sometimes!  How do we – do I – juggle all of this:  sick kids, sick dog, a house that is a disorganized mess and getting worse (knowing how badly this affects our son), stresses over work, stresses over the level of stress, trying to switch our son to a special needs school, so much paperwork, so much to remember, new appointment letters coming through the door at rapid rates, phone calls we have not yet returned, requests for media interviews as we become more vocal about all of this, so much of life’s minutia that we seem to miss as we deal with Big Issues Every Single Day…???

The pressures are immense when trying to help our son navigate this world.  Some things we can smooth over for him.  Some things we can adjust and adapt to the way his brain works.  Some things we can redirect or hide away.  But there are other things we simply cannot change no matter how much we would like to ‘fix’ them.

For me, I am a better person for learning these hard lessons.  I know that.  I own it.  My ego has taken more than a few hits in the years of parenting this child (both kids, really, but this blog is about FASD).  I am humbled time and time again to learn that while there are many things I can do to help, I cannot alter the fact that our son will experience this world in a much harsher and harder way that I would ever have wished for him.   The adults with FASD from whom we learn so much always say that he will have to live his life.  A hard thought, but they urge us to remember that these early years and the values we live and teach will always be inside him helping him to find his way.  I know that.  I do.  I know that.

But, damn.  As I laid there on that couch yesterday, wrapped around this tiny, sick, furry, fluff ball pretending to be mamma wolf or something, I wasn’t ready yet to have to tell our guy, during one of his worst months ever, that I couldn’t fix his Christmas dog.  Not yet.  Fingers crossed, not yet.

P.S. – Here is a clip of our son and his Christmas dog from a year ago…to show just how strong the bond is between them….I  know it will make you smile.