Gender Identity, FASD and Parenting in Uncharted Waters

Blog_Gender

By SB_FASD

What can you say to a bright soul who just simply ‘is’ – beautifully, wonderfully ‘is’ despite being pressured by the world every day in 10,000 ways to conform, to fit in, to adapt? What can you say to a child who doesn’t see the boundaries others hold dear and whose perspective is governed by a strong and vibrant vision of what is right for them?

What do you say to a toddler who puts pyjama bottoms on his head for ‘hair’? Who models himself after a long list of female performers from Cher, to Hannah Montana (but most definitely NOT Miley Cyrus), to Sophie in Mamma Mia, to the ever-charming Miranda Sings? What do you say to a child who for years yearned for a wig, who made anything he could find into a headdress that would have hair hanging down his face, who asked for night caps that he pretended were wigs, who asked you to crochet fake wigs, who would cry and sometimes rage when he could not go out looking like he wanted to look? What would you say to the kid who in every charity shop you went into headed straight for the skirts, seeking the ones that flow and twirl, preferably pink and possibly sparkly? For years and years. This didn’t just crop up. It’s been constant and steady.

We didn’t get it. We redirected. We had a stock of ‘dress up’ clothes in the house for performing. But still the displeasure and unhappiness and sometimes meltdowns as we were leaving the house – the sneaking ‘hair’ into school bags, the wearing sparkly clothes under more boring clothes.

We were scared. Our son has a brain-based disability. He has a Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (though we didn’t know that until he was 10). He is at risk out there in the world. We worried he would be simply too vulnerable if we allowed him out of the house dressed the way he wanted to dress.

And then in the post-Brexit-vote days a young gay man was brutally attacked in our town by six people. Yes, we were reminded we have a reason to be scared, to want to protect our son.

But over time we realised that the best protection we could give him is a positive self-image. My mom used to teach me to cross roads confidently and to “smile like you own the world.” “If you hesitate or look like you might run off in a different direction,” she said, “that’s when you get run over.” We lifted the protective dome. Our son at nearly 14 now walks through town dressed in outfits he chooses. Because of his needs he’s never alone – we are always there by his side, staring down anyone who chooses to give ‘the look.’

The mainstream discussions about gender fluidity, gender diversity, trans issues (whatever words are the right ones to use, I am still not sure) seem to not have a place for a kid like our son. We see some really insightful and courageous young people pushing forward their rights to be who they are – these young trans leaders are bright lights in a world that is all too grim.

I am thinking now of a whole forgotten group of others who struggle doubly – people who are gender non-conforming who can’t really understand in what way they are different let alone find words to describe how they feel. Kids who due to the way their brains are wired simply can’t comprehend why people have a problem with them, who don’t understand the sexual or social connotations that others might be tossing their way. Professionals tell us this is in fact a protective factor for the gender non-conforming young person with an intellectual disability. But they can’t really know the desperation of wanting to protect your child – the impact of parental hyper-vigilance on your health and the health of your relationship with your child.

Experts believe that the alcohol that flooded our child’s system while he was in the womb likely impacted parts of his brain that influence hormones and gender identity and the way he understands these things. FASD is itself very under-studied and this aspect is even less so. We are out there in uncharted territory. (We have started a closed Facebook support group on FASD and Gender Identity to try to fill this gap.)

But to the greater world, as a parent in this unknown space you might as well be from Mars. It’s a double stigma. It holds you back. You’re already judged as a special needs parent (someone recently said to me “IF FASD exists…”) and on top of all that denial, people project onto you their own hang-ups about issues related to gender. You try to sweep away all the criticism before it comes. You don’t post pictures of that outfit or an angle that might show just how long his hair has grown. Not because you are ashamed, but because you really don’t have time or mental space for other peoples’ baggage. Your every moment as a special needs parent is spent trying to keep your own home in balance. You’re exhausted. And muddling through. Doing the best you know how to do in this land far, far beyond the traditional rule books.

Let’s face it. The lingo and even some of the politics of the LGBTQ+ community are intimidating. You don’t want to get it wrong. It’s too important. There is no way in the world your little one can begin to access and comprehend the nuances represented by these different terms. No way. At least not yet and not likely before puberty comes through like Miley’s wrecking ball. Just the concept of possibly using different pronouns would be nearly impossible at this stage for your little one to understand. The impact would be impossible for him to gauge since those with FASD have challenges linking cause and effect.

You dwell on issues related to informed consent. It’s a minefield. You have a child whose emotional and social age is half their developmental age. You learn about theory of mind and discover that the reason why your child has a remarkable ability to be who they are is that they are not developmentally able to fully understand that different people experience the world different than they do. You learn from experts that your teenager does not have the same concept of what it means to be ‘a boy’ or ‘a girl’ that others have. You start to worry that your child’s physical clock is ticking much faster than their social clock.

Puberty hits and your kid with the angelic voice literally stops singing because his voice cracks. Your heart breaks.

You are asked by a leading psychologist, “Who’s got the problem?” He’s saying to you that your child is confident and comfortable with his gender non-conformity. He shows you pictures your child has drawn with happy faces and love hearts. Your little one seems happy in himself. That’s what you want as a parent. You hope those smiles survive when facial hair grows. You desperately wish that voice will sing again and you’re simply not yet sure it will.

People think it’s the parents and carers pushing their own ‘agenda’ onto their child. They tell you what they’d do. (Save your breath, if it was as easy as cutting his hair, we’d have done it.) Anyone who knows me knows I am anti-lipstick, anti-heels, anti-sparkle (though I have to admit my repulsion for sparkles has weakened considerably in face of the onslaught). This is NOT me pushing an agenda. But by gosh if I have to, I WILL spend hours watching YouTube videos of various hairstyles and help practice them on the styling heads we now have under our roof – because the thing is, a child with FASD learns in unusual ways. A lot of it is multisensory. If the child has a particular interest, it really helps to develop that, to use it as a bridge. To connect. It’s doubly hard to know at what point this is an obsession versus something deeper. For years we thought the hair and skirts were about sensory needs. Most likely it’s an unknowable combination of factors.

Honestly, I have no idea where all of this is heading. We are pushing no one anywhere. We would rather opt on the side of allowing our child informed consent, even if that means moving conservatively. We understand that perhaps might be compounding anxiety and limiting future options unnecessarily.

But then we hear, now that he’s in a supportive specialist school where staff have specific Stonewall training in these issues, that our child is a leader (their term). That he is helping other children in being more comfortable in their gender expression. That they have never had a student with gender identity issues as comfortable with themselves as our little one is. We get comments on school reports like, “he has managed to express his colourful personality” and “he is not at all afraid of thinking outside of the box.” We feel relief that his protective shield is growing stronger.

Just last week his school went to see “Everyone’s Talking About Jamie.” We were nervous about letting our son go on this trip since the theme deals with a teen who dresses in drag – possibilities we have not discussed yet with our son. At the end of the day, the kids came off that bus in a group. Our long haired, bright eyed, beautiful son was in the middle of them. They were elated. They were all together. And he blasted the theme music that night as he fell asleep. He was content.

There is everything to gain from being open to our little one’s magnificence. And by “everything” I mean keeping that sparkle alive in his eyes. That is the goal. Keeping our guy alive and full of life. His life. His very own unique and awesome life.



For information or support:

Stonewall has some great resources, including for schools
Gendered intelligence 
Mermaids
FASD and Gender Identity Facebook Support Group (you will be asked to fill out some questions before becoming a member of the closed group)

 

 

 

FASD – Not All News is Good News: Speculation about the Florida Shooter is Divisive

Blog_NewsBy SB_FASD

Far from the media spotlight, in Facebook groups and living rooms around the world, people with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders and those who support them are debating a news report that speculated as to whether or not the Florida shooter might have undiagnosed FASD. A major news outlet used this raw moment to highlight the too-often overlooked effects of prenatal exposure to alcohol. Better understanding FASD is an important topic. Earlier this month a US study showed that more people have brain-based disabilities due to FASD than have autism. Days ago an Australian study showed that people with FASD are a disproportionate segment of the prison population.

But I have never subscribed to the idea that ‘all media is good media.’ Some articles play straight into the anti-disability prejudice and stigma that exists. Our colleagues in the autism community know this well and are feeling this backlash once again, since reports are also circulating that the shooter had an autism diagnosis. Linking any condition with violent acts in this way ignores society’s failures which are by far the more salient issue in such cases. It’s easier to identify the ‘other’ – someone not like us – as being ‘flawed’ and therefore prone to such heinous acts. Whatever condition this shooter may or may not have had is not the reason why he did what he did.

An adult with FASD summed up why it is harmful to link a condition so quickly to such an emotive news event: “I don’t want this to be the general public’s mental association to FASD. ‘Oh, you have FASD? Uh-wait; isn’t that what they said that school shooter in Florida had?’ YES because from now on NOT ONLY will I be seen as ‘stupid’ or ‘retarded’ now I get to be seen as having the potential to kill and EVERYTIME I get upset about ANYTHING I will be under heavy scrutiny because ‘They said this this and this about FASD.’  I don’t understand HOW this is REMOTELY a good thing! It makes me afraid to be open about it because I don’t want to frighten people; what people fear-they destroy.”

Myles Himmelreich wrote, “This is leading to a misunderstanding, judgement and incorrect information about FASD. I am a motivational speaker, FASD consultant and FASD trainer and as such I shake my head and say ‘we still have work ahead of us’ this shows a blanket statement and will continue to misguide people to believe individuals with FASD will automatically be violent, NOT TRUE. Oh and I’m also an individual with FASD and as such I say ‘please see me, know me, support me and join me in truly understand the struggles but also the success I face every day.’”

All around the world people with FASD live lives of courage and accomplish amazing things. There are many examples of FASD role models. Sadly, the media rarely takes the time to acknowledge the good work they and others like them are doing. Instead it wakes up when it can sensationalise a story. This comes at great cost.

The US National Organisation on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome issued a statement that said in part: “We see no good reason for FASD to be discussed at all in the context of this shooting. There is no evidence of any connection between FASD and violent behavior. In fact, individuals living with FASD are disproportionally likely to be victims of violent crime, not perpetrators.”

The Minnesota Organisation on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome also responded: “Many people with an FASD and their families find it upsetting, stigmatizing, and dehumanizing to read media stories linking FASD and violence. It’s worth noting that countries with similar, and even higher rates, of FASD do not have the same issues with mass shootings that we have in the United States. This strongly suggests FASD is not the issue.”
People with FASD can have more than 400 related conditions due to damage done to developing systems while in utero and secondary issues can kick in if their primary needs are unmet. It’s a complicated mix. While FASD does not equal violence, we also should not ignore the fact that some with FASD need help with channelling aggressive and impulsive behaviours that can sometimes become quite consuming.

Savanna Pietrantonio, an adult with FASD who co-chairs one of the longest-serving support groups in Canada and who helps run an international FASD online support group Flying With Broken Wings, thinks it’s important that we use this moment for developing a deeper understanding of FASD and the powerful impact that proper supports can have on someone’s life. She said, “We’ve been the less and the least and the left out for too long. It’s too bad not everyone and even most people don’t have the all the information from which to make this event into a meaningful conversation. We can overcome and cope with the trauma involved with having brain damage due to FASD when we have support. It makes all the difference with acceptance and unconditional love and someone who isn’t afraid of our brain or mistakes!”

She and others in Ontario are pushing Bill 191 to amend the Education Act to “promote awareness and understanding” of FASD and “best practices” to meet their needs to reinforce the tremendous responsibility schools have to provide awareness, understanding and support to meet these needs, rather than punishing, suspending or excluding troubled students. As Mark Courtepatte, co-chair of the Hamilton support group said, “For people with neurological disabilities, their actions are communication. Whatever his condition may be, the Florida shooter’s actions communicated that he was overwhelmed, his brain was not able to comprehend or deal with his environment of continuous non-support and not being understood. He ‘snapped.’” He noted that discussion about the culpability of Cruz’s school is missing from the media.

Raewyn Mutch, one of the researchers from the Australian study, is quoted as saying, “The longer you leave someone unrecognised with a neurocognitive impairment, the more frequently they experience negative repercussions from not having their impairment recognised…They experience more often punitive responses to their behaviours rather than reflective responses based on the fact that you understand they have a cognitive brain impairment.” In other words, it matters greatly that we recognise and address the needs of people with FASD.

FASD is as prevalent here in the UK as it is in other countries, if not more so due to having one of the highest rates of drinking alcohol during pregnancy. We have seen recent UK reports about many adoptive families experiencing child-on-parent violence. These stats may include undiagnosed cases of FASD. (In the aforementioned US study only 2 of the 222 cases of FASD found were previously diagnosed.)

The good news is research shows that using known strategies to support those with FASD can create brighter futures. This positive approach is the basis of the FASD UK Alliance which runs an online support group for more than 1,600 families. NOFAS-UK promotes FASD Wellbeing by working with those with FASD, families, policy makers and practitioners.

The bad news is there are parts of the UK where it is not possible to get a diagnosis for those on the FASD spectrum, where people are denied support by the NHS and schools despite the fact they have brain damage. If the person doesn’t have the dignity of a diagnosis, that all-important insight into the ‘why-s’ of their struggles, tools and strategies are not put in place: the support, the assessments, the Education and Health Care Plans they deserve, the benefits that are increasingly denied to those who need them most.

Here in the UK adults with FASD are seeking to create change. As Lee Harvey-Heath, Chair of the FASD Advisory Committee said on the launch of the committee last year, “It is vital that those affected by FASD have a voice. Individuals with FASD need to be heard in order to gain the support that they so desperately need and deserve.  My own undiagnosed FASD took me to a place that many neurotypical adults don’t come back from. That is what I want to prevent happening to anyone else affected by prenatal exposure to alcohol.”

How to prevent this from happening is the task for us all. It takes political will, prioritising a vulnerable and too-often overlooked segment of our society, and compassion not sensationalism. We must not stigmatise the very same people we are trying to help. We have to hear their voices too. We have to seek change together.

This is personal. I am American, though I have lived in the UK for nearly 12 years. I am mum to a teen with FASD. The reason why I would not move back to the USA has nothing to do with the fact that there are people there with FASD, just as I would not leave England because there are people here who have FASD. I would not move our family back to the USA because of the guns, the increasingly militarised and polarised society, the failing health system, the lack of safety nets for the vulnerable, the fact the sitting US president openly mocked disabled people. I most certainly do not fear people with FASD, nor should you. Fear – if you must – prejudice, stigma, and inaction. Those are the killers. Fear another generation bearing the weight of this hidden epidemic because our political leaders didn’t think we cared enough to make it a priority.

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.

A Super Teen with FASD

Blog_Teen
By SB_FASD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy or sad – “happy”

Strong or weak – “strong”

Kind or unkind – “kind”

Good or bad – “good”

Loving or mean – “loving, of course”

Gentle or rough – “gentle”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Fighting Fear

Blog_FearOfFutureBy @SB_FASD

Help me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I keep eyes forward.

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

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

Every step scares the heck out of me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help me help him.

——-

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

Lower the Drawbridge

 

Blog VulnerabilityBy SB

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

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

You get the point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, welcome…