Other people’s children

I have a confession to make. I judge other people’s children. All the time.

You know when you’re in the supermarket and you see some parent pushing a trolley past, piled high with rubbish, followed by their kids who are kicking off loudly about something or grabbing more stuff off the shelves? Or you don’t even see them – you can hear a child having a tantrum three aisles away? And you shudder and think ‘What terrible parents. I’ll never be like that’.

I used to be one of those superior people, judging other people’s parenting skills, or lack of them. But since Pudding was diagnosed with MPS I’ve read so much more about autism, PDA and other conditions and try to be more understanding. I know now that the child in question may be having a meltdown because of the challenges of being in an unfamiliar environment like a busy supermarket. That parent may want to get some vegetables into their daughter, but may have no option but to cater to a restricted diet (some children WILL starve rather than eat unfamiliar foods). That boy may have severe learning difficulties and be unable to keep their voice down or be compliant.  Yes, of course there can be some terrible parents out there but how can we ever know what is going on with someone we encounter without actually walking in their shoes?

IMG_9299No, what I’m talking about now is the way other children react to Pudding. I judge them by the way that they judge him.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now – ever since witnessing a particular game of football that Pudding gate-crashed in our local playground. The reactions that he got, even from children who knew him already at school, varied really widely. Some fantastically accepting and others…not so much. The same holds true of other children we meet when out and about.

They seem to fall into distinct categories.

The Embracers – these are the children who don’t just accept Pudding and all his marvellous ways: they encourage him to join in their games and welcome him with open arms. They quickly realise that he can’t perhaps do as much as them physically or mentally, so they set the goal-posts lower (as it were) and celebrate what they have just helped him to achieve. Goal!

The Questioners – these children notice his difference and want to know more. Why won’t he talk to me? Why is he being so loud? Why is he in a buggy? The other day in a cafe a little girl asked question after question and her mother told her off for bothering us too much but I really don’t mind all the questions. Children can only learn about the world around them if we give them the information they need. And very often the Questioners end up becoming an Embracer. When we left that cafe, the girl waved goodbye to him and was rewarded with one of his brilliant smiles.

The Borderliners – although I can read Pudding like a book and know that most of the time he is approaching someone to make friends with them, some children don’t see it like that. Some, often smaller ones, find him a bit scary. He’s big. He doesn’t act the way they are used to. I understand. I usually explain that he can’t talk and he just wants to play. Some will run away crying. Some will tolerate him but not really engage. And that’s ok. It is hard to take in something new, but at least they are not being actively horrid. Unlike…

The Sneerers – can you guess, my least favourite category! These children have ‘that look’ on their face as soon as Pudding appears. Annoyingly, he seems drawn to them. On a recent trip to Yorkshire Wildlife Park, we spent some time in one of their fabulous playgrounds and Pudding approached three boys who obviously didn’t want him there.  I tried to direct him away from them but he went back again and again. On the third time as he opened his arms and smiled at them with his usual ‘Ehyyyy!’ one of them wrinkled his nose and said, ‘What on earth are you doing?’  I could feel my shoulders tensing up but I still tried. I told them that he was just a little different and asked if they had not met anyone different to them before. I knew I wasn’t going to win them round though. The answer I got was a sneering ‘No’. The next time he approached, Pudding kicked one of them. Although I told him off, inside I was secretly cheering.

I’ll be honest with you: the Sneerers stay with me. After those sort of encounters I’ll play it back in my mind, invent responses I should have said to them. Wish I had told them that if their brain was being destroyed by a genetic condition they might act a bit differently too. Wonder if I could have handled it better. And it makes me sad to think that they might grow into the sort of adults who go on social media to throw vile comments at anyone who is ‘other’.

It can be a challenge going out into the world and never knowing what we will face that day. But this is how disability becomes invisible – if the pressure of everything being too difficult (whether that is lack of facilities or the attitudes of chance encounters) makes us stay at home instead then we become part of the problem. I’ve come to realise that we will always encounter the Sneerers, but if I let them get to me then the negative has won. What I should be doing is celebrating the Embracers and welcoming the Questioners. They are the good ones, the ones who can change the world for the better. They are the people that I would want to stand up for Pudding and others like him. Even the Borderliners might be brought to see the benefits of accepting difference eventually.

What sort of child do you have? And what can you do to ensure that they become an Embracer if they aren’t already?

 

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Inclusion

I’ve still got a rather warm, fuzzy feeling going on today. Why? Because of the weekend that Pudding and I have had.

Weekends when Hubby and T went up to visit the in-laws used to feel really LONG. But this time I think we had it sussed. Saturday was a respite morning and we’d cunningly planned good weather in the afternoon so Pudding alternated watching TV with coming out and helping me in the garden (by making me play football). After a miserable few months of rain and cold he is really enjoying the freedom of being able to bob in and out whenever he wants. And what is more I had such fun with him too – his enjoyment allowed us to have that lovely connection and appreciation of the moment.

But Sunday was even better because of the time spent with others. One of Pudding’s classmates from mainstream was having a science party and he was included in the best possible way, that is, on his own terms. The party started at 11am but as we were welcome to turn up for any or all of it (Pudding and chemical ingredients don’t mix all that well!) we arrived just in time for his favourite bit – food! The birthday girl and a friend immediately ran up to show him the slime that they had made, and another girl helped encourage him to finish his lunch and saved him a cake. When we went outside afterwards to set off rockets, Pudding loved joining the others to chase the lemonade bottles that had been launched into the air. Then he proudly showed the one he was carrying to all the adults inside.

Often encounters outside the house can be fraught with my worries of Pudding’s behaviour being judged and that makes it difficult to let go and relax. But yesterday so many of the children and adults engaged with him, treating him as just a normal part of their lives that I can safely say I’ve never enjoyed a children’s party more.

There was a slight low point in the day when Pudding escaped out the gate that I hadn’t closed properly and ran off down the road. But hey, even that has a silver lining – he actually stayed on the pavement and didn’t run straight into the road – so we’ll skim over that episode, eh?!

Pudding and me running along track through green spaceEarlier in the morning we didn’t have any particular plans but at the last minute I decided we’d go to the Parkrun. For those of you who haven’t heard of this (where have you been?) these are free weekly runs organised by volunteers. The adult one is 5km but locally we also have a junior version the next day which is only 2km. The fantastic thing about parkrun is that it truly is open to everyone, regardless of ability. Everyone is welcomed, supported and included. We’ve been a few times before and Pudding has never made it anywhere near the whole distance – true to form his instinct is to veer off in the opposite direction to everyone else and we use various tricks and encouragements to keep him on the right track. But that simply doesn’t matter at all; the volunteers celebrate each little inchstone with us, offering high-fives and cheers. This time we got further than ever before, probably still less than 1km, but it felt almost as much of an achievement as those running the London Marathon on the same day. (Almost!)

Pudding thrives on the company of others. He runs in his own peculiar gait with a massive grin on his face. And it puts a big grin on my face too. This really is inclusion at its best.

Birthdays

It’s birthday season and I find it hard to believe that my little Pudding will soon be six years old. I look back on pictures of him as a baby and it’s like looking back on a different world. One in which he had so much potential, so many possibilities in front of him.

However, this is our world now and as with Christmas I think we’re going to get it right. Pudding loves birthday cake and being the centre of attention, but otherwise doesn’t really ‘get it’. Give him a wrapped present and he’ll grin widely and then chuck it away. So, we’ll do things the Pudding way.

Pudding holding a wrapped present and smiling.I’m not planning a proper party where he’ll be expected to do things properly. Instead we’ll just be going to our local soft play centre and suggesting to a few friends that they join us there if they’re free. And I know he’ll have a lovely time running around and playing football and building with the bricks. And I’ll have a slightly less lovely time running after him and trying to distract him from the cafe counter and the ball pit (his aim when throwing balls at other kids’ heads is devastating!).

Part of me feels a little bit guilty for taking the easy option, but truth is that the easy option really is better for both of us. Some day I just need to let go of the idea that ‘normal’ is the only way.

Of course, ‘normal’ is still what I’d like quite a bit of the time. I’d love my child to welcome other children to his birthday party and go to theirs. I’d love him to help me pick out the right presents for his friends and get excited that there’s only one sleep to go before a party. But we don’t get all that.

Pudding has only been invited to one party so far this school year.

Of course, he doesn’t know or care, which makes it easier certainly. There are other children out there though who do know. Children who see everyone else in their class getting invites or talking about the fab time they had. Children who want to have friends and don’t understand why they get sidelined. It is heartbreakingly common for children with learning difficulties or other disabilities that set them apart from the crowd.

Which made it all the more lovely to hear a positive birthday story recently. One lady in a Facebook group I belong to for parents of children with SEND sent out a message to all those children who never got invites. She wanted them to feel included for once so offered an open invitation to her son’s birthday party. Even people she had never met were welcome to come and join in the fun. How wonderful is that?

Of course I don’t expect everyone to do that (and I’m also not angling for loads of invites to land on our doorstep!) but wouldn’t it be nice if children with SEND were included, properly included in all areas of life. We can’t force children to be friends with someone, but I suppose what we can do is take the time to encourage them to think of others. To reach out to someone who seems lonely. To see that someone who acts a bit differently to them is just different, not wrong.

It feels like I’ve moved off topic a bit, but I guess what I’m saying is that special occasions such as birthdays often serve to highlight how different life is for us than how I expected it to be.

Different, but not wrong…

Moving on

In amongst all the negative stuff about antibodies, trial and so on, it is a pleasure to have some good news for a change.

Way back in September 2015, Hubby and I were looking at schools for Pudding and trying to work out what would be best for him. It was hard making a decision because of course we couldn’t see into the future. We had no idea what the next few years were going to bring. We didn’t know whether he had the severe version of Hunter Syndrome that affects the brain (he does), whether he would get onto the clinical trial that might help his development (he did), whether he might improve enough to start catching up his peers a little (he hasn’t).

Pudding smiling widely in his red school shirt.We already knew what the local primary (which T attends) was like, and we also went to look round the nearest specialist provision. (The term ‘special school’ still makes me wince a little, though there isn’t really an easily understood alternative.) It was lovely there but in the end we chose mainstream. I thought it would be good for him to be rooted in the local community and good for others too, to have some understanding and acceptance of those who are a little different to them.

I will never regret that decision as there have been many positive aspects to Pudding’s time in mainstream. However, going into Year 1, I knew that the challenges for everyone would get greater. Whilst his peers were all learning to sit nicely and be taught more formally, that was never going to be easy for my little whirlwind. We tried, and failed, to get a split place between the mainstream and special schools. I had found reaching that choice a very emotional journey, and even harder to then be turned down.

But a place has now come available and Pudding will be starting at the special school after Easter.

I know he will be missed in mainstream – for a start there were three devastated faces when I sat T, Niece and Nephew down to tell them the ‘good’ news! His TA will have significantly less bruises but will miss him awfully. And the rest of the school will probably seem oddly quiet for a bit.

One thing I hadn’t expected was the reaction of our SENco. She was quite emotional when she told me how hard she had found it to paint a less than positive picture on Pudding’s EHCP – that it made her feel that she had somehow not done her best for him. Yet this couldn’t be further from the truth.  In fact, by being honest about the limitations we were working under in mainstream she has helped him find a place where I hope he will be able to flourish. I would hate her to think she has failed in any way as she has done so much to support both Pudding and I while he has been at the school. She has coordinated people, resources and reams of paperwork. As well as catching up at her SEND coffee mornings and at formal meetings, she has also been known to email me out of hours when I’ve had bad news. I’ve read so many accounts from other people who have never had anywhere near this level of commitment from their SENco, so I hope she knows she is one in a million.

I know I’ll be an emotional wreck on Pudding’s last day in mainstream but I am truly excited to watch this next stage of his life. Onward and upward!

Halloween

Tis the season of spooks and sickness bugs, nights drawing in and Halloween.

Hubby is still recovering from the bug that Pudding and I both had so he wasn’t up to coming out with us. It was glorious weather yesterday but sometimes I find it downright scary to take both the boys out by myself. I gritted my teeth and headed off to Lotherton Hall. They always go all out for Halloween there and T was really keen to do the spooky scarecrow trail.

I was all geared up for the more terrifying aspects – stares from other children, chasing Pudding when he makes a bid for freedom, struggling to push the buggy over uneven surfaces, the nightmare of finding a suitable place to change his nappy…

After a morning of losing my temper, shouting and generally being a grumpy Mummy from Hell, I was NOT looking forward to it.

But…

It all went rather well. T was brilliantly helpful pushing the buggy while I chased Pudding, helping me with the lift and generally being patient. We found all the scarecrows. Pudding looked rather fetching in his new hi-vis jacket. I didn’t get any officious persons objecting to us taking the buggy into the house (yes, some people in other places REALLY want to make it difficult). And best of all was the loo!

Normally, I just find a discrete corner out of the way to do a nappy change al fresco – much nicer than lying him down on a toilet floor. But not in this weather. I thought the disabled loo would probably have the best chance of having a large enough, clean enough floor space, so tracked down the key from the cafe.

I opened the door, and was delighted to find a full-sized adult changing bench with hoist above it (not that we need that bit). I simply hadn’t realised that the facilities there were a proper Changing Places toilet – the gold standard for those who can’t use the usual toilet facilities. T didn’t quite share my vocal enthusiasm and chose to wait outside while I changed Pudding in glorious comfort, not having to bend over him on the floor or worry about the hygiene.

Only problem is, I could come to expect this standard, and there simply aren’t enough of them out there….

School’s out

So here we are – last day of the summer term, and Pudding has done a whole year in mainstream.

This time last year I was anxiously waiting for September and wondering how things would go. There have been a lot of emotional ups and downs since then, but right now I’m facing the future with calm.

In reading other blogs from the disability world, I’m well aware that schooling, as with many other services, is a lottery. I feel very lucky that we somehow managed to get hold of a winning ticket. So many parents face discouraging messages: ‘we don’t feel we can meet his needs’ or ‘perhaps your daughter would do better somewhere they have more experience’. Yet at our local school I have only ever heard ‘How can we make this work?’

Pudding smiling widely in his red school shirt.

For inclusion to succeed there has to be the will, throughout the school, to enter into it wholeheartedly and there are many reasons why this year has worked for Pudding. A headteacher who believes in inclusion enough to have a member of staff dedicated to SENCo (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) work three full days a week. A SENCo who holds regular coffee mornings for parents to discuss areas of concern. Teachers who welcome difference into the classroom and explain it to other children. And most of all, a teaching assistant who throws herself into learning Makaton, developing resources, teaching and caring for Pudding as if he were her own.

And I have to mention the other children – one of the benefits of mainstream which I never expected is the way Pudding has been taken to heart by the whole school community. To watch the Year 6 children scramble to give him high fives has been such a joy to me.

There have of course been some negatives. There was the nativity which didn’t go quite as I’d have liked.  On days when Pudding was in a bad mood I would dread hearing that he’d badly injured another child when throwing something. Perhaps the most difficult thing, again unexpected, has been emails from the class teacher explaining what phonics or maths the children were learning that week. I’m afraid I just stopped reading these regular reminders of how far Pudding is behind on ‘typical’ development.

Much as I have loved the positive experience we have had in reception year, I did start to worry what Year 1 would be like. Whilst his peers move towards more desk-based work, Pudding still struggles to sit and concentrate at anything for long. In an open-plan environment I had visions of him becoming more and more disruptive. We took the difficult decision to apply for a split placement – requesting that he stay in mainstream for 2 days a week but then have the other days in a special school.

I say a difficult decision: logically I felt it was the right thing to do, but emotionally it was another big step on the path of acceptance. I wanted to give him the best of both worlds – keeping him rooted in the local community, but also having the chance of more specialist teaching with other children on his own development level.

Our request was turned down, due to lack of space in the special school.

I won’t deny that this decision really upset me.

But once again, Pudding’s current school stepped up to the mark. Almost immediately I got an email from the SENCo asking how I was, and reassuring me that they would put in place whatever was needed to make things work. And they have already. The children all move up to their new class three weeks before the end of term, so Pudding has now been in Year 1 for three weeks. In consultation with the special school they have set a personalised timetable for him and found a room where he can go to do focused 1:1 work. He has regular access to play resources and plenty of interaction with his classmates. And so far the results have been really positive.

None of us know what the future holds. Even with the intervention of his trial meds, the gap between his abilities and that of his peers will continue to widen. We may need to apply for a full-time place in special school for the next year. But for now, I know he’s in a great place.

And he’s happy. At the end of the day, that’s really all that matters.

Kindness

So you may have gathered that the last few weeks haven’t been the easiest – sickness bugs, half term, surgery, virtual house arrest after surgery (and don’t even mention politics!). But I’ve been carried through by the kindness of … well, almost everyone.

Of course, there will always be the exceptions, the ones who judge or who don’t make the effort to consider that not all children come from the same mould. We had one of those in half term when we visited a cathedral. I approached the information desk to ask for the disabled exit (because yes, Pudding was not happy, and yes, he was making sure everyone knew about it). The lady turned round from a conversation with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes and told him to ‘Shush. Please!’ before waving us to a lift which wasn’t what we wanted.

But I won’t waste my ire on people like her. This post is about the good ones, the people who show their kindness through everyday actions. Like the other staff there who went out of their way to try and engage Pudding in activities despite his difficult behaviour. Maybe a job to them but welcome inclusion to me.

The very next day the boys and I were in the playground at a stately home. After spending ten minutes trying to escape, of course Pudding didn’t want to leave when the transport came. When he decides against something it is becoming more and more difficult for me to manage him physically. He is now half my weight and very strong. I was rescued by a complete stranger who offered to take the buggy while I persuaded /coerced Pudding to move. Such a little thing for someone to do, but such a help to me.

Pudding in a check shirt frowning slightly at the camera.We met another friend there and while we followed a trail around the gardens, she said to me, ‘I’ll push the buggy for a bit’. Such a little thing for someone to do, but a welcome rest for me. (He’s heavy!)

One of the added problems about Pudding’s appointments in Manchester is having to work out what happens with T while we’re away. The day of surgery, a friend offered to pick him up from school, take him to the earlier gym class her son goes to, and then wait around until T’s class had finished. Yet another friend picked him up from school the next day and held onto him for an extra hour when we were delayed getting back. A short(ish) time for them, but a release from worry for me.

MPS has brought us so many trials and tribulations, and a world that I wish I had never heard about. But it has also brought the ability to see a side of people that I might not really have been aware of otherwise. My everyday heroes. Not just family or long-term friends who are bound to us with ties of blood and years of shared experience, but people who’ve got to know us since Pudding’s diagnosis and who haven’t run a mile at the sight of an unconventional set-up. Not forgetting the kindness of strangers.

Kindness matters. It really does make a difference. Next time you see someone struggling and wonder whether you should intervene, just offer that help. It might be a small inconvenience to you, but could mean the world to them.