Ben is Ten

Ben hadn’t ever had a birthday party with friends. It’s not like we didn’t celebrate his birthday: we had a little gathering every year with family and close friends, including his brother, sister and the kids of our friends. We’d had cakes and garlands, songs and presents. Every year James makes a video of Ben’s last year and we all watch it together. We instigated a tradition of birthday ice skating at Somerset House. But no big party with friends and chaos.

This was partly because Ben didn’t seem to really like parties. He found the number of people and the noise difficult. He didn’t enjoy party games with lots of kids and often cried when we sang him happy birthday, especially if we clapped too loudly at the end. He didn’t have an obvious friendship group in the way Max, for example, did – his school has never been local and his classes have been smaller – so it was hard to know who to invite. I didn’t want him to have a party for the sake of a party. Also Ben couldn’t and then didn’t request a birthday party in the way that Max and Molly do, relentlessly. We didn’t think he would enjoy a typical child birthday party so we didn’t organise one. Or perhaps I felt too sad about the fact that I wasn’t sure how to pull together a birthday party with friends for him, so I didn’t.  Or both.

But then Ben was turning ten years old which felt like a milestone to mark. Ben was invited to a friend’s party at an ice rink and ice skating is one of Ben’s favourite things. I was thrilled to realise it’s possible (though not cheap) to briefly hire an ice rink. All of this culminated in …

Last weekend he had a tenth birthday party with family and friends, kids from school and home and their siblings. Thirteen kids on the ice, six of them using wheelchairs. At the start we were the only ones there and Ben and James swirled around alone, the whole rink to themselves. Ben’s friends arrived and the rink was a wonderful mix of semi- and in-competent skaters offering to push wheelchairs in the interests of their own stability. Molly and her cousin wobbled around holding onto plastic penguins. Max approached it with admirable confidence.

When we finished skating, the kids that could eat helped themselves to carbohydrates and sugar and Ben sat happily amongst them. Then we lit candles and sang him happy birthday around some amateur egg-free cupcakes. As we sang, he beamed, thoroughly enjoying the noise and the attention. I had pre-blended a cake at home so we fed him cake via his feeding tube as others tucked in. In the unphotogenic surroundings of a local authority ice rink, sat in front of a vending machine, Ben had fun and after ten years we had worked out how to give him a party he enjoyed.

We then moved on to a pub which usually caters for football fans and so had wheelchair-accessible open spaces, friendly staff and plasma screens everywhere you looked. We had not planned this, and we’d never been to the pub before, but Ben loves a screen and watching football pundits appeared to be exactly the post-party vibe he was looking for. (The Tollington Arms was as welcoming a pub as you could hope for).

I am so delighted to have been a mother to this boy for ten years and, this year, to have found a way to celebrate with his friends. I think we got there for Ben’s tenth birthday because we had waited to find the kind of party he could enjoy. It’s taken time for us to facilitate his friendships. It’s only after ten years that he’s come round to the idea of being the centre of attention at parties. All of it culminated in a bunch of children, half using wheelchairs, zooming round an ice rink to the sound of George Ezra (again) and it was glorious. He is glorious.

Ben is 9!

Ben is now 9! I just reread my last proper blog about Ben’s birthday, when he turned 7, and much of it I would like to repeat: I can’t believe he’s 9! He’s so tall! Well done us for 9 years of parenting!

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A lot has happened in the last two years, though in many ways things for Ben and us can seem similar – the appointments, the physio, the school, his interests. When you are there every day you don’t notice your kids growing up, until you catch sight of them across a playground and cannot believe that massive child once lived in your (my) womb.

Two years ago I said Ben had:

“made huge progress on using his eyegaze computer: using it almost every day, knowing exactly what he wants to do, reliably choosing stories and then navigating through them like a pro, using communication software to create messages that were totally appropriate to the moment.”

That was true then. It is also true now: what I want to tell you on Ben’s 9th birthday is that he’s got so much better at using his eyegaze computer (and lowtech communication book). That he often knows exactly what he wants to do, will choose the story he wants and navigate through it, that he goes into and then exit activities when he wants. That he uses his communication software to say things that are entirely appropriate.

Some of what I want to say sounds so similar to 2016 that it begs the question of what  what exactly has changed since he was 7. The complexity of the way Ben learns and communicates means progress, or development, is hard won. It can be inconsistent and hard to capture precisely. I look back on Ben two years ago and I know that he wasn’t as good at navigating around his communication device as he is now. That isn’t to say he wasn’t doing those things before, but perhaps I did see small improvements and leapt on them. I know more now, I expect more of him now. In some ways Ben is doing much the same stuff he was doing two years ago, and in other ways he’s made wonderful progress.

The timescale of helping Ben learn new skills is difficult – it can take a long time. It can be hard to know whether he is improving or learning, and therefore whether you are doing the right thing. It can feel pointless to continue working on something that appears to be having little impact. We knew that communication was a long term project, probably lifelong, but you still can’t help hoping that there will be some kind of miraculous progress at some point.

Which of course there isn’t. But there is slow incremental improvement, a bit more nuance, a little more unprompted communication. It is all subtle and understated. We are talking about complex skills, involving deft eye control, motor planning, memory and language knowledge. It’s difficult to articulate, but I’ll do my best.

Two years ago Ben was using a high-tech eyegaze device that we had bought ourselves – it was a laptop with an eye tracker connected via USB. He could only use it when sat at a table. For the last 18 months he has had an NHS-funded eyegaze device which mounts to his wheel-, school- and home-chairs. He is still quite light, so his weight isn’t sufficient counterweight when the device attached which means it can’t be mounted all the time (e.g. on uneven ground), but he has it mounted on his chair at home and school for some portion of every day. For the last year he has also had additional educational funding so he has two hours of 1:1 time each day when an adult supports his communication specifically – modelling how to say something on his device, helping him find specific vocabulary, helping him use his device to do school work.

These developments have given him more time to practise and more opportunities to find pathways within his communication software. Sometimes progress doesn’t look how you imagined: over the summer he used all of this input to navigate out of his communication software every time I tried to talk to him using it. Every single time. This was disheartening – isn’t supporting his communication meant to mean he communicates with us more?

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To do this he was adeptly selecting three different cells in different positions on three different pages in order to exit his PODD communication software and then go to one of the stories on his device – clearly communicating that he didn’t want to talk to me, he wanted to read (and be read) a book. So I had to admire his determination and skill, and respect his wishes – to force him to talk would be as inappropriate as trying to make a verbal child speak to you.

Since the summer he has chilled out in this particular regard, and will now talk with his device. It is mostly in the context of a specific conversation rather than unprompted speech. It’s getting increasingly relevant and timely, with some ‘scaffolding’ provided by  his communication partner.

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For his birthday Ben’s aunt Rosie sent him some incredible shoes with lights in the soles. Once we’d opened the package and put them on, we talked about them with his device. I went to the homepage of his communication software, where there are various categories of words, and went to Special Events. He then chose ‘happy’ and ‘birthday’, and then I selected ‘present’. I said ‘this present was from…’, and I went back to the home page and into the People folder, where Ben selected ‘Rosie.

I said, ‘yes, from Rosie. And look what she’s bought you!’. I couldn’t remember where exactly to find the word but went into the ‘Clothes’ page. I then got distracted by trying to stop Molly inspecting Ben’s shoes so closely that she risked being kicked in the face. Then I heard Ben, via his device, say ‘shoes’.

He had gone to the folder called ‘shoes’ and then had ignored the cells called boots, thongs (it’s Australian software), AFOs, sandals and trainers to select the one that said ‘shoe’.

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Ben knew what I was talking about, he knew exactly which words we needed, and he found them with his eyes by navigating between pages, selecting the correct one of 18 cells on the screen, repeatedly. It’s functional, practical, appropriate communication. It’s everyday speech, only it has taken years of practice and support for this to become close to our everyday.

It’s one step further forward for a boy who has spent nine years working so hard to make himself understood. He’s 9! I’m so proud!

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IMG_9945I’m trying to institute a new tradition in our house: on each of the children’s birthdays we will all get up and do birthday breakfast, open presents and be generally celebratory, and then I will go back to bed for at least an hour. I think it is a good idea for all of us to remember that this is the anniversary of these kids coming out of my body and that body could do with a little lie down.

Molly’s birthday a few weeks ago was the first time I implemented this brilliant new tradition, and as I was lying down remembering her birth two years ago, I read an article by Chitra Ramaswarmy about her tendency to catastrophise. It was poignant to be reading about how incubating and then having children affects your outlook on life, particularly if one of your children is diagnosed with a disability.

Ramaswarmy experienced a very tough year in which numerous difficult things happened. By its end she had – after a complicated pregnancy – given birth to a healthy baby, her partner and mother had been seriously ill and recovered, and her son had been diagnosed with autism. Was it a year of disaster or, actually, was her family lucky?

Ramaswarmy describes how she is naturally a catastrophist, and inclined to be anxious about the potential for the worst case scenario to occur. She makes the case that the parenting is an antidote to catastrophising:

‘The hard graft and small, pure joys of looking after a baby and a little boy with autism anchor me to the present. The baby keeps me healthy, makes me feel lucky and gives me a constant dose of perspective. She is also exhausting: I am too tired and busy to catastrophise with as much fervour as the habit demands.’

This rings true for me. I am not a catastrophist. My natural tendency is towards slightly anxious optimism. But there is no doubt that I thrive when I am rooted in the present, and nothing keeps you in the present like having a small child, and then another, and then another. It’s not all rose-tinted snuggles – Ben’s early months were difficult for us all and he was frequently made miserable by reflux and feeding difficulties. But my focus on looking after him meant that by the time I looked up and around we had largely weathered the storm.

I went on to have two more babies and, luckily for all of us (and I mean luck, because these things are just a roll of the dice), Max and Molly were babies that were easy to please. I have been largely too busy caring for all of them over the last eight years to spend much time thinking about what might have been, or what might go wrong.

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What really resonated with me was Ramaswarmy’s reaction to her son’s autism diagnosis:

Then there is my brilliantly singular, loving and brave son. Before he was diagnosed with autism (that happened this year, too) I feared this moment: how will we manage? What will we do about school? How will he develop? Is everything going to be OK? The mystery and idiosyncrasy of autism can be frustrating, but it is also a visceral reminder that none of us knows what lies ahead and that compassion is the most powerful weapon against anxiety. So, here I am, living and thriving in the future over which I once catastrophised. And you know what? It is not so scary after all.’

We have had Ben’s birth described as a catastrophe, and in purely medical terms that may be true. But it has not been a catastrophe for our family. Sure there are difficult times, and complications, and we are sometimes sad and frustrated, but there is no catastrophe here. Something that was unfamiliar and therefore terrifying has become normal to us, and with familiarity comes an ease (hugely helped by the privilege of having carers to help and living in an adapted house).

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Over Christmas, all the kids were largely at home every day for two weeks, something that is rare, which meant they spent more time together than usual. Molly can now talk and asked about, or talked about, Ben at least every hour. Ben happily tolerated her climbing on his wheelchair, wiping his face, pressing her cheek into his. Max is currently obsessed with gags about bodily functions and Ben encouraged him by laughing at his poo jokes. Ben let Max play with all of his Christmas presents. Molly clambered on Max and ruined his games and he only snapped after such goading that any jury would be on his side. Ben and Max watched Star Wars for the first time and were scared and excited by the same bits. We went ice skating, for walks, swimming and to the cinema.

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The ‘mystery and idiosyncrasy’ of cerebral palsy can be difficult, but it is also a prompt to live this life that is happening right now, even if it is one that would have counted as a bad outcome at some point. We have three healthy kids, and it’s not so scary after all. Are our family the survivors of a disaster, or are we lucky? Perhaps ask me again when they’re all teenagers, but on the basis of this Christmas we’re extraordinarily lucky.

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Ben is 7!

Ben is seven! We celebrated with, amongst other things, an egg-free chocolate cake that I whizzed up in our blender and gave to Ben through his feeding tube.

With every passing year I sound a bit more like my mum: “I can’t believe you’re seven years old! I remember when you were just a baby!” But it’s true – I am genuinely surprised that we have been parents for seven years and that Ben is so big and tall.

As with all recent birthdays, James made a Ben-themed video of the past year and we watched it with our family, projected on to the wall. I would recommend this as a way not so much of celebrating the child’s birthday, though Ben and Max enjoy seeing themselves, but more as a way of congratulating oneself on another year of parenting. It is heartening to see how much children have changed and grown over the year, how much you have done with them, and ultimately how justified you are in feeling so tired.

The other thing that we realise when we (James) make these videos is that there is always way too much material. We have done too much fun stuff and taken too many photos and videos to fit into one short film. It makes obvious that Ben is living a full life, with variety and fun, surrounded by loving family.

Just after Ben’s birthday he had an appointment at our local rehabilitation centre where wheelchair services, assistive technology and other helpful services are based. There are always all sorts of disabled people coming in and out for appointments. I was sitting in reception with Ben and Molly, waiting to be called. Molly was a bit grumpy because she hadn’t yet had her morning bottle of milk, Ben was happy watching a screen showing footage from four security cameras. A lady in a wheelchair was pushed close to us (and I have written that in the passive deliberately, because the person pushing didn’t ask her where she wanted to wait). She was an older lady, I would guess in her seventies, immaculately dressed and made up. She smiled at us and after a few moments said (as is common):

“You’ve got your hands full!”

I smiled and we had a brief chat about how old the kids were, how cute Molly was, how much she liked milk. Then the lady asked, as she looked at Ben:

“Is he able to go to school?”

“Of course,” I said. “He goes to a brilliant school which he loves, don’t you Ben. We’re just here for an appointment.”

I could see the pity-look appearing so I was even more positive than normal about both Ben and his school. But as she was leaving she said:

“It’s so hard for these handicapped children. So hard for their families. I feel so sorry for them.”

It was one of those times when I felt like I didn’t have the words to be able to explain to her what our world is like, what Ben’s life is like, how we (try to) treat him. I have no idea how or why she uses a wheelchair, or how old she was when she first used it, but clearly she has lived a different experience.

It’s impossible in passing conversations like this to say all I want to, but later I felt so sad that she assumed Ben didn’t go to school, that his life is somehow unbearably hard, that it’s okay to talk about him like that right in front of him. Clearly being disabled in some way doesn’t automatically educate you in how to treat disabled kids in 2016 (or 2017).

I don’t want to minimise Ben’s challenges – loads of things are tough for him, almost nothing comes easily, and much is really unfair. And as a family we sometimes struggle when Ben’s disability makes things more complicated for all of us. But right now, as a seven year old boy, Ben is having a good life most of the time (and really, which child is having a good life all of the time? I mean every kid has to tidy up or eat Brussels sprouts or go home some of the time). He has loads of fun. He laughs most days. He is loved. He is learning. He is thriving.

By way of illustration, between his sixth and seventh birthdays Ben:

  • Had a baby sister: tolerated Molly’s wailing, put up with a third of our attention rather than half, learnt to deal with her grabbing onto his legs and pulling his hair. And then got a new baby cousin, Ralph, who also sometimes likes a bit of a wail.

  • Learnt to cycle his trike on his own: whizzed round in circles, racing Max and being unbelievably pleased with himself. He is still working on learning how to steer.
  • Made really noticeable progress with communication: starting to eyepoint using his communication book to tell us things, more reliably telling us yes and no.
  • Made huge progress on using his eyegaze computer: using it almost every day, knowing exactly what he wants to do, reliably choosing stories and then navigating through them like a pro, using communication software to create messages that were totally appropriate to the moment.
  • Went on holiday to Cornwall and France: first flight for three years, loads of swimming and beach time, hanging out with family and friends, getting tanned (and on one unfortunate occasion burned), getting a new passport.

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  • So many jokes with Max. So many lovely moments between these two boys.

  • Started staying at a children’s hospice for the occasional night, didn’t seem to be traumatised.
  • Moved house, again. Visited the building site to review progress and try out his new lift. Before he is eight he should have managed yet another move, his sixth since he was born.

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  • Began to be hoisted (rather than manually lifted) for most transfers between chairs and beds: coped much better with this than his mum.
  • Listened to lots and lots of audiobooks: his bluetooth speaker and ipod have become essentials wherever Ben goes, and there’s therefore been less screen time, developed a love for the books of David Walliams (except the highly emotional ending of Gangsta Granny) and late in the year Harry Potter.
  • Finished his first year at a new school: totally smashed it, participated in a whole school play in his walker, another year of loving learning, fascinated by the Great Fire of London.

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  • Was increasingly contented: Ben has spent the last year less fractious and generally happier. We spend less time flicking though films to find the one he is happy to watch, less energy trying to entertain him in public places so we can finish our lunch. This is probably connected to us having more (paid) help, and Ben getting older and more mature, helped – we think – by his surgery in 2015. As long as we explain what’s what is going on or is about to happen, Ben is noticeably more able to deal with unfamiliar or demanding environments. Long may it continue.

As we celebrate another year of Ben being our son, I am so very proud of this boy (and still so very sad that seven years ago he was still in hospital). He is such a joy to us all, so filled with patience and humour and determination. Happy New Year everyone – let’s all hope we come across more Bens, less pity and more positivity in 2017.

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Ben is 6!

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Ben is 6! Like every year, the actual day is full of mixed emotions. While we are joyful that we are celebrating six years since Ben joined us, on the day I am also mindful that this time six years ago Ben was being resuscitated then being transferred on his own in an ambulance to a different hospital, and that our lives changed forever.

But it gets easier every year, as the memories are less immediate, there is more to celebrate and Ben is more engaged in birthdays.

As is now our annual tradition, James made a video to summarise Ben’s year. I won’t post it, partly for reasons of privacy but also because of self-indulgence; while most parents will happily watch a ten minute video of their own child, no-one I know really wants to watch a long video of someone else’s child, even if that child is the subject of a semi regular blog they read. It’s surely the modern equivalent of being made to sit through someone else’s holiday photos.

So, here’s the executive summary. It is unashamedly positive. Let’s ignore the tiresome stuff for now.

In Ben’s sixth year he:

  • Enjoyed ice-skating and went round the rink quite a lot faster than grandpa;

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  • Went down a zipwire, swung from a sports hall ceiling and went kayaking at the Calvert Trust;

  • Did a lot of triking;

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  • Was a lovely older brother to Max, letting him wear his lycra suit and clamber all over him;

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  • Moved house (again – his fourth since he was born);
  • Got a new wheelchair-accessible car (which is great but unfortunately turns out to be one of the cheating VW emission scandal cars…);
  • Got his own eyegaze computer to use at home and used it to tell us knock knock jokes;
  • Went to the House of Commons and met an MP;

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  • Lost four baby teeth, swallowing at least one;

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  • Did a lot of trampolining;
  • Went to a summer playscheme for the first time and made a biscuit the size of his head;
  • Went on holiday to the Cotswolds and Cornwall. Next year places beginning with D. Suggestions welcome;

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  • And last but not least, left one wonderful school and started at another, settling in quickly.

Ben had a lovely birthday. Over the years we have learnt what works and what doesn’t. We are less concerned these days about what a typical six year old birthday party would be like and just do what we think he will enjoy – small family celebrations, lots of presents and balloons, ice-cream cake which he can at least taste if not eat.

If I do say so myself, we have done particularly well with Ben’s presents this year. It’s tricky to think of things he will really like beyond yet more books, but he is really enjoying a puppet theatre where we put on shows for him with hand puppets, a lightbox that we can spell words on, and a teddy bear that will play Daddy’s voice (from Kuwait this week) or anyone else who records their voice via an app. So satisfying when all of the thought I have put into presents he will like pays off.

The coming year will involve more change for Ben, not least with a new sister and another house move. His somewhat relentless life will continue with the usual levels of complexity and endless appointments, but he has continued to prove that he can take it. It feels like he (and we) are more resilient and happier than ever. We will inevitably have some blips. I am certain the arrival of a third child will throw us all off course, he’ll get the usual winter bugs and we will face unexpected challenges. But, but… if I had been able to see how well we are all doing six years on from the awful day of his birth, maybe I wouldn’t have been quite so sad.

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Five years old

Ben has just turned five.

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A birthday means the anniversary of his birth, which was a mixed bag.

But loads of good things have happened since! Each year we make a list of what Ben has got up to over the previous 12 months; achievements noted, developments made and skills gained. Parents of disabled children often talk about ‘inchstones’ rather than milestones. Early on, it became clear that the gross motor skill developments that characterise a typical child’s life were going to be hard for Ben so we had to adjust our expectations and targets accordingly, but success rewards the patient and if you look in the right places there are wonderful things to be found.

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In the year between his fourth and fifth birthdays Ben has done a lot, including:

  • left nursery, started school full-time (settling in brilliantly)
  • learnt to enjoy the affections of his brother and realised Max can be funny
  • used an eye-gaze computer regularly, playing lots of games
  • learnt to look at Yes and No symbols regularly
  • stopped having any formula milk, eating only home-made food
  • adapted brilliantly to having a night carer
  • discovered his love of the hot tub
  • started getting the bus to school
  • learnt loads of letters
  • reliably recognised the numbers 1-10
  • starting riding his trike
  • met Michael Rosen!

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Ben has really thrived over the last year – he has been healthier than ever and had a lot of fun. We were looking forward to celebrating him turning five with a tea party and a family video of the past year’s best bits…

… and then he really pulled it out the bag!

We have known for a while that Ben recognises most letters and Granny has been diligently teaching him to read. His school has also been working on phonics with him and recently he has been using the eyegaze computer in his classroom to do some work with letters. The day before his fifth birthday, Ben came home with this message from his teacher:

‘Ben used his eye gaze [computer] to independently word build. I asked him to spell out bat and several other ‘-at’ words at the end and he did so no problem!’

If that isn’t a bloody milestone, I don’t know what is. Love that clever boy.

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