This is my latest interview in an occasional series – A Parent Perspective, I spoke to Amanda about life with her four children. Her son, Matthew, has a rare chromosomal disorder and Amanda has battled to get the support Matthew and her family need. Her tenacity is extraordinary but working against the systems that are meant to support has been difficult for all of them.
My son, Ben, is 12 and I knew very little about disabled people or parenting when he was born. My experience of being his mother has been a rapid education in the issues surrounding disability. I find it helpful and interesting to read stories about other people with similar experiences and I hope you might too.
Could you describe your family?
My husband and I have four children who are all quite close together. They are 16,14, 12 and 10. Our 12 year old, Matthew, was born with a chromosomal disorder called 47,XYY which means he has an extra male chromosome. He is non-verbal with complex learning difficulties and autism. Matthew‘s siblings are great with him and I think it’s taught them so much. There’s so much to consider with Matthew just to keep him safe, and I constantly worry if I’m there enough for the others.
How would you describe Matthew, and what are his particular challenges?
Matthew loves music and being outdoors. He has a wide taste in music, everything from heavy rock to salsa to Gangnam Style. So there is always music playing when Matthew is around, although he likes nothing more than to press repeat over and over again on a particular track so we never get past the intro!
Matthew is cheeky and inquisitive and has a great sense of humour. What makes life hard for him is his sensory processing challenges and difficulty with communicating – he’s nonverbal but can be very noisy! We all do some signing and he has a talker on his iPad that he’s learning to communicate with. It’s difficult for him in the wider world because other people don’t know signing.
The lack of communication leads to a lot of frustration. Sometimes he’ll be doing a sign that I haven’t seen before and he’ll look me in the eyes, coming up really close, like he’s trying to say, ‘Why can’t you understand what I’m trying to tell you?’ He has no sense of danger. He’s always on the go, doesn’t sit still, and doesn’t have a sense of social norms or personal space.
How you get the diagnosis of Matthew’s genetic condition?
When he was born it was suggested that he might have Down syndrome because of some physical features. After a week of waiting and wondering, we were then told everything was normal. About a week later, the consultant phoned to say the blood tests had shown something in Matthew’s chromosomal pattern. At a hospital appointment we were given a Wikipedia print out to explain that Matthew had an extra male chromosome, but we were told it wasn’t much to worry about – he might need a bit of extra help at school.
Matthew was slow to roll over, then crawled when he was about a year old. He started to walk when he was about three but he wouldn’t tolerate wearing shoes – he would scream and kick. I was thinking about autism because he would look up into the distance, and liked to be on his hands and knees and spin a lot. A paediatric nurse agreed there were enough traits to say it looked like a ASD diagnosis. I thought we might get some help as a result but didn’t.
What has Matthew’s school experience been like?
I had come across ABA (Applied Behavioural Analysis – a particular way of teaching children with autism) when Matthew was in preschool and I was very sceptical, but we did an hour a week and saw a change in him. It was all about play at that age, but we started to introduce some learning goals and it went really well. I found out you can run an ABA programme in a mainstream school, where trained tutors support the pupil alongside the class teacher, but once we said we’d like to do so the local authority said Matthew should go to a special needs school. We had to fight and went to tribunal with an advocate and reports to show why he needed it. It was an awful experience to go through, having to argue our case and be cross examined by an aggressive barrister who referred to our son as a ‘drain on the state’. After that stressful experience we won and Matthew started in reception.
Running an ABA programme in a mainstream school brought its challenges. We were responsible for employing the tutors and I felt like an HR and payroll service. If a tutor was sick, Matthew couldn’t go into school. There were lots of challenges trying to get speech and language therapy from the local authority – nobody saw him for two years. When it came to his secondary transfer, the local authority were suddenly interested and wanted to assess the effectiveness of the programme, despite having shown little to no interest over the years. We said he needed to go to an ABA secondary school because that was the only style of learning he was used to and had made excellent progress. The local authority refused, insisting it go to tribunal, although they didn’t have a leg to stand on. Again we went through the expensive process of employing an advocate and getting our own reports from independent professionals. At this hearing the local authority brought witnesses that had never met Matthew and the judge dismissed them in the first 10 minutes and agreed to everything we were asking for. The whole process was unnecessary and made me wonder what happens to the children of parents who don’t have the knowledge of the system or the financial means to fight it.
Matthew started at an ABA special needs secondary school last November and it’s going really well. He spends a lot of time exploring the school and they’re gradually easing him into more academic tasks. I feel like finally we’ve got him what he should have always had – regular speech and language, OT and physio input. He’s learning how to interact with others and life skills, which is really what I want for him. I’ve found him being at a special school quite hard to deal with as a parent – not that I was in denial about his needs, but coming to terms with the realisation that he’s always going to need someone to keep him safe.
How much support are you getting out of school?
It’s been an ongoing struggle over the years to get any help. A few years before lockdown, after many years of refusing, the local authority agreed for Matthew to go to a respite home locally. We built up to three weekends a month and some nights during the school holidays. It was incredibly hard because we missed him so much but it allowed us some breathing space. When Covid happened, the home shut immediately which was tough but we just got on with it because everyone was in the same boat. Sadly it then closed permanently.
Since then I’ve lost count of the number of emails I’ve written (often ignored) and phone calls made (and not returned) pleading for support. We have jumped through so many hoops and a huge amount of intrusion and judgement to then be met with responses such as “Senior management have not agreed to your request” or “Matthew is not at risk of harm so the best place for him is the family home”. It felt like we were stuck in this Catch 22 situation where you only get help if you fall apart.
The irony of all this is that whether it’s social care or education, when you have a child with special needs so much time and energy is spent fighting the system when you are already exhausted.
Recently we have managed to secure a new respite placement for our son which was not easy. The system of processes and procedures is not set up to help parents of disabled children. I have so many feelings of grief and guilt, of not being a good enough parent, of not being able to cope. Deciding to place our child in regular overnight respite has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Each time he goes I feel my heart breaking a little more.
Having a disabled child has opened my eyes to how parents are left to get on with it on their own. I would have assumed that if you need help – such as speech and language therapy for a child who doesn’t speak, or respite so you can recharge your batteries to look after your child – you’d be given that help, but that’s not the case. I’m angry about this and wonder if I’ll ever get to the day where I’m not battling? I have a dream of building a respite home for disabled children because I don’t want anyone else to go through these struggles.
You are a Pilates teacher. Is there a link between being a carer and doing Pilates?
Pilates has been my saviour, in giving me an identity other than mum or carer but also in keeping me strong physically and mentally. Sometimes it’s difficult to fit in my own practice, but without it I would have gone mad by now. It’s a chance to forget everything else and just move. Movement is a kind of meditation. When I’m teaching, I’m totally in the zone, and I have great clients. You build up a relationship and help people make positive changes which is very satisfying. I also teach in a forest so being outside in the fresh air is another bonus.
Some names have been changed.
Amanda is on Instagram at @kemp_pilates