Having a laugh in Trafalgar Square

We have recently been printing photos – mainly for a wall in our house where we have an ever expanding, slightly chaotic collection of family photos. There is currently not a single photo of Molly on the wall. She is almost two years old. We need to rectify this quickly, before she’s tall enough to see the photos and old enough to mind.

As I go through the photos on our computer, I get distracted by loads that will never make the cut for the wall. I like to think I am a decent photographer, but almost all our recent pictures are badly composed phone photos of non-compliant kids. So I force myself to focus more on the memory and emotion of when the photo was taken, than on the quality of the composition. Kids don’t care if the background is full of mugs and syringes, they just love a photo of them with their dad.

But this photo, I love:

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It is technically flawed, badly composed. But look how happy Ben is! And look at all the tourists wandering around behind him, oblivious!

This was taken during the summer holidays, just off Trafalgar Square. James, Ben, Max and I had just been to the theatre to see Horrible Histories at the Garrick Theatre. We had brilliant seats. Ben’s space was just off the foyer, at the back of the circle, so quite a long way from the stage but with a brilliant view. This is everything we look for in a theatre seat for Ben: wheelchair spaces in theatres are often right by the stage which he finds a bit much. There have been numerous times when we have had to leave a theatre early because Ben isn’t enjoying the performance. (His other pet hate is unexpected, roaming musicians in theatrical performances. He likes people to stay on the stage, not appear behind him playing a trumpet.)

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The rest of us had seats either side of Ben, and we all enjoyed the brilliant performance. The boys have watched almost every episode of the TV programme so we knew what to expect. It was genuinely amusing for all of us, with poo jokes interspersed with historical facts, and loads of songs. Who doesn’t like a rap about Henry VIII?

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After the performance we went to a café just off Trafalgar Square for lunch. We sat outside, with the pigeons, and put Ben’s ipod on while we were eating. Understandably, Ben gets bored if he’s just sitting around while being fed, and it’s not possible to talk to him or read him a book while eating a sandwich, so we always have a bluetooth speaker attached to his wheelchair (the pink circle by his head) which is connected to an ipod full of audiobooks. I think he’s listening to a David Walliams story in this picture.

I love the photo because how could you not love a kid laughing this much? But also in this photo I see all of the other ways in which I have changed over the seven years I have been his mother. At the beginning going on a trip like this to central London could be a bit daunting – how would we get there? Could we get Ben’s wheelchair in? Had we packed everything? Would Ben enjoy it? When Ben was very small I sometimes felt self-conscious about feeding him in public. I was really aware of how much noise we were making, and would have felt a bit anxious about playing an audiobook in a public place. I might have noticed whether people were looking at Ben, not because I was ashamed of him but because I was worried about him noticing them looking. Sometimes it felt like the logistics involved in getting us somewhere weren’t worth the risk that Ben wouldn’t enjoy it.

This trip was lovely. We packed what we needed (takes time, but we’ve done it hundreds of times) and drove in to the West End. We were a bit early so we had a coffee in Leicester Square. Went to the theatre, had lunch at Pret. Admittedly we had left Molly at home, as she would have added an unnecessary level of unpredictability to the whole outing.

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Not only do we now not care if people see Ben being fed through his gastrostomy tube, we don’t even notice if people are looking. If he laughs hysterically, loudly, we are chuckling with him rather than being self-conscious about other people noticing. If Ben needs to listen to an audiobook in order to not get bored, that’s more important than whether someone doesn’t want to listen to David Walliams in their lunchbreak.

And what this photo shows is that Ben has a brilliant time on these kinds of trips. We all do. He hugely enjoyed Horrible Histories, and now knows more about the naming of Saxon villages than he did previously. He is able to take advantage of us living in London.

And the general public in Trafalgar Square are largely too busy going about their business, admiring Nelson’s Column or grabbing a turmeric latte, to notice whether our son is disabled, or tube-fed, or listening to The World’s Worst Children.

This is the kind of photo I wish I’d had in a crystal ball when Ben was little and not enjoying life. I might laminate it and show it to anyone who gives us the pity-look and talks about how sorry they feel for him. Don’t feel sorry for him or us, he’s having the time of his life!

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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Where kids go to school

Max started school in September. It has made me think a lot about how we educate kids with disabilities.

Max’s school is a short walk away from home. It is a typical inner city state primary. Unremarkable for being similar to lots of other schools in London. Remarkable for being like many other schools which are also educating loads of kids with different needs, languages and backgrounds. I have been consistently impressed by how they have calmly settled thirty new kids into school and appear to be totally in control, while I struggle to keep three kids in any kind of order at home. Max has been learning at a furious pace – generally uncommunicative about his day, he’ll then slip in some comment about how to spell a word, or write something, or tell us about numbers in a way that shows he is really soaking up the things he is being taught.

One of the reasons I liked the school when we originally looked round was because it seemed to accommodate difference well – it has specialist provision for pupils with autism, it has a dyslexia centre. It has the kind of diversity of kids you would expect of an inner London school. I believe these things are important.

(Sidenote: a teaching assistant who we loved at Ben’s old school once told me she chose her non-disabled daughter’s school based on it having a lot of kids with special educational needs and being well known for inclusion. People like that make the world a bit brighter.)

Out of the classroom, and purely by chance, it turns out we live on the same road as two other kids in Max’s year and as we all troop up and down the hill every morning we have got to know each other. So within weeks of starting school Max was being invited over, and James and I were getting to know other parents. We bump into parents from the school in other local places and stop for a chat. Apart from this being really fun for Max, it has meant us being able to ask for favours; when Ben was ill, another mum collected Max for me and brought him home. This is new to us and it’s brilliantly straightforward.

I was worried about Max starting at a school where no-one knew Ben. Of course I was wrong to be concerned – within the first few weeks he had described his family with accompanying photos: ‘Me and Ben are lying in bed. Ben’s disabled and my bed isn’t that big so he sleeps downstairs’. Within the first half term the whole class had watched videos of Paralympic athletes and discussed overcoming adversity. As the teachers said at the time, the kids were too busy being impressed with Jonny Peacock’s speed to notice his lack of leg. Max has the confidence to explain Ben’s disability when he needs or wants to and he knows it isn’t negative or something to be self-conscious about, it just is.

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So far Max’s school is everything we hoped it would be. It is enabling the small ordinary interactions of living in a community. And in that respect, it is really – and unavoidably – different to Ben’s school experience.

Ben goes to school five miles away. It’s a really good school, and he’s there because we think it’s the best school for him right now. It takes about an hour each way for him to travel there and back every day. That is not that unusual – kids at Ben’s school come from all over London, in every direction.

James, a carer or I take and collect Ben two days a week. We chose to do that, so we see his classroom and his classmates, and have chats with his teachers and assistants. The other days he gets a school bus, like almost every other child in the school since. We rarely bump into other parents at the school.

Years ago, we looked at Max’s current school as a school for Ben. They were willing to consider it, but he would have been the only physically disabled child in the school and they had no track record of teaching a child like him. We decided it was better for Ben to go to school further away that had proven expertise in teaching children like Ben, in helping them to communicate and in maximising their potential.

We think this was the right decision for Ben, but it means we removed him from his local community. It is only through our efforts to engage him in local activities outside school (and my reliably local family) that he will have any sense of belonging in our little bit of south London. As I have written about before, life is all about human connections and this is more important, not less, for children with disability for whom interacting is challenging.

In some ways this is where Max comes in, as an unwitting but ever reliable social conduit. He invites his friends over, and then Ben is surrounded by boys playing with helicopters. Those boys, and their mums, dads, sisters and brothers,meet Ben and then recognise him in the street. They ask questions and get to know him. We take Ben to the Christmas Fair at Max’s school, where he meets Max’s teachers, other parents and kids, and really enjoys the Salvation Army brass band (obviously).

As ever, the path of inclusion never runs smooth, and Ben couldn’t meet Santa at the fair because the grotto was up two small flights of steps. But never mind – Max told Santa he needed a present for his brother, who is disabled, and wasn’t there, and Santa handed it over. They both got books about the Lego movie so we are all now clear about exactly why Vitruvius (not that one) is so amazing.

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There’s an argument to be made that it makes sense to group children who need specialist input together (and no-one appreciates the expertise of really specialist teachers, speech and language therapists and technologists more than me). That it makes sense to have a critical mass of similar-ish kids in a school together. It’s kind of obvious, and I have sympathy with this point of view, not least because kids like to be with their peers and for some children, perhaps being the sole physically disabled kid in a school is not necessarily that bolstering an environment. I think it works well for Ben to be somewhere with kids that communicate like him, and professionals experienced in teaching kids like him.

It’s not good enough that at 8am every morning hundreds of children with special educational needs are being bussed around the city, sitting in traffic jams while they try to get an education, driving past the local kids who could have been their friends. It’s not good enough that the families of the kids on the buses don’t get to know local parents. How otherwise are they supposed to forge the kind of friendships that are based on mutual understanding of how you feel at 9am having used the cross voice at least five times to ask your child to put on their shoes/not get run over by a motorbike/stop walking on that bit of wall, when you have run to school as you tried to keep up with your child scooting too fast down a hill, and are now wondering if someone is going to give you a medal for remembering the bookbag?

Obviously, calmly loading your older child on to a bus arriving at your house at 8.15am can sound attractive in comparison to the 9am chaos, but is it right? Is it really the right way to organise an education system? Is it fair for disabled kids? And are we really doing right by our non-disabled children?

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(Unconnected, cheerful picture)

Having a break – the guilt of ‘respite’

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For any parent of a disabled child, the subject of respite is a bit fraught. Often because accessing any is difficult, and will have involved tricky conversations/numerous phone calls with various professionals. Partly because the logistics of organising it and physically getting the child there with everything they require are onerous.

But mainly because it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand we would really like a break. On the other hand we feel guilty for wanting a break. We are on the knife-edge of knowing that the respite place we have carefully considered is able to take care of our child, but also thinking that no-one is going to be able to take care of them properly.

Almost two years after we were first referred for respite provision, Ben has just had his first overnight stay without us. The somewhat casual timescale allowed us time to get used to the idea, due mainly to the first hospice refusing to feed Ben pureed food so us (and yes, I mean us, social services having still not managed to assess Ben) having to find a different place. We agreed to the new referral, then went for a visit, then spent a couple of hours going through aspects of Ben’s care plan, and then stayed there with him for a weekend, then the time came for him to stay there himself.

It’s a nice place. It’s run by nurses, so feels quite medical, but that means they are totally on top of medication and not at all intimidated by disability. It’s purpose-built building with lots of space, bedrooms opening on to gardens, a huge room for craft, fun and reading. Loads of books and friendly people floating around doing interesting things. There are other kids and their siblings, volunteers making bugs and Gruffalos.

To give some context, I am generally quite relaxed about being separated from my children. We are lucky enough to have lots of family in London who are willing to look after our kids. For the first three years or so of Ben’s life he spent one night a week with my mum, he’s spent loads of weekend with his other grandparents. Max has had ‘sleepovers’ of up to five days with grandparents and my sister and her partner. Molly is somewhat testing the model by being more dedicated to breastfeeding than I would ideally like, but at some point we’ll manage to offload her too. But of course, these people are all in our family. And as Ben has got longer and heavier, and the kit he needs has got larger, it’s got trickier for him to stay anywhere that isn’t our home.

We have therefore shifted the model so James and I (perhaps with a child or two) can go away, leaving Ben in our house with various permutations of carers and family. We realise how fortunate we are to be able to do this.

What the respite hospice offers is an opportunity for us to stay at home and for Ben to stay elsewhere, allowing us to be one child down (which with three of them is a welcome release of intensity), spend more time with the other two, and perhaps get some of the stuff done that we have been planning to do for months but never have time to (e.g. unpack boxes from our house move 2.5 months ago, or actually tidy up our tip of a house). I am keen on this idea.

Except that it also involves Ben staying somewhere else without us or any other family, which makes me feel guilty and nervous.

On the morning of Ben’s solo stay we packed up everything he needed (a full car of stuff) and James and a carer set off. I used Molly as a convenient excuse to not be the one to do the drop off. I called the hospice to say they were on the way, and it transpired that there had been some administrative confusion that meant they weren’t expecting Ben until that afternoon. The idea that Ben was about to arrive for his first stay without us, and they weren’t expecting him, that they weren’t all standing around anticipating the arrival of Ben, made me feel so sad and unsure. Should I call James and get them to turn back? The journey can take up to an hour so that would mean spending most of the day faffing around which would be the exact opposite of respite. As I burst into tears, the nurse said no, they would make it work.

When James got there it was actually okay, and Ben seemed alright, and by the time James and our carer left he was happily entertained and content. We spent the weekend with Max and Molly, and realised that looking after two kids is much easier that looking after three but still pretty relentless which was quite a helpful distraction. Max burst into tears on three separate occasions because Ben wasn’t there.

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Then we went out for supper to celebrate our 11th wedding anniversary, and appreciated that organising babysitting for two non-disabled kids is really straightforward. We ate delicious food, drank too many drinks, faded far too early, and came home to Molly screaming in the babysitters’ face. We had called the hospice and they said Ben was okay.

The following day we woke up to a house that only had our kids in it and us. Ben sleeps badly, and we’re lucky to have nightcarers who get up with him during the night and help us in the morning. We also have day carers almost every day which makes our family life possible. But the flipside of having a lot of help is that there is almost always someone in our house. It is a luxury to wake up and potter around in a dressing gown with only Weetabix for kids to think about.

We went for lunch, where we were just about able to have actual conversations with other adults, at tables with benches that wouldn’t accommodate wheelchairs easily. I had fun. But we were with family, and I felt bad that Ben wasn’t there. Even though we probably wouldn’t have gone for the lunch at all if Ben had been, partly because of the wheelchair, partly because trying to go for lunch with all three of our kids and actually expecting to talk to anyone is an absolutely ridiculous idea. We called again and Ben was apparently happy.

When James went to collect Ben that afternoon everything was okay. He seemed relaxed. There hadn’t been any disasters. When Ben got back home and saw me, Max and Molly he was totally thrilled. Max was so happy to have Ben back, equilibrium had been restored. Max was even content to not be able to watch his TV programmes because Ben doesn’t like them.

It was, by all measures, a success. Ben did fun stuff that he wouldn’t have done at home. Max and Molly got more of our attention, James and I had a bit of a break (it’s all relative).

So why do I feel so guilty about it? It reminds me a bit of Ben’s first week at nursery, when he was almost one. I dropped him off and called James on the way out in tears, saying I would never be able to go back to work because we couldn’t possibly leave Ben at nursery… Am I just further along the continuum of internal conflict that starts at angsting about whether kids should go to nursery or have a nanny (or any childcare at all), and ends at going away for a week with no kids? Or am I just trying to justify something that’s not fair on Ben?

I don’t think there’s a right answer, but for now I’m shattered and have a to-do list that stretches over two A4 pages and Ben was happy during this last stay, so we’ll crack on (as Max would say) and hope we’re doing the right thing.

Or at least not doing the wrong thing.

Playing for laughs (via eyegaze)

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I’ve got three kids! I don’t have much time to write blogs! And we have moved house, again, so things are as relaxed as usual round here.

In amongst the chaos and many, many boxes, Ben has been continuing to use his eyegaze computer. It travels to school with him every day and then he uses it at home for a mixture of entertainment and communication. Ben is building skills in using his eyes and navigating around software on a computer, and much of this is by playing games or other activities that he finds motivating. Like everything to do with kids learning something, anything, it’s best done through play as far as I can see.

We have various activities that he enjoys on his computer; his favourites are, unsurprisingly, stories. Some of which are ‘multiple choice’ where he has to pick the right word to continue the pre-programmed story. Others are computer equivalents of audiobooks where the entire text of a novel is on the computer and Ben can choose the story he wants, select the chapter, and then it is read out to him (in stilted computer voice, but he doesn’t seem to mind). Crucially, he has to keep selecting ‘Speak Paragraph’ in order for the story to continue, meaning that he has to engage consistently.

Ben’s current favourite book to read like this is Mr Stink by David Walliams. We have the actual book and read it to him frequently (actually I don’t, generally because I’m often preoccupied with a smaller child, but others do including my dad who assures me it is great and totes emosh). Other times Ben sits at the table reading it to himself via computer. It’s brilliant.

We hadn’t foreseen quite how fantastic the computer is for Ben and Max to use together. The laptop is touchscreen and so they can play games like, for example, Splat the Clown where Ben can splat using his eyes and Max using his finger. There aren’t many activities that they can do together like that, with total parity.

The current hit, however, is the most simple of all. By navigating through various screens within the PODD communication software Ben can get to a page which just has Yes, No and Don’t Know buttons.

Through trying to gauge Ben’s reliability of answering yes or no to questions (Ben doesn’t have a totally reliable yes or no, which is a work in progress for him and something about which I could – and may at some point – write an essay…), James invented a game of asking him sets of related yes/no questions, some of which are totally ridiculous. It is a good way of him practising giving us a clear yes or no when we know he knows the answer. He is definitely making progress on this. The thing we didn’t expect, and which is in danger of slightly undermining our carefully constructed strategy, is that Ben is now giving us the ‘wrong’ answer because it’s funny.

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Oh the laughs! The advent of this game has also coincided with Max hitting the zenith of his life so far where he can successfully make every member of our family laugh. Let me assure you that watching one of your kids make the other laugh is one of life’s pure joys. Watching Eli make BOTH of the other kids laugh is very, very lovely and makes my heart sing. All the feelings.

So it isn’t just James and me asking the yes/no questions, but Max too, and Ben bloody loves it.

Sometimes when Max is asking the questions Ben doesn’t answer. Then while we are waiting, he navigates out of that page which is autonomy in action, and is the physically disabled equivalent of a child wandering off because they have lost interest. He actually then went to a different yes/no page, through a different pathway in the software (which I didn’t know you could do), and then we continued. His ability to do this, without us mediating, is as pleasing to me as all the chuckling.

How we learn to talk (part two)

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Recently I complained that Max talks too much. I caught myself saying it twice, to two different people, in one week. Granted, James was away and I was really feeling the intensity of being the primary carer of all three kids, but what was I thinking?

Max is, in the nicest possible way, a chatterbox. Some days he will barely stop talking for hours at a time. It’s a charming mixture of questions, statements and analysis of the varying powers of superheroes.

Max was relatively slow to talk; he just said ‘oh no’ repeatedly for months and as he turned two the health visitor was a bit concerned about his lack of speech. I wasn’t worried. I had spent hours with speech and language therapists with Ben and so knew something of the basics of learning language. I could tell Max knew loads of words and understood what we told him. He made loads of sounds. I had a feeling he was just biding his time until he started talking.

At two-and-a-bit he started saying more words. Within a couple of weeks he was putting words together. And by the end of the month he had three-word sentences. It was like a miracle, like you could see his brain working and his body co-ordinating itself with an ease and fluidity that was beautiful to watch and hear.

Since Ben will probably never talk, I promised myself that I wouldn’t take it for granted. And I haven’t – there have been numerous occasions when we have been so very grateful for Max’s ability to tell us what the matter is when he’s ill or what happened at nursery that day.

Meanwhile there have been many times when we have been so very sad that Ben can’t tell us what the matter is, or what he has done that day. We find ways round it by school telling us each day what he has done, and recording messages on a button that goes to and fro with him, but it’s no substitute for independent communication and it’s a clunky way to converse.

We, and his school, are trying our best to give Ben the means to ‘talk’. We continue to model his PODD book with him (a communication book with lots of symbols to represent vocab), and give him access to his eyegaze computer regularly. When he returned to school after Easter, his carer/nanny printed out photos for him to take to school of all the things he had done over the holiday. I programmed new pages on his computer so he could use his eyes to describe what he had been up to (with photos) for his friends and teachers. (SO proud of myself for managing to navigate the software to do this, with only a couple of exasperating moments when I felt like chucking the computer out the window).

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Ben loved all of it – he enjoyed showing people photos of Max squashing him in the park, and telling them about our easter egg hunt.

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But these things are manipulated by us. We choose which photos to include and which anecdotes to tell. Ben can’t tell people what HE wants to about his holiday he can only share one of the moments we chose to include. Who knows whether we have included the bits he most enjoyed? Yesterday we were talking about when we all visited an outdoor exhibition of massive light sculptures and Max’s best, most important memory was of the Smarties Grandpa gave him, rather than any of the sculptures. Kids experience the world differently to adults, and often remember the bits we think are incidental.

Or we (adults) don’t realise what kids want to do. When Max is climbing a tree, Ben will make complaining noises until we ask him if he wants to climb the tree? He then looks at the ‘Yes’ symbol on the arm of his wheelchair, and so we take him out and lift him up into the branches. A year ago he wouldn’t have been able to communicate this clearly something we hadn’t thought of. Or perhaps we weren’t able to interpret what he was trying to tell us.

We continue to hope we can give Ben the means to express what HE wants to say, rather than what we think he wants to say, and he is making progress with the ways he has available.

Each week at school Ben helps create a sentence and they work on the sentence each day, putting the words in the right order. On one of the first days back at school this term, staff in Ben’s classroom navigated him to the Places page of his PODD book. He had to choose the place to complete the sentence ‘I went to the …’ and through careful yes/no answers as he worked his way through the various symbols with an assistant he chose Library: I went to the library.*

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School wondered if he really meant library. We hadn’t mentioned going to the library in our various messages to school. Maybe he was confused, or hadn’t really meant library. After all, his communication can be hard to interpret.

But HE HAD GONE TO THE LIBRARY. The day before! So he had told his class something we hadn’t!

Before Max started talking it was all in his head, he just had to work out how to say it all so we would understand. Ben clearly has so much to say, but no reliable way to say it. In some ways this makes me sad. In many ways it makes me anxious – it is our job (with various professionals) to help him find ways to talk to us and I feel the weight of the responsibility.

But mainly I feel hopeful. Ben has started to use the communication systems we are providing and has begun to talk independently. It will take time, but he’s making progress. He went to the library!

 

How we learn to talk – part one is here

* Note how many symbols there are on this page, which is one of many in the PODD book. Imagine the skill needed to identify which symbol you want on that page and then communicate it to the person you are talking to using only your eyes. Imagine if you got distracted or confused midway through and needed to start again.

Making our own fun

It is the Easter holidays and like thousands of parents around the country, we are in the midst of filling the time with fun, Last week I thought we would try a cycling session at a velodrome.

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Wheels for Wellbeing run sessions at the Herne Hill Velodrome where they have a variety of adapted bikes and trikes for people to try, though we actually took our own wheels. The velodrome has a professional track with junior cyclists zooming round at high speed, and a flatter track in the centre where children and adults, with various disabilities or none, were cycling around on adapted bikes or trikes – some hand-powered, some with platforms for wheelchairs, some with two seats.

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There were very friendly, helpful people around. One of whom suggested we try some mittens to help Ben keep his hands on the handlebars. He went and found and gently fitted Ben’s hands into them, and they worked so well that I have since bought some. Then we bumped into a boy from Ben’s school, and Max, Ben and he did some races round the track. We were there for an hour and it was fun.

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I don’t want to paint too romantic a picture of this outing: because it is actually impossible to co-ordinate the feeding and sleeping routines of three children, Molly was hungry as soon as we arrived so I unpacked Ben’s trike to the sound of her bawling in the car. As the helpful man was fitting Ben’s hands into the mittens, I was breastfeeding Molly under my jumper while walking around and making sure Max wasn’t crashing into anyone. Elegant it was not.

It was raining for a lot of our visit, luckily not too heavily (not least because I’d accidentally left the car sunroof open) but I refused to let it put us off. If I have managed to get all of us to a velodrome with everything we require and no major meltdowns, we are NOT going home just because we’re getting a bit wet! Even if I have negligently put Max in a sleeveless coat.

When I mentioned the idea for this trip to James that morning as he headed off for work he said it was a brilliant idea but noted that it was also so ambitious that I might be nuts to attempt it. He’s right, it’s easier to stay at home where everything is familiar, but more fun to go out. Especially to new places, with welcoming people. And lovely for Ben to see a friend from school. A velodrome! Awesome!

I would love for Ben to do more things like this, where he could meet other local kids and make friends. Maybe even without us. But that appears to be near impossible.

A social worker phoned me in September last year and asked if she could come and visit us. I didn’t know what had brought us to to her attention, but she soon came round one day after school. Since she didn’t seem to need to interact with Ben, he stayed upstairs with a carer and I sat with the social worker in our kitchen for an hour while she asked questions and I answered them.

I had never met her before so I described our day-to-day lives. She agreed that Ben needs were complex. She said she could see our lives were difficult, with the tilted head and sympathetic voice that is so irritating. She asked how we were coping, but offered no practical help because I said we were doing okay.

When she asked what help we needed I said I would like some holiday activities, or weekend clubs, or any kind of extra-curricular activity for Ben that was with other kids and not initiated by us. We can find fun things for Ben to do and fill his days, but we can’t create a peer group for him to do it with, and this is what we need help with.

I said that, as far as I know, there are no holidays clubs in our borough for children like Ben and she agreed. I found one last summer in another borough and she said I should keep looking for things like this, and that when I found them I should contact her team in plenty of time and they would see if they could fund Ben’s place. Which was nice of her, because I definitely have lots of time to be tracking down holiday playschemes, liaising with local authority bureaucracies and checking they understand Ben’s condition.

I had heard of an adventure playground in a neighbouring borough that runs weekend activity sessions for kids like Ben, and asked the social worker if he could be referred to this. She agreed that it might be suitable, but warned me that there was a very long waiting list. That is not surprising, because multiple boroughs like ours don’t provide anything like this. Fine, I said. As far as I was concerned, this was obviously the start of the referral process. She had asked what I wanted, so I had told her. She was taking this forward. Right?

Six months later I hadn’t heard anything. Wow, this is taking a while, I thought. But when I called to check, the social worker denied any recollection of this discussion. She said I hadn’t asked for any referral and so she had not done it. She was more interested in telling me that I was wrong than in actually starting the referral. It turns out we need to be assessed, and the assessment needs to go to a panel, and if they approve funding Ben, only then can Ben be put on the very long waiting list for the playground.

I have since had conversations with other members of the team, and am still waiting for an assessment. So we haven’t even got to step one. Meanwhile, each of these conversations has made me feel really uncomfortable – the only way to get anyone to even think about starting this referral is to ask, repeatedly, for help, something I find hard to do. It seems like I am really putting social services out by asking for assistance and I appear not to have the language to make myself understood or to have a conversation without getting upset. I know we are not in dire need, and plenty of people are worse off, but why is it so difficult to access support which other boroughs (and most reasonable people) recognise is important?

I am asked exactly what I want, which I’m not certain of because I don’t know all or any of the options. The whole thing has to be framed in terms of us ‘needing respite’, because presumably trying to help a six year old boy make friends isn’t sufficiently urgent. We probably do need some respite, but even saying that makes me feel like I’m letting Ben down.

So we will carry on organising our own fun, and lots of fun there is to be had. We’ll go cycling again and try to find other welcoming activity groups. Luckily Ben has an enthusiastic brother, carers with energy and initiative, and an easygoing personality, but it would be really lovely, and a huge relief, if our borough showed some interest in helping disabled kids be children rather than ignoring them.

A space rocket for Ben

In December Max and I went to Ben’s Christmas play at school. It wasn’t what you would call a traditional nativity play – each class did a segment around a theme and Ben’s bit was mainly based on the story of the three pigs and the big bad wolf! This is the second school Christmas play I have been to and they are always a triumph of logistics and imagination.

One of the older classes did a performance based on space, and were dressed as astronauts while singing ‘All About that Space’ to the tune of the Meghan Trainor song. This happens to be one of Max’s favourite songs and he was outraged, ‘It’s All About That BASS, not SPACE!’

Then, as we watched the kids Max said loudly, ‘Astronauts are not disabled.’

‘Um, right, don’t they look great?’ I said.

‘Astronauts cannot be in wheelchairs’, he said.

Luckily for me the next stage of the play involved chocolate coins being tossed in to the audience, so Max was distracted and I didn’t have to deal with the inclusion-disability-space conundrum immediately. But it stayed with me.

Max is as accepting of difference as you could hope a three year old to be. He’s a kid and they deal mainly in black and white and are hugely influenced by what they see around them. So in the same way that they might think women can’t be sea adventurers because there’s only one poxy female Octonaut on the TV programme, they think astronauts can’t be disabled because they haven’t seen one.

And of course they’re sort of right. It’s unlikely there will be a wheelchair-user visiting the International Space Station any time soon. But it’s also pretty unlikely that any of the children we know will grow up to be astronauts despite their aspirations but we don’t therefore tell them it’s impossible. Right now, they can pretend to be whoever they want to be.

The whole point of childhood is to have dreams and imagination, and the role of parents is to make the landscape of their aspirations as wide and ambitious as possible. That’s why we read fictional books. So in the same way that I don’t tell Max that he might not meet the stringent selection criteria for space travel, we also don’t tell Ben that he can’t be an astronaut because he’s disabled. In light of Max’s comments at the play, we spend quite a lot of time talking about how Max AND Ben can be astronauts. And Molly, come to that (depressingly lack of female astronaut portrayal also).

Part of this issue is about representation – kids needs to see disabled people (and girls, and women, and non-white people, etc etc) in their books and on TV, doing the same things that the able-bodied, white boy characters get to do. That’s what the Toy Like Me campaign is all about – calling on the toy industry to better represent disabled kids. There’s a lovely story about their campaign here

While we wait for the rest of the world to catch up with inclusion, I seized the opportunity for action provided by a massive pile of cardboard following delivery of a new sofa from Ikea and…

I now present to you: THE WHEELCHAIR-ACCESSIBLE ROCKET!

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My eight years of architectural education have not been wasted. It’s big enough for Ben to get in in his chair and still have room for his brother. Max has decorated it with stars and planets, it has a door to shut out the adults, and interior lighting courtesy of the pound shop. It’s a bit crude, not photogenic and an apostrophe has dropped off but the kids love it.

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James, Max and Ben have between them created an elaborate bedtime routine which involves turning all the lights off, Max climbing in to Ben’s bed, and then them playing with various light toys. For slightly obscure reasons, this is called a disco (though it involves no music). Therapists would call it Sensory Play.

We recently bought Ben a Buzz Lightyear toy to reward him for all his incredibly hard work using the eyegaze computer and along with the glow-in-the-dark stars and planets and watching clips of Tim Peake in space, the whole thing has become a bit space-themed. Now, the disco often starts with a little trip in to the rocket and a pretend voyage to the moon before the boys get in to bed.

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If the world won’t provide the imaginative horizons my kids need, we’ll have to create them ourselves.

‘To infinity, and beyond!’

Ben can cycle!

Milestones are a tricky thing for parents and children like us and Ben. Many of the obvious ones from early childhood never materialised and perhaps some never will. If they do, they will be the result of years of hard work on Ben’s part, considerable therapy input and a lot of patience. This is why we start to talk about ‘inchstones’ (as I have done here) which are no less valuable than the typical milestones. Inchstones recognise the scale of greys that we operate in; Ben can’t sit on his own but has worked up from always being held to being able to sit unsupported for two minutes. In our world, this is brilliant progress.

So there we are, pottering along, Ben working really hard on every aspect of his life, accumulating the inchstones. James and I are a bit distracted by the birth of Molly. It’s mid-winter (albeit one of the mildest winters on record) so Ben hasn’t been going out on his trike that much but we have been trying on the weekends when it isn’t raining…

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And then…

He is off! Riding his trike on his own! An unequivocal milestone! Starting with the odd couple of independent cycles with his legs, building up within minutes to confidently pedalling his legs round and round, spinning in circles. I wasn’t there to start with but James sent me jubilant videos by phone and by the time Molly and I got there Ben was happily cycling around the basketball court. We were all so happy it’s tricky to find a video that doesn’t have someone shrieking in it (I’ve muted the sound to save our blushes) but no-one was more excited than Ben himself.

It’s fantastic.

Because cycling is fun.

Because cycling is what six year olds do.

Because it’s Ben being able to move from one place to another entirely under his own steam which he hardly ever does (he can walk in his walker a bit but it takes a lot of effort and is therefore a bit inconsistent).

Because learning to ride a bike is a bona fide milestone (granted Ben can’t yet steer himself but let’s not quibble over technicalities).

Because Max also learnt to ride his bike in the same week and it’s lovely for brothers to do things together.

Because, above all else, Ben was proud of himself and that is a beautiful thing.

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Just in case it’s a while before another milestone comes along, I’m going to dissect a little how this one came about:

Patience and persistence

We have now had the trike for 15 months. We don’t use it every day but most weeks we have pushed Ben in the trike with his legs getting used to going round. I wrote a blog in April last year about Ben starting to cycle himself but it’s not until now that it’s happened reliably. These things take as long as they take. We must be patient and give Ben the chance to learn and develop the skills – it’s no use expecting things to happen quickly and, equally, just because he hasn’t done something (be it cycling, or learning letters, or using an eyegaze computer) within the arbitrary timescale imposed by some adults, doesn’t mean it won’t happen eventually.

Opportunity

As I wrote about here, we bought the trike privately as there is no statutory funding for such equipment and it was really expensive. Ben therefore had the opportunity to learn how to cycle, little and often, over time with no pressure. Kids like Ben have to be given access to equipment and activities even though things like trikes cost over ten times more than a normal child bike.

Enthusiasm

James and I are pretty good at taking Ben out in the trike but probably the thing that tipped the balance in favour of success was his new nanny/carer. She was with James and Ben the day that he nailed it and was coming to it with a level of enthusiasm which we had probably lost over the last 15 months. Ben really likes her and she was encouraging him to pedal on his own having given him a little push, and off he went. Maybe if James and I had been doing the same old pushing we wouldn’t have realised he was ready to do it on his own. It’s perhaps an obvious point but enthusiastic, skilled carers contribute hugely to Ben’s life.

Self-confidence

Because Ben is so dependent on others to help him with every aspect of his life, it is rare that he can do things on his own or that he can take full credit for them. I love that he was so pleased with himself for cycling, and that all of his patience and determination over the last year has been rewarded. When he went to school after the weekend we recorded a message about it on his communication button and sent video links to his teacher so his whole class watched him cycling. His teacher said he was thrilled when they discussed it and the idea of him sharing his huge achievement with his friends with a big smile on his face makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. The boy deserves a bit of self-esteem.

Siblings

Max learnt to really cycle his pedal bike the day before Ben’s achievement – he had been getting close for a while but required a hand on the back of his neck at all times which limited progress somewhat. It may be coincidence that the boys did it together, but probably not. They really keep an eye on each other and the interaction between them is great for them both – Max wants to do what Ben does and learn what he learns, Ben is encouraged to try games and activities that he wouldn’t tolerate at all if Max wasn’t around. This is the latest in a long list of examples of why having siblings is brilliant for them both.

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Brain surgery

It’s possible that some of this physical progress is down to the stimulators in Ben’s brain. The jury’s out at the moment – let’s wait and see how the rest of the year goes.

So hooray for big orange trikes and small persistent boys.

Sister Molly

Ben and Max’s sister, Molly, is four weeks old. We have survived a month with three children, something which feels like no mean feat.

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That seemed unlikely after our first family outing one week in, when we made it just 100m from our front door before Max broke the rules about how far ahead he was allowed to go on his bike, we shouted, he started crying, Ben started crying because Max was crying, and we all went home. Since then we have managed a family swimming trip and some less eventful local walks. So we might actually be capable of leaving the house as a family of five.

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Both boys have been unbelievably sweet with Molly, and very tolerant of the disruption and imposition involved in having a new-born sister. Through a combination of James having a month off work, numerous carers and family members helping us out, and a baby that sleeps a lot, we have been able to keep things as routine as we can. Ben has shown once again that he can cope with a lot of change and take it in his stride, while Max has been demonstrating his capacity to be both a kind big and little brother. We have all had a lot on, but we’re doing okay

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We do not approach birth lightly. Ben’s disability is because of problems during his birth and we therefore know too much about the risks of things going wrong and having lifelong implications. Max was ill immediately following his birth and had to be admitted to NICU. We sort of assumed that our third baby would end up in NICU, even though a neonatal consultant took the time to explain to us how (very) likely it was that we would have a totally healthy baby.

One of the people who really understood our concerns about the birth of this baby was the obstetrician who we saw throughout this pregnancy and who had previously delivered Max. She is someone we have huge respect for, whose judgement we trust, and who had successfully guided us through my second pregnancy when we were at our most anxious about having another child.

This time we knew in advance that she would not be able to deliver the baby because the elective caesarean was booked during the Christmas period when she would be on holiday. Another obstetrician would do it, it would be fine, we told ourselves. As we prepared on the morning of the birth, getting in to gowns and talking photos of my puffy face, we were calm but nervous. And then she popped her head round the curtain to say hi. Dressed in jeans and tshirt, she was officially on holiday but had come in specifically to do my caesarean section.

That, there, is an emotional moment: the joy of knowing we were in her hands (literally in my case), that our baby had the best possible chance of therefore being fine, that someone so thoroughly understood how difficult this all was for us and had come into work especially.

And then Molly was born, screaming before she was out of my womb, to be immediately declared, with a thumbs up, totally and utterly healthy by the neonatologist we had demanded be on hand to check. No resuscitation, no breathing difficulties, no-one at all worried about anything. She breastfed immediately and, following the facilitation of the obstetrician who knows we spend too much time in hospitals, we were able to go home the following day. You would not believe how uninterested everyone is in a healthy newborn baby – barely any observations, no-one came to check her overnight. If you hadn’t had experiences like ours you would have no idea of the anxiety and stress lurking just across the corridor in the neonatal unit.

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We have now had four weeks of admiring and nurturing little Molly and she is a delight. Third time lucky, we had a baby who didn’t need a canula in their head, or a tube in their nose. She immediately breastfed and sleeps like a champion (just not always at night-time). We take none of this for granted – it is luck of the draw whether you have a baby that does the basics easily or not.

We have not lost and will not lose sight of what a privilege it is to have her here with us, healthy and thriving. Nor what a delight it is to share this baby girl with these boys of mine. We are all lucky.

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