My son, Ben, is 11 and my approach to his disability has changed a lot since he was little. I am interested by how and when this happened. I knew very little about disabled people when he was born and my experience of being his mother has been a rapid education in the issues surrounding disability. If I had known then what I know now, I would have done things differently, but I was just doing my best with what I knew at the time. I think I would have found it helpful at the beginning to have read stories of other parents with similar experiences and so I am interviewing parents who are raising children who are not typical to discuss parenting, language and expectations. This week it is with Penny Wincer, who managed to fit in a call with me to answer some questions.
Could you describe your family?
I’ve got two children. Arthur is 11 and Agnes is eight, almost nine. We live in South London though I’m originally from Australia and I’m a single parent, though I have a boyfriend who doesn’t live with us.
How would you describe Arthur?
Arthur is autistic and he has learning difficulties. He can speak but his speech is not typical. He’s a really happy kid but when he’s not really happy, he’s quite unhappy. There’s quite a roller coaster of emotions, which are quite extreme, so it’s never boring!
What does Arthur love doing?
He loves anything really stimulating like fireworks, trampolines, funfairs and bright lights. He loves sand, the beach, water and waves. I gave him some helium balloons this morning and they make him so happy. He also really likes cuddles, wrestling, hide and seek and chasing.
When did you realise that Arthur was maybe different to other children that you knew, or to typical children?
At around 18 months old it became obvious that he wasn’t quite in the same place as his peers. I wasn’t concerned at first, but he started having really serious meltdowns which seemed more intense than other kids. He was always happy or sad and there wasn’t much inbetween.
When he was around two my daughter was born and he reacted really badly. He either ignored her or got really upset when she made a noise. That was when I thought there’s something different here. I spoke to the health visitor at first and because I wasn’t that concerned, she wasn’t either. Arthur’s eye contact with me was really good and I hadn’t realised that he’d stopped doing many of the things he’d done when he was younger like turning round when someone unfamiliar called his name.
I asked for a referral and did a lot of research. In the first appointment with a developmental paediatrician, when Arthur had just turned three, she asked us what we thought and Arthur’s dad and I both said, ‘we think he’s autistic’. She said it was too early to confirm, but agreed it was likely to be the diagnosis eventually. We were expecting it so we weren’t shocked, or even that upset, when it happened.
We were first time parents so we didn’t have other children to compare him to, but seeing the developmental reports in black and white was really hard. I’d had no concerns about Arthur in his first year but I can look back and see he was a bit different. By six to nine months old, Agnes was doing things that Arthur couldn’t do, like waving, and it was a real shock.
When he was diagnosed we thought we’d get some help but really nothing was forthcoming and that was disappointing. We had to start the long process of a statement of special educational need (now Education, Health and Care Plan) when he was three and a half, and he then went to a mainstream school with one-to-one support. He did three years there which he didn’t hate it but he wasn’t thriving. He needed specialist teachers and a low stimulation environment, so he then moved to a specialist school and it is absolutely amazing. I feel so much more supported as a parent.
Can you talk a little bit about how Arthur’s disability, if you would use the word disability, affects his day to day life, and your family?
I do refer to his disability unless I need to describe his needs specifically, and then I might say autistic. Sometimes I prefer ‘disabled’ because not everyone needs to know his needs all the time. Sometimes they just need to know he has accessibility needs. I don’t shy away from the word ‘disabled’ because I want my son to be comfortable with it, and I want the people around him to be comfortable with it. It’s a fact.
Arthur is incredibly rigid and struggles to process information if things are not the same all the time. That means that we have really fixed ways of doing things and if there are any changes it can be quite traumatic (and I don’t use that word lightly). Now he can use language he becomes fixated on and repeats things. He’s generally an anxious child and he finds the world quite scary, and that means him repetitively asking to do the same thing over and over again, to hear the same answer and to understand. Keeping him in routine is really important because then he’s less anxious and more able to engage in the world a bit. He needs a lot of sensory stimulation – lots of physical activity, jumping, wrestling, running. If he gets enough of that, then he’s calmer.
He can use concrete language, so he can point things out to me and ask for some things. But he can’t really use abstract language to tell me how he feels or about something that happened previously or in the future. The way he uses speech is not typical but it’s improving all the time. Speaking is so useful for him but people don’t understand that it doesn’t make him less autistic. It’s still really hard for him to get his needs across. He’s started echolalic speech, so copying things, especially from TV. He’ll be just scripting to himself and he’ll say what seems like nonsense to everybody else over and over again, but then he’ll learn to use it in context. The first time he called me Mama was when he was about four and a half and he learned it from the film of The Gruffalo.
He doesn’t have friends in the typical sense but he connects really well with other adults and is a very good judge of character. When he was really little that concerned me but now I know he can connect with adults and he will be an adult, so he will have friends who are peers eventually.
In what ways is your life how you expected? And in what ways is it different?
It’s so different to how I expected. One of the biggest things is that I’m Australian and Arthur can’t fly so he hasn’t been to Australia since he was one. It’s been a really big deal that I’ve had to get my head around. I go on my own, occasionally, and I will take my daughter eventually, but it’s complicated. It would be wonderful if the kids could know their extended family.
I never expected I would be in a situation where I’m so reliant on the outside world and how precarious that feels. For example, I’m dependent on the local authority for Arthur’s school, transport to school, holiday club, and that dictates how and when I can work. I never expected that my choices would be restricted like that. At any moment, something can change (particularly in the last nine months) and I’ll have to completely reshuffle my life to replace whatever has gone or changed. It’s one of the things that I find most challenging. It’s quite hard to explain to people the lack of control and the lack of options that I have with a disabled child.
I think the difference between being a parent of a typical kid and being a parent of a child with a disability is it’s not better or worse, but we might need more – more rest, more breaks, more help. It’s all fine and manageable when I get the extra help I need and the extra rest I need. I don’t wish it away. It’s just different. But when you have all that taken away, suddenly you realise just how quickly you’re hanging by a thread. I need help and rest to be a together human, a good parent, friend or girlfriend. I think that’s true for everybody, I just think it’s a bit more extreme for those of us with kids who need a bit more from us.
But I think it’s as good as I expected it would be. It’s also way more challenging than I expected, but I think most parents would say that. Parenting is more emotionally extreme than I expected. I thought it would be a bit more calm and stable. I’ve coped with way more than I thought I would. I have a life that I love. I have moments where I’m definitely not coping, especially this year, but generally I have a really lovely life.
How has your parenting and your approach, particularly to Arthur but maybe to both your children, changed over time?
I think when he was first diagnosed, I was in a panic about how much support he needed and how quickly he needed it. Everything I read was about early intervention but nothing was being provided. I went looking for play therapists, paying for private occupational therapy. I changed his diet. I was stressed out to my eyeballs becoming an expert. And thank god I chilled out because it was completely unsustainable. Eventually I calmed down and realised I can’t control this. I accepted that we’re never going to get the right amount of support, and we’ll just do our best with what we can, which is not easy. The thing that scared me so much when Arthur was three or four was the fear that I would be the reason he didn’t thrive. That it would be my fault because I chose the wrong therapy. You can completely twist yourself in knots about that kind of stuff. Every now and then I have a flash that I’m doing the wrong thing but I don’t dwell on it the same way. I have accepted that his disability is out of my control and I just have to do my best and I can’t do anything else.
How has being Arthur’s parent over the last eleven years changed you?
I see the world completely differently. I didn’t used to think I was a judgmental parent or person but I’ve had every bit of ego stripped away from me as a parent. I realised how little control I had over my life and I think that’s been an incredible experience which I’m grateful that I’ve had. Society was telling me that as a mother, it’s all my fault if he doesn’t thrive. And actually I’ve learned that isn’t true. You don’t have control over everything, and that kind of takes your judgement out of it. I look at families who are struggling now and I see a million reasons why that might be happening.
I used to be very eco conscious to the point where I never used to drive my car, everything was on foot. The kids were in cloth nappies. Then I realised that a lot of those choices were taken away with Arthur’s disability. Like he only eats one kind yoghurt (one of only four foods he eats) and it’s in a tiny plastic pot. I’ve just got to buy the plastic pots. And now I need to use the car far more, to keep Arthur safe and for us to be able to function as a family. So I’ve had to let go of judgement around how other people make those choices, and that’s been incredible.
Find Penny on Instagram and Twitter @pennywincer