“Specialbilities”

#Autism Awareness
One journey to diagnosis

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Mummagrizzlybear has wanted to join #Autism Awareness, which has been superbly promoted amongst fellow bloggers such as https://www.facebook.com/LotsofLoveandAffection , but I’ve been stumped on how and where to start writing about the journey to littlest baby bears diagnosis. That was until tonight when a tongue tied slip-up of my 9 year old cleverly invented the word ‘specialbilities’ and there it was…my title…my starting point…bringing in my 9 year old’s perspective.

Having first given birth to a virtual text book baby, it is easy to look back and account for why we thought it such a good idea to bring another creature into the world. A ‘sibling’ was top of the priority list. I’d not wanted an ‘only’ child.

Skip forward 20 weeks or so and at the routine scan Daddybear and I were confronted with our first hiccup. “Please don’t be alarmed but baby has some abnormalities”. Impossible to not be alarmed by that word. Fast forward a little more and we make visits to different hospitals and specialists who after many weeks of pure torture manage to put our minds at ease and come up with a plan about the future. The future at that point consisted of the ‘birth’ and the days that followed. The abnormalities were not as scary as the first few professionals had led us to believe – at one stage we’d been told there was ‘ambiguous genitalia’ and this later transpired to be an issue with the kidney and bladder. This little creation had caused mayhem and unchartered emotions all from inside the womb. I really should have known then that this journey was going to be bumpy.

An on schedule birth far quicker than anticipated brought our smallest-bear into the world and made our first born the big bruv. Littlest bruv was an ‘unsettled baby’. The months that followed probably appeared ‘normal’. Both children met milestones. Mummagrizzlybear started a diary the day she were prescribed anti-depressants. I remember the shock. I had no idea I had developed depression. Sure my babybears were a handful most of the time but they were lively, spirited and energetic and I was doing my best to provide the text book upbringing that produced facebook worthy family photographs! The eldest started school and this gained me the 1:1 time with the smallest that I’d never really had until then. I started noticing and comparing my time alone with him to what life had been like with my first child at this age. This babybear was different. Harder. My little challenge. We kept to the expectation and attended mum and toddler groups and birthday parties. We were still invited back then! Before starting preschool we’d picked up on little things such as a high tolerance of pain and an apparent lack of response to temperature. He was easily irritated and sleep was a problem.

By age 3 the GP had sympathetically referred us to a community paediatrician who had met with us to discuss our concerns and kept him on his caseload over the next year or so for reviews which were not regular or all that helpful. Preschool did not report seeing the same issues we experienced at home and confused by this we explored lots of ideas and possible medical explanations for the challenging behaviours we encountered. We also began to jump through the hoops of the professionals as the Paediatrician sign posted us to ‘parenting programmes’ despite us having another older child who responded appropriately to our ‘parenting’.  During our own search for answers and with the power of the internet at our fingertips mummagrizzlybear began researching. Speech and Language were referred to by the Paediatrician to explore the possibility of ASD traits, however they attended the school to meet our son and concluded very quickly that because he gave eye contact that it was an inappropriate referral. I’d worked with young adults with Autism and Aspergers and something didn’t ‘fit’ our son, so at this stage we didn’t feel it important to pursue this any further. He began to make progress at school and separately mummagrizzlybear had gained confidence and with therapy and a new focus i’d overcome the need for anti-depressants. However, my search continued. I felt there was an answer somewhere to explain the difficulties we had. Innocently and quite by accident, I came across ‘PDA’ (Pathalogical Demand Avoidance), a form of Autism, which was like reading a text book on our son. I remember reading it and crying. Daddybear cried too. Full of confidence I penned a letter to the Paediatrician, the health visiting team, the school and the GP explaining why we felt that this should be investigated further. PDA explained some of the Autism traits but also gave an explanation about the ‘surface level sociability’ and eye contact as well as giving an understanding about the difference between home and school behaviours. It was a relief to read that there could be an actual medical interpretation and less finger pointing about parenting capacity. The wind was quickly knocked from my sails as we faced the critical responses of professionals who did not like parents attempting to medically make assumptions about probable diagnosis. Every service at that point seemed intent on disproving our assumption. Within in months of being discharged from the paediatrician who coincidentally reported that PDA did not exist and was not recognised in this part of the country, mummagrizzlybear made a phone call to a support agency seeking advice about new presenting behaviours in school and how to go about getting support when there was no diagnosis. This call was handled by a friendly, warm lady, who listened and with limited details asked me tentatively if I had ever heard of a condition called ‘PDA’. We laughed and shared an understanding of each other’s circumstances as she revealed that her son now had this diagnosis and he had first been seen by the same paediatrician as we had just been discharged from. Recharged, I went back to the GP and requested that we be re-referred back to the community paediatrician. Secretly I hoped we would be lucky enough to get a different consultant this time around. At this stage we had a family worker supporting us due to the volatile nature of the behaviours at home. Things had peaked and it was evident that our son was not coping and that his mental health and well-being were being affected. He’d become more and more Jekyll and Hyde like and scared mummagrizzlybear with his threats to harm himself and others.

Here starts the waiting game. Our GP referral to the Community Paediatrician was ‘sifted’ and instead sent to the ASD Team for consideration. The ASD Team got in touch with us to request additional information and this prompted an effort for a collaborative approach from home and school. School now took the stance that they were ‘managing’ his behaviours and ‘coping’ without any extra intervention, however they agreed to support us in providing additional support to the ASD Team. A couple of months passed before we were notified that our sons referral had made it on the waiting list for assessment. I’d like to insert here feelings of relief but recall more distinctly the dread. The dread that we were potentially sitting on the wrong waiting list off the back of  our mere parental assumption about PDA. In the mean time the Family Worker had attempted to get him seen by CAMHS but this too had been sifted and ‘his case’ discussed at a Primary Mental Health consultation before concluding that as he was on the ASD waiting list he should not need to be seen by CAMHS. The ASD waiting list was 18 months and rising. During this time an acquaintance from the school gates who noticed the difficulties we were encountering (where other people turned a blind eye)  recommended a private Occupational Therapist who had recently supported her with her children who presented with some similar behaviours. With a little more research, we booked an appointment to meet with the OT, and reassured by her initial assessments, observations and our sons apparent trust and comfort when visiting her, we agreed to pay for a SIPT (a sensory integration assessment). In the months that followed we held in our hands a comprehensive document detailing from a sensory perspective why our son behaved the way he did. It included recommendations to support someone with sensory processing disorder and we assumed as it were a clinical document those suggestions would be observed in a multi-agency type approach. How very wrong we were. At times we were met with very unhelpful comments such as “you will get any diagnosis you want if you pay for it”.

Over the next 12 months we managed to get school to amend IEP’s to include a sensory diet and they began to enlist the support of specialist services to write behaviour plans. Various interventions were tested and reviewed. Briefly TAC meetings were held, but at that time the team around our child was very small. Our relationship with school began to break down as we felt they began to withhold information from us and often dismissed any issues we raised with responses like “we are managing his behaviour” and “he doesn’t meet the threshold for… (fill in the gaps)”. We met regularly and complied with the support plan expectation for us to work collaboratively, however nothing felt collaborative; it had become an ‘us vs them’ situation, where at home we had become more and more isolated and in school we fought for what was right for our son. By age 6 the school’s managing strategy included a Team Teach response of regularly restraining our son where de-escalation tactics were ineffective. His challenging behaviour increased and as parents we felt the school were failing to respond appropriately. They kept telling us that he would not meet the criteria for an EHCP, but without this, we didn’t seem able to force their hand to engage additional support to help him. Their efforts to ‘meet his needs’ were inconsistent and by age 7 it became apparent that he’d lost trust in the staff supporting him. Most scarily he started reporting incidents where the staff had hurt him. He began verbally expressing how scared he was of going to school and displayed more and more angry behaviour. Admittedly, he was a volatile child, unpredictable, capable of lashing out and behaving aggressively. He’d throw chairs. He’d learnt to swear. He’d refuse to engage and disrupt lessons. But this wasn’t all of him. He was bright. He loved maths. He was observant and caring. When ‘calm’ he was endearing; a right little charmer. As parents we knew his triggers and we supported school all we could to acknowledge and respond to these but their set-up just couldn’t bend enough to make things inclusive for him.

Less than a term into key stage 2, we were presented with a document that stated that one of the consequences that would now be applicable if he presented certain behaviours was for him to receive a fixed term exclusion. We argued this. Surely this was inevitable given that he presented those behaviours regularly and as the adults supporting him we had not been able to consistently identify triggers nor solutions or strategies to help him at those times. We had however reached the point where they were willing to refer to a private Educational Psychologist for additional guidance and by now we were aware that his ASD assessment was imminent. We hoped that the collaboratively they would support us with suggestions. The EP came but his visit was unsuccessful as our son refused to engage. No great shock considering his ‘fear’ of ‘new people’ and avoidance of most things -even things he loved doing! Then came the phone call. “We need you to collect your son; due to prolonged extremely challenging behaviour he has been excluded”. There’s scope for a whole blog to describe the weeks that followed this. It was awful. We’ve been massively let down by the ‘system’ and to cut a long story short, the school refused to take him back, claiming that there was nothing further they could do and that they could not keep him safe. Weeks later he went through the Autism Assessment process and was very quickly diagnosed with Autism with a PDA profile. We have no doubt that the school had intentionally ‘moved him on’ before this diagnosis had been reached. I firmly believe that the school did not have his best interests at heart when doing so and neglected some fundamental legal principles in taking this action, something which when I have enough energy to do so, I shall confront them on.

For a time he was without an education provision and we compromised our employment needing time off to care for him (and to pursue daily phone calls and emails to various local authority departments) before he was eventually secured a placement at an Alternative Provision Academy. It was a little too close to a horror movie for mummagrizzlybear watching her baby bear struggle with the change, the transitions, the scary behaviours of the other students and seeing his mental health deteriorate. We’d gone from ‘managing’ in mainstream to a whole new world and the unsettled period had resulted in an even more volatile son. He’d attempted to harm himself, continuously put himself at risk, had stopped sleeping, was experiencing significant anxiety and was hurting his family members. The ASD Team witnessed the urgency for CAMHS to also be involved and luckily for us within 6 weeks of a diagnosis with one team we were also meeting with a Psychiatrist. The ASD/PDA diagnosis had not been a shock but was still uncomfortable to get your head around. We have taken the approach of wanting our children to be experts in understanding the diagnosis and shared things with them openly. I truly believe that ignorance is a far bigger disability than Autism and that so many children (and adults) have such varying additional needs that we should not allow ourselves or our children to somehow negatively stereotype such people. The Psychiatrist prescribed anti-psychotic medication for the perceived ‘intrusive thoughts’ that were likely to be exasperating his anxiety attributed to the PDA. The apprehension we felt about administering the medication was a challenge but we have gone along with things, hopeful that the benefits will outweigh the negative side effects. We are now at a place where an EHCP has been applied for. His temporary education placement will ‘keep him’ for a term or two more and support services are beginning to come out of the wood-work. He is nearly 8 and each day throws up new challenges. We are tired and wounded, and at times we feel we are failing but we are resilient (you have to be) and creative about coping strategies. We are warriors with invisible armour. We are a team.

I’ve mostly removed emotion rom our story. Probably subconsciously saving this from becoming an extensive rant about the crap we have gone through to reach the point of diagnosis. Equally, if I allow myself too much time to reflect over just how bad things have been over the past 4 months in particular, I may well jump off the nearest cliff or onto the next plane out of here.

Living with specialbilities has its plus points. We are constantly learning. Our house is a sensory haven. We view the world through fresh eyes. We have a new appreciation for the small things – minor victories that other ‘normal’ families overlook. We’ve expanded our support network with people who understand and we’ve filtered out the more unhelpful, judgemental ‘friends’. We have learnt how to monitor and take care of our well-being, practicing self-care and being less critical when we have ‘down moments’. We make the most of the little extras like a ‘free carer’ perk or a ‘queue jump’ ticket and no longer feel ashamed or guilty for doing so. We know how to ask for help and have learnt to reach out to others who may need our help also. We can voice our needs and manage the balance of home life, work life and the special needs jungle of appointments and meetings. Our children know how to talk about different needs and are supportive of other children they meet who face challenges. We have many a moment where we crack or crumble but we are a family who have learnt the importance of communicating our struggles and overcoming them together. We have not been beaten thus far and that’s because as a family we have specialbilities.  Acceptance is key.

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