Diagnosis Day – Learning That Your Child Has Special Needs

diagnosis

As a mum who is active in the special needs community, I  often see posts on the various support forums from mums or dads who have just received a diagnosis for their child.  Sometimes the mums and dads are relieved.  Sometimes they are shocked.  Sometimes they are in despair. Almost always there are conflicting emotions.  And that is normal!  When we first receive a diagnosis for our child, it can stop us in our tracks.  Sometimes we have no idea where to turn.

So today, for all those parents, I am posting an article that I wrote many moons ago –  when Sophie was just two years old and recently diagnosed.  The article was published in Practical Parenting Magazine, but for some reason it never made its way onto my blog.  I wrote this article for somewhat selfish purposes – because it was something I would have wanted to read when we first received Sophie’s diagnosis.  I hope it may provide some comfort and assistance to any parents who are coming to terms with receiving a diagnosis for their child….

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So here it is….

Finding Out Your Child has Special Needs

In many ways, our 24-month-old daughter is a typical toddler.  She loves to play with her dolls, watch Playschool, and jump on her mini trampoline.  She can name many different objects and knows her colours.  She loves to show-off to her Nana and Grandpa.  She is not too keen on having her teeth brushed.  She has a great sense of humour and the cheekiest smile.  She loves her “blankie” and has recently developed an obsession with shoes.   But Sophie also happens to have been born with a rare genetic disorder called Kabuki Syndrome.

Kabuki Syndrome affects many aspects of Sophie’s life.  Her gross and fine motor skills are delayed.  Her speech is affected.  She has sensitivities to certain textures and noises.   She has low muscle tone, loose joints, unusual ears and deformed teeth.  She has digestive problems and poor sleeping patterns.  She may have learning disabilities, mental health issues and other challenges as she gets older   It took us 20 stress-filled months to get a diagnosis, and in some ways we are still adjusting to this unexpected journey.  But when I look back at the sorrow and fear I felt in the early stages, I can hardly believe how far we’ve come.

Getting a diagnosis

Some parents may discover their child has a disability through pre-natal testing.  For others, the first hint of trouble may occur at birth.  Perhaps your baby isn’t breathing properly.  Or he has some physical features that suggest a problem – a cleft palate or clubfeet, for instance.

”Not all genetic or developmental difficulties are immediately obvious in-utero or at birth”, however, says Metabolic Physician, Clinical Geneticist and General Paediatrician Dr David Coman.   You might start to suspect a problem because your baby has difficulties with feeding, or isn’t gaining weight.  Or perhaps she is not meeting developmental milestones, or has started to regress. While difficulties such as these do not always mean that your child will have ongoing problems, according to Dr Coman “developmental delay is always a red flag that should prompt input from a medical professional… Developmental delay can be global in that it affects all aspects of the child’s development (fine motor, gross motor, social, speech and language), or it can be confined to specific developmental fields. Speech and language delay is especially important to have investigated.”

For us, I had a feeling that something was wrong from the start.  I couldn’t really explain it – I just thought Sophie didn’t look or feel quite right. I distinctly remember my family passing her around the room, and me looking on thinking “there is something wrong with my baby”.  Over time I noticed poor feeding, poor eye contact, terrible sleep, slow development, endless screaming and many minor physical abnormalities. Convinced that something was wrong, I started searching for answers. Several medical professionals told us that Sophie was “just a slow-starter”.  Others suggested that I was an over-anxious first-time mother. It took several general practitioners, two paediatricians, a speech therapist, physiotherapist, occupational therapist, audiologist, paediatric dentist, ophthalmologist, two hospital admissions, countless hours of Internet research and three geneticists to finally obtain the Kabuki diagnosis when Sophie was 20 months old.  For us, persistence was key.

If you suspect that all is not quite right, speak to your General Practitioner.  Request a referral to a Developmental Paediatrician or Geneticist.  Write a list of your specific concerns, including developmental and physical issues, and behavioural problems.   “Health records, family history, details of the pregnancy, information about the child’s developmental milestones and when they were attained, and pictures of the child at varying ages are often helpful” says Dr Coman.  For older children, “information from the school is always welcome ”.   Update the information regularly.  Give a copy to every specialist that you see.

Sometimes it may be difficult to reach out – you might be afraid to have your suspicions confirmed.  But denial and avoidance won’t help your child.  Getting a diagnosis can provide access to information, services, treatment and support groups – all of which can help your child.  “You should not feel afraid to voice your concerns”, says Dr Coman, “there are no silly questions.”

If you believe your doctor is not taking your concerns seriously, consider finding another doctor.  If you aren’t getting answers, don’t give up!  Research on the Internet, talk to other parents, keep looking for answers. With persistence you may discover the key to a diagnosis.

Coping with a diagnosis

How you feel about your child’s diagnosis will depend on many factors. When and how you find out, the amount of support you have, and your child’s prognosis can all play a part.

“Sadness, anger, denial, fear that you won’t be able to cope, perhaps even a desire to ‘reject’ your child are all normal emotions”, says Registered Psychologist Nikki Oughton.  “Parents might also experience guilt (believing that somehow they are responsible for this), frustration, anxiety, and depression.  It is important to understand that these emotions are all part of a normal grieving process  – grief experienced when a parent is forced to let go of the child they imagined they would have.  It is common to cycle through feelings, and feelings that you thought were passed may come back again.  There is no one right way to feel, and you have the right to whatever feeling you may have at the time.”

For us, the diagnosis was a mixed blessing.  It destroyed that final bit of hope that perhaps I WAS overreacting, and everything would be okay.  But there was definite relief – I could finally stop searching for answers.  Most importantly, receiving a diagnosis restored my faith in my “mother’s instincts”.

 While each person will cope differently, Ms Oughton offers the following suggestions:

  • Stay open to the grieving process – don’t deny how you may be feeling.
  • Share your thoughts and feelings in a safe, supportive environment (eg a trusted friend or a counsellor).
  • Try to find some space where you are not looking after anybody but yourself.
  • Explore creative ways to express how you feel –writing, painting, dancing.
  • Join a support group with others in the same situation.

For us, Internet support forums have been incredibly helpful.  While friends and family have been very supportive, the parents I have met through these forums understand our journey in a way that no-one else can.

I’ve also found it invaluable to remember that a diagnosis has not changed who Sophie is – she is the same person, with the same likes, dislikes and quirks.    The things I love about her have not changed just because we have a diagnosis.

Continuing to Help Your Child

 Once you have a diagnosis, register with your state government provider of disability services.  Contact Centrelink to determine whether you qualify for financial assistance.  Register for early intervention services and respite care  – there can be long waiting lists for these services.

Remember that children with the same diagnosis can have vastly different abilities –  don’t underestimate your child!  Educate yourself about your child’s condition, and the steps you can take to help him reach his potential.

Sophie receives speech therapy, physiotherapy, occupational therapy and nutritional intervention. We have regular appointments to monitor her vision and hearing, and regular paediatric and genetic review.  We work with her each day to encourage her speech and physical development.    Some days I feel overwhelmed, and anxious about the future.  But nowadays I spend a lot more time just enjoying my little girl.  In amongst the appointments we do all the “normal” things that other families do, like trips to the park and the zoo.  We cherish all the small things.  Sophie is thriving, and full of life and joy.   Sure, she may not be quite like other kids – but then what is “normal” anyway?

 

Post script – As I look back on this article now, I can remember the fear I felt when Sophie was first diagnosed.  And the relief.  And I can remember how busy we were trying to get everything “sorted out”.   Sophie has grown, some challenges have been overcome, new challenges have emerged – but you know what?  The overwhelm is less, the fear is less, and the enjoyment is far, far more present.  So to all you new parents – you’ve got this!  One breath at a time, one step at a time, one day at a time – you’ve got this!

 

Pink Tigers, Anxiety and ASD

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I love to celebrate my daughter’s life.  My facebook feed is a chock full of pictures of my beautiful girl grinning away with delight, exploring the world and enjoying her life.  And I am beyond grateful that we have so many wonderful, wonderful times together.  Times during which she has not a care in the world, and all is as it should be.

Seeing this flood of happy images, one would probably find it hard to imagine that my beautiful daughter suffers from clinically diagnosed anxiety.  It is estimated that up to 80% of individuals with Aspergers have anxiety (as do many children with Kabuki Syndrome), so Sophie is certainly not alone.

It is important to remember that people with autism have differences related to their diagnosis that increase their chances of having anxiety.  Differences with how they see, hear and feel things in the world (sensory processing) can lead to exaggerated stress responses.  Difficulties with understanding social cues and navigating social interactions can also lead to exaggerated stress responses.  And it has been shown that some people with autism actually have an enlarged amygdala.  The amygdala is the part of the brain that initiates the fight or flight response – and the amygdala can’t distinguish between a real threat and a perceived threat.  So there are physiological differences in people with autism that are also linked to heightened anxiety. Add all of these things together, and your chances of having anxiety are significantly higher if you have autism.

Unfortunately, there can be a great deal of misconception around what anxiety actually looks like, especially in children who are autistic.  Sometimes we see behaviours and attribute them to other things.  And if you don’t recognize my daughter’s anxiety for what it is, you may be tempted to judge her.  So today I want to share a little about how Sophie’s anxiety presents – not because I want the world to see her as “broken”, but because it is only with knowledge that understanding can come.  And my little girl has been misunderstood too many times.

When my daughter sits in the library by herself every lunch hour – it is not because she is just “the quite kid”, or a kid who isn’t interested in playing with others.  And it is not because she doesn’t enjoy outdoor play, or physical play.  Sophie is a gregarious little girl.  She loves people.  She LOVES the play equipment. She BEGS me to stay after school so she can climb the ladders and swing on the ropes. She WANTS friends.  She is sitting in the library by herself because her anxiety about what to do in the playground and how to manage all of the social interactions and expectations is overwhelming.  What if she asks someone to play and they say no?  What then?  What if no one asks her to play?  What if someone suggests something that she doesn’t want to do?  What then what then what then?  It is easier for her to retreat to the library than to deal with the intricacies of poorly understood social rules, the fear of the unknown, and the fear of potential “failure”.

When my daughter bursts into hysterical tears after arriving at her Girl Guides Halloween disco and begs me not to leave, and starts gasping and rolling her eyes – it isn’t because she is afraid of the scary costumes.  She has in fact just spent hours selecting her own scary costume, excitedly repeating that she can’t wait to get to the disco, that she can’t WAIT!  NO – it wasn’t the costumes at all – it was the fact that she was afraid that the other kids wouldn’t like her dance moves.  And this fear of what others might think has crippled her, left her terrified, left her suddenly unwilling to participate in the event she has been looking forward to for days .

When my daughter is bossing your child around in the playground – it is not because she is being mean.  And it is not because she is an undisciplined, entitled brat who has been brought up badly.  It is because she is desperately trying to control the situation, channel the direction of play in a way that feels familiar to her – to avoid the unexpected and control her anxiety.

When my daughter bursts into hysterical shrieking when we decide to go to a new Thai restaurant for dinner, instead of going to the local steakhouse that we had briefly discussed – it isn’t because she is throwing a tantrum to get her own way.  It is because she had already planned in her mind how the evening would go.  She had already imagined herself sitting in the Kids’ club, doing some coloring in, and she had already picked out the meal she planned to eat.  She was feeling safe and comfortable, she felt as though she knew what to expect.  Now all of that has changed.   She doesn’t know what she is in for.  What if there is nothing she likes on the menu?  What if the lights are too bright, the noise too loud?   What if there are no activities for her to do?  What if what if what if?  The fear of the unexpected can be overwhelming for her at times.

Now sure, all kids have fears.  But anxiety is different to fear.  Anxiety can be crippling,  Anxiety can (and does) lead to social isolation.  And it doesn’t always look like what you think.  People with autism experience the world in a different way to most people, and that world can sometimes be difficult to understand.  There are times when even I, as Sophie’s mother, can’t figure out what has triggered her anxiety.  Sometimes I don’t know until months later, when she will whisper quietly to me about it as I lie next to her for songs at nighttime.  So I don’t expect everyone to be able to figure it out all the time.  All I am asking is to please be gentle with my daughter.  Don’t judge.  Don’t assume you know WHY she is acting in a certain way.  Just know that she needs to feel safe, and that she sometimes needs to be supported to fully engage with the world around her in the way she wants to.

So what does this have to do with pink tigers?  According to Deborah Lipsky (in the book From Anxiety to Meltdown)

“People with autism are like tigers.  A tiger’s natural environment where they are content doing what comes naturally and instinctively to them is the jungle.  You can put up a circus and train us to jump through hoops – for that is what is expected of tigers so that they fit in an environment not their own.  Still a tiger is a tiger, and has natural instincts that are best subdued or dormant for a while but can break forth at any time.  People shouldn’t be shocked when a wild animal such as a tiger suddenly and without warning attacks its trainer.  Children on the spectrum are expected through much intervention to adapt themselves into a foreign world that goes against their natural “nature”.  It is no surprise that tantrums, meltdowns, and bad behaviors “break forth” without any reason apparent to the non-autistic bystander.”

Sophie has had lots of intervention over the years to help her deal with her anxieties.  She has had occupational therapy, social skills classes, psychology appointments and of course lots of loving input here at home.  But the tiger can’t always be tamed.

And the tiger in my house is a pink one 😊

 

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Ballet lessons, life lessons

Sophie ballet

This afternoon I took my beautiful daughter to ballet. And I smiled proudly as she tried valiantly to keep up with the other girls. As she tried again and again to copy what they were doing. As she never gave up, despite her body refusing to cooperate. And I cried silent tears as I was reminded of just how much she struggles with motor planning. As I was reminded of why she is “failing” PE at school. And as I was reminded of all the thousands of hours of therapy she has had over the years to try to help her to “keep up”, in a game she will never be able to “keep up with”.

And then my daughter cried loud and long when I told her that we will be trialling her in a different class. Despite using all my parently wiles in trying to explain that it is the teachers’ job to try to make sure she is in the MOST FUN class for her. She can read. She saw the timetable. She isn’t stupid. She wants to be with the 7 and 8 year olds. Not the 4 to 6 year olds. Of course she does. She will be 8 this year.

In the name of inclusion, I could keep her in the current class, insist she stays with her peers.

But here is the rub. I can see plain as day that it wouldn’t be fair to the other girls or the teacher for her to be in the class. The teacher would have to spend so much time with Sophie that the other girls would miss out. I saw it plain as day.

And my heart breaks a little as I think about whether she will fit in better with the 4 to 6 year olds, or at a special needs ballet school. I am drawn back to a time when Sophie was in preschool, and I struggled with sending her to the special needs school for a couple of days a week..because she didn’t quite fit in there either.

And then I remember that despite my trepidation, Sophie thrived at that school. And she loved it. And I remember that every time I have worried about her, or become upset over these types of things..she has always, always shown me that in the end, she is amazing and resilient and strong. .That in the end, whatever life throws her, and however upset she might get in the moment…she always picks herself up and comes out smiling.

I have so very, very much to learn from my daughter. I only hope that I can be the parent she deserves to have. And what she deserves is someone like her..someone who keeps trying, never gives up, and always finds a bright side in the end. I am so proud of her, I think my heart might burst. 

Speech delays, apraxia and speech therapy

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From the moment she was born Sophie sounded different to other babies.  No lusty cry came from her lungs at birth, but rather, a small mewling sound.  Frank and I commented that she sounded like a kitten.  When I heard her tiny mewling cry, a small knot formed in my gut.  I knew that noise was not the noise that should be expected from a “normal” newborn.  But I quickly pushed those thoughts aside once they lay my daughter in my arms.

Over the next few days, Sophie’s cry became stronger – much stronger – ear piercingly strong in fact!  But her cry still sounded “different”. Her cry was very high pitched, and she just didn’t seem to have the range of different sounds that other babies have when they cry.

After we took her home, and as the weeks passed, I found myself feeling like a “bad mother”.   I had always heard that babies had different sounding cries (hungry, tired, pain, bored etc.).  But for the life of me, I could never hear any difference in her wailing cries. I was surprised by this, as I speak several languages and play the piano, and have always been told I have a ”very good ear”.  So how could I not hear any of the nuances in my daughter’s sounds?  I so very much wanted to be able to interpret my daughter’s needs.  I was constantly guessing as to whether she was tired, hungry, wet, bored or in pain.   But no matter how hard I tried, I simply could not interpret her cries. I came to the conclusion that I was an incompetent, disconnected mother, unable to hear or recognize what my baby was trying to tell me.

In desperation, I bought the Dunstan Baby Language DVD.  This DVD was developed to help parents understand what their newborn is “saying” by interpreting their cries.  The DVD goes over five different sounds and what they mean. It also shows many different babies making the sounds.  According to the Dunstan baby language DVD, there are 5 distinct types of cries that babies make

“Neh” means baby is hungry

“Owh” means baby is tired

“Eh” means baby needs to be burped

“Eairh” (sounds a bit like “air”) means your baby has gas pain

“Heh” means baby is uncomfortable

Well, I listened to that DVD, and I was immediately and easily able to discriminate between the cries. Each and every cry had the distinct and easily recognizable sound described.  I started listening to the babies of other new mums and found it as easy as could be to understand their cries.  But my daughter’s cries had none of these different tones.  She had just the one cry – a high pitched monotone wail.  At least now I knew I wasn’t failing to interpret my daughter’s cries – it was that my daughter simply did not have this range of expression.

As the months went by Sophie did not start to make the other noises that young babies make.  No gurgling or cooing.  Right up until she was about 19 months old, her only vowel sounds were “uh”, “eh” and “er”. (Most babies have developed the full range of vowel sounds – uh, eh, ee, ah oo – by the time they are 6 months old).   Sophie didn’t start to make consonant sounds until she was about 10 months old (most babies start to make sounds like “ba” “na” and “ma’ from around 6 months old).   She first started to string two syllables together at about 11 months (baba, mama etc), which was finally within the range of “normal”.  However, the sounds were infrequent, and she certainly didn’t have any of the typical gurgling babble that other babies had, with strings of sounds put together in a speech like way.  There was no change in pitch or inflectional changes when she was vocalizing.  She never attempted to copy or repeat the sounds we made when playing with her.

When she was just under 12 months old – she spoke her first word!  Tur-tur (turtle).  I breathed a sigh of relief – it was going to be just fine – we wouldn’t need any extra help with this speech thing – she was starting to talk!  She picked up another word that week (“du” for duck), but that was where it stopped.

At this stage we did not yet have a diagnosis for Sophie, and I didn’t know exactly what we were dealing with.  So I did what I had always done, and worked with her symptoms.

We took her to two different speech therapists quite early on – but we were getting nowhere with traditional methods.  We kept being told that most speech delays were due to a lack of appropriate parental interaction with the infant.  They told me to talk to her more, explain things to her, demand a verbal response for things.   Well – thanks for the suggestions – but seriously???  I had been doing those things from the moment she entered the world.  We had been reading books to her from when she was about 3 months old.  I had an almost constant monologue going with her each day.  I spent my days narrating what was going on in the world, using simple language, repeating words – all of the usual suggestions for early speech delay.  It certainly wasn’t lack of interaction or exposure to language that was the problem.

One of the speech therapists that we were referred to through the public system sat Sophie in a room with a doll’s house, picked up a doll and repeated “doll, doll, doll”, looking at her like she was perhaps not comprehending, and waiting for her to respond.   Sophie looked back at her with what could perhaps be described as a bemused look.  If she could have spoken, I imagine she would have said “Yes, it’s a doll!  You don’t have to tell me three times!”.  Sophie knew what a doll was. She simply did not have the oral motor skills to repeat the word.  They sent me on my way, suggesting that I spend more time interacting with her in this way at home. I knew this was not the answer.

So, in my typical manner, I started to research.  Like crazy.  And I came across a fabulous support group for children with Apraxia of Speech (http://www.apraxia-kids.org).  While it was far too early at this stage to tell if Sophie did indeed have apraxia, many of the tips and tricks I learnt through these marvelous parents were so very helpful.  And the information I learnt through that group led me to believe that Sophie may indeed have apraxia (also known as dyspraxia of speech).

As well as the obvious indicators from the sounds she was making (and not making), Sophie had other signs consistent with apraxia.  She had a history of trouble with breast feeding (and trouble with bottle feeding, when we tried to wean her).  She didn’t imitate facial expressions like other babies did (please note this can be an early sign of autism – which Sophie also has – but can also be a sign of apraxia).  Sophie was unable to stick her tongue out until she was about 19 months old (most babies can stick their tongues out from birth – I had her examined more than once to see if she had a tongue tie, but there was no physical abnormality). She lacked normal babble.  She had low tone.  She was uncoordinated. Her fine and gross motor skills were delayed.  Her receptive language skills also far exceeded her expressive language skills, which is typical of children with apraxia.  At 17.5 months of age she had a formal speech evaluation done.  Sophie scored as a 30 month old for receptive language, and an 8 month old for expressive language.  My suspicion that she might have apraxia grew.

And so I started to implement the suggestions from the apraxia boards.  Firstly we started exercises to help stimulate her orally, develop the muscle tone in her mouth and decrease her oral sensitivities. We bought a mini vibrator and used it on her cheeks, and inside her mouth – depressing her tongue and pressing it onto the insides of her cheeks.  Sophie had oral sensitivities – so she HATED it at first.  But as time went on she began to tolerate it well.

And then I started searching for a speech therapist that specialized in apraxia of speech.

At that time there was only centre in Brisbane that specialized in treating children with apraxia.  It was called Max’s House, and, sadly, no longer exists.  I was told there was a long waiting list, that there was little chance we could be seen anytime soon.  But I was determined to get my daughter the help she needed.  So I wrote a long email to them, explaining Sophie’ history, my observations about her overall development since birth, and her speech development.  I also provided them with a list of the things we had been doing at home to try to help Sophie with her speech.  And I explained that despite all of our efforts, we were getting nowhere.  Sophie’s receptive language kept improving in leaps and bounds, but none of the things we had tried have made any difference at all to her verbal expression.  Happily, they agreed to see her almost straight away.

For us, finding a speech therpaist that specialised in apraxia of speech was a gift. Sophie was about 19 months old when we had our first appointment at Max’s House.  She had a marvelous therapist called Kieran.   At that age her only consonants were m, p, d, t, s, n.  She only ever uttered two syllables at a time – “nana”, “dada”, “papa”, “baba”. She couldn’t combine different sounds – not even “bada” or “bama” or other simple combinations.  And at 21 months, when most children have a vocabulary of at least 25 recognizable words, Sophie’s vocabulary consisted of:

  • “nana” – for water, avocado, grandma, yoghurt, banana and ice.
  • “baba” – for bottle, baby and doll.
  • ”dada” – for Daddy, blanket and Jake (our dog).
  • “puh puh” for purple.
  • “tuh tuh” for turtle.
  • “duh” for duck.
  •  A  clicking noise for frog.
  • “Pfff” for fish and sushi

It took a few months of consistent therapy and reinforcement before we started to hear new sounds – like “ee”” for example.  And slowly but surely, Sophie’s speech started to improve.  No other form of speech therapy had resulted in any gains, but specialized therapy for children with apraxia of speech finally unlocked the gates.

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Sophie made remarkable progress once she was getting the correct therapy for her needs. Such remarkable progress that some would question whether she truly had apraxia at all   Apraxia of speech is a complex disorder, and making a diagnosis can be a difficult thing to do. It is often not diagnosed until a child is at least 3 years of age.The experts themselves don’t always agree on whether a child has apraxia or some other form of speech delay. At the end of the day, I don’t really care whether Sophie would have qualified for a formal apraxia diagnosis or not (she was diagnosed with “suspected apraxia”).  All I care about is that she had enough symptoms for me to consider that she may have it.  And that the therapy targeted at children who have apraxia of speech was what helped, when other things did not.  My daughter found her voice – sounds, words, two-word phrases and then sentences started pouring forth.  I cried and vowed to NEVER be that parent who wanted their kid to “just shut up”.  (Okay – I failed on that one – a year or so after her speech came in, I was sitting in the car and she was rabbiting on about the things that kids can rabbit on about – and I thought for one moment “can you just BE QUIET!!!” Then I remembered my vow, and breathed, and reminded myself of just how lucky we were).

At the end of the day, I suppose it was probably a combination of things that helped Sophie to find her voice.  And the lesson for us was not to give up.  Not to blindly believe everything we were told.  Not to automatically assume that the “experts” would always have the answesr. If I had believed what some of the early therapists had told me, I would have gone home thinking I was doing all that needed to be done.  And I could have kept going with the same old things in the vain hope that with time it would sort itself out.  My lesson was the same lesson I have been given over and over again on this journey with Sophie – follow your gut, don’t give up, and keep looking for alternatives if what you are doing isn’t working,

The correct therapy is not a magic bullet.  At the age of seven, Sophie still needs speech therapy.  She still has some enunciation difficulties, and issues with volume and intonation.  But Sophie’s vocabulary and turn of phrase are well and truly advanced for her age, and having access to the right kind of intervention was what allowed Sophie to finally express all of what was held inside her.

I know that all children have different potentials.  I know there are children out there who will be on completely different paths.  Children who may never end up spekaing, but who may end up communicating with assistive technology.  And children who may end up communicating just through a gleam in the eye.  This post isn’t suggesting that we can “fix” every problem with our special needs kids.  It is really about reminding ourselves to explore options, and to listen to our guts if we feel there are alternative pathways that we need to explore to help our children.

Always believe, never give up, and then. accept with grace whatever the outcome may be.

Blessings to all

Kath

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

I’m including an end note on this post, for parents who have found their way to this blog because they are trying to figure out whether their child has a speech delay that requires intervention.  For those parents. I have provided some information here about some warning signs of speech delay, and some early intervention strategies. We used all of these strategies with Sophie   I hope this information may be of help.

Early milestones

  • At around 18 months, children tend to go through a language explosion, and may have around 25 words.
  • By two, children will usually be putting two words together (‘mummy car’, ‘daddy gone’).
  • By two and a half, children should be able to follow three step instructions (‘get the car that’s under the table and bring it here’), and ask ‘where’, ‘why’ and ‘what’ questions.
  • By around three, children should be able to have a conversation with adults, sit and listen to a story and understand most of what is said to them.

Things you can do to encourage early language development include:

  • Talking to your child often about what is going on around them. Describe what you see, what people are doing and how you are feeling as you go about your day.
  • Using words repeatedly and with different contextual information within the one interaction. Eg “Yes, it’s a ball. Look at the ball. It’s a red ball. Would you like to throw the ball?”
  • Slowing down your speech, and emphasizing the beginnings and endings of words.
  • Reading picture books to your child from a very early age – children enjoy the attention and looking at the pictures, and it helps to develop a routine that can eventually lead to a love of literacy. Children as young as 3 to 4 months of age can enjoy looking at books while they listen to their parents read the words.
  • Singing to your child – the repetition of words and phrases, combined with the rhythm and melody, can engage your child and heighten their curiosity about language.
  • Getting down to the child’s level, face-to-face when
  • Making sure your child is ready to listen before you start talking.
  • Using age-appropriate sentences that your child can copy. For a two year old, try  “It’s dark! Go inside”, rather than “We have to go inside because it’s getting very dark out here”.
  • Modellng correct grammar. If your child says “I runned in the race today”, you might say  “Wow, you ran in the race today. I bet you ran really fast!”

If your child is at the age when they should already be speaking, but is lagging a little, there are many things you can do to help. These include

  • insisting on some sort of verbal effort for anything he or she wants – with Sophie, when she wanted to get down from her high chair I would say “What do you say? Say down please, Mummy”. She would say “duh”. I would say “please Mummy?” She would say ”Mama”. I would then praise her and get her down.
  • Making sure you give your child plenty of time to respond. Don’t just jump in and answer for them

 Other exercises that may help you child include:

  • Working in front of a mirror, showing your child how to purse their lips, poke out their tongue etc.
  • Helping teach your child to blow bubbles through a straw
  • Using an electric toothbrush or mini-vibrator to stimulate your child’s cheeks, lips tongue etc.
  • Introducing some form of sign language. We used “babysign” with Sophie, and PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System)

None of these tips are a guarantee, but in my opinion they are worth trying,  And whether your child develops speech or not – at the very least you will have spent lots of quality time with your child, and you will know you have given them every opportunity to find their voice.  What is there to lose?

Please note that all of the activities noted above are general recommendations that experts agree can assist children with early speech development.  And they are useful tools indeed.  Some of these hints and tips may be more than enough to help many children with a simple early speech delay. But if your child does have apraxia, or some other more complex issue (such as a genetic disorder, or autism), then you may find yourself not getting far with these suggestions.  That doesn’t mean these things aren’t worth doing – they certainly are!  But if you are doing all of these things, and your child still isn’t making progress, you may want to consider getting more tailored professional intervention.

My Daughter is not Broken – The System is

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The system, the system – ah, what a frustrating beast it can be.

Yesterday we had an appointment with an (unnamed, but well regarded) psych clinic.  The purpose of the appointment was to discuss Sophie’s test results, from a battery of tests designed to give us a comprehensive overview of her “neuropsychological function and cognitive profile”.  Just for the record – we do this testing purely for schooling purposes, so we can advocate for what Sophie needs within “the system”. No need for anyone to fret – I’m not going to put my daughter in a box based on her results 🙂

So yesterday we went for answers, and instead came back with a very big question.  So here is the question – how on earth is the school system supposed to cope with my daughter’s beautiful and unique differences (or anyone’s differences for that matter), if the psychologists who specialise in this field can’t deal with it?

After a long discussion about Sophie’s test results, we determined that the professionals involved in her testing couldn’t really justify or make much sense of the results themselves. According to the test results, Sophie has (apparently) dropped 35 percentiles (no, that is not a percentage, and it is not percentage points) in her results for the standard  NEPSY IQ test since she was last tested (18 months ago) . Her current test results show Sophie as scoring just below average for her overall IQ.  She was tested just 18 months ago, and at that time tested as high average.  Now I know for a fact she ain’t getting dumber.   And these tests are supposedly “valid and reliable”. So why the discrepancy?

To delve a little further, they got Sophie to complete a battery of standardised age-equivalent/ year level equivalent academic tests. And for many of those tests, Sophie scored well above what was expected.  Sophie has just finished Grade 1. For some of her academic test results, she scored at the Grade 6 level (equated to 11.9 years of age – Sophie is 7 years old).  And all of Sophie’s results were at the Grade 2 level  or above. So to clarify – all measures of her knowledge and skills in the academic context are measuring at a minimum of Grade 2 level, some at Grade 3, some at Grade 4, quite a few at Grade 5 and some at Grade 6 level.

The “experts” told us that Sophie’s performance was outstanding on all the academic measures, and that she should be getting all As and Bs.  they also told us that, given how well she performed on all the academic measures, there is no way her IQ score can be correct.  They informed us that they believe that Sophie’s test results were affected by her motivation on the day (apparently she was agitated, getting in and out of her chair. saying ‘I don’t know” and asking for breaks etc. throughout the testing). So they told me they think she may have ADHD.

They also told me they think Sophie may not have Asperger’s.  Let’s remember that Sophie has been formally diagnosed with Asperger’s by a psychiatrist, in conjunction with her occupational therapist and her speech therapist.  And that her Asperger’s diagnosis has been validated by many other health professionals over the years.   And,  to be honest, if we are going to use any labels with Sophie – Aspie  is one that well and truly fits.  We were told that they believe that Sophie is having problems with her peer relations not because she has Asperger’s, but because she is “so much smarter than them”.  And because she is “probably bored at school” and because she “probably wants to talk about things her peers don’t want to talk about”. Um, wait just a second…didn’t you just tell me her IQ was below average? Oh hang on – a year ago you told me her IQ was above average…. Oh yeah, even though she is below average she is actually way above average at school stuff?  I’m confused…

Now the “I’m too smart for my peers” theory is a nice little theory. Yep, that’s the problem. Um, maybe not. Or maybe a bit of both. Let’s just say that whether this current clinic thinks she has Asperger’s or not – Sophie’s social difficulties are not all because she is “too smart” (maybe some of them are – but not all 🙂 ) Sophie undoubtedly has deficits in recognition of facial expressions, social emotions etc. that are completely consistent with her Asperger’s diagnosis.

Anyway – let’s get back to the ADHD thing…At school Sophie is (apparently) always in her chair, has excellent behavior, is always putting in great effort and is an “engaged and conscientious learner”.  According to her teacher (who has kids on the spectrum herself), Sophie is showing almost no signs of ADHD in the classroom setting. So one would think that her academic skills should be able to show up in that environment. But no.  At school she is getting mostly Cs.

Why?  Because, again, it ain’t that simple..The IQ tests Sophie was given included things like writing tasks and copying of figures. Now let’s remember that Sophie has fine and gross motor delays, due to hypotonia and hyperflexible joints and dyspraxia. No, she isn’t being lazy. The signals between her muscles and her brain don’t work as fast as someone without hypotonia. And the academic tests she was given were almost all reading out loud, selecting answers from a list and/or giving oral answers. Which means her physical impairments did not impact on her performance.

And when it comes to variations in test results –  let’s not forget the other things that Sophie has to contend with.  Like sensory issues that impact on her day-to-day, hour-to -hour, minute-to-minute performance. And the fact that she has some executive function difficulties.

Now – what do we do about all of this? Well, it was recommended about 18 months ago that, due to her motor issues, Sophie should not be given any form of written testing at school. Or that, should written testing be required,  she should be given additional time to compensate for her physical differences.  We passed these recommendations on to the school.  But does anyone listen? Certainly the school does not. The IQ testers were also supposed to accommodate her differences, by not using written measures. Did they listen? No. If my kid was in a wheelchair, would you ask her to climb a ladder??? I don’t think so.

The only thing any of these damn tests seem to be telling me at the moment is that Sophie is not going to perform reliably on tests.

Now I know there may be people reading this post who may get upset that I have shared so much of Sophie’s personal information on here. Perhaps I may be accused of sharing too much. But in reality – it isn’t information that is in any way a reflection of who she really is, or what really matters. All of these figures and test results are just that – figures and test results.  On tests that are supposedly valid and reliable.  But apparently are not valid and reliable when it comes to Sophie. And so I imagine they probably aren’t particularly useful for many children.  Be assured that there is probably no real reason to get upset about my sharing our experience on here. I’m not going to box Sophie in because of this rubbish. I’m simply going to use the information to help the school to understand what she needs to NOT fall through the cracks,. I will nurture her, help her to shine, focus on her strengths, and support her in her areas of “weakness”. I’m sharing this on here because very often people keep this kind of thing as “personal information”, ” family information”, “secret information”…information that shouldn’t be shared. Why? Because people will label her? Judge her? Maybe they will – but people do that anyway. And those labels will only matter to my daughter if she is brought up to believe  that those labels have any true meaning.   Those labels would potentially damage her if she grew up in a home that told her she should believe everything “the system” tells her. And she certainly isn’t going to get that in this household.

In my opinion – we need to talk MORE about this – instead of keeping it all a secret. Because I know for sure it is not just my daughter, with her “Kabuki Syndrome” and her “Asperger’s” labels, who isn’t best served by the system. Most “normal” kids aren’t well served by the system. That damn school system – the box that takes our beautiful kids and shoves them in the sausage machine and sends them out the other end (more often than not) feeling in some way unhappy about themselves.

I had a label when I was growing up. My label was “highly gifted”. And I believed that label. Did it help me? No. In fact, in later high school years, it made me think I was superman. So I stopped listening. And my grades dropped dramatically.,

Labels, labels, labels. They can be useful to understand certain characteristics, but they sure as heck are not useful in predicting how you are actually going to get on in this world.

The system is broken, not my daughter, and not me.

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Early Childhood Development and Special Education

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When It was first suggested to me that we take Sophie to our local Early Childhood Development Program (ECDP), I was reluctant.  ECDP is a version of early intervention that has been available in Australia that is directly linked to Special Education Schools.  ECDP has playgroups  that parents and children can attend from birth until 3.5 years of age.  From the age of 3.5, children can attend a classroom for up to two days a week without parental supervision.  Children can then proceed into the Special Education Schools if needed, or enter main stream schooling with supports.

I knew that my beautiful daughter needed extra supports.  She was already receiving physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy, and she needed assistance with social skills.  I knew she had a genetic disorder.  I knew this would be a lifetime journey.  I had fought for many long months to actually obtain a diagnosis. But for some reason I was still struggling with acceptance.  I didn’t want my child to go into “Special Education”.  I was worried that her behaviours might regress.  I didn’t want other people to see her as “different” (although I had known she was “different” from birth).  I thought we could battle it out in the mainstream system.

Despite my desire to believe that the mainstream system would be sufficient, I thought I owed it to my daughter to at least find out what the ECDP had to offer.  Sophie and I went along to the ECDP playgroup for a few months when Sophie was about 18 months old. But then I stopped taking her, and reverted to a “normal” playgroup.  And  I found myself caught in a bind.  Going to playgroup with “neurotypical” children was difficult.  I found it hard to connect with the other Mums.  Our experiences and concerns were so vastly different.  And seeing the differences between Sophie and the other children tugged at my heart strings.  Their journey was so different to ours, and I longed to be around other parents who understood what it was like to have a child who was “outside the norm”. But going to ECDP playgroup felt just as hard.  There I was reminded of the reality of our situation.  There, there was no denying that Sophie was surrounded by her peers.  And I suppose I wasn’t yet ready to fully accept that Sophie needed the support that the ECDP had to offer.

Finally I swallowed my pride and fears, and more than a year after leaving the ECDP playgroup, we went back and enrolled her into the ECDP kindergarten program.  Sophie was three and a half years old, and I was ready to accept that we could benefit from the help that the ECDP would provide.  At the time, Sophie was also attending a mainstream daycare/kindy for a few days per week.  While Sophie loved her mainstream kindy, she was always on the edges.  Every time I picked her up, she was playing alone in the playground.  She struggled to choose tasks and follow through without assistance.  The shear number of children in her group (25) made it easy for her to “fall between the cracks”.

At ECDP Sophie thrived.  There were only eight children in her class.  The teachers were experts in their field.  They knew just how to encourage Sophie so that she started to take an interest in her peers.  They helped to keep her on task when she was struggling and wanting to retreat.   They provided extra assistance with her speech, fine motor development and gross motor development.  Here were the people who could help my daughter to thrive.  As an extra bonus, with the expert help provided by the caring staff at her ECDP, Sophie started to become much more engaged in her “regular” childcare setting.  The skills she was being taught at ECDP flowed over into her “regular” early childhood environment, and she started to thrive there as well.  The staff from the ECDP even visited her “regular” daycare centre and provided guidance to the staff there on how to best help Sophie enjoy her days, and the types of support that would help her blossom.

And when it came time for Sophie to start Prep (the first year of formal schooling in Australia), the wonderful staff from the ECDP were absolutely invaluable.  They wrote reports for us to give to her school, outlining her strengths and weaknesses.  They provided the school with guidance in regards to what accommodations Sophie would benefit from in the main stream system.  They talked me through my fears, taught me how to advocate within the school system, and assured me that I was welcome to speak with them at anytime if I needed more help with transitioning Sophie to school.

I know without a doubt that without the input from the ECDP, Sophie’s transition to mainstream school would have been much more difficult.  With the help she received from ECDP she was equipped to start school along with her peers. She had learnt how to manage her bag and her lunchbox, how to ask to go to the toilet, how to sit in circle with other kids, how to play in the playground without pushing her peers away, how to eat her lunch without assistance.  Basic things for kids without special needs.  Things that can require a lot of time and effort to teach for children who are struggling with motor skills or social problems.

So in the end, sending Sophie to a “special school” in her very early years was a gift.  To any parents struggling with this decision..if you have the opportunity, I would say..take it! Grab it with both hands. You will know soon enough by the changes you see in your child whether it is a good place for your child to be or not.

But here’s the rub.  In Australia, they have just passed a bill that will abolish ECDPs.  Our children will no longer have access to this amazing and invaluable resource.  Kids will miss out on the specialised support they need to thrive.  In my opinion, this is a travesty,  There is no doubt that early intervention can make a huge difference to kids with special needs.  Removing this valuable service feels like a crime against our kids.  And I imagine that Prep teachers in mainstream schools could be overwhelmed when they start to have kids coming into those schools who need more support than ever before, because early intervention was denied to them.

For anyone reading this post who is in Australia, if you would like to have any chance of seeing the ECDP system remain..I would urge you to sign the linked petition.

To those in other countries…if you have a service like this available…my advice would be to give thanks for it and give it a go.  You may very well be surprised, and see that any fears around special education are unfounded.  Special kids often need some special help.  Let’s hope and pray that legislators in Australia will see the folly of their decision to abolish this invaluable service, and that it will be reinstated, giving parents and children for years to come the best opportunity for a great start.

 

https://www.change.org/p/qld-minister-for-education-save-the-early-childhood-development-program?recruiter=10270613&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=share_page&utm_term=des-lg-no_src-custom_msg

Invisible Disabilities (Otherwise known as … “She seems fine to me”)

Some kids with special needs have obvious challenges. They may be in a wheel chair, or have a naso-gastric feeding tube, or facial deformities, or missing limbs. Something that people can see, that people may make allowances for, and (hopefully) have compassion for.

Then there are the millions of kids around the world who have “invisible disabilities”. Kids who scream and hit and bite their parents in the supermarket. Who then get judged for being “brats” and whose parents get judged for being “bad parents”. Or the kids who get bullied at school because they have two left feet, can’t throw or catch a ball and run with their hands flapping wildly in the air. They always get picked last for sports teams. They sit there, humiliated, knowing no one wants them on their team, not knowing what they can do to make it better. Or the kids who continually interrupt, droning on and on about topics of interest only to themselves, blurting out tactless comments and then getting worked up when something seemingly insignificant goes wrong. They have trouble maintaining friendships and look on miserably from the sidelines at the other kids playing and chatting together, wondering what is wrong with them and why “nobody likes them”.
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Spare a thought for those kids. And their parents. The first child may have sensory processing disorder. They find the sensory input at the supermarket impossible to deal with, and don’t have typical emotional regulation due to neurological differences in their brains. So they panic and lash out. Their systems are in overload and their behaviour is NOT a sign of bad parenting.

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The second child may have low tone (hypotonia). This is a neurological disorder that means the messages from the brain to the body don’t work as quickly as they do for other kids. In reality their body will never be as strong or agile as every other kid in the class, and they will always have to work harder just to do simple things like use a knife and fork and stay upright in their chair at school.

The third child may have high functioning autism (Asperger’s syndrome). Their neurological differences mean that the subtleties of body language and social graces are lost on them. Unlike typically developing children, children with autism need to be specifically taught about emotions, and body language, and a myriad of other things that most of us never have to think about. On top of that, the part of the brain that is designed to detect potential threats (the amygdala) can be overactive in autistic children. So something that seems harmless to us can cause a huge release of cortisol and adrenalin in these kids, which then activates the fight/flight response. This overrides the “thinking” part of the brain in the pre-frontal cortex, and means that autistic kids (and adults) can flip into a state of panic about seemingly mundane things. They aren’t being precious, they aren’t deliberately being rude, they aren’t “chucking a tantrum” to get their own way. Their brain has flipped into survival panic mode. It can take lots of training and immense self-discipline for these kids to learn to “self-calm’. Some may never learn, despite their best efforts and the best efforts of everyone around them.

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The differences these kids live with don’t magically get cured, or disappear, or get better simply with the passing of time. Neuroplasticity is an amazing thing however, and improvements can and sometimes do happen. But not without significant intervention and hard work by the child and all of the people in that child’s support network. Intervention that takes time, and effort, and costs money, and often requires the child (and sometimes the parents) to push themselves continually beyond their comfort zones. Sometimes those kids can make great improvements. To the point where the casual observer can’t quite pick the problems, and wonders what all the fuss is about. And then tells the parents that the child “seems just fine” to them. And the child may indeed seem “just fine”. But things may look a little different behind the scenes.

Children with “invisible disabilities”, including my own daughter,  are often working extremely hard to function as well as they do. Unlike other children of their age, they don’t always learn things just by observing. They often need to be explicitly taught things that other children learn easily and naturally as part of “normal development”. Many kids who seem “just fine” are attending therapy sessions five or more times per week so that they can make some attempt at keeping up with their peers. Sessions which require them to concentrate, to work hard, to sometimes push themselves past their limits. They are often overwhelmed by loud noises, or too much visual stimulation. Their bodies may tire more easily than other children, their attention spans may be shorter. So everything requires that extra effort. The kids who seem “just fine” are often working very hard to achieve that. And very often their parents are working hard along with them.

I know from my own experience, and from talking to other special needs parents,  that many of us can struggle with finding the time and energy required to deal with the system. We worry about the time we have to take off work to attend medical appointments and therapies, and the subsequent effect that has on our career progression. Many of us have costs we never imagined having, and earn less each year because we can’t manage our child’s needs and a full time job (at least not without losing our sanity). We are climbing down the career ladder, not up it.

We scrabble to find the money required to pay for the therapies, and to find the effort and discipline required to implement the therapy into the home environment. We rearrange schedules to fit in trips to the doctor for medical certificates just so our children can be approved to have swimming lessons, or go to ballet. Because we live in a crazy world of litigation, and no one wants to take a kid into their class that might have a higher potential for injury unless they have a doctor’s clearance.

And then there is the paperwork. The crazy mind-numbing paperwork. Dozens of pages to fill in to qualify for a miserly $52 from the government each week for “disability support”. Literally hundreds of pages of paperwork to deal with each year. Seriously. Sophie has just turned six and I have three ring binders that are bursting at the seams, filled to the brim with therapists’ reports, medical reports, funding applications, treatment protocols etc. Stack them together and it equates to more than 10 inches of medical paperwork. Meetings with the school at least twice a year (on top of all the regular parent teacher interviews) to negotiate an Individualised Education Plan for your child. And ad hoc meetings to follow up on that plan, because more often than not the things that are promised to help your child are never implemented. And it falls to you as the parent to fight the good fight with the school to ensure that “inclusive education” policies are actually followed.

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Parents may be struggling with chronic sleep deprivation, because their child has ongoing sleep disturbances. They are possibly exhausted from holding down a job, managing a home, managing their child’s additional needs and then staying up late to home-bake the speciality foods their child requires to stay healthy. And they are almost certainly dealing with the ever present niggling anxiety of the “what ifs” and “what will be”…What if that elevated urea level in her blood keeps creeping up, and we are looking at kidney failure? How long until he will need those knee replacements? Will her hearing test be okay this time? Will he be able to live independently?

Then there is the constant questioning of our roles, our values, our choices.. Where do we draw the line? How much therapy is not enough? How much is too much? How much time should we dedicate to helping our kids with therapies and nutritional interventions and alternative medicine and mainstream interventions? How much of our time and resources do we dedicate towards trying to give them the best chance of getting on in the big bad world, and how much time can we spend just being regular mums or dads, loving our kids, playing with our kids? Should I sell the house to pay for his therapy? Or keep the house in case he can’t support himself later? Is it okay for me to spend that $200 on going away for a family camping weekend when that could cover two therapy sessions? Is it okay for me to have a life, have some fun, buy some flowers for the garden, when I could spend that money on therapy? How can I ask for people to contribute to her fundraiser, when I just bought myself a new shirt ? How do we find a balance, how do we do all of this and not lose ourselves in it all? Sometimes we don’t find a balance. Sometimes things swing wildly out of control. Sometimes we caught up in it, lost in it, buried in it.

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Special needs parents may find themselves withdrawing from friends, cancelling attendance at social events, forgetting to reply to that email or text message you sent to them. At their times of greatest stress, they may become cranky, oversensitive, hard to be around. You see once loving couples sniping at each other, or withdrawing from each other, or running away from it all by resorting to affairs, or one more glass of wine, or just another few hours on that computer game. And it can be hard to understand these changes you see in these people you thought you knew. Because without knowing what goes on behind the scenes, what you see is a kid who “seems alright to you”. Things can’t be that tough can they? What is the big deal? I’m not saying our lives are one big ongoing tragedy, that we limp through each day hating the world and everything in it. Our lives are full of joys as well. But the reality is that our experience of parenting can be quite different to the experiences of parents with neurotypical kids. And that in cases of “invisible disability”, much of the struggle can be hidden. And that’s a lonely place to be.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that kids with “invisible disabilities” have it harder than children with other types of disabilities. Parents of kids with highly visible disabilities get all of the same work and stress and financial distress, sometimes more, much more. This isn’t a competition. We are all in this together. I’m simply focussing on what I call “invisible disabilities” today in the hope of raising awareness around something that isn’t so easy for a casual observer to see.

My own daughter, Sophie, has challenges that may not be readily apparent to someone in the street. Things you may not see unless you live with us.. Things you may not notice if you haven’t had exposure to the secret world of being a therapist, or an educator, or a doctor, or a special needs parent. But challenges that exist nonetheless. Challenges that affect her every single day, and that will continue to affect her for the rest of her life. Challenges that she works damn hard at therapy to overcome. But in many ways she seems “just fine”. So she sometimes doesn’t get cut slack in areas where she needs it. Sometimes I get tired of feeling like I have to explain my daughter’s behaviours, or justify why I might use a particular parenting technique. Sometimes I get tired of feeling unsupported because people think she is “just fine”.

Again, don’t get me wrong, I’m eternally grateful that Sophie doesn’t have to deal with some of the really serious issues that other children with special needs have to deal with. She isn’t in a wheelchair, she hasn’t had to have heart surgery, she walks, she talks, she eats, she jumps and laughs and plays and dances and sings. She has an incredible memory and, at just six, a vocabulary that any twelve year old would be proud of. She lights up my life with her joy and enthusiasm. And I never cease to be grateful for these miracles. In many ways, she IS just fine. And hearing that is sure as hell better than hearing the alternative…”Wow..she seems really f8cked up!!!” But hearing it can sometimes feel dismissive of the challenges she has overcome, and the challenges she still faces each day.

Sophie has low muscle tone and hyperflexible joints. Big deal you say. And yes, compared to being in a wheelchair, these things are a breeze. But these issues affect many aspects of her day to day living. They affect her speech articulation and her fine and gross motor skills. She only just became safe to walk up and down stairs without supervision this year, and only learnt to take her own shirt off about six months ago, at the age of five and a half, A skill that most kids have achieved by the age of two. She only became really competent with a spoon this year, and still spills things much more often than you would imagine. Her low muscle tone makes it hard for her to sit in a seat in class for any length of time. She uses a back support, and a tilted desk, and special pencil grips, and a wrist support to help her in the classroom. Yet still she struggles to keep up with the kids in her class. Not because she isn’t smart, but because her hands can’t get the pencil to do what she wants it to do. And then her low tone makes her tire easily, making it difficult to concentrate, and hence difficult to learn Her sensory issues mean that she is under constant low level stress in the classroom, because 25 prep students make noise. A lot of noise. And that noise throws her system into a state of disarray. So then she can start to act out. Or withdraw.

Sophie’s Asperger’s and sensory issues means that she has difficulty in the playground. Observing casually you may not see anything out of place. Looks like she is playing and getting on just fine. But if you take a closer look you will see that at school she is always engaging in parallel play – playing beside the other kids, not with them. Lost in her own little imaginary world of fairies and unicorns. Which is not in itself a bad thing – hell, I love fairies and unicorns. But it is a problem when Sophie wants to be part of the joint play, and just can’t figure out how to make that happen. A child of her age should be well and truly capable of a reciprocal social interaction with peers of up to 15 minutes, and Sophie is still working on a three minute goal. She’s okay as long as she gets to direct the play, or if she is with kids she is very familiar with, or there is an adult involved, but has no idea how be included in group play in the school playground.

Sophie also has issues with histone methylation. So for the rest of her life she has to have a different dietary regime and take supplements to support her functioning. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Not something you can tell by looking at her. But if she misses her supplements, it shows. The reports from her therapists start to mention attention problems, her handwriting suffers, she starts pushing kids around in class. She tells me “I find it hard to play on the playground because normally I can run, but now I can only walk”. Then the teacher pulls me aside and gently tells me that Sophie has been falling out of her seat a bit this week, and has been unable to control her outbursts in class.

There are other challenges, more than a few, but I won’t bore you with the details of all that in this post. Because the exact nature of all of Sophie’s challenges isn’t really the point of this post. The point of this post is really to raise awareness about what might be going on behind the scenes, not just for our family, but for all parents and kids dealing “invisible disabilities”. The point is to raise awareness of the fact that sometimes, hearing the words “she seems fine to me” , however well intended, may not have the desired effect.

It’s kind of a double edged sword – because part of us swells with pride when we hear these words, and we take the time to reflect on how far our child has come. But many of us also secretly (or not so secretly) wish for understanding. We want people to understand that getting our kids to the point where they seem “just fine” often comes at a great financial, emotional and physical cost to all involved. And hearing those words, no matter how well meaning, can feel dismissive of the challenges our children have overcome. Those words can make us feel that our child’s ongoing challenges are of no consequence. And that we have no right to be tired, overwhelmed and disheartened at times. It can make a special needs parent feel unheard, unsupported, misunderstood, overwhelmed and invalidated,. It’s not pity we are after, but understanding and compassion can go a long way. By all means tell us that our little ones are doing fabulously, that we are doing a great job – sometimes that is all we need to hear. But please don’t dismiss our struggles. Because sometimes we really need that shoulder to lean on, that quiet chat over a cup of tea (or a bottle of wine), that chance to cry and share our worries and feel HEARD. So that we can stand up straight and tall again, feel pride in what our children have achieved and what we have done to support them, and move forwards. We don’t want to live in the world of special needs all the time. In many ways we are still the people we were before our children were born, we want to laugh and play and have fun and experience joy and silliness and beauty and love and all the world has to offer. But sometimes we may just need that little bit of understanding to help get us through our dark places.

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P.S. To all you special needs parents out there whose children have visible disabilities..please know that I am in no way trying to diminish your struggles. As I said in my post, you deal with all of this and often more. And to any of you out there suffering other invisible disabilities like chronic pain, hearing loss, chronic fatigue, depression, anxiety, autoimmune conditions and the list goes on and on..I am not diminishing your struggles either. I hope that my post may help people to take a step back and choose not to judge people in ANY situation. Because we really rarely have a clue about what people deal with in their lives. If we all took the time to be just that little bit more compassionate and understanding towards each other, the world would be a much finer place.
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Endings and Beginnings

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The first few years are a nightmare..you’re scrabbling, reaching, trying to find answers, researching, filling in endless paperwork, trying to find a good team to support your child. Sleepless nights, endless questions, insecurity, doubt and fear. Then you slowly get it sorted. You find the right therapists, doctors, daycare. You find support networks, and answers. You stop having to struggle and advocate all the time. You stop fearing so much for your child’s very life. And you feel like you have finally got it worked out. To some extent at least. You know challenges are yet to come, but they start to feel far in the future.

Then life happens. Your child grows a little older, they outgrow “early intervention”, it is time to start school, leave behind the secure cocoon you have woven for them. Old challenges are overcome, and new ones have arisen. And you find yourself on quicksand once again. All those wonderful supports you had, slipping from your reach. All that hard earned knowledge, now outdated and needing a bit of an upgrade. Time to start over. Endless reams of paperwork, again. Interviewing potential schools. Moving house. Trying to find new therapists. New doctors. New teachers to support and guide your child. New interventions to assist with emerging issues. And, momentarily, fear sets in. Echoes of that early time of fear and uncertainty come to haunt you in the early hours before dawn.

You find yourself afraid, feeling inadequate, and unsure whether you have the emotional and physical reserves to do this..again. And then you pause..and breathe..and realise that despite the fear, the tiredness, and the (yes) resentment you sometimes feel at having to do all of this..that you are so much better equipped than you were the first time around. Now you have the guidance of others to call on, from having found support networks. Now you have confidence to back you up..you have done this before, with far less knowledge at hand, and when you were far more depleted. You can do this.

And then, the realisation of how far both you and your child have come in such a relatively short time dawns on you. It is, really, a miracle of sorts. It doesn’t dismiss the effort or exhaustion of having to once more educate a new team about your child’s strengths and weaknesses. But it does give you a confidence you didn’t have before, A tentative confidence to be sure, a flickering flame, not a blazing fire..but far more confidence than you had five years ago, when you battled the system to be heard. Now you know that you have a voice, and that you will not be defeated. Now you know that you can find your way through the maze.

To all parents going through change, special needs or not, know that you have what it takes. A parent’s love can overcome many obstacles.

Today Sophie had her last session with her occupational therapist, Robyn, who she has been seeing for three years..since she was two years old. And last night I shed a few tears as I thought of this chapter of Sophie’s life being over. And as I watched her carefully and painstakingly writing a thank you card for Robyn, and painting a “dolls’ house” to give to Robyn as a gift. Because, back then, I never could have imagined that Sophie would be able to do this..

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Next month Sophie starts prep. Far from where we now live. Entailing new teachers, therapists and supports. And I have been overwhelmed. And anxious.

But on reflection, I see the fears are in me, not in her. I know now that my beautiful, brave, joyful and hardworking little girl will continue to amaze and surprise me. And that I must NEVER underestimate her gifts and her potential. Sophie is an amazing teacher…reminding me each and everyday to never underestimate anyone, and to never give up. And so I step out and step up, knowing that if my tiny little angel of a girl can face the world with courage, I can do no less. Onwards we go 🙂

Dietary Intervention – The GAPs Diet

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I have wanted to write this post for a very long time. But every time I even thought about it, I developed terrible writer’s block. A new experience for me. Writing normally comes easily to me. Why such a blockage? Partly because this is a complex topic. It really warrants an entire book. No single blog post will do it justice. But primarily, honestly…fear. Fear of being judged, fear of reprisal, fear of offending people. But today, finally, I choose to go ahead in the face of my fear. Why? Because I believe in my heart that to fail to write about this topic would be a disservice to those who may find something worthwhile in here. (And then, in one of life’s great ironies, just as I had finally written the first few paragraphs of this post my computer crashed..I hadn’t saved the post, and there was no “recovered document” to be found…haha..the universe is testing my resolve!)

So here we go, let’s talk about diet. I know this is a highly controversial topic in the special needs community. I know there are children out there who are PEG fed, children who will “only eat white foods”, children who can’t tolerate certain textures due to sensory issues, children who gag and regurgitate, children who can’t chew at all. Getting any sort of nutrients into these children can be a battle. And parents of children with special needs are often so overwhelmed with other medical issues, therapies etc that the idea of making dietary changes can seem frightening if not impossible. I do not judge anyone for the choices they make in regards to their children. I believe all parents will ultimately do what they believe is in the best interests of their child. But dietary intervention was life altering for Sophie and our family, so I choose to share our story. I am not a dietitian, nor a doctor. I am not making recommendations on what is appropriate for anyone else’s child, or suggesting that worked for us will work for anyone else. I am merely sharing our story. You may find something in here that resonates with you. You may not.

I have written in earlier posts about what an unhappy baby Sophie was. Refluxy, colicky, crying in pain, waking repeatedly throughout the night. Her bowels were obviously not working well, as she was producing up to 15 stinky runny bowel movements per day. She had bouts of terrible nappy rash. She had loads of sensory issues. She was failing to thrive. She was beside herself, and so were we.

We suspected from early on that she was intolerant of dairy. Removing dairy from my diet while I was breastfeeding helped somewhat, for a little while. But the bowel issues and recurrent night wakings, with Sophie screaming out in pain, continued. I was going slowly insane with the stress and lack of sleep.

Then, when Sophie was about 12 months old, an old and dear friend of mine, Maree Symons (who happens to be a qualified naturopath), spoke to me about the GAPs (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet. I listened, but it all sounded a bit outlandish. And to be honest I was resistant to hearing what she had to say, as it seemed like a lot of hard work, and I was already at breaking point. She suggested I read the book. I ignored her advice for a few weeks, then ordered the book and read it. And I cried a river of tears. Why? Because it made sense. Because I knew in my heart that this could potentially really help my daughter. And because I felt it would be an impossible task. The diet sounded like a lot of hard work, and sleep deprivation and hard work are not a good combination. So for three long months I carried on, tucking the GAPs diet into a corner of my brain where it only occasionally came out to taunt me. But I couldn’t ignore that nagging voice forever.

Finally, when Sophie was 15 months old, I decided to bite the bullet and give this GAPs thing a go. What changed? A couple of things. Firstly, Maree told me that even though it might seem like life would be more complicated, the fact that I would need to plan ahead could actually make things easier on a day to day basis – being organized can sometimes decrease stress. That made sense to me. Secondly, our bio-medical doctor suggested that we make a six week commitment to GAPs in the first instance. He said that if I saw no changes at all during that time, perhaps GAPs wasn’t the answer. And if I did see changes, then that would be the impetus I needed to keep going. The GAPs diet is supposed to be adhered to for one to two years. At a time when getting through a single day was a challenge, making a one to two year commitment seemed outrageous. But six weeks – that I could deal with. And thirdly – I had decided that no matter how hard GAPs was, it couldn’t possibly be as hard as continuing on the path we were on. I couldn’t bear to keep having my child waking in pain throughout the night, couldn’t bear the thought of forever struggling to help her gain weight, couldn’t bear the thought of more nappy rashes, and continuing multiple nappy changes throughout the day. Something had to change. It was time.

So what exactly is the GAPs diet? Well I’m not the expert, and this isn’t the place to go into all the details. Some information can be found on http://www.gapsdiet.com/ . And all the details (including an explanation of the biochemistry behind the diet) are in the book (Gut & Psychology Syndrome, by Dr. Campbell-McBride). Essentially, a basic summary is that GAPs is a diet designed to help repair the gut by “healing and sealing” the gut wall and repopulating the gut with healthy gut flora. It is not a diet that you have to stick to for life. It is a diet that aims to fix the underlying digestion issues, rather than simply focusing on removing offending substances for a lifetime. The premise of the diet is that gut function and brain function are intricately linked. If your gut is not working properly, nutrients can’t be absorbed properly, and substances that shouldn’t be circulating in our systems can leak through the gut walls causing all sorts of health problems. It is a diet that is purported to help ameliorate many of the symptoms of autism, help resolve certain psychological disorders and some auto-immune conditions. It involves removing all starchy foods (including all grains, potato, sweet potato, corn and most beans/legumes), reducing fruit and other sugars, removing all additives, preservatives, colourings, flavourings, and eating organic, unprocessed ‘real’ food. GAPs also involves introducing foods such as meat and bone broths (to soothe and heal the gut lining), live fermented foods (to improve gut flora) and healthy oils (for calories and energy). The GAPs diet also incorporates fish oil and cod liver oil. Some people may need to take digestive enzymes or other supplements while on the diet. But primarily, GAPs is about eating real food, for real healing. GAPs also has protocols for children who would normally be completely breast or bottle fed. And GAPs can be done with children who are tube fed (by using a blenderised diet).

Well you can imagine how some people reacted when I suggested we were going to go down this path..What??? You aren’t going to give your child bread? Or rice? Or pasta? No carbs? How will she gain weight/ she is already underweight? Are you crazy? Isn’t that irresponsible? What has your GP said? Has your gastroenterologist approved? Well no, no-one in the western medical profession had given their approval. But we had exhausted all of their advice, and none of it helped. We were going to give this thing a shot.

My mother was one of many people who wasn’t very happy when I informed her of what we were going to do. But Sophie was staying at their house for one night each week, so they had to be on board if this was going to work. I was adamant that we were going to give this a go, and, somewhat reluctantly, my mother (to her credit) agreed to go along with it.

There was just one minor issue. I wasn’t intending to adhere to the diet in full. For those who have read previous posts you will see what a battle we had with breast and bottle feeding. We had finally managed to get Sophie to drink from a sippy cup, and she had finally started to drink rice milk. And I was terrified of giving that up. We tried her on almond milk and she flat out refused. She was intolerant of soy, and it wasn’t “GAPs legal” in any case. So I made a decision to keep her on rice milk (big mistake, as it turned out, but we all make mistakes). We also weren’t in a financial position to buy all organic produce, so I had to pick and choose what foods were the “least risky’ (in terms of pesticides etc), and which organic foods we would be able to afford. I figured that making some compromises while adhering to the rest of the protocol would be better than doing nothing at all.

So we launched into “almost GAPs”. The stove was on almost constantly, with a pot of bubbling stock on the top. I was tripping around all over town to source organic meats, sausages without starches or preservatives, cod liver oil, organic chicken frames. I will not lie. It was not easy. But then the miracles started to happen. Within less than 10 days Sophie’s bowel movements were substantially improved. Sophie was waking less. My mother noticed, and all of a sudden was much more supportive. She started (and continues to this day) to make stock, and cook up big bunches of veggies and other GAPs friendly food for Sophie. As time passed, Sophie’s sensory issues started to diminish. She was gaining weight. She looked healthier. Her overall development improved (probably as a result of improved sleep, and being in less pain). GAPs was working. After about four months, Sophie had completely normal bowel movements. And she was waking only two to three times a night. I figured that was the best we would ever get in terms of sleep. I thought that perhaps her sleep cycles were so disturbed after such a long period of poor sleep, that she would always be a night waker. I was wrong. When I finally had the courage to go ‘full GAPs”, and removed the rice milk, she started sleeping through the night. All night. Every night. Only four days after we stopped giving her the rice milk. For us, GAPs improved Sophie’s life (and ours!) beyond our wildest dreams.

We are not the “model GAPs family”. We followed full GAPs for only six months. It is supposed to be followed for one to two years. But Sophie was doing so well, that we decided to slowly introduce some non GAPs foods. Over the course of the next year we introduced quinoa, buckwheat, potato and sweet potato. Her system tolerated all of these foods. Eventually she was also able to tolerate rice again (perhaps two years after we removed it from her diet). She now occasionally eats corn. She still can’t tolerate dairy or soy, and we chose not to give her gluten. Perhaps if we had done GAPs for two years, her gut could tolerate dairy. Perhaps not. There is dairy intolerance on both sides of our family, and in reality humans are the only species that continue to eat/drink milk products after infancy. (GAPs actually does allow some dairy – but we did GAPs without dairy as Sophie was intolerant). Being dairy free is sometimes annoying, but something I am happy to live with.

Nowadays, Sophie still eats primarily GAPs type meals. With occasional starches and some other rare exceptions. For example we allow the odd artificial colouring or flavoring if at a child’s birthday party or other special occasion (though not any from the “dangerous food additives’ list http://www.traditionaloven.com/articles/wp-content/uploads/list_of_food_additives.pdf ). She is well nourished and eats just about anything we put in front of her.

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For us, changing Sophie’s diet was a resounding success. One of my biggest struggles and heartaches these days is seeing children who are suffering with bowel problems, reflux, colic, sleep problems or sensory issues, and wondering if their lives could be changed with dietary intervention. Hearing of children who could only eat three foods prior to GAPs, and now have a varied diet, and wondering if these children could be helped through GAPs.. Hearing of children who would only eat “white foods”, and who now eat all colours of the rainbow, and wishing that miracle for all parents who have children with ingrained food preferences. I find myself wanting to tell the world, but often keep quiet for fear of giving ‘unwanted advice’ or upsetting parents who are already over- stressed. And who is to say whether GAPs would work for them anyway? But I know it worked for us.

Please note that many children (and adults) take much longer to derive significant benefits from GAPs. We were lucky that Sophie responded so quickly. So if you decide to go down this path, and aren’t getting immediate results, please don’t be disheartened. There are plenty of support groups out there including GAPS Kids and GAPS Pantry on Facebook. There are many different stories, but almost every story is a success story, in that improvements are made. Sometimes miraculous ones.

Feeding Difficulties…Things I Wish I Had Known

BabyBreast2Here she is.  My beautiful Sophie.  Feeding.  Looks all very normal doesn’t it?  But the reality is that this was a rare moment in time.  I suppose we don’t take pictures when we are busy dealing with a screaming infant.  And crying tears of our own. The truth is that feeding Sophie was fraught with difficulties.  Some of my earlier posts talk about the trials and tribulations.  Here are some things I wish I had known back in that dark and stormy time….

That my daughter’s difficulties with latching and feeding were in part due to low tone/ hypotonia  (http://www.healthline.com/symptom/poor-muscle-tone),  and not my inadequacy as a mother.

That my daughter’s reluctance to feed was exacerbated by pain from reflux…the pain of feeding became an association…”drinking equals pain, therefore why should I drink?”

That my milk supply was drying up as a RESULT of my daughter’s inability (and reluctance) to feed well, not because I was somehow incapable of supplying the milk she needed. (That should have been a “no brainer”. I started with milk spurting from both breasts, breasts rock hard and leaking. My supply diminished over time as her reluctance to feed increased.)

That (as a general rule) breastfeeding associations and lactation consultants are far more used to working with “neurotypical” children than children with “special needs”, and that, unfortunately, much of the advice they had to give was not going to help my daughter.  Being aware of that could have saved me a lot of pain in wondering why, even when I followed every (sometimes conflicting) instruction I was given, we were still experiencing difficulties.

That squeeze bottles designed for babies with cleft palates (http://www.cleftsmile.org/category/cleft-general/) can also be amazingly helpful for children without cleft palates, but who are having trouble with sucking and swallowing.  That piece of information could have saved us a small fortune.  When I weaned Sophie off the breast (in desperation) at 6 months, I think we bought just about every bottle and teat on the market.  Except a cleft palate bottle.

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That breast pumping (particularly with an electric pump) is difficult.  And can feel humiliating.  But that it is okay to struggle with it.  It is not meant to be easy.  And it is worth it.  Sometimes.

That once I was at the end of my tether with trying to pump, and finally had to introduce formula, I should have been offered the option of mixing some formula bottle feeds with some breast feeds, rather than being bullied by hospital nurses to completely wean my daughter onto a bottle.

That weaning your child off the breast is not the end of the world.  Sure, I would have LOVED to have breastfed Sophie until she was at least 12 months old, if not longer.  But in all honesty, it was better for my mental health (and therefore our whole family) for me to be able to share the feeds with my husband.

That my daughter would drink FAR better from a sippy cup than any bottle (perhaps due to the nipple/teat feeding experience being associated with pain?).  When we introduced her to one, she couldn’t hold the cup or tip it herself, so “technically” speaking, she wasn’t “ready” for one…but it worked.

That reflux medication is a temporary (and welcome) relief, but by no means the answer to “fixing” feeding issues.

That children with gastrointestinal issues and/or food intolerances and /or allergies can react even to specialised hydrolysed/hypo-allergenic formulas…even though some paediatricians will swear black and blue that it is “impossible” for a child to react to those formulas. As the formulas are “denatured”, and the proteins are broken down, so there is “no way” that those formulas can cause issues.  

That there is currently no standardised, accepted test for detecting delayed food allergies (also known as food intolerances).  There are many methods of testing (skin prick tests, patch tests, blood tests), but none of them are completely accurate.  These tests can be excellent for showing anaphylactic (immediate and often life threatening) reactions.  But some foods can “creep up” on your child.  Small amounts over several days can trigger reactions such as eczema or sore tummies.  And there is no reliable testing available.  If a child tests positive for a particular food intolerance, it is almost certain they are intolerant of that food.  However, if they don’t show a positive result, it doesn’t necessarily mean they can tolerate that food.  They may still be intolerant or allergic. There is a lot of trial and error involved to determine which foods may be causing issues for your child. 

That changing my daughter’s diet in an extremely radical way would change her life and ours forever.  For us, it was the GAPs diet (http://www.gapsdiet.com/) that transformed  our lives.  Sophie went from multiple stinky diarrhoea poos per day to normal gut function, and from waking every 45 minutes throughout the night to sleeping through.  I’m not suggesting that GAPs is the right approach for every child, I’m not a dietitian, I’m just a regular mum.  I’m simply stating that dietary intervention made a huge difference to us. And GAPs doesn’t have to wait until your child is on solids – there are protocols available even for infants who would ordinarily still be fully breastfed or formula fed.

That in the end, I already knew all this in my heart (except for the cleft palate bottle option, and the bit about the GAPs diet).  And that if I had my time again, I would not have allowed the medical profession to have so much power over me that I questioned myself at every step.

And most importantly…I wish I had known that, one way or another, I would figure it out in the end, and things WOULD get easier.  Sure, other “special needs” mums told me that, repeatedly.  But at that time, I really couldn’t believe it.  Our lives were consumed with trying to get nutrition into our daughter.  I was terrified.  I saw no end in sight.  But you know what? Those mums were right!  At some point, you will figure out a way.  Whatever it takes. And it will get easier. I’m not saying that a child who can’t eat will miraculously be able to eat.  But even if your child has to have a PEG (http://synapse.org.au/get-the-facts/peg-feeding-tubes-fact-sheet.aspx)…once you get there…once you finally figure out what needs to be done to get calories into your little one…the dark cloud will lift.

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To all you mums out there struggling with feeding. .. my heart goes out to you.  I wish you wisdom, peace and respite from the constant questioning and fear.  Listen to that inner guidance.  Trust that voice inside.  Do your research.  And then do whatever you think needs to be done. Whether that be persevering with breast feeding, bottle feeding, nasogastric feeding or a PEG.  It is incredibly difficult to listen to your gut when you are on high alert, stressed, fearing for your baby’s life as they “fail to thrive”, and being given advice by people who you believe to know better than you.  But as a loving mother, you have all the resources you need to figure out what is right for your child.  Research, join support groups for parents with special needs, and listen to your gut.  Don’t be afraid of being judged.  Best wishes to all of you who are in the dark place.  Keep the faith.