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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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.

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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