As Down syndrome awareness month (October) is almost upon us, I thought it might be the right time to write about telling Audrey she has Down’s syndrome (-by the way for anyone who doesn’t know, Down’s and Down syndrome are both acceptable ways of writing her condition, the latter being more common in the US).
I have no great insight or advice for anyone wondering when or how to tell their children, but this is our experience…
The fact is, Ted and I really weren’t sure when to tell her or her brother. I kept thinking “Well here I am hashtagging her, sharing, chatting, raising awareness… but I haven’t really made her “aware” she has Down’s syndrome” and that seemed a bit odd. But also: she is at a mainstream school, with friends who are ‘typical’ children and they are all playing together and accepting of each other, pointing out her difference seemed a bit counter-productive.
Then the summer ended and I realised Rex would be at the same school as his sister, alongside lots of older children who may well know that Audrey has DS and what that means… I felt I wouldn’t want either of them to be completely baffled if someone mentioned it.
As a family, we have briefly alluded to it here and there over the years, kids can be hilariously disinterested when you attempt to get deep or explain complex things to them, so we don’t think anything ever sunk in. Generally these discussions would come to explain why Audrey was older than a certain child, but couldn’t walk like them. Because the ‘difference’ noticed has usually been physical, I’ve relied on ‘low muscle tone’ as an explanation.
Over the years I have seen children her age or older, with that look that says “What is she on about?” when she’s being silly (over excited usually) or doing something they might consider strange, but at the same time kids generally just accept stuff and move on.
Rex of course has always known Audrey as his big sister, with no expectations of what that might mean (should she be cleverer, faster, stronger or bossier than him? Shouldn’t she be out of night time nappies?). I know that in time, it’s likely he will start to feel like the older sibling, he will notice the differences between Audrey and her peers, but currently, it’s not something that needs highlighting. It’s a truly wonderful time for them to be siblings, with no “difference” being highlighted or acknowledged. But, that said, subtle differences are already creeping in. He knows he’s faster at running. He knows he can climb when she can’t. He may have thought it strange he nailed pooing on the toilet before she did. So the time came that we needed to tell them both that Audrey has Down’s syndrome…
We took an opportunity when running was being discussed again and said, “Well, Audrey has something called Down’s syndrome that makes it a bit harder for to run as fast as you, but she’s very flexible and good at yoga because of it”. We repeated this again a couple of days later and got the classic kid response “I know, you already told me”. But shortly after I heard Rex telling Audrey “You have Down’s syndrome Audrey, so you can’t run fast” and then Audrey replying “It means I’m super flexible!”. And that was that.
At present, with Rex just starting reception, it’s a short window whilst she knows more letters and words than he does, that she can read books and write sentences… but I can see it won’t be long until he’s caught up with her. I hope that we can always instil that sense that although Down’s syndrome brings challenges, there are positives to her condition. She wouldn’t be the child she is without it and we wouldn’t want her to be anyone else.
Ok, so this is quite a niche blog post! But I thought it might be useful to anyone with a constipated child, considering Movicol, using Movicol, about to use Movicol… I’m certainly not an expert or medical professional, but this is our poo story… or rather Audrey’s (age 7).
I think Audrey started to experience constipation around age 4/5 ish. She had been through a short fussy eating stage, but on the whole, her eating habits had become pretty good – she now happily eats a variety of vegetables and lots of fruit, but our problem is: fluids.
Audrey will sip a little water in the morning with her toast, a little bit more later and then throughout the day (with encouragement) drink a bit more. There are days when I could see she had pretty much only had a small cup’s worth of water the entire day! Using a straw seems to help her drink more and she does enjoy a juice box, but literally the only liquid I have ever seen her “down in one” is a 60ml portion of chocolate flavour Movicol!!
But back to the start of our journey. Audrey’s constipation presented itself very traditionally as several days without pooing. She would be in a very bad mood and 99.9% of her poos were in her night time nappy. To be completely honest, not worrying about poos in the daytime (being out and about and finding a toilet etc) was convenient. She progressed to pants age 5 and it was nice that we didn’t get those kind of accidents. We just gave her a spoonful of Califig most days and hoped for the best, she generally had a bowel movement every other day and we would find a poo in her nappy at night (that we would discover before we went to bed and change as she slept) or a poo greeting us in her nappy in the morning.
Once we entered lockdown, we ran out of Califig and our local pharmacy didn’t have it. I made a special trip to the big Tesco to get it, but we realised that if we were going to tackle things properly and get her on a daytime poo on the toilet schedule, now was the time to do it. So at her annual review, I discussed it with the GP (over Zoom) and we received the prescription for Movicol. I had been reluctant to “medicate” before, simply because she is on no other medication and Califig is “natural”, but I regret that now. I am the sort of person who suffers a headache for a couple of hours to avoid the use of paracetamol, but I am learning to just take the meds when needed!
With Movicol everyone warned us the dosage had to be right. It’s all anyone said when the mere mention of Movicol came up. We were advised to start on one sachet a day and scale up or down, depending on her reaction. My expectation was: it will have no affect (and the dose should be increased) or it she’ll have diarrhea (and the dose will be decreased). It was much more complicated than that.
Within a couple of days of taking it (just one sachet a day), we had seen two poos on the toilet and were doing happy dancing and thinking all was solved. How simple! [Side note: thank god I use local charity Amaze for advice on Audrey’s disability living allowance claim, as I was filling in the form that week and made it sound like the Movicol had magically cured her constipation and that was that, but I was advised by their guru it was too soon to make any such declaration and I downgraded the info to “she suffers from constipation and has recently started Movicol for this”]. How right they were… within days Audrey was wriggling and grumpy and doing “micro poos” (basically: sharts) in her knickers throughout the day. I was suddenly in a world of six or more pairs of pants a day and a constant washing cycle! And our happy Audrey was now a grump most days and not pooing other than the strange small amounts! Naturally, we lowered the dose (thinking it was causing her to soil herself) to half a sachet. But no, nothing changed. So we took a break and the night time poos returned. Then the gaps between poos returned (up to 5 days!), so we went back to half a sachet, but nothing changed.
I considered morning and evening – did the timing affect things?
We went back up to a sachet a day…. but after another 4 day gap of no movement, I remembered something mentioned on a toileting forum (yes, I’d been on a toileting forum!!) and went to trusty Dr Google to find more info on disimpaction. It basically described Audrey’s symptoms (the discomfort she seemed to be in, fidgeting, the micro poos in her pants all day, the lack of any real bowel movements) and advised we needed to “flush out” a blockage from her bowel with high amounts of Movicol. It also said to not to leave the house as you’ll have to deal with watery poos for days in order to get this sorted! Yikes. As the UK was gripped by a heatwave (and we do not handle heat), I figured this was the time to get things going and started the regime. 2 sachets a day, then 3, then 4… by day 8 we were on 7 sachets of Movicol with pantyliners in her knickers to help with minor accidents (she hated being told to wear nappies again!). I am pleased to say that aside from a couple of absolute corker accidents (I threw some pants away), she was doing really well and going to the toilet when needed. I was analysing her bowel movements waiting for the “brown watery” stage and once I felt we had reached that (this was day 9 I believe), we went back down to 1 sachet a day.
Audrey’s stomach changed. The round hard bloat she often had really went down. I feel so bad for leaving it untreated for so long. She has now, for the last 3 days, achieved “normal” stools on the toilet with no soiling in her pants and no night time nappy poos! (Though she has woken me at midnight and 1am to go for a poo!).
We will keep the one sachet a day routine for now and see how we go, I just really wanted to write this to remember what we went through and also to help anyone else in a similar situation as I am a little baffled the GP didn’t warn us about the disimpaction to be honest.
I am so very proud of her because it has been a strange journey to reach age 7 and rarely have actually pooed on a toilet. I know part of that was through fear (pain passing the stools) because she told me as much. It feels like a big milestone to be here with her in pants, able to tell me she needs to go (and don’t get me wrong, I still have to be very strict making her have toilet visits for wees otherwise she would just hold it in all day!). Children with Down syndrome may find that through the low muscle tone they don’t feel the signals for toileting like others and also, the constipation will have caused her a lot of confusion over the years too.
School return is just weeks away and luckily she has 1:1s who will help with her personal care, as the next stage is to teach her to clean herself safely and successfully!
It’s taken me a while to post this simply because I’ve felt a bit “meh”. I mean, who wants to hear about our lockdown when they are experiencing their own?
At times like these (yes I’m now humming the Foo Fighters and yes, the BBC version with a load of famous singers I’ve never seen before did make me cry), you can become overwhelmed. Which I have. I’ve been overwhelmed by lots of things these past weeks. General emotions, pressures of work/school work, thoughts of the weeks ahead, thoughts of others, thoughts of getting sick, thoughts of getting fat (I wish that was a joke), resources, memes, quotes, articles, educational activities – I am so grateful for everything that’s been available to us, but at one point the various What’s app groups were awash with this stuff and it didn’t make me think “Oh great, so much we can do, so much to refer to!” it was more like “Where do I start? Is everyone doing all the things? Am I the only person who doesn’t find this meme funny? Oh God I’ve seen that one 3 times already!” and “What should I do will all this information?!?”.
Things have calmed down a little now. Oh the kids are often feral, but I’ve learned to live with it better. Anyway on to my lockdown babble…
Audrey’s school closed 20th March and it was a gentle start of social distancing. We still went to the park on the Saturday, we still went for coffee, we just knew we shouldn’t get too close to other people and that was should wash our hands lots. It felt strange and we knew potentially things would become more restricted, but it all felt unreal.
By the Monday, it was no longer cool to hang out at the park or go for coffee. Advice for businesses was conflicted (people were being told not to go to pubs or restaurants, but pubs and restaurants were not officially told to close).
Pretty soon, we were in full lockdown mode. Kids at home, both me and Ted working at home, lots of TV, lots of drawing, lots of stir craziness, a smidge of school work and plenty of Zoom calls.
I work for a charity that helps families with children with special educational needs and disabilities, so I am aware that this kind of change has a massive impact on SEND families. For us, Audrey is the homebody, she likes cookery, TV, books, dolls and imaginative play. It’s her brother Rex, the typical child that needs to be walked like a dog. We are lucky to have a garden, but it is very small, so he dismantles the sofa everyday and throws himself around on it… it’s all a bit chaotic here.
Like many, we started with a vague routine planned; a relaxed Cbeebies morning, PE at 9am (sometimes Joe, sometimes Cosmic Kids Yoga, sometimes zumba), followed by snack, then a learning task or two, TV and lunch, kids choose afternoon (from various activities – baking, craft, lego, games, chalking etc) , well I reckon that lasted about a week. What a cliche we’ve become!
I found out Rex hates organised exercise (despite wanting to do nothing but bounce and jump all day), that Audrey loves this kind of exercise, but has to be in the right mood for most things and that school work may only be possible in 15 minute chunks. I learned that I’m not very patient, but that I can still get a lot of work done whilst listening to kids TV and having two small people constantly hound me for things… “Can I have “insert snack food here”?, Can you get this “lid off/bag zipped up/thing down from a high place?”, “I NEED A POO!” and so on. To get out of this happily, I have to attempt to free myself from wanting to “achieve” certain things each day. I realise that often I can feel really good about doing a lot work, but that will usually align with guilt that the kids have watched TV for hours and I’ve not interacted with them other than as snack opener and bum-wiper. On the flip side, if I have spent time, playing, teaching and interacting with them for hours, well, that usually means of course that I’ve done no work. So doing things in small chunks of time works best for everyone’s well-being.
So I cut my hours at work (it’s made things much more manageable), Ted is working full-time, shut away upstairs most days from 8am-6pm. I’ve allowed them to have days that are nothing but TV and play. I have braved taking them out on my own more (two small children being told not to be near people/touch things – it doesn’t always go well) and I’ve been running/drinking a lot more wine (though not at the same time, obviously).
I have no super duper lockdown survival tips (because I don’t know how we are sometimes), but I can only say, that despite the moments of absolute despair, we have still found time to have fun. We can look on the bright side – we could still be in our old flat with a baby and no garden or our mums could be alive and having to isolate… so the timing isn’t so bad. At least we do all get on, can work from home and we all love movies and board games and dancing and things you can easily do at home.
I guess I am really writing this post for prosperity, I want to look back and remember that this time was hard. The kids were demanding, there were lots of tears and guilt and shouting, but there has also been lots of lovely moments – our first viewing of Harry Potter, altogether snuggled in the sofa enjoying a feast! Ted bought a pizza oven, so good pizza has been a weekly treat. Audrey has been pooing on the toilet more (as opposed to her night-time nappy) and has done some really super writing. Rex has already shown he can follow lines and shapes really well in a ‘first writing book’. They have both coped really well with the change to their routine and are good at talking openly talking about the virus.
In fact, in some ways this time has been “easier” than the summer holidays! Because there is literally zero expectation that I need to plan anything or take them anywhere. Sure, we all think a zoo trip will be the best day ever, but the reality is often much more stressful than the fantasy, so in many ways it is a relief that we are at home and a brief trip to the park is all they hope for.
This week the government announced changes as we try to get things “back to normal”. Everyone seems to be incredibly annoyed and “confused” by the advice to “stay alert” as opposed to “stay at home”. I’m not confused. It’s hard to keep a “stay at home” slogan when you are telling people they can go out more. They can stay out for longer periods of time. Go out not just for exercise but also just to sit. See friends, but at a distance. Some businesses are opening again. Restaurants can deliver… it’s a gradual process of returning to normality. Potentially a trickier time than when the guidelines were clearer and strict though. For those of us with small children or children with SEND, it’s not a massive change. I won’t be taking my kids on long walks as they can’t be trusted not to lick something on the way. And I can’t have them meet a friend at a “safe distance” because no doubt they’d like to lick that friend. I jest… but honestly you should see Audrey sucking her thumb after playing in the dirt and Rex hugging a lamppost, it’s constant!
The biggest announcement in the government’s recent changes to lockdown had to be that Audrey’s year may return to school 1st June – which seems way too soon. Again, if we as a family are still practicing social distancing, what is the point of then sending one of us into a building with around 300 other humans in it?? I know she would love to be at school and I would love her to be there… but not until it really feels like the virus is no longer a threat.
We haven’t been ill, so at this point I feel like we could manage to shield ourselves entirely from Covid-19 (am I dreaming?), but if we have to jump back in before the storm is over… I don’t know, I just feel like Audrey might get hit hard (she has no underlying conditions or respiratory problems, so maybe not), it’s probably just that I see her as more vulnerable because of her additional needs.
It’s certainly funny to think after all the stress of lockdown, that now there is an end in sight and a return to school date, I feel like it’s too soon!
Today we would have been attending a party with other local families who have someone in their life with Down syndrome. Just a couple of weeks ago, I thought we’d carry on as normal… but the Coronavirus has stepped up and moved on and now the schools in the UK are closed, everyone (who can) is on work from home mode and all parties and gatherings have been cancelled.
To say the times we are living now are bizarre is an understatement.
Audrey has an educational health and care plan, which does actually mean she could continue to attend school, however, since her brother Rex’s preschool is closed and Ted and I are able to work from home, we would much rather have her with us.
And so here we are, “social distancing” is our current mode. Staying at home, perhaps popping out for some fresh air, but avoiding group meet-ups and physical contact where we can. We hope to Face-time and stay in touch with friends and family as best we can. We hope Rex won’t climb the walls (and us) too much.
The biggest stress for me by far (yes, above the thought of catching the virus) has been the pressure (social media, friends chats etc) focused on homeschooling and activities. Everyone is being extremely helpful sending links, resources, accounts to follow, apps to download, things to print… I cannot fault people for trying to ensure we can all help our kids learn, but what it results in is a seemingly mountain high pile of stuff you feel you have to do. I am overwhelmed by the thought of doing my actual job (communications for a charity), doing my mum job (entertainment, food, referee, wiping bums etc) and now being their teacher! It feels like too much to handle on top of the fact that all four of us will be at home together for months. Even if we get to escape the house for fresh air it will be short lived and it won’t really be with other people. Intense!
There is a funny part of me that thinks “you wished for this”! Because often in the mornings, during the stressful period of “Put your shoes on, Where is your book bag? Don’t take your coat off! Please can we get in the car now?”, I find myself wishing we didn’t have to do that morning routine 5 days a week. Now of course I am desperately sad that I don’t know when we’ll do that routine again.
Anyway, bringing it back to today… World Down Syndrome Day raises awareness (and funds) for various charities relating to DS, there will still be a lot of online campaigns and videos. The central campaign involves “lots of socks” which I (and many others) actually don’t like! It gets confused with odd socks (for anti-bullying) and muddies the water to “we are all different” when we are often striving for people to understand that having DS doesn’t make you so different to typical people.
I mentioned in my Instagram feed this week that I actually learned something about Down’s syndrome this week thanks to COVID-19: I have pretty much consistently told people throughout Audrey’s life that “people with DS have a weak immune system” , but once this all kicked off I decided to fact check. Actually, it’s just that people with DS are prone to certain conditions (relating to their heart or lungs) and it’s those underlying health issues that can cause compromised immunity. So basically, Audrey is fine because she has no health issues. Plus (major plus), she has my immunity passed on from breastfeeding, yay!
I took some snaps of Audrey one morning before school, she was beaming in full uniform and a little rucksack on her back. Rex and I dropped her at school and returned home to wait for Bibi (Grandma) to come. Rex was watching back-to-back Paw Patrol whilst I emptied the dishwasher and tidied the kitchen as best I could in the 20-30 minutes I would usually have before my mother-in-law Sarah arrived to watch Rex whilst I went to work in a cafe for 3-4 hours.
Ten minutes late was not unusual. I felt relief to be quite organised and ready for Sarah’s arrival. Twenty minutes late was unusual. But calling people when they are late and might be driving could add to their stress, so I didn’t do anything for a bit. I’m not sure what the order was particularly, but I know I called her mobile and home, twice. I sent a message via What’s app and a text. I messaged a friend to see if they had heard she wasn’t coming.
When she was around 30-40 minutes late I was definitely panicked, but I didn’t want to worry my husband Ted, so I called my brother and asked him what I should do.
I’ve relived the events of this particular morning in October more than I would care to. Recounting the details to shocked friends, watching their eyes widen when I say “she just didn’t turn up”. The fear that one day, someone might suddenly not be there. Well on that day, Sarah was no longer there. Ted and I have no parents, the children have no grandparents (well, one great grandparent – my 100 year old nan!).
When I recount the deaths of my father, Ted’s father, my sister, my auntie, my mother and now my mother-in-law… well I do feel like people may view me as the grim reaper. Our little (evidently getting smaller by the year) family is a happy one though. We feel so grateful to have each other and many wonderful friends to get us through these times, but, there has been a lot of death around us.
It’s now 2020. People are summarising their decade with weddings and travels and new jobs. I can see mine in two ways:
On the one hand, 2010: the year my father died. 2011: the year Ted’s father died. 2012: the year my sister died. 2013: the year we had a disabled child. 2014: the year I was made redundant and had a miscarriage. 2015: Audrey started therapy to learn to walk. 2016: the year we had Rex and learnt what exhaustion really means. 2017: the year I was made redundant again, the year my mother died. 2018: my brother was undergoing treatment for cancer, I was in therapy. 2019: the year Ted’s mum died.
Or I could look at it like this…
2010: I ran my first 5K.
2011: Ted and I got engaged.
2012: Ted and I got married and had an amazing honeymoon in New York.
2013: Ted ran a marathon. We had a beautiful baby girl!
2014: I started a new job.
2015: I got pregnant with Rex. We moved from a flat to a house.
2016: We had another beautiful baby! Audrey learned to walk (and so did Rex at 10 months)!
2017: I spoke to trainee midwives for the Down Syndrome Association’s ‘Tell It Right’ campaign. I met some significant new friends.
2018: Audrey became a model and started mainstream school, I started freelance writing.
2019: Audrey became a TV star. I got a new job working for a charity I care about. My Nan turned 100 years old.
We have definitely experienced more than our fair share of death, but we’ve had our fare share of good fortune too. We hope that 2020 sees us find a new home and that everyone we know and love remain in good health.
Whenever the Down’s syndrome awareness days/months/campaigns come around I generally feel like I’m banging on about the same old stuff, it’s all been said before and people are wondering why I’m still doing this.
I will never tire of writing about how great Audrey is and that’s a fact. Beyond that, when I try to think what the Down’s syndrome community wants to achieve with awareness campaigns, I remember why it’s important to keep banging the drum. Because surprisingly not everyone knows that people with Down’s syndrome can live a full and happy life. That they can achieve and learn and contribute to society. We may be very early in our journey (Audrey is only 6), but she is continually learning, progressing and she is full to the brim with love and kindness. She is an asset to our family, not a burden.
9 out of 10 women in the UK who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down’s syndrome choose to abort. Would the stats skew so high if perceptions of Down’s syndrome and disability were changed?
We are (supposedly) living in a liberal and inclusive world, yet I continue to encounter those who fear disability or don’t fully understand it. Hey, I’m not perfect and I’m learning on the job, but I’ve had some uncomfortable conversations with people, even though they are aware I am the mother of a child with “special needs”:
A mother I know once chatted to me about her 10 year old daughter’s friend who is autistic; “She wants her to come for a play date and I’ve said no and I don’t know how to explain to her that we don’t know how she might react to certain things…”. I would absolutely hate to think a parent might not have Audrey for a play date through fear of her condition, I would much rather they suggested a play with me there (to see how things go) or asked me directly if she might be able to come for a play and if so, if there is anything they might need to know. In any case, a mother of a child with extra needs wouldn’t just pack them off for a play date without knowing that they will be ok. If anything, I tend to be overly protective about Audrey and her abilities, she often surprises me with what she can do independently. I wish I had said all this at the time, but I was so stunned that she was telling me this, I didn’t say anything!
Another example from a couple of years ago, I had a chat with a dad about about how fab CBeebies is at inclusion and he really didn’t get my stance, his response was along the lines of (eye rolling): “Yeah they’ll always get an ethnic kid in a wheelchair in there”, it felt very much like “the world’s gone PC mad!”. Again I wish I hadn’t stayed silent. Because every time you eye roll at a disabled child/same sex parents/family of colour shown on TV, remember that those of us represented by that “shoe-horned difference” are not eye rolling, we’ve got a fuzzy feeling inside. We get to feel like we matter enough to be included with all the “typical” families. People will start to realise that disabled people live in the real world too, with families, jobs and hobbies just like everyone else.
I am absolutely thrilled to say that Audrey is going to be in a TV advertisement over Christmas on Channel 4. I’m not even sure that the team behind it know how much it means to us and the Down’s syndrome community that she was chosen. In it, she’s a little girl opening a Christmas present. She just happens to have Down’s syndrome. And when I’m hanging around with her in a big house in London watching her being filmed it’s just another crazy thing Audrey has gotten me into! Audrey having Down’s syndrome has opened doors, not closed them!
I’ll be posting on Instagram (as usual) for Down’s syndrome awareness month. I am no expert on Down’s syndrome (medical stuff, facts about how the condition affects each person – I’ve read minimal amounts to be honest), but I’m an expert on my kid. If you’re looking for a poster girl to explain how Down’s syndrome can make you adorable, kind, thoughtful, stroppy, stubborn, loud, quiet, easy-going, challenging, clever… well Audrey is the one! If there’s one thing I’d want people to remember about Audrey or anyone with a disability; it’s quite simply that they are human. She deserves love and a chance to thrive just as much as anyone else.
Part of sharing positive moments of our life is to ensure there is a balance to what people see when it comes to life with a child with Down’s syndrome. When society tells you to “screen” for Down’s syndrome and you love someone born with DS, you want to share your experience of that love to show it’s not a negative thing that needs eradicating.
It’s because of this that sometimes when life isn’t rosy and Audrey is being a pain in public, I feel huge pressure for her to be good. I want to prove people wrong, I want to show them our life is full of fun and happiness. That said, I’m also honest, so I aim to talk about and share the tough stuff too. Unfortunately life with kids is not entirely straight-forward.
Yesterday, I wanted to go for a run, so Ted did the bedtime stories. Rex was feeling particularly clingy and as I got ready to leave the house he was crying and screaming my name, Audrey however was perfectly calm and happy, “Goodbye Mummy!” she said cheerily as she settled into her bed. Meanwhile Rex was at the kiddy gate rattling it and turning red in the face. Yet he is my “typical” child and she has “special needs”!
The day before, at the park, we arrived at our car to return home. Stood just a couple of metres away from the car door Audrey refused to walk across the long grass. Rex was calmly standing by the car, waiting to get in. Audrey was refusing to move. I was negotiating (begging), but to no avail. As I made the decision to pick her up and force her into the car, a pregnant woman walked by. I kept my head down, got the kids in the car and got ready to leave, but really I wanted to turn to her and say “She’s normally lovely!”.
The fact is, I am always nervous around pregnant women when Audrey is with me. Suddenly she is the poster girl for Down’s syndrome. She is the sole representative – a make or break impression for someone making a decision about screening and termination.
It’s not just the “bad” behaviour that concerns me, sometimes when she is quiet or seemingly not engaged, I worry about people thinking she has nothing going on in her brain. I worry they will be judging her on conversational responses (or lack of) and think she is stupid. Yet if Rex was suddenly mute at a stranger’s question, I would dismiss him as shy and move on, I wouldn’t expect him to be judged solely on that interaction.
It would be nice to say we have nothing to “prove”. She is a multifaceted human being who can be happy and sad, easy-going and stubborn, good and naughty – but sometimes the perceptions of people with Down’s syndrome put them in a box of one or the other. They are either considered to be loving, cuddly and amenable… or unpredictable, hard to control and challenging – it’s rare to think of them as having the ability to be all those things and more. Or none of those things!
What we forget when we group people together (as if they were a different species to us) – is that within the similarities there are also many differences. And stereotypes sometimes fit, but sometimes don’t. Just as not every red head is feisty and not every American is loud – people with Down’s syndrome have stuff in common, but they are individual humans.
Audrey is more polite than your average kid. She’s better at sharing than any other kid I’ve met. She’s chatty and confident, she likes to laugh but she doesn’t like to see people get covered in gunge! She works really hard at physical challenges, but can sometimes lack confidence in that area. She’s a great eater, sits at the table like a dream but can be stubborn and wants to be fed by us sometimes! She doesn’t like lots of bubbles in her bath. She settles down at bedtime to sleep very happily.
And I can tell you about her “typical” brother Rex, he isn’t great at sharing, but is excellent at climbing and running. He can be shy, but once he warms up he’s great at making friends. He’s an extremely fussy eater and likes to eat with his fingers, whilst on the move. He doesn’t mind bubbles in the bath, but will help get rid of them for Audrey. He rarely wants to go to sleep at bedtime, he wants to keep playing… they both have my long eyelashes (which I got from my mother) and they both seem to have inherited my mother’s ability to chat!
The two of them have given me a very varied experience of motherhood just by being different kids with different personalities and the fact is, at this stage, Audrey’s Down’s syndrome plays a pretty small part in what makes her different to her brother.
Those of us with children who have Down’s syndrome may feel the pressure to be the model example of how it can all be ok, but we should also be allowed to show it’s not always ok – because that’s life with any child.
One minute you’re willing your disabled child to learn to walk, then you’re willing them to have the energy to walk to school… the next thing you know they are running off in random directions and you can’t keep up!
My beloved good girl Audrey has discovered the fabulous feeling of freedom. Of running off alone, ignoring pleas, shouts, begs, stern-voice nos… she just keeps going.
I am fully aware that this is a common trait for children with Down’s syndrome (running off). I’ve met many a parent explaining their need for reigns/buggy straps/confined spaces for safety and throughout this I’ve been able to say, “Hmm, Audrey doesn’t really do that”. However she spends a lot of time at school now and not much time outside in open spaces with just me in charge, so maybe there hasn’t been much of an opportunity for the running? Well, she is taking the opportunity now!
This school holiday has barely started and the running off is becoming an issue. There are several reasons this phase is really hitting me hard:
My lack of authority is now obvious. Both children do not seem to respond to me saying no. It’s incredibly frustrating when you try to discipline your children and they either ignore you or find your stern voice hilarious. Everything feels like it is escalating to crazy threats “No more television, ever!” or that a rage builds up and I’m growling at them and dragging them by the arm. Hideous.
Her special needs are now obvious. I’m definitely upset by this “special needs” trait popping up. I hate the thought of anyone seeing me run after her (shouting her name as she ignores me), thinking “That poor woman, life must be so hard with that disabled child”. I just want people to remember that any snippet you might see of anyone’s life is just that – a snippet. So yes, she is being a challenge at the moment out and about, but on that same day she also approached a crying child to check they were ok, she also sat happily and ate her ice cream whilst her typical brother ran riot in the cafe. She also settled at bedtime stroking my face telling me I’m a good girl.
My ability to parent two children feels questionable. This one gets me. If I can’t take my two children out and about without having to chase after one of them, potentially abandoning the other one, then how an earth am I allowed to be their parent? It creates anxiety around every activity I plan and I’m constantly wondering how on earth other mums cope (with two or more moving children)?
Audrey and I have discussed the running off that happened (a lot) yesterday. She has said she is sorry and she knows she needs to do good listening and stay near her mummy. We’ll work on it, but I know it’s going to be hard. It feels like she is changing and I’m struggling with that. I always describe her as a child who like to play by the rules, which remains true in some respects (shoes off indoors, wearing a school uniform), but also she kind of makes up her own rules!
As the summer holidays are in sight and Audrey is 6 (today!) I thought it might be a good time to write about Audrey’s life at mainstream school so far, because here we are, nearly finished with her first year in reception!
I mysteriously didn’t write (even a little) blog post about Audrey turning 5 (I checked back), but here we are welcoming the big 6 at the end of her first year of mainstream primary school and we have a summer break of (hopefully) fun times ahead.
By now I am sure you know I am so proud of my beautiful, clever, friendly little girl. We have come so far since that hot July day in 2013, when she was presented to me and all I saw was Down’s syndrome. What felt like a cruel blow now feels like the best thing that ever happened to us! We’ve had a fun and exhausting weekend celebrating her birthday, she got a doll’s house, her first “Ken” doll (she has mountains of female dolls) and as always, Audrey gave us amazing feedback saying “This is my best present ever” when she saw the dolls house and eagerly introducing Ken to “her girls” (the other dolls).
So I dropped my 6 year old off at school this morning and now I can share with you my thoughts on how things have gone for us, having a child with special needs attending a mainstream setting.
I had many fears about her starting school (even with a deferral making her one of the eldest, rather than youngest in the class), but I also knew that there was a big chance Audrey would thrive in the setting. All the adults that “worked with her” (key person at nursery, therapists, inclusion service etc) would say what a sociable, outgoing child she is and that she’d have no trouble making friends and that reception was all about making friends.
My main worries were “she’ll get crushed to death” – she is small and her low muscle-tone makes it harder for her to navigate obstacles/stay on her feet when getting knocked around. I also wondered if the whole environment might just be too loud and full-on for her.
As I am slowly learning, she is often more resilient than I expect her to be.
She did indeed get knocked about a fair bit at the beginning of school. Things you couldn’t anticipate (tripping on a trolley, getting hit by a rogue ball in the playground) will simply happen in a busy school environment. It is heart-stopping to get the call that your child has had a bump to the head, but she’s survived and I think everyone is aware now that she’s a bit more fragile than some of the other kids.
We had a parents’ evening at the beginning of school and it was so uplifting. We had fantastic feedback about her settling in, making friends, being part of the class and her positive attitude (she arrives every morning saying “Good morning guys!”). Our second parents’ evening was much the same, aside from one tiny comment about how Audrey wouldn’t be reaching her Early Learning Goals. It’s not like I expected her to be performing at the top of the class of typical children, it’s just that I had forgotten that she wasn’t on the same level, I had forgotten because we are so often focused on all that she can do. You can sort of put yourself in a protective bubble, where you look at your child through rose-tinted glasses because they, to you, are perfect. This was just a reminder that our child, measured against “typical” standards is “delayed”.
Put academic measurements aside, look at the bigger picture and you’ll see Audrey attending mainstream school has been a success. She’s made brand-new friends, she’s learned how to write her name (just about), she can sound out and read all kinds of words and she can tell me details about her day. She has progressed physically and mentally just from interacting and learning alongside her typical peers.
Audrey has school lunches – this may have contributed to an improvement in her eating at home too, as she now eats lots of vegetables and is happy trying new things. She always tells me what she’s had for lunch (macaroni cheese and fish and chips are her favourites!) and explained recently that the children line up for a “squirt” before lunch; yes, I was confused at first, but when she mimed it out I realised she meant hand sanitiser! It’s tiny details like this that really show how far she has come with her communication.
The thing is, I can put myself in the position of a parent of a typical child starting reception… you learn there is a child in the class with “special needs”; they need a 1:1. Being brutally honest I do think it would have raised concerns for me. I would wonder: “Will their behaviour be challenging?”, “Will their needs affect the class as a whole?”. So I was also nervous of the the other parents and their attitudes. I wanted to be able to tell them all that they would soon see what an asset she is.
I’m hoping it didn’t take long for people to see that. Audrey’s presence in the class is not a drain on resources. It’s not a waste of time for her to be there learning with her typical peers – it’s a success story and a positive experience for all concerned. She learns through copying, so typical children propel her education and she provides them an insight into disability. She has her challenges and I’m sure sometimes the other kids wonder what on earth she’s on about(!), but also they’ll see she is kind and thoughtful and likes lots of the same stuff they do. I also like to think her 1:1s are an asset to the class because, yes, they are there specifically for her, but they will no doubt help other children when needed.
Everyone has been welcoming and Audrey has made some great friends. We’ve had birthday parties and play-dates a plenty. She’s been on school trips to the local library to see a puppet show, to the zoo, she took part in sports day, harvest festival at the church and she performed in the nativity as an angel. Audrey was recently chosen to be “Star of the Week” (along with other children), getting a certificate and a little box allowing her to take something into school for “show and tell”. My heart is filled to the brim with pride that she is taking part in all these school activities.
She does get very tired at school, she can exclaim “Not again!?” when I tell her it’s another school day, but mostly she bounds into school full of enthusiasm and bounds out ready to tell me she had so much fun.
I know that sending your child off to school can be nerve-wracking for anyone – suddenly your child is spending a lot of time with people you don’t know very well. But it didn’t take long for her to be well-known throughout the school and I have no doubt that Audrey will have many happy years at this school.
And so on to Audrey’s second year of primary school (confusingly; year one). She enters with a knowledge of the school routine, a good group of friends and her can-do attitude! But for now, a bit of summer time fun and a break from the school routine… a welcome break but also a terrifying stretch of days ahead entertaining my two active children… wish me luck!
I’ve made no secret of the fact that when Audrey was born, that little face that showed she was “different” flooded my brain with negative thoughts.
Would people want to spend time with us? I assumed not. Would they whisper about us? Stare? Strangely I imagined her finding it hard to make friends. In fact, I thought everything would be hard for Audrey and for me.
In reality, she was a baby. A baby with a tube on her face, yes. A baby with an obvious “condition”, but she could still enjoy a coffee shop visit and baby group like any other baby. I had definitely underestimated humans in general, but I had an awesome NCT crew who were always there for me and were not phased in the slightest by Audrey having Down’s syndrome.
Inside I was still constantly surprised by how welcomed we were at baby groups, how it was never a big deal. I emailed ahead to book for baby massage, with a hard lump in my throat I would type “my daughter has Down’s syndrome and is on oxygen” and the reply was warm and… normal. My place confirmed, in fact I can remember the teacher’s words along the lines of “this class will be perfect for her…” and once there, she was fawned over like any cute baby.
Of course, we’ve had the odd strange incident, but it was less-so staring/nudging/whispering, more straight forward “My friend had one of those, couldn’t talk” or “What’s with the tube on her face?” – the bluntness was laughable. And of course she was (still is) small for her age, so you get a sympathetic head tilt or the question “Was she prem (premature)?” when discussing her age. She wasn’t premature (she was a few days late), but I found the confused look that followed that answer so uncomfortable, I would sometimes just say yes! Ha.
Once she was off O2, sitting up and joining in, quite simply the staring, the whispering, the attention: it was all there but not in the way I had dreaded. Audrey was (is!) a superstar. People are drawn to her because she is cute, friendly and funny. She was often a very enthusiastic participant in music groups, clapping, singing, head shaking. She says hello to anyone, asks people’s names, approaches children/babies when they are crying to see if they are ok. I’m more surprised now if people don’t stare, if they’re not interested in her, because she is interesting!
Since starting school, we’ve found a whole new audience. When we arrive at school, if we are early and waiting for the gate to open, I often see the nudges… older girls look at her like a living doll, they are like walking heart eye emojis gazing at Audrey. People shout “Hello Audrey!” when we are out and about and she gets presents/pictures/notes in her school bag from her friends at school. She marches into school with enthusiasm each day (often saying “Good morning” to the teachers at the gate) and she bounces out each afternoon and throws her arms around me. She is exceeding those low expectations I had of her in those early days (based on an outdated view), everyday.
I’ve actually written this because of a little Instagram post that sparked a few questions and comments from mothers of children with DS/other special needs who wanted to know more.
I know that our experience doesn’t cover everyone else’s – we are lucky in that her needs are not as complex as some, but we’ve had our moments. We’ve had to leave noisy parties and take time outs from events – sometimes I’ve felt uncomfortable in those situations, I’ve felt stared at. Those occasions are rare and the upside of the whole experience of having a child who is different is the immense joy we take in the little things she excels at and achieves,
I never knew that Audrey would have this way about her that would make me want to show her off to as many people as possible. I never expected to feel like I was accompanying a celebrity to the park! So, I say… bring on the stares!