Down’s syndrome Awareness Month 2019

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.

 

Poster girl

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.

 

 

We Have a Runner!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

 

The Good Stuff not in the Guidebook

Last week I had a rare full day alone with Audrey (as we are in the school holidays and Rex was at nursery). We went in the car to a lovely play park and cafe by the beach. We picked out our best pebbles and I told her how I used to go to the beach with my mummy and collect the best shells. Audrey has a wonderful way of interacting, she’s supportive and interested; “Oh wow, with your mummy? That’s great!”.

We had a play in the park, we shared scrambled eggs and toast in the cafe. Audrey bossed me around a bit, she bossed around others too (telling a mum to “Calm down” when she was telling off her toddler!), we got back in the car and headed to the supermarket.

She flatly refused to get out of the car when we go there – told me she wanted to stay put. I tried to be as gently as possible in convincing her, but I was getting no where fast. I eventually had to man-handle her out and then distract her with news that the trolley had a ride-along buggy board! Fun! It worked.

At home we were both tired and sat watching a film until I thought it best to head out again (or we’d easily watch TV all afternoon) and we walked to our local park.

None of this is a big deal… but it was a big deal. For Audrey to walk to the park and back and not ask to be carried, for her to interact and play with other children once we got there, for her to stop sensibly to cross the road and hold my hand – things one might take for granted in a typical 5 year old – I do not take for granted. I revel. I praise. Oh wow… she is going to have such an inflated ego!

Because none of this simple stuff was expected, because her default position is a condition that “limits”; I am constantly lifted and amazed by her. As we walked to the park, having a conversation, I thought back to the leaflet we were given when she was born. It’s intention is not negativity, it aims to give you a fair account of what to expect of a child with Down’s syndrome; but they have to cover everything. So the list goes on; language delay, possible hearing problems, possible sight problems, speech may be difficult to understand (if they master speech at all), a long list of health issues, challenging behaviour, the autism spectrum, food problems, thyroid issues…. it goes on and on.

To be honest we hid the leaflet away and didn’t return to it. Sometimes something will get mentioned by a professional “Of course you are aware that children with Down’s syndrome can be prone to…” and I think “No, I wasn’t aware of that” and it doesn’t matter.

I know that knowledge is power. I know it is good to be prepared. I also like that my child leads the way a bit. There was no leaflet with Rex; we just muddled our way through.

I know that for some, that negative list in the leaflet is a reality and they aren’t walking to the park with their 5 year old with DS chatting about flowers and “Oh look that’s where I had my birthday party…”, I know we are so lucky. I feel lucky every time she calls me “Mummy”, every time she holds my hand, holds it to her face and then kisses it.

Our life is not without stress – several bouts of diarrhea for the kids last week, the two of them fighting, stropping, running off, challenging me… but I want to remember all the good stuff. Actually, I want to focus on it! Because how else do I get through all the crazy days with these kids?! My magical, crazy and surprising kids, that have no guidebook.

The Down Syndrome Diary

Back in 2014(!) I remember vividly that I was walking Audrey around in her buggy when I received a message from Jamie to see if I’d be interested in writing in a “physical diary” about Down’s syndrome – to put pen to paper and tell our story. I was very flattered and of course said yes straight away.

Audrey cuddling the Down Syndrome Diary

I had found so much comfort from Instagram accounts and blogs that I found (relating to DS) in those early days. I was inspired to share our family life and so adding to a travelling diary seemed like a great idea.

Jamie started the diary and began to send it around the world to gather family’s heartfelt stories, but I don’t think anyone could have know how long this might take or that so many people would want to be involved; she’d have to send off lots of other diaries to meet demand!

Once the diary finally arrived my house (I was definitely feeling scared to have it) I thought I’d add my entry and pass it on to the final contributors. Simple. Maybe a week to turn it around?

But, just like everyone else, it took me a while to get going with the writing. I needed to read the other entries. Then I needed some pictures of it with Audrey… but she wasn’t playing ball and oh how precious a real book of heartfelt stories is, I couldn’t let the kids have free-reign with it!

Finally I put pen to paper and wrote my entry (slightly disappointed by my handwriting!), but I must admit the words didn’t come as easily as I’d have liked. I felt a lot of pressure not to repeat what other families had written and also not to repeat things I have written in my blog over the years.

I’m very proud to have taken part, added our entry and pictures of Audrey, but of course I feel like I could have done more. Poured my heart out more, stuck in the best photographs, said something deep. And I forgot to take pictures of my entry and/or type up my words, so I can’t even tell you exactly what I wrote! Oops. Oh well, it’s with the penultimate contributor now, before hopefully winging its way to a (famous) advocate to write the forward to what will hopefully be a published piece of work!

One thing I do know, is that writing makes me happy. Advocating for Audrey and people like her makes me happy. As she begins her new journey from toddler life to schoolgirl (!), I too shall be start my new journey to pursue my writing. To devote time and energy to it, but also have the flexibility needed to work around Audrey’s school life. So far (fingers crossed), Audrey loves school and is throwing herself into it all will full enthusiasm and making me proud like she always does.

#DSAM2014

October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month. I love a good hashtag so… #DSAM2014.

Raising awareness, (as I believe I’ve already rambled on about), is important because it helps new families and anyone who might come in contact with someone who has Down’s Syndrome feel more comfortable.

I appreciate there are tons of blogs raising awareness and giving important information on DS, in fact, there are too many for me to read! Yet I know that outside of the DS bubble, they are likely to go unnoticed. I certainly never noticed DSAM pre-Audrey!

But when Audrey was just days old, I gorged on birth stories – reading those was such an amazing, cathartic, experience. It was also a little like poking a bruise – reliving those overwhelming, negative emotions. I guess it feels ok to have had crazy, negative thoughts if other people felt that way too… Especially if, look! they’ve made it out the other side and are so happy! There was so much positivity to cling to and help us through those confusing first days/weeks/months.

And even though we are only 15 months into our journey, I still feel like we’ve come a hell of a long way and also that I have a responsibility to give back… That I should be sharing our story just in case someone else finds it useful/a comfort/interesting. I also want to make sure that sharing out story seems ‘normal’ (whatever normal is), but you know, not too special-needsy. Much of what we experience with Audrey is just what everyone is experiencing with their little ones.

In fact, I got so motivated to spread DS awareness this week I did something I thought I’d never do…. I joined Mumsnet… dun dun dun!

I thought I could start a thread, offer up a Q&A for women who had either just had a baby with Down’s Syndrome unexpectedly or answer some questions for women with a prenatal diagnosis or ‘high risk’ screening. I was worried that rummaging on the dreaded Mumsnet might actually upset me – that there would be a lot of negativity and discussion around ‘high risk’ results and planned terminations. I only looked at one thread relating to the screening and someone sensible advised the expectant mother to look at, or comment in the special needs section of the site. Aha, so I had underestimated Mumsnet! They have a special needs section in the chat forums! I sort of felt like I wasn’t needed! More on mummy forums in another post… I have a need to rant about them, but now is not the time!

Down Syndrome Awareness Month has definitely helped me picture a better future for Audrey and helped me get through some tough early months… So now a year on from our first DSAM, I hope our story is helping some other new mama feel a bit better about it all.

And here she is… A very popular picture of Audrey (over 200 likes on IG) from Saturday…

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