A Strong Reception

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!

Why I Still Love Christmas (having lost both parents)…

Christmas was once the most excruciatingly exciting time of year. From age 3 to 13ish it was the highlight of  life, from the build up (decorations going up, rifling through the wardrobe for presents, the BIG shop that included fizzy pop and chocolate) to that fateful night where the anticipation is just too much and you cannot sleep to that morning (eek I am sure we were up at 4am sometimes!) where the presents were ripped open and the day was pure joy and chaos.

We had big family Christmases, I think at their peak there was around 12 for dinner. My dad’s parents were not around (aside from his stepmother but she wasn’t with us Christmas Day), but my mother’s parents were close (Granddad was hilarious and a must-have for family games), I had three siblings, two old enough to have partners/kids, sometimes my uncle would join us with his wife, I think we had a great nan around too. We had one of those extendable tables and garden chairs with cushions were added into the mix.

I always had a mince pie for breakfast. We always played charades and various games in the evening. We always ate too much. I would have a Christmas Day outfit planned (a velvet dress generally, ooh I remember a year with ski pants and a roll neck!). My mother would embarrass me with her interest in flashing Christmas themed earrings and knitwear. My dad made me ‘snowball’ cocktails (don’t worry, mostly lemonade).

Sometime in the early nineties I accompanied mum to the local garden centre to finally update our hideous Christmas decorations. For years we had dragged those sparkly pink, purple, blue, silver… (you name it) foil garlands and lanterns (that hung from the centre of the room to each corner) down from the loft. We had a toilet-roll-holder-type-angel for the top of the tree. We revamped things that year and switched to green and red traditional stuff and ditched the tinsel. It was a big change back then.

It was in my late teens/early twenties that it really hit me that Christmas would never be the same again. I was no longer filled with that crazy level of excitement, our numbers had diminished a little, but most of all we were all grown up. Only a single nephew remained “young enough” for true Christmas excitement… for me, mum’s novelty stocking fillers became eye-rollerable rather than excellent (and she was an absolute stocking-filler-pro! Pre-internet we had lots of personalised items with our name or initials on, as well as very bizarre stuff like chocolate shaped like sardines in a tin, I LOVED my stocking in its heyday).

By the time I had met Ted and we tried that Christmas juggling you do when you are first a couple and want to spend Christmas together, but also do not want to leave your traditional family Christmas behind… I was ready to accept that Christmas had changed for good.

I think that made it easier for me to live with the fact that now, Christmas is very far away from that of my childhood. I have no parents, I have lost one sibling (and the connection to her two grown up children is weaker), My eldest brother is… well that’s difficult to describe, let’s just say he’s ‘a problem’ and my other brother battled cancer this time last year. I have one grandparent left, but she doesn’t know who I am and she is in a nursing home.

Yet none of this has ruined my enjoyment of this time of year. It has definitely affected it, you can’t escape the sadness loss brings, but that’s life. Naturally every emotional Christmas advert sets me off. Every Christmas song. I am either smiling or crying or both. But I’m a grown up now, it comes with the territory.

My mother was also a fan of Christmas. She liked to complain (in more recent years) about the stress and the effort, but she still had two Christmas tress and a crazy amount of decorations. She would still stuff the cupboard with nuts, chocolates and crisps even if only a few people were visiting, hey even if no one was visiting! Now I am in charge of creating the magic (hiding the presents not rifling through the wardrobe to find them!). Now I want to wear stupid Christmas jumpers and hats, now I see the fun in the tat.

And of course Audrey and Rex bring a whole new level to Christmas. We have their innocence and joy to surround us and their happy faces at what will be (in the scheme of things) quite simple presents. I took Audrey to an eye test last week and in the car she was singing along to Wham’s “Last Christmas” (she catches on to familiar tunes quite quickly and she’s definitely enthusiastic, if not in key), it was lovely.

The thing is, I like to think that everyone is in a better mood in December. So what’s not to like about that? A couple of weeks ago, a friend posted on Instagram about Kindly and the project they were running for people to write a letter for someone who is isolated at Christmas time. So I signed up immediately and within hours I had an email confirming I would be writing to a woman called Sheila (which was my mother’s name). I mean, obviously I was in tears but I was also so wonderfully uplifted by this tiny coincidence. That same day, I had stopped to donate to an old man collecting for the Youth Cancer Trust in our local Tesco and we had a very long chat. He was perplexed by the amount of people who completely ignored him saying “Good morning” and I told him about Audrey and how she loves to say hello to people but often they are just in their own world (or on their phone/listening to something on headphones). It’s part of life now to be zoned out and not in the moment with the other humans around you.

Which is why it is important to remember that Christmas is a time to connect with people. I had little wobble the other day when our ridiculous bumper pack of Audrey’s school pictures arrived and I thought; wow, we really don’t have that many people to give these to. But then I remembered that we do. We still have lots of family left and we have many friends who are “aunties” and “uncles” to our children. We have a wonderfully wide network and I am so grateful for that.

Every Christmas will be different, it may have felt like pure light as a kid and now it has darkness too, but I can handle that, because now my children are building their Christmas memories and they only see the light.

Merry Christmas one and all x

Audrey Starts School!

Audrey holding a picture of me at primary school

I’ve just dropped off a piece of me in a classroom with lots of people I don’t know. The little lady has started reception at primary school.

My daughter is friendly, kind and gentle. She loves imaginative play and reading books. She likes routine. I have no doubt that she will enjoy school, I’m just not sure how much I’ll enjoy her being there!

Anyone who knows me that I will cry at TV programmes, songs that come on the radio and a fleeting thought about someone’s sad situation, so it was a huge surprise that I didn’t cry today dropping Audrey off at her first day of school.

Several factors helped – school drop off is not a romantic, sound-tracked moment.; it’s carnage! We went as a family, with a child in a buggy and one on the loose, we battled through a crowd of legs and shouting and hugging and hellos and goodbyes to get to her class. Also, Audrey was very excited. She managed to (almost) walk all the way there (major achievement) and she jumped, sang and hugged her way down the road, she was genuinely happy to be going to school. It’s tricky to feel the true emotion of a momentous occasion when you are in it. It’s actually easier for me to be tearful anticipating it or reflecting on it.

And so, here I am in a cafe. Ted and Rex are off shopping (typical boys!) and Audrey is in her school classroom, with her teachers.

Of course I can’t help but reflect on 5 years with her. 10 months of maternity leave of just us, followed by a mix of us and nursery, us bump and nursery, us Rex and nursery… and now Audrey has her own thing, she is a schoolgirl!

“They” say it goes in a blink of an eye. I don’t know if  I feel quite like that, but I do feel immensely proud of Audrey and how far we have come from tiny baby on oxygen to confident 5 year old.

As I analyse my feelings, I can see what is creeping in… I felt it during maternity leave with Rex. She had her nursery days and we went to groups but I was suddenly a different mum, I was seemingly a mum of one typical child but that was not my whole identity. She is a part of me, a part of me that I am truly proud of and it can feel very strange to be out and about without her. What a mix of emotions this brings and a new chapter for us all – I have handed in my notice at work and plan to work on freelance writing. I am very lucky to have a supportive husband allowing me to take this leap and it also means that I can be there to drop off and pick up Audrey from school.

Happy September and good luck to everyone in their “firsts”, I love autumn and I’m feeling so very happy that its crisp and sunny outside and the leaves will soon be crunchy under our feet. My favourite time of year.

Alike, But Different.

On Wednesday night I woke around 1am to find myself being sick on and off through until 8am. It goes without saying that Thursday was not a great day for me. Thankfully Ted worked from home and my children offered me plastic cups of “medicine” and gave me hugs and kisses (that I should have fought off due to my potential contagiousness!), they also whined a lot and ran around arguing. Being ill as a grown-up with kids is the worst. The best time to be ill is when you are a kid and a parent looks after you.

Brighton Pride 2018

Anyway, I felt a lot better on Friday and we had a good day with the kids (some top secret modelling, but will share more about that at some point!), we took them to the park in the afternoon and met a lady with a 4 year old son who has special needs. We got chatting and we found ourselves in a position we’ve been in before – struggling to empathise with someone who thinks you can. She sees another “special needs family” and shares her story, but we feel, well, like we occupy a different space; Audrey isn’t “severely” special needs, but she’s not typical either. She sits in a space in between the two. I’m not denying Audrey has special needs, she definitely does and you only have to spend time with other 4-5 year olds to know that she is “different”. However we often find ourselves chatting to someone who is offloading about their child (with some form of special needs) constantly waking in the night, struggling to communicate, challenging behaviour, interacting with other children (hitting, tantrums)… for the most part I can only really apply some of these challenges to Rex!

This lady said she was surprised we had chosen to have another child after our first had special needs! Ha! How we laughed about that one on the way home. All children are hard work and of course, children with special needs present a different set of challenges, but Audrey made us feel very comfortable about doing it all again. Rex, however, well and truly scuppered plans for any more kids!

That evening I was very much looking forward to a decent sleep (as even Thursday night I was restless). As discussed with the lady in the park, Audrey is a good sleeper, but Rex sometimes shouts in his sleep.

Around 2am the dreaded sound of Audrey retching reached my ears – I was out of bed like a shot. There she was, sat upright, sick in her bed and bright and chatty “Sorry Mummy” she said as I wiped up the sick. And after vomiting in the bucket I held for her, “Phew! That’s a lot of sick!” She said, brushing her hair back.

She literally couldn’t get any better. After returning to bed and several more leaps back out to her aid with the bucket, I decided it would make more sense for Audrey and I to sleep in the spare bedroom together. So I scooped her up and laid next to her in the double bed, bucket at the ready.

As soon as I laid in the dark with her, I felt around to find her face and gently stroke it. She did exactly the same and stroked my face. She whispered that we were in “Uncle Graeme’s bed” (because he stayed in our spare room for a week during his chemo this year). She has a snotty nose at the moment, so within minutes she was asleep but snoring like, well, like her Uncle Graeme. I realised that I was really going to struggle to sleep, but do you know what? I strangely didn’t care. I could smell her sicky breath, but I could also feel her warm body right next to me and I felt so lucky to be her mummy. To be her protector.

In the morning I was awoken by many things (Audrey’s feet kicking me, the light coming through the half-closed blind, Rex thrashing about in his cot), but it was magical to wake to the sound of Rex saying “I want Audrey back!”.

Person-First Language is Important

I’m writing this to elaborate on a quick post I did on Instagram explaining/reiterating (I’m sure I’ve said it before) that Audrey is Audrey first; a child with Down’s syndrome second. So she is never a “Down’s kid” she isn’t a “Down’s syndrome girl” she is a child who happens to have Down’s syndrome. My little Instagram rant stemmed from the following…

I arrived for the open evening at Audrey’s school on a sunny summer’s evening, listening to Desert Island Discs, feeling excited about my little girl’s future in mainstream school.

I joined a queue to buy school uniform, chatted to some mums I had met before and gleaned information from these pros (with kids already attending the school) on what to expect.

I sat down clutching the welcome pack with Audrey’s name and class on the front and by chance sat behind the mother of one of Audrey’s nursery friends – (I could see the name and class on her welcome pack) and I could see they were in the same class. Everything was falling into place.

The teachers spoke at the front of the assembly hall and took us through the basics; uniform, PTA, after school club, forest school (so on trend). And then we all got up and filed into our specific classrooms to mingle and meet our child’s future teacher.

For some strange reason, I was quite focused on meeting Audrey’s teacher, but the thought of her 1:1 had barely crossed my mind… at least I thought it hadn’t, but I realise now I had already pictured her – in her 20s, enthusiastic, dedicated to children with special needs, passionate about it, a Makaton pro, a bit quirky.

So I guess it was a surprise to meet the lady who was older and not physically the picture I had in my head. And then, as surprisingly as she’d appeared; she made a bad impression. I asked about her experience and she told me how she had been working with a “Down’s boy” at the school and then she’d been at a special school a few miles away which had “loads of Down’s kids”. Outside I was smiling and nodding, inside I was crushed. How could this be someone passionate about people with Down’s syndrome? She doesn’t even know how to speak to me without offending me! She doesn’t understand person-first language. How can this person be the chosen 1:1 for Audrey? It made no sense.

I was awkward and made some comments about regretting not preparing with questions and I moved to the queue to meet the teacher.

The 1:1 popped up again, asking me about Makaton signing and why Audrey’s nursery had corrected her (she showed me the sign, I corrected her too). Such a minor “hiccup” you might think, but at this point I was getting anxious inside, imagining Audrey bonding with a woman who was seemingly getting everything wrong.

The thing is, people get person-first language wrong all the time and most of the time it doesn’t bother me that much. I don’t like to be pedantic (ok, I kind of do) but hey, I was made that way… in the same way that a cafe might list “sandwich’s” for sale and I will despair (but not run in asking them to correct the laminated menu), I despair a little over someone saying “a Down’s kid” but rarely take the time to correct them.

However. This was meeting a professional in a school. Someone who has clearly worked with children with Down’s syndrome for years and someone who has been employed to spend a lot of time with my daughter. So in this scenario, I should have said something, but because awkward conversations are not my thing, I ranted at other mums, had a rough night’s sleep, ranted a bit more to friends the next day and finally sent an email to the Head of Inclusion at the school to explain what happened.

What really gave me the confidence to write to the school, was the support I had from mum friends (those with typical children), who agreed this language was not on. They made me feel like I wasn’t over reacting.

This all happened last week and having had some time to calm myself and reflect, I had a meeting at the school this morning and I’m pleased to say I feel reassured that this was an unfortunate mistake and that they (the school) are more than versed in the correct language and will be ensuring all the teaching assistant are reminded of the correct terminology.

It was also helpful to hear that the 1:1 had come to the open evening off her own back because was excited to meet me, because she is excited to be Audrey’s teaching assistant. I can step back now and know that she does care, she will learn from this and that this bad experience can help the school, parents and teaching assistants learn something moving forward.

In fact I’m already discussing with another mum from the T21 crew (who was my immediate “What would she have done?” thought when I was faced with the dodgy language) a way of using this experience to create a “going to school pack” that can help schools and families learn from this dodgy experience.

Hopefully no one is reading this wondering what all the fuss is about, but if you are, then please just know that words are important. Audrey is so very precious to me and I want her to have the best start at school as she can possibly have and this begins and ends with her being treated as an individual.

Getting a school place

Our little Audrey starts school in September. She “should have” (under the usual system) started in September 2017, but, thanks to a change in the rules, we were able to defer her for a year so that she enters reception as the oldest, rather than one of the youngest.

We have chosen a school near us, which is mainstream (for typical children) and happens to be a church school. Children with an Education, Health and Care Plan (that’s our Audrey) are allocated a place first. They the go through various other criteria (living in the catchment, worshipping at the church, having a sibling at the school etc).

Despite Audrey being at the top of the list as it were, I was a little nervous (and I guess confused) by the system.

I waited like everyone else for my email confirmation that Audrey had her place at our chosen school, (despite the fact I had already been in a meeting with a member of staff from our chosen school, discussing Audrey’s future there as if it were a given). But on school admissions email day… Nothing came. Instead, on the day people were notified what school their child was allocated, I was copied in on an email from the local authority to the Head of Inclusion at the school, basically saying “please let us know if you cannot meet Audrey’s needs”.

This did not make me feel secure. Especially when the response was that they would “make a decision after visiting her at nursery”. So we had gone from top of the list to a decision being made after the announcement day for everyone else!

I am pleased to say that a week later than everyone else, I received an email that confirmed they will be accepting Audrey at their school in September. Phew.

I’m also pleased to say that when I dropped off the required paperwork for Audrey’s application, the lady on the school reception said they had no other Audreys. And I just know that everyone will know her at this school. That feeling of pride that I regularly get from seeing her chat away to new people – I shall experience that en masse as she settles into the school routine.

I also went to a “transitioning to school” coffee morning last month, for parents of children with special needs. It was another eye-opening discussion where I realise that many children have more complex needs than Audrey, although I also felt very aware that she does have special needs. She will love school, but will find some of it challenging. However, (as cheesy as this is), the headline motto from this meeting was that there is not need for your child to be “school ready”, rather that the “school needs to be ready for your child”.

And despite Audrey not currently being potty trained (something I had hoped/expected us to have nailed before school), I feel confident that she is ready and that the school is ready for her. Putting aside the unbelievable gaping hole she will leave behind in my weekday life, I’m excited for this new chapter in her life.

Stuff! And Things!

Hello! Yet again real life and raising children somewhat takes over from blogging. So here’s another quick update on anything and everything I can think of.

They both had haircuts and behaved so well:

The other week Audrey was feeling poorly with a high temperature, laying on the sofa under a leopard print blanket. I came down having got dressed and she said “Mummy, you’re the same as the blanket!” I was initially confused, I explained I was wearing a cardigan, not a blanket… when I realised my t shirt was leopard print! How proud I am of Audrey and these simple moments.

The winter has already meant a steady stream of germs, but there is no escaping it when they both go to nursery and we spend our lives at play groups and music groups with dirty toys.

Audrey’s current favourite song is ‘Hocus Pocus’ by Focus. It’s worth noting as we’ve been through various favourites;

‘Black Magic’ by Little Mix

‘Ice Ice Baby’ by Vanilla Ice

‘Sorry’ by Justin Bieber

‘We Built this City’ by Starship

They both currently respond well to Hot Chip.

We watch ‘Trolls’ at least three times a week, but just a month ago it was ‘Moana’ a go go, so who knows what they’ll be onto next?

Rex is currently obsessed by cars, lorries and fire engines. Audrey is very keen on books and dolls. They both love handbags.

I am starting to appreciate them both more and more. Just looking and listening and seeing how wonderful they are. This is when they are not fighting over a toy or throwing a tantrum over something incredibly minor.

They both love Christmas (the build up) so far and I’m excited to enjoy it with them.

Audrey was recently a poster girl for a local charity (Amaze), which we were thrilled to see.

Will try not to leave it too long before my next blog post, we have a lot going on (Down’s Syndrome Awareness wise and in general).