As we go through the Special Needs Jungle, we pick up tips, we gain confidence and we often think “I wish I’d known …….. at the beginning”
I wanted to share with you the ten things I wish I had known (or had the confidence to believe) when we entered the Jungle.
- When you sit in the room with the practitioners, you are an expert too. You may not be an expert in your child’s diagnosis (yet); you may not be an expert in what services are available for your child but you are an expert in your child. You know your child better than any practitioner. So at your next appointment think "I know my child and I bring this expertise to the meeting."
- It’s okay to take a friend to an appointment. Not just for support but also to take notes. Someone who, after the meeting, can help you to remember exactly what was said. I have walked out of so many appointments and thought “what was it he said about…….”. They can also be the person who can take your child out of the room when you want to have a discussion you don’t necessarily want your child to hear. Taking a friend is not a sign of weakness or even seen as confrontational, it’s just support when you really need it. Often our friends without children with SEN wonder what they can do to help us – let them help.
- It’s okay to feel sorry for yourself sometimes. I really tried to bottle those feelings up and pretend that I was okay, that I was coping when inside I wanted to shout “why me, what did I do”. I would sometimes avoid my friends who didn’t have children with a diagnosis because I wanted to ask “what did you do differently, why do you not have to deal with the same things I deal with”and then I felt guilty for thinking this. But guess what? It’s normal. So many parents of children with SEN go through this, especially at the beginning when you are learning how difficult this system is, this system you are involuntarily dealing with. Don’t bottle it up. When I have a day like this (and I still occasionally do), I stay indoors, I turn off my phone and I cry. Then I get myself back up off the floor and I have stopped feeling guilty for being human.
- Sometimes it is going to hurt. When you get a diagnosis, even if it is a diagnosis you have been fighting for because you know the label may help to get the support, it can still hurt. Just because you are expecting it, don’t think it will hurt less. It may not. When I got the diagnosis of hydrocephalus, it was unexpected and it hurt. However, when we went for the diagnosis of ASD, I was expecting it, I knew it was coming and I knew it would help but it still didn’t hurt less when it was confirmed. I can still remember sitting in the car on the return journey and feeling like my world had been turned upside down. I can still remember people saying “what are you upset about, you knew they were going to say this” but do you know what, even though I find this hard to admit, I wanted to be wrong. I wanted them to laugh at me and say “you silly neurotic woman, why would you think he was autistic”. But they didn’t and it really hurt. Then, years after the diagnosis, you will have reality checks and they may hurt. This morning I suddenly had this realisation that I won’t be able to just scribble a note for my son when he’s older. If I have to nip to the shop and maybe he’s in bed, I won’t be able to stick a post-it note to the door saying “nipped to the shop, back in 5”. Yes, I will be able to braille him a note but where do I leave it? I know we will come up with a solution but just this morning, I had a reality check and it hurt.
- It is stressful. When you are pregnant with your first child, everyone with children will take great delight in telling you how stressful it is, how this child will change your lives and you may think you understand what they mean - until your child arrives. It’s the same with the system, I can tell you it will be stressful but until you are going through it, it is difficult to understand exactly what I mean. At Kent PEPs last year, we asked parents how they dealt with stress and also, more importantly, how they knew they were stressed. We produced a leaflet for parents with advice and tips from parents in the same position. It’s our most popular download.
- Don’t get to crisis point before asking for help. In Kent, we have to go via our Disabled Children’s team to get direct payments and so many parents, who would benefit immensely from this service, refuse to access it because it means involving a social worker. We asked parents recently what would put them off and the main response was “fear of admitting you were finding it hard to cope”. Please don’t wait until you can’t cope before you ask for help. Admitting you are finding it hard is a sign of strength, not weakness.
- I wish I had known more about the law or that there were statutory bodies and charities set up to help parents of children with SEN law. Several websites (including this one) and charities are there to give you advice on SEN law and your local Parent Partnership Service is there to give advice on SEN educational law. There is a huge list of Acts, Conventions and guidance out there to help protect our children but often, you only find out about them when you have already been through months of stress. Even if you do not have the time or ability to read and understand The Equality Act or the new Children and Families Bill, there are others that do. Try to think ahead and find out where you can get help before you need it. .
- You will get turned down. I remember the first time I was turned down after applying for support for my eldest son. I had presumed that common sense would prevail and he would get help because he needed it. When I was turned down, I was really shocked. I took it personally, I thought perhaps I hadn’t made it clear, perhaps I had offended someone, perhaps it was me they were saying no to. Having three children with SEN, I soon realised that the system can often be a case of “apply, get turned down, appeal”. I eventually stuck an A4 sheet with these words written in red, yellow and green on my fridge as a reminder that this was not my error, it was down to the system.
- You will meet some amazing people. I have met people who inspire me, who motivate me to carry on and people who I feel privileged to have in my life. Most of these people live this, they don’t do it for a living (but there are exceptions). A lot of the parents I know who are involved with their local parent carer forums are amazing to me. Some of these parents have found their way of dealing with the stress, they get involved and try to influence change. Not all parents are ready for this or want to be involved but I am so pleased to be part of the group.
- I am not Superwoman. If I had to choose one thing I had known at the beginning, this would be it. The hours I spent trying to achieve the un-achievable! Superwoman is a fictional character who does not have children – and definitely not children with SEN. Trying to be everything for everyone all the time is not possible. Spending your days thinking “I should have”, “If only I had”, “I wish” is never going to lead to a good place. Neither does comparing yourself to another parent who is perhaps involved with so many different things that they make you feel like a failure. People deal with things differently, some choose to get involved with forums, some choose to set up support groups, some want to go along to a support group and others just want to avoid support groups like the plague. Whatever works for you is the right thing - for you. You can always get involved or step down from involvement at a later date. You have to take time for you, you have to choose your battles and you have to remember there are only 24 hours in a day. Focus on what you have achieved, not just the things you believe you have failed in. Sometimes, getting through the day without breaking down is an achievement. Celebrate it. Getting dressed can be an achievement, as can making it to an appointment on time. Celebrate the achievements, no matter how small you think they may seem to others. You will know what it took for you to achieve it, so say “well done” and feel good about yourself.
What do you wish you had known? These are my ten things, they may not be yours. More importantly, what achievement are you celebrating today?