How a typical child develops (from observation, experience and a little background knowledge!)

Watching a typical child develop is a bittersweet reminder of how Trudy’s development differed and differs.

Trudy and Patrick now have a little sister, a lockdown baby who has never seen anyone except her immediate family and grandparents, and knows her buggy much better than her car seat!

I watch her develop every day, learning to gain command of her limbs, the cogs in her typical brain turning to bang and hit and grasp her toys. She moves her body to discover what she can and can’t do, and what she still needs to learn.

It reminds me of Trudy’s first years, a floppy, hypotonic baby whose brain struggled to process everything at the same time. She would babble away (because Trudy loves to chat), but her physical development would stall.

She sat up on her own at 1, stood up independently at 2 and a half and walked at 3. Trudy is 5 now and she’s running.

Her baby sister will probably crawl before she’s 1 and be walking before 2.

And this is not that large a gap compared to some children but it reminds us of the difference between the way Trudy learns and how she will never follow a typical development pattern.

Trudy’s sister will learn through osmosis, through a combination of watching and learning, her innate faculties processing every little thing subconsciously then acting upon them with conscious and deliberate movement. She bangs herself on the head with a toy, she does it a second time and then doesn’t do it again.

A typical brain will absorb the concept of consequences much more easily than a child with learning difficulties, even if the child hasn’t experienced the consequence, so that the typical child will not wander far from home or run across a car park.

Most consequences we talk about are largely linguistic in that respect, “don’t climb too high or you’ll fall”, “don’t run across the road or you’ll get run over”, “don’t put your fingers in the fire or you’ll get burnt”. You say something like that to Trudy and all she hears is “put your fingers in the fire”!

Trudy will always need support to understand what she should and shouldn’t do, but with the right use of language, she can begin to process the world on a subconscious level, to inherently learn to be safe and independent of us.

There is research happening all the time on how to develop our young people’s independent living skills and ultimately make them less vulnerable. To make them safe, healthy and happy: Such simple aims to which we all have a right, and it should never be forgotten that some of us have the natural privilege to be.

How our daughter with Down’s Syndrome changed my outlook

As I lay in the bath (yes, hear me out..), I watched the little islands of bubbles attach themselves to each other, and I was reminded of how simply a life and lives can be altered when just one chromosome decides not to divide. It’s amazing what you think of in the bath!

The process is called meiosis, from the Greek meaning ‘lessening’ and I love to know the origins of words! During meiosis, cells divide to produce gametes which can be the sperm or the egg. The egg contains unpaired chromosomes in its nucleus and these pair ever so romantically with the matching chromosome in the sperm to form a typically developing embryo.

Down’s Syndrome occurs when the 21st chromosome fails to separate in either the egg or the sperm, and approaches the encounter as a pair already, creating three 21st chromosomes. And we all know three is a crowd…

Like the bubbles in the bath clinging to each other, those 21st chromosomes had refused to divide and, from its conception, had created an imbalance in the egg that would turn into a child who would never develop in any typical way but grow uniquely and surprisingly. She would carry the traits of a child with Down’s Syndrome; the low-set ears, the flat nose and the almond shaped eyes. She would take her time to learn to walk and find it difficult to use language, although she would be sensitive to tone and intonation like nobody else I know.

This one random event in the development of an embryo has distorted the development of a life and affected us in ways I would never have imagined.

Being the parent of Trudy has its challenges but having her has changed me for the better.

First of all, there is writing. I used to write for writing’s sake, creative pieces and lots of nonsense, and now I have a reason to write.

Academic achievement has always been important to me and I would always want the same for our children because I have derived so much pleasure from study and learning. But what happens when an academic path is not available to one of our children? Having Trudy has forced me to reevaluate not only what is important for her but also what is important for all our children. And learning does not only occur in academia. The pleasures and small joys of life like sitting around the dinner table with family or friends, learning from them and learning from the great environment around us are enough to allow us to live full and contented lives, and isn’t this what we are all striving for?

I realised today that I had high hopes for our children. I want them to make great change, to affect other people’s lives in unique and interesting ways. And you don’t necessarily need degrees to do that!

Trudy may not learn to write extensive essays or solve multiple equations, but she will, with our help and support, learn to be a genuine part of society, earning her own money and living as independently as is possible.

Despite some confidence now, I was always quite shy as a girl and the prospect of having a child who makes the most noise in the playground, who talks to anyone and everyone, who wears her condition so unashamedly on her face and in her mannerisms, would have filled me with dread.

So, has this one random event of chromosomal nondivision made me a better person, a better mother? Well, I think it has.

I have more manageable expectations of our children, of myself. I take pride in the smallest of achievements and don’t sweat the small stuff. I revel in her uniqueness and our uniqueness as a family as a consequence.

These children and people are indeed ‘special’ but not for reasons of difference or impaired ability, but because they impact our lives in ways nobody else does. They force us to challenge fastheld opinions about how we should and shouldn’t behave and change our lives for the better.

We all know how Down’s Syndrome (Trisomy 21) occurs but nobody knows why. I’m not sure if these things happen for a reason but we make the best of our situation and sometimes what seems devastating at a time can be turned to an advantage.

Being Trudy’s brother

What are you thinking when we say, ‘We get it. We understand’? Do you think we do? We probably don’t get it. What parent does? How can we possibly begin to understand what it’s like to have a sibling with Down’s Syndrome when we have never experienced it ourselves?

I know it’s confusing when we ask you to help her then we tell you off for doing too much. When we demand that you take her to the toilet and then yell at you for pulling her trousers down when she’s screaming at you. Because she just wants to do that bit herself. When we ask you to help her with the iPad then tell you off for answering the questions because we won’t ever know what she understands otherwise.

Trudy needs, above all, to learn to be independent but sometimes she needs some support to get there. We know that, but do you? Do you know why we appear totally contradictory at times? Can we expect you to understand the fine line between helping and doing things for her?

You’ve been stuck with your sister in lockdown for what seems an age now, and we keep saying that at least you have a playmate. But does it sometimes seem infuriating that she isn’t exactly the playmate you would have wanted? I am sure most siblings across the country feel like that.

But just as you might be thinking, wishing you could see your own friends again, Trudy comes down the stairs in your pants or dresses up in the bear’s sunglasses with an army hat on and a hi-viz jacket, and we all burst out laughing. Or when her feet join us at the dinner table as if there were another person hiding under her chair. Trudy is hilarious and undoubtedly the most unpredictable human being I know. She is a creature of impulse, licking the snow to see how it tastes, digging it up with a spade because that’s what we do with sand, don’t we? She plays endless games of hide and seek with anything she can find, toys, people, dinosaurs, or cafes with leaves and twigs on anything she can sit on.

We try to understand but we probably won’t. Life with Trudy is like no other life just as you can’t compare an apple with a pear or a life with any other, but it’s a crazy whirlwind of spontaneity and imagination. We can’t choose our family but each member of it offers an angle we would never achieve by ourselves and our lives would now be incomplete without them. So, we don’t ask you to be grateful because you’re 7 but bear with us as we try to offer the best possible life to you both.

Your mum and dad

Do we need paperwork?

It’s not the most exciting content for a blog post but bear with me.

We all fear the dreaded word, ‘paperwork’ in work and in life, but so much more when you live with a child who needs so much more ‘paperwork’ than the average person. The question is and one that I have been pondering is, do we need it at all?

I think we call this ‘life admin’ now, which is probably just a nicer way of talking about paperwork for the home. Why have we suddenly needed to coin this phrase? Do we have more admin than we had before?

Most parents we know joke about having a Personal Assistant to deal with all the admin that comes with a child who has a disability. Some parents already have one! It begins with the dreaded but incredibly beneficial-in-all-senses-of-the-word DLA form (Disability Living Allowance). This is discussed when our children are just 9 months old depending on the diagnosis and whether this will affect physical development or care needs.

We could start this process early as Trudy had been diagnosed at birth and this gave us access to help from numerous charities. A Family Support Officer sat with us while we tried to remember what life was like before we had Trudy and how much it had changed. We had done so much work ourselves on accepting her diagnosis that it felt like a backwards step to even consider a ‘sliding doors’ version of our life now. How different would it have been if we hadn’t had Trudy, or if she hadn’t had Down’s Syndrome? Nobody knows the answer to that question, but we had to put some version of it in the form.

Forms, form and more forms. We’ve had all manner of forms, from detailed descriptions of Trudy to one small box to summarise the entire developmental impact of Down’s Syndrome. I think I just put an asterix and wrote ‘see end of form’. I then proceeded to outline the implications of that extra 21st chromosome for our daughter, absolutely refusing to write ‘Trudy has Down’s Syndrome’, as that doesn’t mean a thing.

We have had to fill out forms for access to support, which means using negative language around Trudy’s ‘condition’, but also for access to so-called ‘normal’ classes, which means focusing on Trudy’s strengths and ability to integrate. It’s a linguistic minefield.

Trudy has just started a dance class and there is no form for that. This could either be an unnecessary evil that has been done away with for being of no benefit, or the tell-tale signs of a confident practitioner who deals with the child first and the information later, someone who deals in (the buzz-word in education right now) ‘relationships’. The form for gymnastics, however, put us back 6 months because we had to get a letter from Trudy’s Paediatrician to say she was fit to participate in gym (at the age of 3).

On the one hand, forms can get us what we are entitled to, as well as give people vital information about what support our children might need. On the other, they can really take away from the child’s innate capacity to form their own interactions and relationships with somebody else, as well as the professional’s ability to judge and assess a child’s need without recourse to paperwork.

I recently accessed an online course by ‘The Inclusion Academy‘ on IEPs for parents and professionals with Genia Stephen and Erin Sheldon, practitioners and authors of ‘Inclusion’ in the States. They were discussing the importance and role of the IEP (Individual Education Plan) in assessment of a pupil’s needs. In Scotland, the IEP is not legislation but an example of good practice. I wondered whether this carries too much of a risk as there is no legal obligation to produce this document and no standard practice of what this document should include. Genia answered my dilemma by reminding me that there can be excellent practice and no or little evidence of paperwork, as well as the best paperwork but no or little evidence of good practice.

I know which one I would rather see.

 

 

 

Holland Versus Italy

jtp_8892_180606_trudy

On the eve of World Down’s Syndrome Day, it is apt to shine a light on a wonderful essay (in my opinion) written by Emily Kingsley in 1987, called ‘Welcome to Holland‘. It sought to explain what it felt like to have a child with any kind of disability or additional need, or quite simply what it was like to have a child you did not expect to have. This analogy has been used again and again by organisations and associations for new parents coming to terms with a diagnosis or to help others understand what we go through. So, here it is in my own words:

You set off for Italy, guidebook in hand, full of excitements for sun, pizza and duomos, only to find that you are not Italy. You got on a plane to Holland. You’ve never been to Holland before. You’re nervous, unsure, worrying about what happened to Italy. It takes time, but you begin to explore the tulips and the museums with some help from some very nice people. You discover some cool things to see, you get to know some Dutch folk and you sit amongst the tulips. You begin to see the beauty in Holland. You might still think of Italy but those feelings fade over time and depending on how much fun you’re having in Holland.

We are lucky because Holland for us was easy to love. There have been few complications with Trudy and she is making remarkable progress, but a lot of that is down to the fact that we have worked very hard to forget Italy. We did this because it was the best thing to do for our child, for her to feel loved, nurtured and deserving of a place in this world.

That’s not to say it has always been easy and it is harder for some than for others. As a teacher of children with SEN/ASN, I remind myself every day that some parents may be sitting amongst the tulips, but still pining for Italy. Holland cannot be ignored or avoided, and we must make the best of what we have. So, let’s not focus on what we could have had but what we have in front of us: a healthy, happy little girl.

Happy World Down’s Syndrome Day 2019.