Summer holidays

We’re currently half way through the school summer holidays and I’m not sure what to make of them so far. My job is term time only so school holidays are me and the kiddies, no summer camps or holiday clubs. Generally I think that’s a good thing as Alice and Matthew would probably enjoy camps well enough but I don’t think Katie would, and especially as they’ve all got older it’s mostly nice to be able to spend time with them over the holidays.

This summer so far we’ve spent time with family and friends, had a week away in Cornwall, and we have another week away coming up. We’ve been to some old favourite places and discovered some new ones too. As there’s been a heatwave in the UK over the last few days we’ve been on the hunt for anywhere free to splash around and definitely found a couple of good spots. So for the most part the holidays are ticking along nicely (although Alice fractured her elbow during a gymnastics class which we could have done without!)

However, it makes me somewhat sad to say I’m struggling a lot with Katie during these holidays. I’ve generally been under the impression for a while now that school is at the root of a lot of her behaviours because it’s such a difficult environment for her. I tend to think back to the first covid lockdown when schools shut and the kids were at home from March to September 2020, and Katie was literally like a different child, so much calmer and more patient. Most school holidays are relatively short and she tends to spend them stressing about going back to school, but I suppose I’ve been a bit optimistic in hoping that the 6 week stretch for the summer might help her relax more than usual.

Instead I feel like I’m constantly walking on egg shells and nothing I say or do is right. She will argue that black is white and red is yellow and night is day. She’s defensive and snappy about every comment even when it’s not directed at her and even when it’s not a criticism. It’s pretty much impossible to have a conversation at the moment. Her sleep has definitely not improved and if anything it’s worse as she’s taking the usual forever to get to sleep but also waking up every night at the moment (rather than just some nights). If she’s asked to do something she’ll ignore the request or argue about it.

I mostly feel in the last couple of years that I’ve learned a lot about autism and it’s improved mine and Katie’s relationship significantly, but these few weeks feel like a backwards step. I’m finding it really hard not to get irritated by her, not to see her as rude and difficult, and honestly I’ve been breathing a sigh of relief on the days that she’s been out riding or with a friend because it’s just easier not to have her around picking fights with everyone and complaining about everything. I know she’s not doing it on purpose, and one of the things I’ve read over and over again is that behaviour is communication, so I know the difficulties we’re having at the moment are related to unmet needs or sensory issues or whatever it might be….but I don’t necessarily have an accurate idea of what they are or the best way to approach them. I know she finds Alice and Matthew difficult to be around all the time because they’re noisy and they want to do different things to her and they interrupt what she’s trying to do. I know she hates having to stop what she’s doing because we’ve got to take Alice to gymnastics or Matthew to a friend’s birthday party or whatever it might be. I know she doesn’t like it when they have friends over. But I don’t have the solution to that and I can’t split myself in pieces for everyone. The difference is that Alice and Matthew seem to understand that sometimes they’re going to have to do things they don’t want to do, but Katie doesn’t. Katie had a 4 day riding camp earlier in the holidays which meant Alice and Matthew had to get up early and do an hour’s round trip each morning, and they did it without complaining. But taking one of the other two to a friend’s house 10 minutes down the road causes an argument with Katie.

Where possible we do as much in the holidays for Katie as we can, like the riding camp or keeping up with her youth group or quiet days at home. But the girls are polar opposites in pretty much every way so where quiet days at home are fine for Katie, Alice can manage one or two and then gets bored stupid. I struggle to find the balance between knowing that Katie has more particular needs than the other two but recognising that sometimes they need to come first too and it can’t just be about Katie all the time. I also struggle with the fact that Katie either doesn’t appreciate or doesn’t understand that we do whatever we can whenever we can to keep things less stressful for her. As an example Matthew has swimming lessons on a Tuesday afternoon which Katie very rarely comes to. She usually either goes to a friend’s house instead or over the holidays John or my mum have taken Matthew swimming and Katie has stayed at home with me. Yesterday was the first Tuesday in ages that she’d had to come to one of Matthew’s swimming lessons and she kicked off about it. We also changed Alice’s gymnastics classes from a Monday to a Wednesday so that Katie didn’t have to come (because John has Wednesday afternoons off work so can be at home with the other two while I take Alice to gymnastics). I’m not expecting Katie to be falling over with gratitude about the fact that we make adjustments for her but I do find it hard to take when on the odd occasion we have to take her along with us she acts like we’ve done it on purpose just to wind her up and it’s a mammoth undertaking just to get her out the door.

Also over the last few weeks Katie has become massively paranoid about her health, which we’ve experienced on and off over the years but not to the extent she’s at now. Her sick phobia has become quite extreme to the point that it’s stopping her doing things she would normally want to do. When we’re in Cornwall she loves one of the theme parks and we have to go there any time we visit. This time she refused to go on half the rides in case they made her sick. There have been multiple car journeys where she’s been in tears in case she’s car sick, or it’s been a battle to get her in the car in the first place because she’s scared. The conversations at bed time about being sick are never ending at the moment (see previous post on bedtimes and sick phobia here). I’m not sure what has triggered this because she’s never been car sick in her life and has barely ever been sick full stop. I’m also not sure of the best way to help her through it because empathising, giving advice on how she can eat sensibly and make sure she’s drinking enough etc, or reassuring her on how unlikely she is to be sick don’t seem to make any difference. So we just go round and round with the same issue constantly rearing it’s head, and I can see that she’s panicking and stressing and I know it’s hard for her but it’s also so frustrating because it’s like groundhog day.

Every day is also relentlessly full of I’ve got a headache or I’ve got a tummy ache or I just don’t feel well, all things which I’ve previously felt are symptoms of school based anxiety but they have got more so over the holidays not less. She’s also gone from not drinking anywhere near enough to freaking out if she doesn’t have a drink with her at all times, so I’m glad that at least she’s drinking more but it’s gone from one extreme to the other. I will speak to the GP about her symptoms but I don’t think she has any illness as such, I still think it’s anxiety related. But again I’m not sure of the best way to support her with that.

Katie’s need to be around me or know where I am is also quite difficult for me at the moment. I love my kids dearly but I appreciate breaks from them as well, whether that’s 10 minutes or a whole day to myself. Alice and Matthew are in bed by 8pm so that’s a bit of evening down time as far as they go, but Katie is up with us all evening. During the day she wants me to let her know if I’m going upstairs / downstairs i.e. a different floor of the house to her, and she will immediately come with me. If she can’t see me even for a minute she’ll be calling for me or come and find me. She wants me to do her bedtime every night and doesn’t want John doing it. She’s started requesting when I’m on the toilet that I leave the door open so she can still see me. I’ve refused to do this and explained that it’s private and offered that she can talk to me outside the door if she wants to, but it’s still causing some problems because she still gets upset about me shutting the door. She doesn’t see herself as a child or appreciate that some things aren’t yet appropriate for her, so for example if I’m watching TV she wants to sit with me and watch too. Sometimes that’s fine but sometimes the content is not OK for her, so then I ask her to watch something on the laptop or her tablet instead or read a book etc. She usually does, but only after a long discussion and/or some anger on her part. The other day I really needed some space so I took a cup of tea out to the garden. John was in the house so Katie wasn’t on her own, but still within 30 seconds of me sitting down she was there next to me and found it very hard to understand when I explained to her that I wouldn’t be long but I just wanted to be on my own while I drank my tea. She seemed really quite hurt by it so then I just felt guilty for wanting some space but I feel like she’s my prison warden at the moment. She’s there with me constantly through the day, I’m with her all evening, she’s getting me up every night, and it’s draining. I love John, I love my mum, my sister, my friends, but I value my own space and time as well and I don’t want to be with any of them 24/7…and I’m not. I love Katie too but I don’t want to be with her 24/7 either….and I am.

The ironic thing is that Katie can’t wait to be an adult because she thinks she’ll be in control. She doesn’t believe me when I point out the things that adults do because they have to, not necessarily because they want to. She has no realisation of the extent to which she is in control of me. It’s exhausting having to constantly negotiate my right to do really basic things like watch TV or go to the toilet on my own or go outside to hang the washing up. I don’t get to go to bed when I want to, I don’t get to regroup, I don’t get to have my own agenda. The bedtime sagas are slowly driving me insane, particularly at the start when Katie goes to say good night to the guinea pigs and checks the doors and windows (because she doesn’t feel safe relying on me or John to lock the house up). She has a really strong compulsion to do the same things every night, check the locks on the guinea pigs’ hutch are straight, put the door handles a certain way, tug on them x amount of times, etc etc. It goes on and on and it’s fine if doing those things make her feel safer or more secure, but it’s the fact that she wants me stood right there with her while she’s doing them all that drives me nuts. If I don’t stay with her she won’t do them and will go straight into meltdown mode. So I stand there gritting my teeth and desperately trying not to let her see how much I hate it and how I want to scream the second she starts with the never ending tugging and tweaking which take long enough on a good night and forever on a bad night.

I know there are professionals out there who would say we’ve gone too far in what we (or I, as I’m the one who is home with the kids more) allow Katie to ‘get away with’ (such as the ones who told me to put a time limit on how long she can have to discuss her worries, after which we should refuse to engage with her especially when it comes to bedtime) and that she needs discipline and consequences. I’m fairly sure that’s what I would have thought before I had Katie. I’m also pretty sure these professionals don’t have autistic kids and if they do I would think their kids are struggling even more than Katie if that’s their approach with them. Discipline and consequences don’t work with Katie. They make her angry, confused and dysregulated. Empathy, feeling heard and accommodations help her and that’s the route I’m following as far as possible (and that doesn’t mean boundaries don’t get implemented, e.g. no watching me on the loo!). But some times for Katie are easier than others, and some times for me are easier than others, and at the moment it feels not easy at all.

EHC assessment tribunal

It’s been a while!

Life after our Lake District get away has picked up right where it left off, i.e. hectic! Work is crazy busy with the end of term looming and schools trying to cram events in, and life is crazy busy – again with the end of term looming and the sports days, plays, collections for teachers etc that come with three primary school aged children.

I’ve referenced in passing a couple of times that my request for Katie to have an EHC needs assessment carried out was refused by the LA so I appealed it and it went to tribunal. This process has taken up a massive amount of my time and emotional energy in terms of putting Katie’s case forward. I put the initial application in just after Christmas, so this has been going on alongside daily life over a 6 month period and it’s been horrible.

The system is not set up to support SEN children and their families. It’s designed to intimidate, delay and offer the minimum amount of help possible.

The LA rejected the initial assessment request because “The evidence clearly showed Katie’s level of need is well understood and is being appropriately met by her current school. Katie is achieving well academically and making progress. Therefore the EHC Panel is confident that an EHC assessment is not required at the present time”. I’m not sure what evidence they were looking at there. Presumably if someone’s needs are being appropriately met by their school they wouldn’t dread going in every day, wouldn’t be under CAMHS, and wouldn’t be dysregulated on a regular basis and needing recovery time after school. But what do I know.

I researched quite a bit before deciding to appeal the decision. It was hard work getting the forms together to do the request in the first place and I didn’t want to go through a whole load more paperwork for an appeal if there was no point. I contacted the autism advisors at the council (who ironically have absolutely no input or sway in the council’s decision on whether to carry out an EHC needs assessment even though they often know the child involved), SENDIASS, and SEND Family Instincts and they all said I had a case and should appeal. I’m also on support groups on social media for children who are struggling in school and the general consensus there is that LAs (seemingly across the country not just ours) reject EHC assessment requests as standard in the hope that parents will give up and go away. If a rejection is appealed a lot of the time the LA will concede before the case gets to tribunal, and if it does go to tribunal a ridiculously high proportion of them (something like 96%) go in favour of the child / family.

Why is it standard practice for the LA to reject a request for an EHC needs assessment? That in itself is shameful. No parent is going to go through the process of filling in a multitude of forms and having to highlight what their child is like in their lowest moments for the fun of it. When you’re applying for an EHC assessment it’s because you’ve run out of options and you’re recognising that your child isn’t managing in a mainstream educational setting. The standard practice for the LA should be to act as a sounding board and support system for families, not effectively tell them to go away and stop whining. Why not assume families know what they’re talking about and are asking for help because they need it? Instead they make it as hard as possible and set a load of random thresholds that need to be met while pushing back on parents and assuming they’re making it up.

I submitted the appeal and kept everything crossed that the LA would concede but they didn’t. I received an email from a solicitor in their ‘People Team’ saying she had been instructed by the local authority and all communication had to go through her moving forward. Not necessarily a problem in itself and it wasn’t a nasty email but the whole language around tribunals, judges, solicitors, and being referred to as ‘the appellant’ rather than your name is scary. I don’t have a legal background or any legal knowledge and I wasn’t aware that a solicitor would be involved from the council. I thought I would be arguing my case and someone from education services at the council would be arguing their case. You throw a solicitor into the mix and it gives it a very different feeling. It was intimidating and I felt out of my depth.

The LA’s mean reasons for opposing our appeal were:

  1. They said the occupational therapy report we’d submitted wasn’t relevant because it was carried out in August 2021, before Katie started at her current school.
  2. They felt the driving force behind our application was concern over what would happen when Katie starts secondary school, which they said shouldn’t be considered because she still has a year left of primary school.
  3. They said the fact that Katie’s behaviours and anxieties have improved since she left her old school and moved to her current one showed that her current school is meeting her needs
  4. They cited again that she is meeting or above the academic expectations for her age group.

You get two deadlines with an appeal, one to put your evidence forward and another one a couple of weeks later as the absolute deadline for any additional evidence. I used the second deadline to challenge the LA’s views so I sent my counter arguments as additional evidence, which were:

  1. The OT report was 100% relevant as it highlighted sensory issues and causes for dysregulation which are applicable and need to be taken into consideration in any environment. It also made recommendations to be implemented at school, most of which currently haven’t been.
  2. Concern about secondary school is definitely one of the reasons for wanting an EHCP for Katie but it’s not the only one. She’s struggling in school right now so needs extra measures in place as soon as possible. Also she may not be starting secondary school for another year but it’s only 4 months until we have to make our application for her secondary school so it is a relevant consideration.
  3. Katie’s behaviours and anxieties have definitely improved since moving schools, and we acknowledge and appreciate the support she has at school but that still doesn’t mean it’s enough. She’s managing to tolerate school at the moment rather than hurting herself and saying she can’t imagine ever feeling happy as she was at her old school. That just means she’s unhappy rather than desperately unhappy, it doesn’t mean her needs are being met. Also how can they know her needs are being met unless they do the assessment?!
  4. I couldn’t care less about her academic achievements right now and I’m fed up of them being highlighted constantly as a reason why she doesn’t need any help. EHCPs aren’t just for kids who are falling behind academically, they are also supposed to cover their emotional and social health and that’s what Katie needs one for.

Obviously I said it in a more professional way than that! The LA then submitted their final evidence literally about an hour before the absolute final deadline which meant I couldn’t counter it. They said it was a healthcare issue not an educational one and that CAMHS was dealing with that (great we’ll just hang tight until late 2023 then, which is when CAMHS told us would be the earliest they’ll be able to get round to seeing her), an EHC isn’t required to access OT support and we could go through the GP for that (already tried that and the GP told us it had to go through a CAMHS referral or she had to have an EHCP that highlighted the need for it) and – yet again – that Katie is making progress academically (banging my head against a brick wall with that one).

I was quite worried that not only did the LA not concede rather than go to tribunal, they also came back not once but twice to submit counter arguments against us. I’ve been told so many times (mainly by Katie’s old school but to an extent also her current one, plus prospective schools I’ve spoken to) that Katie is fine, or that they don’t see the behaviours we see, or that it must be a parenting issue not a school issue, or that her needs can be easily accommodated in school, and for the most part I’ve stood my ground because I know Katie better than these people and I know she needs me in her corner. But then with the LA refusing to back down and saying the same sorts of things I felt really defeated. It’s such a battle to get anyone to listen or understand and it does make me feel like I’m an overbearing, over anxious, over protective pain in the arse parent.

We had a month to wait from the final deadline for evidence to be submitted until the date of the hearing. It’s like when you’re little and you’re so desperately excited for Christmas that time goes sooooo slowly, except that instead of excitement to deal with you’ve got dread. A month to think things you don’t want to think about. What if the tribunal sides with the LA and I’m in that tiny percentage that doesn’t win the appeal? What does that say about me as a parent and as Katie’s advocate? What if we lose? We’re out of options, that would be the door to any extra support in school shut. Do we keep Katie in school? Do we home educate? Do we keep pushing her to breaking point? Why didn’t I think to say xyz? It’s too late now and I can’t change it. What the hell is going to happen to her when she gets to secondary school if she doesn’t have an EHCP in place?

We received an outcome from the tribunal on Wednesday. They upheld our appeal and have ordered the council to secure an EHC needs assessment for Katie.

I am so bloody happy I feel like I’ve been walking on air the last couple of days. I’ve heard the expression of having a weight lifted off your shoulders but I’ve never physically felt it until now. I know the assessment could be carried out and they can still say she doesn’t need an EHCP. I know they could issue an EHCP and it could be useless. I know it’s not going to happen tomorrow and we still have a way to go. I know that ultimately this is about Katie and what’s going to benefit her, but….I finally finally finally feel heard and I feel vindicated. The judge in their reasoning of their decision referred back to all the points I’d raised and highlighted them as valid and necessary, in comparison to the LA who they said had provided conflicting evidence and had incorrectly applied the SEND Code of Practice.

My experience of school as a child was positive. I absolutely loved my primary school and most of my time at secondary school and I was sad to leave. If we didn’t have Katie I would probably still be singing the praises of education and mainstream schools because Alice is learning well and is happy at school, and Matthew has settled in well since starting in reception. When everything is going smoothly you can sit back and admire the job the teachers do (which I still do, I think they are amazing), you can sit proudly at parents evenings, you can look forward to “aren’t they adorable” at the school plays and nativities. Having Katie has given me a whole new perspective on the school system and while it’s fine for the kids who are fine, it’s not fit for purpose for the ones who aren’t. It’s understaffed, there isn’t enough training or understanding of how to support these kids, it’s underfunded, it’s reactive rather than proactive, it’s painfully slow, it’s exhausting, it’s parent blaming rather than supportive. It sucks and there are thousands of children and families who are being forced to battle through it who are hidden in plain sight.

A long way to go, but in the meantime: screw you to our local council, go and get my child her EHC needs assessment like you should have done 6 months ago.

Time out

In 2010 John and I had a mini break in the Lake District, staying next to a farm in the middle of nowhere. On our last day we went up to ‘Surprise View’ which overlooks Derwentwater, and John asked me to marry him. I’d thought he’d been a bit possessive over the backpack while we were away and it was because each day we’d been out and about he’d had a bottle of champagne, glasses and an engagement ring smuggled in the bag and he’d been trying to pick the right moment! Obviously I said yes, and it summed up a very happy few days away.

We always said we’d go back to the same place for our 10th wedding anniversary, which was last year. We’d booked it all but then because of whichever covid lockdown was in place at the time we couldn’t go in the end (I think the rules last year were that we could meet people outside but not go in each other’s houses, so we couldn’t send the kids to stay with grandparents or have them come and stay at ours). We managed to re-book it for this year so have just had 5 days / 4 nights days back in that same spot in the Lake District.

We big time needed it.

This was the first time in 3 years we’ve had a night away and the first time we’ve ever left the kids for more than 1 night. I was so excited to spend some time just with John, just being us as a couple not mum and dad. It’s next to impossible to spend any time together at the moment. John is working long hours and when he’s around day to day life takes over. It’s not always a bad thing because it’s spending time with the kids or other family and friends, but it’s also the drudge and daily grind that mean days can go by where we’ve barely spoken. Or we do speak but it’s 100% functional. Can you make the lunches while I do bedtime? Did I tell you I need to be in work early so can you do both school runs? Don’t forget to take the cat to the vets. Or we’re tired and by the time we’ve struggled through yet another difficult bedtime with Katie we end up arguing with each other. All the habits I thought we’d never let ourselves slip into yet somehow we have.

There is no phone signal where we stayed, although there was wifi so we did WhatsApp the kids to check in. Other than that we didn’t look at work emails or get sucked back into normal life, we just had those 4 days to switch off. It was like stepping back in time 12 years. It was reassuring to know that we can still have conversations that don’t revolve around Katie, Alice and Matthew. I don’t even know what we talked about and I love that. 4 days of being able to make each other laugh, talk about everything and nothing, or not talk and have comfortable silence. It was a very happy few days and I felt a lot lighter.

I didn’t want to come home and that makes me sad.

I missed the kids and was happy to see them again but I find every day life a bit overwhelming at the moment.

I find the lack of sleep really hard to deal with and can’t see an end in sight to that one. I go to bed later than I’d like to pretty much every night because of Katie’s difficulties with switching off and getting to sleep, and it’s very unusual to have a night without either Katie or Matthew (or both, but it’s usually Katie) waking me up for something. The getting up isn’t necessarily an issue but a lot of nights once they’ve got me up my mind starts racing and it’s really hard to get back to sleep. Nearly 10 years of cruddy nights are taking their toll and Katie has so much anxiety and so many habits and rituals she has to go through that I don’t know where to start with trying to get more sleep.

I know it’s the same for a lot of parents but the amount of life admin is so much sometimes, and it was really nice to escape it for a short period! The never ending emails from school about sports days, permission slips, school trips, cases of headlice or chicken pox or worms, fundraising and requests for volunteers, reminders about where you can and can’t park, non uniform days etc. Remembering to book breakfast club for Katie, ordering school lunches for Matthew, booking after school club for all the kids on a Monday. Remembering to book riding lessons for Katie. Making sure PE kits are being sent in on the right days and homework is getting done and going back to school on the right day. Monthly repeat prescriptions for Matthew’s asthma medication and the cat’s heart medication, booking check ups at the vet, hospital appointments for Matthew’s asthma and allergies, check ups at the dentist, check up at the opticians (Katie is currently about 3 months overdue). Birthday cards and presents to buy, playdates to arrange, after school activities to get the kids to.

There isn’t a day of the week where one of the kids doesn’t have something going on apart from Mondays, but then they’re in after school club because I work later on a Monday. Tuesday Matthew has swimming, Wednesday Alice has gymnastics, Thursday Katie has youth group, Friday the girls do singing, Saturday the girls have swimming, Sunday Katie has riding and then we start again. John suggested we drop something but I don’t know what that would be. I’m the one that makes them do swimming lessons because I don’t want them to drown! Matthew is on the waiting list to move to a Saturday class so that would free Tuesdays up, but at the moment there isn’t space for him. Alice absolutely loves gymnastics and Katie absolutely loves riding. They’re their ‘things’ and while they’re getting so much out of them I wouldn’t ever want them to give them up. The youth group Katie goes to is one that’s run just for autistic kids and it’s benefitted her a lot and built her confidence so that’s staying. Which just leaves singing and I have mixed feelings about that. The lady who runs it is passionate about supporting children’s mental health and has good intentions but she doesn’t have kids herself and it shows. She bombards parents with emails and has sometimes unrealistically high expectations about how much time kids can devote to practicing. I don’t agree with some of her initiatives, like the ‘golden microphone’ award that gets handed out each week to the kid who was most enthusiastic or knew their words the best etc. It’s a bit like ‘star of the week’ at school, which I also don’t like. If anything I think it demotivates some of the kids as there will always be the ones who are trying really hard but are consistently overlooked. But…Alice in particular does really enjoy it and they get involved with some really nice projects. They’ve recorded a CD, sung in concerts, got involved with Xmas lights switch on etc. And my mum pays for it and takes the girls when she can so singing is staying on the agenda as well for now!

Work is hectic at the moment and I sometimes feel I’ve taken too much on, but then it’s hardly like I’m the only working mum out there. I totally fell on my feet with my job as the hours are really flexible and it’s term time only so I can be with the kids through the school holidays and don’t have to worry about childcare. I also like what I do and the people I work with are lovely. A few months ago my role changed (at my request) which although was a good move for me it’s meant having to more or less start from scratch and re-learn a load of new processes. I also changed my hours so I could be around more after school, mainly for Katie, and although again it was my request and it’s great that work were flexible and allowed me to do that, I feel like I’m always bouncing between work life and mum life and not doing a good job on either of them. My head is never completely in work or completely with the kids. I’m usually in some sort of not very satisfying limbo where I’ve not quite finished what I wanted to be doing work wise or had to cut a conversation short with one of the kids because I’ve got to rush to get out the door on time.

If I break work and home down into small pieces I like them both. I’m really glad I can be around to ferry the kids to their activities. I get to see Katie light up when she gets to the stables, I see Alice’s perseverance at practicing her gymnastics moves, I get to see Matthew’s excitement that he’s been moved up a swim class. I see the improvements they make over time and I know what they’re talking about when they mention whichever horse or whichever person in their class. I get satisfaction out of my job and in spite of feeling like I’m not always concentrating on it as much as I’d like to, I am also quietly confident that I’m pretty good at what I do. Even the life admin stuff is fine when it’s taken in isolation. It’s nice that I can order Matthew his lunch and know he’s having something he likes, and permission slips generally mean something good is going to happen for one of the kids. It’s just when it’s all thrown together and I’m bouncing around endlessly from one thing to the next and the to do list is never getting any smaller and it’s hard to find the time just to cook dinner never mind achieve anything.

We separated the kids while we were away, so Katie stayed with my mum and step dad and Alice and Matthew stayed with John’s parents. We thought it would be easier for our parents than having all 3 kids at once, and also thought the girls could benefit from some time apart. Their relationship isn’t good and is something I probably should write about at some point but I’m not sure where to start. Unfortunately a break from each other doesn’t seem to have had any benefit which is difficult in itself.

The big thorn in my side at the moment is the tribunal coming up for Katie’s EHC needs assessment. I’ll probably do a post on that at some point but at the moment I’m alternating between furious and desperate and wish I’d never started it and I’m not in the head space to write about it. I submitted the request back in December, the LA refused it, I appealed, they rejected the appeal, and it’s now going to tribunal. The amount of time and emotional energy I’ve put into submitting all the evidence and responding to the BS the council is throwing at me is huge. The whole process is intimidating and demoralising but it’s out of my hands now because the final deadline for evidence has just passed and the case will be heard sometime before the middle of June. Whichever way it goes it will be stressful because if the tribunal agrees that there is no need for an assessment I’m out of options and that’s a big heavy door slammed in our faces in terms of accessing support for Katie at school. If the tribunal decides there should be an assessment that’s great but it will probably also mean another load of paperwork, a lot more time, and after the assessment there is still no guarantee she’d get an EHCP.

For now….keep calm and carry on. And look back on photos of our mini break!

About Matthew

I did posts about each of the girls and their personalities some time ago and have meant to do one on Matthew but never quite got round to it until now, which probably sums up his experience really – we have good intentions but as the youngest he definitely does get forgotten about sometimes! Even when he was born, in a lot of ways our relationship was just quite functional and it felt like it took a long time to get to know him because everything else was so busy. He would get put in his bouncy chair or I’d attach him to me in the baby carrier while I got the girls dressed or made them lunch or played a game with them, and he was just ‘there’. I didn’t have the time to sit and coo at him or work out his sleeping patterns or gaze into his eyes while I fed him. He had to nap around school runs and play dates and be fed at the same time as I was reading someone else a story or sorting out an argument. We did have two mornings a week that were just me and Matthew while Alice went to preschool, but the rest of the time she was around too or we were fitting in school runs for Katie or whatever else was going on for the girls. Thankfully I didn’t experience post natal depression again like I did after having Alice, so I wasn’t worried that getting to know him was taking a while, and it was a lovely if slightly chaotic process.

It sounds so easy to say he had to nap around school runs and play dates, because I know from experience (Alice!) that not all babies do just slot in to the schedule but luckily for the most part Matthew did. Apart from the fact that he was a milk guzzling monster and took forever to sleep through the night he was a pretty easy going baby and for the most part he has always just got on with things and put up with having his schedule determined by whatever else might be going on.

Without meaning to compare the kids with each other, in a lot of ways Matthew is the middle ground between the girls. They are complete opposites in almost every way I can think of and don’t do very much together at all. Alice likes imaginary play whereas Katie likes practical things. Matthew will happily do both and will be playing games with Alice and then go and do some gardening with Katie and John. He’s pretty flexible and doesn’t seem too bothered that with two older sisters he never gets much of a say in what they’re going to do or what game they’re going to play, he just mucks in and gets on with it. The girls tend to play just with other girls and don’t like boys very much, whereas Matthew’s friends at both preschool and now school have so far been a mixture of both. Alice very much plays with stereotypically ‘girl’ toys. She’s very into dresses, dolls and mermaids and Matthew loves to play with her especially when they play with mermaids in the bath. He also loves tractors and screws and more typically ‘boy’ toys, jumps off things constantly and rides his bike like a maniac.

All my 3 have been huggers and although I still hug the girls or hold their hands etc, they’re too big now to come and sit on my lap or be picked up, whereas Matthew can still do that and I’m making the most of it before he grows too much as well. It’s such an automatic thing that you don’t notice until one day you suddenly realise you’re not doing it anymore. If I sit down with a cup of tea (yes! My kids are old enough that I’ve passed the stage of reheating the same cup of tea 5 times before I actually get to drink it or giving up and drinking it cold, wohoo!) more often than not Matthew will appear and worm his way onto my lap or snuggle up next to me and he’s very affectionate in general. He’ll come and give me a kiss or he’ll quite often just stroke my hair or stroke my arm or tell me he loves me. He’s never got the concept of someone saying “I love you” and the other person saying “I love you too.” He always dives straight in with “I love you too Mummy”.

At this point Matthew is 5 and he’s small and cute and he knows it. I just can’t imagine him growing up and getting hairy and smelly!! One of my friends is always saying she wants to adopt him and every time Matthew sees her he literally puckers his lips and flutters his eyes at her. He also knows exactly how to wind the girls up and can 100% take on the mantle of being the annoying little brother who then makes out that he’s so sweet and innocent and denies all knowledge of why the girls are cross with him.

Matthew loves a bit of toilet humour and his favourite toy ever is a joke poo! He has hours of fun throwing it around and thinks he’s hilarious when he sticks it next to our cat or leaves it on a chair that someone is going to sit on. He also sleeps with it under his pillow! We generally get an announcement when he’s gone for a poo and he’ll proudly take the credit for his burps and farts. He also loves a ‘wild wee’ and will take the chance to take aim and water a bush or a tree pretty much any time we go for a walk!

Matthew can be quite sensitive. He notices things and he’s a real charmer – he’ll comment if I’m wearing a new top or he’ll tell me he likes the earrings I’m wearing because they’re pretty. Last year when the girls were both at school we had Mummy and Matthew Thursdays where I didn’t work and he didn’t go to preschool, and at the time he would always let me know he liked our Thursdays and now he’s at school he still tells me he misses them. Last year our next door neighbours had a fire which was all very dramatic and we came home one day to find fire engines and police cars down our road with the lights flashing etc. I think people expected him to be excited about the emergency vehicles but he wasn’t really, he was quite tearful until he knew everyone was OK.

Having said that he’s also quite stoic and just gets on with things. He’s not a poorly child as such but he has been prodded and poked a fair few times for blood tests and skin prick tests etc, and the doctors and nurses always comment about how good he is and give him extra stickers. He doesn’t cry, he just sits and watches what they’re doing. He has asthma / viral wheeze (not entirely sure which or if they’re the same thing – basically he has had respiratory issues on a few occasions) which have resulted in hospital admissions for oxygen and nebulisers, and he uses daily preventative inhalers and takes a pill before bed each day which he does quite happily. He also has a severe peanut allergy. As he’s still young and his immune system is still developing he has yearly check ups to see if it’s stable or if it’s changed, which he does fine with. At the moment he has to carry epipens with him wherever he goes and isn’t allowed to eat food with peanuts or which say may contain peanuts on the packaging, but his last test suggested his allergy had improved so we’re waiting on the results from a follow up blood test and fingers crossed he’s cured himself!

Matthew is literally the tickliest child I’ve ever met. You just need to approach him with a wriggly finger and he’s in hysterics and I don’t think there’s an inch of his body that isn’t tickly. He also loves being tickled, which for the life of me I can’t understand as I hate it, so we spend lots of time tickling him while he squirms and can’t breath for laughing!

Matthew in 5 words – entertaining, energetic, loving, cute, noisy

The Weird Girls Group

When we got Katie’s report following her autism assessment it included a list of reading materials to help us and Katie understand autism better. One of the books was “I’m An Aspie Girl” which is aimed at girls aged 5-11 ish (Katie was 8 at the time). The terminology is outdated as it refers to Asperger’s, which isn’t officially diagnosed anymore and is also a term that most of the autistic community reject, so in all honesty if I was given the list now I wouldn’t read that book. However, this was about 18 months ago and I wasn’t aware of the issues with the terminology then so we did read it. The book is written from the point of view of a girl called Lizzie who describes how she feels about certain situations as an autistic girl, what she’s good at, and what she finds difficult. I read a number of reviews all raving about how great this book was, and I bought it.*

I read it with Katie one evening, not necessarily with the aim of explaining to her about her diagnosis, but more just to start bringing autism in to conversation. She was tired and had a headache but had asked for a book so when I started reading she was lying on her bed half paying attention. 

Within a few pages her ears had pricked up and she sat up and started following the book with me. Within about 6 pages she piped up and said “Mummy I think I might be an Aspie girl!” With each page she became more and more engaged and started talking about things without me needing to prompt or ask questions – telling me the smells that bothered her, the friends that she found it especially difficult to share, the difficulties she had in getting her ideas across to others at play time, how she didn’t like being in groups. Some of this I knew anyway but because of my own observations of her rather than because she’d talked to me about it. Some of it was a complete surprise – I’d never even known she was sensitive to any smells but she told me the reason she didn’t like it when I changed my car was because she hated the smell of my new car and about how certain people’s houses smelled funny to her but that no one else noticed anything. 

And over and over again after each page “Mummy that’s like me”, “I do that too!” in an excited voice, and at the end of the book “Am I an Aspie girl?” 

I asked her how she would feel if she was. She told me that she liked Lizzie and that would be OK. 

“Yes sweetheart you are.”

A smile from Katie and a request to read the book again. So we did. And again on each page she stopped and talked about the ways that she was the same as Lizzie. She asked me if there were other autistic people at school so I said yes there would be. Katie is left handed so I explained to her that in the same way that a few others in the school are left handed but most of them are right handed, there would be other kids at school who were autistic and whose brains work in the same way as hers, but most of them work differently.  

She hugged the book and asked me if she could keep it. She went to bed that night without getting up again and saying she was scared, without panicking that she was going to be sick, and she slept all night (which was probably the last time she did that – her sleep generally is pretty rubbish!)

As a family who knew next to nothing about autism it seemed at the time that this exploration into understanding more and explaining things to Katie had gone pretty well. However, from Katie’s point of view her initial positive reaction very quickly turned negative. She had started to experience a lot of issues at school and was becoming more and more aware that she struggled in ways that others didn’t. She was often very upset and described herself as weird and stupid. She realises she is different from most other people her age but she doesn’t want to be and her self esteem is pretty low. To her mind autism has not been something to embrace, autism is the root of all her problems and something to blame.

One of her constant questions has been where are the other people like her? I told her there were other autistic people and other autistic children but couldn’t put my money where my mouth was and show her that she wasn’t alone because we didn’t know any other autistic people (or thought we didn’t!)

That has changed a lot over the last 18 months. We found a local charity that runs a youth group for autistic children, and Katie now goes to that each week. She enjoys it and has made a really good friend through going there. It’s the kind of relationship Katie really thrives on. She and this other girl are completely in each other’s pockets and have formed an intense relationship which is equally balanced on both sides – which is great for Katie because there have been other times when she’s been very invested in a friendship but the other person understandably wants other friends as well and doesn’t want to be exclusively with her.

Katie has also made two friends at her new school. Although it’s a mainstream school there is quite a high proportion of SEN kids there as other parents are attracted to it for the same reason as us – it’s small and quiet, the staff can really get to know the students, and it’s generally a more suitable environment than a mainstream school that’s 10 times the size. Of her two new friends one is autistic and one has huge anxiety and is on the pathway for an autism assessment. It’s been huge for Katie’s confidence to be at a school where she doesn’t feel like the only ‘different’ one. Her old school has 400+ kids in it but (this is just my experience anecdotally) only really seemed to offer support for the ones who were falling behind academically, not the ones who were struggling emotionally or because of sensory issues. I have come across numerous parents who were in the same boat as us and ended up moving their children to different schools because they were just not being supported or accommodated in any way. The lack of support was an issue in many ways, including the fact that it reinforced Katie’s feeling that she was the only ‘weird’ one. In comparison at her new school she sees other kids having alternative arrangements made for them, going to quiet spaces, having movement breaks, using noise cancelling headphones etc, and she now feels that it’s OK for her to do those things too. She used to be embarrassed to be autistic and was adamant that she didn’t want anyone to know, but she has voluntarily told her new friends and found that she’s not the odd one out because they are (or possibly are) autistic as well.

Katie and my niece have had a special relationship ever since they met. My niece Cara is 9 months older than Katie and we didn’t see much of them when the girls were little because my sister lived in America, but whenever we did see them the girls were always so excited to see each other. They have been back in the UK for the last 7 or 8 years and live 10 minutes down the road from us (yay) and I am SO pleased our kids are all growing up together. Katie and Cara have always been happy in each other’s company although in a lot of ways they’re quite opposite to each other. Katie can really be quite intolerant of kids her own age and gets annoyed with them quite quickly, but I’ve literally never heard her say a cross word about Cara. Well Cara has been on her own journey and has recently been diagnosed as ADHD and autistic, as has my nephew (my brother’s son) who we don’t see nearly as often but is someone who again Katie has always got on really well with.

I think it’s been quite a revelation to Katie that she’s not alone, especially given that her two favourite people (Cara and Poppy her friend from youth group) are also autistic. Her definition of weird has become much more positive and she set up a messenger group for the 3 of them called The Weird Girls Group. I think her relationships with the small group of friends she has have become a lot easier because they are all neurodivergent. It’s not at all to say that she can only be friends with other autistic people and not neurotypical people but whether she realises it or not she seems to be more naturally drawn to people who aren’t neurotypical now that she’s in environments where she’s got that option. Which I guess is the same for neurotypical people but it’s a lot easier for us because we’re always the majority.

I hope it’s a springboard for Katie to feel more positive about herself, calmer and more settled with her friendships, and know that she is not alone.

*For anyone reading this who might be needing to have conversations about autism with their children or who is looking to get more understanding, I wouldn’t recommend “I’m An Aspie Girl” because of the issues with the terminology it uses and I’ve only referenced it here because of our experience at the time. There is a great video which has recently been released which I can’t share because it says playback on other websites has been disabled by the video owner, but please go to YouTube and search for “Autism acceptance 2022 The Neuro Bears”.

Katie on school

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that my application for an EHC assessment for Katie was rejected (on the basis that she’s doing fine academically – no mention of social or emotional difficulties). I have put in an appeal and am now waiting on the outcome of that. As some additional evidence I sat down with Katie over the course of two evenings and did an ‘interview’ with her. She talked and I typed!

I tried really hard to make sure I wasn’t leading her or putting words in her mouth. I just asked her to talk me through her school day. What is the best part of school? What is the worst part? When you get to breakfast club what do you like or not like? Why? What is your classroom like? How does wearing your school uniform feel? Etc.

Katie doesn’t like talking about school and generally doesn’t like telling me about her day. She found doing this quite difficult and got tearful at points, but she also wanted to do it and gave permission for me to share it because she wants something to change. She’s fed up (and so am I) of feeling unseen and unheard. She needs to be given more support and an opportunity to start secondary school in an environment / setting that isn’t going to be so challenging for her that it causes damage that can’t be reversed.

“I feel sad about going back to school. Most of the teachers shout a lot about people fidgeting on their chairs or if we don’t understand the work. Children grab you all the time, it hurts and they don’t let go. It makes me worried. School makes my head hurt and my tummy hurt. My throat feels tight. Things that make me happy like riding don’t make me happy any more if I think about them when I’m at school.

My school cardigan is too thick but if I take it off its too cold. Tights are too itchy and they feel like they’re squeezing me and have pins in them. Seamless socks are better than normal ones but I don’t like them too loose so they have to be pulled up tight. I never want to wear normal socks again. My PE hoodie feels like I can’t move and I’m surrounded by everything.

I like breakfast club because there are lots of games but the teachers are always running around and they never listen to anything you say. I’m in the classroom before everyone else but then the others come running in being noisy and shouting. I would rather go in the classroom after everyone else when they’re calm and sitting in their places.

I don’t like it when other kids tell me to keep secrets.

There are too many people in the classroom, it’s busy and when people move around to get pencils they bash you. People get too close and poke each other and make too much noise. There is too much talking. I’m always getting watched by the teachers because I’m at the front. I want to sit at the back by the door because less people are crowding you and it’s better in the corner because people pay less attention to you and they’re not always staring. People are tapping each other with rulers or passing things under the table.

The cushion on my chair helps but the chair is really hard and small and uncomfortable. It hurts my back. It’s hard to sit straight with my feet on the floor and hands on the table like they want us to. It’s more comfortable to have a leg raised and bent but I get told off for not sitting properly. I have the cushion so I don’t wriggle so much. It helps a bit but it’s still uncomfortable on the chair. It would be easier to listen if I could move around more or get up, and then sit down to do my work.

Art is OK because it’s not loads of talking and sitting still, you can draw something and get on with it. I don’t like it when we have to sit down for so long. Writing hurts my hand but if I try to get it done quickly just so I can stop then I don’t get it done properly. Art / drawing is better because I can stop drawing for a minute and take little breaks.

They talk so loud and the teachers pick on you even if you don’t put your hand up. Then everyone stares at you. I don’t feel safe in the classroom with everyone. I used to go to the toilets and sit behind the mats because there’s no one there and no one can see you or stare at you. I still want to but I don’t any more because I would get pulled back out by my wrists and it hurts. I don’t know where to go now so I just sit and don’t do my work because it’s too noisy and don’t talk to anyone.  

Lunch is in the hall with the whole school on 4 tables, everyone is too squished together. I try going in the library to eat but I’m only allowed to when *** is there. Other times I get told off and I have to go back into the hall. I hate going outside at break. Everyone is there, there is no space and everyone runs in to you. I don’t like people pulling me or touching me. All the hidden and quieter places are too muddy and we’re not allowed there at the moment. I stand by the door. When the teachers try and make me play on the scooters or something I do it for a bit because I have to but I go back to the door as soon as I can.

I like the reading corner because there are lots of cushions and a rug. It’s away from everything else.

In assembly we have to sit with our legs crossed, I don’t like to sit still and it hurts. We have to sit in a line together. I want to sit on the empty bench no one is using but I’ve been told no just go and sit down. We have assembly every day and it’s one of the worst parts of the day. There are too many people in the hall and everyone is squished together, I want to push people away from me to make them go away.

In PE everyone is running around and I don’t want them to bang in to me. People don’t care where you are they’re just running around all over the place. Football is OK as long as we’re not playing matches, dribbling round cones is OK. I don’t like running, I always feel like I’m going to fall over. I don’t like throwing balls in hoops in case they fall on my head. I can’t run and catch at the same time. People throw the ball too hard.

I have 2 friends at school who I like having, but it doesn’t really help because they can’t stop any of the stuff that happens like being picked on in class or the noise. I don’t think I will have any friends next year when they go to secondary school. I don’t really like anyone else.

I would like to be able to work on my own when it’s quiet, where I get short bits of information so I don’t need to start wriggling, and I can stand up. I like *** because if you don’t understand something she doesn’t get cross or give up and walk off, she explains it in a different way. She never gets angry and she has a nice voice and we’re allowed to move around a bit.

I want to go to secondary school because then primary school will be finished and I’m closer to being able to leave school. I want to go to the smallest school where there are hardly any people, or go to a big school so there are more places to hide except then I’d get in trouble for hiding so actually maybe not.”

Pregnancy and birth – Matthew

John was at work on a Saturday morning when I got my positive pregnancy test with Matthew. I looked at that line and felt so happy. My final pregnancy and one to savour as much as possible. I let myself have a morning of feeling thankful that I’ve always manged to get pregnant quickly, and excited at what was to come, and then tried as far as possible to forget that I was pregnant until I’d had the scan and seen a heartbeat. After the two miscarriages between having the girls I was very aware that a positive test didn’t mean a baby.

This time there was no pale tinge on the toilet paper, no spotting, and no bleeding. There was no reason for me to have an early scan but we did pay for a private one at 8 weeks because the wait for the 12 week scan just felt so long. I figured if there was no heart beat I’d rather know (still based on the assumption / hope that my miscarriages had happened because the heart had never started beating), and if there was a heart beat it might give peace of mind. It was there, pumping away at the 8 week scan and then again at the 12 week scan, at which point I started to relax a bit.

Katie was an absolute sweetheart when we told her she was going to have another brother or sister. She was just turning 4 so whereas the news was a bit lost on Alice in the beginning (she wasn’t quite 2) Katie understood and seemed genuinely excited – in comparison with now when Alice and Matthew ask me if they can have a little brother or sister and Katie looks at me in total horror! I showed her the scan picture of the baby in my tummy and she wanted to keep it in bed with her and give it a hug. It didn’t really mean anything to Alice until my tummy started growing, and then she absolutely loved my bump. She was always hugging it and calling it ‘boy baby’. She loved my bump so much I wondered what she’d make of it when it disappeared and turned into an actual baby, but when Matthew was born she loved him just as much as she had the bump.

This time we decided that we would find out the sex at the 20 week scan. To be fair, even if we hadn’t asked to find out we would have known. A little penis was right there clear as day, sticking up like a rocket about to take off! We told our family and friends we were having a boy, and Katie was really pleased as she’d been saying she wanted a little brother.

So many people made comments that we must be pleased to be having a boy, and that John especially must be excited to have a son. A lot of people also joked that we could stop having babies now we were having a boy. There seemed to be this assumption that if we already had a boy we wouldn’t have had a third child, and it really bothered me. I would hate Alice to think that if she had been a boy not a girl our family would have been complete sooner, like she’s not good enough for being a second girl. Baby number three was purely a case of wanting baby number three, not wanting a boy. I never really had any strong feelings about what gender I was hoping for with any of my pregnancies, I just wanted a baby. With Katie I was convinced I was having a boy so maybe subconsciously that’s what I wanted. With Alice I genuinely didn’t care at all what the sex was. With Matthew, if anything having already had two girls I would have chosen to have another girl. But it was just nice to find out, regardless of whether he’d been a boy or a girl.

John really liked the name Frank for a boy but I was a firm no on that one (sorry any Franks out there!) But while I was pregnant my bump became known as Frank. We never had nicknames for the girls when they were bumps, and I quite liked having a Frank!

I was under consultant care again through my pregnancy. As I’d already had two C-sections the doctor told me that there wasn’t a choice this time and it was hospital policy to advise against trying for a natural birth, so it would be a third C-section. That was absolutely fine with me – better the devil you know. I also had regular growth scans because I had gestational diabetes this time round. They advised me not to eat too many carbohydrates, and that kept my blood sugars under control so I didn’t need insulin or anything like that. Matthew was consistently measuring big in all my scans and the doctors commented a couple of times that it was a good thing I was having a C-section. As with Alice, I was booked in at 39 weeks. When Matthew was born he weighed in at 9lbs 2ozs – so big enough especially as he was a week early, but not the giant I’d been expecting.

He was so active in my tummy. I could constantly feel him kicking and wriggling and rolling around. It felt like he never stopped. When they put the monitor on me the morning I went in to have him they said the same. They kept having to move the monitor as he was wriggling around so much they kept losing his heart beat and had to start again.

As with Alice, I loved my elective C-section. We were first on the list again so we had our baby in the morning and got to spend the rest of the day giving him hugs, staring at him, and having visitors. He looked so like Alice when he was born!

The first thing he did was to pee all over himself. It took a little while to get to hold him because although he did cry straight away it sounded very gurgly and a bit ‘wet’ so they called a paediatrician into the operating theatre to check him over. It took about 30 mins but he was given the all clear and I’d been stitched back up in the meantime so then we got to say our hellos to our little boy.

Katie was at school and Alice was at preschool when Matthew was born. My mum had stayed over the night before and got the girls sorted in the morning while we went to the hospital. Alice was due to finish preschool at lunch time anyway, and Katie got the afternoon off school and they came to visit us and meet Matthew which was lovely.

I was totally different this time about having to stay in hospital. After having Alice I’d been so desperate to get home. This time round I made sure to just enjoy some peace and quiet with our new baby. I only stayed in for two days / nights – Matthew was born on a Wednesday and we were discharged on the Friday. It was really nice just to chill out with him, hug him, feed him, look at him, do not a lot. He was born on 30th November so I took a load of Christmas cards to hospital with me and got them all written out while I was there. I’ve never been so organised!

John had 3 weeks off work again after Matthew was born so he did all the school and preschool runs until the end of term while I stayed home with the baby, and then it was the Christmas holidays so by the time the girls went back to school / preschool in January I was up and running again. It was nice to be broken into life with three small people quite gently, although it did make me laugh with the difference between your first baby and your third. After a C-section the advice is not to drive or do much for the first 6 weeks and I totally took that on board when I had Katie. I stayed at home and people came to visit but I didn’t drive or go anywhere until my time was up. When Matthew was born the girls had their Christmas nativities coming up so 5 days after having him I was off to see Alice the singing snowman in her preschool performance, and the next day to see Katie the singing sheep in her school performance!

It’s weird writing about becoming a family of 5. In a way it feels like two seconds ago but also such a long time ago since we had such small children. I look back at the pictures of when Matthew was born and think we were crazy. We had a newborn, a 2 year old and a 4 year old and it was hectic! I can’t imagine going back to that level of chaos as even though they’re still young (5,7,9) it just feels a lifetime ago now.

Thinking ahead

So….secondary school is a topic that’s on my mind a lot at the moment. Katie will be starting secondary school in September 2023 so there’s still a fair bit of time to go, but we will need to apply to whichever school she ends up going to in October this year. That still gives us 10 months so all fine in theory. Except the thought of Katie being at secondary school scares the pants off me because I have no idea where we’re going to send her or how she’s going to manage it.

Moving to her current primary school was definitely a good move because her mental health is much better than it was this time last year when she was struggling more and more with school and it was getting too much for her. She is much better supported at her current school and it’s tiny (just under 50 students) so by default the noise and crowding that she finds so difficult to deal with has been massively reduced. If we had a secondary school that could replicate the environment of where she is now I wouldn’t be worrying so much, but we don’t.

Even with the accommodations her current school have put in place and the fact that it’s such a small school, Katie still doesn’t like it. She still has the same issues. It’s too noisy, people get too close to her and bump her, (she feels) people are mean, school scares her. It’s just that they are on a lesser scale and she can manage them more effectively. Instead of daily meltdowns she has one maybe every couple of weeks. She will say she feels poorly and doesn’t want to go to school, but she doesn’t curl up in the foetal position and refuse to move. She still gets less sleep than I would think it appropriate for a 9 year old but she is asleep by 10.30 / 11 most nights instead of being up until who knows when.

Katie says she is looking forward to secondary school because it will mean she’s one step closer to being old enough to leave school altogether. She wants to go to a big secondary because she thinks there will be more places for her to hide. So that’s it – in the 5 and a bit years of schooling she’s completed so far, she’s learned that she can’t wait to be done with it and the more she can be invisible the better.

I went to an open event at one of the secondaries near us, which is a relatively small school as far as secondaries go. There was no one from the SEN team available to talk to. The office for pastoral care was shut and the student showing me around couldn’t tell me anything about it as it’s not something she needed access to. I waited 30 mins to speak to the headteacher and then gave up. And I freaked out because of the stairs. I hadn’t even thought about the fact that primary schools don’t have stairs and secondaries do. Katie isn’t great with stairs. Going up is fine, going down is slow. All it’s going to take is for one kid to race by her on the stairs and knock her and she’s going to flip out.

Primary school for the most part is one classroom with one teacher. The environment doesn’t massively change during the day, but Katie has still found it really tough to deal with. All of a sudden at secondary school she’s going to find herself with a different teacher for every subject, she’s going to be expected to move around the school and go to a different classroom for every lesson. I just can’t see her managing it, it’s going to be a sensory onslaught. I’m sure she will get one or two teachers who are amazing and she will be comfortable in their classes. I’m also sure she’ll get a couple who roll their eyes because ‘all kids come with a label these days’ and ignore any requests for support, and a couple who insist she doesn’t need any support because she will sit quietly in the classroom with her head down and won’t be any bother.

We’ve also found even at primary school that messages aren’t always communicated across staff. There might be one or two teachers who totally get that if Katie is looking at the board because that’s what the kids are supposed to do to show that they’re listening, that actually she won’t be taking much in at all and she listens a lot better if she’s looking down or has her head in her hands. But then she’ll get a substitute teacher or one of the teaching assistants will take the class and they’ll have a go at her for not looking at the board because they haven’t been told any different. I can only see this being more challenging at secondary school with so many more staff involved.

I would really like to get an education health care plan (EHCP) in place for Katie to help with secondary school. It would mean any accommodations she has are legally binding (at the moment we just have to ask and hope school listens but ultimately we’re dependent on their goodwill) and it also opens up the door to possible alternative provisions. There are two schools in our area that have specialist autism units, but at the moment Katie wouldn’t even be considered for them because only students with an EHCP can apply.

I spoke to Katie’s current school about applying for an EHCP and they said they wouldn’t be able to support it because she doesn’t take enough of their time or resource, but they recommended I put in a parental request. I also spoke to the autism advisors at our local council and they totally agreed with me about the challenges Katie is likely to face at secondary school and also suggested I put in a parental request.

Both school and the council seem to feel that ours is an unusual situation in that I’m requesting an EHC assessment with a view to getting Katie provision for the future rather than because she’s in desperate need of one now. They told me that although it’s worth trying to get an assessment now it’s likely to be refused and we’ll have to wait until she is in year 7 and prove that she’s not coping before anything would be done. The problem for me is that having seen the state Katie was in at the end of year 4 at her old school, I wouldn’t let things get that far again and I would pull her out of school rather than watch her suffer so much. I don’t want to wait until she’s back at crisis point to start asking for an EHC assessment which then takes weeks or months to process. I want something in place before secondary school to avoid getting into that mess in the first place.

Also, doesn’t the fact that she wasn’t coping in a 420 pupil mainstream primary school prove the fact that she’s very unlikely to cope in a 800+ pupil (as most of them are in our area) mainstream secondary school without additional support? I feel like if we’d have left her at her old school where she was literally falling apart, maybe we would be in a better position to apply for an EHC assessment. Whereas because we did what we could to help her and moved her to a smaller and more suitable school where she’s coping better, we’re being told she’ll manage fine.

I put in the parental request for an EHC assessment just after Christmas. This week I got the letter back saying an “EHC assessment is not necessary at this time” and that “Katie is achieving well academically and making progress. Therefore the EHC Panel is confident that an EHC assessment is not required at the present time”. I’m not surprised but it’s a bit soul destroying. It seems that academic achievement is put above mental health and emotional wellbeing. I spent ages putting the request together, knowing that we always hear that she does well academically so there’s no problem, and knowing it was likely to be refused, and lo and behold it was. The next step is to appeal the decision. I don’t know if I’ve got the emotional energy to appeal it and carry on banging my head against a brick wall, but I also know I’m going to do it anyway because how can I not? I can’t really consider myself any sort of parent if I don’t do everything I can to try and make school better for Katie.

It makes me feel very uncomfortable. I know that we see a different side to Katie at home than anyone else sees. I know I’m probably viewed by anyone in education as a problem parent because I’m always pointing out issues that they don’t see. I don’t know how to convince them that I’m not just being a drama queen and making stuff up. Katie has an autism diagnosis. She is under CAMHS for anxiety and depression (I must do a follow up on my CAMHS post!). She was referred to the Emotional Health Academy for anxiety. It’s on her medical records that she has been through a period of self harm. She has had therapy sessions with a clinical psychologist which she refused to engage with. We’re constantly told she’s fine, but that’s not my definition of fine. The times that she’s been fine have been during the lockdowns when she wasn’t in a school environment, but no school isn’t an option.

I very much hope that the LA are right and that Katie doesn’t need an assessment or an EHCP. I hope that when she starts secondary school I’m eating my words and writing about how happy I am at how well she’s settled in and how it’s suiting her so much more than primary school. There is no part of me right now that believes that will be the case.

To three or not to three

Once I’d started taking the happy pills (sertraline) just after Alice turned 1 the effect was pretty instant so in the end I only needed to take them for 6 months and I was back on an even keel. It didn’t take long for a thought to start nagging in the back of  my head, in spite of the horrible period of post natal depression I’d just been through….we should have another baby.

Before we had kids I’d always liked the idea of having four – I think probably just because I’m one of four and I liked growing up with my brother and two sisters. John always said he just wanted two, again I guess probably because that’s how he grew up (he has a younger brother). We’d both agreed that we wanted children but we’d never really talked about how many we’d actually end up having.

So after we’d had Alice, John was more than happy to leave things there. We had our two little girls with a 2 year age gap. Our house was big enough that the girls had their own bedrooms and we still had a spare room. We could afford for me to not be working while they were little. Their car seats and the double buggy fitted just nicely in my car without having to upsize to a big family vehicle. After a rough and emotional 18 months it was time to enjoy life as a family of 4 with our two healthy children. Well that was the logical argument that John put forward anyway, which made total sense.

Then there was my totally led by my biological clock, emotional, not at all very rational argument and quite honestly I have no idea how I convinced John to have a third baby because the only case I could put forward was ‘I just really feel like we need another child.’ I couldn’t even offer anything coherent about why I felt that way. It wasn’t that I didn’t love the girls. It wasn’t that I was desperate to try for a boy. I just really really felt we were meant to have another baby.

John was worried about what would happen if I got post natal depression again. That period hadn’t just been rough on me, it had been really difficult for him too – it was possibly harder for him because for that time I wasn’t at all myself and he was helpless to do anything about it. It wasn’t just a worry for him – I didn’t want to go through that again either, especially so soon after getting better. But that’s how much I wanted baby 3, I was willing to risk PND again. I hoped it wouldn’t matter and that I would be fine this time, but I also felt that having gone through it once I would be more aware of what was happening if it reared its head again. I promised John I would re-join any support groups and get straight back on the pills again at the first hint of anything being wrong. I definitely would not wait a year to take any medication like I had before. I wouldn’t put us all through that again.

We both wondered if we were pushing our luck. Katie’s birth had ended in an emergency C-section and a stay in the special care baby unit, and my pregnancy with Alice hadn’t been completely straightforward with the concerns about Downs Syndrome and her growth. We felt very lucky that both the girls were fine. Did we really want to risk another pregnancy or were we just being greedy? There’s no way to know unless you take the plunge, and that’s what we ended up doing.

John also asked how did he know that if we had a third I wouldn’t do the same thing again and start pestering him for a fourth? I just knew I wouldn’t! (Again, a very logical and well thought out answer, I know). It was impossible to explain this totally illogical need for a third baby but I was pretty convinced three would be my limit and I wouldn’t want another one after that. I also promised John that even if I did end up thinking a fourth would be nice, I wouldn’t ask him or push him for it. He was already massively pushing himself out of his comfort zone considering baby 3 and it wouldn’t be fair to ask him again.

At this point Alice was 18 months old so was moving out of the baby phase and onto being a toddler. Both of us readily admitted we preferred life when the girls were one and onwards. The newborn part is so hard and so tiring! John was onboard with the idea of having another child but not crazy about the fact we’d have to go back to that newborn slog. I could see his point but at least the newborn phase doesn’t last forever! Also I breastfed the girls and presumably would breastfeed any future baby so the lion’s share of that was on me in terms of sleepless nights and feeding, and I was willing to do it.

So, somehow I managed to talk John round and he agreed we could have baby 3. Thankfully he didn’t get the time to change his mind, as 2 months later I was pregnant and at the end of the year along came Matthew. And it turned out that yes baby 3 did make our family complete, and not once have I ever wanted baby 4!

Tis the season

We had a 3 day Christmas this year – I love Christmas for seeing family and spending time together but I’ve read a lot about how difficult and overwhelming it can be for neurodiverse people (not just autistics). This year we spent Christmas Day with my mum and step dad, stayed the night at their house and then saw my sister and her family on Boxing Day, and yesterday we had my in laws over to us. Thankfully Katie has never seemed to find Christmas too stressful. She looks forward to it and seems excited by it, and she’s tended to get stuck in with it all. This year is the first year there have been any signs of stress on her part (although I wonder if that’s just because we weren’t looking for them before) but they were fairly minimal.

I’m pretty sure Katie’s favourite part of Christmas Day was in the evening when Alice and Matthew had gone to bed, and she stayed up and played the board game ‘Sorry’ with my mum, step dad and my mum’s friend who was also staying with them. She definitely seems more comfortable in adult company than with other children and doesn’t get irritated with them in the same way. I really enjoyed just watching her playing – there was genuine enjoyment there on her part, confidence in handling herself, and a fair bit of banter going on where she was giving as good as she got. She’s also not massively competitive, so she’ll try to win but it won’t cause a meltdown if she doesn’t. She just had a good laugh and it was great to see her relaxed and happy.

At bedtime at my mum’s Katie started off in her own room (with John staying in with her until she was asleep) but only for a couple of hours, at which point she came into our room because she was scared of something being in the wardrobe. We’ve pretty much given up trying to reason with Katie when she’s worrying in the middle of the night because it never gets anywhere other than everyone getting stressed and no one getting any sleep, so she just came into bed with me and John went and slept in the other room.

Boxing Day was no problem because my sister also has three kids (also two girls and a boy), and they tend to all pair off together – the two older girls, the two younger girls, and the two boys. Luckily they all get on well because we see a lot of them and they’d end up getting lumped together anyway whether they liked it or not! Alice and my niece Charlotte only have 4 months in age between them and had a bit of a love / hate relationship to start off with which has grown into love as they’ve got older. Matthew is 2 years older than Brandon so it’s fairly recent that Brandon has been old enough to play and chat with him but they rub along together pretty happily. But Katie and Cara (9 months in age between them) have loved each other and been in each other’s pockets since they first met, which was pretty infrequent for their first couple of years as my sister lived in America. They tend to hole themselves up together and ignore the rest of us, so Boxing Day was fine and probably a pretty easy day for Katie as that’s exactly what they did.

Yesterday was possibly the day Katie started feeling the stress a bit where it came straight on the back of two other full on days. We had John’s parents, brother and wife, and nephew to us for the day. Katie managed things pretty well and I was pleasantly surprised when she came and ate at the table with us because she’d told me that she wasn’t going to (which would have been fine). She ate her roast dinner but then suddenly disappeared upstairs and didn’t want to come down for pudding. I’m not aware of anything ‘setting her off’ as such so I think it was just getting a bit much being at the table with all of us. We had to move the table round to fit everyone in and it was a bit of a squash. After a while she came back downstairs and had pudding on her own in the conservatory.

Before we opened presents Katie went and put on a Halloween mask which covered her face except for eye holes. This isn’t something she’s done before but she told me she didn’t want to open presents without wearing the mask. I’m not sure what was different than any of the other times she’s opened presents. I guess she felt a bit exposed for some reason and just needed something to hide behind, so it will be interesting to see if she uses that again. She just kept it on for opening presents and maybe half an hour or so afterwards and that was it.

Overall a fun few days which whizzed by, but it’s easy to forget that Christmas can be full on for any children regardless of their neurotype. Matthew spent Christmas morning alternating between being totally hyperactive and announcing it was the best day ever, to bursting into tears about the smallest thing, to settling down slightly in the afternoon and being just hyperactive but not emotional! Alice was fine over Christmas but today we’ve had a quiet day and it’s just been the 5 of us at home. We went out for a walk and the kids have had a chance to just do whatever while we’ve tried to get the house straight, and she’s been really grumpy so I guess she’s on a bit of a come down after a few crazy exciting days!

We’ll mostly just be pottering around now until 5th January when the kids go back to school and I go back to work. Katie has already started worrying about going back and saying that she doesn’t want to so I’m not sure how that’s going to go when the time comes.