Tuesday 23 February 2016

Screen time vs Outdoor time

As a mum to one hormonal ‘I hate the world’ teenager and two pre- teens that can find their way around PowerPoint far better than I ever can, over the years I would often find myself pondering on the whole debate of how much screen time is acceptable for our kids these days? Or was the new IPAD he got for Christmas ruining my sons social skills. And more to the point I would wonder what on earth Snap-chat actually was. Because I just don’t get it at all, I mean the picture disappears-what’s that all about then?!

But seriously these days all you have to do is log onto any social media account (some irony there) to be told our kids are spending too much time on phones and laptops. It was yet another worry to add to the list that was special needs parenthood.

But then as quick as my mind had drifted to ‘I am such a bad parent’ mode it soon snapped back to reality as my kids would scream from the top of the stairs that the Wi-Fi wasn’t working again. And I would find myself cursing the stupid glitchy fibre optic ‘thingy -me –jig’ under my breath as I was fiddling with plugs and wires at the back of the box having no clue what on earth I was doing. Until eventually someone shouted “it’s on again” and I would breathe a sigh of relief!

All three of my kids I am embarrassed to admit are far more tech savvy than me. And my son, who is my middle child, is like any typical pre-teen in many ways I suppose. He loves his PlayStation, his IPAD and watching Netflix. But where the difference lies is that my son tends to dive head first into the world of technology- completely immersing himself in all things online, and if we let him he wouldn’t surface for days at a time. Whereas my daughters are a bit more balanced in their approach to all things ‘dotcom.’

My son has Autism so for him the world of Minecraft and YouTube offers a safe and predictable world in which he doesn’t need to worry about complex social interactions and awkward conversations which he finds so challenging. So it’s easy to see why he loves gaming so much.

And this used to create a world of worry for me.

Because like I said, if we let him he would never leave the sanctuary of his gaming chair. So this posed a problem to us - we had to find a way of balancing his need for feeling safe in his world of gaming, whilst still being exposed to experiences of the real world around him.

Despite all my worries we could see how gaming was helping my son. It kind of reset him when he was anxious or overwhelmed. He would visibly calm instantly once in his room on his favourite game. And we could see that it was also helping him make friendships. Obviously that’s something we have to closely monitor, but I couldn’t believe it was the same boy sometimes when I would stand listening to him with my ear pressed against his door, chatting with his friend from school.

It actually made me cry with happiness one day to hear him giggling away so free and easy with a classmate. Laughing about what had happened that day at school, whilst building an online Minecraft world together. All this despite being in separate places. It made me cry as it had connected him to his friend in a really meaningful and positive way, and it was lovely to hear him so happy and relaxed.

If I’m honest I think it’s also taught him about losing, perseverance, game play, strategy, and problem solving too. And even how to keep calm when the Wi-Fi goes as it often seems to go at the most crucial part of his game (well at least try to keep calm anyway, it’s a work in progress that one!)

You see Gaming is my son’s ‘thing,’ his special interest or obsession whatever you want to call it. He is good at it and really enjoys it. So to stop him from doing it would have been be unfair of me. Heck I mean if someone told me I had to stop drinking coffee, or could never sneakily binge watch Netflix while the kids were at school all day again, well I think I would cry as it’s what gets me through the day sometimes.

So we had to learn and adapt to his passion and use it to our advantage. After years of fumbling our way around, and forcing him to comply with our view of the world, stressing out about it all -which believe me was no fun for any of us, we needed to change our approach.  And so we adjusted our view and learned to see things through his eyes. We compromised with him and began to treat his special interest with the respect it deserved because it’s what makes him who he is.

Now we timetable the parts of his day that need him to be sociable, he attends full time school and enjoys walking the dogs with me. He enjoys days out and family holidays, and he loves exploring the woods (he is an excellent tree climber) but then we always allow him to recoup afterwards in the comfort and sanctuary of his room. All experiences are vital for my son so we work hard to keep the balance right. Don’t get me wrong sometimes it’s hard to maintain the balance as kids will be kids- whether they are Autistic or not, and will always try to push boundaries. And we have days where he is reluctant to leave the house- but we usually always manage to find a hook to grab his interest in the activity and he copes better that way, otherwise he just doesn’t see the point.

In the school holidays we have found that a day in, and then a day out tends to work best for us. It gives him chance to spend quality time with us all, and experience new places and people. But all that takes its toll on his fragile nervous system, so a day in the house with reduced demands on his computer the following day helps him to process all the sights, sounds and smells he experienced, whilst also giving him (and us) time to prepare for the next day’s activities.

I think we have found our way of managing the world of tech and gaming that works for our family, regardless of all the conflicting advice out there. I have learned to not overthink things too much. And I am happier for it.  As long as he is safe online and it doesn’t stop him accessing the world around him, I am happy to encourage and respect his special interests.

I have had to learn not to care what people may think about our choices. Because each family is different. Each situation is unique, and nobody has the right to tell me that my choices are wrong. Some people may not agree with my parenting approach and that’s fine- they don’t have to because they are not living my life. It works for us and I have a much happier and engaged son because if it. And who knows where it will lead him in the future as a career option. Maybe the next Bill Gates could live right here in my house.

So for now I am happy that he has found something he can excel at. Something that I can use to motivate him, something that I can use as leverage, and something that teaches him so much. For us it’s all about balance and acceptance, and working with him not against him!


So just before I leave you, get this - last month I treated myself to a broadband upgrade and booster pack. I know- how exciting! So no more glitchy Netflix for me, and no more screaming kids at the top of the stairs...Happy days!

(Well us parents deserve a treat every now and again don’t we? Who said we need hair do’s and fancy nights out in posh restaurants- A take away pizza, my comfy slippers, Wi-Fi that works and three happy kids is all the treat I’ll ever need.)
This was written as a Guest Post for Family Fund click here for the link-  https://www.familyfund.org.uk/blog/screen-time-vs-outdoor-time

Sunday 21 February 2016

How we can help with Back to School anxiety

The first day back to school after a break can be a real cause of heightened anxiety for many children, including not only my son who has autism but also for his two sisters - who just worry a lot.

You know the feeling, you have had a lovely few weeks off work and the day of return is steaming at you like a train – you can’t escape it or ignore it because it’s going to happen. And no matter how much you actually may like work you still worry about it. But we can think ahead and realise that no matter how much we worry, after a couple of hours back in the saddle it will feel like we have never been away.
But for our kids this kind of reasoning is very hard to do, especially if you have autism and your brain processes things differently.

You see our kid’s nervous systems are on constant overdrive to process all the sensory information that bombards them on a daily basis, and schools are often places where they have to work even harder to keep themselves regulated.  The pace of learning, the noises, the constant social interactions, following unwritten rules, fast language, and busy rooms can all increase their anxiety levels.

For many children on the autism spectrum this high level of anxiety is something they learn to live with every-day, but it can make them feel really confused, vulnerable and exhausted. These feelings can become overwhelming for many kids, and can ultimately lead to huge school related anxiety and in some cases, like with my son, school refusal.  

So I know from experience that there will be many families out there today, with the end of the school holidays fast approaching, that feel like they are treading on egg shells at home because their children are on the edge. They are so anxious about returning to school that the slightest thing sets them off - a wrong word or a brush past them on the stairs and they are in full meltdown mode from what appears to be like out of nowhere!
Jekyll and Hyde I used to call my son.

But really it’s not out of nowhere if we think about it - it’s just we can’t see what’s going on inside their little minds, and often they can’t tell us.
Inside they are literally bubbling with stress chemicals so they are on the edge and only the slightest little push sends them to lash out or want to run a way and escape to the safety their bedrooms.

So what can we do to help our kids, and how can we best get through the days leading up to the return to school when our children have such high anxiety?

Here are some ideas you may like to try -
          (Many of these ideas will be relevant  for school to use too when a pupil is very anxious)

·       Reduce demands – Wherever possible don’t get into direct confrontation, give your child choices as when children become really anxious they can become oppositional at even the smallest of tasks.

·       Keep language slow, calm and positive.

·       Let them spend some of the day doing their favourite activity if it helps keep them calm, some children may need to 'stim' more to self-regulate, while some may want to retreat and limit interaction – respect this and don’t force things too much when your child is like this. When they are doing something they like it releases the feel good chemical which helps relax their central nervous system.

·       Relaxation can work for many children – calming music, dimming the light, a hand massage, aromatherapy etc. can have a really calming effect on anxious children.

·       Being outside in nature helps my son – walking the dogs/ climbing a tree/ a walk  could all help.

·       Make sure the day is structured even if it’s a day in the house  - break it up into chunks using a visual timetable.

·       Ensure you have the relevant information from school about what is happening that first day back – it may mean contacting the teacher to get the information beforehand if necessary if they don’t volunteer the information without a little nudge.

·       Use this information to map out their first day back in school, as when your child is anxious any uncertainty will increase their panic. Write down what they will be doing – use visuals if that helps, all this will drastically reduce your child’s anxiety. Of course you NEED this information from school in order to do this, and its vital schools help you by recognising the importance of giving home the relevant information beforehand.

·      Keep your day low key and warn family that the day before school starts probably isn’t the best day to do an unannounced visit – as much as your child loves them he may just not be in the right frame of mind to deal with a house full when he is feeling so delicate.

·      For some children it can help them label their feelings using a scale. http://www.autismempowerment.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Incredible-5-Point-Scale-Fact-Sheet-rev.pdf

·       Keep any directions or instructions really simple and concrete using visuals to reinforce your language.

·       Heavy muscle work can help calm children – so riding a bike, jumping on the trampoline or sofa/ swimming/ swinging etc..

·       Have lots of sensory activities at the ready such as fiddle toys/ lights / messy play/ weighted blanket for your child to use whenever they want throughout day.

·       A transition activity ready at school for your child that they are happy and prepared for can help some children settle better at the beginning of the day. It could be that they sharpen the pencils every day when they arrive, or that they arrive 5 minutes early and don’t have to queue in the playground with everyone else. School should be open to any ideas that can help the transition from home and school become easier for our children.

·        It’s also vital that you have time to pass on any info they may need to know like poor sleep etc. (this could be written in a home school book). If your child knows you are going to ensure you let the teacher know of anything that has been an issue for them it can help them feel calmer. My son often used to worry that this teacher wouldn’t know something, so just by me having that quick handover with his TA in the morning really put his mind at rest. It doesn’t have to mean you will spend 10 minutes each morning with the teacher as we all know that it’s not possible - but it is SO vital that the communication is open between home and school.

·       And finally maybe have a motivating activity for them timetabled for their first day when they get back home - it could be a treat tea or favourite movie to look forward to when they get back for doing so well at controlling their anxiety.

                                        And most importantly please give yourself some time too.

It’s hard on everyone in the family when you have a child with high anxiety. Especially the one who is often on the receiving end of the meltdown. Just as your child needs to be given time to recharge once they have reached school and start their day, so do you!

I know from personal experience that when your child is so upset and anxious you feel every inch of the emotions with them - and it takes its toll. You too will have stress chemicals pumping through your body so don’t ignore it- look after yourself. Give your own body time to recover, even if it's just a walk around the block before you dash off to do the weekly shop.  

                                                Please -  because you are important too!

Saturday 20 February 2016

Half Term crazy days

It’s wet and dreary day here today, not the kind of day you want to venture out in really  The kids are pretty well settled, and I am catching up on all the EastEnders that I have missed this last week (I should be doing the cleaning really but what’s the point when the kids aren’t back in school ‘til Monday so it will only get messy again!) So instead of hoovering I thought I would make the most of the current peace in the house and give you a quick update and well - just say hi really.

So it’s been half term week here for us and as ever it’s been a pretty eventful one! We’ve had wet days, fun days, and darn right crazy days I can tell you, as I am sure you have too. We had timetabled our week and have pretty much stuck to it as planned. But despite all the organisation things just didn’t always work out to plan.

We had a meal in a pub that ended in me and little man leaving early amongst stares and glances from other diners, then the next day we never even made it in the water park as it was too busy, oh and we had some bowling shoes being lobbed across the alley because he was so anxious about the game (luckily it narrowly missed the ladies head in the aisle next to us!)

But we have also had lots of laughter, ‘knock- knock’ jokes in abundance, coping with losing at bowling was an achievement. And joy listening to him laugh out loud at the Alvin and the Chipmunks film. I love it when he belly laughs - it’s the best sound ever.

And the times it went wrong were entirely our fault really. You see we forgot ourselves a little I think and we thought we could rock up to the water park like every other family in the North West. Ha Ha what the heck were we thinking? We soon realised our mistake and drove away with our tails in-between or legs realising how naïve we have been, and that’s with all our years’ experience behind us! We’re human and we make mistakes.

With all the organisation and forward planning in the world things can still go wrong believe me!

We may not have made it to the museums or water parks like every other ‘normal’ family out there this half term. And we may have cleared the restaurant when we decided to turn up with our crazy family for tea. But so what! Once upon a time that would have really bothered me I have to admit. But not anymore, I can’t let it because it would take me under if I did. Because we are just not like every other family out there. We are a special family and we need to accept that it means we have to do things a little differently.

But we have fun in our own way.

And as much as I would like go to the places everyone else seems to go in the school holidays - we just can’t. They always involve too much queueing, too much stress and let’s be honest most of the time its just too expensive for a family like ours - only to spend most of it stuck in the corner of the room not accessing any of it anyway!
So we admit defeat and think outside the box a bit, or find the quieter times to go to these places. And hopefully more and more places will start to make it easier for families like ours by allowing us access at quieter times – we can but hope eh!

But in the meantime if like us you made a rooky mistake this half term that ended in a meltdown for you or your kids, please don’t beat yourself up about it. Remember we’re all human and so much of what we do as parents is trial and error.

So what if a day out for us is at the local pool not the water park, or a meal in a pub doesn’t go quite to plan, I say well done for even attempting it! 
Please folks...don’t fall prey to the stares of strangers, or pressure to be like everyone else. I've been there and worn the T shirt so many times believe me and its not worth the stress!

Friday 5 February 2016

Dear Mums in the Playground

Dear Mums in the Playground,

You may not know me well but I was that mum that skulked past you all with my head hiding under my umbrella, or under my hood just to avoid having to talk to you for many years.

I was that mum that the class teacher always wanted to come and talk to at the end of the day, with a knowing look that something had happened that she needed to tell me about.

I was that mum whose child who stopped getting invited to parties.

I was that mum that never came to the PTA meetings or mums nights out, who wasn’t part of any mums ‘group’.

I was that mum who was often running late in the mornings, looking hassled and exhausted at drop off time so never had the time to say hello to you.

I was that mum who ‘let’ her child hit her whilst trying to get him in through the school door in the mornings kicking and screaming.

I was that mum who you would whisper about to each other that should discipline her child better.

That’s me. I was that mum.

The reason for my writing this today is to tell you what I should have said back then, in the playground, that I had grown tired of feeling like an outsider when I stood by myself day after day. I was tired of feeling your eyes watching me when the teacher came out to speak to me yet again, and that things got so tricky for my son that he had to leave.  

I felt alone because I was not one of you. I didn’t fit into your ‘group.’ But I really did want to be your friend. I wanted to meet for morning coffees and chat about where we were going on holiday that summer. But I couldn’t- and not for the reasons you may think.

You see I was that parent who the teacher always wanted to talk to. But not because my child was naughty as I imagined you were thinking. It was because he found mainstream school incredibly tough. And this lead to his behaviour being deemed as challenging by his teachers, because he couldn’t follow their instructions or fit in with the rest of the class.

And I can understand why my child never got invited to parties. It’s not that he didn’t want to attend your child’s party when we declined, it’s because he just found it all too overwhelming and would often get upset when he did go. So we stopped saying yes, and then the invites inevitably stopped coming.

And yes I never made it to PTA meetings. Not because I didn’t want to, but because usually I was busy filling in forms, attending meetings with someone in my sons team, at a  CAMHS appointment, or having to explain myself to yet another professional that was looking at my parenting as my son didn’t have a diagnosis at this point.

And I want to tell you that the reason I was always in a rush in the mornings was because my child had severe school related anxiety. Some mornings it could take me 30 minutes just to get him to put one sock on. He needed routines, and visuals, and social stories just for me to get him through the school gates. I had to drive the same way each day, and pray there would be no traffic as that made his anxiety worse. And when it was non-uniform day or cake sale day – well those days were even trickier for us to get to school, it wasn’t that we didn’t want to join in, it was just too much for him to cope with.

Thinking back to that time you saw my son so anxious and so upset that he felt the need to run away and kick the wall when the fire alarm was going off at drop off time. In that busy playground you all stood and watched us. I had to stop him from escaping, so he lashed out as a way of protecting himself. No one came to help us, no one came to see if I was OK. I was deeply upset that day because I worried what you all thought of us.

I felt isolated and alone. But I held it together until I had reached the sanctuary of my car and then found myself crying uncontrollably into the steering wheel.

We now know that my son has Autism.

For a long time I felt judged, judged by parents, judged by school, judged by professionals and I was that mum who walked with her head down. I was worn down and defencive as a result of all the stress. I became too tired to face anyone so it became easier to avoid you. To walk past you in the playground and hide behind my umbrella.

But I am now several years down the line and no longer have to do the school playground thing as my son attends a school that best meets his individual needs, which means going to a school in a different area -so he gets a taxi there and back.

That’s why I left so abruptly last year with no explanation or goodbye. He needed to leave as his anxiety had consumed him. And I couldn’t face telling any of you.

I know any judgements you made; if you made any at all, were all due to the fact that you didn’t understand. I mean how could you if I kept my head down each day and didn’t attempt to let any of you into my world. I never gave you the chance.

I did want to -  believe me I did, I just didn’t have the energy as I was fighting for my son on so many different fronts at the time I was barely keeping my head above the water. And for that I am sorry.

And now- well now I have found my ‘group’. I may not have felt like I fitted in on the playground but I have found a whole world of on-line support out there of fellow special needs mums. With them I don’t have to explain why my son my son finds school so hard because they live it each day like me. So it’s natural and comfortable with them- but if I’m honest sometimes going out of our comfort zone does us good every now and again. 

You see I was guilty as anyone all those years in the playground- because I judged you. Those mums will never understand, or they’re watching me again I would tell myself, so I kept my distance and that was wrong of me. I assumed you were judging me, but I never really took the time to find out.

No mum should ever walk with her head down, because were all doing the same job. It’s tough and we all want what’s best for our kids, special needs or not.

And we special needs mums have just as much to offer as a friend, and as a member of the school community as anyone else, we just have to make adaptions that all.

So if you recognise some of yourself in my story- be strong, be brave and be honest, don’t be like me by and leave it until it’s too late. Take those brave strides across the concrete and hopscotch and talk to teach other. You may be surprised what lies behind the façade as there is always more than meets the eye.  

And who knows what kind of friendship can blossom from huddling together under the shelter of a shared umbrella on a soggy wet afternoon in January- You won’t know, unless you try!

This blog was written as a Guest Blog on Kathy Brodie Early Years Training and Coaching, follow the link below to visit her Website-