Undiagnosed: unexpected but not unusual

I’m often asked if I knew when I was pregnant that Orange would have disabilities. For many reasons that I have written about previously, I’m glad that I didn’t. His disabilities were completely unexpected.

When I started to realise that life might not be straightforward for Orange, I wanted to know why. Why was it that he couldn’t move his head, spluttered when he fed, slept all the time and did this odd stiff banana pose when we picked him up? Why didn’t he seek out my gaze like his older sister had? Why didn’t he smile? And what about that failed newborn hearing test?

When I googled, the answer I got was cerebral palsy.

I spent the first weeks of Orange’s life terrified that he had cerebral palsy and that no-one else had noticed.

Of course, over time, they did.

“I’m not sure about his muscle tone” said the GP at his 8 week newborn check. “Come back in four weeks, won’t you”, he said.

“Has he woken up yet?” said friends, half jovial at the fact my second baby slept so much he was more than making up for the pinned-eye waking torture of my first.

As the months rolled on, and Orange missed milestone after milestone, we were whipped into a system of genetic testing, brain scans and neurological assessments.

Nobody mentioned cerebral palsy. In fact, no-one mentioned any diagnosis at all.

At the time, I held on with hope that if a diagnosis could not be found, that meant Orange was fine after all. He would catch up with his milestones, it was just the stiff neck from birth causing his delays, that’s all.

Orange was almost one before anybody said to me that he would almost certainly have difficulties for life, that we wouldn’t know what they would be until he got bigger, and that we might never know the reasons why.

Until that point, I had no idea that ‘undiagnosed’ was even a possibility for a severely disabled child. And at the time, I also had no idea that there were others in the same nameless boat.

I had so many questions.

Would he walk? Would he talk? Would he need to go to a special school? What about epilepsy, I’ve read that’s a thing for lots of children with disabilities? How will I know if he’s having seizures? How long will he live?

Nobody could or would answer them.

I tried to answer them myself by reading every medical study and report available on the internet about rare genetic syndromes. But all that could be found there was fear. So I stopped.

I asked geneticists and neurologists about specific tests and syndromes. But all that could be found there was the result ‘normal’. Every medical test that Orange has ever had has recorded the result ‘normal’. So I have stopped that too.

There are no answers, except those that Orange is able to give us himself.

He is six now. He hasn’t walked. He hasn’t talked. He does go to a special school. And yes, he has epilepsy. And boy did we know when that started.

Without answers, for a long time we had hope that Orange would catch up. When he didn’t, we learned to replace that hope with a new one. That life could and would be fulfilling and wonderful anyway.

Orange has shown us that what an academic medical journal may have led us to believe would be a difficult and frightening life is anything but. They don’t tell you about the fun. The laughter. The sweet little habits. The kind hands. The bond you have with a child who needs you on a deeper level than most.

They also don’t tell you about the wonderful people you will meet when you have a child with disabilities. Kind and dedicated teachers who see your child’s personality and achievements and celebrate them with you. The respite carer and passenger assistant on school transport who become like extra grandmas.

The families you will meet, sitting alongside you in the boat without a name.

The friendships I have made with other families who also have undiagnosed children are what gets me through when there is no answer to a difficult question. Because while our children may all be different, often we are all floating about in the same unknown territory.

And there are thousands of us.

Every year, 6,000 children are born with an undiagnosed condition. SWAN UK is the only charity in the UK that provides support for families with an undiagnosed child.

It is through SWAN UK that I have made lifelong friendships. Together we celebrate our children, help each other out with ideas for equipment, home adaptions, how to handle meetings with medical and council staff, share frustrations, support each other through grief and loss, look out for each other’s mental health, laugh together, cry together.

But while our group is now at over 1,000 families, we know there are so many more who may need that support.

Today, it’s Undiagnosed Children’s Day, and we are asking people to help us find other families with undiagnosed children who may need support and friendship along this unexpected, but not unusual, path.

So if you know someone who might be in our shoes, put them in touch with SWAN UK.

Happy Undiagnosed Children’s Day!

Uncommon Parenting 101: Lessons I’ve Learned About Surviving and Thriving

 

There’s no doubt that raising a child with disabilities can change you. I’m no subscriber to the belief that ‘special children are given to special people’, nor that having a disabled child automatically adorns a person with a Pollyanna-esque gratefulness and wonder.

It would be fair to say that the experiences along this uncommon parenting pathway can shift your centre of gravity fundamentally. But learning to navigate this path, and find your way along it with a spring in your step, can take some practise and sometimes determination.

When Orange was tiny, I didn’t want to be on this path. So for about eighteen months, I still hoped that he would be fine. Without any firm diagnosis, and with plenty of developmental ‘catch up’ time in front of us, there was still room for a small chink of hope that we weren’t really on this path at all. That one day all my fears would be let go as unfounded.

The reality was that many of the things I was afraid of back then did indeed turn out to be on our path. In the first few years of Orange’s life, we rollercoastered head on into some of my biggest fears. Non-walking child – tick. Non-verbal child – tick. Special school required – tick. The big one – epilepsy, seizures that stop your child from breathing – tick. And I hadn’t even anticipated the things that would be most anxiety inducing; negotiating the education and social care systems to get him what he needs to have a normal life.

Even in my darkest moments, though, I never wanted to back myself into a corner through fear or anger. I was not going to be the person asking ‘why me?’, nor the one in denial, or embarrassment.

To me, the ultimate ‘failure’ and loss of control would be to have felt aggrieved at the unfairness of it all and let this overcome my world view. Even though I had no idea how I would do it, once I knew our lives would be different I always wanted to embrace it. To turn challenges into opportunities and to find happiness and fulfilment right where sadness or isolation could have easily set up camp.

So I had to adapt. To find creative ways to establish some sense of control. To feel a little bit normal in what felt like deeply unusual circumstances.

I’m still learning, of course. And I’ve also learned that our circumstances aren’t so unusual after all. Which also helps.

For those of you at the beginning of this path I won’t pretend it’s an easy one. But I will say this.

You can survive things you might have thought impossible.

You can thrive in a life you might have thought unpalatable.

And you are most definitely not on your own.

You are human, and that means you’re really good at adapting. It’s what we do. What I’m about to share here is just a few of the things I have learned along the way. It might not be for everyone but it’s what I would tell myself if I was doing this all again.

You can choose. It’s completely ok to admit this might not have been the life you wanted. It doesn’t make you a bad person. So you can let go of that guilt. But you can choose whether to hang on to the sadness that your lives, and your child’s life, might not fit the vision you had in mind.

Life is unpredictable and if it wasn’t this, there would almost certainly be some other challenge round the corner that would throw best laid plans off course. You can choose to embrace life’s unpredictabilities or to be blown about by them. That doesn’t mean denying that life will sometimes bring sadness, grief or regret, or that any of us might have more than our fill of bad luck, but that you don’t waste the good times wishing your life was different.

 

You do need help. I’m an introvert. I’m also fiercely independent. I don’t do asking for help or showing vulnerability very well at all. But there have been times when I couldn’t have coped with a situation without the help of others. Figuring out the statementing process and securing the right school place for Orange would have been impossible without the help of wiser, more experienced SEN parents. Jumping in an ambulance with a non-breathing child and not having a kind neighbour step in to care for his sister. Maintaining a career without the help and support of family and the right childcare and respite network.

I couldn’t manage any of these situations without help.

So don’t hold back in seeking out help. Online, in groups, at school, at work, or within your own family and friends. Find it and nurture it. You will find that you can give as much as support as you take and this will make you feel good and useful too.

Learn to recognise anxiety. I didn’t, until very recently. Last November in fact. So almost six years into this uncommon parenting life. Before then, I just stuffed it away by over-filling my days with an impossible number of tasks and washing it down with enormous boxes of Maltesers and Kettle Chip chasers. This seemed like a pretty successful strategy until I was close to burnout, my jeans no longer fit and I stopped wanting to leave the house.

So don’t do that.

Listen to yourself, find a healthy outlet for negative emotions and nurture gratitude. I thought it was deeply cheesy at the time, but one of my Christmas stocking fillers this year was the ‘Five Minute Journal’. I don’t exaggerate when I say it has been life changing.

Preserve and create energy. Because you will need it. I won’t lie. Lifting, carrying, changing and feeding a full-size child is physically demanding. Advocating for your child’s educational, housing and equipment needs with your local authority – who you won’t want in your life at all but you will find are a necessity – is mentally and emotionally exhausting. Surviving an emergency hospital admission, or waiting around in wards and hospital waiting rooms for medical appointments or diagnostic tests is anxiety inducing.

These things can’t be avoided. And they might be more frequent that you would like.

In the first few years I treated these moments as being in ‘crisis mode’, that I could get on track with healthy eating, exercise and better sleep habits when those times passed so it was perfectly ok to stop at McDonalds on the way home or to stay up late watching Netflix and drinking wine like some kind of special reward.

Only those times never really passed. So I spiralled into an unhealthy pattern of eating crap, going to bed late and sitting about on my arse.

This one’s most definitely a work in progress but I am feeling so much more balanced and energetic in the last month having started the Eight Week Blood Sugar Diet. Next stop, exercise…

One step in the right direction

Maintain your friendships. Sometimes you will feel like you can’t. You’ll feel that your life is different now and how could they possibly understand. They won’t always get it right. But give them a chance. They are your friends for a reason. You may find that the people who support you day to day may change, but your long standing friendships will give you a sense of normality and a connection to yourself ‘just as you were’ that you will find you want to come back to, again and again. It will keep you grounded and connected to the outside world. This is a good and necessary thing.

Switch off. Mindfulness meditation was recommended to me as a way of managing the looping lists and invasive mind-patter going in my head. It wasn’t for me but I have found that writing and walking most definitely are. Preferably by the sea. Find your thing and make sure you do it. Your brain needs the space.

 

Feeling a little bit like a dickhead and hoping it’s worth it

I’ll be honest and say I’ve shied away from writing about this for a really long time. For fear that everyone else is just getting on with it and hasn’t needed some kind of survival strategy to see them through. That I might just sound like a massive dickhead. Perhaps I do. But if it helps just one person, I’ll take that.

Project ‘Get out of the house 2017’ #wheelygood

You know those grey February days when you think it should be spring but it just isn’t quite yet? When the deliciousness of summer beach picnics and lounging about in the park has faded just a bit too far round the memory corner and your feet have forgotten what it means to be flip-flop ready?

So, for me, that’s today in a nutshell. Sat under a blanket for the third day running in the inhospitable company of a vile and flu-like thing, I’m going more than a little four-wall-crazy. And when daytime TV becomes intolerable the internet is my friend between naps, nose blows and making irritating requests for water and ‘something spicy and scratchy’ to eat.

So I’m planning some family days out.

This year we promised ourselves we would do better at getting out and about to explore the beautiful part of the country we live in. Nestled in south east Cornwall, we have all of not just Cornwall but also Devon right here on our doorsteps but we have fallen into routines and habits that mean we often visit the same places. Partly because we like them but also because for us they are ‘safe’ options.

We know that the Eden Project has a Changing Places loo with a bench and a hoist so we can change Orange and that the whole place is a wheelchair accessible, sensory paradise where we can always get something delicious, allergy free and mashable for Orange to eat. It’s an easy, enjoyable and inspiring day out for all of us.

And the wine is good. So it’s always a win.

Out late and totally winning at life at the Eden Project

We know that we can get an all-terrain wheelchair onto any of the beaches in St Ives, and that the food options there are top notch but that the disabled parking only lasts three hours and the alternative, the train in and out from Lelant, isn’t wheelchair accessible.

We know we can easily get a wheelchair round the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth then go across the (flat) square and eat lobster at Rick Stein, or visit the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth and dine like kings at Rockfish afterwards but, while all of these venues have plenty of room to install one, there is no Changing Places loo at, or even near, any of them.

It’s a car boot job or filthy floor of the ‘disabled loo’ (is that mud or poo, water or wee I’m kneeling in today?) to change the boy, risking basic hygiene, spines and dignity as we go.

We know that any beach with a slipway is our friend for a sunny day out with a picnic, and some beautiful wheelchair friendly walks can be found on the moors to either side of us but the same changing challenges abound.

Wet through, attempting a change on the back seat of the car in a public car park

Sometimes, the sheer planning of a day out with Orange means we don’t do it at all. Because family life can be pretty exhausting as it is, and honestly it’s often too much of a bore to try to figure out if a new place we have never been before, a new walk, attraction or picnic spot might be accessible enough for us.

Strangely, access statements don’t seem to contain the information you need if you are going out and about with a disabled child who is 100% reliant on a wheelchair.

We’ve had some pretty dire experiences on days out where the accessibility has not just been an afterthought but where there has been no thought at all.

It was on a ‘challenging’ family day out to Cotehele, a local National Trust property, just before Christmas when I figured that since over half a million tourists visit the south west every summer and 2% of those are likely to be wheelchair users, that’s over 10,000 people a year who  are being poorly catered for.

10,000 people a year. Most of whom are probably here on holiday with their families, because wheelchair users don’t travel alone any more frequently than ambulant folk do.

So that’s actually 30,000-40,000 people a year visiting Devon or Cornwall who need better disability provision, and clear information about that provision, so they can enjoy a family day out.

Even with the distinct advantage of living in the region and knowing where to look, planning a family day out and being confident we will have everything Orange needs is a military exercise.

Just last week, I was planning a walk on Dartmoor and had to visit six or seven different websites just to find an accessible walk, nearby accessible parking, whether there was a Changing Places loo (there wasn’t), and whether there was an accessible child-friendly pub/restaurant/cafe anywhere within wheelchair striking distance that would serve something Orange could eat and that we would all enjoy. That wasn’t booked three weeks in advance.

I’m ashamed to say, I gave up. We stayed at home.

We can’t keep doing that, though. Because venues and owners of public facilities simply won’t be persuaded to install accessible facilities if they don’t see the need. And they won’t see the need if we all stay at home.

I know the National Trust staff had never even thought about the negative impact of keeping their accessible entrance and exit at Cotehele under padlock and key (that you had to go into an inaccessible building and join a queue to request to be unlocked) before we pointed out to them how exclusionary that was.

Guess where reception is? Up some steps, ta da!

I filmed it and everything, because I had total National Trust hives by then and really needed to leave… 

Trying to leave Cotehele in a wheelchair

But fresh in anger we made a promise to ourselves. That we would go out and about with Orange in his wheelchair in a much more intrepid way than we have. Because we need to get out and about for our health and wellbeing. It’s a fundamental need, as well as a nice thing to do.

I also made a promise that I would use this blog to start to build a useful resource for people who might be planning a holiday or a visit to Devon or Cornwall and who are finding it hard, like we do, to find places to go on wheels. With information that’s more user friendly than a tick box access statement. A little mini guide to getting out and about as a family with a wheelchair user in the south west.

It will start small but, since we’re never, ever moving house again (not just because we love it here but also because disabled adaptations will see to it that we can’t, but that’s another tale), I figured that over the years it might build into something really handy for people.

Having sunk to a new flu-based low of watching Parliament Live for two days now, this morning I stumbled across the #disabilityinquiry in which Changing Places loos were a hot topic.

It reminded me of our promise to get out and about with Orange, to go to new places and to start to build a place online where families can find genuinely useful accessibility info about our beautiful part of the country.

So I suppose this is the distinctly low key launch of what I am going to call #wheelygood. Or not. Watch this space for our first trip out, once this flu-vile thing-bug interloper buggers off.

Orange This Way will be taking part in Disabled Access Day, 10th-12th March 2017

 

It takes (more than) a village to raise a child (with an undiagnosed genetic syndrome) #thankyouteamorange

When Orange was not quite two, I remember counting in my head the number of doctors, nurses, specialist consultants, therapists and support workers that had been involved in our lives as a result of his difficulties since he was born. I was astounded when I got to 46 and was sure that I wasn’t done counting.

Since then, Team Orange has grown considerably. I stopped counting some years ago but in his five years I can be sure that well over 100 and probably over 200 health and social care professionals have been involved in Orange’s care to date. And that doesn’t include the hundreds of administrators and officials who we speak to day in day out to coordinate appointments, medication reviews and prescriptions, equipment deliveries and repairs, blue badges, disability benefits and education, health and care plans.

That’s an awful lot of people to welcome into your lives. An awful lot of people to open up to, to place your trust in and to rely on to do what’s needed for your child. An awful lot of people who need to work together, in a coordinated fashion, to deliver the right support and care for your child and for you, when you have no idea what you are doing and are learning as you go.

If I have learnt anything in raising a child who has severe disabilities and complex medical issues but with no diagnosis for his condition, it is that I cannot do this alone. It is too big a job.

6a954-orangedoodle

While I know that I am the world expert on my boy, I am not the world expert on epilepsy, hypotonia, dysphagia, arachnoid cysts or scoliosis. I also need to sleep, work, take care of Orange’s sister, be a wife, sister, daughter and all the other ‘normal life things’ that can get swept aside when you are a parent carer. I can only do ‘normal life things’ if we have help.

As much as there are (many) times when I just want to snuggle down with Orange and hide away from the perpetual merry-go-round of appointments, medical examinations, reports, meetings, phone calls, letters and assessments, I know that I would be doing Orange and all of us a dis-service if I didn’t build a solid team around us of people and professionals who can help. And lead this team to deliver what Orange needs to be safe, happy, well and fulfilled in his life.

When you have a child who has complex needs but no diagnosis there is no well-trodden pathway, no yellow brick road to follow.

No-one will show you the way.

Unsignposted

Here are some things I wish I had known, that would have given me confidence, in the early days of us discovering Orange had a syndrome without a name.

You will have to cut your own path, often in a forthright and determined fashion, even when you are at your most worn out and frightened. You will have to do this to access simple things like the right schooling, essential medical support, suitable childcare so you can work, or fit-for-purpose home adaptations for basic daily care like having a bath, or essential tasks like leaving the house. You will do it, because you are strong and because no-one else will.

Lots of people will enter your lives that you didn’t expect. Some invited and some uninvited. Sometimes this is exactly what you need. Sometimes it will drive you nuts. Often at the same time. Roll with it but know that you can press pause if you need to. You are in control.

You will learn to trust people. You will also learn when not to. Your gut instinct is always right. Use it. Lean on the people who you trust and ask for a change of professional in circumstances where you feel there is a lack of trust or understanding. You will know when you need to do this.

You will learn to ask for help (sometimes unceremoniously). This is something I wish I had learned sooner. It took me four and a half years to actually open up to a professional who could help us get the respite care we needed to keep our family on an even keel. It wasn’t pretty. Something akin to hanging a dirty nappy on the door, which one of my favourite SWAN bloggers made famous with her post on Complicated Gorgeousness about the lengths some parents have to go to in search of respite care. It shouldn’t be like this but often it is. Ask for help. Loud and clear. And do it now, don’t wait until you are at crisis point.

You will see the best in humankind and it will make your heart swell. And sometimes you will see the worst and it will make you want to sink into the ground. But most of the time you will just see people, normal people. Some who can answer your questions, some who can’t, and plenty who want to ask fountains of questions of you. Consultants, educational psychologists, social workers, parents of disabled children – these are all groups of people I had preconceived ideas about. And in the most part, I was wrong. We are all just people, for the most part trying to do our best in life and be fulfilled and happy. Remember that always.

You will find people just like you. You are not alone. There are thousands of families with children posing similar quandaries to professionals all over the world, who have complex conditions and no diagnosis, despite years of testing and the best, cleverest minds in genetic research on the job.

These people will hold you together when your child stops breathing and you are in an ambulance racing to hospital with a child in status epilepticus, not knowing if he will pull through.

These people will help you when you have to fill in 40 pages of disability living allowance forms that are not written with complicated, undiagnosed conditions in mind and you have no idea where to begin.

These people will celebrate with you when your child takes a small step that for them is a gigantic leap. Putting a spoon in their mouth for the first time, turning the page of a book, smiling in response to your smile, or squeezing your hand with affection.

These people will laugh with you, cry with you, rant with you, stand and campaign with you at Westminster, share your ups and downs, solve problems with you, hold your hand and drink wine with you.

These people are everybody who makes up the community that is SWAN UK, the small but growing charity that supports families who have children with undiagnosed syndromes.

Through SWAN UK we have found our people. Without them we would be lost.

Friday 29th April is Undiagnosed Children’s Day. On this day, we celebrate the support and love of SWAN UK, raise awareness of undiagnosed genetic conditions, and reach out to other families who may be feeling lost, or alone and unsure where to turn to for help.

Every year, as many as 6,000 children are born who have undiagnosed genetic conditions. They, and their families need your help. SWAN UK cannot keep going and keep delivering the support that it does without funds. This is why Mr K ran the London Marathon last weekend for SWAN UK, raising over £3,000 for the charity. You can still sponsor him here. Thank you.

I would also like to say thank you to all the professionals who are part of Team Orange, who help us negotiate this untrodden path. There are too many to name, but a special thank you goes to Orange’s school team, his school transport escort, his disabled children’s social worker and his school nurse, who provides our respite care. Thank you. We absolutely could not do this without you.

To end, here’s a little video with some great tips for professionals on how you can help families who have an undiagnosed child, and some lovely stories of professionals who are worth their weight in gold, who have gone above and beyond to help families with undiagnosed children.

Happy UCD2016!

Living without a diagnosis

For any parents of children like Orange who are living without a diagnosis, I just found this really useful leaflet on the Genetic Alliance website.

It is UK centric as there are lots of links to support organisations, but there are also useful tips just for coping. Well worth a read.

Living without a Diagnosis