D is for Dyspraxia

dyspraxia

My teenage son has dyspraxia. When I tell people this, most of them give me a politely blank look, meaning, “I have no idea what you’re talking about but I’m too embarrassed to tell you.” And this is the response I’ve also had from most of his teachers during his 10 years at school. It’s not their fault; they receive very little special needs education during their teacher training. They’re expected to deal with children who have a whole range of disorders like autism, ADHD and dyslexia and yet know almost nothing about them and are expected to cope the best they can.

This woeful state of affairs has meant to a large extent, I have been educating my son’s teachers by giving them practical tips on how to help him and at the same time battling the scepticism of some who don’t believe my son has any kind of condition at all and that I’m just an overly worried middle-class mother who needs to stop bothering them.

Let’s get down to the nuts and bolts then. What is dyspraxia? It’s defined as, “a developmental disorder of the brain in childhood causing difficulty in activities requiring co-ordination and movement.” Well that’s part of the problem but the complete picture is so much more. Yes, my son doesn’t have the greatest co-ordination but he manages to write and tie his shoes laces; he just can’t do it as well as his peers.

The greatest impact has been to his concentration and short term memory. He can focus on a written task for 5 minutes, perhaps 10 if it really interests him and then his mind will wander; he can’t remember verbal instructions and has very poor organisational skills. His notes in class are often inadequate and it’s really difficult for him to put his thoughts down on paper, especially for a creative task. When it comes to verbal comprehension however, he’s right at the top of the scale. He has the added problem of being a very bright child, which masks his condition. As he’s started his GCSE coursework this year, his difficulties have become much more apparent and he needs a lot of support at home.

To give you some idea of how dyspraxia affects his life, let’s compare him with his brother who’s 10. Every morning the younger one will get out of bed and dress himself before coming downstairs and getting himself breakfast. When he’s finished he’ll go and clean his teeth and style his hair, usually without me reminding him to do any of it. When I tell him it’s time to leave to go to school he’ll put on his shoes and coat, then pick up his school bag without prompting.

The older one on the other hand needs constant reminders at every stage. I’ll have to get him out of bed (hey, he is a teen) and make sure he has some breakfast. Then I have to send him upstairs to get dressed. Unless I make sure he’s changing he will distract himself at every opportunity, either with his phone or a book. Once dressed I often stand over him to make sure he’s cleaning his teeth and getting his shoes on. He’s a little better at preparing his bag and making sure he has his keys but he’s very inconsistent. Then I have to insist that he leaves at a certain time or he will make himself late.

Homework causes the most stress. My son would prefer to do it in his bedroom but unless I check on him every few minutes I know that he won’t be doing it, he’ll have found something else to do. He doesn’t like me monitoring him but he dislikes sitting at the table downstairs even less.

Some of his homework he finds easy like maths and science because it’s logical and straightforward. English is an entirely different matter. Often he has no idea how to the tackle the task he’s been given and I have to break it down into manageable chunks and then we’ll look at each part together. French is also a struggle for him to retain and we’ll just do a little bit at a time so he doesn’t feel overwhelmed.

My son does have friends at school but they’re a small, select group. He wants to have more but many of his peers find him a little odd and unfortunately it’s a perception that once made is hard to change.

I know that once my son leaves school he’ll find his place in the world but it won’t be easy for him. What would make the biggest difference to his chances is if the world knew more about people who lived with developmental disorders and accepted them for who they are. One day this will happen, just as the barriers about talking about mental health are crumbling. Until then I’ll educate as many people as I can about dyspraxia as it is only through awareness that we can hope to affect change.

Beyond Brilliant (or C is for Choir)

I jokingly said I’d write a poem about choir for today’s challenge. This is the first one I’ve ever written, so I know it’s not brilliant but it was hugely enjoyable to write. And as I’m sometimes a front row diva, I feel entitled to take the mick. After all, one should be able to laugh at oneself!

Big Gig 2016

Rock Chorus performing their Big Gig

Beyond Brilliant

Blue hoodies

and black shoes.

Men and women

singing away their blues.

 

Old and young,

the point is to have fun.

Haven’t sung since school?

Well, this choir’s for everyone.

 

Four sips in and another four out.

Swivel your hips

and shake away your doubts.

Lauren counts us in and off we go,

some voices high and others low.

 

We sing Madonna, Tom Petty

and some Coldplay too.

With forty songs under our belt,

there’s a lot for us to do.

 

But expect a lot of giggling

if you mention Toploader.

Oh the jokes made about that song

If only you knew!

 

Camaraderie and laughter

is really all we’re after.

You want us to sing in harmony?

Well, we can do that too!

 

Sometimes we sing to three men and a dog,

with the raining lashing down

it’s all part of the job!

Other times we have a Big Gig to get through

and that’s when you really see what we can do.

 

The rehearsal beforehand can be a bit of a fight,

with too many divas wanting the limelight.

What do you mean I can’t stand in the front row?

It’s my right to stand here. Didn’t you know!

 

But when the curtain goes up and the lights go down,

watch out folks. Rock Chorus is in town.

Twenty two songs sung with passion and feeling

If you’re really lucky we’ll throw in some tambourine-ing.

 

Blue hoodies

and black shoes.

Men and women

singing away their blues.

 

 

 

B is for Brač

Croatia and Wales 109

Village harbour and church

 

The Croatian coastline is speckled with over a thousand islands; little green, wooded jewels in the bright blue sea, some inhabited, some not. In summer, brilliant white yachts tack between them; day trippers trailing their feet languidly into the sea, basking in the sunshine.

On our first visit to Croatia, four years ago, we explored these enchanting islands from our base on the mainland and discovered a relaxed, unhurried pace of life. The wooded landscapes dotted with ancient towns and the clear blue water utterly seduced us and we decided to stay on one of them next time we came.

Two years later, I found a little cottage to rent in a fishing village on Brač, an island near Split. It looked idyllic but was it going to live up to expectation?

Driving off the ferry, we followed the signs uphill out of the port and drove west through a landscape of olive groves and farms. Fruit trees grew in abundance and a purple rash of bougainvillea spread along many walls. Surprisingly, there were piles of white stones poking out of the ground everywhere.

Brač is famous for its limestone and there is still a working quarry on the island. The Diocletian’s Palace in Split is built out of it and Croatians claim it was used to construct the White House.

We turned off the main road into our village and drove down to the harbour. Looking at the narrow lane winding its way perilously close to the sea and crowded with shops and restaurants, John asked, quite reasonably, “Are you sure we can drive along here?”

I looked at my detailed printed instructions, “Yes. Just go slowly. We’ll be fine.”

He made his way hesitantly past the harbour, fishing boats rocking gently, some small shops, a tall church spire and a restaurant with tables and chairs set out by the sea. Inches to our right, was the Adriatic, where children were playing and men fishing.

Then, a beach and a small bar with a spacious balcony perched over the sea: our local for the next fortnight.

“Turn left, our cottage is up here,” I instructed.

John turned up a narrow lane and there was our cottage, an old fisherman’s place with white walls and green shutters, its little garden holding a magnificent fig tree.

Flagging in the sweltering heat, we dragged our suitcases out of the car.

“Who’s coming for a swim?” I asked.

The boys perked up and flung everything on the floor in their rush to find their trunks. We walked back down the lane and dived into the sea.

Floating on my back in the warm water I smiled. In front of me the sea stretched all the way to Split, just visible below the mountains, behind me the village clung to the hillside, colours vibrant in the hot sun.  In the distance, the little coast road disappeared over the horizon, meandering past tiny coves and pine forest, enticing me ever onwards …

 

Croatia and Wales 101

Biastrica beach at the end of the lane

A is for Awakening

live your life quote

My writing/inspiration/motivation has been in one of those periodic ruts that affect creative people. Last night I came up with a plan to get out of it: writing 26 pieces of creative non-fiction, one for each letter of the alphabet. Here is today’s musing :

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Two years ago a friend nagged me relentlessly about going on a personal development course. Every time I spoke to him on the phone, he mentioned it and told me how much he’d benefited from it. Eventually I gave in and booked a place just to shut him up. What harm could come from going?

It turned out to be three of the most uncomfortable days of my life and the repercussions are still affecting me. As I listened to other people go up to the microphone and unburden themselves of terrible secrets – abuse, bullying, affairs, regrets – thoughts long buried slowly percolated to the surface of my mind. My one overriding realisation was how unfulfilled my life was.

As I sat in the white-walled lecture room it dawned on me I’d spent the last decade sleep-walking through my life and completely lost sight of who I was. It was an endless cycle of childcare and domestic matters which I could do with my eyes closed and used about a tenth of my brain power. And if I didn’t do something about it now, I would become stuck in a prison of my own making, never able to break free. Now I’d voiced this feeling there could be no returning to my old life.

By this time I’d been writing for about a year but it took doing the course and its follow-up to restore my self-confidence enough for me to sign on to the journalism course I’m halfway through and to teach me to believe in myself.

And when I hit a bump in the road now, I remember the most important lesson I took away with me: words are easy, action is hard but in the end only action will move you forward, so take it.

For the Love of a Dog

A friend of mine lost her beloved dog yesterday.

“Why are animals such an important part of our lives?” she asked me.

“They become part of the family, give us unconditional love and de-stress us,” I replied.

I got to thinking about the death of my little dog nearly three years ago and sat down and wrote something about it. 

********

You lie on your bed sleeping peacefully, wrapped in a blanket for warmth, only your little black and grey head peeping out. The door bells rings and I answer with a heavy heart; it’s better you don’t know that these are your last moments on earth.

The final two years of your life have been hard as you’ve slowly declined and we’ve become your carers, nursing you from this day to the next. One afternoon, not long after Christmas, you started being sick and kept falling over. I thought you’d had a stroke but no it was vestibular syndrome, which affects your balance. Once you’d recovered, your little grizzled head had a slight tilt to it but otherwise no-one could tell you’d been ill.

I asked the vet straight out what your prognosis was; it’s better to know the truth about such things, even if they’re hard to hear. He was direct, “eventually it will kill her, from now on it’s about her quality of life.” It was sobering news.

Long walks were replaced with short ones and then disappeared altogether as your arthritis got worse and worse and you panted in pain. We visited the vet again and he adjusted your medication. Your circulation became poor and you would often shiver uncontrollably. When that happened I’d wrap you in a blanket and sit you on my lap until you stopped.

The next symptom of increasing age was senility: always a very clean dog, you started forgetting that you had to go outside to go to the toilet and would poo on the floor instead. If I told you off you just looked bemused, so after the first few times, I just quietly cleaned up the mess and worried that it would get worse.

Of course it did and after several stressful weeks of you weeing everywhere we started putting dog nappies on you and I moved your bed downstairs into the kitchen, where the tiled floor was much easier to clean than carpet.

And all the while vestibular syndrome lurked in the background, waiting to pounce whenever it had the opportunity. You had frequent mini episodes and with every one declined that little bit more. Sometimes, you would fall over flat on your side and I would pick you up and cradle you until you could stand again. One attack left you with the inability to walk straight; instead you had a strange crab-like gait from then on.

Visits to the vet became more and more frequent as I agonised over your quality of life and wondered whether I was being cruel or kind. Dogs are far more stoic than humans and despite all you medical problems you still enjoyed a little sniff round the garden and a cuddle on the sofa and two years after the first vestibular attack you were still with us.

But one morning you couldn’t get out of bed; during the night, one of your back legs had become paralyzed. It hung uselessly at a strange angle and you couldn’t stand up. My husband and I looked at one another: enough was enough. “I’ll call the vet,” I said sadly “and ask him to come over.”

So this morning, two vets in maroon uniform have come quietly to our house to end your suffering. I move your bed into the living room and keep you comfortable. We all sit round stroking you while the vet inserts a needle into you paw. Within seconds the chemicals have stopped your heart and you’re no more.

“She’s gone,” the vet says solemnly checking for a pulse. My eldest son bursts into tears and I wrap him in my arms, my tears mingling with his. The vet picks you up, your little head flopping peacefully out of the blanket, and leaves. Tension and worry swap places with sadness and relief.

We let the puppy out of the kitchen, put on some shoes and take him for a walk in the woods. Your long life with us is finally over but ours must continue.

 

Image may contain: dog

Beautiful Sophie who lived until she was 16

Is World Book Day a Waste of Time?

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Where’s Wally?

After a decade of being a school parent and at the risk of sounding like a party pooper, I have a confession: World Book Day stresses me out and I think the real purpose of it is being lost.

In the beginning, it was fun to think of who to dress up as and assemble a costume for my kids, but now I have to make my 10-year-old wear one, with the threat that everyone else in the class is doing it, so he must.

In reality, most kids raid their dressing up box and put on their favourite costume; a Disney Princess for girls or Spiderman for boys. But what have comic /film characters got to do with decent kids books? Very little. And I’m sorry but wearing a costume doesn’t encourage children to pick up a book. Most parents don’t have the time or the money to make or buy a new costume every year, so they let them do it. My household is no different, except superhero costumes have been deemed too babyish for many years.

The depressing fact is that this day has become totally commercialised, with companies vying to provide you with costumes for your little cherub at over inflated prices. Plenty of people buy them too; they feel they have to so their kid doesn’t miss out. And I’ve heard that smug parents in solidly middle class areas compete to see who can sew the best outfit. Isn’t all this emphasis on what your child looks like rather missing the point? How about spending money on actual books instead!

My son’s junior school does do some good book related activities, like a book swap and cushion and a clue, where the children wrap up a book so the title is hidden and then bring in some clues so that other children can guess the title. So why not make these the focus of the day and add in story telling and creative writing, rather than stressing out parents and a lot of children by wanting them to dress up too?

I have two boys. The teen is an avid reader and has been ever since he learnt to read. The pre-teen is the polar opposite; he’d rather do anything than get out a book. Yet they have both been brought up exactly the same: read to at bedtime since they were babies, given a variety of books to read and encouraged at every opportunity. They’ve also watched their parents reading every day; all the things the experts tell us to do if we want our children to be life long readers. It frustrates us no end that he isn’t interested but putting on our well-used Harry Potter outfit this morning, won’t make any difference.

I’m sorry if you feel differently but I’m looking forward to World Book Day next year when we’ll take part in this pointless dressing up exercise for the last time. In the meantime I’m going to be thinking of how to deal with the real issue; getting my son to read.

The joy of flash fiction

Recently I have discovered the genre of flash fiction. I particularly like the category of creative non-fiction, where you re-imagine an actual event. Usually you have a tight word count, say 500 words, and at first I found this really difficult but now I like the challenge and I think it’s improving my writing and editing skills. Why use 5 words when 1 will do?

Here is a story I wrote today about that moment 30 years ago when Mum and Dad took me to Liverpool University, said goodbye and left me in my room all alone…

Liverpool's famous waterfront skyline

Ilona

On an overcast October day, there is an unusual amount of activity in Chapel Street because it’s time for my parents to take me to university.

Liverpool will be my home for the next three years, while I study geography and prehistoric archaeology. A large, bustling, grimy city, it couldn’t be more different to the reserved village I grew up in, where there is one bus on a Sunday and even the neighbourhood cats have nothing to do.

I prepare myself for this adventure eagerly, going into town to buy some new clothes: denim jacket, jeans, a couple of stretchy mini-skirts and some red leather ankle boots. Then I childishly label all my new stationery and books with my name and room number and get my hair cut.

Dad gives me his late mother’s trunk. Light brown, with bands of reinforcing leather, it’s slightly squashed at one end where it was stored upright in Maggie’s garden shed for decades, and covered in labels from long ago trips to European destinations. I love it instantly and fill it with my clothes and bedding. A new kettle and mug set that work colleagues have given me are also packed, along with my books and rickety bike. I’m ready.

We climb into the blue and white camper van and set off along the motorway. Arriving at the leafy campus hours later, the first thing Dad does is haul a yellow box of apples out of his van that came from work and look for someone to give them to. Spotting a second year student called Jez, he walks over and asks if he’d like them.

Jez is unfazed by this unexpected question and accepts Dad’s gift, saying “Yeah they’ll eat,” while I cringe and avert my eyes.

My room is on the top floor and we struggle up several flights of stairs with my luggage. Single bed, desk, chair and sink make up its utilitarian furnishings and the walls are scuffed. But the sun shines through the double doors which look out onto the leafy quad and it quickly becomes home.

Mum and I unpack and then she keeps asking me if she can do anything else. I say no repeatedly and finally realise that she doesn’t want to leave.

“I think it’s time you left. Supper will be on soon and I need to go to the dining hall,” I say impatiently.

We hug. Mum sheds some tears, Dad looks sad and then they’re gone.

Feeling tense and wanting to get the first hurdle over, I persuade myself to go downstairs. “Come on! You’ve been desperate to leave home for months. This is your chance to start again,” I tell myself.

I brush my hair, grab my handbag and lock my door. As I make my way to the stairs, another door opens and a slim blonde girl walks out. We exchange hesitant glances and then introduce ourselves. Her name is Ilona and she becomes my first friend.