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D is for dick head

I have been quiet for a while. But today I feel compelled to speak. D is also for diagnosis and if you have had a child who is different, who struggles and has been a source of worry for you, you may have come across a short film called “A is for autism.” It was made a long time ago and explains a little of what autism means.

This week we sat in a consultant paediatrician’s office where she delivered the results of 12 months of testing. “Your son has Autistic spectrum condition.” She then paused to see f I would burst into tears. After 4 years of wondering wtf was going on with this child, it has not come as a surprise to me. I have read every book in the library, I have joined all local support groups and been on a 5 week course. Friends and family have asked me how I feel. Some days I feel blessed to have a child who views the world through a different lens. Other days it feels like a death sentence. Having fought so hard for a diagnosis, it can now not be taken back.

My brother came round recently to play Minecraft with the boys and from the kitchen, I heard one son ask “Can I make an axe?” My brother answered. The spectrum son asks “Can I shave a panda?” On days like this we laugh till we cry, and he is able to join in with the laughter. On another day, he would smash the house to pieces and cry for 20 minutes.

But I feel that very, very few people know even a tiny bit about Autism but feel compelled to give you their opinion and advice regardless. Schools are the starting point for this mis-information and 80% of teachers have had no training on it whatsoever. I say this, having been a teacher for 16 years. So I just want to give you a few pointers, just in case someone you know is dealing with a similar situation to us.

1) Don’t say the sentence “Well, we are all on the spectrum.” No we are not. And by saying that you are not showing empathy, you are demeaning the experience of someone who finds some things absolutely crippling.

2) Don’t talk to them about Rain man or ‘The curios incident of the dog in the night’. They are both works of fiction which cannot accurately represent the multitude of ways in which Autistic people experience the world. This can range from being non-verbal to being Prime minister.

3) Don’t give parenting advice. My child has not slept through the night in seven years. He wakes somewhere between 4 and 5 but it can be earlier. He does not go back to sleep. There is literally nothing I have not tried. Please don’t talk to me about sleep routines or behaviour boundaries.

4) Don’t ask what things the child struggles with and then reply with “Oh, MY child does that. ” If I tell you he cries on the way to school, I doubt it is in a neuro typical way. He cries about finding socks, about the toothpaste being too spicy, about dropping some breakfast on the table, about not finishing the programme he was watching, about being too cold, or too hot, or because it is raining. He can cry 20 times before 8:30.

5) Most of all, please don’t alienate us. There is a lot of writing about how Autistic people feel left out and lonely. But this can actually be applied to our whole family. I know there are friends who invite families round for gatherings, and I know that we are not invited. We miss out on Halloween parties, birthdays, and New years. We know we can be really challenging to deal with, but we will take ourselves off if it is becoming difficult. We want to feel part of the community too and have love to offer.

This year, I have put my career on hold slightly, so that I can fill out the millions of forms and attend the multitude of meetings in order to find some provision for my son that works. I have started my own Sensory art and Science class, design for children on the Autistic spectrum. Each week we have 9 children who vary in age from 7 to 14. We have 4 activities, all of which are optional. There is one art/ creative activity, one science build, one sensory bin activity and one cooking and eating table. These children are beginning to free themselves of the idea that they are a burden on their school class, make real meaningful friendships and learn in a relaxed and child led way. Each week I theme the sessions based on one of their “Special interests.”

Last session, I asked the class (both children and adults) to write on a post it note, one thing they like about the sessions. This is something I learnt during my Forest School training and it absolutely blew my mind. I had never done anything like this in my teaching career. I was in charge, I did not care what their thoughts were on the session. Well, I did, but it is not standard practice to ask children what they actually think! What a crazy idea?

And so, in conclusion, D is for dick head. Not for the professionals who did not spot my son’s difficulties, not for the families who ostracise us, and not for my son who can drive me to the very edge of my sanity. I am in fact the biggest dick head of them all. Because if I can be a teacher for 16 years, and not see this shit coming, it can definitely happen to anyone.

The subtle art of being skint

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How to live life on the edge of your pants when you don’t have shed loads of money to throw at fancy trips.

Becoming a parent is absolutely humbling. That, and just about the most challenging thing any of us would ever have to contend with. Just imagine someone gave you a precious sports car and told you to drive it through the Namibian dessert at night. Not only that, you don’t get a map, you have never had a single driving lesson and you actually have gone temporarily mad due to 3 years of sleep deprivation and worry about said trip. Your body will feel like it has been battered with a hammer during said torture and you have forgotten what a hot meal is. It’s a winning combination for success. If we approached the work place with such a lack of preparation, it would be insane, but instead you have to study for years, get some experience, have a mentor check on you and a bi-annual review.

My children are constantly re-educating me on how to be a human. Hedonism is something which is slowly drilled out of us as we get older. My quest this year to complete 52 micro adventures has led me into all kinds of new and terrifying experiences. We also stop taking risks and I think as we do so, we progressively stop believing in ourselves. The biggest asset my new year’s resolution has given me is a massive confidence and happiness boost.

I am currently at adventure #41: Go on a cray fish hunt.

Here are some of our best family Micro adventures (with minimal cost)

#1 Go fossil hunting. My kids genuinely thought they had found a fossilised dinosaur poo. They were thrilled.

#2 Make art on a beach with found items. It never ceases to amaze me how children can only concentrate for 10 minutes in a classroom but hours on a beach.

#3 Breakfast picnic. Our favourite is to go to a bakery early (one of our kids wakes at 4am) and sit in the park on a sunny morning in complete solitude apart from us four, the birds and the flowers swaying in the breeze.

#4 Climb a mountain (or big hill). You may have to invent a creative game to entice them up, but the views are humbling to all. Seeing places you recognise gives you a humbling reminder of perspective in life.

#5 Go on a fungus hunt in a forest. My kids get points for each different type and bonus points for especially ugly, colourful or massive ones. It is amazing how attentive they are. They nearly always triple my score.

#6 Tell a shared story around a fire. Anyone can make a fire and we could all make up a tale, but google has replaced creativity and experimentation. Sometimes I long to not know the answer to a question, to ponder and consider. Some of the times my kids have absolutely laughed the hardest is about one of my ridiculous stories.

#7 Make dinner together. We have arrived at a really strange state of cultural climate where it can feel like our offspring are small princes with which we constantly serve. Kids these days don’t seem to do chores, partly because the likes of dishwashers, washing machines etc have made life easier, but I am constantly astounded at how the art of cooking, a basic human need, is one which we leave too late to teach. Kids bloody love cooking!

#8 Collect forest treasures. The world is full of wonder and awe when you are 5. I have rediscovered my inner child by finding pleasure in examining acorns, looking for four leafed clovers and singing Victorian songs long forgotten about nature.

#9 Draw an observational sketch of a found object. There is a great deal to be gained from slowing life down and disconnecting from screens. Children’s vocabulary is suffering in this digital age. The sheer act of using language to do art together is deeply wonderful. They will disclose all kinds of weird and wonderful thoughts about the universe.

#10 Watch clouds. Do you remember that? Being bored as a child and finding the mundane fabulous. Nebulous thoughts are so relaxing. Sharing this moment with your children is an act of bonding.

So let’s try to stop distracting our kids so we can “Get on with stuff” and realise that perhaps it is the stuff, which is distracting us from our kids. Because they are the most precious and important thing we have in our lives. Everything else is just glorified dust.

Grow up!

I am definitely not going to be nominated for any parenting awards, any time soon. In fact, my older son said to me recently,

I was nearly sick finishing my food, but then I stopped myself.

Trip adviser for parenting 4 stars!
Adventure #40 Symmonds Yat

Yesterday I found myself uttering those immortal words “Grow up!”. I was exhausted, I have had three weeks on my own with the boys and we all need a break from each other. We were in the car and I pondered the phrase I had just yelled at them. It actually held a deep philosophical resonance with me.

When I started the Micro-adventure challenge on January the 1st, it had been because I had woken up and realised I was deeply unhappy, over weight, underchallenged and generally not enjoying life. I was exhausted all the time and felt I was failing at everything. Micro Adventures were an idea I conceived to empower myself to start loving life again. A micro challenge has 3 rules: It needs to be no more than 2 hours from home, it needs to be free, or very low cost and it should bring you new joy.

Adventure #1 was a Wild boar hunt in the Forest of Dean. We had all been stuck inside and kettled with family members for most of Christmas. Getting out with the breeze and the trees made us feel alive again. This week I took the boys on adventure #40: We scaled a summit and looked down on the world. It was breath taking. We stood in awe and watched people canoeing down below. We skipped along wooded paths, we played a fungus hunting game. We made up silly stories.

Children never hate the rain. Puddles and umbrellas are just another adventure.

52 Micro adventures has led me to start writing a blog, retrain to be a forest school teacher, have the courage to give in my notice in a comfortable job and be a bit more brave in my relationships. And all of this was possible, not because I grew up, that was in fact the source of the problems. It was possible because I started to view life like a child, with wonder and awe and noticing the beauty of small things around me. I stopped getting bogged down with thoughts of economic doom, and career progression and the creaking car, well I am trying. It is all a work in progress.

If you have any ideas for micro adventures, please write them below. Maybe we can compose the ultimate list.

A beginners guide to star gazing

The night sky

This week I had the pleasure of spending time with two friends I have not really seen for years. In the meantime we have all had kids, hardcore jobs and life has just got in the way.

We took all the kids camping. For them (kids) it was an adventure, for us, a huge physical endurance act. I am injured. Don’t feel bad for me. It was an old injury, brought on by too much prosecco and arrogance. I rode my mountain bike home, in the pitch black, on a dew covered slope, while carrying a bag on each handle bar. My coccyx is smashed to pieces. Electric shocks of pain remind me what child birth was like.

The second night, we made a camp fire. For the younger kids, this was a new experience. As the embers died down, we started to put them to bed. As the stars came out, we opened the wine. Honest and emotional conversations always happen around a fire with friends, but when reduced to embers, when you can no longer see anyone’s facial reactions, it becomes more like a confession. You tell a story, knowing you cannot see a person’s reaction. It is a different type of conversation.

The day before we took all the kids to the swimming lake. Adults padded in apprehensively while the older kids (and toddlers) ran along the jetty and threw themselves in with gay abandon.

The third night, we were trying to be sensible. We had to sensible, we had to decamp, drive home, get food, wash clothe etc. As we tried to calmly tell each other it was time for sleep, we all grabbed each other….Did you se it?!?!?!?!? We all said. A fleeting shooting star!! How magical?! How exciting. Even as non-believers, we all silently made a wish, just in case.

I have never seen a meteor shower. I have seen them forecast, and then as it so much the case in the Uk, it was too cloudy to see anything.

We haved a posh telescope and it is really fun to see the actual surface of the moon in detail, but actually, just seeing a fleeting streak of light was enough to send us CRAZY. So, in conclusion, you need nothing. just remember that your night vision cannot kick in for 30 minutes. Like all the best things in life, you must be patient. x

Fire up your soul

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The lost art of fire building

One of the very things that makes us uniquely human, is our ability to make fire, and yet we so rarely use it these days.

I don’t know anyone who says “I hate fire”. There is something primeval and spiritual about sitting around one, whether it is in a home, while out camping or one a beach. It brings people together and opens up conversation. Or it allows people to sit together silently watching the flames flicker. Not that long ago in history, it was the only way to cook, heat water and warm your home. Everyone was taught from a young age how to light one. Now it is a lost art which you can pay a lot of money to learn on a bush craft course.

Fire pit bread

I recently took my two boys to a “Story telling in the woods” holiday session. At the end of the walk and story telling, a fire was lit and the children all made stick bread. It probably cost pennies, but they went crazy for it. Even if it was too doughy or singed and crusty, it tasted of success. Everything tastes better from the fire. There was no shoving or arguing. They helped each other. There was something beautiful about it.

On holiday recently, I spoke about how we made a fire on the beach and cooked scallops, venison sausages and sardine fillets. I was worried beforehand that I did not how to do it. Which way do you put the sausage on a stick? How do you know when the fish is cooked? Am I going to poison everyone with the shellfish? Turned out, we all got involved and did what people have done for thousands of years, we put it on, if it wasn’t working, we changed the plan. We used intelligence and problem solving, we had to be resourceful with what was around. Are we gong to set fire to our sticks, who knows? I know, lets soak them in sea water first! The boys loved this improvised group learning. The reward….an absolute feast, washed down with a mini bottle of prosecco.

We wandered home with salty lips and smoky hair and slept like babies, dreaming of adventure.

At my forest school training last week, we cooked every day on the fire. Everyone got involved and helped in some way. The food was delicious and each person contribute a different food item. Traditionally, I am sure this was how we were meant to cook and eat. The conversations around the fire varied hugely each day, but they were all punctuated with laughter and camaraderie.

I now wonder if this missing piece is contributing to rising mental health problems? You just don’t get a sense of achievement from the ping of a microwave. You don’t squeal with delight when the gas hob lights. No one feels they have earnt the central heating warmth, like you do when you have walked through a forest gathering kindling. These small achievements lead to a shared group/ family experience which leaves us all with a warm glow on the inside too.

Sensory stimulation for the soul

Pembrokeshire coastal path with crashing waves

Last weeks of Easter break have been incredible. I managed to squeeze 4 adventures in, and I have been able to share them with my favourite people.

Adventure #22 : pack a picnic and your toothbrushes and see where you end up.

We stayed in an unusual b&b and ate at a local pub with a kids play area and open grass. I sat inside and enjoyed the peace while the other three played fotty. We feasted on steak and lasagne and things we would never eat at home.

The beach was deserted as we went after breakfast and we enjoyed chasing the squealing gulls. At the end of the beach we found Victorian gardens abloom with carefully selected fauna to create a reason to be present on the cusp of spring.

Bridge building

The point at which we stop playing is the point at which we have lost joy in our lives.”

Syreeta

The next day of weather was terrible. I had found a new forest park to explore, but everyone else was reticent to say the least. Heldon forest park is cultivated for people , to be sure, but it has the charm and usefulness of all forestry commission sites. It is 3,500 acres of woodland just 15 minutes from Exeter. There is a really good cafe with a covered outdoor eating area and a log burner inside if the weather turns funky. We sat and drank hot chocolate while the windows turned blurry with rain. Eventually it did ease off and we stomped up the hill through majestic trees. The boys were singing and I was breathing deeply the smells the fallen rain had thrown up from the forest floor.

One of the activities we did at a Forest School training the week before was called sitting tree. You choose a spot and sit for 10 minutes. As she said it, I could feel panic rising in me. I have always suspected that I have ADHD. This would feel like 3 hours. I would immediately ‘out’ myself as a weirdo with no concentration. But an interesting thing happened. I took my shoes off and felt the grass below me. I felt the breeze on my face. I listened to multiple bird songs. I touched the different ferns around me. When the tutor finally called us back I was surprised. “How long do you think you were there for?” I was convinced it had been less than 10 minutes. “It was actually 20.”

Smells of wild garlic in spring

“How was it that I don’t have ADHD in the forest, but struggle to be in a room for 2 minutes? And how is it that my son has autism in school, but is suddenly cured at the beach?”

The world we now occupy is ever more 2 dimensional and this is getting exasperated by screen culture. On a screen you are seeing, and maybe hearing something but that is it. What we probably call naughty behaviour in children and depressed behaviour in adults could be seen as types of sensory seeking. A craving, if you like, for those parts of the brain we are not exercising. People are under the impression that over stimulation stops kids concentrating, but what if it is the other way round? Nature is a beautiful multilayered, multi dimensional feast for the mind. Interesting smells, sounds and textures are bombarding us from all directions. And are also constantly changing. We did not evolve inside four walls. We have spent hundreds of thousands of years living in and with our natural surroundings.

Perhaps the reason we all have a connection to nature because we actually feel at home and the man made buildings are actually the alien environment. Important neural connections are made by tiny babies who are touched and spoken to. Baby sensory classes are very popular because of research telling us that this is important for brain development. What if, in fact, this does not change with age?

My quest for 52 micro adventures has created in me the headspace to reconsider all of the reasons I thought I felt stressed and tired and stuck in a rut. I have been emancipated by my adventures. And dear reader, this is the most impressive part! You don’t need a shit load of money, nor time, nor permission from anyone. You could go and find a micro adventure right now.

Education rebellion

Why children need to be taken into the wild

Running through Wild garlic flowers and woodlands

Our children are growing up in a digital age which we have no experience of. They are guinea pigs for smart phones and 24/7 media. I am trying hard not to be the bastard parent who won’t let them have any of this stuff but I am failing miserably. My boys are 7 and nearly 9. Because I have worked with teenagers for 16 years, I have some strong opinions about the impact of “screen time.” Firstly, 4 out of 5 training sessions for work last year were on the rising child mental health crisis. I had workshops on mindfulness and dealing with grief and talking about self harm. The government has really pushed the agenda on rising anxiety and depression in childhood. But I feel we are looking at putting a sticking plaster on a problem, rather than asking why the problem is there in the first place.

My family when the boys were 2 and 4

Last week we went camping with my Dad, my cousin and her children. It was pretty full on with 5 kids from age 3 to 13. We were staying on a simple campsite on Hayling Island. My kids love being outdoors, understanding they can go off, climb trees, have fights, play games, make friends and collect dead crabs. (Don’t ask. The small one has some unusual ideas). Their cousins were not sure what to do when you don’t have WiFi, well apart from the 3 year old. He roamed around barely eating he was so excited. Trying to rewild a teenager is much more of a challenge. She seemed to speak a different language which consisted of text speak and American acronyms. FOMO?

I love my cousin to death. We laughed, we cooked, we gazed at the fire. There is nothing like two women watching their kids wade into the sea up to their knees and think “why?” We literally told them there were no spare clothes. And then proceed to watch them get drenched up to their elbows. We stayed up looking in awe at the starry sky. We made up fire side tales. We ended every day with salty hair and rosey cheeks and clothes bathed in wood smoke. We ate a LOT of cheese. Because calories consumed outdoors just don’t count. Kids toasting marshmallows after dark don’t count as bedtime pudding.

Fire. An essential element to a micro adventure.

We have taken our two boys into the wild from the week they were born. By the time little one was three, they could cope with a 5 mile walk thanks to a carefully constructed tale (lie). In your pocket hide 10 foil wrapped chocolate coins and tell them about the forest/ beach/ river goblins. These goblins hide treats for children, but they run away if they hear moaning or whining. Tell them that the goblins don’t really like people, so you have to go far from the car parks. When your kids start to flag, say “ooooohhhh. This looks like goblin territory. See if you can find goblin chocolate.” I recon, I have got my two to run the next 3 miles looking for the foil in tree trunks, under stones etc. …you’re welcome.

But let me come back to rewilding. Yes, it is a word. It is a very necessary word. Eventually, after three days and sunshine, and laughter, and fires the teenager relaxed. She slept better than she had done for a long time. She enjoyed playing croquet more than anyone. Pleasure we all got from scrabble was silly. Our hair was messy and wild. And in the middle of the night we walked barefoot in the dew to the toilets, amazed by how much shadow was cast by moonlight. No torch was necessary.

Brunch on the beach

We made our own rules and we made them as fun as we could make them.