Sphinx in the sand

SHE’S A ‘force of nature’ kind of girl. I sometimes can’t tell where the waves start and she ends. I try to call out to her and forget she can’t hear me. My voice travels in her direction until the wind grabs it and carries it away.

She’s not looking at me anyway. It’s deliberate, this ‘not looking, not looking’ game. No one is in charge but her and she’ll pay attention when she bloody well likes.

I only want to make sure that she plays in the sand near our feet. Just over there not all the way away. So I trudge through tiny shards of shells, slowly broken down from ocean to shore, just to reach her.

I talk to her with my hands. Come closer to Mummy and Daddy. You can play how you like, just stay nearby, okay? My child-Sphinx thinks on that for a second and then nods. It’s okay.

She runs behind me to our point on the beach and stays within the invisible flags of our agreement. I watch her, fully-clothed, splashing and laughing in the water, and say to my husband: “She’s ours, but she’s a stranger too, isn’t she? She belongs only to herself”.

He can only agree.

Inclusion is an illusion

IN THE wonderfully acerbic political TV series, The Thick of It, there’s an episode involving a ‘Super Schools Bill’, which proposes the closure of special needs schools across the UK. The hapless cabinet minister who must argue in favour of this integration agenda is Hugh Abbott (Chris Langham).

In this, Hugh is faced with a moral conundrum. He doesn’t agree with the Bill and his senior special advisor, Glenn Cullen (James Smith), has a son who attended a special needs school and flourished there. It’s a personal thing.

Glenn’s catchphrase to sum it all up is simple: ‘Inclusion is an illusion’.

But poor old Hugh doesn’t have the luxury of holding to a thing like principles when it comes to matters of state. Instead, he is forced by the government’s pitbull-esque director of communications, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), to support the Bill.

In doing so, Hugh betrays his own beliefs and sells out Glenn and his son by using their personal story to argue for the closure of special needs schools. All in a day’s dirty work for the Secretary of State for Social Affairs and Citizenship.

Inclusion is an illusion. I hadn’t seen this episode for a while but I was suddenly reminded of Glenn’s line last week when I made a foolhardy call to a local activity centre to ask about my six-year-old daughter Amelia joining one of their classes.

Early in the call I volunteered the information, as I always do, that she is deaf and autistic, to be clear about her needs and advance the conversation about how best to include her.

For a minute it all sounded pretty positive. The centre had a separate class for children with ADHD/ASD with an Occupational Therapist on hand for support. Great, I thought, that might be better for Amelia than the regular classes, at least to begin with.

But I was misguided in that momentary feeling of positivity. Amelia, it turns out, would not be eligible to attend either kind of class. The doors I had hoped to open for her swiftly closed, one after another.

About her deafness, I was asked how far background noise would impact on her ability to hear. This was not so the noise could be controlled or limited in some way. It was to point out how the environment would not be ‘appropriate’ for my daughter.

I hurriedly explained that while Amelia is deaf, she wears hearing aids, can speak quite well and follow most instructions and that I wasn’t expecting anyone to be a fluent Auslan interpreter for her. I just wanted them to know that standing near her and making sure she could see the face and hands of people speaking would help her understanding of any directions in the class.

But her deafness turned out to be a deal-breaker for this centre. They could not be convinced that it wasn’t an insurmountable barrier to Amelia’s inclusion in the program.

To me, it’s simply a fact about her that requires a little effort to understand and accommodate. After that, she’ll do the rest because she’s tough and ace and super adaptable.

I know that people don’t often encounter deafness in their day-to-day lives, but there’s an unsettling ignorance that surrounds its understanding in the broader community.

It’s unpleasant to confront this as the parent of a deaf child, but there’s a spectrum of misunderstanding that at its lower levels assumes that it is ‘too hard’ to communicate with a deaf person (so we won’t try).

At the extreme end of this spectrum reside the people who mistakenly believe that deaf people are somehow restricted in their intellectual capacity. ‘You don’t communicate the way I do, so I see you as lesser than me’. Not different, but reduced.

Then I was asked if Amelia attended a mainstream school – the children in the special needs class all do apparently. Well, no, I replied, she goes to a school for deaf children. Then I was asked a theoretical question, about how Amelia might cope in a mainstream school.

How to answer something like that when she has never been schooled in a mainstream environment? That’s when my agitation, which had been like a worrisome tickle at the back of my neck from about the four minute mark of the call, really started to ramp up.

My pulse had quickened and a slight tremble rippled across my arms, my back, like a warning on the surface of my skin.

As the call neared its conclusion, I realised that it didn’t really matter what I said to the person on the end of the line. Every answer I gave presented yet another obstacle to Amelia’s inclusion. Another reason to say ‘no’.

Instead of answering questions about how they might help, I felt as though I had inadvertently participated in a survey about all of my daughter’s faults. It made me feel sick.

This had honestly never happened to me before, so I was more than a little shocked. Most places in my experience will try and meet you and your child somewhere in the middle, somewhere fun and safe where everyone’s needs can be met.

Hamming it up at the St Martin's Youth Arts Centre (2013)

Hamming it up at the St Martin’s Youth Arts Centre (2013)

The St Martin’s Youth Arts Centre invited me to sit down with them for an hour to learn all about Amelia and how their programs could work best to include her fully.

The Northcote Aquatic and Recreation Centre has hired an Auslan interpreter so that deaf kids like mine can access swimming lessons in the only language that’s going to cut it in the pool. They also committed to one-on-one teaching when they were informed of Amelia’s autism.

Just a few cool examples of how NOT to alienate small children and their families.

The person from this centre gave me nothing, no extension of flexibility or sensitivity, just an empty offer of ‘wait-listing’. Our case was lumped casually in the too-hard-basket, and that, as they say, was that. I hung up mid-sentence, mid-sob as the rising lump in my throat betrayed me and echoed its hurt down the line.

But I couldn’t just leave it at that. I was still shaking as I sat down to write the centre a message of ‘feedback’. I’m not interested in disclosing who they are because I just read Jon Ronson’s important book about public shaming and it’s an unedifying road that will serve no grander purpose.

I will, however, share my emails (names redacted) here because I think it’s vital to show the true cost of these negative interactions, where inclusiveness was hoped for but in reality denied to a child with special needs:

Email # 1

Hi there, I called today to see if my 6 year old daughter who is deaf and autistic could come and try some redacted classes with you. She loves to redacted and I thought it would be good for her physical and social development. I was told that she is not eligible for either redacted or the redacted because of her special needs. It is pretty devastating to have your child turned away from fun activities on the basis on her disabilities. It’s great that you have the redacted group for ASD/ADHD kids but apparently my daughter is not eligible because she goes to a special needs school for deaf children. So you cater to special needs kids, just not my kid? I find it hard to understand. Amelia has participated well in programs run by places like St Martin’s and they welcomed her with open arms. She is a lovely, bright girl who has challenges but always benefits from new learning environments. I’m really disappointed – you have no idea how awful these kinds of experiences are for parents like me. Thankfully, most places operate in the true spirit of access and equity. Thanks for taking the time to read this feedback. I hope that other kids might benefit from this, even if my daughter is not welcome at redacted. Sincerely, Melinda

I did receive a quick response, but it was pretty cold and informal, sticking hard to the company line. In summary, they understood how ‘frustrating’ it must be for parents like me, but they just couldn’t accommodate Amelia right now.

Frustrating? Like when you can’t get your car started in the morning or you miss a train? Yeah, I don’t think so. That inadequate word inflamed my anger even further, so after a few hours of grumbling around the house and chewing the inside of my mouth to shreds, I emailed them again:

Email # 2

Hi redacted,

Thanks for responding to my email. I guess I am expressing more than frustration and the reason for that, whatever your company’s capacity to deal with different needs in children, is that you wrote off the idea of Amelia joining in on the basis of very little information. I said ‘deaf’, ‘autistic’ and ‘deaf school’ and after that it didn’t really matter what that means for Amelia in practice and how far she might be able to participate with only a little bit of prompting.

You concluded that her needs were more severe than is currently accommodated within your programs, and I just can’t accept that that’s fair. I would have loved it for instance if you had suggested that I bring her in to meet someone from redacted to get a sense of her, and then decide if she needed to be waitlisted for some other kind of program. The deciding factor of Amelia being in a ‘special school’ – and I’m not sure that a deaf school fits within that category – is a strange one.

There are plenty of ASD kids who attend mainstream schools but they often need at least some in-class support to do that. Amelia goes to school without the need for any extra help at all. She works on the same curriculum as every other child in the state, the main difference is that she learns bilingually, in Auslan and in speech. To me, it makes more sense, and is far more equitable, to assess the actual needs themselves, not which school system has been chosen by parents as the most appropriate for that child for a whole range of reasons.

Obviously, I wish that you had handled my call with a bit more of an open mind and frankly, a bit less ignorance of how special needs children function inside and outside of mainstream/special schools and programs. I have never been told that Amelia’s needs, such as her deafness, make her ‘too hard’ to deal with, which is the real way of saying ‘we can’t appropriately cater to her needs’. I mentioned them to you mainly so that her instructor/s would have enough information to be sensitive to those needs in practical ways, like making sure she could see the person speaking, and so on.

You would be surprised just how resilient and adaptable a child like Amelia with her unique set of needs can actually be.

Regards, Melinda

Amelia, signing to her swimming teacher (2015)

Amelia, signing to her swimming teacher (2015)

Now I felt better, as though I’d fully advocated for Amelia even if the result was still the same. I might not always be able to knock down the walls that get in her way, but goddamn it, I will always let people know when their stupidity and heartlessness has let us down.

Soon after, I got a call from the company owner and we actually had a good chat about how to properly include someone like Amelia in their activities. It was the conversation I’d expected to have at the outset.

And this person apologised, saying those magic words, ‘I’m sorry that you had such an upsetting experience’. It didn’t dissolve my afternoon of distress, but I did appreciate it.

By this stage though, I wasn’t looking to convince them to let Amelia join in – I don’t want her anywhere near a place that takes such an appalling view of her needs – but I did want the owner to understand what might have worked better in our case. How they might handle future Amelias.

Like, if they had just invited us to come in for a short meeting, we could have had an open and honest discussion about the best kind of class for Amelia. They could have met her rather than judging her abilities over the phone.

Maybe we would have decided mutually to come again at a later time, but really, we’re not solving world peace here, are we? We’re just talking about letting a little girl try something on for size to see if it might have fit.

Instead, they closed their minds to her sight unseen, which is a great shame. Because Amelia’s such a fabulously fun chick, so interesting and full of whimsy. Some people regard her as an asset to their groups, even a leader. This centre will never know her and it’s one hundred percent their loss.

Barriers to access are real and they do hurt. Take note people running programs for kids: pump up your heart valves and have a think about how your special needs policies impact on people who are already doing it pretty hard.

We’re all a part of the same community and when we feel brave enough to step out of our houses to have a go at something new, please hold our hands instead of turning us away.

Inclusion doesn’t have to be an illusion, and you might find that instead of a child being ‘too hard’, they will teach you something priceless about what it means to be alive.

Desperately seeking ‘s’

HERE are Amelia and P, her wonderful speech pathologist, searching for that elusive ‘s’ sound. The mechanics of just one little sound like an ‘s’ can take years for a deaf child like Amelia to learn and master. It’s too soft, too secretive, for her ears to pick up clearly so she needs a lot of support to work it out.

I sit and watch while they practice making repetitive, sibilant, snake sounds. P elongates the consonant, drawing it out in a long, slow hiss at the start or end of a word. Or just by itself. Everything has to be emphasised so that Amelia can identify the sound and start to join the dots on how our mouth, breath and tongue collaborate to form a simple ‘s’.

So they sit together on a Tuesday morning and they hiss, and laugh and hold each others hands to feel the breath, the noise, made by each other’s mouths.They are gorgeous to witness, because there’s so much affection sitting alongside the toil.

Amelia’s ‘s’ is thinner, more tentative than P’s. She’s still not sure of herself and when P adds in tricky little vowel combinations, sometimes the ‘s’ disappears, falling away for a moment. But they’ll pick it up again next Tuesday when they meet.

And Amelia will retain a little bit more each time until one day, maybe this year, Amelia will unlock the secret of that slippery little ‘s’.

 

Eyes wide shut

Amelia ‘papping’ the Pa-parazzi (get it)

WHEN I look at my daughter Amelia, I see lots of things. I see a wonderfully healthy, milky-skinned towhead with dark, dark eyes.

My eyes rest on her all-terrain body some days and I conjure up images of her in a field, pausing from her work to glance at the sky, the sun, like a stocky Russian peasant, built to withstand the elements.

Come rain, hail or shine, Amelia was made differently to most people, but man was she made to last.

Through my eyes, the most subjective of prisms, she is the most beautiful child I have ever seen. If I look at her for an hour, a month, a year, there will never be enough time to really see her.

I love to look at Amelia’s blonde hair falling in rolling, lazy waves down her back. Tucked behind her ears, some days it’s easier to see that she is wearing hearing aids. To see the physical sign of an internal part of her that doesn’t work the way it should.

Her autism is not so obvious to the naked eye. It’s not etched on her skin or reflected in some mechanical appendage that helps her to think or feel. Amelia doesn’t wear a t-shirt reclaiming the word ‘Aspie’.

You can’t see her autism in obvious ways, but I always know it’s there. I see it in her face sometimes, when her gaze drops below mine, and try as I might to regain her attention, she’s quietly slipped off to some interior room, far from me and my ever-prying eyes.

No matter what the signs – violent temper, crushing anxiety, rampant hoarding – I see autism but I still see Amelia. I never lose sight of her, working so hard to push her little barrow uphill. I see all that she is and I feel I truly know her. I know her and I understand.

Amelia has many people in her life who look past her ‘special needs’ and see only what is genuinely special. What is unique about her. The madcap sense of fun, the tenderness, the infectious lust for life.

What they see is mirrored in my own eyes and in my heart. That mirroring gives me strength and so much joy.

Yet now and then in our travels I am forced to view Amelia the way that other people sometimes do and it makes me turn my face away. I can’t bear the sting of their unforgiving eyes boring holes of judgement into her. Into me.

When she is suddenly, inexplicably loud or clumsy or different – incongruous – in a public space, I feel strangers’ eyes flick up and cast their reductive light over her. Mouths curl up in a mute grimace of distaste. I read their looks and expressions and interpret the words left unsaid.

‘Oh, what a weird child. Look at the naughty child. What on earth is wrong with that child?’

And who am I? It’s simple: I’m the bad parent.

I hate those staring, ignorant eyes because for a second I step outside myself and I judge Amelia too. In that moment I see only her flaws, the things that cannot be contained or controlled. And it hurts my heart.

My inner voice pleads with her, ‘Please won’t you just be calm? Why can’t you walk properly? Stop yelling, just stop it!’

‘Why can’t you just be normal.’

Then there are the people who don’t see Amelia at all, who have trained themselves not to see what is different about her and to try to understand. They focus their eyes on the wall above her head or on the easy going child instead.

They ignore her and I despise them too.

Because they looked at Amelia, but they did not really see her. They saw only gaps and lack and the spaces in-between where a different child might be. And they decided things about her that are only a tiny fraction of who she is. Who she will grow up to be.

I’m not blind to the hardships looming up behind Amelia like a shadow she can’t shake. I know she is sometimes rough and strange and hard to take. I know that because I see how being around Amelia makes some people feel: uncomfortable, nervous, frustrated.

It’s written in their eyes.

But I can’t let those looks and the thoughts that sit behind them slip under my guard too much. They strike me in my nerve centre, and I absorb little shocks and bouts of pain, but they do not defeat me. They could never.

For me, there is always great solace to be found in looking up and seeing Amelia again, maybe running down a path to meet me after time spent apart. She throws her glorious head back and yells my name at the sky and I see only beauty and all that is right.

There are no shadows here, save the ones cast by the sun, warming the head of my sweet peasant girl with her golden hair and those dark, dark, eyes.

Awake is the new sleep

Sleeping soundly with 'stuff'.

Sleeping soundly with stacks of ‘stuff’.

IT’S DAWN, barely a trace of sunshine coming through the windows, and already I can hear her crashing around in her room.

The Kraken, also known as my six-year-old daughter Amelia, has awoken.

I know this because I can hear her clumsy, elephant-like footfalls pounding into the floorboards. Amelia is awake and the whole world must know it.

It would be churlish to complain because she is deaf and so has no earthly idea how loud she is, as she moves around gathering her numerous comfort items from the bed for transportation into the lounge room.

This is the routine for her, everyday, my girl who hears little of note without hearing aids and is well and truly on the autism spectrum.

Amelia uses various collective nouns to describe her personal treasures. They are her ‘things’, or sometimes, her ‘stuff’.

“Where is my stuff Mummy? I need my THINGS!”

I always know where her stuff is because it is never far from her side. Amelia burrows these objects into her bed covers at night and I have to creep in after lights out to extract pencils from her hair and uncurl sweaty fingers from straws, tape, glue-sticks. The lot.

For a young child with autism, the ‘things’ have a deep meaning that is mostly beyond our reach. But what we know for sure is that they are absolutely vital to our little magpie’s sense of security, her sense of self.

Amelia clings to these things like a lifeline to some magical source of strength and energy known only to her. With them, she is safe.

And so, each morning, this curious set of bits and bobs is dragged from her room and deposited next to her on the couch. Amelia is now ready at 5am, or 6 if we’re fortunate, to kick off her day.

It’s then that I feel her presence in the doorway to our room. She hovers there uncertainly, watching for movement, for signs of waking life.

I resist for a minute but I can’t help but lift my weary arm to offer her a tiny wave – words cannot travel the distance to my beautiful deaf child but one gesture shows her the way is clear to approach.

And with this green light Amelia runs to my bedside, full pelt, to grasp my hand and throw her body across mine.

It’s easily my favourite time of day, this part when our bodies are so close and her face turns to my cheek to plant big, passionate smooches there. And if I’m very lucky, she might reach up to softly stroke my face with her hand.

Her sometimes-rough hands become gentle in the morning light.

I am barely awake but the smell of her, the feel of her, is everything to me in that moment.

Amelia is up and now so am I, and no matter what the hour, no matter how sleepless the night, and no matter how many ‘things’ I’ll be carting around for the rest of the day, in this perfect moment my heart is filled only with happiness.

[I wrote this piece yesterday after a wonderful day spent in a Gunnas Writing Masterclass with the incomparable Catherine Deveny. The task was to send her a piece written between 10am and 10pm on the day. ‘But how? I’m going straight out to dinner and to see a show. I won’t be able to do it’. But no excuses would do. So I texted my husband the simple words…’Bring your laptop’. Later, parked in our car on a city street, I sat with the laptop on my knee and frantically tapped out this piece from the notes I’d scrawled in the masterclass. I had to do it – would never forgive myself if I didn’t – and so I did. I emailed it to Catherine, typos and all, and felt a great sense of satisfaction. The feedback and support from Catherine the next day was absolutely thrilling and so that mad writing session in my car felt even more worthwhile. It was such a great experience that I’m sure any aspiring writer would enjoy. Plus, Catherine wears amazing shoes with little musical notes engraved on the soles. So there’s that too.]

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways

Taking a spin with a true dancing queen

Taking a spin with a true dancing queen

THIS week, in the midst of Christmas and all of the merry freneticism that its celebration brings, my family lost someone very special.

To me, she was my beautiful Nan. To my Mum, she was an adored and most cherished mother. To my five-year-old daughter Amelia, she was Grandma, with the soft grey hair who loved her very much.

To all, she was the whip-smart woman with the piercing eyes and the gutsy spirit that sustained her until her final moments. Her last breath on this earth.

I already find myself desperately searching my memory for thoughts of her; certain conversations, or just the sound of her voice. Oh, that voice with its unparalleled beauty in speech and in song.

What a gift it was and now I will never hear it again beyond what my mind can recall.

And her lion heart, which she gave to me so many times over the years, always when I needed it most.

Like when Amelia’s deafness was diagnosed and I sat across from her at the Rosebud RSL, tears streaming down my face and I said to her, “Nan, how could I not have known something was wrong?”

She fixed me with those intelligent eyes, filled to the brim with understanding, and simply said, “But you did know, my darling, you did.” As usual, she was right.

My Amelia in safe hands

My Amelia in safe hands

Nan always understood me and more importantly, she totally ‘got’ my sweet but headstrong daughter. She embraced Amelia’s differences, even learning to sign some key words to her in Auslan.

Among her last words to me was a specific message of love for her great-granddaughter. She could hardly speak by then – that lovely voice now ravaged by her illness – but she wanted me to know that she felt a special connection with Amelia: “We clicked”.

Where else should Amelia’s defiant approach to the world come from, but the pioneering stock that has produced some of the toughest, most wonderful people ever born?

They’re family myths, I know, but we hold tight to their significance in our lives. They make us feel part of something bigger than ourselves. We are not alone if we are together.

I shared so many passions with my Nan. We both loved to read and to swim in the summertime. Those summers spent on the Rye foreshore were some of the happiest times of my life. Kicking back on a lilo, burying each other in the sand, and laughing. Always laughing.

The happiest of times at Rye with our Nan

The happiest of times at Rye with our Nan

I know that memories fade, and it makes me panic to think that I won’t be able to remember as easily or clearly the sounds and sights of these times with her.

We have photographs to remind us, but how will I conjure up the touch of my Nan’s hand in mine or the melodic sound of her voice in my ear?

Who else will tell me with such direct and brutal honesty when I’m looking too tired or sick or thin (or not) or if I’m cutting the vegies the ‘wrong’ way? Who will fix me with eyes of steel and not let me lie and say that I’m alright when I’m not? “Come on, Lindy Lou, I know you”.

She did know me, she really, truly did. And I knew her like the skin on my own body or the thoughts in my head that remain unsaid.

Her name was Joyce but people called her Joy. And she was an embodiment of that name: a joy to know, to hold close and count amongst our own.

Be at peace now, precious woman. It’s time to rest.

Channelling Casablanca

The beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Amelia & E: the beginning of a beautiful friendship

I took this photo the other day as Amelia and her younger companion ‘E’ left another session of their social skills group for kids with ASD. They skipped ahead and gripped hands as we made our way to our cars and the remains of the day.

Behind them, E’s Mum and I wrenched our phones hastily from respective pockets to try and capture the moment in time, freeze it in space and hold it fast in our memories.

‘Did you get it? I think I did, I think I got a good one’. You bet I did.

I hadn’t realised that our little ones might think of each other as ‘friends’; it seems like such a foreign concept to apply to children who often find the ins and outs of socialising as remote and mysterious as the moon.

But there are lovely hints of attachment occurring between them; small seedlings of care and thought peeping up from below ground, searching for light and air.

Like when we arrived at the session, I saw E’s Mum holding a Peppa Pig toy in her hand and I said, ‘Oh, is that E’s toy? How cute’.

‘Yes’, she replied, ‘He brought especially it to show Amelia’. Her words and his sweet gesture made me smile, inside and out.

And though Amelia did not pay due homage to Peppa, chosen with only her in mind, she was genuinely excited to see E and content to linger over the fading moments of the afternoon carefully holding his hand.

Walking behind them in happy silence, I laced my own fingers inside my husband’s, our connection an echo of the intertwined children up ahead.

As usual my mind wandered to the movies, the scene reminiscent of Rick and Louis at the end of Casablanca. I found myself thinking, ‘If those two can begin a beautiful friendship, then why not Amelia and E?’

Why ever not?