If I had a penny for every time my children have confounded the medical profession, I would as the saying goes, be a very rich lady. I won’t dwell on the fact that if I had a penny for every time they have confounded me, I’d also be very rich…and probably less wrinkled, less dependant on caffeine (IV drip anyone?) Chocolate and wine but that’s another story.
However, let me elaborate why my
precocious precious cherubs have elicited such responses as “we have never seen that before” or “that’s very unusual/odd/strange” and my personal favourite: “that just doesn’t happen!” – when confronted by my child doing exactly what doesn’t happen right in front of their eyes.
You see my children, well 2 of them at least, are considered “rare.” On the whole I try to see that as a positive, albeit at times I think the whole world should appreciate their uniqueness by observing them inside a perspex case in a museum but usually those days are few and far between 😉
2 years ago I wrote a blog piece to explain what being rare means and how it affects our family. If you would like to have a read: https://definitelynotthewaltons.com/2018/02/
Rare Disease Day is once again looming large upon us – 29th February 2020 to be exact. This year marks the 13th International Rare Disease Day which is held every year on the last day of February.
Given that every 4 years the month of February inveigles an extra day into the calendar month and thus is a little bit quirky in itself, it seems especially fitting to celebrate all things rare in a unique month, highlighting the weird, wonderful and downright peculiar (of the medical world you understand(!) – In fact this year there are reportedly 146 events in over 100 countries to raise awareness on the day itself as well as thousands of other events throughout February. You can learn more https://www.rarediseaseday.org/article/about-rare-disease-day
You may find yourself thinking that you don’t have anything in common with a rare disease or even know anyone affected by such a thing but if you will spare me a little more of your time, I’ll explain why in actuality, this misconception is most likely wrong.
Based on current data it is accepted that 1 in 20 of us will at some point in our lives be diagnosed with a rare disease and the majority of them, being so rare, will have no cure. Some of those rare diseases may be transient, others life changing and in the very worst cases, life limiting.
It is not my intention to scare you or depress you (how am I doing so far?!) Merely to heighten awareness around the fact that rare diseases, well really they aren’t that rare and if you personally aren’t affected by one (or more) you are bound to know, possibly even be related to someone who is living with a disease or condition that falls under the rare moniker.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with my family background, I am a mother of 4 of the human child variety, married to the long-suffering Mr DNTW’s, owner (used in the very loosest of terms) of 2 crazy dogs and 1 cat. We used to have 2 cats but one couldn’t stand the melodrama of life with us and shipped himself out. Funnily enough he was also sort of rare, being of the ginger hue – ginger cats are apparently less common than the typical moggy; perhaps he just couldn’t face the competitive nature of this family in the rare stakes?
In a sense of irony that befits our family largesse, all our children have unique and/or rare genes and in a further twist of fate, we only discovered their ‘foibles’ for want of a better turn of phrase, in reverse age order!
I sometimes feel I have to add that bit in almost apologetically – the fact that we discovered this from youngest backwards I mean. When you exchange the usual pleasantries on meeting new people and the topic invariably comes round to the whats and wherefores of each other’s lives, they already think you are a bit bonkers because you have 4 children (or that you don’t have a TV – so, funny…ha, ha, ha….not!) Add in extra/special needs and they either assume you must have adopted and are therefore saintly or if they are your actual birth children, then you are clearly more than a bit soft in the head . Why would you go on to have 4 when you already have one or more with special needs?! Of course no one has been rude enough to say that to our faces (yet!) But you can feel the silent judgement all the same.
All the same, I will confess it was a bit of a poke in the eye with a sharp stick moment (understatement) when our then 17 year old (20 this year!! How?? Believe me I have asked myself this question a lot – I don’t feel old enough to have a 20 year old, although I definitely look and physically feel it) was diagnosed out of the blue with a congenital heart condition, solely as a result of a medical he had undergone because of his chosen career path.
Not only was this new diagnosis very scary – well to us as parents anyway, he took it with the brevity of teenagers and their immortality concept – I did have a bit of a why us moment? In fact I distinctly recall saying that in spite of us making beautiful, amazing and rather fabulous children, (offspring if you are reading this, don’t bother asking for a pocket money raise!) Mr DNTW’s and I are clearly a car-crash genetically.
Considering there are approximately 7.8 billion people on earth, you have to wonder what the odds are that 2 people who are not related to each other in anyway other than by marriage (we have been asked by sooooooo many medical professionals over the year whether we are cousins/inter-family marriage and such like!) manage to meet, marry and have kids, all of whom likely have extra needs all because of wonky DNA (technical term wonky!) from each parent; whose chromosomes whilst not an issue individually, in combination have resulted in the difficulties our children face. There was a distinct wanting to rage against the unfairness of it all and a feeling of being given the shi**iest end of a really shi**y stick. It didn’t help that he received this news at a time I was also stuck in our local hospital with G-Man, (our 3rd) because of his own medical issues.
After a strong coffee (and probably wine) I gave my head a wobble and we began the medical process to discover more about his condition and the implications of it for his future. As these things go, if you have to have a heart condition, he has escaped relatively lightly. Whilst it is progressive in nature and will need addressing in the future, we already know that there are things that can be done when the need arises and because of our wondrous NHS, he will be reviewed regularly and receive the very best care and attention.
According to an article produced by NHS England in 2016, congenital heart defects are the most common birth defect. Approximately 8 in 1000 children are born each year showing signs of disease and the figure rises still further to a prevalence of 4 per 1000 in adulthood – not quite sure why the discrepancy in figures. Perhaps because associated issues or co-morbidities of the disease are leading to an improved diagnosis ratio?
Moving on. our almost 17 year old (another DNTW’s on the road later this year?? UK watch out!) is diagnosed with high-functioning autism, sensory processing disorder and traits of Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA)
Whilst it is right and proper that autism in his presentation is now more often referred to as autism spectrum CONDITION (previously stated as a disorder and within the medical/scholarly community, it largely remains so) it would be unfair to gloss over the difficulties that this diagnosis brings with it.
Our son is many things: clever, bright, articulate on subjects he is passionate about (of which there are many) intensely focused on specific interests, able to recall events and facts from an astonishingly wide range of areas (and years of family memories, both a blessing and a curse!) and with a sense of humour that borders on cheek but *just* manages to avoid rudeness….most of the time. Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or wish I could gaffer tape his mouth shut; usually depends on the audience.
But over the years, it has been hard to not understand each others perspectives. At times it’s felt as if we were each speaking a foreign language with no hope of translation or commonality. It’s been scary and worrying and frustrating.
Autistic people can find social interactions and communication in general problematic. There are so many surprising ways that we interact with each other so interpreting body language, tone of voice, facial expressions and even the spoken word can lead to a whole host of misunderstandings and anxieties which have knock on effects on self esteem, mental health and well-being.
To witness his struggle to make sense of this world, to comprehend that the things we say are not always literal – only years later can we laugh about our miscommunications: the expression I used to use when in a rush to get out of the house in the mornings for school: “C’mon, get a wriggle on!” shouted in exasperation and then looks of disbelief at the child appearing to body-pop across the kitchen, which resulted in more shouting (not my finest hour). Or the look of horror on his face when I would say things like “Keep your eyes peeled” if I was looking for a car-parking space.
Sensory difficulties in so many aspects of life too have taken their toll. Going out to eat at a restaurant, going shopping, holidays, day trips and even visits to family and friends require meticulous planning and contingencies.
The intensity of the world around you when you are over stimulated by your senses – hypersensitivity – and your ability to regulate them must be extremely stressful for many autistic people and especially those with sensory processing difficulties.
There is an excellent video courtesy of the National Autistic Society which demonstrates this very well: (be warned before viewing, this could be triggering for some people) https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=12&v=Lr4_dOorquQ&feature=emb_logo which my son tells me is very representative of how he feels when out in public. I know the first time I watched this I felt thoroughly over-whelmed and exhausted, craving peace and solitude by the end. School teachers I imagine this is a but a snap-shot of your day – kudos to you all.
Paradoxically people with sensory processing difficulties also experience significant hyposensitivity – under stimulation in certain senses, particularly tactile (touch) vestibularly (part of the brain/inner ear concerned with balance and eye movement) as well as proprioception – awareness of one’s own body in space around you. These intertwined sensory needs can result in a craving for input in order for the person to self-regulate.
These are all issues we have learned about and try to continually learn from in the best ways to support our son but it’s not an exact science.
So is autism a rare condition or one that’s being bandied about like a box chocolates? Hmnnnn, that’s difficult to answer. Certainly I have heard time and again that “autism didn’t exist in my day” more times than I care to recall. There’s a great meme, something along the lines of:
There was no autism diagnosed before 1830……Mount Everest wasn’t ‘discovered’ until 1856 but I suspect it was there all along!
Our son didn’t receive his diagnosis until he was 10 and this isn’t unusual, even though we had first sought help and guidance when he was around 3 years old. Adults are increasingly being diagnosed later in life but diagnosis rates still vary hugely across the UK alone and there is no one specific test that can confirm whether an individual is autistic.
In our wider family, there are a number of children with a confirmed diagnoses of autism and/or co-morbidities thereof. Whilst there may be a genetic component for some, testing may only indicate the presence of a known autism gene rather than whether the individual themselves is autistic. Genetics is advancing and evolving rapidly but there remains a long way to go.
I personally believe the exact cause of autism is irrelevant and understanding, management and appropriate support should always be the best practice approach.
So far, so not particularly rare or unusual you are probably thinking. However, where things get a little more complex is with our youngest 2 children, G-Man 13, and Minx 11. They may be the youngest but are truly determined not to be left out and are the 2 largely responsible for causing the medical community much vexation. For the time being we know that Minx has an as yet, undiagnosed neuromuscular condition, likely genetic in origin and it is likely that G-Man has a variant of this too.
Minx is the more severely affected but both children are tube fed, had severe reflux as babies, both have dysfunctional swallows related to muscle fatigue of repetitive action and there are various commonalities in their difficulties.
Both children are SWANS. This is not a diagnosis. It stands for Syndromes Without a Name and you can learn more here: .https://www.undiagnosed.org.uk SWAN UK is the only designated support group for children and families in the UK without a diagnosis and they have provided my family with a life-line, connecting us with other families in similar situations, even though their children’s needs may be very different to my own. It has given us a sense of belonging, people to talk to at all hours of the day and night, balloons after hospital stays, coffee mornings and family days out. I know from my own experience and talking to others how valuable this is in our rare and undiagnosed community.
In the early weeks after Minx’s birth her difficulties came to ahead at the age of 9 weeks resulting in an emergency hospital admission and a flurry of subsequent appointments. None of them gave answers.
I felt very alone and I pinned all our hopes on every specialist or therapist we encountered. I was convinced for at least the first 3 years of her life that the next appointment or admission would be the one where we got ANSWERS and a PLAN.
But despite being on genetic studies from the age of 6 months, enrolling on DDD – Deciphering Development Disorders: https://www.ddduk.org in 2013 and https://www.genomicsengland.co.uk/about-genomics-england/the-100000-genomes-project/ in 2015, at the age of 11 ,we still have no over-riding genetic answers.
I can reel you off a list of conditions: upper limb arthrogryposis, lower limb hyper-mobility, gastrointestinal reflux disorder, gastrointestinal dysmotility, chronic abdominal pain, muscle weakness and fatigue, congenital myopathy, etc etc – but although we have seen specialist consultants in numerous different fields, at many different hospitals and although many differential diagnoses have been proffered, thus far nothing explains why my children require a feeding tube for nourishment, why Minx is a part time wheelchair user, has had to undergo countless operations, tests and procedures over her tender years. Why I can’t explain (to her immense frustration) why she is able to do something one minute but not the next; why she can be running around like her friends and then her legs turn to noodles and she can barely stand, let alone walk; why her hands can hold a pen and write one day but the next it is all she can do to hold her head up; why the things so many of us take for granted are such a battle for her.
I’ve held her in my arms as a baby, screaming as she was prodded and poked, as Doctors trooped in and out, relentless personal questions about whether my husband is my cousin or other close relative, examining this body part and that – hers and mine! X-rays, MRI’s, needles, blood tests, skin biopsies, muscle biopsies.
I’ve handed her over to anaesthetists, surgeons or gastroenterologists more times than I can recall, laughed about her antics and singing (caterwauling?!) over pre-meds (an early indication of what she might be like when intoxicated in later years I suspect) manipulated her joints for intensive physiotherapy, tried different diets and multiple medications. Soothed her, cajoled her, bribed her (she is VERY good at extortion!!) wanted to yell at her for being non-compliant but secretly proud of her feistiness and determination that has got her this far.
G-Man too has had more than his fair share of tests, procedures, trials and tribulations. Both kids have been through more in their young years than many adults do in a life-time.
I’ve paced hospital corridors, driven in a state of recklessness when I should have called an ambulance, ridden in the back of them on blue lights, cried, put a brave face on, been meek when I should have called out poor practice and learnt to fight my children’s corner when necessary.
I will always have respect for those in the medical profession but equally I no longer place them on a pedestal or assume they know best. They know their speciality, they don’t know my child/ren. It sounds a bit cliched and twee but I have learned such a lot over the years and I do consider it a journey of sorts.
These days I don’t often dwell on the fact that we don’t have a diagnosis and I try not to worry about what the future may bring. Other than typical parental worries: will they drive me to distraction by refusing to wear a coat even though it’s minus 2 with a windchill of minus 10 and snowing? HOW SHORT are those SHORTS?! Will she stop stealing my lipsticks, will he ever hang up his towel instead of leaving it on the bedroom floor,; will they do well in their exams (not because it matters to me as such, more that it opens doors for them),will they have a nice group of friends, make only the kind of mistakes they can learn from without devastating consequences?
But sometimes in the small hours, or when something new rears it’s ugly head or when they ask me questions I can’t answer, those worries can’t be so easily silenced. And the truth is we don’t know what the future holds. I can waste time worrying about the ifs and buts and maybe’s but down that path lies only doubt and pain and I wont give it headspace.
Tomorrow is never a given for any of us so we may may as well make the most of today ❣️