CHILDREN’S MENTAL HEALTH – THE FORGOTTEN EPIDEMIC?

posed-child-neglect-image-of-a-child-using-a-payphoneLast week’s Guardian  featured a rather startling deadline – in 2016 nearly a quarter of a million children in England have been under the care of the Mental Health Service. This was by all account a sharp rise from the last time a similar study had been undertaken and worryingly it can affect the very young too as according to the article nearly 12,000 aged 5 and under are on the Mental Health Service’s books. In the same verve Childline has reported a doubling in five years in children contemplating suicide and one in four woman aged between 16 and 24 have now a mental health condition.

Experts had been asked about the causes of such an increase. Family breakdowns and poverty were named as possible causes but also pressures surrounding academic achievements and physical appearance.

The last two plausible causes are very well documented, probably because they could affect most of us. A lot of parents and carers have come across Facebook campaigns to scrap SATS and all the various ways each government seem to come up with testing our youngsters’ abilities to count, write and read. Likewise “looking good” has always been a big concern for teenagers but in the era of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram this has taken a new dimension. I attended a very good e-safety seminar a couple of weeks ago and the speaker rightly pointed out whilst most parents had a life before social media, this is life with a big L for our youngsters and these are the platforms where reputations are made and broken, sometimes with devastating consequences.

If causes are various and complex, potential solutions are just as unclear. In spite of various campaigns, the testing trend in school shows no abating, affecting in its wake the most vulnerable. Equally a world without social media is pretty much unimaginable and often parents, who by and large grew up in the pre-Facebook era, remain ill-equipped to deal and prevent the potential anguish caused by social media interactions.

Encouragingly the government has pledged an extra £25 million to clinical commissioning groups across England in a bid to speed up plans for improving mental health services for children and young people, including reducing back logs and waiting times amongst other things. And as promising as this sounds, according to  Prof Dame Sue Bailey, chair of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, this won’t be enough to help all children as by 2021 “instead of one in four children being seen by child and adolescent mental health services through referral, it will be down to one in three”.

One thing is clear however, unfortunately more and more families are likely to be affected by this issue and the sooner we start taking children’s mental health more seriously, the quicker we will find solutions for our youngsters.

THE A-WORD – WHAT DID WE THINK ABOUT IT?

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I could hardly contain my excitement when it was announced that BBC 1 would be featuring a six-part drama on a family coming to terms with their son’s autism.

And I was hardly alone as many parents on special needs social media platforms confirmed they would be watching too. So what did we think? I have to say I did like it, I think the actors echoed very well the array of emotions parents and families go through when seeking and getting a diagnosis. Obviously some of it was simplified for TV, the promptness of the diagnosis was a bit questionable, the granddad’s gormless remarks got a bit tiring after a while and I’m still wondering why sex took such a prevalence, but all in all it was a great way to shed a light on the condition.

Our protagonist Joe offered, in my view, a realistic portrayal of a young lad with high-functionning autism down to the lack of reciprocal language and love of routines. His lack of social life and the absence of invitations to his peers’ birthday party pulled on heart strings but also showed what ASD means for sufferers and their families on day to day basis. More importantly it spreads the word on the fact that autism is a spectrum and that it can come under various guises. Until recently austitic people were mostly portrayed in two ways in media, on the one hand we were shown severally autistic people with very serious needs and on the other hand we were shown geniuses – I suspect that this was widely due to the fact that both camps makes ”good TV”.

So it was refreshing to see a boy with a standard intellect yet with so many differences being on TV. Autism can have so many faces and it’s time that us neuro-typicals know about it.

The A-Word is on BBC1 on Tuesdays at 9.00pm. You can view the first episode on BBC iPlayer.

SUTTON’S YOUTH MP TALKS POLITICS, AMBITIONS AND ASPERGERS

 

IMG_1330Helpp was delighted to meet Sutton’s Youth MP Ethan Smith to talk about studying, politics and more crucially his Asperger’s diagnosis and why he sees it as a great strength

 

 

– When were you diagnosed and do you feel that this diagnosed has affected/influenced you in any ways?

I was diagnosed; misdiagnosed in fact, by CAHMS with ADHD. Unfortunately, for the first 12 years of my life it was assumed that I had ADHD and my inability to cope at primary school and for a small time at Carshalton Boys was due to hyperactivity. Asperger’s was really my condition. It does not influence me in a negative way now because I know I have it and what the symptoms are. My misdiagnosis though meant I was different to other people and I didn’t know why. I was even different to youngsters with ADHD as I was never as hyper as them. I could concentrate when I wanted to. I just felt that I could not understand people. I always believed it was them rather than me, but this was just a misfortune of not knowing my true diagnosis.

– Do you think that Asperger’s has helped or hindered you, and if so in what way?

Hindered I believe not, Asperger’s is an advantage! Anyone who views it as a disability is misguided. It can only be a hinder if the person is not taught what Asperger’s entails. When I finally was diagnosed, it helped answer so many questions! I understood why I struggled to read facial expressions. I knew why colours had such a significant part to play in visualising numbers and days of the week! I felt like I knew why I was different as it confirmed with me that I was unique! I now view ASD as a mental advantage that other people don’t have. Rather than seeing ASD as an alien infestation in the mind, I see it as a mental entity which gives intellectual super powers to a person. An example of this for me is the ability to absorb information through doing research. During my GCSEs I didn’t start taking revision seriously until a couple of weeks before the exams. In this time I researched on the internet and on results day still managed to receive a string of A-Cs!

– How do you think that schools and services could improve to support youngsters with Asperger’s?

I say a system like Stanley Park works wonders! I think the best way to support young people with ASD is to ensure they are not segregated from other young people. This happens in specialist schools which are just for people with autism. In a school like that the young people can become institutionalised, whereas in a school like Stanley Park it integrates young people with ASD into mainstream education. I go to mainstream lessons with the support of the ASD base to fall back on. There is also much open space in school for me and this makes my mood higher and I never feel claustrophobic or squashed. I feel open, comfortable and with a base to fall back on, safe and secure.

– How and why did you get involved in politics?

Politics is my aspiration due to the passion I have for advocating the views of young people and applying my personal experience to help others! I was the elected Member of UK Youth Parliament in 2015 and I represented all young people in Sutton. This ignited a passion in public speaking and standing up for young people’s best interests.

LONDON SPERM BANK BANS DONORS WITH NEUROLOGICAL CONDITIONS INCLUDING AUTISM

Parents of ASD children are most likely aware of the recent media stir caused by the London Sperm Bank in banning anyone with a neurological condition, including dyslexia, Asperger’s or autism to donate. Social media has erupted with disgust and campaigners, as well as those with living with the condition, have expressed their outrage.
Awareness of neurological disorders has gone stratospheric over the last two decades and now parents and professionals are very in tune with diagnosis and what someone with dyslexia or autism ‘looks like”. But the terminology is key, these conditions are still called disorders and presented as such. One of the UK’s leading speakers on autism, Dean Beadle  is one of the rare specialists focusing on the positives of this condition. In his presentation, Dean explains how he’s been always presented by a series of “can’ts” and here is where the issue lies. “Clearly information is vital when given a diagnosis and allows nearest and dearest to understand what they’re dealing with. Falling for a Disney-style “happily ever after” would be detrimental but presenting people with such diagnosis as inferior is not only morally wrong, it is factually incorrect. We all know people with these conditions that are perfectly able to function in the world, some of them even have dazzling careers.”
“And guess what, no one is good at everything. I’m terrible at sports and an even more pathetic singer, yet I still believe I can offer some form of contribution to society. It is also slightly patronising  from the London Sperm Bank to outright refuse donors without their clients being allowed to choose who they can pick because I’m pretty sure they don’t have THE perfect donor on their books.”

TEACHING ASSISTANT SHOULD GO TO HEAVEN FIRST

As the end of the term is almost upon us, I’ve come across this brilliant blog by the equally brilliant behaviour management specialist Fintan O’Regan. Fintan will be one of our speakers at Helpp’s next workshop on 29 January and we’re delighted he’ll be able to share his expertise with local parents, carers and teachers. Make sure you book your space at http://www.helpp.me.uk

Teaching Assistants, also called Learning Support Assistants, should go to Heaven first.  Of this I am quite sure. Not just because of all the tremendous work that they do, but because they do not appear to be valued here on planet earth.

For many students with special educational needs, Teaching Assistants have provided the lifeline to surviving the school experience.  Yet, it has become all too fashionable over the last few years to claim that Teaching Assistants actually hinder the progress of students with SEN.  Many articles have implied that students with SEN were being short changed as the interaction between students and Teaching Assistants was ‘lower in quality’ than with teachers.

It is reported that Teaching Assistants are more concerned with task completion than with learning.Teachers, it is suggested, are more likely to ‘open up’ pupil talk while Teaching Assistants ‘closedown talk’ to get the job done.  Furthermore, it is claimed that Teaching Assistants are all too interested in the soft skills such as confidence building, developing motivation and changing a student’s disposition toward learning.

Therefore, in the report for the National College of School Leadership by Webster and Blachford entitled ‘Teaching Assistants: Role, Contribution and Value for Money’ it was good to see some sensible balance restored.  Here the findings suggest that any of the studies which reported the negative relationship between Teaching Assistant support and pupil progress was not in fact the fault of the Teaching Assistant.  Rather, it was the organisational factors, such as employment and deployment, over which the TA’s had little control, that explained the impact of the findings.  In other words, it was the decisions made by school leaders about the use of Teaching Assistants that ultimately determined the outcome.
This does not go far enough.  Over the years I have seen that most Teaching Assistants have a great deal of life experience and specific knowledge of the local community.  This powerful combination results in the ability to form positive rapport and relationships with students who may feel disengaged and disillusioned at school.

During my observation visits to classrooms I have often found myself with teachers who are frustrated with a student’s lack of progress or the behaviour of a specific pupil, resulting in their losing their temper and shouting at a student.  On most occasions I will catch the Teaching Assistant’s eye and find a knowing look suggesting that there was a different way to handle that situation. Most Teaching Assistants that I have met possess very good people skills while some teachers with quality subject expertise, do not.
To describe giving someone confidence and motivation as providing ‘soft skills’ implies that these issues are less important than learning facts and figures.  In my opinion, these are critical skills for all students especially those with SEN.

Furthermore, I have known many Teaching Assistants who support students in a variety of ways outside of the classroom.  This includes; helping with day to day organisation, teaching time keeping strategies, nutrition options not to mention all of the additional pastoral support they provide. I even knew one Teaching Assistant who washed a pupil’s sports kit when support systems at home where not in place.
It is time we stood up and valued all of our Teaching Assistants for the magnificent job they do.  Their motivation reaches far beyond any fiscal recompense or meagre recognition.  They do it because they care about the children and young people who are struggling within our school systems.

That is why Teaching Assistants should jump the queue and go to heaven first.

Happy Christmas to all.

SENSORY OVERLOAD!

Halloween, Guy Fawkes and Christmas so many events to conjure up happy childhood memories for so many of us… Yet for ASD sufferers and their nearest and dearest, these occasions can be the source of many headaches.

People dressed up in scary characters can be a confusing and somewhat traumatic experience for children on the spectrum as individuals they know will take a different appearance. One Mum relates: “my child didn’t dressing up of any sorts well until he was 7. I remember him being terrified of his nursery teacher on World Book Day when she was all dressed up, so Halloween was a big no no”.

Fireworks and Guy Fawkes bring their own cohort of problems with the lights and noise often being way too much for individuals with sensory issues. A dad of an Asperger’s boy recently said “ Before his diagnosis, I took my son to see a display thinking it might be nice Father/Son bonding experience. This couldn’t have been further from the truth, I don’t think I’ve ever seen my child so terrified. We’ve gradually built up his confidence by watching the fireworks closer and closer from a bedroom window. This year we might even try with the window open”.

And the biggy… Christmas, with new social situations, relatives that may not be privy to a diagnosis and food preferences that cannot be catered for… In other words, headaches and more headaches…

This can be compounded by neuro typical siblings who have the full intention (and by the way are completely allowed!) to enjoy these events to the full.

So how to proceed? We’d love to hear about your strategies and special tricks to make these enjoyable occasions for everyone. With so many parents at their wits end, it would be great to hear about things that have worked for you.

We look forward to hearing about your suggestions!

The Helpp Team

A LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL FOR TEENAGERS WITH SLEEPING PROBLEMS?

With the school holidays soon coming to an end, many families are keen to re-introduce a solid sleep routine allowing children to thrive during the day. This is trickier to achieve for families with youngsters with neurological problems as a large proportion of them report sleeping problems for youngsters and the rest of the household.

Problems with sleep are widely reported and addressed in younger children with a plethora of books and forums offering to tackle the issue. Sadly this remains a reality for many in teenage years with often having dire consequences on the sufferers’ education and employment opportunities.

The charity Cerebra and their sleep service  is one of the too rare organisations providing help and strategies for older youngsters and their families. Using a technique called Chronotherary, Cerebra’s sleep practitioners aim to address unusual (or non existent!) sleeping patterns by pushing bedtimes forward rather than backwards as is the general advice for younger children.

A typical Chronotherapy schedule can follow the pattern below:

•1st night: sleep at 4 a.m., wake at 12 midday

•2nd night: sleep at 7 a.m., wake at 3 p.m.

•3rd night: sleep at 10 a.m., wake at 6 p.m.

•4th night: sleep at 1 p.m., wake at 9 p.m.

•5th night: sleep at 4 p.m., wake at 12 p.m.

•6th night: sleep at 7 p.m., wake at 3 a.m.

•7th night: sleep at 10 p.m., wake at 6 a.m.

A word of warning – Chronotherapy can be difficult to implement and Cerebra advises against using this technique without the help of an experienced sleep practitioner. Having said that many families report a vast improvement after using the techniques with youngsters developing more normal and longer sleeping partners.

For anyone who had to function on very little sleep Chronotherary can be a light at the end of the tunnel and a potential end to sleepless nights.

If your family and your children are affected by sleeplessness, Cerebra’s sleep service is available on 01267 244210 or at sleep@cerebra.org.uk,

WHO NEEDS ENEMIES WITH FRIENDS LIKE THIS? YOUNGSTERS WITH SPECIAL EDUCATIONAL NEEDS REPORT THAT “MATE CRIMES” ARE RIFE

Crimes against youngsters with special needs are nothing new and there’s hardly a week going by without hearing about incidences of bullying and bodily arm.

More worryingly a report conducted by the Wirral Autistic Society shows that a staggering numbers of these crimes are actually committed by individuals who the victims regard as their friends. 80% of over 16 year olds with autism felt bullied or taken advantage by someone they thought was their friend. Interestingly the Wirral Autistic Society also reveals that 100% of the 16 to 25 year old have difficulties distinguishing genuine friends from potential bullies, and here you’ve got the whole problem. It is a known fact that individuals on the ASD spectrum struggle to read the intentions of others making them “sitting duck” for anyone with bad intentions. This is a scary fact for parents and carers who strive to make their neuro-atypical children as independent as possible later in life. I feel that we’ve made huge progress to understand those on the ASD spectrum but it is clear from the above that more needs to be done to connect with their world or/and to help them connect with our world. It is only if they feel and are safe as much as possible that we will be able to unlock their full potential.

To read the full Wirral Autistic Society Survey, click here

The Wirral Autistic Society is looking to build a campaign aiming to end “mate crime”. To get involved email matecrime@autistic.wirral.org

NEURO-ATYPICAL CHILDREN AND MAINSTREAM EDUCATION – ARE THEY READY FOR EACH OTHER?

“You really are asking for trouble with this article, aren’t you” read one of the comments to the Guardian’s Secret Teacher section latest instalment. And I have to say I couldn’t agree more… The Secret Teacher deals with all aspects (and sometimes perils) of a teacher’s life and this week’s it was the turn of a SENCO to vent about over-concerned parents who present her with diagnosis to explain their children’s shortcomings in the academic world.

The author was making the point that we are a bit too keen as a society to stick a label on individuals often to the detriments of real sufferers. Fair enough. She also said that she has found herself having to pander to increasingly farcical theories from parents and carers as to why things aren’t working out for their offsprings. Now in my experience and from what I’ve heard from parents in similar situations it is almost impossible to get any educational help without a diagnosis from a professional and even then in most cases the fighting isn’t over. Access to support is often discussed in our Helpp coffee mornings and for a lot of us it has been a struggle. I also doubt that in today’s economic climate and squeezed budgets many SENCOs have the luxury of time to “pander” to parents’ theories and ideas without a solid professional back up.

For me this article highlighted far more. We are the first generation of google parents and we have come to expect that the solution to all our educational woes are a click away. We are then looking for validation from teaching staff that according to the National Careers Service are only expected to complete limited SEN training unless they choose to become a dedicated SEN teacher. I would say to teachers that it is ok to share that they don’t know or are unsure and redirect parents to the traditional avenues. But please don’t dismiss us, our approach may be misguided but our concerns are real.

To the read the full Guardian article click here

Helpp organises a series of coffee mornings where parents and carers discuss various issues including access to support. Our next coffee mornings will be held on 3 July and 4 September 2015. For more information click here

ASD IN POPULAR CULTURE, BLESSING OR CURSE?

At the weekend, America hosted the Tony Awards, the theatre’s answer to the Oscars.

This was a big night for the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The play, based on the 2003 book depicting a 15-year old teenager on the autism spectrum scooped up two of the main awards namely Best Play and Best Lead Actor for Alexander Sharp’s interpretation of Christopher the story’s main protagonist.

On its release the book struck a cord with many and rapidly became a best seller. It then went on to become a successful play in the West End and has now achieved Broadway recognition. There’s even talk of a film by David Heyman and Steve Kloves, the producer and screenwriter behind the Harry Potter franchise.

When it comes to raising awareness it’s difficult to do much better. Whilst the character’s condition has never been confirmed, his social communication difficulties are clear and the success of the book and subsequently the play have given the autism spectrum an unprecedented platform in popular culture. So far so good… Yet telegraph.co.uk reports that the author Mark Haddon has expressed reservations about the novel being used as an autism “textbook” by social workers and police forces.

Whilst this book is clearly a novel, not written by an expert and has therefore no vocation to become an autism textbook, it has undoubtedly lifted a veil over the autism spectrum world. Individuals with no personal interest in this field are unlikely to refer to specialist publications but may read this novel and get an insight of the condition. It is a fiction with a view to entertain but it does help putting the spotlight on social communication difficulties.

So to the question blessing or curse, I firmly believe that the incursion of ASD in popular culture can only be a good thing – and I understand Mr Hatton’s reservations but he has helped many and probably more than he knows.