Monday, 29 October 2012

Assessment and treatment units

A wonderful weekend with Chrissy. Her sister, Alex, and her nana were staying, & we made a Halloween pumpkin. Chrissy called it a witch! Her nana hadn't seen Chrissy for a few weeks and was amazed at the transformation in her now all the meds changes have been done.

But would this have taken place if Chrissy hadn't gone into an assessment and treatment unit? These units are getting terrible press with the latest Panorama Winterbourne View investigation on TV tonight. Politicians and learning disability charities are calling for these 'dumping grounds' to be decommissioned without delay - but don't we need robust alternatives in place first? Anyone who's read my previous posts will know that we've had our issues with Chrissy's ATU and I'm sure there are lots of awful ones like Winterbourne View - but you can't lump them all together. The truth is, it was her only lifeline. Community-based services failed her time and time again. People that present with the most challenging behaviours usually have complex needs that can't always be met in the community. Support workers need better pay & training, and don't get me started on communication. Many of Chrissy's support workers in the past have barely been able to speak English. The best learning disability psychiatrist Chrissy has ever had is the one at the ATU. It pains me to admit it, as we haven't always seen eye to eye on every aspect of Chrissy's treatment, but she's pretty impressive! Other psychiatrists that Chrissy's had in the community have been, at best, out of their depth &, at worst, haven't had her best interests at heart. In a nutshell, a vulnerable adult with challenging behaviour & complex needs can be extremely difficult to manage in the community. If community learning disability teams were up to the job, why has it taken SEVEN YEARS from the start of her deterioration for Chrissy to recover & be herself again?

We learned at last week's care planning meeting that Chrissy is due to be discharged from the ATU in the next couple of months. I'm very nervous about her leaving the unit's health-focused environment. Her epilepsy is still unstable but I'm hoping it's just a blip while the last of her previous meds leave her system - she can react strongly & paradoxically to even the smallest meds change.

To end on a very upbeat note - at the meeting, all Chrissy's therapists expressed their delight at her progress since the last lot of meds changes. They reported marked improvements in her cognitive skills, attention span & willingness to engage with others. She thoroughly enjoys going out shopping and on woodland walks and it's hard to remember the last time she disrobed during an outburst. These recent, very marked, improvements strengthen our case that she needed meds changes, not simply changes in her environment, to retrieve her quality of life. How on earth could the meds changes have been done in the community with what it has to offer currently? Badly run ATUs are the tip of the iceberg. Closing them down without suitable tried & tested alternatives in place is not the answer.

I am a SWAN UK (Syndromes without a Name) blogger

Sunday, 21 October 2012

My Life with Autism: The Supermarket - by Debbie Pollard

Debbie, mum of Matthew, aged 10, kindly agreed to guest post for me this week.


When those of us who have autism in our families venture outside it can feel like walking through a minefield. We are only too aware of the danger. We just don't know exactly what will cause the explosion. One wrong step: BOOM!

The constant scrutiny is incidental.

Some of us feel like we are on exhibition every time we leave the house. Always on the brink of becoming some sort of grim public entertainment. There's always someone further down the food chain to feel superior to. Who needs Jeremy Kyle?

Matthew and I head for the front. Today we will enter the hostile territory of the supermarket. A logistical failure has left us without vital supplies. We are lucky enough to get a space in the relative safety of a disabled bay – our journey into the shop should present minimal risk.

Already we are attracting some interest. Well, I have parked in a disabled space and both of us can clearly walk.

Tut-tut. Blue badge nothing. She's no right parking there.

Eyes down. Focus on Matthew. I'm not ready for a staring match and I'm saving my energy for when I most need it.

In we go. I grab a basket as we pass. I don't need a trolley. We won't be buying much and, besides, I can't push a trolley and keep hold of Matthew at the same time. I know he will run, scream or lie down. But when? Where? Why? Well, I'll know when it happens.

We're in. Basket in my left hand, Matthews hand in my right. He's jumping up and down, making noises. His hood is up, providing a little sensory protection.

Why's she letting him do that?


It's the three minute warning. Matthew may need the toilet. It may just be a tactic to get away from this environment he has found himself in. This environment that I have brought him into. Either way, the toilet is the next place we are headed.

The disabled toilet is occupied.


Heads whip round.

What a racket. Why doesn't she shush him?

Can a head really turn that fast without doing it's owner an injury? If rubbernecking ever becomes an Olympic sport, Team GB is a shoe-in for gold. Matthew is becoming increasingly agitated. How did it get so hot in here? Sweat trickles down the back of my neck. Ladies it is. We're going in, and it might not be pretty.

Horrible blueish lights in here. To stop people injecting drugs by making their veins hard to see? Energy saving? Just because someone liked them? It doesn't really matter.

Now Matthew's hands are clamped to his ears.

What's that laddie doing? He's too big: should be in the gents.


“No, it's OK, no-one is using the dryer, on we go”


“No, it's OK......”

Hand dryers are scary. An assault on the senses. The air pressure changes. Any bits of fluff or paper on the floor are flung around by the turbulence. Lets just hope we can get through this without one going off.

We're in, we are out. Hands washed.

“No, it's OK, Matthew, I'm not going to use the dryer”

He takes no chances though. He's been here before. Experience makes him cautious. Hands over ears, one arm linked through mine, we make our way back into the shop. I'm bent over sideways. Do we look strange? I'm sure we do. I know I'm being watched but I've got work to do.

“Good boy, Matthew, it's OK, we're back in the shop, dryer is gone”

Eh? Why doesn't she just make him walk properly?

Shelves and shelves of things to eat and play with. Trolleys and people coming from every direction. Giant freezers hum. A hundred beeps per minute from the scanners, all slightly out of sync. Chatter. Children crying. Dishes clattering and the faintly unpleasant odour of everything with chips being prepared in the café.

We head deep into the shop. It was cold near the freezers but now it's so hot. Milk. Far from the doors. Deeper and deeper. Avoid the sweetie aisle for now. To throw us, the supermarket changes it's layout now and then. I'm sharp enough to take avoiding action when necessary. Almost there. We're here. Basket on the floor. Matthew by the hand. One, two cartons into the basket. Matthew has held up well so far. Time for him to choose a treat.

I relax a little. Rookie error. Matthew slips his hand from mine and he's off. He has carried out his own visual sweep of his surroundings and spotted something I've missed. He's on it like heat-seeking missile. Packets of sweets at the end of an aisle. Of course. A well known tactic of the supermarket. How could I have forgotten? I thought we were relatively safe.

Some people just can't control their children.

Snap decision. Drop the basket and run? Just run? I choose the latter – damage limitation is all I can do now and keeping hold of the goods will make our escape a little quicker. He's at the sweets. Two packets ripped from their hooks.

Check her running in those boots

Trainers! Kit error. Still, I've caught up with Matthew. To be more accurate he has ripped open a packet of sweets and has stopped to eat them. That packet will be written off. I'll take the empty wrapper to be scanned. There's a chance for the other packet though.

“Matthew, give Mum the sweets”

“Sorry” (a word Matthew uses when anxious or unwilling to co-operate)
I only fight battles that I might win. We could carry on this wee stand off all morning. Or at least until the sweets are all gone. It could escalate until Matthew is lying on the floor screaming and I am on the verge of tears. Nothing can be achieved here.

I don't believe it – she's just letting him keep the sweets. No wonder he's so badly behaved!

Plan A was for Matthew to chose a treat. Well he has chosen it. Plan B. Quickly to the nearest or quietest check out. Avoid the ones with eye-level sweets to tempt Matthew. Damn ingenious supermarket. But at least in this one there are actually some check-outs that are sweet-free. Others are more ruthless and we're not ready to tackle those yet.

Empty check-out. I'm so, so glad. I can see the exit. Milk on the conveyor, Matthew's hand still in mine. He'll not try to give me he slip again – he knows I'm back on full alert. And, anyway, he is contentedly munching his sweets.

“Are you enjoying them sweets? Not talking son?”

Ignorant. And look at her. A smile would crack her face.

“Enjoy the rest of your day!”

“Thank you. You too.”

Got the milk. Got Matthew by the hand. The doors are getting closer. Fresh air, I can almost smell it. Out in the open. Daylight. I can see the car. Safely inside. Engine on. And breathe!

Until next time.

Debbie & Matthew

Debbie wrote this post for Act Now For Autism, formerly known as ACT NOW (Autism Campaigners Together). Act Now For Autism is a core group of people passionate about the future and well-being of children and adults with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder in the UK. Act Now For Autism are campaigning against aspects of Welfare Reform, specifically face-to-face assessments and the Work Programme. They are ardently campaigning for advocacy to be offered to anyone who has to attend a benefit assessment.

I am a SWAN UK (Syndromes without a Name) blogger

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Living at Home again: An Impossible Dream?

West Meon Church

A magical morning with Chrissy. We walked to the village shop for a newspaper and Maltesers. Chrissy behaved perfectly so we stopped for a photo-call in the churchyard. Later as we looked through the pictures on her laptop, Chrissy's face was wreathed in smiles as I showed her how to move the cursors around. She giggled as she made herself disappear then re-appear on the screen – now you see me, now you don’t!

Having it all - enjoying lunch, Cbeebies and today's photos!

My last post was about taking a stand. I can reveal now that it was over Chrissy's Quetiapine - I was so desperate for her to come off it that I stopped it for three days on holiday. Then I admitted what I'd done to the ATU and begged them not to re-introduce it as we had seen improvements in Chrissy's behaviour and mood. It was a rash decision on my part and I've explained my rationale on here before. I had no concerns about the risks as we had seen similar improvements when the ATU had 'forgotten' to give Chrissy half the prescribed dose for a fortnight. For reasons I completely understand her doctors reinstated the drug but immediately began to 'review it downwards.’ (They need to monitor effects.) Chrissy is now on only 50mg once a day. So far so good, although her ward nurse told me that Chrissy had been slightly more agitated at meal-times lately, bending her fingers back and asking repetitive questions about food. However, her nurses have been able to distract her.

As the weekend's gone on, Chrissy's had her moments but she's been relatively easy to pacify and fully engaged in everything we've been doing. As a general reflection of her improved mood over recent weeks, her hair is growing back and looking more lustrous (she isn't pulling it out), and her body is no longer marked by self-injury.

Now Chrissy's behaviour has settled down, I’m feeling more torn than ever about her future. We’re no closer to finding a way to set up the bricks and mortar part of the single service unit option (where Chrissy lives on her own with 24-hour support). You've seen from previous posts how some issues that crop up in residential care haunt me. Now I’m wondering again if there's any way we could make it work for Chrissy to live with us permanently.

Ian doesn't believe that living with us would be the best thing for Chrissy. He fears we could go back to square one if her condition were to deteriorate again. As there's every chance, given her history, that this could happen, anything that's put in place would need to be watertight to minimise the risks of further traumatic moves. It may sound selfish but we're in our fifties and enjoying more freedom now that our children have grown up. It would serve no one if we were to go backwards to a time when Chrissy's outbursts ruled our lives and I felt like a prisoner in my own home with her too unsettled to take out or leave with a care-worker. We would be setting ourselves up to fail if we were propelled back into the fray of pointless crisis meetings and battles to get effective medical treatment and support. So there would need to be strong contingency plans in place, for example, an immediate return to the ATU for further assessment and, if necessary, treatment - and how enforceable would those plans be? I’ve lost all faith in Chrissy's commissioners, with their endless broken promises and buck-passing.

Another question is whether we could devote the time, energy and patience to manage Chrissy's needs as they should be managed and, the biggie that terrifies all parents of disabled children - what will happen when we're gone? As one of the provisions for her future care, shouldn't we ensure that she is settled somewhere that doesn't depend on us being around?

Anyway, it’s all hypothetical right now and I may have blogged myself out of it! Ian’s far more pragmatic than me – I follow my heart but as my book title says sometimes ‘love isn’t enough.’ It’s early days and I'm jumping the gun – a date for discharge from the ATU has yet to be agreed. Chrissy's epilepsy is still not as controlled as her doctors would like it to be and if another anti-epileptic drug is trialled she will need to stay in the ATU for further monitoring as she's had such nasty reactions to the last two.

At the next care planning meeting on 22 October I propose that we ask commissioners to suggest a support package template if having Chrissy back home is a route that Ian and I could agree to explore.....

Since I published this post I was given more food for thought when another mum of a child with learning disabilities wrote a piece for the Daily Mail that included her take on the residential care dilemma. She questions whether it would be cruel to leave her daughter unprepared and unprotected when her parents die:

I am a SWAN UK (Syndromes without a Name) blogger