Downright Joy

Discovering joy in unexpected places – a journey into Down's syndrome, Dyspraxia & Autism


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Lost and Found

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

I don’t remember the last word you spoke. I had no idea you had no more words to say, so I did not think it important to make a note. 

I wish I could remember when you last spoke. I had no idea your speech was reaching an end and I did not notice it slip away. Your words carried off into the sky on the breeze of busyness. For a while I did not realise they had gone.

If I’d known I would have looked up sooner at the sky, the trees. I wonder if their branches would have caught your words, and held on to them….at least for a while. Giving me a chance, perhaps, to climb up and take them back for you. One by one – no phrases. In reality, only a few words anyway, now tangled high up at the top of the tree. Out of reach.

Like a child’s once preciously held balloon and now abandoned to the elements, your words disappeared. Snatched out of your hand whilst no one was looking. Taken from your lips. But unlike that child, you did not cry or alert me to your loss. How could you know what to say when what was missing was needed to say it? You let it go without a fuss.

Occasionally someone notices the balloon in the tree. In winter, no more than a dash of colour against prison grey boughs. In summer, glimpsed only from within, under the canopy. Protected by the greenest of leaves, but still there. 

Oh no, they proclaim, someone has lost their balloon!

Perhaps they know the sinking feeling of watching their own child’s balloon float away. Just…. out…..of…..reach……. Momentarily, or perhaps for longer, they feel that pain.

I still notice the balloon.

I see that tree every day and I see the balloon. Your balloon.

For a long time, the lost balloon has made me sad. I have tormented myself with questions as to what more I or anyone could have done to help you hold onto it. Treasured, painful videos from back then remind me of the time you had with your balloon. 

Whatever the reason, the balloon took flight and has not returned. And I can no longer see it in the tree.

You don’t even look for it. It does not matter to you. You spend no time worrying about the things you do not possess, even if they were once yours.

Instead, you notice what and who really matters in your life. With your entire being you speak eloquently and joyfully, leaving me in no doubt of what is important to you. No words required. You hear a song and your body sings it back to me. You understand melody with the best of musicians. You see someone or something you love and your hands give a speech of their own.

You also notice the tree, but simply because it is magnificent! Like you. And like those around you who never had a balloon in the first place. Some of them your classmates or friends you have made along this different path. They too are magnificent, and like you, they speak in ways too lofty for most people to hear. Maybe that’s where the balloon has gone. Higher up

You look for what remains, for what is. Not for what has gone, though the balloon was nice whilst you had it.

Love remains. 

And if you never speak another word in your life, love remains. Or if one day you find your voice again and never stop talking, love remains.

The balloon was desirable; so many things in life are, and I missed it when it let you go.

Yet love is far and away much easier for us both to hold onto and is tied in such a way that cannot easily come undone.


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Emeralds and Rubies

Photo by Sarah K Graves @ Pixabay

It’s a thing of beauty, my daughter’s favourite toy. It stands apart from the usual plastic playthings a child of her age may be drawn to. There’s a quality in the workmanship that can only be admired.

Bejewelled with rubies, sapphires, amber, amethysts and emerald ‘stones’, it spins on its wooden base with the lightest of touches. A little encouragement is all that’s required to make it dance.

Place it in the path of sunlight and it positively sings with joy.

And yet it’s fragile. Prone to tumbling off the table and clattering loudly, ungainly, disappointingly to the floor. Brushed off, knocked down, discarded.

And unless I am there to pick it up and put it back on the table, that’s where it stays. You see, my ten year old, non verbal, autistic daughter who has Down’s syndrome has never learnt that when something or someone disappears from her view, it or they are actually still there or somewhere else. Existing or existed, but now hidden. She has not learnt that her favourite toy can be experienced or even enjoyed again if only she would look for it. So she turns her back and walks away. She forgets the joy the toy brought and moves on to her next experience. 

Out of sight, out of mind. 

Until last week.

Last week was different. What changed, and why, I have no idea. Others more widely educated in these learning processes can explain. All I know is the toy dropped as it often does but this time she went looking for it. She bent down, she picked it up and it was she who put it on the table then continued to play with that which brought her joy. Her delight carried on as before, but her world had, in that moment, opened up and my delight was off the scale.

A first. An action I had given up on ever being possible. 

This time, there was no turning away and moving on to another experience. This was the one she wanted and she took hold of it with both hands. She noticed it had gone and that now mattered enough to go looking. My assumptions about her were wrong. 

Rubies, emeralds, amber and sapphire danced again in the columns of warm spring sunlight that streamed across the table. 

An ordinary table in an ordinary kitchen on an extraordinary day.

A pleasure that was hers for the taking and she was finally able to seize it.

Some ten years ago, after many weeks, she came to be discharged from the neo natal unit that had been her home and our place of safety.  A kindly consultant handled our departure and, sensing my unease at having to leave what we knew, told me of how much the world had changed even in a relatively short space of time. Just twenty-five years earlier her cousin had been born with Down’s syndrome and was routinely put into an institution. 

Out of sight, out of mind. 

The sadness in her eyes stayed with me. The if only was palpable. 

She knew there were so many colours waiting for this baby. My baby.

Ruby reds, ambers, sapphire blues, emerald greens.

I noticed she spoke only of her cousin in the past tense.

I hope someone walked with him and pointed out colours.

Like in a rainbow; though I imagine he noticed them first.

Last week the colours got a little sharper in our Down’s syndrome world. And now my daughter knows she can at least hold them in her own hands. 

I see others similar to Hazel, they are picking up brushes and painting rainbows like I’ve never seen before. New colours coming to the fore in a shifting landscape. Emerging artists taking up residence in a world that still struggles to embrace their art form. Their Down’s syndrome. 

We should not take their palettes away thinking they cannot paint. Neither should we begrudge what they find or what they are given. I have found they will share their lives, their experiences, their possessions willingly and extravagantly. They are not the ones needing lessons in humanity. From my little window on the world of Down’s syndrome Ive noticed they are often the first to show empathy to anyone who is treated differently.

When another cries in the room, my daughter cries too. Every time. 

Instead I want to stand back and watch them pick up the colours that matter to them. However they pick them up, whatever their understanding or ability is.  What will their world look like to them? How will they depict it, shape it, colour it? Who or what will they paint into it? 

I no longer want to assume I know what’s best for my daughter or for others with Down’s syndrome, or anyone else for that matter. I do not speak for them. They are not voiceless and never have been, it’s just our world paid no attention to their voice or afforded their particular art any worth. The loss of colour to humanity must be, I have often thought, incalculable. No. Instead, I want to learn from them, from the experts, the artists. I’m convinced we can all move forward into new and more vibrant life experiences when we do.

Of course I’ll have my own opinions, and in future I’ll try harder to keep these to myself if I cannot be sure they will do someone, somewhere some good. But I do want to see a people group who, though in the past were routinely placed in institutions and are still discriminated against simply because they have Down’s syndrome, are now brought front and centre where their colours can be seen as they were always meant to be. Not because they are better than anyone else, but because they’ve spent more time than anyone else under the table.

Out of sight out of mind

Some say diamonds are a girl’s best friend. I say it’s emeralds and rubies, and they can be friends to anyone.


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Listening to you

Photo by Brands&People on Unsplash

Two terrible words were spoken with some force over my non-verbal, severely disabled daughter recently. A moment of frustration by one who briefly had care of my child and ought to have known better, but, for whatever reason, didn’t. I write this not to invite a pile on or indeed look for sympathy. Their words alone have brought enough shame on them, whether they know it or not. And they remain a good person who made a mistake. This is not about them.

But their words did damage.

Not so much to my child; as in an apparent, one-off moment of uncontrolled frustration, the words spoken went literally and metaphorically over her head. She could not/did not understand them, though she may have felt their force. Others heard, however. Worse still, another child heard. And that matters.

In the space of two brutally uttered words, a story was told to anyone in earshot, especially that other listening child. A narrative of shame. I wasn’t there to hear them spoken first hand and indeed I was calm as I wrote them down on a post-it note during a phone call I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

As I did so, my mind began to fill with many more brutal, ignorant words that have been spoken over her by others People who have had an audience of others to hear them.

Risk. Burden. Problem. Tragedy. Sorry. Terminate. Deal with it. Get rid of. Did you know before hand? Didn’t you take the test?

Words that hurt then but more so now, alongside words of comparison that continually attempt to steal my joy. Not her joy, thankfully. That appears to be intact.

Words that suggest she is unworthy of life itself. That being human can’t surely mean including people like her. Genuinely? I think she embodies being human; and….quietly, simply, she includes the rest of us without question.

Lately, I’ve more keenly felt this unworthiness that is pinned onto her life in so many ways. Whether it is the lack of good health care and research that doesn’t just label each problem we encounter as ‘typical Down’s’, or the lack of opportunities for her to be fully part of our wider local community. Then there are the barriers around her physical development that do not seem to be there for children without a Learning Disability. Or perhaps it’s her future, and ours. What will become of her? What kind of opportunities will she have as an adult? How will we/she cope? Who will care?

This incident simply served as a trigger to all those feelings and more.

I closed the call and found myself in pieces.

She lives her life at the very opposite of the words spoken forcefully over her by those who do not know her or even wish to know her. Words spoken perhaps through fear of what they do not understand. Or in anger towards that which appears out of their control. They make sense of these emotions by framing her in the closed doorways of their own prejudice.

She is positioned to suit them. Their narrative. Their take on the world. Their needs. Their concerns. And she remains outside the door. Hurting no one yet on the receiving end of cold, harsh judgements.  Others then hear this narrative and are empowered to proclaim it too.

Yet I am thankful that there are those people in her life whose doorways are open. They position themselves before her, at her feet. In front of her wheelchair not behind it or above it. Many of them. Not least her teachers, respite providers, disabled community support workers and volunteers, her family and our friends and more. People who take up a position not in some kind of worship, adoration or even deference, but a posture that looks up at her in order to learn and care. Not one that looks down in order to control.

The spoken word may carry truth, joy, hope, compassion and ultimately life to the listener. It may also carry fear, anger, pain, confusion, untruth and even bring death to the hopes and dreams of whoever might be listening.

Narrative:

A spoken or written account of connected events; a story.

The narrative about my child, and others with Down’s syndrome or other Learning Disabilities, has been collectively written. It is then spoken out by and to a society that stands above them instead of kneeling down and facing or even looking up at them. Control, fear, and, perhaps, an unwillingness to humbly learn from a different other.  It’s the natural response for many and, before I knew my child, I was guilty of it too. This post is not about the condemnation of anyone. 

I am thankful for those who open their doors, welcoming my child in, then daily kneeling down in front of her to care. Their words and actions are life giving, not soul destroying. They help rewrite her story.

And, because of them, her story has become a sacred text; highly valued and important amongst the Chronicles of what it is to be Human.

Reader, if you’ve read it, please pass it on to someone who has not; for no one should ever be called a stupid girl.


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Mum’s the Word

Recently, my almost 12 year old asked me a question. Actually she asks me loads of questions. Most of her conversation starters begin with “ I’ve got a question”. This has been the case for a very long time. I’ve been told this can be a feature of her Autism; a kind of verbal tic even, but I’m not sure that’s helpful. I see no reason to medicalise or even analyse her every characteristic. And, whatever it is, I quite like it. It gives me a moment to prepare for whatever might come next. It’s rather charming too.

Her question was this:

Was it ok for her to still call me ‘Mummy”?

She is my firstborn. She has always called me Mummy. This is my name as far as she is concerned.

And she was concerned. She had presumably heard others at school refer to theirs as ‘Mum’. She was worried that she might be expected to make a change, to fit in with others, to appease them. To not stand out or appear babyish. And here is where her autism really does kick in. Changing my name…changing that familiar, constant, never previously questioned name was a step too far for her. Venturing into the Land of Unprecedented. A change that society seemed to want to force on her. I am her Mummy. She said.

And who am I to argue?

I am her Mummy. For many years, I thought I might never be anyone’s Mummy.

We live in an age where, increasingly, we are encouraged to identify as whoever we want to. This isn’t a blog post questioning or criticising that….far from it. If I could have identified as a Mummy when I was in my 30’s and held a baby in my arms, I would have done so – in a heartbeat.  It was not in my control to do so. There was no child for a very long time to bestow that identity on me.

Eventually, after many years, M brought me that identity. I call it a privilege because it feels like one. Even now. Still. I will never get tired of hearing her call me Mummy. Or Mum, if she chooses to.

Recently, I’ve noticed a frustration creeping into the SEN/disability parenting world from parents who wish they weren’t continually referred to as ‘Mum’ by professionals in appointments or meetings. They want to be afforded the respect of being addressed by their actual name. I fully understand their reasons why, but I just don’t feel the same way for reasons I’ll try to explain. The word Mum or Mummy can often feel like a label. Slapped on carelessly at times. It can feel belittling to be in a room of professionals with all kinds of titles as well as letters after their names and be referred to as ‘Mum.‘ It’s sometimes as though before you’ve even entered the room or said a word, your opinion will not carry as much weight as theirs. You are just ‘Mum’ after all. I get it. I really do. I’ve felt that sense of inadequacy being bestowed upon me by those who believe they must know better. Thankfully only on rare occasions, but I have. But I’ve also had to recognise that, they do often know better than me on all kinds of levels. And, quite simply, being a ‘Mum’ to me is not belittling. It’s a title I love and cherish. A title that brings to the table as much as those with professional titles do. Often more so. The problem, I think, is not with the name or title – it’s with the understanding of who that name or title is.

Ultimately, this is just not a battle I am choosing to fight. I have no issue with others doing so, however. And so, although it has occasionally happened to me, and I’ve been labelled ‘Mum’ in a way that may not recognise what I bring, I’ve learnt to peel it off and reapply it as a badge of honour. A privilege. Undeserved. Something that I did not earn or study for; it was a gift out of the blue. But still mine to wear nonetheless, and a weighty one too.

I don’t think I will ever mind being called Mum. Or M’s Mummy, or Hazel’s Mummy. After years of heartache at not being one, why would I? I have many friends and acquaintances who would also give anything to have that name. Their own heartaches of baby-loss, losing a child or of infertility means that the name ‘Mum’ carries real pain and/or remains unattainable.

And, of my own two children, even after nine years, one of them has never called me Mummy. Not clearly, not properly. She is also Autistic but Non-Verbal. She sometimes forms a sound ‘Mmmmm’ when she sees me, or when she is poorly and needs me. That’s the closest she comes to using my name and it makes my heart sing when she does. So when others, even professionals, refer to me as Hazel’s Mummy, I have to admit to feeling nothing but pride. I can’t help it. It’s something I cannot ever take for granted. And I want her to hear my name used as often as possible. Who knows, perhaps one day she will say it back to me if she hears it spoken often enough.

If the role of being someone’s Mum came with the honour, respect and dignity it truly deserves in society (and not just on Mother’s Day) then perhaps other ‘Mums’ wouldn’t feel so belittled or put down.  Perhaps others who find out they are going to be a Mum will feel supported and respected enough to continue their pregnancies instead of feeling that they have no other choice but to end them. Perhaps those ‘Mums’ who are told their unborn baby has Down syndrome will be honoured and respected by being offered all the help in the world to birth and care for their child. Instead they are often routinely steered in the opposite direction and told it’s for the best. Their role as a capable Mum called into question in those first few weeks and months of pregnancy and never even given a chance. Perhaps those who have suffered the pain of loss through miscarriage or losing a child in later years would be afforded the dignity and honour of being recognised as their Loved One’s Mum – always. And perhaps those who long to be a Mum but, for whatever reason have not been handed that title, would have their pain recognised and given all they need or want to help carry it.

Titled not labelled. Dignified not denigrated.

Mum. Mummy. Mom. Mama. Mam. Me.

Mum’s the word to be shouted from the rooftops, never silenced, never shamed.