Learning from lucy

So today Lucy asked me if i thought a risk was a good thing. Yes, Lucy asked this. Lucy who is 6.

..and so ensued a conversation about where she had heard the word ‘risk’, what she thought it meant, what it actually meant and to be honest I think I’ve not had as educated a conversation in a long time. And it was with my 6 year old!

Lucy is an enigma. She’s an old soul. Don’t get me wrong, Lucy can be 6 with the rest of them, but she has this wee air of ‘I’m playing along with this’ that is a wonder to watch. We learn a lot from Lucy. Her observations often sum up a conversation in a phrase or two (remember like Jerry Springer used to do in his piece to camera at the end of each show?!).

Lucy is a sensitive wee soul. In more ways than one. Sensitive in that from across the room she can give you a look that says ‘you need a hug.. I’ll be there in a minute.. here’s a special air hug to do you until I get there’. Sensitive in that if we meet people she’s not met before she feels the need to explain Amy to them.. sensitive in that she picks up on details few adults do and can make your day by complementing them..sensitive in that she has princess and the pea syndrome (it’s a real thing).. she cannot wear jeans. Can’t. She can’t wear tops with lines on them, trousers, anything baggy or anything with a collar. We’re limited to the dallas cowboys cheerleader look (shorts and welly boots). But she rocks it.

Last week was mothers day. We tried on about 8 dresses before we left the house. She tried to hold it in but couldn’t… in the end she said ‘mum, I’m sorry, you just can’t make me a different person’.. and you know what, I don’t want to. I’m so proud of my fiesty cheerleader. Those traits that make her headstrong, bossy and a wee know it all will make her a decisive, single minded leader in her own time. So why would I want to change that?  Sure, the 6 changes of clothes a day, all of them trampy, are a pain.. but she knows what she likes..

I do however need to work on her self image. It’s so important with wee girls that they don’t feel the need to please others or dress for others. As adults you know we do it. When dressing for a function or event, you dress to impress the other women, not the men (not that the men would notice anyway?!). With girls I think we need to work on making sure we are dressing for how you feel, not how you look (I can say this as a size 18.. there I said it!).

What’s really sad though is the power that clothes have over how Lucy feels about herself. This goes beyond how the clothes physically feel, which in itself is a very real issue for her, but how she actually feels wearing them. It’s unfortunate that unless her skirt is grazing the top of her thigh (at 6!), she feels frumpy. Now i hasten to add that she didnt learn that here! Her sense of self needs some work.. she has so much to feel good about.

Not school yet though. Lucy thinks like a(n at least) 9 year old. She has an auditory processing issue which means that she’s struggling to break words down to spell or to read. Lucy is however so expressive and when she describes a feeling or analogy, she’s just got it.. she also has wisdom beyond this lifetime. She can see through an issue right to the lesson to be learnt from it. We often sit back and smile (sometimes even when we should be telling her off) as she describes why she’s doing the thing we’re telling her not to do, rather than just stopping.

Talking to her in the car the other day I realised that of course teaching her like a just turned 6 year old won’t work. She doesn’t think like a just turned 6 year old. She asked why the ‘y’ on the end of her name didn’t sound like ‘yu as in yoghurt’.. oh the perils of English eh?! So I explained that letters are clever. They sound different depending on where in the word they are found. So on the end of her name it sounds like ‘ee’.. like Amy, Mummy, Daddy, Granny…  that made sense to her. Phonics teaches each letter sound first. Then you relearn digraphs and then relearn phonemes…

Whilst i am totally subscribed to the ‘they learn when they are ready’ camp, Lucy has been born ready and is just not getting it. I’m going to go off piste and teach Lucy the facts..and respect that she’ll be able to cope with that. I’m also making ‘flash cards’ (boy i dislike that title) to stimulate the visual learner in her, by giving words like ‘there’, ‘this’ and  ‘she’ pictures for her to visualise.. She loves to write and always comes to check if what she’s written is spelt properly. It completely wrecks her head if you say no. So i usually explain that she’s got the sounds right. I can make it out..


I lof yooy mum. (Y as in yoghurt sound at the end of the word ‘you’)

Choosdaay (tuesday)

Brd tbll (bird table).. we can’t  master vowels.

My granny loved the English language. Most years we got English grammar books for Christmas and you often got your thank you letters posted back to you with the corrections done in red pen. She felt that grammar was so important that the worst thing you could do was let yourself down with poor grammar. She’d be very disappointed with the number of sentences that I’ve started with ‘And’!

But (there’s another no no!), time moves on and styles change, teaching methods change and our understanding of learning adapts and progresses.

Plus, I live with Lucy. Things will never be the same again, including my understanding of learning. I think it’s so important to respect what she does know and how she thinks and above all to ensure her self esteem doesn’t dip at all.

I’ve learnt more from this tiny adult than I’ve ever learnt in a book and I’m excited to see how much more there is to know. Xx






each child matters…

As part of my topic at the conference last week, I showed some data slides to the delegates, demonstrating how whilst working with a small child, they have the opportunity to influence the family and the wider community (the child not registered with a GP by age 5, will be the child who has poor attendance at school and the child with poor results on leaving school and the young adult with little in the way of job prospects). Interestingly this is true no matter where you live. I was challenged by a delegate for implying therefore that disadvantage doesn’t matter; doesn’t impact on life chances.

Of course it does – all the evidence shows that children from disadvantaged areas (usually measured by indices of deprivation, NIMDM 2010) have significantly more obstacles in their lives, which impact on their ability to learn and their future life chances. However, in researching for last week’s conference topic, I thought it important to point out to delegates that they should not be complacent when dealing with children who do not live in wards that have been deemed as ‘disadvantaged’.

The reason?  I believe that disadvantage is not necessarily linked to your postcode, but to your personal circumstances – it is therefore unique to each child, and what may be seen as an obstacle to one, may not be to another, mainly due to factors such as personal drive, family’s involvement with education, vision etc…variables if you will…

This is a controversial opinion, as most initiatives are targeted  within designated areas of  disadvantage as all of the evidence shows that this is where resources should be targeted to make the most impact. I’m not disagreeing with the theory behind this at all. Especially with public money, a lot of time needs to be taken to work out where the best outcomes can be achieved for the £1. Undoubtedly taking a family specific approach costs more money. But in the real world, where we are not spending public money, we are not trying to ‘turn the curve’ and we are not trying to measure benefit realisation, we have the opportunity to think about each child and their barriers to learning, not as decided by the ward they live in, their parents employment status or the household income. This makes perfect sense, but unfortunately it is not how the powers that be spend money on our children, and whilst money does not make the world go round, it is handy when you need some services.

Take my children for example:

  • both were born to the same parents in and live in the same house within a Super Output area (SOA) which is ranked 606 out of 890 therefore within the top 1/3 of  SOAs in NI in relation to affluence
  • neither parent claims benefit
  • education status within the household is degree level +
  • high level of parental engagement with children’s education
  • children attend a school with a low rate of FSM entitlement (free school meals) *

…2 children who find learning difficult.

*how deprivation is measured at school level…

Can you see how the needs of the children are lost here amongst statistics?

It is a sad fact that disadvantage is often described in terms of household income, or relative income deprivation, but despite the outcomes based accountability approach being taken by many (most?) agencies at present, these tend to be described in terms of outcome for the £1 spent, as opposed to outcome for the child the £1 was spent on.

Of course, not every issue requires money spent on it, but it does take time and engagement to address them. And time costs money.

So my message to providers of early education and care within NI is:

  • do not make assumptions about your cohort of children within your catchment area – look at each child and remember that, more than most, you can make a difference in the life of this child, their family and the community – you can do this by looking at the whole child in your care
  • do not assume that if a child has a label, that is the reason for what you are looking at in terms of behaviour for example – it is not the reason, it is your cue to look further for the reason.
  • remember that children do not behave in a particular way just to annoy adults, they do so because they don’t have all the answers yet (indeed often I want to stamp my feet, but resist in case I’m asked to leave Tesco). For example, the tantrum that you are looking at is not the issue, but a cry for help – if you remind yourself that the child is distressed rather than irritating this may influence how you react
  • often a word is attributed to a child where many others may also apply, it just depends on which therapist got there first – forget the word, just look at the child.
  • be sensitive to the needs of all of the children – not just those which are noted as ‘special’. Many more go undiagnosed with anything (which I personally think might be better).. but this can also mean they are overlooked or labelled as something else eg ‘loud’, ‘trouble’, ‘antisocial’.
  • no matter what the age of the child or young person in your care, although I would urge you to trust your professionalism at all times, never believe that you have all the answers – always look, observe and observe some more. This is the key to ensuring that your practise truly meets the needs of each child in your care.
  • and finally, care. Always care. Each child matters.
so in terms of disadvantage – I truly believe that this is person specific. it doesn’t have to be about unemployment or income deprivation. It might be the amount of time spent with the child, it might be parents assumptions of their child’s abilities, it might be too much doing and not enough being…It is impacted by each child’s ability to process the information provided to them by their senses.
Long sleeved shirts are not necessarily a disadvantage to most, but if made to wear one under a cardigan there would be no learning done for Amy at all.
Some disadvantages are invisible. And we don’t need to see them.. we need to truly feel them for each and every child if we are to make a difference in their lives, either as a parent or a professional.
but lets not forget the (my) theory of relativity – for every disadvantage, there is an equal and opposite advantage – you just have to look for it. Today was a flat day for me, for no particular reason. I was telling Amy this and she said ‘so you’re having a water day then?’ (cue curious look from me). She said ‘some days are like tap water, some are flavoured water, some diet coke’. She’ll go far this one. x





Just walk with me..

I’ve lost count of the number of times in the last couple of days even that ive read posters or facebook articles about autism friendly events. Eg closed screenings of particular movies, closed access to soft play, a shop open specifically for the purpose at a specified time, even a cruise specifically for autistic children and their families. These events may be either just for autistic children, or some let siblings attend also.

I really think this is the least ‘autism friendly’ thing ever. Here’s what it says to me:

  • A business has jumped on to the autism bandwagon and drawn attention to it
  • Your child is awkward and we need to do everything differently for them to be able to come here
  • It’s a great idea to put so many children with difficulty understanding social skills in to the one place at the one time
  • Something else for the siblings to be excluded from (or included as tokens as the case may be)


I’m not criticising those people who find these events helpful,  as no doubt there are many accommodations made to suit the attendees.. but, it’s not for me.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. These children are children first and foremost. We need to work harder to ensure that businesses become truly autism friendly, without having to shout about it. And not just autism friendly, but people friendly.. And this is simple.. and would benefit everyone. It would truly be inclusive. . Not divisive, stigmatising or patronising. Sounds better already,  doesn’t it? And how hard would it be? Not hard at all as it happens..

I’d like to start a quiet campaign ( I say quiet as i dont want to have to rub anyone up the wrong way. I’m not arrogant enough to believe everyone will agree with me, but the smart ones will😉).. I’d like to work with local businesses to show them how to consider the needs of their catchment population without segregating them. Simples.

I can say this after having endured (the best word to describe it) the downside of a manic incident with Amy last night. It’s hard. Having registered at a local autism charity a couple of years ago, in the car on the way home I knew I’d not go back, that I didn’t agree with the focus being on what was ‘wrong’ with your child. I’ve spent years trying so hard to focus on what goes well.. The ethos of many ‘support’ organisations goes against my grain as they get drawn into all of the commonalities in the room,  and those are never positive things.

I don’t doubt that parents need a support mechanism, but I believe this should be a positive and constructive support. Parents are let down by a system where the end result is a word, which is left hanging for parents to do with as they will, and for schools to do very little with.

I don’t often talk to my friends about the hard bits. But I really talk about the small victories. Because they are not small. They are huge achievements. In a world where Amy struggles to make sense of everything she is bombarded with by her senses (6 of them..), when there’s a gem of wisdom and insight from her, you dine out on it for as long as you can. The rest is forgotten.

Tonight in the midst of the madness, I saw a frightened child. One who needed me to be an adult. She told me she felt like a caterpillar but she should be a butterfly.. how profound is that?

So let’s encourage the butterflies. Let’s not remind them that they frequently behave like caterpillars, lets not put caterpillars in a room with only other caterpillars and expect them to learn how to be anything other than a caterpillar.. let’s show them the skills, the behaviours, the reactions that normalise the metamorphosis. You learn from watching others, … so we should be integrating our children in as many normal situations as we can and giving them wings a little at a time. One day they will fly.

As I was just about to hit ‘publish’, I have just remembered a song which makes me cry every time I listen to it – it will do more so now! Link attached.. Enjoy. A x