My husband dug out our wedding photos, to prove to the boys that he hasn't always had grey hair. (That happened pretty much overnight, at some point after the twins were born, convincing me that stress really can turn you grey. I proved instead that stress can leave you addicted to cupcakes with sweets on top, as sold by Simmons the Bakers throughout Hertfordshire.) Anyway, the kids were duly convinced that Daddy wasn't born grey, but wanted to know who the lady in the white dress might be. On learning that it was in fact their beloved mother, The Dog came out with, 'Wow, even your hair was thinner then!' Oh how I love their inability to adhere to - or even to notice the existence of - social norms or any form of etiquette. Yep, my hair got fat. About the time three kids started fighting to the death every time I planned to use a hairdryer.
In any case, back to ADD-vance. Twenty-one years ago, Anne Ross had been on a very steep learning curve after realising that her boys needed additional support, but not knowing where to turn. She learned about ADHD and Autism, trained in psychology, and, as word got around that she was the person in the know, she began to offer advice to other parents in a similar position. ADD-vance was born, serving families across Hertfordshire. The charity now runs a telephone helpline, free six-week parenting courses, occasional one-off courses on specific issues within SEND, training for teachers and other professionals (including, recently, the police), family coaching and consultancy, free half-hour consultations (when funding becomes available), drop-in support sessions, a library of SEND titles and a Facebook support group with over a thousand members. They have worked with local NHS professionals to set up PALMS (Positive behaviour, Autism, Learning disability and Mental health Service), a service for families dealing with the challenging behaviour that often comes along with autism or learning disabilities. I'm sure there's more I've missed, because these people are endlessly awesome.
Now here's the thing: ADD-vance has a teeny tiny staff, and receives no regular funding. They run on a shoestring budget and rely on donations, fundraising and occasional grants. In the current climate (don't get me started on the government), there is more and more competition for charity funding, yet ADD-vance cannot suddenly hire additional staff to work full-time seeking out and applying for resources. Meanwhile, the parenting courses are so utterly life-changing that they are taking on legendary status among parents across Hertfordshire, and demand keeps increasing. Professionals who diagnose ADHD and Autism also advise that parents contact ADD-vance and many recommend the courses. Every time course details are released they are many times over-subscribed, sometimes full within hours. There is no place for British reserve here: ADD-vance needs our cash. (Except clearly I don't have any, because I spend my days going to appointments at ASD/ADHD clinics instead of working.) Without money, they cannot meet the demand for additional courses or other services, and parents like me may just sink, which is bad news for vulnerable children across the county.
Let me just give you an idea of how ADD-vance helped me.
- Spend 7 years trying to figure out why my children never sleep, always cry, are scared of loud noises, hate being touched, don't socialise like other kids. Why does one of them miss every developmental milestone, while another does everything unnaturally early? Why do two of them never stay still? Why is one so slow to talk? Why does another only speak lines from Peppa Pig and another express himself like a little old man? Why do Health Visitors keep telling me not to worry? Am I deluded, depressed, or just the crappest Mum in the world?
- Diagnosis for The Cat, followed by Magic Flier Conversation (see earlier blog post)
- Contact ADD-vance. Sob because the person doing course registration is so lovely. (NB If you are in Herts and you suspect your child has ASD/ADHD, or if they definitely do, it is a rite of passage to call ADD-vance and sob. Proper heaving chest, streaming nose required. Do it tomorrow if you haven't done it yet. 01727 833963, Mon-Thurs 9 am to 1 pm.)
- Attend ADD-vance Support Group. Wonder what everyone is talking about but eat biscuits and feel that you are no longer alone. Hope that one day you'll understand what all the advice and acronyms mean. (ODD anyone? SPD? NAS? DLA?) Make mental note that I was supposed to make a donation for biscuits, then head home to screaming, non-sleeping family.
- Attend Time Out for ADHD and Autism parenting course. Start crying when the first facilitator opens by saying that our kids will be okay. She says it more than once, and she actually means it. Continue to cry while the second facilitator introduces herself, as she has three boys who sound like mine, and she is functioning and her boys are okay. Continue to weep gently as the course participants introduce themselves and I realise that I won't be judged for being unable to stop my child from attacking me with furniture. Learn so many different approaches to parenting that I am still trying them out one by one more than four years later. Meet friends I know I will have for years. Start to feel hope rather than despair. Start to see changes at home as I begin to make changes myself. Realise that The Dog is not a psychopath, but has ADHD. Find out how to get him diagnosed. Realise that The Big Boy has more issues than just Dyspraxia. Go forth and change our lives. Most importantly (but not entirely relevantly), adopt a cat from one of the other course participants, who fosters for Cats Protection. (She now works for ADD-vance. Nobody leaves one of those courses unchanged.)
- Accept my family as they are and also the fact that it isn't the experience of parenting that we might have expected, but that our lives are fine, even if the ups and downs make us sad sometimes. Share the experience of all that is amazing or funny or frustrating and hard with a group of people who now feel like family. Start fundraising for ADD-vance when I can, knowing that they can help families to heal and move forward. To advance, if you would.