Last week, Zack was fortunate enough to be offered a place at Grafham Grange (a school during term time,but “short breaks” to our family). This is the third year that he has spent five days there. This amazing opportunity is offered as part of Surrey short breaks under the Aiming High for Disabled Children scheme run by the government. I cannot praise this scheme highly enough.
Grafham offers a unique experience for children like Zack – not purely respite which is often thought of as a break for parents, and a break for children, but short breaks aims to challenge these children and offer them an opportunity for growth that they simply would not have at home. The care they offer is second to none. With very high staff to child ratio the children are supported through the difficult moments that inevitably occur – homesickness is common even for a boy like Zack who attends residential school 38 weeks a year. The fact is that despite knowing Grafham, he only goes there five days a year. AS such, the transition is as acute as if he were going somewhere new, and he is always uncertain as to how his week will progress. I suspect he also knows that he will be put deliberately out of his comfort zone and his apprehension becomes overwhelming.
He has the opportunity to meet other young people much like himself – eight boys attend each week, and the staff do a huge amount of work with the children to help them improve their social skills, team building skills and eventually leadership skills.
Last week, as ever, afforded Zack the opportunity to try many activities, many of which he simply would not be able to do in any other setting. It’s important to understand why. Zack cannot attend a “normal” playscheme. His social and emotional skills are not equal to those of his chronological peers and his reactions can be unpredictable and difficult to manage. It is essential that adults looking after him have a range of specific skills to help him when things go wrong. At home, his younger siblings make it impossible for us to do a lot of physical activities and he can be extremely difficult to get moving. Although we know that he will enjoy an outing, the very act of leaving the house can become an insurmountable obstacle. At Short Breaks, he achieves what simply is not possible elsewhere.
Children like Zack often need a huge amount of stimulation. Their boredom threshold is very low and they will all too easily become lost in whatever obsession is current. For Zack, this is usually computer related (this year’s obsession is Minecraft. Zack’s imagination and building skills are phenomenal in this and he is clearly talented, but he loses the ability to “be” in the real world if he is not pushed into other activities). In light of this, you may understand how much I appreciate what Short Breaks does for him, and by extension for us. Because after five days of relentless stimulation, activity and fun, Zack has conversation and memories that will last him an entire year…
Zack’s timetable this last week at Short Breaks:
arrival at 11am
team building activities (trust falls, team games, getting to know you activities etc)
t-shirt painting (Zack’s is obviously Minecraft themed!!)
quad-bike theory lesson and test
quad-biking (wow!!! how amazing is that, for a twelve year old with Asperger’s syndrome to manage a dangerous, high-speed activity – and love it!)
fishing (complete change of pace – something extremely difficult for children with Asperger’s to manage… never mind that some boys will catch a fish and others won’t… a lot of emotions to manage)
pizza-making (and eating!)
mountain-boarding (again!! hugely out of comfort zone, with a lot of physical skills to master at speed)
plate painting (again, Minecraft themed!!)
visit to Portsmouth Docks
Mystery activity (the boys have been kept in the dark all week – once ore something truly challenging) – a visit to the local radio station Eagle FM ! The boys gave a live shout-out then recorded little segments which will be played as part of a one hour radio show next week on Eagle Extra- 1st September 10am
Leaving ceremony with certificates
Any boy or girl would be fortunate to enjoy a week such as this. I am keenly aware that my Zack has had a wonderful experience, in part because of his disability. Were he not disabled he would possibly not have had this. I do have to remind myself that he would have other experiences that he will never have as a result of his Asperger’s syndrome. I also know that he is a better person for having experienced this week. He is a step closer to managing the world, a step closer to that eventual aim of independent life. He has in his toolbox a few more strategies and tools to help him deal with unexpected situations, and the knowledge that despite the terror of being out of his comfort zone, he can succeed.
Really successful respite offers this: a break for carers (Zack is a lovely boy with many wonderful qualities, but he is hard work and stress rises quickly when he is at home), but also an opportunity for growth and fun for the child. Short Breaks at Grafham Grange do all this and more. It may be five days a year, but it is an enormous part of my life as Zack’s mother.