I’m often asked if I knew when I was pregnant that Orange would have disabilities. For many reasons that I have written about previously, I’m glad that I didn’t. His disabilities were completely unexpected.
When I started to realise that life might not be straightforward for Orange, I wanted to know why. Why was it that he couldn’t move his head, spluttered when he fed, slept all the time and did this odd stiff banana pose when we picked him up? Why didn’t he seek out my gaze like his older sister had? Why didn’t he smile? And what about that failed newborn hearing test?
When I googled, the answer I got was cerebral palsy.
I spent the first weeks of Orange’s life terrified that he had cerebral palsy and that no-one else had noticed.
Of course, over time, they did.
‘I’m not sure about his muscle tone’ said the GP at his eight week newborn check. ‘Come back in four weeks, won’t you’, he said.
‘Has he woken up yet?’ said friends, half jovial at the fact my second baby slept so much he was more than making up for the pinned-eye waking torture of my first.
As the months rolled on, and Orange missed milestone after milestone, we were whipped into a system of genetic testing, brain scans and neurological assessments.
Nobody mentioned cerebral palsy. In fact, no-one mentioned any diagnosis at all.
At the time, I held on with hope that if a diagnosis could not be found, that meant Orange was fine after all. He would catch up with his milestones, it was just the stiff neck from birth causing his delays, that’s all.
Orange was almost one before anybody said to me that he would almost certainly have difficulties for life, that we wouldn’t know what they would be until he got bigger, and that we might never know the reasons why.
Until that point, I had no idea that ‘undiagnosed’ was even a possibility for a severely disabled child. And at the time, I also had no idea that there were others in the same nameless boat.
I had so many questions.
Would he walk? Would he talk? Would he need to go to a special school? What about epilepsy, I’ve read that’s a thing for lots of children with disabilities? How will I know if he’s having seizures? How long will he live?
Nobody could or would answer them.
I tried to answer them myself by reading every medical study and report available on the internet about rare genetic syndromes. But all that could be found there was fear. So I stopped.
I asked geneticists and neurologists about specific tests and syndromes. But all that could be found there was the result ‘normal’. Every medical test that Orange has ever had has recorded the result ‘normal’. So I have stopped that too.
There are no answers, except those that Orange is able to give us himself.
He is six now. He hasn’t walked. He hasn’t talked. He does go to a special school. And yes, he has epilepsy. And boy did we know when that started.
Without answers, for a long time we had hope that Orange would catch up. When he didn’t, we learned to replace that hope with a new one. That life could and would be fulfilling and wonderful anyway.
Orange has shown us that what an academic medical journal may have led us to believe would be a difficult and frightening life is anything but. They don’t tell you about the fun. The laughter. The sweet little habits. The kind hands. The bond you have with a child who needs you on a deeper level than most.
They also don’t tell you about the wonderful people you will meet when you have a child with disabilities. Kind and dedicated teachers who see your child’s personality and achievements and celebrate them with you. The respite carer and passenger assistant on school transport who become like extra grandmas.
The families you will meet, sitting alongside you in the boat without a name.
The friendships I have made with other families who also have undiagnosed children are what gets me through when there is no answer to a difficult question. Because while our children may all be different, often we are all floating about in the same unknown territory.
And there are thousands of us.
Every year, 6,000 children are born with an undiagnosed condition. SWAN UK is the only charity in the UK that provides support for families with an undiagnosed child.
It is through SWAN UK that I have made lifelong friendships. Together we celebrate our children, help each other out with ideas for equipment, home adaptions, how to handle meetings with medical and council staff, share frustrations, support each other through grief and loss, look out for each other’s mental health, laugh together, cry together.
But while our group is now at over 2,000 families, we know there are so many more who may need that support.
Today, it’s Undiagnosed Children’s Day, and we are asking people to help us find other families with undiagnosed children who may need support and friendship along this unexpected, but not unusual, path.
So if you know someone who might be in our shoes, put them in touch with SWAN UK.
Happy Undiagnosed Children’s Day!