If you have followed my blog since I started it up in March, you will know my updates have been frequent. Even through exam season. Over the past few weeks you’ve probably also noticed I have gone fairly quiet — that’s not because I have put it to bed along with my bad last year of school. There’s a reason in the form of being super busy in another area: work experience!
On Wednesday I was so sad. The day marked the end (at least for now) of my voluntary work at a pupil referral unit attached to the local hospital for children aged 2-5. Previously I have completed projects and done charity work with adults who have a range of learning disabilities, but this was my first time meeting young children who have only very recently been diagnosed.
About six months ago, I decided to contact several places under my own steam in order to find something to fill the summer weeks. Doing nothing was definitely an attractive thought, but I get bored easily and so sort of always knew the reality of lounging watching Netflix every single day wouldn’t do wonders for me or the provide the sense of fulfilment I was so desperate for.
The lovely lead teacher was so accommodating from the get go. We had a phone conversation after I’d done my exams and she left it up to me as to how many days I committed to. I chose to do 2 full days a week, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, in order to clash as little as possible with other events that were upcoming like a final extra exam and Prom.
One Monday in June, I went for an initial look around to familiarise myself but to also check it was a provision I’d enjoy doing a placement in. We sat in the staffroom whilst I presented my DBS check and other valid documents and then I was briefed on the routine, purpose and duty of the unit.
It was so hands on and active from the start — they were quite laidback and I pretty much jumped straight in with the children. Teaching assistants and other staff were happy to explain why each child had a place in the unit, and what measures were being taken to help them and meet their needs.
The weeks soon flew by and slowly but surely, I felt a growing attachment to the lovely little souls I had the pleasure to spend half a week with. By doing little profiles, I hope I can highlight the special qualities of just a few of the children, present realistically my small insight into the effect of having a medical or learning difficulty on a toddler in a childcare setting, and also share with you why my experience was so so treasured:
She was the first little person I encountered, crouched down next to a wicker basket of plastic fruit and veg. A diagnosis of autism means that she was in the centre two years from the age of just 2. All she was doing was lining up the toys — in the same way each time — running around the room and coming back and do it again. Repetition is key for lots of people with ASD and this was depicted clearly by this child even at such a young age. I would say ‘what a beautiful line!’ and developed on this as weeks passed by, tapping each plastic item and naming it as she placed it down, like ‘yellow bananas’ and ‘burger at the end’. She is non-verbal but paused when I spoke, almost as if listening. Children with autism often have additional sensory coping mechanisms, and her way of exploring is to put objects in her mouth. This is common in all young children, but typically they’ve grown out of it by the time they reach their third birthday (hence why you see the warnings on bottle caps and suchlike). A particular new liking of hers was blutac, meaning everyone in the room needed eyes in the back of their head! She was very persistent in this and would scour the room for any hanging off the walls to pick off and chew. All the displays in the classroom ended up at least 6ft off the ground or clean off — the walls were so bare.
She too left this week because in September she is going into mainstream schooling. Though this will undeniably be a massive step for her, her family and the new school, I am sure it will be rewarding and she will flourish with a chance to settle in a Reception group.
Met this little boy on my first morning and he was just a delight to be around. Having just had his third birthday, he has been attending for little over a year. Almost instantly I learned he was more logically minded — puzzles and wooden toys of different shapes kept him entertained around the classroom. Although autistic and non-verbal, he has his ways of communicating, his favourite way of doing this being to walk over and take my hand and lead me to what he wanted. He displayed no interest whatsoever in interacting with other children (except for occasionally sinking his teeth in!!) but would often seek out staff members for cuddles and knees to sit on, giggle to himself and look deep into our eyes.
Life is difficult enough when you’re tiny and getting to grips with the world and how it works, but it’s made all the trickier when obstacles just keep being thrown your way. This little one has varied mobility problems meaning it has taken her considerably longer to get up and active. On my second week at the EYAC, I met her for the first time. Previously she had been doing lots of bottom shuffling (and still was). Movement was a huge challenge. To tell the truth, I came at a lovely stage in her progress — she was just beginning to totter around with the help of adults holding her hands. June heatwaves were stifling and the garden of the nursery was in direct sun, so there was a period of time where we couldn’t go outside safely. This meant that she was limited in exploring on her feet indoors as another child would always be racing around or toys would be scattered in her path. On my last Tuesday, we got the opportunity to use the big field outside belonging to the school. ‘C’ walked a width of a field with me over to her key worker, then all the way back to the other side again without even stopping. It was such a privilege to watch this little person finally walking and persevering through that and life. Already. At 3 years old. Impossible to quantify how amazing that really is.
Recently diagnosed with autism, this little boy also has 16p11.2 deletion syndrome, epilepsy and is fitted with a gastrostomy feeding device. In addition to this, he is not fully mobile and tends to only sit upright or occasionally try to crawl. When I learned more about him through asking staff, I decided to do my own little bit of research to try and understand him and his needs a bit better. ASD tendencies and epilepsy are linked with the chromosome disorder, which research suggests is a casual factor of these. Despite having a basic understanding, I had absolutely no idea that a learning disorder like autism — affecting social interaction and perception of the world — could even be induced simply by a blip in conception where tiny chromosomes did something they weren’t supposed to. It was a challenge for me, intellectually and socially, to change my behaviours in order to interact with him in a more suitable way.
Was lots and lots of fun! I started this placement with an open mind, as is the only way to when you’re doing such work. I did however feel slightly hesitant about how I would manage to tailor my interactions to children who cannot give any cues back to you. Initially it was lots of watching other staff and adapting what I already knew, but it didn’t take long for me to suss it all out.
‘E’ is a bubbly and inquisitive little girl who has been given a diagnosis of autism. She is 3 and constantly on the move. For the first couple of weeks, I spent lots of time watching over her specifically in the classroom — there are high cabinets that she goes through phases of loving to climb, and of course not recognising any danger when she’s dangling off one practically head first. Many heart in mouth moments where I found myself with just short of three seconds to cross the room and catch her!
Occasionally she would have her less active moments where she again, like Child B, would take my hand and sit us both down on the sofa next to the window. I’d point out the things outside to see, like the children playing and the sunshine in the sky. Sometimes she would look and seem to process what I was saying, other times she’d turn and reach out for me to sit back on my knee and tell me her own tales (incoherent, babbly strings of noises like oi-oi-oi or other singsong words).
Had the pleasure of seeing a new starter in advance of September begin her time at the EYAC after I had started myself. New environments can of course be daunting for us all, but even scarier for children who are used to only being in the care of parents and other close relatives.
She is only 2 and has quadriplegic cerebral palsy, which affects the function of each of her four limbs. The main teacher took her for the first week and pretty much held her for the entire three hours. This little girl would be easily unsettled and startled by other children and people, often causing her to scream for prolonged periods of time. As time passed by, we all discovered what she liked — the puppets and watching bubbles pop when sitting in her chair. Pulling funny faces even meant we got a smile!
The EYAC typically sticks to their policy of enrolling children from their second birthday until the July before they’d start compulsory school, so aged 4 for the majority. This little boy came for the afternoon sessions until the end of this week despite being a year too old. His age dictates that he should have been in a Reception group this year, but due to behavioural problems and exclusions from different establishments he was referred to the centre instead. On a personal level, without even knowing this child, I believe it was perhaps the best thing. Mainstream schools have it so that there is little freedom, even from an early age, and sitting in a plastic chair for long periods of time in a uniform is expected for the masses but not the right pathway for all.
My first impression was that he played just like any other child of his age might: in the sand, in the home corner and with some musical instruments from one of the toy boxes. However, as time passed, I noticed he was using very explicit language and I also witnessed him becoming very angry. Not only with himself, but the teachers, escorts and sometimes even other children. I cannot fault the staff and their abilities of both coping and calming him down whenever this happened. They did not lose patience and gave him the attention a school perhaps could not have the resources or time to. Behavioural needs are in no way less significant than any medical ones and I now appreciate even better how important it is that people stop to consider why before jumping to conclusions about ‘naughty’ children they see in supermarkets, and perhaps just go without judging or dismissing it as too many E-numbers. This child is easily upset and empathy has never been more crucial. As soon as he settles, he is back to a smiling, chatting and contented little human who wants to tell you about his new iPad game! Weathering the challenge where people are concerned is a valuable lesson I’ve picked up.
This child took me aback when I first met her with how crazily intelligent she is for just 3. Despite having cerebral palsy affecting her movement, she would be more than able to have a conversation with me about the day of the week or the colour of her Grandad’s hair — which she convincingly claimed to be pink!
The centre itself:
The massive main room is where all the children typically play. There are brightly coloured displays, rugs of different fabrics, interactive whiteboards, screens and boxes of toys like you could never imagine. Between sessions the floor is a sea of different blocks, bricks, cars and toys!
This room was my favourite, and certainly a popular one amongst everyone! It was opened a few years ago after charity donations. Since many of the children have ASD and behavioural problems, sensory spaces can be really calming and comforting to them. There is a bubble tube, interactive lights walk, fibre bunch, disco ball and lots of projected images to look at and watch. I will confess to feeling sleepy — it definitely had the desired effect on me!
A safe space has been designated for use by the EYAC only, but it is tiny and so we could only stagger taking the kids out in small groups. It sometimes is hard to access because they have to coordinate with the attached primary as to when it is vacant, as the KS1 children next door also use the outdoor bit with swings. Of course the hot weather has meant we were doing pretty much anything to escape the oven that the classroom had become! Walks were a pretty standard thing, especially on Tuesdays, to Sainsbury’s cafe for snack or even a play park. Sometimes we would take the bus out and visit museums or bigger parks for the morning.
Ultimately I have had a fantastic time and was beyond gutted to leave behind the wonderful children, encounters with highly educated therapists and other professionals, but also the five staff members, who welcomed me with open arms and willingly educated and shared tips and bits of wisdom. It’s been a great way to spend time and interacting in a new environment has done me the world of good. What feels to matter the most is that I have these memories on a personal level, as well as experience and better insight into the profession I’d very much like to go into. Honestly couldn’t fault one moment and would repeat it all in a heartbeat, yoghurt stains and aching arms included.