Last week Euan had his first night in respite care. It was an odd experience. Unlike other eight-year-olds he’s not really set up for sleepovers, and our nearest family is 300 miles away, so we could count the number of nights we’ve been separated from him on two hands. Not always easy when your child rarely gets to sleep before 10 and turns every mealtime into an impromptu karaoke session.
So we were deeply grateful when, after a year of quiet lobbying, the social work department (yes, we’re known to social services. Too right we are) managed to find a place at a respite home a few miles away. At the same time, we were anxious about the idea of him going away and being cared for by strangers. Professional, dedicated strangers, but even so. Euan’s communication is slowly improving, but he lacks the ability to say what he’s thinking or how he’s feeling. He can tell you what he wants or what he doesn’t like, but he still can’t say why. And if something is seriously bothering him, he dissolves into a fierce tantrum. So asking anybody else to look after him means investing an enormous amount of trust.
We had a tour of the facility a few weeks ago. It’s a child’s paradise - soft play area, swimming pool, TV room and sensory garden (which means things that make noises in the wind or have knobbly surfaces that you can run your fingers over). And four basic bedrooms: this was the point that I realised he really was going to be spending nights in here. Eventually it’ll be whole weekends. Weekends when we can pretend to be a bit more like an ordinary family, with only one autistic child who can enjoy a couple of days out of the shadow of his noisier older brother. Ah, bliss.
We went to pick up Euan on Friday morning, after his first night away. As soon as he saw us, he pulled his shoes on and made a dash for the door. You might have thought he was desperate to get away. But this is just how Euan divides his life: home is home, school is school and respite is respite. There can be absolutely no seepage from one into the other. He might make a good secret agent.
What I do know is that all of us felt refreshed for the change of routine. In the light of this, I was interested to read recently that respite care often reduces the need for other forms of intervention. It’s now acknowledged that the stress of raising autistic children puts a strain on the mental health of the parents and makes the children more anxious, which in turn increases the demand on the health service. In the worst situations, the child or the parents, or both, end up in institutions. So it’s disappointing to read that many local authorities are shutting down or restricting respite services as part of the ongoing budget cuts. It would be a shame if short-sighted politicians and their accountants took the view that respite care is some kind of dispensable luxury when for many families it’s the difference between coping and breaking down. And that, ultimately, is a more costly business in every sense.