I have 2 sons and it is my youngest, James that came to Challengers. He started when he was 4 and he is now 26 so we have been involved for a very long time! I like to think that he is like a Challengers graduate because he has been right through the schemes, he started off at play and went right through to the young adult group.
Having James changed my life completely, it was not how I had imagined at all. When I went off to do my degree at University I was expecting to have a career – my life didn’t turn out like that at all. In some ways he has bought something to my life that was unexpected, but it certainly changed everything about my attitude to life. I think that it also changed my family’s attitude towards life. In fact, I think it makes you more compassionate and more aware.
James’s main impairment is autism, although he has since been diagnosed with epilepsy, and of course when he was first diagnosed, which was over 20 years ago I had heard the word autism banging around but I didn’t really know what it meant – I didn’t have any understanding of it.
I first of all just spent a lot of time reading, I was sending away for booklets and pamphlets and getting as much information as I could. You get the initial diagnosis, but then you spend a lot of time researching what is available – services & schools etc. You get him in to his first play group and you breathe a sigh of relief, then 2 or 3 years later you have got to go through the whole thing all over again, and start researching the next stage – that really doesn’t ever stop. The whole pattern of life is following those stages.
I really don’t remember how I first found out about Challengers, it was probably word of mouth because James was attending a special needs nursery at the time. By the time I had discovered them we’d had so little time off, so little rest and no time off at all – ever. I was just so happy to think, yes he has got somewhere to go! Initially it was relief I felt, sounds very bad really.
I had a sense immediately that Challengers was a very happy & welcoming place, I knew that because he always went running in without a second glance and then didn’t want to go home at the end of the day. Initially he only went for 2 or 3 hours and it was very strange, because it is a bit like you have left your handbag behind as he was always right there and suddenly he wasn’t.
We used to use that as our social time, I would do something with my other son, he used to like ice skating, so if we left James at Guildford we would go across to the Spectrum or maybe go out for lunch or something like that – very simple. To be able to go out for lunch would be a major production as you would have to focus on James all the time. So to be able to go out and have a conversation, I feel that even now, that when I have time with my older son that is quite special because he missed out so much when he was younger. When he was very small he said to me once, it is like I am an only child really isn’t it mum, because I do not have a normal brother to play with, and I found that really sad. I think as he has gotten older it has actually had a positive impact and I think it has made him a better person in some ways – he has a lot more understanding and patience.
When James went to Challengers he just seemed happier. It is difficult to say that he made friends as he doesn’t interact with people in that way but he enjoys being in the same room as people – that is the way it manifests itself really. I remember arriving one day to pick him up – they were playing a game sitting in a circle, and actually my older son was there as well, the two of them were together – he was about 7 and James was about 4 and they were just sitting in a circle playing this game together with other children and I thought wow – I have never seen him do that before.
There was no other opportunity for him to interact socially. When he started school he went on a bus, somewhere 45 minutes’ away to a school where there was a very large catchment area for the whole of Surrey. There was not the experience of meeting other parents at the end of the day, there were no play dates or that sort of thing – really he didn’t have that opportunity. Challengers was the only respite that we ever had.
My feeling toward Challengers now is just immense gratitude really and I just want to do everything I can to make sure that is available for other parents and other children going forward because it was just such a big part of our lives.
The staff at Challengers are unbelievable, I think they are the bit of magic dust sprinkled on to Challengers. They have immeasurable enthusiasm, energy and dedication and I just cannot praise them highly enough. When you are a parent handing over your child, especially a child with special needs it takes a special level of trust over and above anything to entrust your child to a another person and you have to feel when you walk away, comfortable and confident and I always did.