‘I’m not sure how we would have survived without it’ - toys bring lockdown joy to children with special needs
- Credit: Norfolk County Council
The coronavirus lockdown is tough for all of us - but for families of children with special educational needs and disabilities it has presented particularly difficult challenges.
Some youngsters grow anxious and frustrated when their normal activities and routines are disrupted and their disabilities make it hard for mums and dads to explain just why everything has suddenly changed.
Social distancing has meant the short breaks they would usually go to, such as at clubs or playschemes or for days out are not happening.
But flexible thinking by officers at Norfolk County Council’s Short Breaks Team has meant money, usually only available for short respite breaks, is being made available to families of more than 900 Norfolk children.
That is allowing them to buy toys and play equipment to support their needs while isolated, ranging from Lego and dolls to trampolines and tricycles.
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John Fisher, the council’s cabinet member for children’s services, said: “Offering families a flexible way in which they can buy the play equipment they need to support their children has been really positive and we’ve had some lovely feedback about how much it’s been appreciated.
“We’re also very grateful for the work of our key partners SENsational Families and Family Voice, who provide such amazing support to families, for their help in getting the message out that short breaks funding can be spent in this way.”
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Nicki Price, founder and chief executive of SENsational Families, said: “The short breaks team has shown great consideration and flexibility at a time when children with special educational needs and disabilities have faced massive changes in their lives and increasing challenges during isolation. And they have continued to explore options to further that support.”
Here are their stories:
Craft activities, games and a new hammock swing are all helping 11-year-old Jack Dawkins cope with lockdown isolation.
Jack, from Sprowston, is autistic and is non-verbal. He has a learning disability and significant sensory issues and when he cannot keep to his usual routine he can become highly anxious, whcih sometimes leads to him hurting himself.
Short breaks would normally fund activities including swimming and trampolining and days out at the Dinosaur Park.
Jack’s mum Kelly Dawkins said: “Lockdown has been extremely isolating for us and Jack has found it really difficult to understand.
“The items we bought with our short breaks money have helped us to occupy the day and start to build new routines and introduce activities at home similar to the sensory circuits that Jack has each morning at school to help regulate his body for the day.
“The hammock swing tent has given Jack a calming space to use and we’ve had fun matching colours of the cones, hoops and beanbags.
“The approach from the short breaks team has been amazing. The range of things that the funding can be now be used for is brilliant. We are very grateful how quickly the team responded to help families whilst this pandemic is going on.”
Eight-year-old Freddy Farnworth from Dereham has been enjoying his new climbing frame.
Short breaks funding would usually provide for Freddy, who has high-functioning autism, to go swimming, which he loves, and is missing greatly during lockdown.
His mum Eleanor said: “We were having a real battle to get him outside, he gets easily upset and anxious about noises. But, now that he has the trampoline, he goes out in the garden every single day and plays and gets some fresh air.
“He wouldn’t have gone out at all otherwise, it’s been a massive support to him and to us as a family and we’re so grateful we could use the short breaks funding in this way.
“I’m not sure how we would have survived without it, we were seriously wondering what we were going to do.
“It’s been a big relief to us that we can get some financial help while we’re not able to work to fund the things that Freddy needs if he’s going to have to stay at home and away from school.”
Ten-year-old Katie Perkins, of Bowthorpe, has been loving her new trike and baby doll, bought with her short breaks funding.
Katie, who has hypotonic cerebral palsy, scoliosis, autism, epilepsy and impaired vision, has been left feeling frustrated and anxious by being at home and out of the routine and structure of her special school where she would normally board two nights a week.
Her short breaks funding would also be used for respite breaks with carers and activity days out.
Mum Anna said: “We’ve tried everything at home, it’s been really hard for her and for us and she has definitely regressed.
“She wants to know what’s happening and when she can get back to her normal routine and we just don’t know.
“We’ve spent the short breaks funding on a trike and garden toys including a basketball hoop, magnetic dartboard, football and bowling toys. We’ve also bought her a new baby doll which she loves.
“We’re so pleased we’ve been able to do that, it’s been so good for her, she’s been out on it nearly every day.”
The Pope family, of Frettenham, has bought a trampoline for 13-year-old Joe, who has autism and is non-verbal.
Joe’s mum Claire Pope said: “Joe needs help to be stimulated to get him to do things and be active, so the trampoline has been absolutely brilliant to give him exercise and make him alert.”
Joe, who attends The Clare School in Norwich, would normally benefit from regular sensory sessions and play activities at The Hamlet Centre and with his respite carer.
His mum said: “It’s been hard for him being at home all the time and he really misses our extended family.
“The trampoline helps a lot and quite often I read him a story on there, we find that way it holds his interest longer and he really enjoys it.
“We’re so glad we’ve been able to spend our short breaks money in this way to help us get through this.”
Slip and slide outdoor water play and Lego have greatly helped 14-year-old Henry Tozer, from Wymondham.
Henry, who has autism and global development delay, has been left feeling stressed and anxious by the disruption to his normal routine of going to school and his regular trampolining sessions and day trips funded by short breaks.
Mum Lyndsay said: “He knows it’s not a holiday now but he doesn’t really understand what’s going on.
“He needs to be kept busy and stimulated and he loves being outside, we can only go out once a day for exercise so having some extra equipment for the garden has been a huge help.
“And he has been so excited to have some Lego to build when he is indoors. We’ve also been able to buy a tablet for his schoolwork.
“Henry craves sensory stimulation so the slip and slide has been perfect. He and his sister Matilda have been outside lots and have absolutely loved it and it’s given me some much needed down time.”
Another youngster keen to be outside is eight year-old Imogen Chivers, of Bradwell. Imogen, who has autism and dyspraxia, loves to be in the garden as much as possible.
Her short breaks allowance would normally fund regular sessions at the Sunbeams Play centre for children with autism and days out at the zoo.
Imogen’s mum Karla Cooper said: “She loves the sloths at Banham Zoo and the short breaks funding helps us to afford to take her there regularly.
“For the first couple of weeks of lockdown she really wasn’t coping. She likes her structure and routine at school.
“It’s been so important to us to keep Imogen busy. She’s very imaginative so we bought a mud kitchen with our short breaks money. It’s been great for her and has helped her practise taking turns with her brother.
“We also bought a butterfly garden so she can watch the caterpillars and she’s been keeping a diary which has been a lovely learning activity.
“It’s so nice that we’ve been able to use the funding on equipment that’s beneficial for her, it makes such a difference for her learning and her wellbeing and it gives her something to focus on.”
How does it work?
The adjustments to the way funding could be spent were made after discussion with several families.
The short breaks team rolled out the funding changes in two phases to allow time to develop critical administration processes – testing it with a group of families first before rolling it out from this week to all families eligible for short breaks.
Now those families can buy items including outdoor play equipment, books, arts and craft materials, and tablets to a maximum spend of £500 per child. Anything spent will be deducted from annual short breaks funding allowances.
Those with a pre-paid debit card and linked bank account for short breaks can make purchases themselves but should keep the receipts.
Families whose children have short breaks but do not have a pre-paid card, should contact the short breaks team who can buy the items for them and arrange for home delivery.
For further instructions on how to make purchases and any other enquiries, contact the short breaks team on firstname.lastname@example.org stating your name, child’s name, date of birth and short breaks ID number (if known) or contact your social worker.