Having left the west coast of Ireland in search of work, my parents – who met via a mutual friend – joined Harlow’s thriving Irish community. Family life, aside from my brothers being the apple of my mother’s eye, wasn’t out of the ordinary. As for school, well, I firmly believe it isn’t for everyone – it certainly wasn’t for me! I wasn’t troublesome – it’s just that the academic aspect did little for me. Bunking off with my friends and hanging about in the park was more to my liking. I was headstrong; I still am – like my mother – and no amount of coaxing would make me see differently. I left school with no clear idea or ambition as to what I wanted to do with my life.
After a stint staying with family in Ireland, I returned to Harlow a year older but none the wiser. I wasn’t unduly worried, I’ve always been of the belief that somehow my life would fall into place. Although it’s been a long time in the making, that ethos has panned out well – I’ve found my true vocation and still have great ambitions. Looking back, nineteen does seem rather young to get engaged – especially after just six weeks of dating. But not even that or the prospect of raising my husband-to-be’s three-year-old daughter fazed me. In fact, I relished it. I raised her as if she were my own and when, several years later, I gave birth to my daughter, we had the perfect family unit.
With regard to employment, I’d worked in a bookies, followed by two similar clerical roles. Maybe it was the new millennium that gave my ambitious side the jolt it needed. Whatever it was, I still wasn’t immediately sure what I wanted to do, but one thing that was clear was the fact that it would involve my mother. Unlike my teenage years, we’d grown very close – we loved each other’s company. For nearly ten years we ran a successful cleaning business and, despite being in her sixties, her youthful vigour put many half her age to shame. Her decision to finally take things easier wasn’t through age or choice either – it was cancer that forced her to take a back seat. She found it tough to bow out, but as the condition worsened even she had to admit defeat, which was a bitter pill considering the thousands she’d raised for a cancer charity following an early encounter with the condition.
My parents, although still married, were by now leading all but separate lives under the same roof. Therefore, as my mother’s condition worsened it fell upon me to become her carer; I never entertained the idea of moving her to a hospice. Consequently, with my life for the foreseeable future revolving around her, my husband supported the need for us to sell our home and move into our parents’ property.
That following year my brother died of sudden adult death syndrome. Not only was I the one who found him, but it was my responsibility to break the news to my mother. She didn’t cry, she grieved in her own way. Instead she remained strong, selflessly commanding the situation from her bed, ensuring that everyone else was coping as best they could.
Although it hit me hard, I set my emotions aside. My focus remained Mother’s wellbeing – a spectacular meltdown on my part wouldn’t help anyone. Even after her passing in December 2011 I hadn’t really dealt with my own emotions.
We sold the house; Dad went his own way and we started afresh in a new family home. I closed the cleaning business: even though it’d been an age since I’d worked alongside Mum, it wasn’t the same any more. That and the house move, coupled with the realisation of what I’d been through, started weighing heavily on my mind.
'special-needs care shouldn't be about what they can't do, but what they can do'
Eventually, I got my mind back on track and started taking time out for myself. I set up a new business, which fitted in nicely alongside a new responsibility, where once a week I looked after a friend’s daughter (Becky) who was autistic. It was a win-win situation: her mother got some respite, Becky had an opportunity to do as she wished and I had someone to mollycoddle (something, since my mother’s death, I had sorely missed).
One goal for Becky was to lose weight, so we joined a weight-watching group. Eleven months later she was five stone lighter and brimming with confidence. After three years her persona had improved to such a degree that I was of little benefit to her. Although I missed our weekly meetings, it was far more important that she went on to lead an active life within a different social group.
Once again I was left with a nurturing void to fill, so I took a part-time position at a day centre for adults with special needs. From day one I loved it – I felt totally at ease around those I cared for. I had to admit that the advice once given by my mother, that I’d be well suited to such a role, proved correct. Although I received training, no amount of tuition can replace empathy. Sadly, in my experience, that’s something you either have or don’t.
In the year I worked there I instigated activities and outings – many of which hadn’t been done in years (sadly, this level of complacent care for those with special needs wasn’t uncommon). Ultimately I became frustrated, especially for the young adults – who had more to give than the limited solutions offered.
With the help of my local MP, I was put in contact with a representative from Essex County Council who, after listening to my spirited (borderline feisty) rant, admitted that she had an autistic son and acknowledged the need for care along the lines of what I proposed. After much discussion, it boiled down to the only viable option being that I start my own care centre; minus, for the immediate future, any local government funding – but at least I was at the helm.
'no amount of tuition can replace empathy'
With the assistance of a like-minded friend, we self-funded a summer club for young adults with special needs – and it was a resounding success. In February 2017, having jumped through hoops and tackled no end of red tape, ASL (Aspire Support Learn) became an approved care provider in Harlow.
The positive change in those under my care was evident not just to me, but to parents (and Social Services, who frequently visited). It underlined my belief that special-needs care shouldn’t be about what they can’t do, but what they can do. I acknowledge a disability, but push forward with their strengths, rather than focusing on negatives. The end result is a platform to showcase the activities that enrich their lives, whether it be creating crafts which they sell in the community, or helping run the tea room open to the wider community.
Often there’s a misunderstanding and fear towards those with special needs. Many will purposely avoid a situation, perceiving that they’ll do or say the wrong thing. However, in the eyes of someone with special needs they’re not judging you. Be natural, don’t speak down to them – just engage them in conversation.