I am now, after yesterday’s course by St John Ambulance, a Mental Health First Aid Champion. It was a fascinating course and I learned a lot of new things. It was the perfect mix of listening and interactive group exercises and there was an interesting mix of attendees too. One of the exercises we had to write on a flip chart all of the negative words that are used to describe Mental Health and on another, the positive words. It soon became very clear that there are many more insults and criticisms of a sufferer of poor mental health than there were positive references. It made me think that even when we think we are enlightened or aware, a number of times, even yesterday, I thought of using the phrase ‘are you mad?’, mainly in jest but even so it arose several times through the course of the day. I know a colleague of mine who used to tease her team mate who was attending counselling, she would joke ‘ Are you going to Mad class today?’!
Language has changed around disability and special needs too in my lifetime; when I was a child we talked about the handicapped, which is a really negative word, but not as bad as ‘crippled’ so perhaps we made some progress in the 1970s after all. Although I can remember at school that it was a common insult to call someone a ‘spastic’ or a ‘retard’, which makes me shudder now. It is not a defence to say that we did not know any better and that it was common-place during my childhood, but language does change and develop.
I tend to describe Joshua as having ‘special needs’ or a ‘learning disability’ which is a gentler, more vague description.I have also seen autism have adopted a new label to replace disabled , which is ‘differently abled’ which makes sense for this varied and complex condition and certainly has a more positive twist. It is interesting how the use of different descriptors though can come across as more negative or positive. There is a movement to use politically correct language when describing minority groups, but the problem is that language is entrenched and often you can be unaware that the words that you have been using are no longer appropriate. I am not sure if this is something that is taught in mainstream schools? How does society keep up and ensure that we are not unwittingly being negative, or worse being insulting, either about a sufferer of mental illness or someone with special needs?
Joshua used a key phrase all weekend, which I loved everytime he said it : he kept saying “Thank you!”. He used it regularly in context when I gave him something and so it felt as though:
- He was being super-polite, which I always love
- He appreciated, at some level, what I was doing for him rather than taking it all for granted
- It was some form of conversation exchange – he would thank me and I would reply ” You’re welcome!” and he would beam and giggle
- It felt so much more meaningful than some of his other phrases like ” no glasses” or ” no pants”!
I kept trying to video him saying ‘Thank You’ so that I would have a record to share with others and also, to have a record to keep for myself in case this week was a one off and he reverts to something different next week.
I love to hear his voice, to be honest, whatever he says but this is special. Joshua talked before his epilepsy took hold : he said his first spontaneous sentence in the car and I had to pull over to celebrate it, when a little voice from the back seat said ” I like dolphins!” I spun around and told him that I loved dolphins too. I also remember the first time he spoke to another child : we had rushed lunch to get to a local ‘Mother & Toddler’ group and as we got out of the car I saw his orange ‘spaghetti smile’ and commented on it to him. As we entered the village hall, Joshua sought out his friend, Molly, and ran up to her and said ” Look at my face!” and of course I cried and cried with pride.
Then the demon epilepsy took his voice away, he became mute for years and gradually he has acquired some language back and his vocabulary has expanded over the last 18 months . I talk a lot and so I worried endlessly when he lost his vocal ability as to me, communication is key and he did not have the manual dexterity to manage sign language. Even when he was mute,however, Joshua was always able to make himself understood somehow, but this phase of talking makes me very happy, as he can express his personality so much more easily through language, rather than just pointing to what he wanted.
Given that Joshua had language, then lost it and has now clawed some back, I never take for granted that he will always have this skill : I try to enjoy it while it is here and to record it for posterity, as it is often hard to remember what he was like. I have a video of an excited 3 year old Joshua bouncing and skipping around the deck of a ferry on the desktop of my laptop and for the entire video of two minutes, he is talking constantly and I watch it every week, to remind myself of what young Joshua was like and what he was capable of. 17 year old Joshua does not yet have that level of language, but he is adding more vocabulary everyday or so it seems. Onwards and upwards my son!