“I heard recently that professionals struggle longer than most before they ask for help. That’s our story really. There’s the life before the North East Autism Service and now our life after.”

For midwife Victoria Head, dealing with the challenges of having a 10-year-old with complex learning needs was just part of life.

“She doesn’t have an autism diagnosis and we don’t know if that will come but we knew from early on that Annabel wasn’t the same as other children her age," she says.

I knew from my own research in early child development that she wasn’t doing what her peers were, you just had to look at her playing and you could see she wasn’t hitting the same milestones. Her speech was delayed, her walking was delayed.

Initial medical consultations, when Annabel was around two-and-a-half years old, showed that she was iron-deficient so when Victoria and head chef husband Simon made sure she was prescribed the correct medicine the doctors then advised that she would eventually "catch up" to other children her age.

Victoria explains: “When she didn’t ‘catch up’ as we thought she would eventually the school suggested we get an EHC plan – a statement describing her special education and health care needs – and more recently her doctor finally said ‘we don’t think she’s going to catch up’.

After this we just kept doing everything we could to support Annabel, but we are really grateful for the Life Stages social work support team suggesting that perhaps we would benefit from Annabel having some respite care. That’s when we heard about NEAS Short Breaks for children.

The decision to allow their only daughter to stay away from home wasn’t an easy one for Victoria and Simon, or their wider family.

“I think it would be fair to say that our parents are of a generation who never had the option or the inclination to ‘send their kids away’ as they put it, so they didn’t understand why we would need that. But they didn’t have to live with the challenges all the time. We did.

Annabel Head

“What was amazing about NEAS was that right from the outset it was about supporting us as an entire family. Annabel’s first visit was a success because the team organised a party tea so she felt like the centre of attention not a problem to be solved. Then when we were finalising plans and visits the team invited her grandparents to look round, have a cup of tea and cake, and really put their minds at rest that she would be okay.

I remember the first night she stayed at Short Breaks, someone called me to let me know she was settled and okay. That meant so much because unlike other kids her age she had never been able to have a sleepover, and this was their way of helping me deal with this monumental step.

Since beginning her monthly visits to ‘Annabel’s hotel’ last June, mum says the change in Annabel has been phenomenal.

“Everybody is commenting on it, and it’s probably a combination of factors. NEAS don’t treat my child like she’s sub-human, they understand that she’s a little girl who behaves and understands things differently. Because of that they can read her and they want to get to know her. That’s led to her forming a tight knit friendship with two other little girls so their short breaks are always at the same time.

They have fun, paint each others nails… they get to be normal little girls for a weekend. And for Simon and I, we will get to be husband and wife again. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Short Breaks has given us our marriage back. For a weekend a month we’re not just parents of a child with special needs we are a Mr and Mrs again.

“In turn the breaks have allowed me a chance to relax and calm down a bit myself. This has a knock on effect with what it’s like at home with Annabel. When things get shouty and difficult we both now know we have help and support on hand for our family. Simon works long hours as a chef but when he’s home he’s commented that things are different.”

Victoria has also been taking Annabel to trampolining sessions, also on the Newton Aycliffe site at the North East Centre for Autism.

“Annabel doesn’t even like the trampoline,” Victoria added, “but the staff there are amazing with her and she can just run around and be herself.

I call it our safe space where that time is her chance to be completely accepted and be completely herself with nobody judging me as a parent or her for the noises she makes or wanting to play in the way she does.

Since accessing support from NEAS, Victoria has also begun running her own group for parents of children with special educational needs.
“NEAS has taught me how my daughter deserves to be treated and it gave me the courage to ask a local soft play centre if we could have a session just for kids like Annabel. They agreed!.”

Asked what advice she would offer other parents in a similar situation, Victoria says: “Go for it.

“When we started out on our journey into parenthood we never expected any of this. We never expected to have a child with complex needs. We never expected to be turned away from some providers because she didn’t have an autism diagnosis. We never once thought we would need to rely on help to pay for care for our child, but I tell you what, we’re so grateful to have it.

The team at Short Breaks consistently go over and above to help us as a family with support and advice, and to see Annabel make friends with staff and other service users has been amazing.

“You live with a lot of guilt as a parent; like, we made her and so we should be accountable for her and how she’s wired, we shouldn’t get help or even need it.

“NEAS has shown us that we can have help, we do need it, that our daughter deserves it and we are a happier family for it.”

Find out more about Children's Short Breaks