Whitby Charity Offers a Lifeline to Families of Children with Hidden Impairments

Children with hidden impairments including autism or learning difficulties can often be misunderstood – but at WHISH in North Yorkshire they can find a safe space. 

A mum, who was scared to leave the house with her three-year-old daughter, has credited a local community project funded through The Health Lottery with helping them to finally “laugh and have fun together”. 

Amy Crabtree stayed at home for two years, missing out on family days out and meet ups with other parents in fear of other people’s reaction to her daughter Annabelle’s additional needs. 

But since discovering volunteer-led local charity WHISH – who help families with children with hidden impairments – Amy has found a community where she feels “safe”. 

“Annabelle is in a special educational needs provision within her nursery and they started to use the sensory room at WHISH, which is how I became involved,” Amy, 36, explains. 

“We were at the point where we wouldn’t go out in public or we wouldn’t go on a family day out because of how Annabelle would react in public situations. People would stop inviting us to parties because of how Annabelle behaves, or what they perceive as her behaviour. 

“At nursery, she doesn’t have common ground with children, it is like she ghosts them and looks straight through them, but here, she knows she can be herself. If a child screams for no reason, it doesn’t matter. No one cares. She is surrounded by people who have an understanding of those with additional needs so you never feel alone, only safe.” 

Hidden impairments are conditions which may not be obvious to other people, such as autism, learning difficulties, diabetes and depression. 

Thanks to WHISH, children living with hidden impairments are able to enjoy horse riding, swimming and gardening – which has been a real lifeline for Amy after previously struggling to come to terms with her daughter’s differences. 

Amy said, “I was rock climbing with Annabelle this morning, which we would never have done a few months ago, and the other week I was watching her as she was laughing on the bouncy castle with other children.

“I just stood there in tears. These are things she has never done before and when I look at her and see her happy, it makes me happy.” 

She added, “Annabelle has limited speech and communication and has not met social and emotional milestones. She hasn’t had an official diagnosis but it has been discussed that she is displaying traits of ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder]. We noticed very early on that she was different, but my husband and I buried our heads in the sand. 

“We said it was because she was a Covid baby, and it has taken us really until the last six months to accept that Annabelle is different. We have also had to accept the way we felt, because we did grieve for everything we thought we were going to have and the way our lives are very different to what we expected it to be before she was born.” 

And it wasn’t just Amy who struggled with Annabelle’s needs. “Autism is a completely new concept to Annabelle’s grandmother and it has been very difficult for her when providing childcare whilst I work,” Amy admits. 

“She has struggled to come to terms with it, but she came to a coffee morning [at WHISH] and has been joining in the activities, like the puppet show and she has an understanding now.” 

Since Amy has become a member of WHISH, she also has made her own group of friends, and has grown in confidence as a parent. 

She said, “I’ve exchanged numbers with some of the parents and we have been talking about schools for next year. It’s nice to be able to talk to parents who have that common ground and who will be looking at schools for additional needs like I will be. 

“Being part of this community project has just been life-changing for me. If we didn’t have WHISH we would still be shut up in our house not knowing what to do and not having people around us to help. We are so grateful.” 

With the help of a £39,925 grant raised through The Health Lottery, the small team at WHISH are able to offer their services to 114 families each year, and help support children with 54 different hidden impairments, though ASD and ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] is their biggest cohort. 

Jo Morris, 66, a retired head teacher of a special needs girls’ college in Staffordshire, works alongside a small group of volunteers, as she credits the charity for enabling children to step outside their comfort zone. 

“The group hosts a regular event where reptiles and birds are brought along to interact with the children,” Jo explains. “The children really enjoy learning about the reptiles and birds and this provides a sensory opportunity, a calming influence and a great deal of fun. 

“Handling the reptiles and birds enables the children to gain confidence and, in some cases, overcome phobias. It empowers them to take measured risks and to experience new things. By being together in a group it encourages socialisation and gives children who are reluctant to talk to have something to focus on and to ask questions. 

“Children with ASD and ADHD often find sitting still, concentrating for a prolonged period of time and being quiet very difficult. By following instructions from the exhibitor, they have to be calm, listen, be gentle and sit still. The bird or reptile is used as the vehicle to enable the child to arrive at the intended destination by using a wide range of skills they would otherwise find very difficult to do.” 

Not only has Jo and the team got themselves to thank for their volunteering efforts, she says that they wouldn’t be able to function without the kindness of those who play The Health Lottery. 

Jo adds, “Everything that we do – the activities, horse riding, swimming, the electricity bills, the rent, everything comes from grants and the generosity of people who are playing to give something back. 

“Without The Health Lottery we wouldn’t be able to do the work we do, support families and give the children these fabulous opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.” 

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