“I get to download everything that’s been stressing me for the last week,” says Elizabeth. “They’ll all give me suggestions – or just a big hug – and it makes me feel better about whatever I’m going through. This group is definitely the highlight of my week, it gives you hope.”
I’m sitting with Elizabeth and her friend Zoe on the corner of a large table in the church hall. Between them is Zoe’s two-year-old son, Tommy, strapped in his buggy and 100% focussed on the video game he’s playing on his mum’s phone.
“He was diagnosed with autism last month,” Zoe tells me. “I kind of knew before and did some research but if it wasn’t for this group, I wouldn’t have a clue.”
Parent 2 Parent, a support group for parents of children with disabilities, has been going for a couple of months now, and is run by Vicky Fairhurst and her husband David. Any parent is welcome, whatever the nature of their child’s condition. Teas, coffees and jaffa cakes are in abundance.
The parents – mostly mums – are today discussing what happens when they’re first given a diagnosis from a medical professional.
“It’s like: ‘Here’s your diagnosis. Your child has autism. Thank you and goodbye’,” says Vicky. “You’re left on your own.”
“I was given a leaflet,” says Sophie. “That was it.” It seems everyone round the table has had a similar experience.
“So, what can we suggest to make the system better?” asks Vicky.
Vicky and David are veterans at this. They have seven children, four with disabilities. Autism, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Noonan syndrome and ADHD are just some of the conditions they are experts in. One son has a rare combination of genetic abnormalities never seen together before.
“What motivated you to start Parent 2 Parent?” I ask, as I sit them down in the lobby.
“Twenty years ago autism wasn’t in the mainstream,” explains Vicky. “You wouldn’t chat about your autistic child at the school gate, so you’d never know who else was going through it.
“This is the club no one wants to join. You’re given a diagnosis for your child, told your child is ‘different’ and that’s it. You are left to work out what that means for you and your family.”
“Vicky has been supporting other parents for years,” says David, “so setting up this group is just an extension of that. During the first lockdown, when all the schools were closed, she was on the phone for up to six hours every day, listening to parents, often in tears.
“We been through it,” he says, “most of our children are adults now, and we have a good routine. We’re happy to pass on what we’ve learnt.” But David makes the point that the group is here to empower parents, not to do it for them. “We can pass on the information, but they need to act on it themselves. Everyone has their unique experiences.”
“Family and friends can be well-meaning and supportive,” says Vicky, “but it’s only other parents who understand each other. In the early days I had a friend I’d call at one in the morning and just cry my eyes out. Every parent/carer needs someone they can turn to on the bad days.”
Looking around the group, as everyone chats together, and the jaffa cakes are demolished, it’s easy to see strong, supportive friendships being made that will last for years to come.
“When someone is upset and doesn’t know where to turn, any one of us can put our arms around them and say, ‘I’m here with you,” says Vicky. “I can’t do much but I’ll stand next to you.’ And that’s all you need.”
Vicky and David tell me of their eldest son, Matthew who has autism. At the age of three he was excluded from his primary school and spent only 15 minutes per day in another school. ‘Written off’ by the time he reached high school, they were told he’d never achieve anything.
“But he went on to pass his A-levels,” says David, proudly, “and is now studying Geography at the University of Manchester. He’s a manager at McDonalds and works for Greater Manchester Army Cadets. Yes, he still has his challenges but is now thriving.”
“I tell all our parents that it will get better,” says Vicky. “I tell them, ‘Your child, because of you, will grow up to be a valued member of society, will have a good life and, eventually, will not need you’. I know that because I’ve lived it.”
Parent 2 Parent runs every Tuesday morning at
corner of Mercer Road and Wellington Street,
Gorton, M18 8TX