The Gifts Of A Special Child

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This article has been reproduced by kind permission of The Mail on Sunday YOU Magazine.

Every parent dreams of a wonderful future for their child, but when a baby is born very disabled, those expectations are shattered. Redefining his notions of fatherhood to his son Christopher, now 15, who has cerebral palsy, was unimaginably hard for BBC World Affairs Correspondent Humphrey Hawksley, but a special school ultimately allowed him to be a proud parent.

Christopher was born four months premature, the size of Humphrey’s hand. He remembers looking at his son in the incubator surrounded by tubes, breathing machines and clusters of specialists: ‘His head was domed like a rugby ball and I remember thinking “how can he ever be Prime Minister with a head like that?”’ Shortly afterwards, Christopher was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and Humphrey realised the future would be very different.

During Christopher’s many operations, doctors often asked his parents whether he could be allowed to slip away. But, as Humphrey found, ‘the strongest parental instinct is to ensure the survival of your child. What you’re not told then is that he will probably grow up severely disabled. Today Christopher has mental and physical challenges. His speech is impaired. He is unable to walk unaided. He has behavioural problems. But – despite all that – he’s well and happy, brilliant at music and his sense of humour is infectious.’

Getting Christopher to this point has meant a ‘constant battle’ with the authorities. And it was only recently, Humphrey admits, that he realised how he’d ‘struggled with my personal definition of my love for my son, relating to him as a father rather than being defined by my role as a 24/7 carer.’

At the age of 10, Christopher’s schooling hung on a knife-edge. ‘Initially, the local authority told us this vulnerable child should go to a mainstream school with no facilities for his needs.’ To Humphrey, used to reporting from war zones, it felt like being ambushed by the system. He mapped out a detailed strategy based on the Special Educational Needs legislation, and finally, Christopher had a place at Treloars, a special residential school and college in Hampshire (treloar.org.uk). ‘Suddenly a new world unfolded in front of us. We as parents felt protected and Christopher felt secure.’

As well as dealing sensitively with all the inevitable settling-in problems, Treloars’ staff immediately spotted his extraordinary talent for music: ‘Christopher has perfect pitch. He can read music, pick up a tune by ear, identify the notes in a certain chord and the key of a Beethoven symphony. Treloars poured musical education into Christopher, often with one-on-one teaching.’

Humphrey’s epiphany came when he’d just returned from reporting from Iraq in 2009. ‘I went straight down to the Christmas Carol Service at Treloars. On the programme, it read ‘Piano accompaniment by Christopher Hawksley’. He was the soloist to a congregation of parents, teachers and his peers. My son sat at the grand piano in his wheelchair and didn’t miss a note – and I was a proud and loving father. You can’t wipe away the years of trauma, fear and battling but seeing Christopher that day gave me a feeling of real joy in his achievement.’

(Because of his continuing profound needs, Christopher is now at the Chailey Heritage Centre, another special school in East Sussex with an on-site NHS clinic.)

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