Gemma What can we get them for Christmas?" This is a question parents often ask us at this time of year. "What do they play with at school?" This is a difficult one: it could be anything from a hi-tech software programme with a cunningly designed keyboard, to a plastic banana, or a couple of twigs and a feather.
Buying presents for severely disabled youngsters can be tricky for family and friends. They want to buy something nice and to spend as much as they do on the child's brothers and sisters, but the child has every piece of Thomas the Tank Engine merchandise and 24 lunch boxes that they are using in rotation.
We have similar problems at school, trying to buy games and activities we know pupils will like but which are appropriate for their educational ages.
We have teenagers who are just learning to put a four-piece puzzle together, but the only ones you can buy at that level have baby pictures on them. Reading material is similarly difficult to find. For example, what do you buy a young man whose main interests are motorbikes and Jordan but whose reading level is more Noddy's Brave Little Car and Mrs Wishy Washy?
This leads us to debates along the lines of: "Janeen is 18 and shouldn't be playing with teddies." "Well, my daughter is 24 and still has teddies on her bed..." "Yes, but we should encourage Janeen to choose something more age-appropriate." Janeen is a young woman who has autistic spectrum disorder and loves teddies, which she lines up and orders around. The answer in this case was a trip to the market and the purchase of some gaudy jewellery. Now her bedroom is full of bright strings of beads which are arranged sometimes by length, sometimes by colour, and sometimes in an order that only Janeen understands.
I oversee class budgets, so I know what teachers buy for their pupils.
They'll often get school stuff when they do their own shopping, but I'm good at turning a blind eye. (So Adrian buys Rampant body spray for men, frozen chicken meals for one and fuchsia nail polish for... who knows?) I'm always surprised at their inventiveness and often question them about their purchases; not to check up on them, but to see what they were thinking of.
Our teachers tend to go to discount stores, markets and cheap and cheerful houseware shops. I was looking at one of Donna's receipts the other day.
"Why would you want pan scrubbers, feather dusters and shoe brushes?" I asked her. "Oh, it's for a sensory group. We're doing 'matching' and I wanted to use some things that felt different from each other but were age-appropriate." Fair enough. "But what about a sock airer?What's that for?" "We're going to use it as a base for a Christmas mobile and dangle tinsel and baubles from it."
Ah, Christmas.We feel we're letting parents down when we can't answer their questions about presents, but their guess is as good as ours. We all know the typical story of the young child who discards the expensive present and plays all day with the cardboard box and the wrapping paper. Sometimes people worry too much about what other people think of the gift; focusing on what the recipient wants can give you the answer. How about a piece of shimmery cloth, a big bottle of bubbles or a pair of dressing-up shoes - even if the child can't walk. It's important to look good in your wheelchair, and physios look the other way if you don't wear corrective footwear on Christmas Day.
My only advice is: don't make it too educational. Leave that to us, and get them something they really, really want, even if it is the Spice Girls'
greatest hits. Most important: have fun with your child over Christmas.
Maria Corby is deputy head of a special school for pupils with severe and multiple learning difficulties. She writes under a pseudonym