Interview

Raising a son with special needs takes grit, according to law firm partner Karyn Reardon

by Liz Marchant

Karyn Reardon is a partner at HWL Ebsworth Lawyers in Brisbane. She has been named in Best Lawyers™ Australia as one of Australia’s best lawyers in the field of construction/infrastructure law.

Karyn’s eldest son, Flyn, is physically and intellectually impaired. We spoke to Karyn about the unique challenges of raising a special needs child.

Your age: 50
Number of kids: 2
Age of kids: Flyn, 14 and Ostyn, 10

Tell us about Flyn.

Flyn is great fun. He is loving, affectionate, and very happy. He also has a rare chromosome disorder: an unbalanced translocation of chromosomes 1 and 13. Rare chromosome disorders affect about one in 4,000 people, except that most people with a rare chromosome disorder tend to be the only person with their particular (often unique) disorder. Rare chromosome disorders manifest similarly to more common chromosome disorders, like Down syndrome. Flyn is intellectually impaired, with some physical impairment too.

We’re in contact with a Norwegian boy who is slightly older than Flyn and has the same unbalanced translocation. There is some comfort in not being the only family on the planet on this particular path.

How do you approach childcare for a child with special needs?

Childcare for special needs kids is an ongoing challenge. Childcare will be redundant for many families with teenagers, but it becomes harder as special needs kids grow bigger and become more physically challenging. Personal care and toileting with a teenager can be quite a challenge for many potential carers.

Our best carers have been interested in Flyn and motivated to understand him: people who care and are willing to engage in his therapy.

It’s always been challenging to find the right carers for Flyn. I took 14 months’ maternity leave with Flyn before I found a nanny who would do the job. Hopefully it is easier now but, when Flyn was a baby, many childcare centres simply refused to take special needs children. Several were quite insensitive. I left one in tears.

We found a fabulous child care centre when Flyn was two years old. I felt much more comfortable having him in an environment with more than one carer, and I think he benefited from having other children to engage with and stimulate him.

As soon as Ostyn was ready for childcare, we sent him to the same place. Unfortunately, that centre didn’t cater for school-age children so, when Flyn started school, we were back where we had started: with very few after-school care venues willing to accept special needs kids. We found an agency that supplied qualified au pairs (nurses, occupational therapists etc.), and that worked really well for us for quite a few years.

When Ostyn started school, the after-school care at his school was happy for Flyn to join in there. That also worked really, really well until about two years ago when we went back to using au pairs.

Our au pair would spend an hour each morning running through Flyn’s therapy exercises and then waiting with Flyn for the transport to his school. She then had most of the day to herself and had to be home to meet the bus when Flyn arrived home. After school, they would swim or play in the park across the road.  Flyn also has weekly occupational therapy and fortnightly speech therapy after school. It was an ideal role for someone interested in childhood development and education. We found that au pairs with a genuine interest in this field diligently followed through with the exercises set by Flyn’s therapists.

This year, Blue Care has just launched an after-school care service for students at Flyn’s special school. He’s only been going for a few weeks but is loving it.

What are your work commitments?

My clients design or construct infrastructure, and I often support them through the life of a project. I provide contract advice (including contract management and contract administration) from before tenders issue, throughout the project delivery phase. I am also very hands on resolving disputes. This often includes court processes, but I have also used many different ADR (alternative dispute resolution) models including adjudication, mediation, arbitration and expert appraisal to resolve numerous complex construction and engineering disputes.

I’m one of four partners in HWL Ebsworth’s Brisbane Construction and Infrastructure team. We are part of a larger, national Construction and Infrastructure team with offices in every Australian capital city. The four partners in our Brisbane office are supported by 12 solicitors specialising in this area.

We have an excellent graduate lawyer program, and we make a significant investment to train our team members, but training and developing lawyers can also incredibly rewarding.

My firm supports flexible work arrangements, and I can work from home when necessary. I also need some extra flexibility so that I work around appointments with Flyn’s various specialists, and get to the occasional school concert.

How do you balance the different needs of your two children?

Their needs are just so different that I don’t even try to run a balanced ledger. I do my best to give them what they seem to need most at any given point in time.

They go to very different schools. Sometimes the differences between the two schools blows my mind.

Ostyn is a really great kid. Having Flyn as his big brother has given him many opportunities to learn empathy and gratitude, but having a brother with special needs creates challenges for the whole family. There have been times when I have overcompensated Ostyn but I don’t think that’s caused too much damage.

What advice would you offer other working mums who have children with special needs?

As early as possible, get a good team around you. Find people you will be able to work with for the long haul.

I’ve found having a great team of therapists to support Flyn has helped him enormously. I’m so grateful we found some fantastic therapists when Flyn was a baby, and we’ve built and adjusted the team over the years.

Think carefully about school, and do your research. If you are going to try a mainstream school, get ready to meet some bizarre challenges. Talk to as many different people across the school that you can to ensure they are putting the right supports in place, and make time to check on how they are implementing the support program.

Trust your instincts. If it doesn’t feel right, investigate until you identify the problem.

Take care of yourself. Heaps of studies identify mothers of special needs children as being at high risk of depression. Be aware of that risk and manage it as best you can.

What’s important to you in a role?

I enjoy having difficult problems to solve. Construction and Infrastructure projects tend to generate complex problems.

I also enjoy the people I work with. I’m in a fabulous team, and my clients are often very clever engineers. I learn quite a lot from my clients.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in finding a balance between work and parenting commitments?

Flyn had open heart surgery in 2011. Hospitals insist that a parent remain with their kids in hospital. Hospitals provide health care, not child care. They also need someone who can give consent if a procedure is urgently required. Ostyn was two years old then, so he also needed a parent at home.

I planned to be out of the office for the two weeks I had been told Flyn would need me at the hospital, and then I’d employed a nanny to care for him at home.

The hospital stay didn’t go to plan. There were a couple of complications that delayed Flyn’s release from hospital and then Flyn wound up with a staph infection. Ultimately, he was in hospital for three months including a decent chunk of time in intensive care. I ran myself into the ground trying to care for him, and wound up being admitted into the adult hospital twice.

We wound up with a 24/7 roster of family and friends staying with Flyn or Ostyn. It was a monumental effort.

Fortunately, my partnership team and key clients recognised how intense the circumstances were, and accommodated my extended absence.

Can you share any important lessons you’ve learned along the way?

Persevere. If you do what you enjoy (most days), everything will sort itself out. And work out where your boundaries are, then don’t let others push through them.