Devoted mum creates special “safe garden” for son with complex needs including a rare condition compelling him to eat everything from carpet to Lego

·6-min read

A devoted mum is overjoyed to be creating a special garden for her son whose severe learning difficulties, combined with life threatening allergies and a rare condition compelling him to eat everything from carpet to Lego, make most outdoor spaces unsafe.

Thanks to generous donations from friends and strangers, actor Sarah Leigh, 40, and her chef partner, Tom Francis, 41, have raised enough money to swap their garden hedge for new fencing and replace their existing concrete, stones and grass with artificial turf, which their son Nate Francis, six, cannot rip up and put in his mouth.

Constantly vigilant around Nate, who has the eating disorder pica, which compels sufferers to consume non-food items and makes him vulnerable to choking, they have transformed the home they share with Sarah’s eldest son Joshua Kingham, 18, in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, to make it safe for the boy.

Nate wears ear defenders to keep out distressing noise PA REAL LIFE
Nate wears ear defenders to keep out distressing noise PA REAL LIFE

She said “Nate also has life threatening food and environmental allergies, while his pica means he will go for anything except real food.

“One of my biggest worries is that the pica means he’ll choke on something, because he is unaware that it should not be going into his mouth.

“We’ve never been able to take him out into the garden for very long because he just wants to grab handfuls of stones.”

Nate has eating disorder pica that compels him to eat the inedible PA REAL LIFE
Nate has eating disorder pica that compels him to eat the inedible PA REAL LIFE

She added: “We’re constantly pulling his hands away from his mouth and pulling things out of his mouth once they get in there.

“And he also has terrible reactions to the grass pollen, because he tries to eat the grass.”

Despite removing all their furniture except for two soft sofas to make their house “Nate-friendly,” the couple – who have raised over £3,500 for their accessible garden through GoFundMe and are now hoping to accrue further funds for new fencing – say their son still tries to eat the stair bannister and the paint on the wall.

Mum Sarah is trying to make her home more accessible for Nate PA REAL LIFE
Mum Sarah is trying to make her home more accessible for Nate PA REAL LIFE

But the new garden will be a godsend, as Nate’s allergy to grass pollen makes a simple afternoon outside, or a trip to the park a very dangerous mission.

His learning difficulties intensify the risk, as Sarah says he has “no sense of danger” and cannot connect his aggressive allergic reaction to the fact he has eaten grass.

She said: “Once he starts having a reaction, he doesn’t know what’s happening or why it’s happening.”

Nate is also allergic to grass pollen PA REAL LIFE
Nate is also allergic to grass pollen PA REAL LIFE

“His eyes swell up and he can’t open them and it’s awful, but he has no understanding of why or what made it happen,” she continued.

“Sadly, we can’t explain it to him, because he does not have that level of communication at the moment.”

Even with their home adaptations Nate, who has autism, a developmental condition which affects how people communicate and interact with the world and which has made him more likely to develop pica, will find hazards.

Nate with his big brother Joshua PA REAL LIFE
Nate with his big brother Joshua PA REAL LIFE

Sarah said: “We’ve removed all the immediate things that he can eat, but there are always those things we haven’t thought about, like paint on the walls and the fibres of the carpet.

“He’s managed to find a little nick on the wall and he’s pulling the paint off at the moment.

“He pulls up the fibres of the carpet and tries to eat that too.”

Nate is a very energetic child PA REAL LIFE
Nate is a very energetic child PA REAL LIFE

She added: “And he’s currently chewing the bannister of the staircase.”

Nate’s allergies became apparent before his autism and pica were diagnosed, back when he was only 10-11 months old.

Sarah said: “It happened when I was weaning him and it was really, really scary.”

Nate often puts stones, mud and sand into his mouth PA REAL LIFE
Nate often puts stones, mud and sand into his mouth PA REAL LIFE

Sarah added: “I had never seen a reaction like that and I had never been around allergies before.

“I was feeding him scrambled eggs and he immediately spat them out.

“Where they landed on his skin around his neck and on his fingers, where he had touched it, he developed hives straightaway and his eyes were immediately swollen.”

Nate was also diagnosed with autism at 18 months PA REAL LIFE
Nate was also diagnosed with autism at 18 months PA REAL LIFE

Egg was the first of many severe allergies that emerged over time, greatly restricting the food that is safe for Nate to eat.

Sarah said: “He is allergic to shellfish, egg, grass pollen, fish, hazelnuts, chia seeds, sesame, kiwi, lime and pineapple.

“Dust mites are another bad one he is allergic to, which become a hazard when he tries to pull up and eat the carpet.”

Nate suffers from severe learning difficulties and also has autism PA REAL LIFE
Nate suffers from severe learning difficulties and also has autism PA REAL LIFE

“It is quite common with autistic people to have a beige diet and he does have that,” she said.

“He’s also currently being tested for Coeliac disease, where your immune system attacks your own tissues when you eat gluten, so we are not too sure what will happen if he has that.”

While his allergies and pica are not connected, their combined effect make it very difficult for Nate to have a normal diet and stay safe around the house without constant supervision.

Nate loves to play outside PA REAL LIFE
Nate loves to play outside PA REAL LIFE

He mostly eats bread related products like brioche, toast and croissants, but his diet also stretches to other items like raisins, oranges, crisps and yoghurt.

Showing the first signs of his learning difficulties aged 18 months, Sarah first noticed that he was easily distressed by noise, which has led to him wearing ear defenders most of the time.

After talking to a friend whose child has autism, Sarah organised a ‘milestones’ test for Nate, to see if he also fell on the spectrum, and he was soon diagnosed with autism on top of ‘severe’ learning difficulties, a diagnosis made just after his second birthday.

Sarah hopes to make their garden safe for Nate PA REAL LIFE
Sarah hopes to make their garden safe for Nate PA REAL LIFE

“I don’t like the term severe to describe his disability,” said Sarah. “And I’ve never seen his autism as something that’s ‘not right’ either – he’s just different.

“Life is different to what we expected. We were hoping we would be able to go on family holidays and things like that, but we just know it’s not possible now.

“We live very, very different lives to the ones we lived before. We can’t go to busy places or anything like that or go on typical family days out.”

Nate attends a specialist school PA REAL LIFE
Nate attends a specialist school PA REAL LIFE

“We’ve lived a kind of lockdown life for years now,” she said.

But, despite all the difficulties, Sarah loves Nate to pieces and would not change him for the world.

And she says seemingly small things, like having plastic grass in the garden, will make an enormous difference to his quality of life.

Nate and Sarah in their home PA REAL LIFE
Nate and Sarah in their home PA REAL LIFE

She said: “I just embrace who Nate is and it’s fascinating to be able to step into his world.

“I would like to take away the pica, because it is really difficult, but ultimately I wouldn’t change Nate for the world.”

To donate to Nate’s GoFundMe visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/an-accessible-garden-for-nate

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