The Most Important Thing for Doctors To Know About Autism

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Anyone have a ________who works well with special needs kids?

                                   —every special needs parent on every local special needs Facebook page

Last year was the first time in A2’s entire life he got through a dentist appointment relatively unscathed.  Sure, at first he flapped and screamed and excreted that sweat stench he does as if he is a sea slug attempting to keep predators away, but ultimately Dr. Nate (not his real name)prevailed with him in the most awesome way.  A2 received the first x-rays of his entire life, full dental exam featuring the scrap-y, spinn-y and spitt-y things and actually left the office smiling.

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No one can resist the appeal of Dr. Nate *powders nose and reapplies lipstick*

That is the thing with ALL kids on the spectrum.  Once you crack the code on how to navigate around or through the anxiety, things tend to go a bit better.

Conversely, the same is true.  Once you REAAALLLY approach something wrong, the damage is done and it is going to take a hell of a lot to bounce back from armageddon levels of panic.

Apparently, Dr. Nate and his swoon-worthy dental practices on my autistic kid made more of an impression on me than we did on him because he didn’t remember his approach from a year ago. At our visit today, A2 was visibly panicking/attempting to act cool and Dr. Nate was taking a more gentle and cautious approach.  In a red carpet level performance, I loudly proclaimed I was going to the bathroom (office visits tend to go better when I am out of eye shot). Without skipping a beat, Dr. Nate said “Sounds good. I’m going to take a look here at A2’s teeth, but you’ll be right back…So…everything is OK.”

Dr. Nate…You know what to say to all the ladies….

Of course, I was standing right outside of the exam room door and I could hear him firmly reassuring my kiddo. I peeked in to see A2 standing in the corner with a toothbrush and the toothpaste from home and the dentist mopping up his face with gauze. When all was said and done, Dr. Nate said to me, “Can you come back in three months?  I think one lesson we learned is it’s best for mom to wait outside. I think next time, I will use a firmer, more direct approach, It seems to work best with A2.”

I thanked him profusely for his insight and patience. He replied “Every kid responds to something different and sometimes even from visit to visit.”

BAM.

Every kid responds to something different.  Even from visit to visit.

Yes, Dr. Nate.  You just summarized precisely how to to work with autistic patients. They are all individuals with individual needs and you must be aware of this at every visit.  And then you meet them where the are.

Pretty much just like everyone else.

While we are at it….a shout out to all the other doctors in our lives who got it too:

To the orthotist who met us in the back of our van for years in order to cast A2’s feet for braces

To the physical medicine doctor who immediately started using sign language while she talked to A2 when she realized he might not understand her words

To the hospital nurse who spoke directly to A2 to ask him his name, age and where he went to school instead of asking me right in front of him.

Medical anxiety is a serious issue for many autistic individuals. The sensory assault, the inability to clearly communicate and the fear of not understanding what comes next can be overwhelming to both the patient and caregiver.  We recently had a specialist appointment where A2 was tearful and fearful.  It was suggested we could move forward with the visit in one of two ways. 1. I could hold my 12 year old down by myself in my lap or 2. the doctor and two office staff could bum rush him and they could hold him down on the floor.

I wondered out loud what it would be like if while we were standing there talking and  out of nowhere two men twice my size came around the corner and held me down while a third approached me and I wasn’t sure what he was going to do. Boy oh boy….if I wasn’t worried about talking in the hall before, I sure would be from here on out!!

It may seem odd to many of us that a doctor’s office would not be equipped to handle their growing clientele of autistic patients, but really, physicians have a limited amount of time to spend with their patients and many of them have absolutely no specific training in disability. As parents, we take it upon ourselves to make certain we take all the precautions with all the details and do all the educating so an office visit goes as smoothly as possible.

Doctors. Take your lead from Dr. Nate. His approach holds the key to your best success with every one of your patients. Remember they are human, figure out what they need on any given day and then do THAT.  Us moms will take care of the rest…..

 

5 Pros and Cons of IDEA: What Every Parent (and educator!) Should Know

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This tower is 4 years total of educational paper work for 2 kids and represents approximately over 300 hours of meetings, evaluations, reading and combing over data….JUST AS THE PARENT

(originally posted 9/2016)

I is for IEP, IDEA and Inclusion.

These three “I” words have forever changed me as a person.  If you have a child in special education, you probably just had a shiver run down your spine just by reading those acronyms in print and may be thinking the same thing.  All of these things serve as a blessing and a curse to our kids…and also to the educators and administration serving them.  Back in the day, the Individuals with Disability Act (IDEA) was enacted to refine and replace what few laws there were to protect children with disabilities within the education system.  It was meant to also focus more on the individual rather than on the disability itself.  IDEA has been re-written several times since 1990.  There are several things it does both in a good way and also in not such a good way:

  1.   It provides a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to all kids regardless of disability at public expense.  The key word here being APPROPRIATE. The downside: There is a pretty decent chance that what you and your child’s test scores say and what you know is appropriate will be very different than what the district thinks is appropriate.  And most likely because of that other key word….FREE.
  2. Evaluations:  This law makes sure that children with disabilities are evaluated in a way that makes sense.  We don’t want to use one specific test to decide if a child needs special education services.  That way  discrimination is prevented and ideally, these evaluations serve as a tool to know exactly what they will need educationally. The downside:  Evaluations are only as good as the people trained to administer them….and only as good as the educator who can recognize an issue in the first place.
  3. Individualized Education Program (IEP): These are legal documents that establish goals, accommodations and modifications to the general curriculum and access to qualified professionals to ensure that a child with a disability is learning at the right pace and to his ability within their environment.  These plans level the educational playing field for those with a disability.  The heart of special education.  There are 13 categories under which a child may qualify: specific learning disability, speech and language impairment, blindness, deafness, hearing impairment, visual impairment, orthopedic impairment, traumatic brain injury, autism, multiple disability, other health impairments, emotional disturbance, intellectual disability,  The downside: Because they are legal documents and may be audited and are monitored on a quarterly basis, educators may have a very high self-preservation incentive to make certain your child is meeting his goals….at least on paper.  The more savvy the parent, the more tricky this can become.
  4. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE):  This ensures that your child is placed in an environment that meets his needs as independently as possible in an educational setting that is appropriate for him.  The goal is to work toward the LRE.   The downside:  For those of us with kiddos with Autism, this is not always cut and dry.  Especially those who are cognitively intact but perhaps have a language impairment or another issue which may stand in the way of independence.  An emerging issue in the field is for those kids who are considered “twice exceptional” such those who are intellectually gifted but with severe behavioral issues.  And what does “least restrictive” mean anyway?  My kid who needs 1:1 to learn can totally sit in a regular classroom to do that.  However, I believe my district interprets LRE to mean that he be in a contained classroom without a 1:1 because then he might have more physical independence in that room.  Who is right?
  5. Protections for your child…..protections for you as a parent:  Because of IDEA, there are procedural safeguards in place to make certain that your child is receiving the services the school says they will provide and a protocol to follow if you believe they are not.  Additionally, these protections allow for parent participation and child participation as an equal member of the child’s school team. The downside: Let’s face it…if you are not an educator…or even know where to go to get what you need, you will never be an equal member of your child’s team.   Procedural safeguards and parent participation are ultimately only as good as the questions you know to ask, as your attorney and your bank account.  The catch-22 if you do live in a very good school district?  There is a good chance that anything that goes to due process is going to take a LOOOONNNNNGGG time.  And think about that for a second.  If there is a FAPE violation and it works its way all the way up to a due process hearing doesn’t that seem counterintuitive for your school district to allow little old you to go to court with them?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to fix the problem as it would be much cheaper and less time consuming to do so?  It’s not.  At least not to them.  Because no matter how much the school doesn’t want to throw money at something they can still probably afford to pay a better attorney for much longer than you can.  And besides…the year and a half it could take…perhaps that child won’t need what it was you were asking for by then…or make your life complicated enough that you will break and succumb.   That seems like a pretty good gamble for a district.  And then it doesn’t set a standard for other families to ask for the same.

The last 25 years have been interesting ones for the education system as a whole.  When the parents who walked before us clawed and fought and struggled for these laws it was at a time before the internet, before all the revisions, before standardized testing existed in the way it did, before No Child Left Behind and before Autism was 1:68.  IDEA is necessary no matter how you slice it, however it exists in a very different system than it did in 1990.  At this point I know a lot of the law like the back of my hand and the parts I don’t know I am now educated on how to find those rules.  I have a list of socio-emotional goals for almost every developmental issue at my finger tips and I have an entire community of people going through the same struggles I am at the click of a button day and night.  All of this has been achieved through this tiny-huge world we have online.  I know exactly the gap closure between special education kids and regular ed kids not only for my district, but for my school.  I know the 6 payment tiers that exist and the formula used to calculate how much extra funding my district for each of my kids for using special education services.  I know what belongs where on all 13 sections of the IEP and how to make a goal measurable. And I know when I am being BS-ed by my district.  I don’t know all of this because of my training…I know it because I live in 2016 and any parent with a computer and the desire can learn the same.   In 1990, my school district certainly was not expecting 1 out of every 6 children attending (or 15%) to have some sort of developmental disability….or for the Autism rates to be 600% higher.   My child’s elementary school currently has about 700 students and about 100 IEPs (last I heard)…all while serving about 29% of their students as English as a Second Language with limited proficiency.  Teachers are stretched thin. Inclusion and LRE are so important for our kids future, yet most regular education teachers were not taught the basics on how to include and teach special ed kids in differentiated instruction or how to manage a classroom where there are multiple children with conflicting accommodations. (ie:  When Johnny gets stressed, he can crumple paper…but Jimmy’s auditory sensory integration issues make it impossible to keep it together when he hears paper crumpling….).  Parents are communicating, educated and knowing the legal hoops to jump through if their children’s rights are being violated.  It is a system that cannot hold itself up and still serve our most vulnerable children to be the most successful they can be.  Parents…please keep fighting for your kids….keep learning everything you can.  Educators…please do the same.  I do not have the answer….I am just hopeful it is found before my children have to move on from the “protective bubble” of IDEA and there are no grown up IEPs.

When is School Choice Not Really a Choice?

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Originally posted 1/18/2017.

While it is understandable why a parent like myself with a child with significant disabilities within a public education and governmental system would feel overwhelmed by all of the details, the truth is I felt that way about political systems before I even had children. I am very Gestalt and particularly nervous when it comes to leaving out a detail.  The Whole Is A Sum Of Its Parts is most assuredly how I have always seen the world.  If I miss a piece, I promise I won’t understand the big picture.  Often the bigger problem is knowing whether I have missed a piece, so I comb and comb for those pieces until I end in a pile of crumbs.  And then?  Well…..once I sweep up…watch out.

Our collective current public educational system is fraught with problems that overwhelm me to even consider how they can be overcome in a fair and meaningful way.

And to be clear, this does not mean our educators are at the top of the problem list.  I would challenge anyone who believes this is the case to go spend one year as an educator in even a high performing suburban school district.  The financial, legal, logistical and social  constraints that exist would send a person without the passion to make a difference in the the lives of kids running to do almost anything else.  The issues that exist in public education are systemic in nature. They are systemic but not static so I have believed it possible to slowly turn the ship around.  Fully funding IDEA would be a great start…but that is the thing about getting overwhelmed by details. Out of survival, you hone in on what will have the most impact on your own world to create your own big picture.

It would be easy to turn this into a 5000 word article and focus on all the talking points about why public education is failing everyone and also on all the fundamentally terrific things public education is doing right.  But focusing on those things is the parlor trick we all seem to be falling for these days. The guy with the horns and the trident is awfully entertaining with his sleight of hand while we’re busy, a well heeled woman sitting before the Senate is making plans to create a systemic and fundamentally flawed plan to oppress and contain the most vulnerable children.

There is no time to yell about unions or standardized testing or who we are not listening to when we don’t have an adequate solution and you don’t have the details to understand why they are there in the first place. It’s like slapping yourself in the face.

Yesterday at the Senate hearing for confirmation of Secretary of Education, opponents of Betsy DeVos were alarmed at just how unqualified she appears to be for this position as evident by her lack of knowledge of crucial educational and fiscal details and seeming inability to directly answer questions.  Mrs. DeVos struggled in the brief periods of questioning to give details about how she will ensure/protect/educate. I am not so certain that having someone who understands every detail of public education is actually necessary or even preferable.

However, I do not believe that Betsy DeVos was one bit “confused” about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act being federal law and not something that the states decide. I do not believe that she doesn’t understand the difference between proficiency and progress.  I do not believe that she was having trouble answering questions but rather she answered those questions loud and clear.

  • Should all schools, public, private and charter have EQUAL accountability standards when accepting taxpayer funding?
  • Do you think that all schools receiving federal dollars should have to adhere to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?
  • Should schools receiving government funding have to have the same reporting systems for bullying and harassment?
  • Will you enforce the law for disabled children should the charters go into place and they might be accepted at the charter?
  • Will you defund or privatize public school?

Instead, Mrs. DeVos let those members of the Senate know how happy she would be to make these discussion points in the future.

No…. I don’t think  Betsy DeVos was confused.  I think she doesn’t care, because in her world the devil is in THOSE details and it appears sometimes the devil comes in the form of anyone different or disadvantaged.

Her plan it seems is to create selective schools that she won’t state whether they will adhere to the federal civil rights protection for disabled students or potentially even for just their protection at all.  Over time, disabled students and socially/economically disadvantaged students, students with  behavioral issues are going to once again be segregated due to selective admissions processes, “waiting lists” differences in educational accountability and financial discrepancies between those who can afford the gap in tuition not covered by a voucher.  There will be no such thing as inclusion in schools it will vanish with the details.

For me, this isn’t a matter of lack of understanding or even sour grapes.  I live in a state where there is a “scholarship” program available for students identified with a disability which we used for A2 through pre-k and kindergarten. Given his Autism diagnosis, he qualified for (at the time) a $20,000 voucher through the state board of education to use with a scholarship provider.  Our district was still responsible for writing his IEP so we would meet annually to update.  We found an excellent match for him at a local private, not-for-profit Autism school and in just three months I was pleased to show our district the tight data tracking his improvements.

Short of realizing he wasn’t getting everything he needed in public school, overall, we had a positive experience using this system because the stars were aligned.  A kid happened to move away opening a spot in the classroom, otherwise A2 would have been on a waiting list.  Our district did not transport him so I was unable to work much so I could take him the 20 mile round trip jaunts twice a day. Things were very tight for awhile because we were still responsible for $8000 a year out of pocket toward the tuition.

The biggest trade off?  By accepting the scholarship, we relinquished our rights to FAPE (Free and Appropriate Public Education).  In other words our “school choices” were:

  1.  Stay put and spend thousands on attorneys to try to prove he was not getting an appropriate education (as evidenced by the amount of progress he made with a specialized ABA program)–but in the meantime, if we filed due process based on the law, he would have had to “stay put” until a resolution.  Which could be years.
  2. Find another school that could accept him, provide our own transportation, find $24,000 for three years of out of pocket expenses AND hope he gets what he needs because the private school technically does not have to follow the IEP.  Nor technically are there any repercussions for not meeting his needs.

Choice?  Like the Sophie’s Choice of the outcome of my child’s future.  They both sucked.  We only had a brief period of time to harness the little spongy brain of his.  We were very, very lucky it worked out the way it did.  But we were also very, very lucky because we are upper middle class white, intact suburban family with one paycheck that covered everything and a kiddo who did not present with behaviors too difficult to handle.  We were very, very lucky because the school was pretty great at what they did with a caring team to boot.  I am not against the idea of a voucher system and school choice, but in order for it truly to be choice, the playing field must be appropriately leveled. Otherwise, it is only really a choice for some.

Betsy DeVos wants to turn this ship around, but there is a huge iceberg in the way and only enough lifeboats for the privileged and the able-bodied leaving everyone else, including my beautiful boy to go down with the ship.  Our educational system needs fixing, no doubt…but first do no harm.

 

 

Clutching at the Heels of the Disabled: Why You Should Be Wrestling With the Idea of “Handouts” in Healthcare

white-1184178_1280I read a story this morning in the news about a woman in Texas who stopped on the side of the road to chat with a homeless man.  Since she passed him in the exact same spot  for three years her curiosity finally got the best of her . You can see it here.  He was thin, unshaven, filthy.  We’ve all passed “him” on the side of the road, haven’t we?  Remember the Man-With-The-Golden-Voice several years ago who hung out by the highway and  became a media sensation?  I passed him…sometimes twice a day on the way to my child’s school.  There he was–all wild haired and looking strung out. And then there he was on Dr. Phil with a Cliff Huxtable sweater and a haircut.  A former radio announcer who succumbed to addiction.  We were all cheering him on–he had a Golden Voice and would contribute to society with those gilded vocal chords.  And my, wasn’t he handsome with that haircut?  He could practically be someone we knew!

I digress. This woman from Texas stopped to ask this man why he was always in the same spot all day, every day.  He told her he was waiting for his mother because that is where she left him.

He was waiting for his mother. Right where she told him to wait for her. 

To be sure, his mother was not coming back and this man  struggled with mental illness.  But maybe she really did leave him right there the last time he saw her.  This could very easily be my beautiful boy.

Let me give you some background on this….

What you might not know is that he didn’t suffer from mental illness…that came later in life.  He also had Autism with a speech disorder and a learning disability.  He was raised in an affluent suburb with the best schools in the state but they failed to teach him to read.  This man’s parents were older when he was born, were highly educated, had good jobs and didn’t retire until they were forced to.  His grandparents were all elderly and required care themselves. His father had excellent medical benefits at work that covered most of his care and his mother was extremely resourceful and was able to access everything available from funding to therapies to alternative treatments.  This man’s parents saved as much as they could and because of his unique needs, his mother could not work full-time.  Care for a disabled child is a commodity.  In childhood, the man’s parents tried to give him the most enriching life possible with as much exposure socially as they could.  He found so much joy in being out in public going to sporting events, concerts, religious congregation events and festivals. His parents looked at spending money on these activities as investments since staying at home did not provide him with any social opportunities at all.  After he was about four years old, there were no more parties or play dates or neighborhood shenannegans. His parents were his best friends and gave him a life outside of the house.

This man was once an exceptionally adorable little boy and it was so easy for him to get attention and love almost anywhere he went.  That is, all the way up until adolescence.  It became confusing to him when people didn’t respond in the same way when he would wave at them and say “hey!” or approach their table in a restaurant just to say hello.  His parents put off making a trust because the idea of appointing a guardian was so daunting.  How do you ask someone to make sure your child is OK for the rest of THEIR lives?  How do you ask them to make sure that child has a guardian beyond THEIR lives as well?  Given his parents became increasingly socially isolated as he grew older, it was hard for them to even consider options.  So they just didn’t and hoped for the best.

The boy grew into a man and it was important to his parents that he felt like one. They insisted he held a job and helped him find work wherever they could.  As they grew older, their health issues became too much for them to be able to continue to change diapers or physically help move the man to safety when he got upset and ran in the direction of danger.  The man’s health care waiver ran out when he turned 22.  Reluctantly, his parents dipped into their accounts for his care and in less than 5 years, they ran through their life savings. The same amount of money that would have been considered sufficient in any other situation in old age.  The parents did everything right.  The man worked hard his whole life to be the most contributing member of society his parents could push him to be. And yet…..one day on the way to a doctor appointment, the mother asked the man to wait outside.  She was afraid that if the doctor saw she was trying to care for an adult with a disability he would be taken away…taken away to live in a substandard long term care facility…one that was short staffed where he would be living with strangers. The Medicaid cap would release him to the streets when it ran out. Well…frankly, it was better to let him wait outside, she must have thought.  That is until at that doctor appointment he determined she needed surgery immediately because all the nausea she was having recently turned out to be repeated heart attacks due to a blocked artery. Only she didn’t make it in time to let anyone know her beautiful boy was waiting on the curb for her.

And there he sat for 3 years.  Wandering for food. Wandering for help, but due to his speech disorder and illiteracy, there was no one who understood him enough to know who he was or what he was looking for.  He looked crazy. He looked drunk.  He sat and wandered until that nice lady finally stopped to ask him who he was.

This could be my son.  My beautiful boy.  The kiddo who is 11 years old right now. Of course, it is not.  I actually know nothing about this man from Texas or his background.  But I certainly can imagine this very real scenario.  It is a scenario that keeps me up at night with the exception of the kindly stranger and the happy ending on channel 10.  For those of you who believe people who live off the system have made their lot in life or that they are owed nothing…is this who you picture when you see the guy sitting on the side of the road?   Because that guy may have once been my beautiful boy….your white, upper middle class neighbor’s child who you thought was a ‘cool little dude’.  Where do you think those kids go when they have no one? (and if one more affluent person who knows my child says “well….THAT’S different” be prepared to introduce me to someone else you know milking the system.  Go ahead…I’ll wait right here.).  Because you personally know me and because you personally know him and we kind of look like you  does not make him more deserving than the dirty adult sitting on the curb you think you have never seen before.  That guy that is owed nothing. You just don’t recognize him because you keep your eyes on the road.

I don’t think…I KNOW that one day I will die. Unless I sell my soul to the devil, I am not sure how I will manage to work a  steady job through my own elderly death that will happen AFTER his . I keep reading how his care should all be on me.  And it most certainly is.  And my husband and I have done everything we are supposed to do.

Today.  Call your congress people TODAY.

Don’t know who they are?  Click here to get the name and contact of your National/State/Local representatives.  Don’t know what to say?  Pick out the parts of this article that spoke to you the most and read it to them.  Remind them that NO ONE is a throw away person….not any of their constituents.  Not even the ones that cannot vote.

Stop what is happening with the repeal of ACA.  $800 BILLION cuts in Medicaid are going to be made for tax cuts to people who don’t really need those tax cuts. Medicaid will come in block grants to states with caps….and those caps come quick.  Where will my baby go when he meets his cap?  1 out of every 6 children have a disability and many of them depend on their families to ensure the bulk of their care and with Medicaid to help where they cannot. I have split my time between working and paying taxes to the country I am asking to help and also providing his care.  What happens when my child is not in school and needs full time care?   How do you keep a job and ensure your commitment as a tax payer while also fulfilling your duty as a parent of a disabled child?  If I don’t have a job, he is a freeloader.  If I do have a job, I am a freeloader AND negligent. The circular logic for the reduction of assistance and subsidies is just that ridiculous.

I am glad to hear that man from Texas is doing well.  I am glad there are middle-class individual citizens out there who might stop their cars to find out how they can help.  This, however should not be my son’s disability policy. His life is worth more than a sound byte on the local news.

Autism Awareness Month. T is for Teachers and Therapists

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T is for Teachers and Therapists

112. A2 has had a total of 112 different teachers and therapists in his short 11 years. Some were hand- picked….some chosen by fate and luck of the draw. Some were published…lauded recognizable names….some were quiet presences of whom I cannot remember their names. Some have been with us for the majority of his life. Some have only jumped in for a blip of time in his almost 105,000 hours on this planet. Some were stellar….life alterers….some just showed up because they had to. Some interpreted my coolness or seeming indifference to them as being non-caring. Some recognized that I always had my child’s best interest in mind all the time and understood it was important for me not to be too attached for fear of losing perspective and not holding them accountable should his learning derail. All have had a permanent impact on my entire family’s lives and for all of them, I am grateful.

A2 was about 2 years old in this photo. Debbie Jo was one of the first handful of professionals to work with him, and at the time, I had no way of knowing this fact. She was a paraprofessional in his early intervention program and always made sure to seek me out when I would come to pick him up to give me feedback about his day. When this post was first published, she was very ill with a long bout of cancer. Despite her county job, insurance, COBRA and her life savings eventually ran out. Despite giving of herself and opening up her home to those less fortunate, at her most desperate moments, because a GoFund Me account was set up to help with medical expenses, I would have known nothing about the exceptional kindness and generosity she gave to others throughout her life other than that small blip on the map when my child showed up in hers. Debbie Jo died last year and I pray that it was with peace given the level of selfless life she chose to lead that I was never aware.

We fight for our kids. Many times that fight is with teachers, therapists and administrators. They chose their careers and they have a job to do. The are human beings. We know the people who are in this for the good fight and we know the people who should have left years ago. We know the people who don’t get it. We know the people who burn the candle at both ends and we know people who have dropped the ball. I have fought many of these people who teach my child, but typically as collateral damage in a system that is failing helpers and victims. Fight…fight, fight SO HARD for your kids. ADVOCATE like hell for yourself if you have a disability. Don’t be afraid to call helpers out, but BE FAIR. Ask to see data. It is your right to see it. It is your right to question it. Do your research. If you have an instinct there is a problem, be sure to tell them you are coming from that place rather than accusing them…but again, ASK, ASK, ASK how to be reassured. In their world,  no matter how destroying it is to us, your child may be a learning experience.  And if that is all they can offer–it is all they can offer.

In our world…we only get one time around. We don’t get a do-over. Recognize their human-ness and recognize necessity and try to create the most cohesive balance.Featured Image -- 1500

Autism Awareness Month. Day 2 2017: B is for Blogs

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About 9 years ago when A2 was 3 years old, he attended a social skills group with a speech therapist and 3 other minimally verbal children.  A2 was by far and away the most pleasant and social of the 4 kids in the group and at that point did not have an Autism diagnosis.  I didn’t know WHAT was happening with him for sure. I sat in that lobby week after week wondering what A2 could possibly be getting out of the group given none of the children had any functional verbal language and a great majority of the time the adults were wrangling to keep the kids all in one spot.  After the final session, I sighed at the speech therapist and asked her what she thought was going on with my beautiful boy.  She asked me if I had ever heard of the book Schuyler’s Monster by Robert Rummel Hudson.  I had not.  It is a memoir written by a father about his wordless daughter.  A2 and I left the speech session and immediately went to the library to find it.  I suppose I would have been reading more about parent perspectives of young children with disabilities had a known my child had a disability.  But he was 3.  He had delays.  A gross motor delay, a fine motor delay, a speech delay.  He flapped.  But he also looked at me and smiled, knew his name and cuddled.  Other than the cache of bewildered parents who sat in lobbies at therapies, I had no connections to others going through similar circumstances. As an action oriented person, I didn’t know I needed to have those connections.

That is until I read Schuyler’s Monster. 

In some ways, I feel like that is where my story begins.  It started as an easy read because Rob is poignant, funny and his words wash over the pages and get right into your brain.  And. Then.  To put it simply…I was knocked on my ass. He was telling my story.  He was me.  And Schulyer was almost exactly A2.  Right down to the personality.  I had to set time aside to read when I knew I didn’t have to be “on” because I wasn’t sure how what I would read would affect me for the rest of the day.  Schuyler has a rare genetic disorder called Bilateral Perisylvian Polymicrogyria.  I called A2’s neurogeneticist at the Cleveland Clinic and insisted he himself go back and read A2’s baseline MRI and not rely on the radiologists report. He humored me and alas, A2 and Schuyler did not hold this in common.  I finished the book and felt like I was underwater. What was I going to do without Rob, Julie and Schuyler?  I felt connected to something and yet I had never felt so alone in my whole life all because a piece of cardboard filled with paper and a beautiful little girl on the front told me life might not be what I think it is.  I was not an avid reader of blogs and at that point was not on social media.  I found his blog Fighting Monsters with Rubber Swords and reconnected with his words.  Soon, I found another blog that spoke to me much in the same way written by a teacher who had an autistic child called Flappiness Is.  At this point, we had an autism diagnosis and I was in the throes of learning to advocate for my child in ways that rocked my world. Leigh was there to say the things I couldn’t say. Then there was another (which is no longer around) that made me laugh about our situation when I needed to laugh about it.

I now had a community and resources I could access whenever I needed it.

I am an accidental blogger.  I wrote 3 posts back in 2010 and when I realized I really had nothing to say, I was done.  It wasn’t my time to talk.  I don’t know if it is really my time to talk now, yet here I am.  Instead of following 3 blogs, I follow dozens and all for different reasons.  I have met the most amazing folks along the way because of it including the now very grown up, very kind and very inspiring Schuyler.  And she seems to be exactly the person I hoped she would grow up to be when I met her as a little girl as typeset words sitting on my couch 9 years ago.

There is no need to be alone if you cannot find “your people” in your community.  I never dreamed that some of my closest confidants are people I have never met or only briefly met in person. This list is not exhaustive…..and most categories will overlap, but my resource list of favorite blogs/social media folks you might want to check out (note also most blog links will be the same name on Facebook):

Day 2 2015. B is for Boredom

Day 2 2016: B is for Behavior

DAD PERSPECTIVE

Bacon and Juiceboxes

Jason Hague, Writer

Just a Lil Blog

Dad Enough

Autism From a Dad’s Eye View

Autism Blues

Stories About Autism

The Spectral Zone

The Autism Daddy

PERSPECTIVES FROM THE SPECTRUM

Autistic Not Weird

Autcraft

Seriously Not Boring

Deciphering Morgan

Autistic Speaks

Kerry Magro

Anonymously Autistic

Autism Uncensored

MEMES/HUMOR/KEEPING IT REAL

Autism Odysseys

Just a Minute My Cape is in the Dryer

Ink 4 Autism

Rantings of an ADHD Mom

ALL THE REST

David Snape and Friends

Carrie Cariello

Love That Max

Finding Cooper’s Voice

Take Another Step

Autism With a Side of Fries

Herding Cats

From Motherhood

Our Adventures with Riley

Special Ev

Walking With Drake

A Day in Our Shoes

Special Books by Special Kids

 

 

 

 

 

Autism Awareness Month. Day 1 2017: A is for Ableism

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Ableism: discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities

(https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ableism)

“How old is……are you?” the little girl in the pink rain boots corrected herself as her eyes darted from mine immediately to A2’s.  He was standing behind me and flapping excitedly anticipating a single engine plane landing from the observation tower at the regional airport where we all stood.

She licked the open space between her missing teeth and twisted her body from side to side as I looked back to A2 since he wasn’t answering her. “A2…..this little girl wonders how old you are.” I said to him as I touched the corners of my mouth as a starting cue for a long /e/ sound.

“Sevuh.” he said without looking way from the window.  I touched his back and then his chin and he looked up.

“Eeeeelehhhvuh” he replied, eyeing me closely for the cue.  I looked back to the girl to see if she understood.  She bit her lip and looked up at her own mother.

“Yes, you ARE eleven” I clarified and then paused to gauge interest. “A2….you could ask her ‘how old are YOU?'” in a futile attempt to redirect his attention from the excitement of a helicopter taking off from a landing pad.

Hannah was 7. And her brother was 5. And her other brother had his birthday this weekend….and he is 3. And her uncle lives in North Carolina and he came in to town for the party and now he was flying away back home. And there were green cupcakes at the party. With rainbow sprinkles.

STOP.

When you read this, what do you take away from this interaction?  How did it make you feel?  Did you picture yourself as the parent?  As the little girl in the pink boots?  As A2?  Or maybe you pictured yourself as the mom of the girl?

Since I was there, I will share my perspective.

  • Had A2 been in almost any other physical environment, he may have been the one approaching the girl rather than the other way around.  He may not have automatically told her “seven”, the oddly missing number from his rote lexicon from one to ten we worked tirelessly toward remembering to say during his seventh year of life.  Ironically, seven has been his automatic go-to age ever since then, especially when he is distracted.
  • I saw an opportunity to practice social language and articulation.  Another child asked him a direct and appropriate question in a shared environment.  In our society, it is the norm to make conversation in environments such as this. Even though he was distracted by something exciting, this is still the norm.
  • I saw another child who appeared to not understand what A2 said and also appeared to not know what to do next.  It then became my role to subtly articulate for the other child and to cue my child’s part in the conversation.
  • When I saw A2 was too distracted to engage in anything socially meaningful to this little girl, I engaged her for a bit to see if he would enter in at any point.
  • I was thrilled that this young child caught herself and re-evaluated how she wanted to ask her question and presumed A2’s competence by asking him directly.
  • I felt frustrated A2 missed a social opportunity.  I felt sad he would rather flap his hands.  I felt gutted to get more details about a 7-year-old-stranger’s weekend than I have ever gotten from my own child about his day.

I imagine the little girl’s perspective looked something like this:

  • I don’ t understand why he talks a little like my brother when he was a baby.
  •  I know when people want to know how old I am they ask me…..they don’t ask my mom.
  •  I wonder if he wants to know my uncle is flying a plane!
  • He didn’t know how old he is.  I wonder why he won’t look at me after I asked him a question…I feel uncomfortable now.
  • I’m glad that lady asked me about my weekend.  I love cupcakes with sprinkles and was glad I could share my favorite part.

A2’s perspective might be:

  • Humming of airplane motors sounds like the humming in my body.  The propellers move so fast, but that is how I see so many things…its like I can see each blade when they spin.  This is the only place I get to see anything like this! I’m so excited!
  • Mom is tapping me.  She wants something.  When I respond to her, she will then leave me alone and I can finish watching.  I better look up.
  • That little girl has nothing to do with this experience right now.  Why does she need to know how old I am when there are machines flying into the sky?!

Of course, I have no way of actually knowing the perspective of the little girl or of A2. I can only assume according to my own interpretations in the moment and based on my previous experiences.  I may be completely wrong.  The only perspective in which I truly have full insight is my own as evident in the richer description.

Is it possible that my intervention was sending a negative message to both A2 and the little girl because I didn’t fully accept where my child was in the moment?  Because I expressed feelings over the scenario, does that mean I perceive my child who happens to be disabled as less? Were my choices in this situation potentially fueled by own neurological/mental health differences?  Would it matter if they were?

If I did nothing, would the girl have pressed on?   Would her mother tell her “come on, he can’t answer you” and leave before the little girl could wait him out? Would she have learned that in the future not to bother to ask questions of kids who flap and have trouble speaking?

Should I have insisted he turn from the window? Should I have answered everything for him?  Should I have explained what she could do to connect with him in the moment?   Should I have insisted the mother help her child connect with mine when he didn’t answer? Do I represent all mothers of all autistic children?  Mothers of all children with Autism? All Autism Moms in this situation? Does she represent all 7-year-old neurotypical children?

I am a parent.  I make many decisions for my minor children every day. I make them do things that go against what they want to do because that is an uncomfortable reality of parenting.  Sometimes I give in to things usually because I am feeling tired or lazy. Other times, I just make the wrong decision or don’t respect their feelings and apologize later. The fact that I am literally my child’s interpreter due to his disability complicates this parenting thing because I cannot untangle the ball of cords that being a parent to my child vs. being a parent to my autistic child is. I  have no choice but to parent him from the only perspective I have day in and day out just like every other adult given the privilege of parenting. The thing I know for certain is every decision and action comes out of the intense and blinding love I have for them.

As a society, we are all learning together right now what it means to be inclusive, to accommodate and how language can affect disability rights, especially when it comes to Autism.  The growing pains with this process are palpable.  Subcultures and their preferences exist in any community often elusive to the general population but tend to sit right below the surface for the group affected creating a dissonance that effectively can halt any movement forward outside of the culture.  A simple/not so simple example: many adults on the spectrum prefer “autistic” as they do not see autism as a disability but rather as a difference.  Yet, in academia, person first language is still being taught and “autistic” is being used as a taunt by kids who are none-the-wiser that it is culturally a preferred term without negative connotation.  Some parent perspectives dictate a different mindset around autism preferring “has autism” and would never refer to their own child as autistic. As a professional in the field, writer and parent, I trip over how to refer to autism, my kids or myself for fear of sounding ableist and this nuance could alienate the very community for which I want to advocate regardless of my perspective in family systems theory.  When asking my own kids what they prefer, one says “yeah” to either option leaving me as his parent with the choice……the other has told me he doesn’t want to refer to it at all because he doesn’t care and he doesn’t know why it matters or why he would ever have to explain it to anyone to begin with.   Clearly, this hot topic within our autism community, this invisible topic to the general population, is a complete non-issue to my boys.  It is all about perspective.

These are complicated times.  There are many, many voices that make up the autism community.  There is a tentative balance in how we talk about autism and how we approach the disability perspective in the community. Perhaps it is because there are some great, big general rules of thumb when it comes to respecting individual differences and abilities and it should be apparent to anyone who stops to think for a moment.  Perhaps it is because disability voices should get precedence as representative to their individual needs and possibly the needs of others.  Perhaps it is because sometimes those individual narratives are different from the realities of many families and it becomes difficult to separate this inconvenient truth when there are no other options. My goal as a parent is to give my children as many opportunities to be successful and independent as they can be which means the choices I make for them as I google how to unwind that mess of cords will be based on their individual needs and the options and resources available. I also recognize that we do not live in a vacuum.  My experiences and access and circumstance dictates certain necessities.  I absolutely cannot expect that society as a whole will know or understand how to accept and provide the individual needs my child has based on his disability when I am not even certain I always know what they are.

There will always be Hannahs in pink rain boots who approach disability as a curious difference.  Whether she grows up with the same perspective is up to us as individuals, as caregivers and as a community in these brief moments. The one thing I know for certain is we are evolving toward a collective understanding from many different perspectives and these perspectives come from a place of respect and love. Almost always.  We all have to be better.

Day 1 2015: A is for Aides

Day 1 2016: A is for Advocacy

Clutching at the Heels of the Disabled: Why You Should Be Wrestling With the Idea of “Handouts” in Healthcare

white-1184178_1280I read a story this morning in the news about a woman in Texas who stopped on the side of the road to chat with a homeless man.  Since she passed him in the exact same spot  for three years her curiosity finally got the best of her . You can see it here.  He was thin, unshaven, filthy.  We’ve all passed “him” on the side of the road, haven’t we?  Remember the Man-With-The-Golden-Voice several years ago who hung out by the highway and  became a media sensation?  I passed him…sometimes twice a day on the way to my child’s school.  There he was–all wild haired and looking strung out. And then there he was on Dr. Phil with a Cliff Huxtable sweater and a haircut.  A former radio announcer who succumbed to addiction.  We were all cheering him on–he had a Golden Voice and would contribute to society with those gilded vocal chords.  And my, wasn’t he handsome with that haircut?  He could practically be someone we knew!

I digress. This woman from Texas stopped to ask this man why he was always in the same spot all day, every day.  He told her he was waiting for his mother because that is where she left him.

He was waiting for his mother. Right where she told him to wait for her. 

To be sure, his mother was not coming back and this man  struggled with mental illness.  But maybe she really did leave him right there the last time he saw her.  This could very easily be my beautiful boy.

Let me give you some background on this….

What you might not know is that he didn’t suffer from mental illness…that came later in life.  He also had Autism with a speech disorder and a learning disability.  He was raised in an affluent suburb with the best schools in the state but they failed to teach him to read.  This man’s parents were older when he was born, were highly educated, had good jobs and didn’t retire until they were forced to.  His grandparents were all elderly and required care themselves. His father had excellent medical benefits at work that covered most of his care and his mother was extremely resourceful and was able to access everything available from funding to therapies to alternative treatments.  This man’s parents saved as much as they could and because of his unique needs, his mother could not work full-time.  Care for a disabled child is a commodity.  In childhood, the man’s parents tried to give him the most enriching life possible with as much exposure socially as they could.  He found so much joy in being out in public going to sporting events, concerts, religious congregation events and festivals. His parents looked at spending money on these activities as investments since staying at home did not provide him with any social opportunities at all.  After he was about four years old, there were no more parties or play dates or neighborhood shenannegans. His parents were his best friends and gave him a life outside of the house.

This man was once an exceptionally adorable little boy and it was so easy for him to get attention and love almost anywhere he went.  That is, all the way up until adolescence.  It became confusing to him when people didn’t respond in the same way when he would wave at them and say “hey!” or approach their table in a restaurant just to say hello.  His parents put off making a trust because the idea of appointing a guardian was so daunting.  How do you ask someone to make sure your child is OK for the rest of THEIR lives?  How do you ask them to make sure that child has a guardian beyond THEIR lives as well?  Given his parents became increasingly socially isolated as he grew older, it was hard for them to even consider options.  So they just didn’t and hoped for the best.

The boy grew into a man and it was important to his parents that he felt like one. They insisted he held a job and helped him find work wherever they could.  As they grew older, their health issues became too much for them to be able to continue to change diapers or physically help move the man to safety when he got upset and ran in the direction of danger.  The man’s health care waiver ran out when he turned 22.  Reluctantly, his parents dipped into their accounts for his care and in less than 5 years, they ran through their life savings. The same amount of money that would have been considered sufficient in any other situation in old age.  The parents did everything right.  The man worked hard his whole life to be the most contributing member of society his parents could push him to be. And yet…..one day on the way to a doctor appointment, the mother asked the man to wait outside.  She was afraid that if the doctor saw she was trying to care for an adult with a disability he would be taken away…taken away to live in a substandard long term care facility…one that was short staffed where he would be living with strangers. The Medicaid cap would release him to the streets when it ran out. Well…frankly, it was better to let him wait outside, she must have thought.  That is until at that doctor appointment he determined she needed surgery immediately because all the nausea she was having recently turned out to be repeated heart attacks due to a blocked artery. Only she didn’t make it in time to let anyone know her beautiful boy was waiting on the curb for her.

And there he sat for 3 years.  Wandering for food. Wandering for help, but due to his speech disorder and illiteracy, there was no one who understood him enough to know who he was or what he was looking for.  He looked crazy. He looked drunk.  He sat and wandered until that nice lady finally stopped to ask him who he was.

This could be my son.  My beautiful boy.  The kiddo who is 11 years old right now. Of course, it is not.  I actually know nothing about this man from Texas or his background.  But I certainly can imagine this very real scenario.  It is a scenario that keeps me up at night with the exception of the kindly stranger and the happy ending on channel 10.  For those of you who believe people who live off the system have made their lot in life or that they are owed nothing…is this who you picture when you see the guy sitting on the side of the road?   Because that guy may have once been my beautiful boy….your white, upper middle class neighbor’s child who you thought was a ‘cool little dude’.  Where do you think those kids go when they have no one? (and if one more affluent person who knows my child says “well….THAT’S different” be prepared to introduce me to someone else you know milking the system.  Go ahead…I’ll wait right here.).  Because you personally know me and because you personally know him and we kind of look like you  does not make him more deserving than the dirty adult sitting on the curb you think you have never seen before.  That guy that is owed nothing. You just don’t recognize him because you keep your eyes on the road.

I don’t think…I KNOW that one day I will die. Unless I sell my soul to the devil, I am not sure how I will manage to work a  steady job through my own elderly death that will happen AFTER his . I keep reading how his care should all be on me.  And it most certainly is.  And my husband and I have done everything we are supposed to do.

Today.  Call your congress people TODAY.

Don’t know who they are?  Click here to get the name and contact of your National/State/Local representatives.  Don’t know what to say?  Pick out the parts of this article that spoke to you the most and read it to them.  Remind them that NO ONE is a throw away person….not any of their constituents.  Not even the ones that cannot vote.

Stop what is happening with the repeal of ACA.  $800 BILLION cuts in Medicaid are going to be made for tax cuts to people who don’t really need those tax cuts. Medicaid will come in block grants to states with caps….and those caps come quick.  Where will my baby go when he meets his cap?  1 out of every 6 children have a disability and many of them depend on their families to ensure the bulk of their care and with Medicaid to help where they cannot. I have split my time between working and paying taxes to the country I am asking to help and also providing his care.  What happens when my child is not in school and needs full time care?   How do you keep a job and ensure your commitment as a tax payer while also fulfilling your duty as a parent of a disabled child?  If I don’t have a job, he is a freeloader.  If I do have a job, I am a freeloader AND negligent. The circular logic for the reduction of assistance and subsidies is just that ridiculous.

I am glad to hear that man from Texas is doing well.  I am glad there are middle-class individual citizens out there who might stop their cars to find out how they can help.  This, however should not be my son’s disability policy. His life is worth more than a sound byte on the local news.

When Pain Drives Passion. What is Your Story?

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As Kelly knelt  on the floor folding her lighting equipment into her duffel, she looked up at me and said in earnest, “I feel like we have to do this fast. These stories need to get out now.” I felt the sick sink in my stomach because I knew she was right, but we just got started.

I half jokingly refer to Kelly as “my photographer” only because “this girl who agreed to come along to take the photos of interviews I am doing  for this idea I had and had no idea what she was getting into” sounds lame..and lengthy.  Plus her quiet role moving about the room with the important strangers who agreed to bare their souls to me for two hours gave them legitimacy.  What do you call the person who helps provide authenticity to an experience?  I don’t get to own that part.

Kelly bore witness to a world she knew nothing about three months before she spoke those words to me in an Airbnb in Dallas, Texas. I met Kelly randomly through a friend the previous summer at a concert.  She was a confident, ticketless passenger on the way to a sold out show and found a scalper feet from the venue. I appreciated the cajones and thought she might be someone I would want to know.  I did not realize that five months later, on January 27, 2016 we would be sitting for our first interview of a few dozen across the country.

We officially started a whole year ago as of today. Happy anniversary Kel.

Words like inclusion, rights, entitlements, supports are finally part of every day vernacular but even by definition imply separatist “us from them”mentality and leave out the miles of mountain range between the first mile and the last. But to me, those words felt like more than just a start.

When I got up off the pavement a year ago, I  believed society and disability subculture were starting to speak some of the same language. I also believed that some of the narratives were getting further and further apart causing a rift within the movement. The time felt ripe to help normalize the experience of being disabled in a way that was not out of pity but rather in a way that lit up the path to be traveled.  It was time to assume that folks were coming from a place of not knowing and not from a place of not caring.  My personal mental exhaustion was not about my child or his disability, but the wholly unnecessary loneliness, barriers and misunderstanding by the world around us.  How off the hook is it I believed changing the world around us would be simpler and more empowering than kicking those pebbles out of the path one at a time?

At the time, not so hookless. I gave a TEDx Talk about the first step in climbing the mountain of disability advocacy as a society.  The itty-bitty baby steps of encouraging the general public to lay down misconceptions and engage in discourse with someone who is disabled.  I encouraged people to unabashedly just ask about things they don’t know. I called upon the disabled and their caregivers to collectively lift the stigma of living with disability by being honest and non-defensive in talking about what it’s like and what they need.  I traveled the country and spent hours and hours recording and photographing and connecting to regular people in extraordinary circumstances to put into pages and immortalize moments on glossy paper for them. I shined up a little piece of the internet for myself under a pen name to create and share in the most balanced way I could. People were believing in what I was saying.  People were hopeful. I changed minds. Momentum. Or so I thought.

Through this process, I held the value of neutrality and being non-partisan.  Everybody’s story resides in the same place within them regardless of the story’s beginning, middle or end.  Allowing people to tell their story while providing them with unconditional positive regard served as a catharsis for both myself and my interviewees.  I found it was not difficult to empathize with people whose world I didn’t fully understand or framework I did not fully agree.  In social media,  I shared stories of injustice or cruelty without solution or politics.  Awareness is the first step of acceptance…it is not the end result.

Alas, I am not an advocate.  I am a storyteller.

One year later, I am sitting at the same desk but in a very different place.  I feel scared. Was I was horribly wrong about this genesis of readiness for change?  It has been a challenge to remain non-partisan especially in a time when it seems that perhaps these stories sink to the bottom of the advocacy pile.

The other night as I sat hunched over my computer trying to put a cap on my 1 year experience, I tearfully told my husband we are beyond storytelling at this point. I am fearful of having too much opinion out of concern of not holding my neutral credo for the greater good. It goes against my nature as a social  worker. There is a war going on between human rights, human entitlement and government in a narrative that is getting louder and undeniably self-serving to each individual yelling. This goal of reasonable human rights only has a matter of time before we are splintered into pieces again and we are fighting against each other get what we need. It is hard to see where or how this will end right now. Issues that are truly a big deal today may seem like the good-ole-days in the near future. I worried about the juxtaposition of storytelling in an ocean of endless islands of stories. I was feeling disheartened and selfish that evening that this project was down the tubes.

Instead of walking away like he might during a moment like this, my husband turned and said “What if this is about change for the better after all?” He went on to contemplate the lack of passion and purpose as a whole in this country in our lifetime. The things that divide us and crawl under our skin has created less listening and more waiting for our turn to talk. Or worse yet, NOT waiting for our turn to talk and yelling over the opposition instead. He optimistically reframed this unprecedented business-as-politics as the catalyst of the birth of this generation’s common cause. The most powerful man in the world and those who surround him believe that there are “alternative facts” leading the rest of us into a state of despair and confusion over the possibility of never understanding what is true or real. This is the stuff of propoganda and crazy-making.

“But…hasn’t that been your truth for years?” my husband asked.

He was right. Those of us who live with oppression in some way or another in this country have been working off the premise of alternative facts for a long time. At least those of us who are caregivers to those with disabilities who may not be able to speak for themselves, we are told over and over to accept half-truths or are simply told “no” for nebulous reasons when asking for inclusion, equality or safety.  Or else we are dismissed,discounted or ignored. This is not new. Some of us sink into deep holes of acceptance of this and others of us jump up and down and yell as loud as we can. And sometimes we do both in intervals. It is through this collective place we can pull together instead of being one small group spitting into the wind while down wind from us is some other oppressed group covering both of us in spittle.

“I wonder if there will grow a common one big enough to make the noise it needs to? People as a whole are a lot more awake than they were…and maybe that is not so bad” he mused.

Regardless of what you believe or how oppressed or even how entitled you are, it is time.  Listen calmly. Don’t wait for your turn to talk. Take the information you get from other people’s stories and learn from them even if you disagree. Even if you don’t understand. These words may help heal or give you the tools to fight even harder or maybe even change your mind. We can yell as much as we want in the faces of those who don’t want to hear….collectively it may eventually work…but individually, that will not change their minds in a world where people are desperately trying to cling to what they think they believe.

It is time. We all have a story.  Kelly can tell you what it is like to bear witness to that listening from behind a camera first hand.

Or as she might tell you, it will make you woke AF.

 

 

 

When is School Choice Not Really a Choice?

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While it is understandable why a parent like myself with a child with significant disabilities within a public education and governmental system would feel overwhelmed by all of the details, the truth is I felt that way about political systems before I even had children. I am very Gestalt and particularly nervous when it comes to leaving out a detail.  The Whole Is A Sum Of Its Parts is most assuredly how I have always seen the world.  If I miss a piece, I promise I won’t understand the big picture.  Often the bigger problem is knowing whether I have missed a piece, so I comb and comb for those pieces until I end in a pile of crumbs.  And then?  Well…..once I sweep up…watch out.

Our collective current public educational system is fraught with problems that overwhelm me to even consider how they can be overcome in a fair and meaningful way.

And to be clear, this does not mean our educators are at the top of the problem list.  I would challenge anyone who believes this is the case to go spend one year as an educator in even a high performing suburban school district.  The financial, legal, logistical and social  constraints that exist would send a person without the passion to make a difference in the the lives of kids running to do almost anything else.  The issues that exist in public education are systemic in nature. They are systemic but not static so I have believed it possible to slowly turn the ship around.  Fully funding IDEA would be a great start…but that is the thing about getting overwhelmed by details. Out of survival, you hone in on what will have the most impact on your own world to create your own big picture.

It would be easy to turn this into a 5000 word article and focus on all the talking points about why public education is failing everyone and also on all the fundamentally terrific things public education is doing right.  But focusing on those things is the parlor trick we all seem to be falling for these days. The guy with the horns and the trident is awfully entertaining with his sleight of hand while we’re busy, a well heeled woman sitting before the Senate is making plans to create a systemic and fundamentally flawed plan to oppress and contain the most vulnerable children.

There is no time to yell about unions or standardized testing or who we are not listening to when we don’t have an adequate solution and you don’t have the details to understand why they are there in the first place. It’s like slapping yourself in the face.

Yesterday at the Senate hearing for confirmation of Secretary of Education, opponents of Betsy DeVos were alarmed at just how unqualified she appears to be for this position as evident by her lack of knowledge of crucial educational and fiscal details and seeming inability to directly answer questions.  Mrs. DeVos struggled in the brief periods of questioning to give details about how she will ensure/protect/educate. I am not so certain that having someone who understands every detail of public education is actually necessary or even preferable.

However, I do not believe that Betsy DeVos was one bit “confused” about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act being federal law and not something that the states decide. I do not believe that she doesn’t understand the difference between proficiency and progress.  I do not believe that she was having trouble answering questions but rather she answered those questions loud and clear.

  • Should all schools, public, private and charter have EQUAL accountability standards when accepting taxpayer funding?
  • Do you think that all schools receiving federal dollars should have to adhere to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?
  • Should schools receiving government funding have to have the same reporting systems for bullying and harassment?
  • Will you enforce the law for disabled children should the charters go into place and they might be accepted at the charter?
  • Will you defund or privatize public school?

Instead, Mrs. DeVos let those members of the Senate know how happy she would be to make these discussion points in the future.

No…. I don’t think  Betsy DeVos was confused.  I think she doesn’t care, because in her world the devil is in THOSE details and it appears sometimes the devil comes in the form of anyone different or disadvantaged.

Her plan it seems is to create selective schools that she won’t state whether they will adhere to the federal civil rights protection for disabled students or potentially even for just their protection at all.  Over time, disabled students and socially/economically disadvantaged students, students with  behavioral issues are going to once again be segregated due to selective admissions processes, “waiting lists” differences in educational accountability and financial discrepancies between those who can afford the gap in tuition not covered by a voucher.  There will be no such thing as inclusion in schools it will vanish with the details.

For me, this isn’t a matter of lack of understanding or even sour grapes.  I live in a state where there is a “scholarship” program available for students identified with a disability which we used for A2 through pre-k and kindergarten. Given his Autism diagnosis, he qualified for (at the time) a $20,000 voucher through the state board of education to use with a scholarship provider.  Our district was still responsible for writing his IEP so we would meet annually to update.  We found an excellent match for him at a local private, not-for-profit Autism school and in just three months I was pleased to show our district the tight data tracking his improvements.

Short of realizing he wasn’t getting everything he needed in public school, overall, we had a positive experience using this system because the stars were aligned.  A kid happened to move away opening a spot in the classroom, otherwise A2 would have been on a waiting list.  Our district did not transport him so I was unable to work much so I could take him the 20 mile round trip jaunts twice a day. Things were very tight for awhile because we were still responsible for $8000 a year out of pocket toward the tuition.

The biggest trade off?  By accepting the scholarship, we relinquished our rights to FAPE (Free and Appropriate Public Education).  In other words our “school choices” were:

  1.  Stay put and spend thousands on attorneys to try to prove he was not getting an appropriate education (as evidenced by the amount of progress he made with a specialized ABA program)–but in the meantime, if we filed due process based on the law, he would have had to “stay put” until a resolution.  Which could be years.
  2. Find another school that could accept him, provide our own transportation, find $24,000 for three years of out of pocket expenses AND hope he gets what he needs because the private school technically does not have to follow the IEP.  Nor technically are there any repercussions for not meeting his needs.

Choice?  Like the Sophie’s Choice of the outcome of my child’s future.  They both sucked.  We only had a brief period of time to harness the little spongy brain of his.  We were very, very lucky it worked out the way it did.  But we were also very, very lucky because we are upper middle class white, intact suburban family with one paycheck that covered everything and a kiddo who did not present with behaviors too difficult to handle.  We were very, very lucky because the school was pretty great at what they did with a caring team to boot.  I am not against the idea of a voucher system and school choice, but in order for it truly to be choice, the playing field must be appropriately leveled. Otherwise, it is only really a choice for some.

Betsy DeVos wants to turn this ship around, but there is a huge iceberg in the way and only enough lifeboats for the privileged and the able-bodied leaving everyone else, including my beautiful boy to go down with the ship.  Our educational system needs fixing, no doubt…but first do no harm.