The Tail Wagging the Dog: Tales of a Therapy Dog by a Bone Tired Mom

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Originally Published as The Tail Wagging the Dog 9/2015

Our dog is a bit of a sonofabitch.

He is playful and fun and sweet and well behaved.

Until he is not. And it always catches us off guard. 30 rounds of chasing the ball and joyfully bringing it back is often followed by a random and somewhat humiliating drive-by where he passes me up, runs 3 yards over and pees on the neighbor’s dog. The ability to look nonchalant and nonplussed at the same time after your dog just defiled someone else’s beloved pet is something that only the parent of a child with Autism can pull off with Merylstreepworthy street cred.

These times I breathlessly call his name while chasing him in circles with what I believe to be an audible background soundtrack of the Benny Hill theme song, I will often submit myself to the idea of giving him back to the service dog agency. Wally came to us in a somewhat miraculous way. I relinquished the idea of a service dog for A2 years ago when I learned that an application was only the first step in a lengthy and costly fundraising and training endeavor–a cruel (but necessary)paradox for a middle class family supporting a child with a disability. So when I saw a post in a local Facebook mom’s group about this agency’s need for foster families for their breeding program it was a no brainer. He had been through an advanced training program, came with the bright orange “do not touch” vest (that as it turns out that as a whole people just ignore) and most importantly, neither of my children reeled away from him in fear of barking or jumping. I could get used to having to drive out to the agency on a moments notice for his doggie duty or the fact that as an intact male he has a certain
“je ne sais quoi” that at times makes me feel uneasy explaining to groups of gathering and inquisitive elementary school kids.

While this dog is not trained specifically for A2, I had notions of things. Wonderful things. He would have the gumption of a sheepherding dog and rustle A2 back off to bed at night allowing all of us a full nights sleep. He would have Lassie-like receptive and expressive language skills to alert us if A2 wandered off…or fell in a well….or were lost in a canyon. He would be A2’s best friend and would play ball, endure endless tummy rubs and kiss away tears. But alas, Wally is not trained to endure colossal meltdowns or high pitched screaming  and A2 is obsessed with Wally’s nails needing trimmed and is also wholly mortified by his noisy and explicit grooming habits.

It often feels more like they are roommates who met out of necessity on Craigslist.

We wanted Wally to be for A2, but really, we wanted him to be for us. We needed extra eyes, extra sleep and fuller hearts knowing A2 had a friend. But its not looking like this part was meant to be.

The surprise twist here is that I did not anticipate that Wally is here for A1. We didn’t see that one coming at all. I have watched A1 learn to use inflection in his voice to get him to follow a command or gain his attention. Wally’s presence is forcing A1 up out of his gaming chair to take him on walks or throw a ball or frisbee. He is quickly using perspective taking in a way I have never noticed in questions such as “Do you think Wally likes me? How can you tell?” or “Mom, I feel so bad. I wish I could give him some of my sandwich. Is this how you feel about me with my Celiac when other kids are eating gluten around me?”

My beautiful, slow to warm boy who would rather not touch or be touched is slowly but voluntarily petting, patting, feeding and cuddling Wally. Though it took me years to understand and accept that A1’s needs and worldview are just very different than mine, I have always known that forcing my motherly agenda would only reinforce his discomfort. And in a very rare moment–maybe the second time in his life just last night while watching TV he scooted closer to me on the couch, leaned in, and rested his head on my shoulder.

So Wally, you are off the hook. I will humble myself as I once again issue the world’s most awkward apology and assure the neighbors that we have no intentions of keeping their dog since you have clearly claimed him as your own just as long as you keep doing the stealthy, stellar job you were given to do here with us.

If You Met Us At The Border

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

If You Met Us at the Border

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5 Random Reasons It Is Hard to Share Lately

1. I have 84 drafts sitting in my queue in my blog.

Yes, you read that correctly. 84 unedited pieces of work. 84 separate ideas.

If you read my writing, you know I have 3 styles: 1. Poetry 2. Educational/How To/Advocacy 3. Creative Non-Fiction. Sometimes I struggle thinking I cannot “find my voice” in my writing, but I do believe I have. It is all 3 of those voices, just like most of us have in real life. It is the topic that tends to remain consistent–it is about the intense, over -the-top love I have for my child and the intense, over-the-top worry I have for him not because of who he is…but because of the world he lives in…even with, or in spite of me, his extra-human mom who sometimes needs silence, sleep, pre-children normalcy and sometimes just moments where I stare off into the void.

2. “Children do well if they can” –Ross Greene PhD (As a reminder…children grow into adults. Adults who do well if they can. Adults generally have greater levels of understanding as to how to access the “doing well” part depending on the function of their needs and the values they were raised with. Values which may be different than mine.

3. My children have a level of privilege and comfort that even to many, many standards in the US is considered luxury. We are still working class, but we were born into the jackpot of privilege for no other reason than chance. My parents are not college educated and I grew up in a single parent household for much of my single digit years. My father came to the US essentially as a refugee as a child. He came with a small handful of family because the rest were dead or missing. My husband grew up in a small town where his mom was the primary bread winner as a teacher. But we both have above average IQs, were loved, physically and environmentally safe and were raised to know we were supposed to go to college and have jobs. And the people around us were raised to just look at us and think the same thing.

4. My son is significantly disabled. Given he is 13 now, it is fair to say at this point that he will likely not live independently, drive a car, read, earn a full-time fair wage. To be clear, this is not “lack of hope”, this is reality based on his cognitive functioning and the environment which will only marginally accept him. We live in the top public schools in the state (actually, in the nation too). He plays basketball, baseball, bowling and golf in special needs leagues. He has access to medical specialists around the state to monitor his progress and needs. I fully believe he is alive and thriving because of access to local, state and federal funding for services/supplies that would be far out of reach for us as a working class family–and yet, still far less than he needs or deserves.

5. All of the above makes it very, very difficult for me to share about the present and future realities for my child who has needs and who always will have needs and dependency. In a time where regardless of politics, policy, law or any other justification posing as morality….please, please remember that this child at the border’s mother might have at one point had the opportunity to write the same 4 seemingly random ideas.

If nothing else…if desperate families from other countries can be made an example and sacrificed and divided, allowing the children to be made the pascal lambs for the “sake of the rest of us”, please don’t take for granted how our own use of resources for our children might be viewed in the same way in the near future. We also ultimately won’t fit the bigger picture.

What lengths would you go to for your own child? What risks might you take? Where would you go for them?

#autism #disability #love #parenting #HumanRights #WhatIfItWereYourChild #KeepFamiliesTogether

#ToTheEndsOfTheEarth #children #vulnerable #writer #blog

Day 1. A is for Aides

Autism Awareness Month A-Z 2015
A is for Aides

Running through Water

Day 1

A is for Aides.

Though I can’t find pictures of all of them, they have all made a significant impact in our lives. Without them, A1 would not have made the gains in language, socialization and self care that he has. They have cleaned vomit out of their cars, do not ruffle at the idea of diaper changes, and have endured power struggles with grace and maturity. They are the extra eyes and hands in a world where we have none but need 20. They are young…and move on with their lives from us but we have always known that we sacrifice longevity for love and are happy that so many reach out to stay part of our village.

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Sometimes We Smile (or Sometimes We Cry:Part 2)

I smiled 5 times today.

Three times in public and twice in private.

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I smiled within 30 seconds of arrival. My boy was flapping and waving with excitement to each bus. If given the opportunity, he would have run down the line to greet each one. Not the drivers, but the buses themselves as if they were fresh out of the stations of Sodor. Joyous in his innocence believing they each had their own personality. I saw him in a sea of adolescents, heads down, pushing past each other. Like the hustle and bustle of a subway train. Commuters with backpacks instead of briefcases. Shuffling, shuffling. Off to homework or tutors or practice for being the best at something since they were three. The commute to the next thing.  He sees me and gallops with an outstretched hand. I am greeted with a smile.  Always.

I smiled 5 times today. The instinct as a mother renders me helpless against noticing every single first-time. The same first times which beckon camcorders and cameras like the song of the siren and then whose passion slowly dissipates in the way the empty space between toothless grins are replaced by teeth yet too big for the spaces filled in. Our first times never end. Just more space between. My boy said his phone number out loud after years and years of practice. With no fanfare. He was just asked.

I smiled 5 times today. As I held up a wall, socially grinning and making deals with God. Chaperones milling about-clearing dishes, filling glasses- in a last attempt to seem as if they are helping while stealthy snaps from iPhones capture stealthy photos of their angels’ first dance. I am not a chaperone. They believe they are clipping gossamer wings for grounding by hiding in the shadows,  but their swans are molting on their own and would snap at outstretched fingers offering bread if given the opportunity. Mine laughs heartily and offers a thumbs-up when he sees a raised phone in his direction.

I smile and sometimes my child sees it happen and sometimes he does not. It doesn’t matter because he knows my humanness anyway, just like he would if his genetic dice were rolled differently. Today he did not see those drops of glistening joy and pride and I am no less embarrassed, no less ashamed, no less human for it either.  And neither is he. I have won the emotional lottery. And because of that, sometimes I smile.

My child is an enigma leaving us to figure out what HIS autism means, what HIS cognitive deficits mean, what HIS communication disorder means. And there are times none of that matters at all. He traverses along his own path, one others his age were expected to leave behind long ago by both parents and peers. One lined with The Wiggles and goodnight kisses and “marching parades”.  A path without expectation and never dissapating in private .  And because of that, sometimes, I smile.

My child’s joy is palpable and my heart levitates outside of my body watching him experience it. He can display the weight of his world, but then laugh at the same time if presented with the right silly face. I am never sure which emotion is primary for him but my own worldview tells me joy prevails because I could never do that. And because of that, sometimes I smile.

My boy wants to be part of the world. He navigates that weird and still uncharted middle school territory with explicit assistance. And when that help wanes, sometimes another child sees his light from across the room and without fanfare, crosses over, takes his hand and leads him to the dance floor to be part of the world. I am front row witness to the rare kindness and unconditional love we may have all forgotten before we went mad in this world.  All because my boy is just that worthy. And because of that, sometimes I smile.

My boy buoyantly flaps and hoots and repeats my name over and over and over in the space that should be the calm of my home. He also hops and beams and laughs when I walk away from my dishes, my reports, my vacuum when I cannot keep answering him from another room. He hops and throws his arms around my neck and kisses my forehead with a joy that is supposed to shed after our souls are deposited into these vessels given a name and a face. His love is like something from another place. And because of that, sometimes I smile.

These are the words of OUR life. He and I are both doing the parts we think we are supposed to do no matter how imperfectly executed. Because he is my best boy. Because I am only his mom.

And sometimes we smile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why we do the things we do. The trauma edition.

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(originally published 3/2016)

There is a large manila envelope still sealed sitting on my desk. No matter how much I stare at it, it doesn’t:

1. Spontaneously burst into flames

2. Disappear

3. Take care of itself.

It does not contain a subpoena, a warrant for my arrest or an eminent domain letter. It was not delivered certified mail or by official messenger. It was hand delivered by my 6th grader because the teacher very graciously contacted me ahead of time to ask me how I would like the prior written notice papers from the last IEP meeting delivered so I could sign and return them in a timely manner to the school. It has been sitting and judging me silently for over three months now as it sits untouched. I am reduced to a Pavlovian dog, except my bell is an envelope and my saliva is anxiety. A crippling-can’t-get-any-thing-else-done anxiety. And I rationally know there is likely nothing in that envelope that should really cause this kind of response. But that’s the thing with phobias or irrational fears and trauma response.

Yes…I said trauma response. 

Often times prior experience attaches itself to something innocuous and we then pair our previous response with a neutral stimuli and generalize it over time. Caller ID with the school prefix, email and now apparently manila envelopes have become the manifestation of years of battles, blockades and having my already fledgling parental competency called to the carpet.

For me….my defining moment were words uttered in a meeting 7 years in….but 3 years ago:  “Its not fair for one (A2) to get more just because of your parental advocacy”  (which was agreeable…but in a whole different way given we were discussing data collection that was reportedly correct, not collected by me…and concerning). 

It is silly I suppose if you are the one who stuffed the envelope and have no knowledge of my defining moment or my other, more academically impaired child. She certainly must be wondering about the warning likely issued by the elementary school about my hypervigilance, because the experience she is having is the opposite. A parent who is late to answer emails yet bizarrely will parse apart data collection in an IEP meeting….and be spot on why it was taken incorrectly must mess with her own schema of special needs parents.   I have learned to become a very hands-off parent in hopes of preserving my own life in the last year.  I have a double-decker weekly pill case that houses my capsules of life extending medications that would impress most of the AARP crowd.  Yet I am not yet even 50.  Years of sleep deprivation and external stress can only wear so long in a genetic cesspool.

So there it sits….but not without words. It screams to me every day over the din of my responsibilities. But I am strong and I can withstand long term, unfocused wailing.

So I leave you with 3 truths….

A. I am human.

B.  I love my child more than anything I could have ever imagined.

C.  I am preparing for an uncertain future in a time that I will no longer be here to advocate in a world that does not see my child as perfect as I do.

…and there are things that get in the way of of the co-existence of Notions A, B and C.  

Sorry about the envelope.

Why I May Have to Abandon the Best Coping Skill I Have Ever Had

I wrote this one year ago today. As all of our social media accounts have thinned the herd so to speak to show posts from people who are more like minded or we have all done so on our own, there are days I still feel the same. But as people reconsider the last year and perhaps have changed perspective, the divide has grown deeper with those who hang on to their belief systems as history and policy begins to unfold. Many of us have been spawned out into political action to protect ourselves and our interests….on “every side” and may have entered territory and conversations we never thought we could have. As I sit here contemplating my words from 365 days ago, there are days I feel the same about shutting everything down but I glad I did not. I spent a good deal of the summer researching , advocating and educating others on the dangers of removing healthcare policy and instituting new policy that would ultimately devastate the lives of the disabled and ultimately devastate the lives of everyone else too. I was able to talk about how Medicaid actually benefits everyone, even the individuals who never need to access it. My tiny social media reach may not ultimately be influential, but when considering the big picture and ensuring all voices are heard, it is hard to know what the ripple effect could be.

Does social media continue to be a huge time suck and anxiety generator in my world? Yes. But the advantage of influence, the scope of message and finding , connecting and forging new relationships took precedence. But let’s face it….we have all been there since adding a blue and white bird or letter F to the screens on our phones and I suppose we at least all have that in common…

Running through Water

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My heart is sitting in a basket on my desk next to my computer.  I stare at it wondering if I should leave it where it is or if I should shove it back in my throat where apparently it now belongs.  I  am faced with a dilemma I have fleetingly looked in the eye before but this time I pause much longer as if memorizing the outline of the face of a loved one I may not see again.

I love Facebook. I am like a Pavlovian dog when I hear that DING! and will switch over from work to see whats going on my feed.  Facebook is the most existentially layered version of the real world I can imagine. Everyone from my closest friends to those folks who have crossed paths with me for a brief yet meaningful time are there.  It’s the place where my elementary school…

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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.  FAPE: It provides a free and appropriate public education 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 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.  Not only is discrimination prevented, 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 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 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 or executive functioning issues, this is not always cut and dry.  Especially those without intellectual impairment but perhaps have a language disorder 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 educators interpret 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. PROCEDURAL SAFEGUARDS: Protections for your child…..protections for you as a parent. Because of IDEA, there are procedural safeguards in place to make certain  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 equal members 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 as 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 since 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 district 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 worse, make your life complicated enough that you will have to back off and not follow through. That seems like a pretty good gamble for a district.  It also 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 child’s school.

I know the 6 payment tiers that exist and the formula used to calculate how much extra funding my district receives 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.

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. Please 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.