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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Why I’m OK with Kids BOO-ing Mine This Halloween

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In U.S. suburbia at Halloween, if you are lucky enough, you get “BOO-ed”.

It is much nicer than it sounds.

Getting BOO-ed means opening your front door to find treats placed anonymously on your doorstep. You…I mean, your child… are to return the favor by BOO-ing another neighbor and so on and so forth. When we moved to our neighborhood 12 years ago, A1 and A2 were a toddler and infant respectively. Our development was full of mature trees, which also meant a neighborhood full of empty nesters. By the time the neighborhood turned over, my kids were much older than the new generation running the streets with strollers and trikes. A2 will watch what he calls “the babies” out our front window. The mothers are young and pretty even in their haze of exhaustion playing in the cul-de-sac and chasing down their little runners. I can relate to their frenzied outdoor fun since even with a 12 year-old, I too cannot just let my child out into the streets without supervision. Autism is an uncomfortable reality for the middle schoolers who in the neighborhood who don’t want me around.

But really, those little kids are functioning in their play where A2 is cognitively and they are at the age of humanness where they are accepting of his differences. For them, the differences are not about intellectual impairment, but rather size impairments as they watch A2 attempt to squeeze himself unsuccessfully into their Cozy Coups. Their questions are genuine and kind and they think nothing of him joining in the digging of dirt.

But most days, he will not join them in play. He knows those are the babies. He knows he is not. This often means I am benched from the cul-de-sac-exhausted-mommy-brigade that stokes glimmers of socialization and connection I had with other mothers when I was also young, pretty and still had energy.

Today, as he is every year since our street started filling up with little ones, A2 was BOO-ed. Twice.

Care packages are silently left at our door and I wonder which of our neighbors were sure to include him. Most know he doesn’t eat many solid foods, knows he might not notice something on our doorstep or spend much time with a special gift. I think despite my smiling isolation, I have neighbors who understand that being BOO-ed is about inclusion and is as much for me as it is for A2. And there is never anything spooky about that.

#autism #autismawareness #kindness #goodneighbors #halloween

Allergies and Autism and Sensory Overload, Oh My! How to Make Halloween Inclusive

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The Grim Reaper takes a break to ensure his safety while the ill-prepared firefighter keeps his distance just in case

(originally posted 10/2015)

Though Halloween parties of my past are now called Harvest Parties at school, the anticipation of Halloween is still timeless. As a parent I find myself still caught up in  creating spooky Pinterest fails and contemplating what candy I can pilfer from my child’s treat bag without him noticing. Some costumes are so realistically scary that I am not certain that my red meat consumption hasn’t finally caught up with me and am opening my door to the actual Grim Reaper himself. There is a revolving door of Elsas and Harry Potters who could just very likely just be the same child over and over again capitalizing on those homes with full sized candy bars.

A couple of years ago I was coordinating a party for my child’s 4th grade classroom. 20% of that classroom had food allergies. I gently reminded parents that the goal was for all our children to be included, be safe and have fun. I was perplexed when one parent refused to change the cookie decorating idea she had. “Kids who can’t make or eat them can at least enjoy them for how cute they are”. In what I believed was a teachable moment I reminded her that it still excluded them and also created a potentially dangerous situation. This parent became so incensed that she quit the committee. While I still get as excited about Halloween as the next guy, I was horrified as one of those children was mine. Another parent was willing to not only exclude him, but risk his safety because she was so excited about her adorable cookie project.
Halloween has become the holiday where those children with differences become the most exposed and have the potential to be the most left out. The numbers of children with food allergies and other differences have risen sharply since I was a child. As a parent with kids with food issues and also autism, it took me many years to figure out ways how to adapt the most super-fun holiday so it was still fun. Turns out, there are lots of ways to do this both as parents and as community members.

Here are some of the top ideas for the “BIG 3” to make Halloween still the coolest holiday ever
1. FOOD ALLERGIES:

a. PARENTS: Sort out the candy together so you can help teach him what is ok to eat. Have the “SWITCH WITCH” visit later that night and exchange that bag of candy full of offending allergens with a present. Your child will be thrilled to have the best of both worlds. And hey, there is no rule that says the switch witch can’t give you that bag to stash away and secretly eat after the kids are asleep.
b. SUPPORTERS:  If you paint a pumpkin teal and have it on your front porch it will alert parents of kids with food allergies that you have an allergen alternative available. If you are planning a class party, ASK about allergens—be sure to ask about brand specifics and preparation—that can all play a role in safety. Please remember what it would be like to be 8 years old where everyone gets to eat really cool looking cupcakes except for you. If that were easy to do, none of us would ever be on a diet. The willpower of a child with a food allergy is like nothing most of us can ever understand.

2. SENSORY DIFFERENCES:

a. PARENTS: Respect your child’s sensory difference. If noise is an issue, avoid those homes that go all out for Halloween. Your child might be in for a “jump scare” that will end his evening of fun. Costumes are not always made out of the finest of materials. Have him choose his own and try a number of options until one feels right. Contact your local support groups for special needs—there may be sensitive Trunk or Treat nights available which may suit your child much better.
b. SUPPORTERS: Teachers and room parents—if you have children with special needs in your class, tone down the scary a bit. Spooky music should not be on full blast and the mulling around of 25 kids in costume might be disorienting. Have a quiet space outside of the classroom where the child knows he can go to escape if overwhelmed. And for Pete’s sake NO BALLOON POPPING ACTIVITIES OR STROBE LIGHTS!

3. AUTISM:

a. PARENTS: Create visuals to help your child understand what to expect at school parties or trick or treat. Try on the costume ahead of time. If your child does not want to participate in Halloween festivities, don’t force them. Throw a small party at your house with old school fun and invite 2 or 3 children he knows for trick or treating. Stick to familiar neighbors homes and buddy up with a child who can model. Sometimes “just a hat” IS a costume with enough thinking on the fly.

Freddie Krueger
Freddy Krueger as a child…before all the drama. He just wanted to feed everyone cereal and soup.

b. SUPPORTERS: If a child does not say “trick or treat” or “ thank-you” he may not be being rude. He may not be able to speak or fully understand what is expected of him. Same goes for a child who appears too large or too old for trick or treating. If a child grabs a handful of candy or doesn’t seem to know what to do when you hold the bowl out, give them a prompt of what to do or physically help them. Their fine motor skills may be impaired and the ability to just pick one or two candies from a dish might be difficult. Still compliment an aspect of their costume even if it seems incomplete. This is still their Halloween too!

 Those of us who try to make our kids feel included no matter what can get very good at scooping up the world around, tying it in a different bow and re-presenting it to our kids and Halloween is no different.  With the help of our community, little tweaks can make all the difference between Halloween being fun or being truly scary.

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.

 

 

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

When is School Choice Not Really a Choice?

group-418449_1280

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.

 

 

Happy Holidays! I’m the Room Parent. I Know You Have Never Heard of My Kid, But……

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Pinterest success for a classroom party.  Though, watch out for that reindeer in the second row on the right…he clearly is up to no good.

How we got to December already is beyond me.  I feel like I just put up my Halloween decorations on the house and made my contributions to the Harvest party at school, yet the red and green bins from the basement are now out and I am filling out Evite forms and combing Pinterest to figure out what I will ruin three times before bringing it to the holiday party at school.

I am a working mom with  a 5th grader and a 7th grader.  In the last 7 years, I have:

  • been a room parent 7 times (including the year I was room parent in BOTH my kids classrooms)
  •  planned 9 Halloween classroom parties and 10 winter holiday class parties.
  •  baked an estimated 1000 gluten free friendly treats for classroom and school wide events.
  • been a chaperone at EVERY  Walk-a-thon, school celebration and field trip (one year at the Valentine’s fair in school I lost a kindergartner….and in all fairness and disclosure, no one told me he didn’t speak English….and I found him…)
  •  volunteered weekly in 4 different classrooms, shelved books in the library for 3 years and worked the cafeteria snack table
  • sold crappy novelty items no kid NEEDS at the school store weekly for 4 years
  • stapled, folded, stuffed flyers, envelopes, book fair propaganda, changed out bulletin boards, helped clean the building before summer break, cut out thousands of shapes for projects, hole punched writing projects, graded math papers, labeled book shelves, organized folders, passed out ice pops, redirected children, gave out hugs to kids I didn’t know, tied shoes, located ice packs, made meals for teacher appreciation days

I think you get the picture.  An estimated 2000-2200 hours of my time since 2009.  Basically….a 40 hour a week job for one full year. I rarely see my child during any of these hours spent at school. And before anyone thinks I am judging the non-volunteer moms, I am NOT a sanctimommy. And no,  I do not want a cookie, a prize or personal recognition from anyone.  Other than to say this….

I have had to land my helicopter on the roof of the school for two simple reasons. I have a child who doesn’t have the capacity to tell me about his friends and a school that only recently took steps to discussing making that meaningfully different.

This is not an unusual phenomenon.  I had a conversation with a special ed coordinator in another school district about this once.  She also “lives in the field” like I do having a couple of kids on IEPs.  I mentioned this struggle to her at which point she stated “I understand, but at some point, this isn’t the school’s responsibility (to help special needs parents get to know each other).  Since I was visiting her district professionally, I didn’t say much mostly because I had a feeling that her IEP-ers at home are verbal.

I didn’t start off this way.  I was your regular, run-of-the-mill, elementary school, product of divorced parents volunteer mom.  While the 1970s were not known for tales of excellence in parenting,  as a child, I was aware of the presence of the other moms who volunteered or were there for events during school. I promised myself I would one day figure out how to be one of the moms who ran the mimeograph machine on Thursdays.

Then Autism came along and and early on  I realized volunteerism wasn’t going to be a once-a-week-show-my-kids-I-care kind of activity.  My youngest was turning 8 and for the first time expressed excitement over his own birthday. “CHUCHEE CHEEE!”,  he exclaimed after I asked him where he would like to have his party.  Since he had not been invited to any  birthday parties since starting school, I wrote several school staff asking if they could help with names.

The only response I got was from the regular ed teacher with a polite reminder that due to confidentiality, she could not tell us the names of his friends.  She also reminded me that she would not be able to pass out any invitations if we weren’t inviting the whole class.  And that was it.

I was perplexed.  She did know my child had a severe communication disorder, right?  I politely acknowledged the ramifications of what she was saying and pondered in the follow up email if there were anything she could do to help us figure out a solution.

No response. So after a week,  I wrote again but with a much more explicit message.

My message was: “As far as I know, it’s not a confidentiality issue when one child approaches another for their name and phone number.  That’s how typical children do that.  We have programed the following into his talker (speech generating device):

“My phone number is ***-***-****.  Can you have your mom call my mom?”
OR
“Can I have your phone number?  My mom wants to talk to your mom”
Given its on his IEP –the need to prompt him to initiate social interactions as well as guiding him use  prompts on the talker, I am sure someone will find the right opportunity to help him with this interaction.  Its amazing to see how far he has come.  As any parent would be, we are so proud and excited for him.”

Fortunately, the principal at the time appreciated the value of enlightened self awareness and stepped in to make this happen. He had the most glorious time with his friends at his own party. While he was blowing out the candles on his cake, I took the instructions handed to me by the school on “intro to helicopters” and filed it away for later.

(For those of you who don’t know,there is nothing in FERPA (Family Education Privacy Act) that would actually prohibit a teacher from giving you the first and last name of any student your kid is hanging out with as long as it is directory information and there is no expressed exclusion in writing from the family, or if the child gave it on their own.  So no…its not “confidential”. This includes special education students…FERPA would prevent her from telling you that the child was receiving special education services, not from giving you their name…and I get it….I wouldn’t want my name and phone number handed out willy-nilly either…except my friend’s child with language hands hers out all the time simply because he can)

I am privileged to be self-employed and have a job that affords me the flexibility to work around my kids’ schedule and needs.  When you have a child with a disability, weekly mid-day therapy appointments, meetings and emergencies are part of the deal and already require us to be like Navy Seals.  We are flexible on a moments notice to switch gears and take care of whatever arises unexpectedly. But those 9-5 parents or single family households with special needs kids are truly super-parents….Space monkeys exploring uncharted territory  different than typical families with similar scheduling issues. They do not have a finite number of years in which they have to sweat it out every day, and they certainly don’t have an ounce more  flexibility to find time to sit glassy-eyed in an empty classroom pulling staples out of a cork board.   Volunteering for the purpose of  learning every nook and cranny and connecting with the people in my child’s world just to have a frame of reference would likely happen anyway for me but definitely not with the volume or tenacity.  I am lucky to have this as an option, but many…if not most working parents of special needs kids do not.  The onus is on the parent to try to figure out how to connect the dots to create a fulfilling world outside of school for their kid and many times they aren’t even given a pencil to do that.

So when you get that email or phone call that it is time to start collecting money for your teacher’s end-of-the-year-gift and its from the two moms of kids you never heard of (because each spend a total of 1 hour a day in the classroom), now you know why you don’t know who they are.  Reach out to them….because they don’t really have time to be collecting your money…but they will make all the time in the world to find out more about your child.

**The inspiration from this piece came about a month ago after yet another disheartening situation. A few weeks ago we had a meeting where I had to be very firm and direct to make sure this message was heard. I believe it was heard by most in the spirit it was delivered. Most of the team who work with my child have worked with him since the beginning.  Those direct workers are caring people for certain and they are working on a plan to rectify some of this type of issue.  Stay tuned…if you are in this dilemma for your child!

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

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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 besties and bullies post about their versions of how they turned out. People from a former life who hold keys to doors which ushered me to my current self are there too. There are writers and authors and even a real-life famous person here and there (sorry…I won’t out anyone) in the cache of my 560 nearest and dearest.  And I have access to all of them at the same time all of the time.

I take real 1-2 minute life diversions on Facebook multiple times a day.  It’s a weird and somewhat pathetic paradise.  Being a working mother is complicated enough, but I have a few extras thrown on top including a husband that travels and kids with varying special needs which means extra meetings for school, schlepping to therapies, staying current on research, hiring, supervising and managing a home team…and that’s all before actually dealing with the territory of settling in at the end of the day with  kids who just need extra.  Just when I might be taking myself a little too seriously or am feeling a little too isolated…boom….a cat video or Joe Biden meme reels me back.  Connecting in cyberspace is so much more my style and because of that connection I know I am not alone in this.  When I deal with work situations that matter to me, I am a rock star.  I have a purpose and can completely focus externally on the needs at hand.  But socially…yikes. Eye contact, staying focused, not accidentally making a connection out loud as to how the topic focuses back on something I can relate to better….none of those things are my forte.  When posting on Facebook–I can be funny and smart in sound bytes. I can get hoards of people invested in an ongoing saga about my fear of spiders.  I can walk away from a conversation mid-sentence without consequence.  I don’t have to think about where to look or how I am coming across because unlike in real life, by the time my human brain catches up to my monkey brain I have not yet hit “enter” and can edit what I REALLY wanted to say.  Sometimes those two things don’t catch up and that is what the “delete” button is all about.

Facebook levels the social playing field for quirky people like myself.  It gives me a social outlet when I don’t actually have time for a real one.  It keeps me invested in people, events and causes that are important to the real world all around. It provides an escape into brief, clever and timely humor.  It helps me find like-minded people.  It expands the repertoire of  discussions and ideas of which I might not otherwise be exposed.  And I can have all that in tiny spurts all day as needed. It really is miraculous if you think about it.  Communities of individuals who never stood a societal chance before are finding their communities right here on Facebook.

We know to take the good and the bad here. On good days, Facebook is my outlet. Internet trolls and maddeningly misinformed opinion presented as fact are the yin to the yang of my Facebook fascination.  I can roll past things or people who ultimately shouldn’t matter to me.  Something that I fail to do all that well in real life.  But this is changing too quickly for me to cope with in a way I find  acceptable by an election that divided the country before I had any idea we were THAT divided.  I am overwhelmed by Facebook friends and their words of hate or indifference being presented on a platter and served up as just another white meat with no other options for dinner.  I am breathless because I don’t feel like I can scroll past any article that has anything to do with leadership appointment, policy or ideology that may affect my family or anyone else I love.  Suddenly, realities of Facebook friends as minorities, the poor or disenfranchised are inundating my news feed faster than I can read, process and consider and as a seasoned social worker I feel like I am back to my overwhelming roots of weeding which causes need to get the majority of my energies and time.  I have a list of issues and phone calls to congressmen that will trump my everyday life tomorrow.   I am sad and fearful and agitated and distracted and rightfully so. While I have felt this way before on social media, I shut my computer down for the evening, be completely present and come back to a virtual life renewed. I can go back to meaningless status posts that make at least me chuckle at myself. However, in this political climate, I would be this way without Facebook and am having trouble finding meaning in those meaningless status updates. And with it?  Well, I feel much like I often do about real life.  Like I need to take a break from it.

Now I lay me down to sleep….

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4:17am

My beautiful boy wandered into my room tonight.  His curly hair tousled around his cherub cheeks, pajama bottoms twisted in a spiral around his hips from tossing and turning…he marches in quickly as if he had somewhere important to be and then suddenly stops at the foot of my bed with purpose.  He rubs his dazed eyes all the while smiling that big Cheshire Cat grin of his. “Hug”, he says as he makes that long trip to the other side of my California king.   I can’t say I hate it when that happens.  He is warm and cuddly and doesn’t thrash and kick like he used to when he was little.  To the best of my knowledge, A2 has never slept a full night in his life and no one can tell me why.   As he gets older, he seems no worse for the wear for it either.  The stretches between night time explorations have become longer and my husband and I have become a tag team settling into separate sleeping arrangements at night over the years to ensure at least one of us wakes to the new day refreshed.   He tells me “scootch magooch” as he encroaches on the sliver of bed where I sleep and drifts off as swiftly as he made his declaration of his sleep intentions.

The thing is, my husband and I never wake up fully refreshed.  There are Things That Keep Me Up at Night. Who will hug him when we are gone?  Who else will find his sweet smile so endearing even at 3:00am?  We try to be optimistic about his future.  A2 will likely never be able to live independently, but dammit, we bought him a house and we rent it out to people today so in 15 years he will have a place to live….maybe even with 24 hour support staff and 2 or 3 other guys who are sweet spirited sports and music fans like he is.  We live in an expensive school district despite struggling to afford it to make sure he has the best education and connections for his future.   Though we are socially isolated as a family because such is the nature of autism, I remain involved with my religious congregation so he is never alone. SOMEONE will always know and recognize him.  I advocate and I write and I stay present in the disability community so he will always have that community too when it comes time for some else to step in as a guardian when I can no longer do it. A touchpoint for that kind stranger to get guidance or direction. We save the best we can.   We plan for the best possible services and outcomes to give him a meaningful life worth living. We are uncertain what services  will help house him, feed him, care for him.  We can’t be sure that there will be vocational training or health insurance or social security disability payments. All of which is unnerving when you know there will be no one to love him or snuggle with him or wipe away tears.  So we plan as best we can knowing surely, there will be some kind of services for him.

But tonight there is no sleep because now I am not so sure.  I know in the morning light I will look at everyone with a suspicious eye and wonder who around me willingly voted for another reason to keep me up at night. Half the population wanted political change and they got it and whether the overt intentions were there or not, they were willing to make children like my child the sacrificial lamb.  My child will always be dependent on others to be his voice, to protect him….his rights, his body, his dignity . My child and others like him often have no option but to live in poverty and have no political influence as adults.  I am terrified for him because no matter how much we plan, no matter how much we go without today, if it is acceptable for the leader of our country to marginalize him, make fun of him, call him the R word what does that say for the people around us who brush that off and traded my baby in for not voting for the vague “yeah, but she’s worse”?   What happens when it is a decided that my “standard retard” is a drain on the system making everyone elses’ life more difficult?  There will be a supreme court in place likely for the rest of his life who will err on the side of believing that as a universal truth.

The only politics I ever talk about in my writing is my belief that most people are good but misinformed. Perhaps not in my lifetime, but certainly in his, I believed that it was possible to change the world around him enough that true inclusion and a dignified life were possible and through that, the need for the work of disability advocacy would dwindle.  Perhaps I truly believed all that because I see the innocence in his eyes.  He is a pure soul who has helped me see good first and maybe I can spread that message for him.

So, forgive me if you were one of the people who so desperately wanted political change if I seem a little distant from you.  While I am hopeful that my fears are akin to “they’re taking all our guns from us!” it’s a bit harder for me not to be devisive when we are talking about my baby.  But don’t worry….A2 won’t judge you.  He is forgiving and will love you anyway.

Gratitude with an Attitude. The Bigger Picture of Advocacy.

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It is time again for the November Thankful Challenge on social media. For 30 days people publicly declare the things in their lives for which they are grateful.  As a therapist, I can tell you its an excellent daily exercise in mindfulness–a way to connect and be present for those things we tend to take for granted.  Soul soothing salve in the bustle of every day life.  If we take a few minutes every day to reflect on the things that are going right amid the trashcan fires of life all around us, over time we can actually retrain our brains to become more centered, less reactionary and supposedly just happier in general.  It becomes a good habit.

So, why don’t most people take appreciative stock every day? 

I believe its because most of us have what we need (most and need being our operative terms.). So even if you don’t have much, you DO probably have a roof over your head, access to clean water, some kind of education and likely one person in your life who cares when your birthday is.  Those are things we easily take for granted.  This doesn’t always feel so much like gratitude in comparison in our rich-kids-of-Instagram kind of society and things like rampant poverty in the streets or young people regularly dying from things like dysentery or malaria are not infused in our every day life. Yet as special needs parents or as a disabled people, it feels like we are expected to display this type of gratitude in circumstances that at times feels just this imbalanced.

I have somehow won the life lottery and I didn’t do anything to deserve that any more than some starving, orphaned toddler in a war torn country did to deserve his lot.  There are many people who might look at my family and think otherwise since we were dealt the hand of having a child with a disability.  We have a life that can be exhausting and lonely and sometimes just very scary but what I find is that when life is that way, it is rarely because of anything my child has done or his disability itself…its more about the circumstances around him that prohibit understanding, access, equality or equity.

And thus the rub of the special needs parent and the expression of gratitude toward professionals who serve their child.

If someone asked my child’s providers,”Do you think A2’s mom is grateful for the services you provide her child?”, my guess is that at least 80% of them would answer no. They would be completely wrong, but still.  If that same surveyor could time travel and go back year by year to 2007 when A2 first started getting help and ask the same question, I  suppose that the percentage who would answer “no” would shrink in proportion to year asked.  In the last several years, regardless of how many holiday gifts, number of hours I volunteer, amount of money I donate, number of thank-yous doled out, at this point I am still going to be seen as a wistful pariah to those whom I ask more.

As A2 ages and the disparity in needs between he and his peers grows, so does the need for advocacy.  There is a pervasive belief system which keeps those who are disadvantaged in some way from asking for more and it is through the guise of gratitude and the false belief that the basics are a form of entitlement.  You are lucky to get what you get….even if it is not meeting your needs.

  • 20 sessions of speech therapy for your non-verbal child?  Well…at least your insurance gives you that much. Some people can’t get speech therapy approved at all!
  • I’m not really seeing progress in my child, but the aides are nice to him and he seems happy.
  • He doesn’t need a bus aide.  He can make noise so its not like it would turn out  like  that boy who died on his bus because they forgot about him all day….
  • Sorting nuts and bolts is a career for lots of people. She may have an above average IQ but she’s lucky anyone is willing to take a chance on her
  • Kids just love him here at school, but no….we can’t tell you who any of them are so he can invite them over and extend those friendships to the community.  At least kids play with him here, that says a lot about the kind of person he is.

When exposed repeatedly to systemic issues that shame you into to accepting less, you get a little crisp when it comes to the process of fawning over people doing the jobs they chose. Can you imagine for one minute being OK with your child failing a subject at school and then thinking, “well…at least no one is hurting him there”?  No…those things are not interchangeable.  Ever.  As parents, we want to always feel and show gratitude to those whom we entrust our children, but when trust is bent it dulls the surface.

A couple years ago, one of the school administrators let me know just how stinkin’ cute A2 is and how he brightens everyone’s day and how much kids just love him.

“He has made so much progress..he comes right up to me now and always asks to see the PA system!” she exclaimed.  I nodded and smiled and said nothing about how platitudes like that can ruffle the feathers of pre-adolescent special needs parents because, you know….gratitude and grace. We have to show ours a bit differently. It’s not that we don’t like the compliment, however very soon, that go-to strength of his of being little and cute, the thing that draws people to him and keeps people friendly  will be gone. Drinking out of a sippy cup with a full beard is not adorable. It will be confusing and odd to people who don’t know him.  And it scares the hell out of me. So instead I say nothing for fear of not seeming grateful for at least that.

“Yes, progress.” I say. “Though I worry. He still cannot read, we still have not cracked that code and he only has one more year here.”

She side eyed me with a friendly smirk , lifted her finger as if to gently stop me and said “Mrs. ATeam, you GOTTA focus on the positives.  You just gotta.”

Do I though?  

Focusing on the positives is actually WHY I have to advocate and ask for more. It is not for the purpose of making sure other people can see the gratitude.  More out of the box thinking, more time, more energy, more inclusion.  I see what he is capable of achieving all while being systemically reminded in IEP meetings of things he still cannot do, how services won’t be expanded to accommodate that fact and how planning for a future where if we are lucky, he will get to be a marginal member of society. Unfortunately when faced with this frustrating reality, as a mother I don’t have enough energy left over to make people feeling good.  I used that energy up in the front end.

My child lives in a society that sees the deficits, that sees the differences and believes that the slightest hint of meeting his needs because of his differences is an entitlement.  A society that believes that being adorable is a strength. A society that makes heroes and saints and examples out of others showing my child dignity when they come to work or are being a friend.  A society that doesn’t hashtag abuse, neglect, bullying and even murders against children like mine.

So team members…if you are confused about my level of gratitude for your involvement with my child, don’t be.  I am never short on gratitude and when my child is happy and progressing, what our collective efforts are doing is working. There is nothing I could be more grateful for, just like any parent.

But I understand.

I too have a job where the pay is low,  the paperwork is tedious and 100% of my work is about helping other people. I too am rarely told thank you. But that is not why I do what I do.  I am trying to make the waves to change systems and influence the way the world sees people who are at a disadvantage. By accepting less simply because we are told we should be grateful for what we get is the dysfunctional thinking that will keep things inequitable.. always.  I am doing the future of disability advocacy and everyone who works with kids like mine a disservice by this act as well. When I am sitting on this side of the table,  its my job to check and double check your work, ask questions and tell you when something isn’t working.  That is not the opposite of gratitude, that is showing you that what you are doing matters. Its the ultimate compliment.  My kid is your boss and I am trying to teach him to always get what he needs based on HIS different needs in this world.

I’m just trying to do my job as his mother, one that is universally never the recipient of gratitude is often met as if I am a villain and yet is still the most rewarding job in the world.