Autism Awareness Month. G is for Genetics (and Guessing)

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(originally posted April 2016)

G is for Genetics

I get asked often what I think caused my child’s Autism.  I believe it is completely counterproductive to even consider it until such a time that there is solid evidence.  They are here now. I love my kids fiercely. Our struggles would be the same whether or not we knew the ‘why’ part.

Infection in mother during pregnancy, vaccine accidents,  overweight in mother during pregnancy, gestational diabetes, inadequate iodine, diagnostic ultrasounds, prenatal stress, advanced paternal age at time of conception, pesticides both before and after gestation…I’ve read those all.  And they all have the same message:  “Dad….Mom (but more likely Mom)…you did something…IT’S YOUR FAULT.”   These theories are also part of what drives the Neurodiversity movement.  That is, that individual differences and biological diversity are a normal and natural part of evolution and Autism is no different, so it is not something to be treated. Behavioral disruption is misunderstood communication and all the comorbid conditions such as GI/bowel issues, intellectual impairments, mental health issues are just that. Something not related directly to Autism (a whole other can of worms within our community….).

Regardless of your belief system…there is only one thing we know for absolutely certain: NO ONE KNOWS WHAT CAUSES AUTISM.

To demonize parents who make decisions you would not necessarily make is also counterproductive. 

As parents we have an instinct to protect our children. When a parent watches the baby she knows slip away into a world of of silence or pain in front of her very eyes and no one can tell her why or really what to do..well….just take a moment to let that sink in regardless of your parenting/political/medical stance. I don’t have to agree, I just have to have empathy.

Here is what we do know.  There is a genetic component to Autism and it is likely paired with an environmental trigger.  Just like Type 2 Diabetes. You can’t develop this unless you have the genes.  You make it far less likely to get it if you get your butt up off the couch, exercise regularly and do not eat like a regular American.

We just are not 100% certain what that common genetic component or the environmental one in Autism.  I am not going to even pretend to know anything about genetics. The best I can do is tell you:

  1. Picture a city with 20,000 streets.
  2. Now lets figure out which streets have public mailboxes, one way traffic, standard poodles and single mothers living on them.
  3. Only some people who travel down those streets buy mandarin oranges (not regular naval) and we need to find those people.
  4. (But what about the naval orange buying people!? Those are a lot like mandarins!)

That is what it is like trying to figure out the common genetic factor and environmental trigger together. When I had a discussion about this with a pediatrician 12 years ago she said to me: “Autism is caused by a genetics. Period.  To consider anything else is ridiculous.”

I sat for a moment and thought about that.  I then I wondered out loud, “Can you tell me another genetic epidemic in history that unfolded like Autism?” Crickets. I’m a pretty moderate parent…however it is no wonder that many parents are suspect of the medical system with that kind of definitive statement when the bottom line is WE DON’T KNOW.

Does it mean my husband and I have Autism? No, not necessarily…but who knows?  If we do carry that genetic material and we combined it….we no more caused the autism than we “caused” their big gorgeous brown eyes or fact that they may need to wear glasses one day. Their eyes could have almost just as easily been blue instead all things considered.   And if environment did play a role and all the Fruity Pebbles I ate during pregnancy kicked those  genes into overdrive as the environmental trigger, there is not a damn thing I can do about that now.

I have never felt the “shame of blame”…and I don’t think any parent should.

We are wired to procreate and continue population.  We can just hope that this kind of information will one day find the link that allows children who suffer in silence or physical or emotional pain to grow to be independent and happy…just like all parents want their kids to do.

Autism Awareness Month. Day 3 2015. C is for Coping

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In the most typical of situations sibling issues exist. For sibs of those with significant impairment, these kids are often the invisible bystanders. Their issues and needs sometimes take backseat to the immediacy and reality of their sibling with Autism needs. We ask them to deal with leaving fun events earlier than they would like, let embarrassing situations roll off their backs and stifle disappointment. The rate of having more than one child with neuro diversity is high. Sometimes, the less impaired child is asked to cope and step up in ways that would challenge even the most typical and mature of children.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes We Cry

I cried twice today in public.

Once for me and once for him.

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I cried within 3 minutes of arrival, but with dry eyes and with a smile on my matte face. My diaper bag disguised as a monogrammed symbol of excess rather than a symbol of unanswered questions about wipes and formula and a change of clothes for my adolescent. No one can see what is happening behind my eyes, especially if I cannot see the pity behind theirs.

I cried twice today because sometimes the race to suppress overactive tear ducts in a maelstrom of circumstance and emotion is an unfair competition of tortoise and hare. Sometimes I try too hard and one too many drops pools before one accidentally pushes its way past the checkpoint and spills down a cheek. It is quickly wiped away.

I cried twice today as I held up a wall, socially grinning and making silent deals with God to make no one talked to me. Us moms, we were all in the same place…but I was not on the list of volunteers. Even the words I needed to hear would be a sucker punch to the throat and I would then choke on false pretense that transcends somewhere poetic. I don’t know where transcendence lies exactly–there are so many reasons those tears might seem to be faulty to everyone else. So I hold them in as long as I can and my tongue is held hostage leaving me still alone.

I cry 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 emotion and I am no less embarrassed, no less ashamed, no less human for it either.  And neither is he.

My child is an enigma leaving us to figure out what HIS autism means, what HIS cognitive deficits mean, what HIS communication disorder means. I am tasked to teach my child how to move through this world happily, safely. Though we live in similar space as everyone else, he traverses along some alternate dimension often invisible to all the other children so I don’t really know how to do that.  And because of that, sometimes, I cry.

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 cry.

My boy wants to be part of the world but sometimes stands motionless with shifty eyes because he knows exactly the problem, which he perceives is him. While I perceive a world that does not know what to do with him. I am certain I am the only one who reinforces that. He worries. He should be worried, because I don’t always know what to do with him either. And 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. And because of that, sometimes I cry.

My boy buoyantly hoots and flaps and has a cognitive itch that somehow seems to be reached by repeating my name over and over and over in the space that should be the calm of our home. Diligent years he sacrificed to learn that what few words he might have are meaningful and understood because we have a limited time to teach the world otherwise. I taught him those things by making sure he always had a response. And in those times caught in an endless loop, he gets one from me, but it might be birthed breech–cord wrapped around its neck-choking and feral and blue in my fallibility. And because of that, sometimes I cry.

I worry one day my boy will read my words and will be hurt or angry or curious or furious and he will demand an explanation and he will walk out of my life because to him these were not words of awareness or advocacy or change. They were the words of HIS life. But that bittersweet day will be the day I will breathe easy with a newly missing piece who can navigate this world alone if he has to. I worry too my boy will be a man…still without the ability for any of that. And in my end, all the sacrificial words spoken on his behalf and judged were not enough to change the world around him leaving him alone.  And because of that, sometimes I cry.

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 cry.

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

The Days Its About Me: The Dirty Secret of Taking a Break

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(originally posted 10/2015)

Every few years, I go on a life sabbatical. Life sabbaticals work differently than educational sabbaticals mostly because they are not real. The notion that there are people who receive paid time to disappear somewhere to have a temporary life that doubles as a say-no-more way to avoid other social responsibility is magical. “No, no, I won’t be here to chair that research project, I will be away on sabbatical.”  versus  “Well…you’ll just have to have that IEP meeting for my kid without me, I’ll be on life sabbatical. Have your people call my people” doesn’t quite have the same heady ring to it and might necessitate a call to a mental health professional.

Unlike our neurotypical cohorts, many of us special needs parents are preparing for a forever life. Though we feverishly plan for it, there might not be a high school graduation send off party unless of course that party is sending off what few resource and assistance waivers our children got before they age out of the system. Diapers and tantrums are likely going to get larger. With the passage of time I am already finding myself getting smaller, more tired and more complacent in the frenetic searching, learning and advocating as certain realities set in. This is troubling.

Apathy is the ugly stepsister of passion. While passion will gladly cut off a chunk of heel to make her foot fit into that glass slipper in hopes of a prince, apathy will do so because its easier to make do than to shop for something to wear to the ball.

Endless details and inconveniences are just part of daily life in parenting regardless of circumstance. Its like the service charge for the privilege of parenthood and an occasional break from that is necessary for even the strongest of mommy constitutions. However, there are those of us who are so steeped in the present at all times where there are rarely idle moments not spent trouble shooting, even in the middle of night as we play musical beds and double-check doors. So I am mindful in the moment and I am mindful in that moment contemplated 30 years from now. The whispers of all the things that will come in between need to shut the hell up because I simply have no room at the inn left to consider those things.

As caregivers we are told to take care of ourselves, take time off, do what we love. This seems like cheap advice and when heeded I am reminded that ultimately not much is different on my return. The airline may have lost my tagged luggage of anxiety  while I was away, but it is surely taking a circular ride on the carousel at gate 6 when I arrive home. Time away takes me to places from my past. A time when existential angst was poetic, selfishness was better defined as a deep level of internal awareness and laziness was a sleep credit I could one day consider cashing in. The dichotomy for the surrendered love for your child and also wondering what it would be like if your heart didn’t bleed through your blouse every day is a quiet and unreasonable Sophie’s Choice. Sometimes its just easier not to be a tourist in your alternate universe.

In my life sabbatical, I am lucky to be able to spend a few days away from my forever life with soul companions from my past who live in sleepy mountain towns in New England. Their lives are so vastly removed and different from mine, yet anchor me to a world where I once lived. Lingering, casual vegan meals out where my fork is already unwrapped and folded into a crimson origami pocket on the table. Conversations are still tangential but are about politics, performance art and anecdotes of escapades in places like Nice and Machu Picchu. I meet new people—interesting people who talk about ideas and experience rather than people or events. Though these conversations have evolved over the years and now include points about how difficult camping at high altitudes can be with stiff morning joints and schlepping a c-pap machine, I am transported into a life of things that were once very important to me. Supportive friendships not sullied in the day-to-day. I can have amnesia and even forget that words such as “occupational therapist’ and ‘trash day’ and ‘bus bully’ ever slowly seeped into my repertoire of significant and meaningful topics of interest.

While recently on one of these life sabbaticals, serendipity appeared in a cameo.  In an unexpected and out of my control change in travel plans, I had the opportunity to attend a reading of a famous contemporary writer with cult-like status. His prolific works speak to anyone who has ever had a family or even just been alive despite the level of quirk and shock and neurosis woven through his stories. There is a distended familiarity in his writing and when he lends his voice to the story telling it feels like you were reading the original works in the wrong dialect of a foreign language you learned in high school. That epiphany of disappointment of what was missed in the original reading is quickly tempered by excitement to re-read in the voice and inflection intended.  Book signings are often part of these events and this writer is certain to ask each fan a question and attempt to tailor a sentiment attached to how he feels about them in the moment. And he can be honest. And brutal. And weird. And sometimes all. But regardless of what is written, it is enough to brandish your signed copy around to show everyone how he thinks you smell like coins. He is a story-teller and I believe he likes to stoke fires and create the story to be told even when he isn’t directly the voice.

While he briefly engaged my theater dates for the evening, I already had a question posited regarding his physical writing process. I thought if I asked him something preemptively I could kill our allotted time without ruining my self-esteem. “You wrote for such a long time pre-PC. Was it difficult to make the transition from handwriting your ideas to typing them out? ”  He answered and asked why I was asking. I guess I should have realized that was possible as a visitor in my sabbatical of the impossible.

“I used to write a long time ago. And then I didn’t. And now I am trying again but now there are computers and expectations. And its hard.”  I started reaching for my book he had not yet finished signing, but he continued.

“What do you write?” Oh crap. I looked at my anchor friend who was smiling at me and nodding and guessing he must not have seen the poor young woman ahead of us get eviscerated over her cheap perfume. “Its just a blog”. He reached back to put something on the floor behind him and continued.  “What do you write about?” He still wasn’t done signing my book otherwise I would have grabbed and ran…..the door was still ajar.

“My kids. There are…disabilities.”

“What kind of disabilities?” he asks without pause (door squeaks open a bit more).

I run down a quick and dirty list. He then paused and thoughtfully balanced the Sharpie between his thumb and index finger while resting his chin in the palm of his hand.  “Autism, yeah. My (distant relative) has (another relative) with autism. I fucking hate him. I HATE that kid so much.”

And there it was. Door now wide open. Mouths of theater dates wide open.

Hole in my heart wide open.

I ruffled.  “What is it you hate about him so much?”
“He doesn’t play with toys. They buy him toys but he doesn’t play them. He makes a mess of everything, destroys everything. Their whole world revolves around him and its ruined their life. I fucking hate him.”

In that moment I tried to decide if he was:
A).  a creative genius and there is nothing like making people uncomfortable or angry to get to hear some real truths.
B).  a complete asshole amusing himself and disguised as a creative genius and gets people to talk about him no matter what
C). Has absolutely no filter and has potentially is on the spectrum himself. Which would make sense if you have ever read any of his stories. This one is familiar to me. And also likely the thing he purportedly hates about said distant relative.

Regardless, I had to respond.

“Well, I don’t hate my child, but  there are times I hate autism. Sometimes it feels like it is ruining my life. I want to be done still getting poop under my nails but my 10-year-old is in diapers…. I guess I see it this way. No matter how hard so many days can be there is one thing that I am sure. It must be way, way harder for him, harder than it can ever be for me . And that makes me sad for sometimes feeling the way I do.”

We stared at each other for a time that was a few seconds longer than comfortable.

“ I don’t think I would have thought of that perspective” he said. And he then finished signing my book. As he handed it to me and I turned to leave he said “Wait. Whats the name of your blog?”

After I got over the “I’m really angry and I don’t care if this is a schtick for ideas or even if he has autism himself”  I grappled with “THIS FAMOUS WRITER MIGHT READ MY BLOG!” HE’S GOING TO HATE IT!” (#humblebrag)  I spat out Running Through Water.

“I like that. It really captures what that’s like doesn’t it?” he said as I wondered if I just made him more uncomfortable than he made me.  “Yes” I told him “both on the good days and the bad ones. Sometimes you are exhausted and get nowhere …..and sometimes it makes you weightless.”

I peeked at my book where he had put two fish stickers over the writing errors he had made to both cover up his mistake and also call great attention to the fact he made them in the first place.

You make me want to live again” he wrote.

Frankly I don’t even know what it means, but my story is right here Mr. Writer and you got me to tell it.  My writing is far less than anything I would ever want it to be, but it lay dormant for 25 years. My muse comes in the form of a cherub faced innocent who makes my soul light brighter than I could ever imagine.  He doesn’t ever get a life sabbatical.  Life sabbatical is a sham.  I love my children  but I hate my fears for them. Time away makes me miss my old life but it also makes me know if not for my experiences now I would not know that there was something to miss.  And I suppose its ok to allow those ideas to coexist as past and present collide and am reminded of poetry from my old life that I just didn’t believe:

“When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.  When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” (Khalil Gibran)
Every day is an opportunity to live again with new perspectives our old selves could not have imagined.

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.

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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.

And Then He Was Gone

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My boy went missing yesterday. He went missing near water. Don’t worry.  There is a happy-ish ending.

I keep reading about the ““sweet spot” of parenting in summer.  This is the phenomenon where after years of hyperigilance, parents can relax at the pool because the $3000 in swim lessons have finally paid off.  You are now officially the chauffeur and the loan officer but no longer also the lifeguard and babysitter. Your kids have the buddy system at the local pool just by showing up to same aged classmates and are released free from the bonds of water wings and demands barked from mom suits.  The first summer a mom experiences this, she is ecstatic. I know this because I’ve spotted an alarming amount of women openly reading Fifty Shades of Gray in their lounge chairs.  Maybe there is a twinge of wistful “last time”, but ultimately their palpable sigh of relief to just relax next to the pool overrides preemptive nostalgia.

I’m not here to wax poetic about the woes of the special needs parent at the pool because I have already done that and also because we too have a sweet spot….it’s just different and likely the bruised part of the banana people normally cut off.  If I could cut that brown spot off I would for some things. Things like yesterday…..

We have a pass to our local water park. A2 likes spending the majority of his time in the young children’s area full of manageable water slides, spinning water wheels, hoses and a non-slip structure featuring a giant bucket on top which slowly fills up every 10 minutes and dumps gallons of water on the crowd gathering below in anticipation. A2 doesn’t mind water in his face and the bright colors and sounds–the constant movement and slow drips of water are the things of joy for him.  I hate Monkey Junction.  I navigate it alone, pudgy and pasty. The water is 25 degrees colder than it is in the wave pool and in order to stay close to my kid, I have to follow him through the maze of spitting water getting me wet and cold enough to use guided imagery to disassociate myself from my sensory differences. A2 is now 12 and still cannot swim which works out fine at Monkey Junction with its ankle deep water. I have attempted to entice him to follow the structure up to the far more exciting curly slide where kids closer to his age might be. This is still met with the same screech and Houdini-like limb disjointing to remove himself back to the same 4 places he prefers to stand and flap as he has every year before now.

This year, I realized his predictability was my sweet spot. Yes, I participated in his happy, flappy, water drinking glory and slid down short slides with cloudy and disturbingly salty/sweet water at the bottom.  But I also let him have that time to do his thing without me trying to redirect him.  I plopped down in a super-short lounge chair situated 20 feet away from his predictably favorite places and this year…..I dared to open a professional journal.  Ahhhhh…..the sweet spot for me. Read two sentences, see where A2 is….read two more….yep…same place….. “Ok, just like everything else…we have a modified sweet spot and here I am living the dream!” I thought to myself.

About 5 minutes into this, I looked up to see A2 was standing at the bottom of the baby slide flapping away to toddlers making tiny splashes against the yellow curved plastic.  A crowd was gathering under the giant bucket….the next stop in the pattern of stimmy afternoon fun. I almost felt smug. Moments later, the bucket dropped which is normally my cue to go and join A2 and shriek in excitement with him.

Only he wasn’t there.

HE WASN’T THERE.

At first, I shielded my eyes in the late day sun.  Stinker.  He changed his pattern.  I looked to the 3 other places.

HE WASN’T THERE.

Why had I never noticed the deeper pool near the equipment before?  I have an overactive amygdala (that place in your brain responsible for fight or flight). My movements can appear more dramatic than I actually feel but my monkey and human brains caught up to one another pretty quickly.

HE WAS NOWHERE.

I breathlessly approached one of the lifeguards minding the 4th level of purgatory of Monkey Junction.  “My child….he’s missing.” I spat. “He’s wearing a white swim shirt and black and neon green shorts.”

“Ok, I’ll let you know if I see him.” he said without making eye contact, though admittedly he was wearing sunglasses and was standing over a slightly less blue pool of water of toddlers. “How tall is he?”

I made the imaginary yard stick hit my shoulder on my five-foot frame. “Here.” It then occurred to me my level of concern was not commensurate with the number of feet off the ground my hand was. I looked like a histrionic helicopter parent.  And then the overwhelm of panic smacked me in the face.  “…He’s 12 but he is autistic and can’t communicate with people he doesn’t know…he’s non-verbal!”,  neither of which are completely accurate.

How do you describe a 12-year-old’s safety concerns and the immediate nature of those concerns?

“Ok” he said again and went back to twirling his whistle.

I went to all the other lifeguards. One told me to calm down, they would take care of it.

“HOW?  TELL ME THE PROTOCOL FOR STOPPING PEOPLE FROM LEAVING THE PARK WITH A CHILD WHO IS NOT THEIRS?!  WHO DID YOU CALL?  THIS ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH! YOU CAN’T TELL BY LOOKING AT HIM! ”

Should I have not said he was 12?  Should I have directed what they needed to do? Was a full 30 seconds much too long to look away from an ankle-deep pool of water guarded by four teenagers?

I was now a lost child. Pacing in my worst nightmare, rendered with ineffectual words. Is this how A2 feels all the time? Desperately trying to communicate the weight of the world to stone faced dolts who completely miss the nuance of the message?

I ran from mother to mother begging for extra eyes in the way only a mother sees.  I was too afraid to run onto the structure for fear he would walk out past me unnoticed. One mother ran around the structure all the way to the top out of view, where she found A2 hooting and clapping to the older children releasing themselves down that same curly slide he refused to even approach the gangplank with the safety of an adult.

He clearly was not distressed as he left the play structure with her as she brought him to me….yet more evidence of my rightful concern. He would have left the play area with Jack the Ripper if he was asked nicely.  He rates highly on instructional control measures at school.  We have trained him to be compliant. No matter what.  I have never felt so nauseated and so relieved all at the same time.

Initially, when I sat down to tell this story it was with the intent on providing information on what to do if your child goes missing.  But 1200 words later it really felt more like I wanted to just tell this story of my fallibility.  I have not lost my child in 12 years…..but I did so for 5 horrifying minutes because I chose to look down for 30 seconds. Turns out the “sweet spot” is not something parents of certain kids get to have in the way other parents do…not even a modified version.  Because those moments taken for granted might also be moments of growth. Moments of increased independence and bravery in a sneak attack of pride and relief and fear.  I missed witnessing his milestone.

There is no playbook for this autism thing.

**Disclaimer: Security showed up just in time for me to tell them that the crack team of lifeguards did not find him, but a patron.  While they obviously did the right thing and got security involved, the utter lack of urgency and communication was the issue.  I am formally alerting the park to this concern. Alls well. Nothing to actually see here folks…

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To the Regular Ed Teachers: Top 5 Ways to Keep Special Needs Parents Off Your Back

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My home phone rang the other day right before my kids got home from school. For those of you who do not know what I mean by “home phone”, its that thing that plugs into a wall and has the # symbol that cannot hashtag anything. When the home phone rings, I typically keep doing whatever I am doing unless I am feeling a bit of whimsy to torment the telemarketer likely on the other end. The only other time it rings is when someone at the school does not know to call my cell…which often then strikes fear in my heart. So I picked up.

“Mrs. ATeam?” Gulp.  It was A1’s new science teacher calling to say “First of all….let me tell you I think he is hilarious. He made this cartoon strip ….” He then went on to disclose all the other things drenched in awesomeness while I was waiting for the “Second of all….” part. That part never came. He called me to tell me I had a cool kid. And that was it.

I am already too experienced with the school system to be naive. That same morning I had to send an email to kindly remind another teacher to carefully review A1’s IEP and Health Plan as there were some important things not being followed. Coincidence to hear from the science teacher the same day? Probably not. I am guessing he may have just been reminded that he had a kid in his 4th period class who has an IEP and a Health Plan. Maybe not…but as I said, doe eyed ingenue does not work as well with crows feet.

Unfortunately, what struck me most about this amazing phone call is that in the 3 years that my younger A2 has been in public school…my very speech impaired child…I have never ONCE received a phone call from a regular ed teacher just to tell me about his day in their class. And let me be clear about 2 things. Real clear since this won’t apply to everyone.

1.   A2 tries to tell me about his day. Every day. And we CANNOT understand him.

2.   I have ASKED  for communication. Over and over. Every year. In front of other people. To almost no avail.

So teachers…this advice is completely free of charge. The key to keeping us special ed parents at bay.
1. CONTACT US FIRST: Before school even starts, call to introduce yourself and ask about our kid. Give us your contact information. Assure us you are the extra eyes and ears for a kid who has no voice.
2. DON’T ASSUME THE INTERVENTION SPECIALIST IS JUST TELLING US EVERYTHING. My kid has a whole 30-60 minutes a day of direct IS time required in his IEP in our high-end-award-winning-district. My severely learning disabled child. The paraprofessionals who are with him most of the day are not permitted to communicate with me directly due to their classified employee status. We often get second hand info from our IS that sounds something like “had a great time in music class learning new songs”. The small tidbits we do get…well…that’s all…that’s ALL we get to know. The nuances are never there for us…if they are making a new friend, if someone hurt their feelings if they thoughts something was cool or interesting. And those things are definitely happening in my child’s world and no matter how hard he may try to share those things with me, if I have no context, I will not know at all what he is telling me let alone what questions to ask. The paras also are not allowed to attend IEP meetings even at my request. Were you aware of any of that? A2’s Intervention Specialist has 10 kids who can’t tell their parents anything about their day. She is ALL of their voices….and she is trying very hard to be all knowing by being the 3rd party communicator. But why? This is a team approach. While you do have 25 kids in your room, if they are lucky and have parents who actually ask them about their day, their kids can tell them. You have so much you can tell us and I guarantee all of us want to know.
3. INVITE US IN: To volunteer, to be a fly on the wall, to talk about our kids to your class. Did you know that neither you nor any of his other caregivers during the day are allowed to divulge any information regarding our child’s diagnoses to the other children due to HIPAA**?  And there are SO many questions from children aren’t there? If you have an inclusive classroom, the information a parent can provide the children can be invaluable to the inclusive environment. Offer to include the IS to help that parent if they express interest but are uncomfortable. **IMPORTANT DISTINCTION:  FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) any information that is directory information is ok to give out.  So If a parent is asking for another child’s last name or to get in touch with another family, that is not confidential information if the family did not opt out of directory information.  You just can’t tell us the child is on an IEP or anything regarding diagnosis.
4. RECOGNIZE WE UNDERSTAND YOU ARE BUSY: We are not out to get you or have a “gotcha” moment. I cannot imagine being a teacher right now. Huge classloads, jobs dependent upon test scores that are dependent on more than just your ability, differentiated instruction, outliers flying under the radar, helicopter parents, uninvolved parents. A 10 minute phone call once a month to tell us something we wouldn’t know without your call. If you do that once a month without fail you will likely never hear from us. But your principal will almost definitely hear from us. To hear how awesome you are.
5. INCLUSION AND INTEGRATION ARE DIFFERENT: This doesn’t mean let them also have a desk and have peers help them hang up their backpacks (though we recognize the value in that too). I mean if you take a picture of our kids to put on a bulletin board make sure it is a good one like everyone else. If you are in reading to the class and you ask a question the other kids can answer, figure out a way to ask a question that could include our kids’ ability to answer. While you have kids who can fall through the cracks, ours have absolutely no way to mountain climb out of those crevices without you. I am sure like us you don’t want them just to be a warm body at another desk. Ask their IS for strategies…that is why they are there.

BONUS #6 also at no charge: THE MOST DIFFICULT PARENTS ARE LIKELY YOUR BIGGEST ALLIES: Yep. We are the wave makers, the getter-doners. We figure out what you want and need and we try to get it for you especially if it will benefit our kids. Sometimes you don’t even need to tell us what that is. We figure it out. Assume nothing regarding our motivations.

For those of you who went into regular education vs. special education–those days are long gone. Inclusion is not just the responsibility of your Intervention Specialists. Much like us parents of kids with special needs…we started out in the exact same place as all the other parents in your room. Maybe even as you did too as a parent. Our journey veered off years ago but the desire to get to know the same thing we would have if everything turned out as expected has not.

Dreams are Poetry for My Son Without Words

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What do you dream about sweet silent boy? 

The nights you rise up out of your bed and wander our dusty floors?  Are you looking for something you cherished for a moment in that mysterious place between the consciousness of dream and the awareness of waking?

Are you on an enchanted night walk floating through a maze of fireflies and bubbles unaware of the world that holds you back?

Could you be lost navigating the spooky hallway forest, familiar and friendly when the path is lit by the morning sun?

What do you dream about sweet boy?

Those nights your shriek summons me like the siren’s song to find you swimming in your twisted sheets?  My soft words are not your anchor.  You push me away from the helm with your kicks and punches as if resisting being dragged to the bottom of the sea by the mighty whale you have have come to exact revenge.

How do I teach you to breathe when you emerge from the black water instead of screaming?

You wake gasping for air.

What do you dream about sweet boy?

When you sit bolt upright rubbing the glitter of sleep deeper into your eyes with the fists that once fit in the palm of my hand?  You rise with a dreamy smile that does not release either of us until you snuggle in as close as you can. It is how you summon the halcyon to create the calm winds that smooth the waves.

You drift safely on your back.

Do you know you dream sweet boy?

Can you separate day from night? Do your lost words in the light morph into the demons in the dark who suck the words from your cherub lips?

Do nocturnal fantastic birds of flight carry you away and release you from your forced secrets of the day?  Are those birds the thing with feathers?  Do they chirp the same songs they sing to me?

Do you not dream at all sweet boy?  

Perhaps instead you play with angels who speak your native tongue.  You drift off to the place where I am not allowed to go with you. You run freely through the fields of joyous detail or you ramble in teary despair in the wings of the worldless knowing you are understood and safe.

Because no matter the circumstance of night, in the morning  you wake wide eyed and blinking and peaceful.

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Day 4 2016: D is for Diagnosis