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

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Originally Published as The Tail Wagging the Dog 9/2015

Our dog is a bit of a sonofabitch.

He is playful and fun and sweet and well behaved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Halloween is right around the corner…here’s some of my top tips and tricks to make Halloween fun and to hand off to any of the indignant PTO moms who have forgotten that ALL kids want to have a good time…..

Running through Water

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Though Halloween parties have turned into “Harvest Parties” at school, the anticipation and sentiment of Halloween is still timeless. As a parent I find myself still caught up in Halloween and 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 Ninja Turtles who could just very likely just be the same child over and over again capitalizing on those homes who everyone knows passes out 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…

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Autism’s Lost Text Message

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One night as I was plugging in my son’s iPad, I noticed he got a text.  Many parents lose sleep over whether or not to invade their preadolescent’s privacy by looking at personal messages, but not me.  My child at 11 years old is completely illiterate and he had never gotten a text before.  I glanced around as if nervously waiting to get busted for reading it, but the truth was my stomach was in butterflies out of joy and excitement.

Hi A2.  This is Ryder

Are you in bed?????

If you aren’t what time do you go to bed???

Maybe I have been wrong!  Maybe school has been helping him truly cultivate and explore friendships after all! Real ones!  A2’s class picture was on the refrigerator and I ran to it to ask him which one was Ryder. I recognized several of the boys in his class but didn’t know anyone named Ryder. Unfortunately, my son has a severe language disorder called Childhood Apraxia of Speech in addition to Autism so I had no way of knowing for certain which one Ryder was because A2 enthusiastically would answer “yeh!” to every child I pointed to including the girls.  Could he be a child from the resource room?   I could not know that either because  the school will not tell me the names of any of the children in that room due to “privacy”.  The kids he spends the majority of the day with.  The kids who also probably never get or send texts or receive invites to play. The kids, like A2 who can’t just ask each other and then come home and tell their moms.

My husband and I were feeling almost hypervigilant over where we would know this child from since the phone number’s area code was from a city we used to live in many years ago.  A2’s real name is an unusual one, so clearly this is meant for him. How did he get A2’s number since A2 doesn’t even know it?  Does this child comprehend that A2 can’t read? Could this be an adult?  A teacher?  A predator?  My joy was quickly turning to irrationality as my husband texted back to give this Ryder person a piece of our mind!

As it turns out…..Ryder was trying to get in touch with A2.  Just not MY A2.  Ryder was in 6th grade and had just moved from the area code on the message to our area code and had met a new friend at his new school (not ours) that day, exchanged numbers and did what every 12 year old does when making new friends.  A2 was contacted by a ghost. An illusion of a promise of the world to come.

The coincidence lacked the sparkle of serendipity and sent a gut punch that made the butterflies swirling in my tummy fly out of my mouth and away into the sky out of reach.  One three lined text of 19 words, 57 characters, 6 question marks and 2 happy face emojis sent me into a 10 minute emotional tailspin ending in a disappointment.  While my reaction may seem dramatic and my sweet boy was oblivious, man alive, I know he would have LOVED for that text to be his if he knew. You see, that would mean someone wanted to tell him that they got a new skin in Minecraft, or ask him if he wanted to ride bikes to the park or see if he’s allowed to see that Jason Bourne movie. It would mean that someone might be sneaking him a You Tube video he isn’t allowed to watch at home or asking him if he thought the new girl was cute.   It would mean that someone was thinking of him right at that very moment. It would mean he had value to people other than me and his dad.  It would mean he was growing up.

Before this whole parent thing came along and made me loopy with worry, I used to help families move their loved ones into nursing homes.  One particular instance, I helped take inventory of a man’s belongings and I asked him to give me his wallet so I could start a resident account for him to keep his $10 bill safe. He refused and his wife asked to speak privately with me in the hall.  “I know he has no need for money here, but is there any way you can make an exception to let him keep it with him?”. I’m certain I did not handle the situation with sensitivity or understanding because she replied, ” We were never wealthy people but he was proud of the fact he always put food on the table or could hand his sons money when they needed something. That money in his pocket makes him feel like a man. And that, child, is all he has left to feel like one.”.  I let him keep the money and have contemplated since then what the last material thing I would hold on to would be and why. I just didn’t realize that it would come earlier in life and be a random text message that was not meant for my child.

These things.  These little things that give us a perceived sense of value–that we anchor to other things and make them into something more.  Ultimately, the text itself was probably meaningless to A2.  He however does very much care about all those things that receiving a text implies.  Having a way to communicate with the world makes you a part of it and having a rolling digital scroll of blue and white messages are like the receipt to prove it nowadays.  My friend’s daughter left her phone at home while she was at overnight camp and powered up when she returned home to 1022 unread text messages. I never did ask if she read them all.  I do know that A2 will never experience the betrayal that can come with adolescent friendships and are exacerbated by text messages.  No girlfriend break up text.  No secret texts between friends who are standing right there with him, exploiting his trust.  No anxiety over the three dots or “read” receipt.  No.  None of that. While I am disappointed that Ryder misdialed and reached out to the wrong A2, just for a moment I thought about grounding A2 from his device because he knows he shouldn’t be texting so late.

I would rather___________ than go to curriculum night.

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Many years ago when A2 entered the public school system he came from a private school that had a peer program and an ABA focus.  He is so influenced by his peers we thought maybe it would be a good time to bring him back to our school district while he was so young.  It was no small decision and perhaps ultimately made under the haze of xanax.  I waltzed into school on curriculum night, notebook in hand, mascara and lipstick reapplied. I waved and smiled at other parents I recognized from the neighborhood. We chatted about the end of summer homeowners association picnic and how nice the tennis court was looking now that they repainted it and we absolutely should get together for tapas sometime (how has that not even happened yet?!). The desks were so small and facing each other.  Tidy containers of crayons divided by color, posters on every square inch of wall space, shelves that housed bin after bin of books. Mobiles hung from the ceiling.  Not at all what his ABA classroom looked like…way too much to distract..but it was all good.  He will learn to adapt to this no problem…the neighborhood kids are all here!  Someone took the time to take all the crayons out of the boxes!   I found A2’s desk and it had a paper name plate with cartoon pictures of pencils and school buses just like everyone else.  There was an envelope on his desk with all the “getting to know your child” papers like everyone else.  There was a tidy blue folder with the agenda for the evening waiting for us just like everyone else.  Sure….my mother hips were hanging over both sides of the tiny chair and sure, the middle aged teacher greeted us and held her gaze with my husband much longer than she did with me…..but that’s what we do here in public school…normal, regular people stuff.  Then the teacher started talking.  And talking.  And asking us to turn pages in our packets.  And telling us what our kids can already do walking in the door on the first day and where we could expect them to be when they walk out on the last.  And the road map to get there sure as hell was not the road map to get to Italy or even Holland for A2.  Nope. Flyby right over Europe to the heart of Syria (which I hear is really, really nice this time of year….really nice. Hot.  But it’s a dry heat.). I did not see the person who punched me in the stomach. I didn’t even know that a sucker punch was possible in a mainstream classroom. Before I could find out if a bitchslap was next, I gathered my things and walked out.  That teacher never did follow up with me to find out why I left, or if I was ok or if my husband liked her new back-to-school-sleeveless-blouse.  A2’s intervention specialist saw me in the hall and gently said “..come with me to the resource room where he is a rock star. I’ll show you around”.  She meant well, but he could be a rock star at his other school.  I decided right then that the only way I would ever cope in another curriculum night was if I could sit at one of those tiny desks with a Big Mac and a bottle of stoli while listening to other parents ask questions like,”what if my child is above the standard for reading?”  or complaining at the lack of computers in a room he won’t actually get to be in. I might be able to get away with the Big Mac…but the vodka would probably be  frowned upon at the administrative level.

Don’t misunderstand…my boy is perfect in most ways to me (sometimes he is a bit of an asshole…no one is 100%)…I don’t fit a mold and when I realized I was going to be a mom 13 years ago I had no expectations my kids would either.  I embrace the weird and inappropriate and many days it takes all of my will to push my monkey brain back into it’s cage before it starts flinging poo.  I’m ok with all that.  What is hard is that the rest of the world generally is not.  While he gets the desk and cubby just like everyone else, he doesn’t get to have sleep overs, or bathroom privacy or even a way to ask  other kids if they will skype or text him later.  Due to “confidentiality” the helpers assigned to him are not allowed to tell me the names of the kids he would probably want to ask anyway.  He doesn’t get detention for talking out of turn or showing up to class late.  He doesn’t trade carrots for cookies with the kids at lunch. The bins of books must still be read to him and doesn’t get excited when he hears about the release of the newest Harry Potter book.  And curriculum night?  Well…all those things are written in the blank spaces between the lines on the syllabus.  The syllabus that is only visible to certain parents.  Not just like everyone else. The tiny desk is like a mirage.  Those things don’t happen because those are not the things that are important to the people who spend 7 hours a day with him.  Goals are set to reflect the things A2 CAN’T do rather than what he can whereas the curriculum for the rest of his peers are focused on what they WILL do.  And not just at 80% accuracy in 4 out of 5 observed opportunities.  I spend my life cherishing the tiny accomplishments inching along unseen by the naked eye or letting hurtful comments roll of my back like water off goosefeather by people who meant no harm. I can sit through all of that, but it reminds me my child is lonely.  And I won’t sit through that.  So tonite, the very last curriculum night of elementary school for me ever….like a pro  I went in, signed my name on the volunteer list, eyeballed the room of parents , took 2 tums to settle my stomach in anticipation of the Big Mac in my mom-bag and walked out.

The bottom line is I would rather have heartburn and a hangover than go to curriculum night.  What would you rather do?

Here is a short list I had some friends help me compile.  Thank you Dava, Kelly, Anne, Carmen, Jessica and Katie

Express my dog’s anal glands

Watch another episode of Caillou

Make out with Donald Trump

Fall asleep in an Uber

Run 5 miles in the summer without chafe guard

Receive a text from Anthony Weiner

Wear truck nuts as a fashion accessory

Get through a Monday without coffee

Drive across country with my kids with a dead iPad battery

See my dad in a man-thong

 

 

 

At The End Of The Day….

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There are some days that my heart breaks selfishly a bit. Days like today. As A2 gets older there really are no play dates. While kids are generally kind, there are limits to their patience. It’s hard to figure out how to play with another kid who wants to stand at the bottom of the water slide flapping rather than going down. His peers are now preteens and the adults that are close by interpreting for him, ensuring safety and cueing socially reciprocal behavior are going to inhibit their own wing stretching. So today, as I sat entering in my second hour in direct sun making sure my guy didn’t keep going past the “do not pass” safety barrier at the waterslide, I couldn’t help but notice the world around us. I had nothing else to do but try to clear my mind of things that poke at my side and wake me breathless in the middle of the night that were now tugging at the straps of my mom-suit with sunburned shoulders. I see the young women in their bikinis, laughing and hanging off of tattooed boyfriends and remembered a time where wondering if my thighs were firm enough or if my mascara was running were my biggest concerns. And at the time they really did feel like big concerns.  There are days….just like every other chubby middle aged mom…I just miss my youth. I watch other moms read their books and drink stealthy mojitos next to the pool as their kids run to them at rest time asking for $5 for a hot pretzel. The lifeguards are there to protect theirs while I stand knee deep in freezing water wondering what would happen if I tried to do the same. There are days….like every other mom of little ones…. I wish I could enjoy a day off near a pool where I didn’t feel like my purpose was to make certain my kid didn’t die. I see the moms with toddlers and infants on changing tables and laugh as I remember being in the same predicament with a wet, slippery cherub in a soaking wet swimmy full of poop and trying to carefully slide it down over a squirmy tushy  not realizing the sides rip off for easy disposal. Today I am trying to find a dry floor free of clumpy toilet paper wads to change an 11-year-old in a soiled swimmy and keep my fingers crossed that this  won’t be the last year I can squeeze him into a size large Huggies with Nemo on the back.   There are days….like every mom of infants…I just wish we were out of the diaper stage.

Once I shook the delirium of the midday sun and made my own mojito at home I felt less like I was crawling toward a mirage in the desert only to be disappointed by more sand.  I feel conflicted by my own selfishness. I know the bottom line is if he is still oblivious to his differences and is still filled with joy doing what he likes to do whether it suits me or not then we are still golden. And yet….I can feel like I have received a sucker punch to the gut when I watch pubescent girls walk quickly in cliques past him whispering and giggling.   I don’t know if my child worries about the same things I do or if he has crushes on girls or if he sometimes grieves his differences.  I hope not. That way I can keep my selfishness where it belongs…to myself.

But that’s the thing.  Don’t ALL moms go through this?  We have a sacred ground that feels like it is being broken if we say it out loud or admit to having a bad mom day.  Special Needs bad mom days and Typical bad mom days have a different script but definitely the same plot.  No.  I will never worry about my kid having a psycho girlfriend.  I will never worry about my child’s heartbreak of  being brushed off and losing social status. I will never worry that I did not raise him with morals or respect for adults.   I will never worry about whether or not weed will be his gateway drug to heroin.  And those things are equally as important even though there are days I would rather worry about those things.  Somehow it became not ok to admit to worry or heartbreak or disappointment for fear of being seen that we somehow don’t appreciate our children. I hesitate to share on these days that I must sit quietly for a little too long and think about things a little too much. I am weary of feeling somehow missing our old lives or having a twinge of disappointment over “what could have been” cannot possibly coexist with loving our children with all our souls or appreciating their uniqueness in all their flappy, pool water drinking ways.  See…because you know what I miss too some days?  My flat stomach with a belly ring that didn’t look like it was a way to deflate my abdomen. I miss not checking moles and worrying about sun cancer.  I miss not having to hire a crane to hoist my chest up in a bathing suit.  I miss drinking beer all afternoon in the sun and flirting.  I miss working 40 hours a week and actually being bored in the evening when I couldn’t find someone to go to the coffeehouse and play scrabble or see some local guy playing acoustic somewhere.  And I dare anyone reading this to NOT feel like they miss those things too sometimes and that they too would consider trading their situation in to go back for just one day…..and then realize there would be no way in hell.  Because we will never be the same…and for that the world will never be the same and that is the backward legacy that our kids give to us….as we gave to our parents.

I often wonder what kind of mom I would be in an alternate universe….and feel very selfish on the sad days. But ultimately…..autism or not…..I really don’t think I’d feel different from any other mom.

 

 

Day 21. T is for Teachers and Therapists.

Day 20 2016: T is for Teachers and Therapists

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Day 20

Day 20:  T is for Teachers and Therapists

97. A2 has had a total of 97 teachers and therapists in his short 9 years. Some were hand- picked….some chosen by fate and luck of the draw. Some were published…lauded recognizable names….some were quiet presences of whom I cannot remember their names. Some have been with us for the majority of his life. Some have only jumped in for a blip of time in his almost 80,000 hours on this planet. Some were stellar….life alterers….some just showed up because they had to. Some interpreted my coolness or seeming indifference to them as being non-caring. Some recognized that I always had my child’s best interest in mind all the time and understood it was important for me not to be too attached for fear of losing perspective and not holding them accountable should his learning derail. All have had a permanent impact…

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Day 18. R is for Relationships

Day 18 2016: R is for Relationships (originally posted 4/2015)

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Day 18

“Are you sure he has Autism? He’s so friendly…”. While there are more nuanced aspects now to the criteria, failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level is one of the defining and most obvious diagnostic identification for children with autism. Interest in people in general, desire for friendships and loving behavior can muddy the diagnostic waters and confuse people about what autism is and what autism isn’t. Disconnectedness, aloofness and lack of desire to be touched does not always translate as a lack of desire for relationships. The desire is there, the understanding for how that happens is not. It can just be easier to be by yourself. A1 can tell you that. Indiscriminate friendliness, hugs and kisses to those he loves and the compulsive desire to be around a lot of people doesn’t always coexist with developmentally appropriate social skills. A2 probably would tell you that part…if…

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Autism Awareness Month. Day 14: N is for Night

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This photo was taken over the Scioto River in broad daylight but thanks to filters it looks like a cross section between day and night. When sleep is elusive for our children with autism and days roll into nights roll that into days… that sultry blanket doesn’t seem quite as enchanted and that line between light and dark not nearly as defined. I’m not certain that A2 has ever slept through the night in his life. For the first several years of his life he was up every 90 minutes or so. I was told to let him cry it out. So I did. And then abandoned the wholehearted attempts after 11 weeks. We have it easier than many. A2’s nighttime visits do not include damaging the house, self harm or escaping….but is instead marked with fitful wandering, bed hopping, laundry for diaper leaks and sometimes a sneaky visit with The Wiggles on the DVR. We wonder if his slow cognitive development and behavioral issues are exacerbated by exhaustion and we try to have patience in our own exhaustion recognizing that if he could sleep, he would. There is no simple answer for the underlying etiology of lack of sleep for kids with autism and hope that my guy doesn’t feel tortured by sleep being just a visitor passing through. In the still of darkness I wonder if I am the only one awake in the world. Shadows turn into demons of an uncertain future and the quiet becomes a deafening blare of anxiety that the hustle and pace of the day drowns out. Perhaps even if A2 could have restful sleep, I am fairly certain that I still would not.

Day 11 2016. K is for Kismet.

Day 11

In the month of our 16 year anniversary, I can say that we have embarked on a journey neither of us could have expected. In some ways I wonder if our trek is easier than others since we never had musings of what our unborn children would be like or what kind of parents we would be….or if we would be parents at all. I think I most believe in a judicious balance between predestination and free will. Like walking into a movie complex….you can pick the movie you will see but once you choose it the plot and ending remain the same. But it is again up to you if you decide to leave the theatre to get popcorn or just decide that movie is not for you and you should have never listened to Siskel and Ebert’s reviews to begin with. All marriages require a gentle balance between cohesiveness and independence. But especially with families like ours. Stress is a constant, sleep deprivation a given and child rearing? Well…throw out everything you ever thought you knew about that. Not everyone can do that…and usually the stronger is left holding the bag on their own.  I know too many families like that….and watch in awe as the parent left behind carries the weight of her world.  Through thick and thin we give each other the space we need recognizing we are in for the long haul.  Our children are who they are supposed to be.  We make the same mistakes as every other parent…..and in every other union but with the knowledge we must be united as forever parents, even long after we are gone.  And for that, perhaps we are luckier than most.