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.

Autism Awareness Month. Day 6 2016. F is for Food.

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F is for Food

This breakfast is 8 years in the making…A2 eats a total of 9 different foods..all presented in a certain way…all brand specific. Starting from 0. He has worked so hard to get to this point and I feel a weird balance of pride, frustration and futility when I see this plate. Feeding issues in autism are common and are outside of “oh, all kids can be picky eaters” or “just tell him if he doesn’t eat dinner, he won’t get anything later–it’s not like he’ll let himself starve”. Because actually….he will. Many children with autism have serious food aversions and feeding issues. The reasons are varied but tend to be due to sensory, texture, medical or obsessive-compulsive issues. Behavioral issues become deeply ingrained in these kiddos when eating is paired with physical pain due to gut issues so common in kids with autistic disorders and can…

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

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

That is until I read Schuyler’s Monster. 

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

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

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

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

Day 2 2015. B is for Boredom

Day 2 2016: B is for Behavior

DAD PERSPECTIVE

Bacon and Juiceboxes

Jason Hague, Writer

Just a Lil Blog

Dad Enough

Autism From a Dad’s Eye View

Autism Blues

Stories About Autism

The Spectral Zone

The Autism Daddy

PERSPECTIVES FROM THE SPECTRUM

Autistic Not Weird

Autcraft

Seriously Not Boring

Deciphering Morgan

Autistic Speaks

Kerry Magro

Anonymously Autistic

Autism Uncensored

MEMES/HUMOR/KEEPING IT REAL

Autism Odysseys

Just a Minute My Cape is in the Dryer

Ink 4 Autism

Rantings of an ADHD Mom

ALL THE REST

David Snape and Friends

Carrie Cariello

Love That Max

Finding Cooper’s Voice

Take Another Step

Autism With a Side of Fries

Herding Cats

From Motherhood

Our Adventures with Riley

Special Ev

Walking With Drake

A Day in Our Shoes

Special Books by Special Kids

 

 

 

 

 

Autism and the Dentist: Top 5 Tips for Successful Visits

How in the world has it been 6 months since I have taken the kids to the dentist? After a rousing success this fall, I thought I’d share this again in hopes we can recreate using my own advice! Any tips or tricks for your kiddo at the dentist?

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**DISCLAIMER**.  The first half of this is the How Did We Get Here part.  The second is How Can You Maybe Get Here part.  Feel free to scroll to the second part…I promise you won’t hurt my feelings.

“How’d it go?”  I hacked out with the phone resting between my ear and the bed.

“Well,” my husband hesitated, “After he bit through the little mirror thingy and puked all over the dentist she told me that you should bring him from now on since you have more control”.

I usually took A2 to all medical appointments but had succumbed to a virus that resembled the plague and the only thing worse than me having the plague is A2 having the plague.  Normally, Mr ATeam and I are a pretty good team when it comes to him but one area I quietly held resentment was having to be the heavy when…

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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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Lots of people have jumped on the November Thankful Challenge on social media. I see people try for 30 days to declare the things in their lives for which they are grateful.  As a therapist, I can tell you its an excellent 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. It’s also helpful from a cognitive-behavioral standpoint.  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?  Well…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 at least have a roof over your head, access to clean water, some kind of education and likely at least one person in your life who cares when your birthday is.  When things are going OK and at least that bottom floor of Maslow’s pyramid is built, we can still say, “well….at least I have my health” or “I’m lucky I have food on the table”.  This doesn’t always feel so much like gratitude in comparison in our rich-kids-of-Instagram kind of society and when we are not bombarded by rampant poverty in the streets or young people regularly dying from things like dysentery or malaria. Yet as special needs parents or as a disabled people, we are often expected to display this type of gratitude and grace in circumstances that at times feel 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 a surveyor 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.  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.

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 that exists that 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.
  • Keep a mastered list of  goals to probe yearly?  You’re lucky we can even work on her goals with as many as she has.
  • 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.  Or what if your child’s class was going on a field trip bowling, but because they didn’t have bowling shoes in her size they just didn’t even tell you about the trip? You are probably going  to get more than a little angry…and maybe even angrier when they suggest that all the kids who wear a size 6 shoe will get to go to for a tour of a widget factory instead at the end of the year, so what’s the big deal?  As parents, we want to always feel and show gratitude to those who we entrust our children…but when trust is bent it dulls the surface.

At the end of last school year, 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. ASquared, you GOTTA focus on the positives.  You just gotta.  He’s a great kid”.

Do I though?   I keep getting taught that focusing on his deficits is how we move forward. And by the way…Yes, I do….and I do it all the time….but not  for the purpose of making sure other people can see the gratitude.  I unfortunately don’t have enough energy anymore to  make others feel good for doing their job .  Its not to be cruel, its so I don’t lose sight on how to do my job.

Focusing on the positives is why I have to advocate and ask for more.  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 quarterly 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. 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.  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.

Days of Awe. Without Feathers: a story in 2 parts.

Hope is the thing with feathers. 

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops–at all

Until it is hunted, killed, braised, barbecued and eaten.

–Emily Dickinson

Ok.  Emily can only take credit for the first part….

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One year ago this week,  I was given the honor of speaking in front of my religious congregation during the High Holidays on the topic of hope. I stumbled on the video link a few weeks ago….and found the old me…the me speaking from my heart a year ago to be jarring and familiar.  This is the (abridged) transcript from that speech.  I am posting this so I can link to it in the coming days….to tell you of the what-came-next…..

I’m here to share my story of hope.  My family and I have been congregants of BT  for the last 10 years.  I have two versions of the story I was going to tell today…and I’d like to thank the rabbi for allowing me the opportunity to go rogue and tell a third one instead. 

So I came here this morning with these two versions of my story of hope, not knowing which one I was going to tell.   And mostly because of Rabbi’s sermon last night on vulnerability I decided to take the two stories and meld them somewhere in the middle to share my story in hopes that if there are people out here in the audience who feel the same way that they can recognize that they are not alone.  You see…sometimes its not about being hopeful or hopeless…..sometimes there is this vague middle ground if that exists in hope.  I have a child with Autism and he is a sweet, beautiful boy.   And he lives with Autism.  An Autism that impairs him from a life of independence.  I’m part of a family who is also living with Autism.  An Autism that impair us from a life of independence.  Showing vulnerability is not particularly an issue for us because we have to wear our vulnerability very publicly.  I’m also pretty visible in the community…and because of that I sometimes feel like I am the “Autism representative”.  So, Side A is extra-super truthy.  And it shows a side of hope that’s hidden away that only parents with children with significant disabilities can understand.  That we hide away.  But by sharing this truth of hope I learned that being vulnerable or weak sometimes has a detrimental effect on my child…both from an emotional standpoint and also from the standpoint of receiving services or receiving help.  It also sometimes leaves me with a compound disappointment chipping away at my worldview of hope in a world where no one can tell me the outcome of my beautiful boy’s life.  Side B is the very pretty version and it’s the version you might expect to hear.  Its even capped off with a prayer.  But its inauthentic and frankly on Yom Kippur I couldn’t see standing up here knowing that there are possibly families I will be doing a disservice by presenting you with the shiniest, most inauthentic version that I could possibly provide of hope.  So thank you—Rabbi for giving me the opportunity to come and share my story.  To spend months studying and contemplating hope in a way that I didn’t anticipate.  Hope’s not optimism.  Its not about expectation.  I have realistic expectation for my child. Its definitely not the thing with feathers. 

I came across a quote by the playwright Tony Kushner and he refers to hope as a moral obligation.  Through all of this, that made the most sense to me.  Hope just is.  Its part of our human condition.  It captures the vulnerability of hope as well.  Just a few days ago I heard an anecdote that captures the best possible way I can describe what its like to sometimes sit in the shame of feeling hopeless for a perfect child living in a very imperfect world with a very scary and nebulous future.  *It’s the story a man told about his grandfather’s wife dying.  After 65 years, she was his lifelong partner and even his driver and he wasn’t sure what state he was going to find him in.  So he walks in and says, “Hi Grandpa—how are you?  How are you doing?”  And his grandfather says “Did you know that for $4 I can take a shuttle to anywhere in the city?”.   The grandson says “that’s great grandpa”. And the grandfather says “so I went to the grocery store the other day with a list and I went to the lady at the counter and I said ‘Can you please help me with this list?  You see, my wife just relocated and her new address is heaven’”.  The grandson sits back and laughs and says “Grandpa, you always help me see the glass as half full”.  The grandfather sits back, looks at the grandson and says “no….its a beautiful glass”. 

So, my moral obligation today was not to make you think that those of us who have children who are not following the path of expectation are hopeless.  And it was also not to come up here and make you believe we are full of hope.  Because it lies somewhere in the middle.  If you are a person who sometimes struggles with hope…please know you are not alone.  Thank you.

…..stay tuned for part 2…one year later…

*an excerpt from the film HUMAN by Yann Arthus-Bertrand (2015)