Because we are so immersed in this world of autism I have erroneously concluded that everyone who lives outside of this Village is already aware of autism. However, there is a secret sorority that exists…one equipped with a secret handshake and password. I am in that sorority yet have no recollection of agreeing to join. Autism is funny like that. The Village of Autism parents is a unique one. We are a motley crew of individuals whose path may have never crossed otherwise. We meet each other in waiting rooms and lobbies of doctors offices instead of in the PTO. We have closed blogs and Facebook pages instead of casual phone calls. We learn more about the newest treatments and resources from each other than we do from professionals. We talk about how well our child is pooping quicker than we will discuss how well they are doing in school. Though we are typically the least able to, we are often the first responders to others in the Village because we are more likely to reach out to one another than we would outside of the Village where no one speaks our language. And we find each other….everywhere and all the time. Today while sitting on the floor in the middle of the children’s shoe department feverishly tearing inserts out of shoes and hopelessly attemping to shove A2’s newest orthotics into them with no success I broke down and cried. Just sat there in the middle of the floor, surrounded by ridiculous shoes with flashing lights on the soles and sobbed like a toddler might who couldn’t find the shoes she liked. At that same time, I peered up to see a woman pushing a cart with one hand while calmly using her other to push her much-too-large child who was humming loudly down back into his seat. We made eye contact for a single moment and silently nodded–her nod seemingly said “Yes….I know those orthotics were made wrong twice before in 7 months and represents 6 visits to the clinic over that same time. Yes…..I realize this is the 3rd store you have been in today that absolutely does not carry shoes your 9 year old can wear with the braces he must wear on his feet. Yes….I realize that your tears are really about your kid and the pain and blisters he will probably have again that he can’t communicate or the weird, white 1960s Frankenbaby shoes the orthotics company will recommend that look nothing like what his school friends will be wearing. Yes….I see you….and I know you see me….” V is for my Village. The quiet, connected Village where my family lives.
W is for What It’s Like
“There is grandeur in this view of life…..from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved”—On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin.
A few years ago I attended the funeral of a friend who suffered and died much too young. He was a scientist-a biologist, an activist, a researcher who was respected in his field and likely the smartest person I knew. He was also pedantic and opinionated with a biting but funny sense of humor. This combination engaged even the most simple of us but most of his friends were equally as interesting and I got to numbly stand in a room in Vermont in the dead of winter surrounded by them. “What’s it like?” a friend of his asked me…”having a child with Autism?” For a moment I just thought I was not in the mindset to answer that question but quickly realized I could NOT answer because in all the years I’d not only never been asked that but also never considered it either. It was the kindest thing anything had ever asked me about A2 and perhaps it was the somber tone of the day that rendered me without speech (which if you know me well does not happen often) or maybe I had always been so caught up in the action oriented nature of having a young child with autism that to contemplate that would stop me in my tracks and make me crumble….or perhaps in the moment I felt guilty for even thinking I would crumble and considered myself so lucky to still have those I loved around me regardless of circumstance while my best friend was grieving the loss of his partner……so I excused myself instead. What I have decided over the years is that it is a bit like A2 contemplating this fountain. It is weird and fascinating and wonderful and I have no idea how it really works or how it got there. I notice every single droplet from the ones that predictably slide down the posts to the ones that spit out to collectively leave me standing in a cold puddle over time that leave my toes numb without notice until its too late. There is no warning when the water will turn to an exciting spout of beauty creating a soft rain and visible rainbow or when it will create bursts of rainy arches that I cannot immediately escape leaving me far more drenched and colder than I want to be and on opposite sides of the fountain from whomever was standing near me. So Trevor…..that is what it is like……Thank you for asking
T is for Teachers and Therapists
112. A2 has had a total of 112 different teachers and therapists in his short 11 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 105,000 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 on my entire family’s lives and for all of them, I am grateful.
A2 was about 2 years old in this photo. Debbie Jo was one of the first handful of professionals to work with him, and at the time, I had no way of knowing this fact. She was a paraprofessional in his early intervention program and always made sure to seek me out when I would come to pick him up to give me feedback about his day. When this post was first published, she was very ill with a long bout of cancer. Despite her county job, insurance, COBRA and her life savings eventually ran out. Despite giving of herself and opening up her home to those less fortunate, at her most desperate moments, because a GoFund Me account was set up to help with medical expenses, I would have known nothing about the exceptional kindness and generosity she gave to others throughout her life other than that small blip on the map when my child showed up in hers. Debbie Jo died last year and I pray that it was with peace given the level of selfless life she chose to lead that I was never aware.
We fight for our kids. Many times that fight is with teachers, therapists and administrators. They chose their careers and they have a job to do. The are human beings. We know the people who are in this for the good fight and we know the people who should have left years ago. We know the people who don’t get it. We know the people who burn the candle at both ends and we know people who have dropped the ball. I have fought many of these people who teach my child, but typically as collateral damage in a system that is failing helpers and victims. Fight…fight, fight SO HARD for your kids. ADVOCATE like hell for yourself if you have a disability. Don’t be afraid to call helpers out, but BE FAIR. Ask to see data. It is your right to see it. It is your right to question it. Do your research. If you have an instinct there is a problem, be sure to tell them you are coming from that place rather than accusing them…but again, ASK, ASK, ASK how to be reassured. In their world, no matter how destroying it is to us, your child may be a learning experience. And if that is all they can offer–it is all they can offer.
In our world…we only get one time around. We don’t get a do-over. Recognize their human-ness and recognize necessity and try to create the most cohesive balance.
O is for Obstinate
All kids can be defiant. All kids can be persistent. Most can be both at one time or another…..however the persistence of a person with Autism can sometimes be far outside typical willfulness of even the most obstinate of kiddos. Most of this stems from intense need for familiarity, order and sameness of routine. This rigidity is part of the diagnostic criteria of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Sometimes I have no idea what will trigger A2 into a 3 hour long battle of wills. What can be a 5 minute routine one day can take 2 hours the next even when he knows that routine ends in something he enjoys. A1…no matter how much punishment, berating or time outs he got, he would get right back up and do the same thing over again. One summer I decided to ‘put my foot down’ and send him to the time out step after every single infraction. No warnings. That should teach him! After about a week of this, there was a day that I had sent him 17 times all before my husband got home from work. And he went willingly. Every. Single. Time. Something was very wrong and thankfully I had a moment of clarity. I got a clear cup, drew some lines across it and found a bag of marbles. Every time I caught him doing the right thing, I would throw a marble in the cup with the caveat that he couldn’t point out to me how good he was being. Unless he hurt someone (which he never did), there was no more time out step. Every time we filled the cup to a line, he got to pick what we did next in our day. If we got to the top (by the end of the day), he could get a dessert after dinner.
Just. Like. That. Everything was different. He would listen the first time and look out of the corner of his eye to see if I was digging for a marble. He got double marbles if he initiated social interactions. Before long, we were engaged in pretend play in the basement.
I had someone close ask “Don’t you think it might not be autism? Don’t you think it is could be his personality?”.
“Well, ” I indulged “if everything we do serves a function, what function do you think his behavior served that week?” Without much hesitation, she drew her hand up as if she was grabbing something and said “To have a ‘gotcha’ moment!” I thought for a moment. “What 4 year-old would rather sit on a step over and over, day after day instead of playing just to get under his mother’s skin? Isn’t a week long enough to learn that without the behavior increasing?” A four-year-old. Clinically, that would be a much, much bigger issue than autism.
Before that, I used to joke about how even a dog can learn to salivate to the sound of a bell when paired with food over time, yet I could not get my child to understand how his behavior had anything to do with the consequence he would receive. It’s one of the most bewildering and frustrating parts of parenting because regular consequences do not work. Though A2 may connect consequence to behavior in the moment, the pathology outweighs all and it is likely that he may not learn from his behavior for the next time. A2’s Childhood Apraxia of Speech required us to do drill work with cards for sounds and words over and over. Did we create some of this rigidity with him because of this? Probably. Did I have any idea that would be possible then? No. But the trade off was that he learned to try to speak and can make some needs known so that people other than me and my husband understand. Was it worth it? As a parent with limited understanding and resources I would have to say “yes”, because he displayed rigidity before that. Even as I add to this blog post from the original version written two years ago, I realize how much I have learned to even question if this was possible. We have lots to continue to learn.
M is for Music
In the presence of music, A2 is the conduit that paints the musical mural that you cannot see just by listening. It is a source of joy, excitement, passion and communication for him. Though A2 has a high desire to communicate his speech/language disorder makes it very difficult if not impossible sometimes to do so. A symptom of his Autism is Childhood Apraxia of Speech. Communication disorders that involve speech directly are a common issue for many children on the spectrum. A2 often knows what he wants to say, but cannot make his mouth follow the step by step instructions his brain wants him to in order to form sounds, sentences or ideas. This is a motor planning difficulty. There are phonological errors, jargoning and word finding problems and oral-motor weakness in addition that prohibit him from effectively communicating verbally. In addition to the 6 hours…
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L is for Love
Because L is ALWAYS for love when it’s about your child. As a parent, as do many special needs parents…I find it confusing and sometimes a little unsettling when people say to me “I don’t know how you do it” or “I don’t think I could do what you do” or elevate my parent-ness to the likes of a saint. People are well meaning-I know the awkward sentiment is often a compliment of sorts, but it’s hard to respond. What is the most difficult thing you would do for your own child? Push him out of the way of a bullet and take it yourself? That would be mine because caring for my child and meeting his needs is not even a close comparison to taking a bullet. We love our children with parts of our souls that we did not know existed before they were…
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Remembering how hard our kids work is important to understanding just how strong they are
An Occupational Therapist once corrected me in a meeting when I mentioned that A2 ‘s progress is like being in a race. She said “no, it’s like being in a marathon, you have to pace yourself”….but not having a child with a disability herself what she didn’t understand is that he needs to be front runner in that marathon if he has any hope of functional independence as an adult. As any kid ages, it gets harder to learn new things easily–neural pathways are set, myelination slows down…so early on every moment needs to become practice or a learning opportunity. We celebrate small steps toward independence with hope. After 2 years of task analysis, A2 can almost navigate a bathroom (with the exception of going) with minimal assistance. Yesterday, he independently ordered fries. But he cannot be alone or play outside without supervision, he cannot make his needs known clearly…
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H is for Haircuts
Lots of autism moms become expert level beauticians early on. I can scissor cut the hair of a moving target in 10 minutes or less without making my subject look like Moe from the 3 Stooges. But it’s been a long time coming…A2’s flip switched at about 24 months and haircuts became Wrestlemania meets the Exorcist with half-nelsons, projectile vomiting, sweating, injuries and lots of public interest. Many children with Autism fear hair cutting time as it becomes sensory overload for them. In addition to having to sit still for extended periods of time, the smells of unfamiliar products, the feel of a wet head the sounds of clippers buzzing becomes a sensory nightmare. Haircuts are pleasant experiences now in the comfort of our own bathroom and paired with Monsters Inc on the iPad and the promise of getting to use the vacuum for clean up.
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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E is for Elopement
“Check water first”. The most terrifying emergency directive a parent can hear….and this is the protocol for children with Autism who go missing. Elopement, wandering, bolting, fleeing. 48% of children with autism elope. Drowning is the leading cause of death in kids under 14 with Autism. We are lucky-A2 only gets distracted and wanders to find things that are interesting without regard to safety or whether a familiar adult is nearby–but he does not run from us–which prevents so many families from being able to go in public safely with their child. One of the things that makes A2’s non-elopement complicated as that he is not a risk…. until he is. He can go a full year with staying in eye shot and then one day out of no where he will simply leave the house. With no warning. He also cannot tell anyone his first…
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