Day 21. T is for Teachers and Therapists.

Day 20 2016: T is for Teachers and Therapists

Running through Water

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)

Running through Water

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. G is for Genetics (and Guessing)

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G is for Genetics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 2 2016: B is for Behavior

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B is for Behavior

All behavior serves one of 4 functions:

To gain attention

To escape a situation

To gain access to something (usually tangible)

or

A response to an internal stimuli such as hunger, illness or exhaustion.

Seriously.  Just 4 reasons anyone does anything.  Think about it–you won’t come up with a 5th. I have tried.

Of course, if it were that simple we would all live in harmony.  However, there are some times it gets tricky.  For instance, when a behavior is triggered by something internal, it can be incredibly difficult to identify.  So if a child with autism likes to clap his hands near his ears is it because he likes the sound?  Or is it because he likes how his hands feel when he claps them together?  Or is it because it creates a little wind near his face which he likes?  To make matters even more complicated…a behavior can change function midstream and without warning.  So that same kid who liked hearing the sound of his own clapping next to his ear and his parent rushes over to him and holds his hands and tells him “stop!  Lets play instead”….her reaction may have just inadvertently changed the function of the child’s behavior from internal reasons to external. Perhaps it becomes a great way to get his parents’ attention now too.  Such is the nature of human existence…including humans on the Autism Spectrum.  It is easy to judge others without understanding when looking at their behaviors through our own lenses.  So next time you see a child having a tantrum in public or seems out of control, bear in mind that the function of his behavior may not be attention like you might be used to from a bratty kid. He may be responding to sensory overload and needs to leave or perhaps if you hang out long enough you may come to find it may be screams of joy because he has no other way to express it.

Why we do the things we do. The trauma edition.

-font-b-Handmade-b-font-mini-kraft-paper-font-b-envelope-b-font-5-8x9cmThere is a large manila envelope still sealed sitting on my desk. No matter how much I stare at it, it doesn’t:

1. Spontaneously burst into flames

2. Disappear

3. Take care of itself.

It does not contain a subpoena, a warrant for my arrest or an eminent domain letter. It was not delivered certified mail or by official messenger. It was hand delivered by my 6th grader because the teacher very graciously contacted me ahead of time to ask me how I would like the prior written notice papers from the last IEP meeting delivered so I could sign and return them in a timely manner to the school. It has been sitting and judging me silently for over three months now as it sits untouched. I am reduced to a Pavlovian dog, except my bell is an envelope and my saliva is anxiety. A crippling-can’t-get-any-thing-else-done anxiety. And I rationally know there is likely nothing in that envelope that should really cause this kind of response. But that’s the thing with phobias or irrational fears and trauma response.

Yes…I said trauma response. 

Often times prior experience attaches itself to something innocuous and we then pair our previous response with a neutral stimuli and generalize it over time. Caller ID with the school prefix, email and now apparently manila envelopes have become the manifestation of years of battles, blockades and having my already fledgling parental competency called to the carpet.

For me….my defining moment were words uttered in a meeting 7 years in….but 3 years ago:  “Its not fair for one (A2) to get more just because of your parental advocacy”  (which was agreeable…but in a whole different way given we were discussing data collection that was reportedly correct, not collected by me…and concerning). 

It is silly I suppose if you are the one who stuffed the envelope and have no knowledge of my defining moment or my other, more academically impaired child. She certainly must be wondering about the warning likely issued by the elementary school about my hypervigilance, because the experience she is having is the opposite. A parent who is late to answer emails yet bizarrely will parse apart data collection in an IEP meeting….and be spot on why it was taken incorrectly must mess with her own schema of special needs parents.   I have learned to become a very hands-off parent in hopes of preserving my own life in the last year.  I have a double-decker weekly pill case that houses my capsules of life extending medications that would impress most of the AARP crowd.  Yet I am not yet even 50.  Years of sleep deprivation and external stress can only wear so long in a genetic cesspool.

So there it sits….but not without words. It screams to me every day over the din of my responsibilities. But I am strong and I can withstand long term, unfocused wailing.

So I leave you with 3 truths….

A. I am human.

B.  I love my child more than anything I could have ever imagined.

C.  I am preparing for an uncertain future in a time that I will no longer be here to advocate in a world that does not see my child as perfect as I do.

…and there are things that get in the way of of the co-existence of Notions A, B and C.  

Sorry about the envelope.

Random Acts of Dignity

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Dear Donna, Cashier at Wendy’s,

My 10 year old and I stopped in for lunch today on your shift. I could see after you asked him how he was doing today that his jumbled answer might have caught you off guard. You shifted your eyes to me and then back to him as he continued…something that happens all the time in our world. So I looked down at him and as his 24/7 speech and language coach I said “You can say, ‘I’m good!'”.

But then you caught me off guard. Instead of looking to me for his order, you asked him. He answered you. You leaned in and said “I think you said you want a cup of water…is that right?”. He nodded. “Aren’t you getting anything to eat?! What else?”. After he excitedly spit out a string of jargon you asked him to slow down and try again. So he did. “Fuhweyes” he said. “What size?” you asked. “Mee-yum”. “Great….anything else?”, looking in my direction. I shook my head as my son clearly said “Nope!”.

What you didn’t know as we held up the line is that my son has Childhood Apraxia of Speech, but the name of his disorder didn’t matter to you…what mattered to you was making sure you got his order right. You didn’t “let” him be an equal patron at your restaurant…he just was. You let him be his own expert. You presumed competence. Not your version of competence, his. You allowed him the dignity of time. You asked him his name to put on the screen for his order just like everyone else and checked out to see if you said it right and even asked him if he knew how to spell it for you. So he did. Through this act I am certain you are not expecting a newspaper article or local talk show segment….you weren’t trying to be noticed or given kudos or wanting to be called a hero because you took a moment and tried a little harder. You wanted a 10 year old at your counter to order lunch just like any other 10-year-old might on a Friday afternoon.

Advocacy and inclusion are tricky things. When it comes from a place of equality, empathy and understanding it is a wonderful thing…when it lacks authenticity it can still have its place but can also be humiliating and damaging to an already fledgling movement. By “letting” my child be prom king, or shoot the last basket in the last 10 minutes in the last game of the season, by being so kind as to “be his friend” well meaning people are inadvertently continuing to marginalize him.  No one has assumed that he was worthy of the crown on his own, able to make that basket without help or that maybe he makes one heck of an awesome friend and that perhaps HE is the kind one.

So you, Donna your authentic advocacy is the kind that will change the way we as a society deal with disability. Thank you for lunch with a side of hope.

Sincerely,
A2’s Mom

Sliding Doors. Looking Forward. Looking Back.

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A few weeks ago I was stuck in traffic.  Albeit Midwest traffic, but a standstill is a standstill.   A1 was incensed in the same way any curmudgeonly old man dealing with road lock might with a loud “C’Mon!!!” and a quivering fist in the air.  Except  he is a 6th grader who was going to be late for religious school.  And he has never  personally navigated traffic of any kind.  I calmly explained to him that sometimes life is quirky.  Had we left 15 minutes earlier we might be part of the accident slowing everything down.  Or maybe by showing up 15 minutes late he might miss the most boring part of class.  For all we know inconvenience is a blessing in disguise.

For all we know.

Netflix is showing the movie Sliding Doors this month (and serendipitously also showing Serendipity, a way more palatable existential rom-com). Gwenneth Paltrow’s life splits off into parallel simultaneous existences based on minor differences in circumstance that alter the outcome of her immediate future.

Ultimately  three things are revealed:

#1  The event that changed everything was out of her control, seemingly extraneous and unnoticed by her

#2. Everything that happens happens in parallels whether she is part of it or not 

#3.  The outcome somehow is going to be the same regardless of the path.

I showed this movie to A1 to drive a concrete point home in the spirit of control and lack there of.  I have this funny thing with the idea of omnipotence and omniscience at the same time–a notion that seems cruel to those of us whose minds cannot conform in that manner no matter how much salvation sounds like a cozy deity-down comforter everyone else can snuggle in.  It means people like A1 and me are damned from the start because we just CAN’T …and it was planned it that way.  Like being forced as a child to hug and kiss a relative even when that relative knows it makes you uncomfortable to do so.  All in the name of making that relative feel warm and special.  Except what kind of weirdo feels all the good feels by making a child squish their body against theirs against their will?   That is why I show Netflix movies to my kid instead of reading parables.  I’d rather he believe that people just think he has bad taste in movies than that his life and choices are meaningless and filled with anxiety because his synapses don’t fire in a way that will ultimately please an all knowing being who made him that way.  We cannot help thinking about how our moments might be affecting an unknown future.

A2 operates differently.  These things do not need to be explained to him because he is only in the present.  I am happy because Daddy is here NOW.  I am not happy because I want Daddy here NOW.   NOW I am happy and screw Daddy because we are on our way to Chuck E. Cheeses.  If all is no worse than status quo, then optimism and hope are not necessary if you are only worried about right now.  It really isn’t until someone introduces you to unrealized expectations or well conditioned responses that you develop a sense of disappointment, dashed hopes and anxiety of an unknown future.

In recent years A2 has also taken to obsessively asking “what is the time?” and watching any clock either as if it is a piece of art to be analyzed and admired or else as if at any time it might fly off the wall and attack him like the starlings from The Birds.  His authenticity and ability for stopping and acknowledging the moment in the the moment, realizing there will be a new moment soon is a gift.

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As we stand on these tracks together I think about how Autism has robbed A2 of a regular childhood but probably not because he views it that way but because I do. There is a lot of track already behind him but there is much more ahead and I strain to see the horizon in case a train comes barreling down the tracks…because at some point there will be a train. And there is nothing I can do to stop that.  However, A2 only looks at the rails beneath his feet being careful not to trip and he only looks back to look at me.  If he were to hear the distant whistle, I am sure he would simply step off the track in that moment so he could watch the train go by.  Because my focus is on the horizons while stumbling down the rails, I run the risk of getting my foot stuck between the slats and then panicking thinking about the possibility of the oncoming engine. I am hoping that in 2016  I can continue learning from A2 as I struggle with the concept of mindfulness, especially when the moment seems bleak.  I hope for the ability to recognize each moment as unique and not as good or bad and that I can cherish the people and things that are important to me regardless of how time seems to be treating us in the moment.

I just need to remember to point to my wrist and ask “what is the time?” and know that it will be different soon.

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: Y is for Youth

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The sticky wicket of Autism. There are some moments I feel particularly lucky for autism. Those moments I watch slip away from my friends who’s babes with bountiful curls framing cherub faces ask for the straightening iron ……who have their gossamer wings clipped to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground….who no longer rub the wonder of dreams deeper into their eyes when they are sleepy….I would imagine it’s the bittersweet joy of having children…watching the transformation from innocent Angels to inhabitors of earth. I get to cavort with an angel for longer. I still get to hear a gasp followed by “look mommy…moon!”. I still get warm snuggly visits at 3AM. Bubbles are still magical. Raffi is still the only fully grown man who can sing wheels on the bus and get a rousing sing a long at our breakfast table. A2 can still do interpretive dance in the aisle at the synagogue during prayer while onlookers smile and nod as if it is part of the service. But it’s not for much longer….as those other children blossom from midlings to Ivy League applicants….A2 will likely still ask for The Muppets or try to squeeze himself onto a tricycle or squeal “go faster daddy!” as he coasts down a hill on a tandem bike….the promise of youth in the body of an adult where looks from strangers will fade from smiles when asked “what’s your name”. It’s not natural to pray you outlive your child….but we both agree as long as there are songs to be sung, dances to be danced and bubbles to blown we will move with him and try to always see the wonder of his world.

Autism Awareness Month. X is for X-Ray.

Day 24

Sensory differences are a common symptom of autism. Often kids on the spectrum can become overwhelmed by these differences. A1 tells me that a public toilet flushing sounds like a bomb going off and for several years he avoided public restrooms. A2 flaps his arms and locks out his knees whenever he is filled with anxiety….kind of his virtual rocking chair….or else he is just hoping to fly away from the dentist/barking dog/hand dryer. As autism-folk we try to build awareness by creating overwhelming scenarios to get NTs (neurotypicals…yes, we have a name for you) to sympathize the plight of the kid flicking his fingers in front of his face as a way to stop having his eyes taking a million pictures at once or the kid who is pacing because he can’t tell where his body is in space. But sometimes, I am fairly certain that some of those sensory integration differences are not experienced in a negative way and sometimes there are common things that just look, sound or feel like something not of this world…..if I could only take an x-ray of A2s little mind and see what he could for 10 seconds….. (…and feel free to smile at this picture….)