Autism Awareness Month. Day 4 2017: D is for Dreams. Poetry for My Son Without Words

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What do you dream about sweet silent boy? 

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

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

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

What do you dream about sweet boy?

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

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

You wake gasping for air.

What do you dream about sweet boy?

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

You drift safely on your back.

Do you know you dream sweet boy?

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

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

Do you not dream at all sweet boy?  

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

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

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Day 4 2016: D is for Diagnosis

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 “non-verbal” children.  A2 was by far and away the most interested in communication and social interaction of the 4 kids in the group. At that point did not have an Autism diagnosis, nor despite my education or background did I even suspect this as the primary issue.

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 therapists 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. A father’s memoir about his wordless child.

I had not.

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 had weird medical issues. He stopped growing.  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. 

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 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 their 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.

By this point, four years in, we had an autism diagnosis and I was in the throes of learning to advocate for my child in ways that rocked my world. Flappiness (Leigh) was there to say the things I couldn’t say. I then there was another (which is no longer around *2019 update…I have now seen her 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

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

Memes By Ashley

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 Awareness Month. Day 1 2017: A is for Ableism

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Ableism: discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities

(https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ableism)

“How old is……are you?”

The little girl in the pink rain boots corrected herself as her eyes darted from mine immediately to A2’s. He was staring out the window of the observation tower where we all stood and flapping in excited anticipation of a single engine plane landing right in front of us.

She licked the open space between her missing teeth and twisted her body from side to side. I looked back to A2 since he wasn’t answering her.

“A2…..this little girl wonders how old you are.” I said to him as I touched the corners of my mouth as a starting cue for a long /e/ sound.

“Sevuh.” he said without looking way from the window.  I touched his back and then his chin and he looked up.

“Eeeeelehhhvuh” he replied, eyeing me closely for the cue.  I looked back to the girl to see if she understood.  She bit her lip and looked up at her own mother.

“Yes, you ARE eleven!” I clarified and then paused to gauge interest.

“A2….you could ask her ‘how old are YOU?'”  I stated in a futile attempt to redirect his attention from the excitement of a helicopter taking off from a landing pad.

Hannah was 7. And her brother was 5. And her other brother had his birthday this weekend….and he is 3. And her uncle lives in North Carolina and he came in to town for the party and now he was flying away back home. And there were green cupcakes at the party. With rainbow sprinkles.

STOP.

When you read this, what do you take away from this interaction?  How did it make you feel?  Did you picture yourself as the parent?  As the little girl in the pink boots?  As A2?  Or maybe you pictured yourself as the mom of the girl?

Since I was there, I will share my perspective.

  • Had A2 been in almost any other physical environment, he may have been the one approaching the girl rather than the other way around. He may not have automatically told her “seven”, the oddly missing number from his rote lexicon from one to ten.
  • I saw an opportunity to practice social language and articulation. Another child asked him a direct and appropriate question in a shared environment.  In our society, it is the norm to make conversation in environments such as this. Even though he was distracted by something exciting, this is still the norm.
  • I saw another child who appeared to not understand what A2 said and also appeared to not know what to do next.  It then became my role to subtly articulate for the other child and to cue my child’s part in the conversation.
  • When I saw A2 was too distracted to engage in anything socially meaningful to this little girl, I engaged her for a bit to see if he would enter in at any point.
  • I was thrilled that this young child caught herself and re-evaluated how she wanted to ask her question and presumed A2’s competence by asking him directly.
  • I felt frustrated A2 missed a social opportunity.  I felt sad he would rather flap his hands.  I felt gutted to get more details about a 7-year-old-stranger’s weekend than I have ever gotten from my own child about his day.

I imagine the little girl’s perspective looked something like this:

  • I don’ t understand why he talks like that.
  •  I know when people want to know how old I am they ask me. They don’t ask my mom.
  •  I wonder if he wants to know my uncle is flying a plane?
  • He didn’t know how old he is.  I wonder why he won’t look at me after I asked him a question…I feel uncomfortable now.
  • I’m glad that lady asked me about my weekend.  I love cupcakes with sprinkles and was glad I could share my favorite part.

A2’s perspective might be:

  • Humming of airplane motors sounds like the humming in my body.  The propellers move so fast, but that is how I see so many things…its like I can see each blade when they spin.  This is the only place I get to see anything like this! I’m so excited!
  • Mom is tapping me.  She wants something.  When I respond to her, she will then leave me alone and I can finish watching.  I better look up.
  • That little girl has nothing to do with this experience right now.  Why does she need to know how old I am when there are machines flying into the sky?!

Of course, I have no way of actually knowing the perspective of the little girl or of A2. I can only assume according to my own interpretations in the moment and based on my previous experiences.  I may be completely wrong.  The only perspective in which I truly have full insight is my own as evident in the richer description.

WHAT IF…….

Is it possible that my intervention was sending a negative message because I didn’t fully accept where my child was in the moment?

Because I expressed honest thoughts and feelings over the scenario, does that mean I perceive my child who happens to be disabled as less?

Were my choices in this situation potentially fueled by own differences?  Would it matter if they were?

If I did nothing, would the girl have pressed on?

Would her mother tell her “come on, he can’t answer you” and leave before the little girl could wait him out?

Would she have learned that in the future not to bother to ask questions of kids who flap and have trouble speaking?

Should I have insisted he turn from the window?

Should I have answered everything for him?

Should I have explained what she could do to connect with him in the moment?

Should I have insisted the mother help her child connect with mine when he didn’t answer?

Do I represent all mothers of all autistic children?  Mothers of all children with Autism? All Autism Moms in this situation?

Does she represent all 7-year-old neurotypical children?

I am a parent.  I make many decisions for my minor children every day. I make them do things that go against what they want to do because that is an uncomfortable reality of parenting.  Sometimes I give in to things when I am feeling tired or lazy. Other times, I just make the wrong decision or don’t respect their feelings and apologize later. The fact that I am literally my child’s interpreter due to his disability complicates this parenting thing because I cannot untangle the ball of cords that being a parent to my child vs. being a parent to my autistic child is. I have no choice but to parent him from the only perspective I have day in and day out just like every other adult given the privilege of parenting. The thing I know for certain is every decision and action comes out of the intense and blinding love I have for them.

As a society, we are all learning together what it means to be inclusive, accommodating, and how language can affect disability rights.  The growing pains with this process are palpable.

Subcultures and their preferences exist in any community and are often elusive to the general population. But these issues tend to sit right below the surface for the group affected, creating a dissonance that effectively can halt any movement forward outside of the culture.

A simple/not so simple example:

Many adults on the spectrum prefer “autistic” as they do not see autism as a disability but rather as a difference.  Yet, in academia, person first language is still being regularly taught. Some parent perspectives dictate a different mindset around autism preferring “has autism” and would never refer to their own child as autistic. As a professional in the field, writer and parent, I trip over how to refer to autism, my kids or myself for fear of sounding ableist and this nuance could alienate the very community for which I want to advocate, regardless of my perspective in family systems theory.  When asking my own kids what they prefer, one says “yeah” to either option leaving me as his parent with the choice. The other has told me he doesn’t want to refer to it at all because he doesn’t care, doesn’t know why it matters or why he would ever have to explain it to anyone to begin with.  Clearly, this hot topic within our autism community, this invisible topic to the general population, is a complete non-issue to my boys.

It is all about perspective.

There are many voices making up the autism community.  There is a tentative balance in how we talk about autism and how we approach the disability perspective in the community. Perhaps it is because there are some great, big general rules of thumb when it comes to respecting individual differences and abilities. Perhaps it is because disability voices should get precedence as representative to their individual needs and possibly the needs of others.  Perhaps it is because sometimes those individual narratives are different from the realities of many families and it becomes difficult to separate this inconvenient truth when there are no other options.

My goal as a parent is to give my children as many opportunities to be successful and independent as they can be which means the choices I make for them as I google how to unwind that mess of cords will be based on their individual needs and the options and resources available. I also recognize that we do not live in a vacuum.  My experiences and access and circumstance dictates certain necessities.  I absolutely cannot expect that society as a whole will know or understand how to accept and provide the individual needs my child has based on his disability when I am not even certain I always know what they are.

There will always be Hannahs in pink rain boots who approach disability as a curious difference.  Whether she grows up with the same perspective is up to us as individuals, as caregivers and as a community in these brief moments. The one thing I know for certain is we are evolving toward a collective understanding from many different perspectives and these perspectives come from a place of respect and love. Almost always.  We all have to be better.

Day 1 2015: A is for Aides

Day 1 2016: A is for Advocacy

Autism’s Lost Text Message

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

Hi A2.  This is Ryder

Are you in bed?????

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would rather___________ than go to curriculum night.

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

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

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

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

Express my dog’s anal glands

Watch another episode of Caillou

Make out with Donald Trump

Fall asleep in an Uber

Run 5 miles in the summer without chafe guard

Receive a text from Anthony Weiner

Wear truck nuts as a fashion accessory

Get through a Monday without coffee

Drive across country with my kids with a dead iPad battery

See my dad in a man-thong

 

 

 

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 4 2016: D is for Diagnosis

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D is for Diagnosis

By the time my oldest was 18 months old, I knew he had Asperger’s….but no one else seemed to know except for maybe my husband.  He spoke like an adult yet seemed confused whenever anyone asked him something directly.  (“He’s a genius!  Listen to him talk…he’s just busy thinking about other things”).   At Mommy-Tot class while all the other babies would watch with wonder as technicolor bubbles floated by, he was finding his way across the gym to open and close the door over and over. (“He’s a genius!  Bubbles are beneath his intelligence!”) And yes, he loved to go to the park….but would decide which park based on what kind of public toilet was there and then would spend the majority of his time in said toilet if allowed….and I would often have to threaten him with a consequence if he didn’t go and play (“He’s a genius!  He’ll be an engineer one day…he just wants to know how it works!”).    While he also never hugged or kissed me, he would let me do it to him.  I said “I love you” any opportunity I had but he never said it back.  He would let me sit down to play with him, but his back would soon be turned and he was playing on his own again.  His conversations often consisted of repetitive phrases over a video he watched over and over for months at a time.  The list could go on and on….but the fact was that he was not particularly disruptive, he was functional and he was so cute and tiny and spoke so well people mistook him for a quirky genius.   What was difficult is that we lived far from family and friends so when they saw him for brief periods they would just tell us we were worrying too much.  They would see the quirk for a few days at a time….not hours on end like we saw.  So when my youngest got to be about 8 months old and clearly had serious medical issues all concerns we had about A1 went to the way side.  My concerns were still there but again were also pushed aside by the pediatrician when I would bring them up (“Some kids are just persistent” “Drooling has just become a bad habit”)  It wasn’t until he was 7 years old that I had him tested and really, it was only because he was floundering at school.  I was being told that “some kids are average to below average”….the same kid just 2 years earlier everyone was telling me was a genius.  I had to see if he had a diagnosis in order to get him the assistance he needed at school…And sure enough….psychoeducational testing by a licensed psychologist showed what we always knew.  ADHD and Asperger’s Disorder.  A few years later I actually got a second opinion from another psychologist…and guess what….same outcome.  On standardized testing. Across settings.  Again.  He is definitely not a genius…but he is also definitely not below average.  A1 is the fall-through-the-crack kid.  His rigidity can be seen as defiance.  His poor social skills makes him look like a loner.  His attention issues make him look lazy.  And as the person who lives with him 24/7 I can tell you he is no more of those things than any 12-year-old.  He is a people pleaser and when he thinks he has failed at that he kicks himself over it.  Overall, A1 is going to be fine….but I believe it is because we have recognized the thing that makes him different…but not less.

A2 was not diagnosed until the age of 4 despite my husband and I and everyone around us knowing something was very wrong.  What was troubling was that when he turned 6 months old and I started him on solids…everything else stopped.  Except for the worst constipation I have ever witnessed.  He stopped growing.  Stopped.  Completely.  At one year he was about the same size and weight as he was at 6 months old.  He stopped developing but did not lose any skills.  At 12 months he was the same adorable little nugget he was at 6 months.  Was it possible I willed him to stay an infant?  What also did not change was his inability to stay asleep for more than 90 minutes at a time.  Down for 90…up for 2 hours.  This went on for 2 years and one day I got the flu and was out of commission for 10 days.  I had to let my husband get up with him through the night.  When I got out of those sweaty sheets after 10 days….it occurred to me that I was not clinically depressed as I believed I was up until that moment my body became an achy, hot mess….I instead emerged a new woman.  A rested woman forced to sleep by a virus.  A2 had already been diagnosed by a fresh muscle biopsy at the Cleveland Clinic with Static Encephalopathy with Mitochondrial Dysfunction….we got a scary letter to take with us everywhere we went.  We were told not to let his blood sugar drop too low.  We were told to keep him cool in the summer.  We were told to have a very low tolerance for fever and dehydration.  We were told he had an uncertain life span.

At about 2 years old when he started crawling he found that rubber stopper thingy  behind a door. Thhhhwwwaaaang! He’d whip his head to the side and roll his eyes.  Thhhhwwaang again.  Again with the head thing and eye rolling.  I remember my heart dropping to my stomach.  I remember thinking “oooohhhhh shiiiiittt”.  I knew that was a stim (self-stimulatory behavior). For the next 2 years I watched A2 develop at 20% of the speed of the rest of his peers.  He went from being the most social baby of the group and as his peers developed speech I watched him realize he was not part of the group…to standing by the group and watching everyone play….to standing out of the group and not paying attention to everyone.  To this day I believe it is not because he didn’t want to…but because he knew he couldn’t.  He flapped.  He screamed.  He stopped eating all solid food. He had no language other than the vowel sounds of babbles of a young infant.  But he was still sweet, and loving and laughed heartily.  He was finally diagnosed at 4 years old with Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).  The diagnostic version of “your kid has Autism…mostly…”.

What’s in a name? Autism, Asperger’s Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, ASD, HFA, On-The-Spectrum, Neurodiverse, High functioning Autism, Severe Autism, Non-Verbal Autism.  You may have heard any and all of these used when hearing about someone who has Autism Spectrum Disorder (the now official diagnosis to describe all of the above as of 2013).  We will likely intuitively still call Autism all of these terms because as we have all heard “if you meet one person with Autism…you have met ONE person with Autism”.  The criteria was narrowed and Asperger’s and PDD-NOS were eliminated from official diagnosis.  In my private practice as a therapist, I now see children who come through my office with a list as long as my leg (I’m only 5 feet tall, but you get the picture).  Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, Dyslexia, Social Pragmatic Communication Disorder, Bipolar Disorder……all in one child.  Why??  Because we have eliminated Asperger’s Syndrome from our vernacular.  My children have both been reclassified as Autism Spectrum Disorder (as they are supposed to be due to consideration of prior history and diagnosis).  But they could not be any different.  With hard work that would make your head spin and a hard-core bitch of a mom they continue to improve in terms of working toward being independent, contributing members of our community.  But they could NOT be any more different.  This is autism.

26 Days of Autism Awareness from A to Z

Day 23In honor of Autism Awareness month in April of last year I started a project to raise my own awareness on my small little corner of Facebook by lettering each day A-Z and sharing a little bit what autism is and what autism isn’t. I have two beautiful boys both with Autism. They couldn’t be any different and while each have their unique challenges they also each have their unique strengths. Given how differently they present I thought it might be worthwhile to talk a bit about how Autism can manifest, issues facing individuals with disability and how Autism is a family systems issue.  My boys don’t just have Autism.  We are a family living with Autism.  Initially without telling too much, I shared how things might look a little behind closed doors along with a personal photo to my friends who might not otherwise get that glimpse.  But as the days in April passed and I became more comfortable with the safety of Facebook, a change took place with my friends on my page. Instead of the usual 20 or so likes I would get per post, I started getting hundreds. I also started to understand that perhaps the wrong kind of awareness exists. Friends and colleagues began to approach me to let me know just that and thanked me for my efforts. Acquaintances stopped me to ask questions. I had others quietly ask me for advice since they weren’t “out” yet with their concerns about their child.  And yet others were even apologetic telling me they wanted to help in some way.

Somewhere around “K” in the A-Z tale, my husband who is a private person changed as well.  Between the “likes” my posts were getting, the kinds of questions and comments being asked and he too was being stopped by supportive members our community he had a change of heart.  For the first time, he let me know that he was proud of us as a family and that he believed I was changing for the better through the process of writing.  I had not changed. I finally felt I had permission to be open.  The more he saw he could trust that I would still protect some of the more personal aspects of our life while still being honest, the more open and honest I could become.  The process was cathartic for both of us.  I asked my 12 year old to read and approve every post or blog pertaining to him and allowed him to be his 10 year old brother’s voice of approval as well given he does not have the voice to approve. My slow-to-warm, seemingly uninvested Aspie now looks forward to reading my writing and even asked to attend a large and lengthy public speaking engagement where I will be presenting.  Though I started with something on April 1st…26 days later I ended with something else.

April is Autism Awareness month…something that is like some weird little carrot in our world where every day is Autism Awareness Month. I erroneously thought “we don’t need any more awareness…unless you have not interacted with the world at all in the last 10 years…everyone has heard of Autism…everyone knows someone with Autism…enough already with the awareness….”. We need to DO something to help.   But as I found, most people who don’t live with Autism don’t understand it even though they thought they did.  And they certainly don’t hop on disability mom blogs to understand more. I don’t fault them for that. I would not either.  I am a mother of two beautiful boys. We live with Autism and other impairments here and apparently I was doing a wonderful job of walking through the world making it look like any other parenting…..and their differences looking like any other differences a child might have.  Though their Autism defines them about as much as their big brown eyes,  this projection makes everyone around us more comfortable but ultimately it becomes the elephant in the room.  Not just for those who want to ask questions around my silent insistence things are “just the way they are” but by letting my kids think that they are just like everyone else…when they are well aware they are not, leaving them wondering why their feelings are incongruent with the reality we try to portray.  So this year I will again start one more blog A-Z.  Its not everyone’s journey in Autism, but it is ours and it has been healing for all of us to say it out loud.

Autism Awareness Month: Y is for Youth

day 25

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….)