Autism Awareness Month. G is for Genetics (and Guessing)

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(originally posted April 2016)

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.

Autism Awareness Month. Day 3 2015. C is for Coping

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In the most typical of situations sibling issues exist. For sibs of those with significant impairment, these kids are often the invisible bystanders. Their issues and needs sometimes take backseat to the immediacy and reality of their sibling with Autism needs. We ask them to deal with leaving fun events earlier than they would like, let embarrassing situations roll off their backs and stifle disappointment. The rate of having more than one child with neuro diversity is high. Sometimes, the less impaired child is asked to cope and step up in ways that would challenge even the most typical and mature of children.

Sometimes We Smile (or Sometimes We Cry:Part 2)

I smiled 5 times today.

Three times in public and twice in private.

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I smiled within 30 seconds of arrival. My boy was flapping and waving with excitement to each bus. If given the opportunity, he would have run down the line to greet each one. Not the drivers, but the buses themselves as if they were fresh out of the stations of Sodor. Joyous in his innocence believing they each had their own personality. I saw him in a sea of adolescents, heads down, pushing past each other. Like the hustle and bustle of a subway train. Commuters with backpacks instead of briefcases. Shuffling, shuffling. Off to homework or tutors or practice for being the best at something since they were three. The commute to the next thing.  He sees me and gallops with an outstretched hand. I am greeted with a smile.  Always.

I smiled 5 times today. The instinct as a mother renders me helpless against noticing every single first-time. The same first times which beckon camcorders and cameras like the song of the siren and then whose passion slowly dissipates in the way the empty space between toothless grins are replaced by teeth yet too big for the spaces filled in. Our first times never end. Just more space between. My boy said his phone number out loud after years and years of practice. With no fanfare. He was just asked.

I smiled 5 times today. As I held up a wall, socially grinning and making deals with God. Chaperones milling about-clearing dishes, filling glasses- in a last attempt to seem as if they are helping while stealthy snaps from iPhones capture stealthy photos of their angels’ first dance. I am not a chaperone. They believe they are clipping gossamer wings for grounding by hiding in the shadows,  but their swans are molting on their own and would snap at outstretched fingers offering bread if given the opportunity. Mine laughs heartily and offers a thumbs-up when he sees a raised phone in his direction.

I smile and sometimes my child sees it happen and sometimes he does not. It doesn’t matter because he knows my humanness anyway, just like he would if his genetic dice were rolled differently. Today he did not see those drops of glistening joy and pride and I am no less embarrassed, no less ashamed, no less human for it either.  And neither is he. I have won the emotional lottery. And because of that, sometimes I smile.

My child is an enigma leaving us to figure out what HIS autism means, what HIS cognitive deficits mean, what HIS communication disorder means. And there are times none of that matters at all. He traverses along his own path, one others his age were expected to leave behind long ago by both parents and peers. One lined with The Wiggles and goodnight kisses and “marching parades”.  A path without expectation and never dissapating in private .  And because of that, sometimes, I smile.

My child’s joy is palpable and my heart levitates outside of my body watching him experience it. He can display the weight of his world, but then laugh at the same time if presented with the right silly face. I am never sure which emotion is primary for him but my own worldview tells me joy prevails because I could never do that. And because of that, sometimes I smile.

My boy wants to be part of the world. He navigates that weird and still uncharted middle school territory with explicit assistance. And when that help wanes, sometimes another child sees his light from across the room and without fanfare, crosses over, takes his hand and leads him to the dance floor to be part of the world. I am front row witness to the rare kindness and unconditional love we may have all forgotten before we went mad in this world.  All because my boy is just that worthy. And because of that, sometimes I smile.

My boy buoyantly flaps and hoots and repeats my name over and over and over in the space that should be the calm of my home. He also hops and beams and laughs when I walk away from my dishes, my reports, my vacuum when I cannot keep answering him from another room. He hops and throws his arms around my neck and kisses my forehead with a joy that is supposed to shed after our souls are deposited into these vessels given a name and a face. His love is like something from another place. And because of that, sometimes I smile.

These are the words of OUR life. He and I are both doing the parts we think we are supposed to do no matter how imperfectly executed. Because he is my best boy. Because I am only his mom.

And sometimes we smile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes We Cry

I cried twice today in public.

Once for me and once for him.

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I cried within 3 minutes of arrival, but with dry eyes and with a smile on my matte face. My diaper bag disguised as a monogrammed symbol of excess rather than a symbol of unanswered questions about wipes and formula and a change of clothes for my adolescent. No one can see what is happening behind my eyes, especially if I cannot see the pity behind theirs.

I cried twice today because sometimes the race to suppress overactive tear ducts in a maelstrom of circumstance and emotion is an unfair competition of tortoise and hare. Sometimes I try too hard and one too many drops pools before one accidentally pushes its way past the checkpoint and spills down a cheek. It is quickly wiped away.

I cried twice today as I held up a wall, socially grinning and making silent deals with God to make no one talked to me. Us moms, we were all in the same place…but I was not on the list of volunteers. Even the words I needed to hear would be a sucker punch to the throat and I would then choke on false pretense that transcends somewhere poetic. I don’t know where transcendence lies exactly–there are so many reasons those tears might seem to be faulty to everyone else. So I hold them in as long as I can and my tongue is held hostage leaving me still alone.

I cry and sometimes my child sees it happen and sometimes he does not. It doesn’t matter because he knows my humanness anyway, just like he would if his genetic dice were rolled differently. Today he did not see those drops of glistening emotion and I am no less embarrassed, no less ashamed, no less human for it either.  And neither is he.

My child is an enigma leaving us to figure out what HIS autism means, what HIS cognitive deficits mean, what HIS communication disorder means. I am tasked to teach my child how to move through this world happily, safely. Though we live in similar space as everyone else, he traverses along some alternate dimension often invisible to all the other children so I don’t really know how to do that.  And because of that, sometimes, I cry.

My child’s joy is palpable and my heart levitates outside of my body watching him experience it. He can display the weight of his world, but then laugh at the same time if presented with the right silly face. I am never sure which emotion is primary for him but my own worldview tells me joy prevails because I could never do that. And because of that, sometimes I cry.

My boy wants to be part of the world but sometimes stands motionless with shifty eyes because he knows exactly the problem, which he perceives is him. While I perceive a world that does not know what to do with him. I am certain I am the only one who reinforces that. He worries. He should be worried, because I don’t always know what to do with him either. And sometimes another child sees his light from across the room and without fanfare, crosses over, takes his hand and leads him to the dance floor to be part of the world. And because of that, sometimes I cry.

My boy buoyantly hoots and flaps and has a cognitive itch that somehow seems to be reached by repeating my name over and over and over in the space that should be the calm of our home. Diligent years he sacrificed to learn that what few words he might have are meaningful and understood because we have a limited time to teach the world otherwise. I taught him those things by making sure he always had a response. And in those times caught in an endless loop, he gets one from me, but it might be birthed breech–cord wrapped around its neck-choking and feral and blue in my fallibility. And because of that, sometimes I cry.

I worry one day my boy will read my words and will be hurt or angry or curious or furious and he will demand an explanation and he will walk out of my life because to him these were not words of awareness or advocacy or change. They were the words of HIS life. But that bittersweet day will be the day I will breathe easy with a newly missing piece who can navigate this world alone if he has to. I worry too my boy will be a man…still without the ability for any of that. And in my end, all the sacrificial words spoken on his behalf and judged were not enough to change the world around him leaving him alone.  And because of that, sometimes I cry.

These are the words of OUR life. He and I are both doing the parts we think we are supposed to do no matter how imperfectly executed. Because he is my best boy. Because I am only his mom.

And sometimes We cry.

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

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(originally published 3/2016)

There 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.

The Most Important Thing for Doctors To Know About Autism

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Anyone have a ________who works well with special needs kids?

                                   —every special needs parent on every local special needs Facebook page

Last year was the first time in A2’s entire life he got through a dentist appointment relatively unscathed.  Sure, at first he flapped and screamed and excreted that sweat stench he does as if he is a sea slug attempting to keep predators away, but ultimately Dr. Nate (not his real name)prevailed with him in the most awesome way.  A2 received the first x-rays of his entire life, full dental exam featuring the scrap-y, spinn-y and spitt-y things and actually left the office smiling.

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No one can resist the appeal of Dr. Nate *powders nose and reapplies lipstick*

That is the thing with ALL kids on the spectrum.  Once you crack the code on how to navigate around or through the anxiety, things tend to go a bit better.

Conversely, the same is true.  Once you REAAALLLY approach something wrong, the damage is done and it is going to take a hell of a lot to bounce back from armageddon levels of panic.

Apparently, Dr. Nate and his swoon-worthy dental practices on my autistic kid made more of an impression on me than we did on him because he didn’t remember his approach from a year ago. At our visit today, A2 was visibly panicking/attempting to act cool and Dr. Nate was taking a more gentle and cautious approach.  In a red carpet level performance, I loudly proclaimed I was going to the bathroom (office visits tend to go better when I am out of eye shot). Without skipping a beat, Dr. Nate said “Sounds good. I’m going to take a look here at A2’s teeth, but you’ll be right back…So…everything is OK.”

Dr. Nate…You know what to say to all the ladies….

Of course, I was standing right outside of the exam room door and I could hear him firmly reassuring my kiddo. I peeked in to see A2 standing in the corner with a toothbrush and the toothpaste from home and the dentist mopping up his face with gauze. When all was said and done, Dr. Nate said to me, “Can you come back in three months?  I think one lesson we learned is it’s best for mom to wait outside. I think next time, I will use a firmer, more direct approach, It seems to work best with A2.”

I thanked him profusely for his insight and patience. He replied “Every kid responds to something different and sometimes even from visit to visit.”

BAM.

Every kid responds to something different.  Even from visit to visit.

Yes, Dr. Nate.  You just summarized precisely how to to work with autistic patients. They are all individuals with individual needs and you must be aware of this at every visit.  And then you meet them where the are.

Pretty much just like everyone else.

While we are at it….a shout out to all the other doctors in our lives who got it too:

To the orthotist who met us in the back of our van for years in order to cast A2’s feet for braces

To the physical medicine doctor who immediately started using sign language while she talked to A2 when she realized he might not understand her words

To the hospital nurse who spoke directly to A2 to ask him his name, age and where he went to school instead of asking me right in front of him.

Medical anxiety is a serious issue for many autistic individuals. The sensory assault, the inability to clearly communicate and the fear of not understanding what comes next can be overwhelming to both the patient and caregiver.  We recently had a specialist appointment where A2 was tearful and fearful.  It was suggested we could move forward with the visit in one of two ways. 1. I could hold my 12 year old down by myself in my lap or 2. the doctor and two office staff could bum rush him and they could hold him down on the floor.

I wondered out loud what it would be like if while we were standing there talking and  out of nowhere two men twice my size came around the corner and held me down while a third approached me and I wasn’t sure what he was going to do. Boy oh boy….if I wasn’t worried about talking in the hall before, I sure would be from here on out!!

It may seem odd to many of us that a doctor’s office would not be equipped to handle their growing clientele of autistic patients, but really, physicians have a limited amount of time to spend with their patients and many of them have absolutely no specific training in disability. As parents, we take it upon ourselves to make certain we take all the precautions with all the details and do all the educating so an office visit goes as smoothly as possible.

Doctors. Take your lead from Dr. Nate. His approach holds the key to your best success with every one of your patients. Remember they are human, figure out what they need on any given day and then do THAT.  Us moms will take care of the rest…..

 

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

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The Grim Reaper takes a break to ensure his safety while the ill-prepared firefighter keeps his distance just in case

(originally posted 10/2015)

Though Halloween parties of my past are now called Harvest Parties at school, the anticipation of Halloween is still timeless. As a parent I find myself still caught up in  creating spooky Pinterest fails and contemplating what candy I can pilfer from my child’s treat bag without him noticing. Some costumes are so realistically scary that I am not certain that my red meat consumption hasn’t finally caught up with me and am opening my door to the actual Grim Reaper himself. There is a revolving door of Elsas and Harry Potters who could just very likely just be the same child over and over again capitalizing on those homes with full sized candy bars.

A couple of years ago I was coordinating a party for my child’s 4th grade classroom. 20% of that classroom had food allergies. I gently reminded parents that the goal was for all our children to be included, be safe and have fun. I was perplexed when one parent refused to change the cookie decorating idea she had. “Kids who can’t make or eat them can at least enjoy them for how cute they are”. In what I believed was a teachable moment I reminded her that it still excluded them and also created a potentially dangerous situation. This parent became so incensed that she quit the committee. While I still get as excited about Halloween as the next guy, I was horrified as one of those children was mine. Another parent was willing to not only exclude him, but risk his safety because she was so excited about her adorable cookie project.
Halloween has become the holiday where those children with differences become the most exposed and have the potential to be the most left out. The numbers of children with food allergies and other differences have risen sharply since I was a child. As a parent with kids with food issues and also autism, it took me many years to figure out ways how to adapt the most super-fun holiday so it was still fun. Turns out, there are lots of ways to do this both as parents and as community members.

Here are some of the top ideas for the “BIG 3” to make Halloween still the coolest holiday ever
1. FOOD ALLERGIES:

a. PARENTS: Sort out the candy together so you can help teach him what is ok to eat. Have the “SWITCH WITCH” visit later that night and exchange that bag of candy full of offending allergens with a present. Your child will be thrilled to have the best of both worlds. And hey, there is no rule that says the switch witch can’t give you that bag to stash away and secretly eat after the kids are asleep.
b. SUPPORTERS:  If you paint a pumpkin teal and have it on your front porch it will alert parents of kids with food allergies that you have an allergen alternative available. If you are planning a class party, ASK about allergens—be sure to ask about brand specifics and preparation—that can all play a role in safety. Please remember what it would be like to be 8 years old where everyone gets to eat really cool looking cupcakes except for you. If that were easy to do, none of us would ever be on a diet. The willpower of a child with a food allergy is like nothing most of us can ever understand.

2. SENSORY DIFFERENCES:

a. PARENTS: Respect your child’s sensory difference. If noise is an issue, avoid those homes that go all out for Halloween. Your child might be in for a “jump scare” that will end his evening of fun. Costumes are not always made out of the finest of materials. Have him choose his own and try a number of options until one feels right. Contact your local support groups for special needs—there may be sensitive Trunk or Treat nights available which may suit your child much better.
b. SUPPORTERS: Teachers and room parents—if you have children with special needs in your class, tone down the scary a bit. Spooky music should not be on full blast and the mulling around of 25 kids in costume might be disorienting. Have a quiet space outside of the classroom where the child knows he can go to escape if overwhelmed. And for Pete’s sake NO BALLOON POPPING ACTIVITIES OR STROBE LIGHTS!

3. AUTISM:

a. PARENTS: Create visuals to help your child understand what to expect at school parties or trick or treat. Try on the costume ahead of time. If your child does not want to participate in Halloween festivities, don’t force them. Throw a small party at your house with old school fun and invite 2 or 3 children he knows for trick or treating. Stick to familiar neighbors homes and buddy up with a child who can model. Sometimes “just a hat” IS a costume with enough thinking on the fly.

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Freddy Krueger as a child…before all the drama. He just wanted to feed everyone cereal and soup.

b. SUPPORTERS: If a child does not say “trick or treat” or “ thank-you” he may not be being rude. He may not be able to speak or fully understand what is expected of him. Same goes for a child who appears too large or too old for trick or treating. If a child grabs a handful of candy or doesn’t seem to know what to do when you hold the bowl out, give them a prompt of what to do or physically help them. Their fine motor skills may be impaired and the ability to just pick one or two candies from a dish might be difficult. Still compliment an aspect of their costume even if it seems incomplete. This is still their Halloween too!

 Those of us who try to make our kids feel included no matter what can get very good at scooping up the world around, tying it in a different bow and re-presenting it to our kids and Halloween is no different.  With the help of our community, little tweaks can make all the difference between Halloween being fun or being truly scary.

Autism and A Gun By Any Other Name

img_4970My brother and I were sitting on the couch chatting about politics last winter when I showed him a segment from the Daily Show.  It was a humor bit about calling a Wyoming elementary school to find out if they had a gun in the event of grizzlies. There was a laugh track and a brief photo of a gun, so it was odd to me when A2 gasped loudly, stood up from the couch waving his hands and both tearfully and fearfully begging, “No gun!  No! Shoot, no!”

We are not hunters nor are we gun enthusiasts and neither are my friends. As far as I know, A2 has never seen a gun in person or on TV, given 100% of his viewing includes Barney, The Wiggles and NBA.  He has never heard a gun shot. Neither he nor his brother ever pretended things were guns.  He has been known to blow some zombie pirates away gleefully at Chuck E. Cheese, but those are not even guns.

I reached for him to comfort.  He pulled away and continued to plead “no!”

A2’s language disorder renders him without the ability to elaborate and his anxiety rendered him without the ability to say much of anything as he stifled tears. I was perplexed.

The next time I saw his Intervention Specialist, I asked her how they handle lock down at school since I grew up when there were only tornado or fire drills. I literally have no concept of what they do.  She informed me they tell the kids it is in case there is someone in the school who should not be.  No mentions of guns or lack of personal safety, she assured me.

Fast forward one month.

While visiting my mother out of town, A2 was playing in the bathtub when suddenly he became very quiet.  After staring off for a few moments, he pointed and gasped ” No. Shoot. No. Boom!” I tried to follow his gaze, when I saw this….

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What in the world is “No shoot boom?!”

Apparently, the item of concern was the bottom of an electric toothbrush and he would not get out of the tub until I removed it from the bathroom.

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Upon further inspection

My child who has no experience with violence or guns knows what a gun barrel pointing in his direction looks like. He knows he should be afraid. And he clearly was now on two very different occasions. 

 I HAVE NO IDEA WHY.

He is never, ever alone with an adult we don’t know well, generally not even family. His aides are almost always supervised.

There is only one place it is possible. This meant we would have to question the people at the place he spends the most time and we are to have the most trust.  The ONLY place where he has potential to be alone with adults without us.

How in the world does one even go about doing that without placing the teachers, therapists and paraprofessionals in a position of not only defensiveness, but of questioning your motives or your sanity as a parent. A2 went 11 years with no mention of guns let alone a knowledge and fear of them. We had no other option than to ask because we don’t have the option of taking anything for granted in our world.

What is the worst case scenario you can imagine for your own child? 

Those of us with anxious personalities can come up with a bevy of outrageous ideas when it comes to our child’s safety.  However, let me assure you, when you have a child who cannot tell you anything while paired with the knowledge they will likely outlive you, you don’t have to have to be Type A, neurotic,  high-maintenance, helicopter or any other of the words that may be assigned to you behind a closed lounge door by people who don’t truly understand the fears of every single parent of a child with a disability.  We send our kids out into the world as a leap of faith in their teachers, therapists and caregivers.  And we also have no choice but to accept whatever the answers are when they have nothing solid to give us in moments like this.

I have worried about many things throughout A2’s life, but gun violence/gun safety has been super low on the list of worries that keep me up at night. (Let that one sink in for a minute….).  Almost more so than my frenzied concern over where A2 might have gained this new-found awareness was my sadness in knowing something stole a level of innocence from his blissful naivite about how the world works.  We don’t have difficult discussions in the way my friends do with their children when they show up wide-eyed and fearful about confusing and upsetting events of the world around us. So many things that we as adults keep our fingers crossed behind our backs as we reassure them they are safe, hoping with all our souls we are right.  I have assumed because A2 has not seen hurricane devastation up close and personal, cannot conceptualize a mushroom cloud and has never seen an automatic weapon mow down 500 people while enjoying themselves at a concert that he does not contemplate or worry about his own safety in these ways.  That the things that fill his iPad with cartoon characters and songs about fruit salad are all he should worry about. Man alive…I am pretty sure I was wrong.  Maybe the belief this is true is to protect my psyche, not his.

I have to take my best guesses as far as what my child does and doesn’t understand about the world. I also have to take my best guesses as to how he is affected by those things. It’s not wrong for me to shelter my tween from guns. For us, there is no meaningful teaching of gun safety or exposure that doesn’t end in a loop of doing it wrong somehow. The stern warning of “STOP! DON’T TOUCH! LEAVE THE AREA! GET AN ADULT!” is a useless four-step command since my child can only follow a two-step with any regularity.  He certainly doesn’t have the fine motor skills to learn the power and healthy respect a gun commands under adult supervision at the shooting range.

So according to the professionals, my non-dangerously-mentally-ill kid (who does not have an aggressive or hateful bone in his body) who can technically have a gun just like everyone else when he is 18, can’t be taught how to handle it carefully, how to shoot it or when to use it, yet I am to expose him to firearms in a way that won’t frighten him and also so he knows they are not toys and won’t pick them up. I would very much like the manual on how to do that.

There are 300 million guns in the US.  It sounds like my child has seen one of them in a way that caused him a great deal of upset and anxiety and how that happened will likely always remain a mystery.  We have dulled our senses and turned down the volume on what we are willing to accept as normal here. And this uncomfortable truth will eventually spill over onto my beautiful boy who can never tell me what happened.

 

 

5 Pros and Cons of IDEA: What Every Parent (and educator!) Should Know

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This tower is 4 years total of educational paper work for 2 kids and represents approximately over 300 hours of meetings, evaluations, reading and combing over data….JUST AS THE PARENT

(originally posted 9/2016)

I is for IEP, IDEA and Inclusion.

These three “I” words have forever changed me as a person.  If you have a child in special education, you probably just had a shiver run down your spine just by reading those acronyms in print and may be thinking the same thing.  All of these things serve as a blessing and a curse to our kids…and also to the educators and administration serving them.  Back in the day, the Individuals with Disability Act (IDEA) was enacted to refine and replace what few laws there were to protect children with disabilities within the education system.  It was meant to also focus more on the individual rather than on the disability itself.  IDEA has been re-written several times since 1990.  There are several things it does both in a good way and also in not such a good way:

  1.   It provides a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to all kids regardless of disability at public expense.  The key word here being APPROPRIATE. The downside: There is a pretty decent chance that what you and your child’s test scores say and what you know is appropriate will be very different than what the district thinks is appropriate.  And most likely because of that other key word….FREE.
  2. Evaluations:  This law makes sure that children with disabilities are evaluated in a way that makes sense.  We don’t want to use one specific test to decide if a child needs special education services.  That way  discrimination is prevented and ideally, these evaluations serve as a tool to know exactly what they will need educationally. The downside:  Evaluations are only as good as the people trained to administer them….and only as good as the educator who can recognize an issue in the first place.
  3. Individualized Education Program (IEP): These are legal documents that establish goals, accommodations and modifications to the general curriculum and access to qualified professionals to ensure that a child with a disability is learning at the right pace and to his ability within their environment.  These plans level the educational playing field for those with a disability.  The heart of special education.  There are 13 categories under which a child may qualify: specific learning disability, speech and language impairment, blindness, deafness, hearing impairment, visual impairment, orthopedic impairment, traumatic brain injury, autism, multiple disability, other health impairments, emotional disturbance, intellectual disability,  The downside: Because they are legal documents and may be audited and are monitored on a quarterly basis, educators may have a very high self-preservation incentive to make certain your child is meeting his goals….at least on paper.  The more savvy the parent, the more tricky this can become.
  4. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE):  This ensures that your child is placed in an environment that meets his needs as independently as possible in an educational setting that is appropriate for him.  The goal is to work toward the LRE.   The downside:  For those of us with kiddos with Autism, this is not always cut and dry.  Especially those who are cognitively intact but perhaps have a language impairment or another issue which may stand in the way of independence.  An emerging issue in the field is for those kids who are considered “twice exceptional” such those who are intellectually gifted but with severe behavioral issues.  And what does “least restrictive” mean anyway?  My kid who needs 1:1 to learn can totally sit in a regular classroom to do that.  However, I believe my district interprets LRE to mean that he be in a contained classroom without a 1:1 because then he might have more physical independence in that room.  Who is right?
  5. Protections for your child…..protections for you as a parent:  Because of IDEA, there are procedural safeguards in place to make certain that your child is receiving the services the school says they will provide and a protocol to follow if you believe they are not.  Additionally, these protections allow for parent participation and child participation as an equal member of the child’s school team. The downside: Let’s face it…if you are not an educator…or even know where to go to get what you need, you will never be an equal member of your child’s team.   Procedural safeguards and parent participation are ultimately only as good as the questions you know to ask, as your attorney and your bank account.  The catch-22 if you do live in a very good school district?  There is a good chance that anything that goes to due process is going to take a LOOOONNNNNGGG time.  And think about that for a second.  If there is a FAPE violation and it works its way all the way up to a due process hearing doesn’t that seem counterintuitive for your school district to allow little old you to go to court with them?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to fix the problem as it would be much cheaper and less time consuming to do so?  It’s not.  At least not to them.  Because no matter how much the school doesn’t want to throw money at something they can still probably afford to pay a better attorney for much longer than you can.  And besides…the year and a half it could take…perhaps that child won’t need what it was you were asking for by then…or make your life complicated enough that you will break and succumb.   That seems like a pretty good gamble for a district.  And then it doesn’t set a standard for other families to ask for the same.

The last 25 years have been interesting ones for the education system as a whole.  When the parents who walked before us clawed and fought and struggled for these laws it was at a time before the internet, before all the revisions, before standardized testing existed in the way it did, before No Child Left Behind and before Autism was 1:68.  IDEA is necessary no matter how you slice it, however it exists in a very different system than it did in 1990.  At this point I know a lot of the law like the back of my hand and the parts I don’t know I am now educated on how to find those rules.  I have a list of socio-emotional goals for almost every developmental issue at my finger tips and I have an entire community of people going through the same struggles I am at the click of a button day and night.  All of this has been achieved through this tiny-huge world we have online.  I know exactly the gap closure between special education kids and regular ed kids not only for my district, but for my school.  I know the 6 payment tiers that exist and the formula used to calculate how much extra funding my district for each of my kids for using special education services.  I know what belongs where on all 13 sections of the IEP and how to make a goal measurable. And I know when I am being BS-ed by my district.  I don’t know all of this because of my training…I know it because I live in 2016 and any parent with a computer and the desire can learn the same.   In 1990, my school district certainly was not expecting 1 out of every 6 children attending (or 15%) to have some sort of developmental disability….or for the Autism rates to be 600% higher.   My child’s elementary school currently has about 700 students and about 100 IEPs (last I heard)…all while serving about 29% of their students as English as a Second Language with limited proficiency.  Teachers are stretched thin. Inclusion and LRE are so important for our kids future, yet most regular education teachers were not taught the basics on how to include and teach special ed kids in differentiated instruction or how to manage a classroom where there are multiple children with conflicting accommodations. (ie:  When Johnny gets stressed, he can crumple paper…but Jimmy’s auditory sensory integration issues make it impossible to keep it together when he hears paper crumpling….).  Parents are communicating, educated and knowing the legal hoops to jump through if their children’s rights are being violated.  It is a system that cannot hold itself up and still serve our most vulnerable children to be the most successful they can be.  Parents…please keep fighting for your kids….keep learning everything you can.  Educators…please do the same.  I do not have the answer….I am just hopeful it is found before my children have to move on from the “protective bubble” of IDEA and there are no grown up IEPs.

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.