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.

9/11. And Then Life Went On.


(originally posted 9/11/16)
And life went on. But never the same.

Originally posted 9/11/16)

About a week or so  before I turned 32 I realized exactly how selfish I was and just how little impact I had but at the time I kept that to myself.   For many years I thought it possible I could one day be a leader. However, my cherubic cheeks,  diminutive size, my damaged ego strength and my faulty frontal lobe betrayed me every single time.  I was a cartoon character. An adult who looked and seemed like a child in every way.  Even while playing grown up in my power suits and single karat ring, the truth was I worked in state funded nursing facilities selling hopes of a dignified death to desperate families.  And they believed me because there was a level I understood vulnerability and how to soothe it as only a broken lady-child can.

On this particular September morning I whipped into the parking lot just like I did every morning at about 8:45am. It gave me just enough time to  put my mascara on in my rear view mirror and dash across the street to the nursing home to get to my daily 9:00am.  As I dabbed the black goo onto my lower lashes, the goofy morning team people were on that local station and broke in to Foo Fighters to let everyone know that some bone head flew their plane too low to clear one of the Twin Towers in Manahattan and crashed right into it.  I shook my head and sighed as I twisted the brush back into its cocoon of gel and wondered if ANY adults knew what they were doing.  It was a beautiful day in the Midwest, though I am biased to any September day regardless of the conditions.  There is something about the promise of autumn as the slow and beautiful evolution into winter that is tangible visually, by smell, by temperature–such a visceral descent on all the senses toward the bleak and desolate blanket of cold and slush. Or perhaps I just appreciate when all good things must come to an end. As the radio duo blathered on, my assumption was that the plane was a small, single engine private jet that clipped the side of the building because the pilot couldn’t find a Starbucks before takeoff. It was worth being late to my meeting to see how this one was going to turn out, so I pulled out my makeup bag to put on the rest of my face.

At just after 9:00am, as I was thinking about cutting the engine, one of the DJs interrupted the other and there was an awkward silence for just a moment…just long enough that it caught my attention and I did not turn off my engine.

“Another plane just hit the 2nd tower.  I don’t understand what’s happening.”  And neither did I.  And neither did the rest of America. 

I sat in my car and for the next 20 minutes listened intently to verbal chaos.

I walked through the day room where there were two TVs on different stations but both were playing the same footage over and over.  There was no single engine private plane losing the edge of a wing. There was a commercial jet filled with regular people, that tore into the middle of the North Tower and immediately turned to smoke.  People on a Tuesday morning, many of which who were also on their way to their next morning meeting. Though there was still no explanation, if you stood long enough to watch all 17 minutes of footage there were certain things you knew you could probably rule out.

“Becky….Becky…can you turn this crap off and put on my shows?”  Poor Pearl. She said my name with such certainty and yet my name is not Becky and there were no shows to put on this morning.  My heart leaped and sank at the same time as Pearl’s spindly fingers wrapped around my hand.  Her wedding bands spun lopsided on her thin ring finger and the diamond dug into my palm.  She would never contemplate what just happened and likely 10 minutes from now would not even remember sitting and watching the thousands of sacrificed souls who would forever change history in our country.  I wondered if this is what dementia must be like.  I stood there watching this tragedy unfold in footage so telling, so horrifying that even after it was over, it wasn’t over as the smoke poured out of each building as if they were chimneys. Papers and ashes fluttered and floated to the ground like the first snow while bodies surreal while airborne sank as if tied to anchors at the bottom of the sea.  Footage of chaotic and confused armies of identical living dead covered in head to toe gray soot were wandering trying to find a foxhole that did not exist.  Camera crews live filmed authoritative sounding officers  standing in the lobby and strategizing their plan.  Community servants looking for leadership while nodding heads with axes raised and probably breathing the same sigh of hope I was that there were people who knew what they were doing and there would be an end of the day soon.  But then came the first BANG. loud enough that it was audible on the crappy 20 inch TV.  The workers stopped talking and looked around.

And then there it was again BANG.  And again.  I remember none of them moved or spoke a word but they looked to each other silently, uncomfortably.  It was that pause that made me know exactly what was falling to the ground over and over outside of those lobby windows.

They went back to talking about how to safely evacuate the higher floors with less authority and I was overcome with that same stillness.  And just when I had reconciled the first image of the planes crashing and exploding as the least shocking, it was shown again. Those of us who were not afflicted with dementia or a failing memory felt like we were seeing it again for the first time because now it couldn’t be confused with a bad action film that needed to be changed over to the Price is Right.  Now we had an idea of what came after as those recordings from ground zero became reality and unfurled into the collapse of the towers rather than a cut to the harried phone dispatcher who is also try to keep concerned citizens out of the red faced fire chief’s office.

And then life went on.

I had a meeting the very next day with a former employer who wanted to me to come back to them and pay my tuition for graduate school which started the following week.  I spoke nothing of 9/11 again.  An old colleague was sitting at her desk and I waved to her smiling.  She and her husband were important political figures in my city and I can only imagine what went through her mind as I bounced away seemingly oblivious to our hearts in our throats. I didn’t even ask about her son who lived right across the Hudson River.  But see…that was the thing.  I thought no one knew how to act because I didn’t.  It still was far enough away that we could all go on like normalish.  I was aware enough to know other parts of the world were much more quietly dealing with genocides and bombings and terror every single day. To assume that American lives are so much more valuable as compared to the rest of the world made me feel conflicted and I wasn’t sure what to do with that even though no one was comparing.  I was newly married, had a new job on the horizon and was two years out from a new future and I didn’t want to think about what it meant to have an invisible enemy who could turn my vacation flight into an act of war.

And that is what I told myself.

And then life went on.  And eventually it did for everyone else too.

Life wondering exactly how a loved one died or if maybe they would show up some day.  Life fearful of invisible people who ‘hate freedom’ and creating terrorists out of neighbors and seatmates in our minds.  Life of conspiracy theories about government far beyond just the tinfoil hat people. Life of knowing just how good people can be to one another.  Life of knowing just how horrible people can be to one another.  And life went on.

 

 

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.

It’s Not Your Mother’s Mother’s Day

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(originally posted Mother’s Day 2016)

To my children on Mother’s Day:

You did not ask to be born.  You did not ask to walk this earth and you certainly did not create your own realities and struggles….at least not yet.  You did not get to choose me as a mother.  I can guide you in ways that I think will ease your journey but ultimately your external successes and failures will be YOUR successes and failures.  You get to have those on your own and I will rejoice and celebrate and swell with pride as if I created those monumental moments but I do not get to take credit for those.  I will feel guilt or shame or sadness in your failings or perhaps I will distance myself from them for those same reasons, but ultimately I don’t get to take credit for those either.   Whatever respect or love you have for me through each stage of your lives is created, taught and fueled by me and  while those things feel like an expectation when it comes to a mother, in every other situation those things are earned….I will assure you it is the same in our case. It is not my expectation that you celebrate me today.  If anything, the onus is on me to celebrate you.  You made me a mother and by proxy after 35  years I was given the gift of the ability to feel love unconditionally.  I don’t choose to love you…..I have no choice.  What I do with that part is up to me. You do not owe me for being attentive to your needs, by making you a priority.  That is my contract with you regardless of circumstance.

So on this Mother’s Day, I celebrate you both.   The loves of my life.  May you:

–Never feel as if your existence was a burden to me.

–Always feel like a joyful priority, even when I have forgotten to appreciate that myself

–Recognize that you are separate from me….that my sadness is not your sadness…my expectations should not be your expectations, my disappointments are not your disappointments.  If I am doing this right, I will not feel like your obligation.

–Know that in my humanity the above might not feel that way because nothing makes me feel more joy than your joy….nothing makes me feel more worry than your worry…and unfortunately there is not much I can to about that.

–Never feel less because I acknowledge your differences.

–Always feel safe in telling me your thoughts and ideas no matter what.

–Know that when I don’t understand your needs that you may not be able to change that but you can ask me for more patience

–Always feel the love and respect I have for you and I hope that I have done my job in teaching you how to have the wisdom to distinguish and create healthy distance as you grow when others are not treating you with love and respect who should be.  Including me.

–Know that if I am feeling selfish or if I cannot manage something when it comes to you I will protect you from that by being honest so you never misunderstand my intentions.

If I am raising you right, for me every day should feel like the holiday we are told is Mother’s Day.  But for today, I celebrate and thank you for being given the privilege of being your Mom. Now let’s get to the Zoo.

xoxox

 

 

 

Autism Awareness Month: Y is for Youth

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

Autism Awareness Month. V is for Village

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Because we are so immersed in this world of autism I have erroneously concluded that everyone who lives outside of this Village is already aware of autism. However, there is a secret sorority that exists…one equipped with a secret handshake and password. I am in that sorority yet have no recollection of agreeing to join. Autism is funny like that. The Village of Autism parents is a unique one. We are a motley crew of individuals whose path may have never crossed otherwise. We meet each other in waiting rooms and lobbies of doctors offices instead of in the PTO. We have closed blogs and Facebook pages instead of casual phone calls. We learn more about the newest treatments and resources from each other than we do from professionals. We talk about how well our child is pooping quicker than we will discuss how well they are doing in school. Though we are typically the least able to, we are often the first responders to others in the Village because we are more likely to reach out to one another than we would outside of the Village where no one speaks our language. And we find each other….everywhere and all the time. Today while sitting on the floor in the middle of the children’s shoe department feverishly tearing inserts out of shoes and hopelessly attemping to shove A2’s newest orthotics into them with no success I broke down and cried. Just sat there in the middle of the floor, surrounded by ridiculous shoes with flashing lights on the soles and sobbed like a toddler might who couldn’t find the shoes she liked. At that same time, I peered up to see a woman pushing a cart with one hand while calmly using her other to push her much-too-large child who was humming loudly down back into his seat. We made eye contact for a single moment and silently nodded–her nod seemingly said “Yes….I know those orthotics were made wrong twice before in 7 months and represents 6 visits to the clinic over that same time. Yes…..I realize this is the 3rd store you have been in today that absolutely does not carry shoes your 9 year old can wear with the braces he must wear on his feet. Yes….I realize that your tears are really about your kid and the pain and blisters he will probably have again that he can’t communicate or the weird, white 1960s Frankenbaby shoes the orthotics company will recommend that look nothing like what his school friends will be wearing. Yes….I see you….and I know you see me….” V is for my Village. The quiet, connected Village where my family lives.

Now I lay me down to sleep….

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4:17am

My beautiful boy wandered into my room tonight.  His curly hair tousled around his cherub cheeks, pajama bottoms twisted in a spiral around his hips from tossing and turning…he marches in quickly as if he had somewhere important to be and then suddenly stops at the foot of my bed with purpose.  He rubs his dazed eyes all the while smiling that big Cheshire Cat grin of his. “Hug”, he says as he makes that long trip to the other side of my California king.   I can’t say I hate it when that happens.  He is warm and cuddly and doesn’t thrash and kick like he used to when he was little.  To the best of my knowledge, A2 has never slept a full night in his life and no one can tell me why.   As he gets older, he seems no worse for the wear for it either.  The stretches between night time explorations have become longer and my husband and I have become a tag team settling into separate sleeping arrangements at night over the years to ensure at least one of us wakes to the new day refreshed.   He tells me “scootch magooch” as he encroaches on the sliver of bed where I sleep and drifts off as swiftly as he made his declaration of his sleep intentions.

The thing is, my husband and I never wake up fully refreshed.  There are Things That Keep Me Up at Night. Who will hug him when we are gone?  Who else will find his sweet smile so endearing even at 3:00am?  We try to be optimistic about his future.  A2 will likely never be able to live independently, but dammit, we bought him a house and we rent it out to people today so in 15 years he will have a place to live….maybe even with 24 hour support staff and 2 or 3 other guys who are sweet spirited sports and music fans like he is.  We live in an expensive school district despite struggling to afford it to make sure he has the best education and connections for his future.   Though we are socially isolated as a family because such is the nature of autism, I remain involved with my religious congregation so he is never alone. SOMEONE will always know and recognize him.  I advocate and I write and I stay present in the disability community so he will always have that community too when it comes time for some else to step in as a guardian when I can no longer do it. A touchpoint for that kind stranger to get guidance or direction. We save the best we can.   We plan for the best possible services and outcomes to give him a meaningful life worth living. We are uncertain what services  will help house him, feed him, care for him.  We can’t be sure that there will be vocational training or health insurance or social security disability payments. All of which is unnerving when you know there will be no one to love him or snuggle with him or wipe away tears.  So we plan as best we can knowing surely, there will be some kind of services for him.

But tonight there is no sleep because now I am not so sure.  I know in the morning light I will look at everyone with a suspicious eye and wonder who around me willingly voted for another reason to keep me up at night. Half the population wanted political change and they got it and whether the overt intentions were there or not, they were willing to make children like my child the sacrificial lamb.  My child will always be dependent on others to be his voice, to protect him….his rights, his body, his dignity . My child and others like him often have no option but to live in poverty and have no political influence as adults.  I am terrified for him because no matter how much we plan, no matter how much we go without today, if it is acceptable for the leader of our country to marginalize him, make fun of him, call him the R word what does that say for the people around us who brush that off and traded my baby in for not voting for the vague “yeah, but she’s worse”?   What happens when it is a decided that my “standard retard” is a drain on the system making everyone elses’ life more difficult?  There will be a supreme court in place likely for the rest of his life who will err on the side of believing that as a universal truth.

The only politics I ever talk about in my writing is my belief that most people are good but misinformed. Perhaps not in my lifetime, but certainly in his, I believed that it was possible to change the world around him enough that true inclusion and a dignified life were possible and through that, the need for the work of disability advocacy would dwindle.  Perhaps I truly believed all that because I see the innocence in his eyes.  He is a pure soul who has helped me see good first and maybe I can spread that message for him.

So, forgive me if you were one of the people who so desperately wanted political change if I seem a little distant from you.  While I am hopeful that my fears are akin to “they’re taking all our guns from us!” it’s a bit harder for me not to be devisive when we are talking about my baby.  But don’t worry….A2 won’t judge you.  He is forgiving and will love you anyway.

Gratitude with an Attitude. The Bigger Picture of Advocacy.

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It is time again for the November Thankful Challenge on social media. For 30 days people publicly declare the things in their lives for which they are grateful.  As a therapist, I can tell you its an excellent daily exercise in mindfulness–a way to connect and be present for those things we tend to take for granted.  Soul soothing salve in the bustle of every day life.  If we take a few minutes every day to reflect on the things that are going right amid the trashcan fires of life all around us, over time we can actually retrain our brains to become more centered, less reactionary and supposedly just happier in general.  It becomes a good habit.

So, why don’t most people take appreciative stock every day? 

I believe its because most of us have what we need (most and need being our operative terms.). So even if you don’t have much, you DO probably have a roof over your head, access to clean water, some kind of education and likely one person in your life who cares when your birthday is.  Those are things we easily take for granted.  This doesn’t always feel so much like gratitude in comparison in our rich-kids-of-Instagram kind of society and things like rampant poverty in the streets or young people regularly dying from things like dysentery or malaria are not infused in our every day life. Yet as special needs parents or as a disabled people, it feels like we are expected to display this type of gratitude in circumstances that at times feels just this imbalanced.

I have somehow won the life lottery and I didn’t do anything to deserve that any more than some starving, orphaned toddler in a war torn country did to deserve his lot.  There are many people who might look at my family and think otherwise since we were dealt the hand of having a child with a disability.  We have a life that can be exhausting and lonely and sometimes just very scary but what I find is that when life is that way, it is rarely because of anything my child has done or his disability itself…its more about the circumstances around him that prohibit understanding, access, equality or equity.

And thus the rub of the special needs parent and the expression of gratitude toward professionals who serve their child.

If someone asked my child’s providers,”Do you think A2’s mom is grateful for the services you provide her child?”, my guess is that at least 80% of them would answer no. They would be completely wrong, but still.  If that same surveyor could time travel and go back year by year to 2007 when A2 first started getting help and ask the same question, I  suppose that the percentage who would answer “no” would shrink in proportion to year asked.  In the last several years, regardless of how many holiday gifts, number of hours I volunteer, amount of money I donate, number of thank-yous doled out, at this point I am still going to be seen as a wistful pariah to those whom I ask more.

As A2 ages and the disparity in needs between he and his peers grows, so does the need for advocacy.  There is a pervasive belief system which keeps those who are disadvantaged in some way from asking for more and it is through the guise of gratitude and the false belief that the basics are a form of entitlement.  You are lucky to get what you get….even if it is not meeting your needs.

  • 20 sessions of speech therapy for your non-verbal child?  Well…at least your insurance gives you that much. Some people can’t get speech therapy approved at all!
  • I’m not really seeing progress in my child, but the aides are nice to him and he seems happy.
  • He doesn’t need a bus aide.  He can make noise so its not like it would turn out  like  that boy who died on his bus because they forgot about him all day….
  • Sorting nuts and bolts is a career for lots of people. She may have an above average IQ but she’s lucky anyone is willing to take a chance on her
  • Kids just love him here at school, but no….we can’t tell you who any of them are so he can invite them over and extend those friendships to the community.  At least kids play with him here, that says a lot about the kind of person he is.

When exposed repeatedly to systemic issues that shame you into to accepting less, you get a little crisp when it comes to the process of fawning over people doing the jobs they chose. Can you imagine for one minute being OK with your child failing a subject at school and then thinking, “well…at least no one is hurting him there”?  No…those things are not interchangeable.  Ever.  As parents, we want to always feel and show gratitude to those whom we entrust our children, but when trust is bent it dulls the surface.

A couple years ago, one of the school administrators let me know just how stinkin’ cute A2 is and how he brightens everyone’s day and how much kids just love him.

“He has made so much progress..he comes right up to me now and always asks to see the PA system!” she exclaimed.  I nodded and smiled and said nothing about how platitudes like that can ruffle the feathers of pre-adolescent special needs parents because, you know….gratitude and grace. We have to show ours a bit differently. It’s not that we don’t like the compliment, however very soon, that go-to strength of his of being little and cute, the thing that draws people to him and keeps people friendly  will be gone. Drinking out of a sippy cup with a full beard is not adorable. It will be confusing and odd to people who don’t know him.  And it scares the hell out of me. So instead I say nothing for fear of not seeming grateful for at least that.

“Yes, progress.” I say. “Though I worry. He still cannot read, we still have not cracked that code and he only has one more year here.”

She side eyed me with a friendly smirk , lifted her finger as if to gently stop me and said “Mrs. ATeam, you GOTTA focus on the positives.  You just gotta.”

Do I though?  

Focusing on the positives is actually WHY I have to advocate and ask for more. It is not for the purpose of making sure other people can see the gratitude.  More out of the box thinking, more time, more energy, more inclusion.  I see what he is capable of achieving all while being systemically reminded in IEP meetings of things he still cannot do, how services won’t be expanded to accommodate that fact and how planning for a future where if we are lucky, he will get to be a marginal member of society. Unfortunately when faced with this frustrating reality, as a mother I don’t have enough energy left over to make people feeling good.  I used that energy up in the front end.

My child lives in a society that sees the deficits, that sees the differences and believes that the slightest hint of meeting his needs because of his differences is an entitlement.  A society that believes that being adorable is a strength. A society that makes heroes and saints and examples out of others showing my child dignity when they come to work or are being a friend.  A society that doesn’t hashtag abuse, neglect, bullying and even murders against children like mine.

So team members…if you are confused about my level of gratitude for your involvement with my child, don’t be.  I am never short on gratitude and when my child is happy and progressing, what our collective efforts are doing is working. There is nothing I could be more grateful for, just like any parent.

But I understand.

I too have a job where the pay is low,  the paperwork is tedious and 100% of my work is about helping other people. I too am rarely told thank you. But that is not why I do what I do.  I am trying to make the waves to change systems and influence the way the world sees people who are at a disadvantage. By accepting less simply because we are told we should be grateful for what we get is the dysfunctional thinking that will keep things inequitable.. always.  I am doing the future of disability advocacy and everyone who works with kids like mine a disservice by this act as well. When I am sitting on this side of the table,  its my job to check and double check your work, ask questions and tell you when something isn’t working.  That is not the opposite of gratitude, that is showing you that what you are doing matters. Its the ultimate compliment.  My kid is your boss and I am trying to teach him to always get what he needs based on HIS different needs in this world.

I’m just trying to do my job as his mother, one that is universally never the recipient of gratitude is often met as if I am a villain and yet is still the most rewarding job in the world.

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

Hope is the thing with feathers. 

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops–at all

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

–Emily Dickinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Halloween is right around the corner…here’s some of my top tips and tricks to make Halloween fun and to hand off to any of the indignant PTO moms who have forgotten that ALL kids want to have a good time…..

Running through Water

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Though Halloween parties have turned into “Harvest Parties” at school, the anticipation and sentiment of Halloween is still timeless. As a parent I find myself still caught up in Halloween and 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 Ninja Turtles who could just very likely just be the same child over and over again capitalizing on those homes who everyone knows passes out 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…

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