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

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What do you dream about sweet silent boy? 

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

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

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

What do you dream about sweet boy?

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

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

You wake gasping for air.

What do you dream about sweet boy?

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

You drift safely on your back.

Do you know you dream sweet boy?

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

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

Do you not dream at all sweet boy?  

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

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

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Day 4 2016: D is for Diagnosis

Why I May Have to Abandon the Best Coping Skill I Have Ever Had

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My heart is sitting in a basket on my desk next to my computer.  I stare at it wondering if I should leave it where it is or if I should shove it back in my throat where apparently it now belongs.  I  am faced with a dilemma I have fleetingly looked in the eye before but this time I pause much longer as if memorizing the outline of the face of a loved one I may not see again.

I love Facebook. I am like a Pavlovian dog when I hear that DING! and will switch over from work to see whats going on my feed.  Facebook is the most existentially layered version of the real world I can imagine. Everyone from my closest friends to those folks who have crossed paths with me for a brief yet meaningful time are there.  It’s the place where my elementary school besties and bullies post about their versions of how they turned out. People from a former life who hold keys to doors which ushered me to my current self are there too. There are writers and authors and even a real-life famous person here and there (sorry…I won’t out anyone) in the cache of my 560 nearest and dearest.  And I have access to all of them at the same time all of the time.

I take real 1-2 minute life diversions on Facebook multiple times a day.  It’s a weird and somewhat pathetic paradise.  Being a working mother is complicated enough, but I have a few extras thrown on top including a husband that travels and kids with varying special needs which means extra meetings for school, schlepping to therapies, staying current on research, hiring, supervising and managing a home team…and that’s all before actually dealing with the territory of settling in at the end of the day with  kids who just need extra.  Just when I might be taking myself a little too seriously or am feeling a little too isolated…boom….a cat video or Joe Biden meme reels me back.  Connecting in cyberspace is so much more my style and because of that connection I know I am not alone in this.  When I deal with work situations that matter to me, I am a rock star.  I have a purpose and can completely focus externally on the needs at hand.  But socially…yikes. Eye contact, staying focused, not accidentally making a connection out loud as to how the topic focuses back on something I can relate to better….none of those things are my forte.  When posting on Facebook–I can be funny and smart in sound bytes. I can get hoards of people invested in an ongoing saga about my fear of spiders.  I can walk away from a conversation mid-sentence without consequence.  I don’t have to think about where to look or how I am coming across because unlike in real life, by the time my human brain catches up to my monkey brain I have not yet hit “enter” and can edit what I REALLY wanted to say.  Sometimes those two things don’t catch up and that is what the “delete” button is all about.

Facebook levels the social playing field for quirky people like myself.  It gives me a social outlet when I don’t actually have time for a real one.  It keeps me invested in people, events and causes that are important to the real world all around. It provides an escape into brief, clever and timely humor.  It helps me find like-minded people.  It expands the repertoire of  discussions and ideas of which I might not otherwise be exposed.  And I can have all that in tiny spurts all day as needed. It really is miraculous if you think about it.  Communities of individuals who never stood a societal chance before are finding their communities right here on Facebook.

We know to take the good and the bad here. On good days, Facebook is my outlet. Internet trolls and maddeningly misinformed opinion presented as fact are the yin to the yang of my Facebook fascination.  I can roll past things or people who ultimately shouldn’t matter to me.  Something that I fail to do all that well in real life.  But this is changing too quickly for me to cope with in a way I find  acceptable by an election that divided the country before I had any idea we were THAT divided.  I am overwhelmed by Facebook friends and their words of hate or indifference being presented on a platter and served up as just another white meat with no other options for dinner.  I am breathless because I don’t feel like I can scroll past any article that has anything to do with leadership appointment, policy or ideology that may affect my family or anyone else I love.  Suddenly, realities of Facebook friends as minorities, the poor or disenfranchised are inundating my news feed faster than I can read, process and consider and as a seasoned social worker I feel like I am back to my overwhelming roots of weeding which causes need to get the majority of my energies and time.  I have a list of issues and phone calls to congressmen that will trump my everyday life tomorrow.   I am sad and fearful and agitated and distracted and rightfully so. While I have felt this way before on social media, I shut my computer down for the evening, be completely present and come back to a virtual life renewed. I can go back to meaningless status posts that make at least me chuckle at myself. However, in this political climate, I would be this way without Facebook and am having trouble finding meaning in those meaningless status updates. And with it?  Well, I feel much like I often do about real life.  Like I need to take a break from it.

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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Lots of people have jumped on the November Thankful Challenge on social media. I see people try for 30 days to declare the things in their lives for which they are grateful.  As a therapist, I can tell you its an excellent 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. It’s also helpful from a cognitive-behavioral standpoint.  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?  Well…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 at least have a roof over your head, access to clean water, some kind of education and likely at least one person in your life who cares when your birthday is.  When things are going OK and at least that bottom floor of Maslow’s pyramid is built, we can still say, “well….at least I have my health” or “I’m lucky I have food on the table”.  This doesn’t always feel so much like gratitude in comparison in our rich-kids-of-Instagram kind of society and when we are not bombarded by rampant poverty in the streets or young people regularly dying from things like dysentery or malaria. Yet as special needs parents or as a disabled people, we are often expected to display this type of gratitude and grace in circumstances that at times feel 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 a surveyor 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.  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.

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 that exists that 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.
  • Keep a mastered list of  goals to probe yearly?  You’re lucky we can even work on her goals with as many as she has.
  • 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.  Or what if your child’s class was going on a field trip bowling, but because they didn’t have bowling shoes in her size they just didn’t even tell you about the trip? You are probably going  to get more than a little angry…and maybe even angrier when they suggest that all the kids who wear a size 6 shoe will get to go to for a tour of a widget factory instead at the end of the year, so what’s the big deal?  As parents, we want to always feel and show gratitude to those who we entrust our children…but when trust is bent it dulls the surface.

At the end of last school year, 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. ASquared, you GOTTA focus on the positives.  You just gotta.  He’s a great kid”.

Do I though?   I keep getting taught that focusing on his deficits is how we move forward. And by the way…Yes, I do….and I do it all the time….but not  for the purpose of making sure other people can see the gratitude.  I unfortunately don’t have enough energy anymore to  make others feel good for doing their job .  Its not to be cruel, its so I don’t lose sight on how to do my job.

Focusing on the positives is why I have to advocate and ask for more.  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 quarterly 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. 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.  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)