At The End Of The Day….

I was in a research study recently involving blogging, deciding upon content, deciding upon platform, media, etc. It truly was an interesting experience–I guess no one ever directly asked me to tell my story in such a way before. While they interviewed over a dozen already, many of which where “mom bloggers”, I was the only one interviewed who addressed experiences as a family living with disability.

Their takeaway they volunteered to share with me? Their experience with other parent bloggers did not include the same judicious protection of content/overcontemplation of concern regarding the forms of dignity I discussed, nor did it involve the level of scrutiny that dug as deep as our level can go. And yes, they do blame their kids for tough days or recognize the universal struggles in a laughable or relatable way and are rewarded for that relatablity on social media. No one else struggled in that balance the way we do.

In our world, there is a fine line which moves it’s position depending on who you are talking to. We have a job as family caregivers of disability to be relatable advocates who set the bar for how we and our kids are perceived by the rest of the world. And unfortunately, I do believe it can be at the expense of self care or which ultimately affects they way we cope within our family systems for the benefit of our charge. We are held to a much higher standard out there in cyberworld under much more challenging circumstances than other parents. I forgot about this piece I wrote a few years ago, but it was on a day I had a similar epiphany at the end of a long, hot summer. Sometimes, I want to say funny things about being a mom too. And yep…sometimes I am selfish.

Running through Water

bunny hillThere are some days that my heart breaks selfishly a bit.

Days like today.

As A2 gets older there really are no more play dates. While kids are generally kind, there are limits to their patience. It’s hard to figure out how to play with another kid who wants to stand at the bottom of the water slide flapping rather than going down. His peers are now preteens and the adults that are close by interpreting for him, ensuring safety and cuing socially reciprocal behavior are going to inhibit his peers age appropriate wing stretching.

Today, as I sat entering in my second hour in direct sun making sure my guy didn’t keep going past the “do not pass” sign at the base of the water slide, I couldn’t help but notice the world around us. I had nothing else to do but try to clear my mind of things…

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Yes, My Disabled Child Has Chores

Many years ago, one of our first home providers was working with another family who had an older teenager. The provider and the client were only a couple years apart in age. (Don’t worry, -the provider maintained confidentiality the whole time!).

One day, I asked what kinds of things she did in her job with the client, to which she answered,

“Mostly, I help her do chores. There. Are. So. Many.

Given A2 was only about 4 years old at the time, I was simply curious about what life at home with a teenager with a disability would look like without actually considering what life with MY kid as a teenager would look like. We didn’t know our own long and winding road at that point, of course my child would have chores! Didn’t the provider have chores? (As it turns out, possibly not, since knowing far more teenagers now that my kids are teenagers themselves–this parenting philosophy I have might be a bit of a new millennial enigma.)

What happens if a teenager doesn’t have tons of independent leisure skills and has difficulty with self-direction? Do we still teach them how to play with toys? No. If they have not enjoyed this activity as a younger child, then probably not.

Do we leave them alone to wander the house with their iPad? Well…yeah…admittedly sometimes. Especially if they enjoy doing that.

Do we plan on living forever to take care of ALL their needs? Yes, yes we do, but until we figure out an actual way to do that, that is not an option.

The most basic of basic skills must be taught to A2 in an explicit manner. He learns all sorts of things, just like everyone else, but at a snails pace. By not teaching him how to care for his surroundings and belongings, I would be stealing from his adulthood to bank roll a leisurely adolescence. Those processes start NOW so he has a chance for a modicum of independence, the ability to have options and choices and self-determination as an adult. Learning to fold a washcloth may take a typical child 20 minutes to learn and an hour to master. The same washcloth skill might take a year to learn and 3 years to master. Really.

At 14 years old, he is in his evening of the day–the last leg of time being on his side before he is an adult.

A schedule that includes daily expectations gives A2 a sense of peace because he understands how his time will be filled. This summer, with a skeleton crew of help, Momma has been on the case to level up on these skills, scaffold independence and watch him enjoy and take pride in these “activities”. He verbally perseverates less. He comes to me beaming and says things like “Wook! Do it all by yourself!” as he surprises me with a made bed or silverware put in the proper drawers. He is generally, well….happier with chores.

Chores a narrative of dignity and self determination.

Caring for our surroundings gives us a sense of control, a sense of ownership, a sense of responsibility and yes, ultimately a sense of community. If he has to do his chores just like everyone else in the house (ok…maybe not just like everyone else…he actually does his much better many times than his brother!!), I am sending him the message, “You matter as much as your brother and are an equal member of this family” and I am showing his brother equity and fairness by saying, “We are all capable of contributing in the ways we can to this household–A2 is no different”.

I am not a mean mom (most of the time). I like to think of myself as the same kind of mom who makes her sick kid take icky medicine when he doesn’t want to, knowing it will make him feel much better. Not giving the medication makes me feel better because it is easier and I don’t have to see him cry. At least in the moment.

Chores are a pain in the butt. I DEFINITELY have chores I will still whine through, procrastinate doing or forgo altogether. While being an extremely Type A personality and capable of high levels of organization, I am also extremely messy and it happens FAST! I do remember how this unfortunate dichotomy affected college room mates, though at the time, I absolutely did not see the impact. I had to learn that the hard way.

One of my current chores is digging up the patience and consistency to make sure I am teaching A2 how to put his plate in the sink, start his laundry, or wipe down the counter. These tasks are the insurance plan for a future that probably will not include me. As scary as that is to consider, I certainly hope one day it is because he looks at me and in the most apraxic adult way possible says,

“Mom, I don’t want to live with you and Dad anymore. Don’t worry, I have already cleaned up my room and packed my suitcase.”

Why I’m OK with Kids BOO-ing Mine This Halloween

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In U.S. suburbia at Halloween, if you are lucky enough, you get “BOO-ed”.

It is much nicer than it sounds.

Getting BOO-ed means opening your front door to find treats placed anonymously on your doorstep. You…I mean, your child… are to return the favor by BOO-ing another neighbor and so on and so forth. When we moved to our neighborhood 12 years ago, A1 and A2 were a toddler and infant respectively. Our development was full of mature trees, which also meant a neighborhood full of empty nesters. By the time the neighborhood turned over, my kids were much older than the new generation running the streets with strollers and trikes. A2 will watch what he calls “the babies” out our front window. The mothers are young and pretty even in their haze of exhaustion playing in the cul-de-sac and chasing down their little runners. I can relate to their frenzied outdoor fun since even with a 12 year-old, I too cannot just let my child out into the streets without supervision. Autism is an uncomfortable reality for the middle schoolers who in the neighborhood who don’t want me around.

But really, those little kids are functioning in their play where A2 is cognitively and they are at the age of humanness where they are accepting of his differences. For them, the differences are not about intellectual impairment, but rather size impairments as they watch A2 attempt to squeeze himself unsuccessfully into their Cozy Coups. Their questions are genuine and kind and they think nothing of him joining in the digging of dirt.

But most days, he will not join them in play. He knows those are the babies. He knows he is not. This often means I am benched from the cul-de-sac-exhausted-mommy-brigade that stokes glimmers of socialization and connection I had with other mothers when I was also young, pretty and still had energy.

Today, as he is every year since our street started filling up with little ones, A2 was BOO-ed. Twice.

Care packages are silently left at our door and I wonder which of our neighbors were sure to include him. Most know he doesn’t eat many solid foods, knows he might not notice something on our doorstep or spend much time with a special gift. I think despite my smiling isolation, I have neighbors who understand that being BOO-ed is about inclusion and is as much for me as it is for A2. And there is never anything spooky about that.

#autism #autismawareness #kindness #goodneighbors #halloween

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.  FAPE: It provides a free and appropriate public education 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 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.  Not only is discrimination prevented, 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 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 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 or executive functioning issues, this is not always cut and dry.  Especially those without intellectual impairment but perhaps have a language disorder 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 educators interpret 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. PROCEDURAL SAFEGUARDS: Protections for your child…..protections for you as a parent. Because of IDEA, there are procedural safeguards in place to make certain  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 equal members 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 as 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 since 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 district 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 worse, make your life complicated enough that you will have to back off and not follow through. That seems like a pretty good gamble for a district.  It also 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 child’s school.

I know the 6 payment tiers that exist and the formula used to calculate how much extra funding my district receives 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.

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. Please 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.

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.

Autism Awareness Month. T is for Teachers and Therapists

Originally published 4/27/17

T is for Teachers and Therapists

112. A2 has had a total of 112 different teachers and therapists in his short 11 years. Some were hand- picked….some chosen by fate and luck of the draw. Some were published, lauded recognizable names….some were quiet presences of whom I cannot remember their names. Some have been with us for the majority of his life. Some have only jumped in for a blip of time in his almost 105,000 hours on this planet. Some were stellar, life alterers….some just showed up because they had to. Some interpreted my coolness or seeming indifference to them as being non-caring. Some recognized that I always had my child’s best interest in mind all the time and understood it was important for me not to be too attached for fear of losing perspective and not holding them accountable should his learning derail. All have had a permanent impact on my entire family’s lives and for all of them, I am grateful.

A2 was about 2 years old in this photo. Debbie Jo was one of the first handful of professionals to work with him, and at the time, I had no way of knowing this fact. She was a paraprofessional in his early intervention program and always made sure to seek me out when I would come to pick him up to give me feedback about his day. When this post was first published, she was very ill with a long bout of cancer. Despite her county job, insurance, COBRA and her life savings eventually ran out. Despite giving of herself and opening up her home to those less fortunate, at her most desperate moments, because a GoFund Me account was set up to help with medical expenses, I would have known nothing about the exceptional kindness and generosity she gave to others throughout her life other than that small blip on the map when my child showed up in hers. Debbie Jo died last year and I pray that it was with peace given the level of selfless life she chose to lead that I was never aware.

We fight for our kids. Many times that fight is with teachers, therapists and administrators. They chose their careers and they have a job to do. The are human beings. We know the people who are in this for the good fight and we know the people who should have left years ago. We know the people who don’t get it. We know the people who burn the candle at both ends and we know people who have dropped the ball. I have fought many of these people who teach my child, but typically as collateral damage in a system that is failing helpers and victims. Fight,fight, fight SO HARD for your kids. ADVOCATE like hell for yourself if you have a disability. Don’t be afraid to call helpers out, but BE FAIR. Ask to see data. It is your right to see it. It is your right to question it. Do your research. If you have an instinct there is a problem, be sure to tell them you are coming from that place rather than accusing them but again, ASK, ASK, ASK how to be reassured. In their world,  no matter how destroying it is to us, your child may be a learning experience.  And if that is all they can offer–it is all they can offer.

In our world…we only get one time around. We don’t get a do-over. Recognize their human-ness and recognize necessity and try to create the most cohesive balance.Featured Image -- 1500

Autism Awareness Month. Day 2 2017: B is for Blogs

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About 9 years ago when A2 was 3 years old, he attended a social skills group with a speech therapist and 3 other “non-verbal” children.  A2 was by far and away the most interested in communication and social interaction of the 4 kids in the group. At that point did not have an Autism diagnosis, nor despite my education or background did I even suspect this as the primary issue.

I sat in that lobby week after week wondering what A2 could possibly be getting out of the group given none of the children had any functional verbal language and a great majority of the time the therapists were wrangling to keep the kids all in one spot.  After the final session, I sighed at the speech therapist and asked her what she thought was going on with my beautiful boy.

She asked me if I had ever heard of the book Schuyler’s Monster by Robert Rummel-Hudson. A father’s memoir about his wordless child.

I had not.

A2 and I left the speech session and immediately went to the library to find it.  I suppose I would have been reading more about parent perspectives of young children with disabilities had a known my child had a disability.  But he was 3.  He had delays.  A gross motor delay, a fine motor delay, a speech delay. He had weird medical issues. He stopped growing.  He flapped.  But he also looked at me and smiled, knew his name and cuddled.  Other than the cache of bewildered parents who sat in lobbies at therapies, I had no connections to others going through similar circumstances. As an action oriented person, I didn’t know I needed to have those connections.

That is until I read Schuyler’s Monster. 

In some ways, I feel like that is where my story begins.  It started as an easy read because Rob is poignant, funny and his words wash over the pages and get right into your brain.  And then…..  To put it simply, I was knocked on my ass.

He was telling my story.  He was me. 

Schulyer was almost exactly A2 right down to the personality.  I had to set time aside to read when I knew I didn’t have to be “on” because I wasn’t sure how what I would read would affect me for the rest of the day.

Schuyler has a rare genetic disorder called Bilateral Perisylvian Polymicrogyria.  I called A2’s neurogeneticist at the Cleveland Clinic and insisted he himself go back and read A2’s baseline MRI and not rely on the radiologists report. He humored me and alas, A2 and Schuyler did not hold this in common.  I finished the book and felt like I was underwater.

What was I going to do without Rob, Julie and Schuyler?

I felt connected to something and yet I never felt so alone in my whole life all because a piece of cardboard filled with paper and a beautiful little girl on the front told me life might not be what I think it is.  I was not an avid reader of blogs and at that point was not on social media.  I found their blog Fighting Monsters with Rubber Swords and reconnected with his words.  Soon, I found another blog that spoke to me much in the same way written by a teacher who had an autistic child called Flappiness Is.

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

I now had a community and resources I could access whenever I needed it.

I am an accidental blogger.  I wrote 3 posts back in 2010 and when I realized I really had nothing to say, I was done.  It wasn’t my time to talk.  I don’t know if it is really my time to talk now, yet here I am.  Instead of following 3 blogs, I follow dozens and all for different reasons.  I have met the most amazing folks along the way because of it including the now very grown up, very kind and very inspiring Schuyler.  And she seems to be exactly the person I hoped she would grow up to be when I met her as a little girl as typeset words sitting on my couch 9 years ago.

There is no need to be alone if you cannot find “your people” in your community.  I never dreamed that some of my closest confidants are people I have never met or only briefly met in person. This list is not exhaustive…..and most categories will overlap, but my resource list of favorite blogs/social media folks you might want to check out (note also most blog links will be the same name on Facebook):

Day 2 2015. B is for Boredom

Day 2 2016: B is for Behavior

DAD PERSPECTIVE

Bacon and Juiceboxes

Jason Hague, Writer

Just a Lil Blog

Dad Enough

Autism From a Dad’s Eye View

The Spectral Zone

The Autism Daddy

PERSPECTIVES FROM THE SPECTRUM

Autistic Not Weird

Autcraft

Seriously Not Boring

Deciphering Morgan

Autistic Speaks

Kerry Magro

Anonymously Autistic

Autism Uncensored

MEMES/HUMOR/KEEPING IT REAL

Autism Odysseys

Just a Minute My Cape is in the Dryer

Ink 4 Autism

Rantings of an ADHD Mom

Memes By Ashley

ALL THE REST

David Snape and Friends

Carrie Cariello

Love That Max

Finding Cooper’s Voice

Take Another Step

Autism With a Side of Fries

Herding Cats

From Motherhood

Our Adventures with Riley

Special Ev

Walking With Drake

A Day in Our Shoes

Special Books by Special Kids

When Pain Drives Passion. What is Your Story?

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As Kelly knelt  on the floor folding her lighting equipment into her duffel, she looked up at me and said in earnest, “I feel like we have to do this fast. These stories need to get out now.” I felt the sick sink in my stomach because I knew she was right, but we just got started.

I half jokingly refer to Kelly as “my photographer” only because “this girl who agreed to come along to take the photos of interviews I am doing  for this idea I had and had no idea what she was getting into” sounds lame..and lengthy.  Plus her quiet role moving about the room with the important strangers who agreed to bare their souls to me for two hours gave them legitimacy.  What do you call the person who helps provide authenticity to an experience?  I don’t get to own that part.

Kelly bore witness to a world she knew nothing about three months before she spoke those words to me in an Airbnb in Dallas, Texas. I met Kelly randomly through a friend the previous summer at a concert.  She was a confident, ticketless passenger on the way to a sold out show and found a scalper feet from the venue. I appreciated the cajones and thought she might be someone I would want to know.  I did not realize that five months later, on January 27, 2016 we would be sitting for our first interview of a few dozen across the country.

We officially started a whole year ago as of today. Happy anniversary Kel.

Words like inclusion, rights, entitlements, supports are finally part of every day vernacular but even by definition imply separatist “us from them”mentality and leave out the miles of mountain range between the first mile and the last. But to me, those words felt like more than just a start.

When I got up off the pavement a year ago, I  believed society and disability subculture were starting to speak some of the same language. I also believed that some of the narratives were getting further and further apart causing a rift within the movement. The time felt ripe to help normalize the experience of being disabled in a way that was not out of pity but rather in a way that lit up the path to be traveled.  It was time to assume that folks were coming from a place of not knowing and not from a place of not caring.  My personal mental exhaustion was not about my child or his disability, but the wholly unnecessary loneliness, barriers and misunderstanding by the world around us.  How off the hook is it I believed changing the world around us would be simpler and more empowering than kicking those pebbles out of the path one at a time?

At the time, not so hookless. I gave a TEDx Talk about the first step in climbing the mountain of disability advocacy as a society.  The itty-bitty baby steps of encouraging the general public to lay down misconceptions and engage in discourse with someone who is disabled.  I encouraged people to unabashedly just ask about things they don’t know. I called upon the disabled and their caregivers to collectively lift the stigma of living with disability by being honest and non-defensive in talking about what it’s like and what they need.  I traveled the country and spent hours and hours recording and photographing and connecting to regular people in extraordinary circumstances to put into pages and immortalize moments on glossy paper for them. I shined up a little piece of the internet for myself under a pen name to create and share in the most balanced way I could. People were believing in what I was saying.  People were hopeful. I changed minds. Momentum. Or so I thought.

Through this process, I held the value of neutrality and being non-partisan.  Everybody’s story resides in the same place within them regardless of the story’s beginning, middle or end.  Allowing people to tell their story while providing them with unconditional positive regard served as a catharsis for both myself and my interviewees.  I found it was not difficult to empathize with people whose world I didn’t fully understand or framework I did not fully agree.  In social media,  I shared stories of injustice or cruelty without solution or politics.  Awareness is the first step of acceptance…it is not the end result.

Alas, I am not an advocate.  I am a storyteller.

One year later, I am sitting at the same desk but in a very different place.  I feel scared. Was I was horribly wrong about this genesis of readiness for change?  It has been a challenge to remain non-partisan especially in a time when it seems that perhaps these stories sink to the bottom of the advocacy pile.

The other night as I sat hunched over my computer trying to put a cap on my 1 year experience, I tearfully told my husband we are beyond storytelling at this point. I am fearful of having too much opinion out of concern of not holding my neutral credo for the greater good. It goes against my nature as a social  worker. There is a war going on between human rights, human entitlement and government in a narrative that is getting louder and undeniably self-serving to each individual yelling. This goal of reasonable human rights only has a matter of time before we are splintered into pieces again and we are fighting against each other get what we need. It is hard to see where or how this will end right now. Issues that are truly a big deal today may seem like the good-ole-days in the near future. I worried about the juxtaposition of storytelling in an ocean of endless islands of stories. I was feeling disheartened and selfish that evening that this project was down the tubes.

Instead of walking away like he might during a moment like this, my husband turned and said “What if this is about change for the better after all?” He went on to contemplate the lack of passion and purpose as a whole in this country in our lifetime. The things that divide us and crawl under our skin has created less listening and more waiting for our turn to talk. Or worse yet, NOT waiting for our turn to talk and yelling over the opposition instead. He optimistically reframed this unprecedented business-as-politics as the catalyst of the birth of this generation’s common cause. The most powerful man in the world and those who surround him believe that there are “alternative facts” leading the rest of us into a state of despair and confusion over the possibility of never understanding what is true or real. This is the stuff of propoganda and crazy-making.

“But…hasn’t that been your truth for years?” my husband asked.

He was right. Those of us who live with oppression in some way or another in this country have been working off the premise of alternative facts for a long time. At least those of us who are caregivers to those with disabilities who may not be able to speak for themselves, we are told over and over to accept half-truths or are simply told “no” for nebulous reasons when asking for inclusion, equality or safety.  Or else we are dismissed,discounted or ignored. This is not new. Some of us sink into deep holes of acceptance of this and others of us jump up and down and yell as loud as we can. And sometimes we do both in intervals. It is through this collective place we can pull together instead of being one small group spitting into the wind while down wind from us is some other oppressed group covering both of us in spittle.

“I wonder if there will grow a common one big enough to make the noise it needs to? People as a whole are a lot more awake than they were…and maybe that is not so bad” he mused.

Regardless of what you believe or how oppressed or even how entitled you are, it is time.  Listen calmly. Don’t wait for your turn to talk. Take the information you get from other people’s stories and learn from them even if you disagree. Even if you don’t understand. These words may help heal or give you the tools to fight even harder or maybe even change your mind. We can yell as much as we want in the faces of those who don’t want to hear….collectively it may eventually work…but individually, that will not change their minds in a world where people are desperately trying to cling to what they think they believe.

It is time. We all have a story.  Kelly can tell you what it is like to bear witness to that listening from behind a camera first hand.

Or as she might tell you, it will make you woke AF.

 

 

 

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 it’s 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. Things like rampant poverty in the streets or dysentery are not infused in our every day life. Yet as special needs parents or as disabled people, it feels like we are expected to display this type of gratitude of circumstances in moments when it 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 rarely because of anything my child has done or his disability itself. It is more about the circumstances around him prohibiting understanding, access, equality or equity.

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 the percentage who would answer ‘no’ would shrink in proportion to year asked.

For many years, regardless of how many holiday gifts, number of hours I volunteered, amount of money I donated, number of thank-you’s doled out, at this point I am still going to be seen as a wistful pariah to those whom I ask more. So out of self preseveration, I have stopped creating debt and sparkling thank-yous unless I really mean it. And that breaks my heart for everyone.

As A2 ages and the disparity in needs between he and his peers grow, 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, even a little, it dulls the surface.

A couple years ago, during a conversation, one of A2’s team members let me know just how stinkin’ cute A2 was and how he brightens everyone’s day and how much kids just love him.

“He has made so much progress..he always asks to see the PA system!”

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. It is kind to find the strength. However, very soon, that go-to strength 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 might be confusing and odd to those 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 his current level of adorable.

“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, flashed a knowing smile, 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 my 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 feel good.  I used that energy up in the front end not realizing what lie ahead.

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 for which I could be more grateful, 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.