Now I lay me down to sleep….

cherub-retouched-2

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.

fullsizerender33

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.

Day 10 2016:J is for Just Ask

IMG_4894

J is for Just Ask

When I sat down every day last year to do this A-Z project, my biggest take away was the candid responses from friends and acquaintances.  Many of whom told me they wanted to reach out, but didn’t know what questions were ok to ask.

I understand that on a few levels:

  1.  As an inhabitant of this earth, when we see something we don’t understand or is different, we feel compelled to want to know the “why” or the “what happened”. Perhaps its part of the survival instinct-  A primitive way to avoid something that is contagious or preventable.  So, often times when it’s not thought about and someone approaches me and says, “what’s wrong with him?”, my instinct is to say back, “rude people are what’s wrong with him”. When I shift my schema and recognize that even in those awkward moments there is the possibility to make it teachable, I can have a lot more empathy for the individual asking.  After all, I am not sure I am that much more comfortable with a stranger asking me a more direct question either. (ie: “why is he making that hooting noise over and over?”when really I might have absolutely no f-ing idea myself in the moment but I would very much like it to stop).  Parents–whether we like it or not, we are the conduit to bridging our children with this society Many of us are their voices. Even if one person out of 10 who ask are asking to be nosy or rude, if we do not respond as an advocate, we make the assumption that all people who ask in that way are being nosy or rude.  So, instead of “mind your own business” or “whats it to you”, maybe try, “I think what you meant to ask is that you notice that he can’t talk.  This is his speech generating device, would you like to see how it works?” or “My child can understand everything you say and the way you asked that in front of him makes me uncomfortable.  There is nothing wrong, but it seems like there is an aspect of his behavior that you would like to know more about.  He has Autism and maybe one of us can tell you more”.  Pollyanna much?  Sure, but the only way we will change the asker’s behavior is by gently alerting them to the problem, offering a solution and giving them a reality check.
  2. On occasion, people want to ask how they can help. More times than that, people don’t realize we need help.  For those of us who have kiddos who don’t have a obvious trouble in the community, we move along to normalize our experiences. I have been told that I give off the air of having everything under control and that I don’t need anything.  Part of this is for my kids benefit. No one wants a hot mess of a mom in public.  Another part of this is because as my job as a therapist in this close-knit community, I feel like I need to maintain a balance of vulnerability and strength. The hot mess part needs to ride in the back seat to ask “are we there yet?”.  There are other parents whose kids CANNOT safely be in public places.  So, you just don’t see those people.  Their life behind closed doors is like an invisibility cloak and they are not getting asked what they need for those reasons.  Frankly, many of us have NO IDEA what to tell you about how you can help. My family comes infrequently enough, that to dole out a honey-do list also requires having to walk them through where things are, etc. Ultimately, this means more work.  If there were an emergency, they are not enough of a trained listener to know what my child needs if he tells them.  When a friend asks if they can watch my kids so we can get out…well, I still haven’t figured out exactly how one explains that you can’t imagine asking them to change a 10 year old’s diaper ….or telling them they probably won’t get to sleep through the night and must keep one eye open when they are sleeping.  Sometimes people ask to help but they just don’t want to do what you do need. Their perception becomes that you are unreasonable. It is your own fault you are not taking their help.  All can serve as barriers to asking the right questions or giving the right answers for assistance.
  3. People make assumptions instead of asking at all.  Just the other night, a young woman I work with asked me for advice in a situation about a member of her not-for-profit youth group. This teenage girl has Autism and when the entire group is together she tends to get very dramatic and will end her tirade by running out of the room.  This young woman sighed and said, “She only does it in big groups. Obviously attention….we are thinking of ways to let her know that maybe this group isn’t a good fit for her. It’s not-for-profit, so we can’t tell her she can’t be part of it.” We discussed the fact that perhaps they were misreading the function of the girl’s behavior.  The consequence is what sustains the behavior– if no one is rushing out after her, what is the likelihood that this behavior is to get attention and not escape or something internal due to the stress of being in a large group?   She wondered aloud if they should contact the girl’s mother to try to figure it out.  I wondered aloud what would happen if they just asked the girl herself, since she is her own expert.  Use the time and energy to find out what she needs to be a part of the group in a way that works for her rather than using that energy to figure out a way to help her move on.  We cannot help but to look at others using our own lenses.  But sometimes our lenses are smudged, are rose colored or even broken.  By not asking in this kind of situation, others assume they know what is best.

Lets face it. It’s uncomfortable to ask about people who are different than we are. 

We may be curious, afraid of coming off as rude or misread other’s cues.  We may not want to know the answer, we may not want to change our own ways.  We may already have assumptions and think we are right, we may be uncomfortable due to our own scripts about social norms, or frankly, some of us…we may just not care. 

For those of us being asked, we may be offended, we may be hurt, we may not want to talk about it.  We may not know the answer, we may not want to admit to an issue or call attention to it or we may not want to be reminded.  We may not want to be rejected. 

So let’s all agree on something. Asking and telling can suck at the outset.  Let’s move past it.

Those of us who are Autism Families…we ARE the awareness. How you choose to let that manifest is up to you.  In my world, however, if you ask me, I promise to tell you.

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

IMG_4868
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

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.

Day 4 2016: D is for Diagnosis

IMG_4731

D is for Diagnosis

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

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

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

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

Day 1 2016: A is for Advocacy

FullSizeRender(9)

A is for Advocacy .

Today is World Autism Awareness Day.  Coincidentally, it is also the day that I will be speaking in front of a very large audience at a Tedx Event stealthily addressing the first step necessary in tackling the mountain for disability advocacy as whole in society. About a year ago I realized that I was advocating my way to an early grave.  The individual battles, bureaucracy and other professional’s personal agendas were getting to be insurmountable.  So I stopped.  I don’t think I have looked at a piece of paper with either child’s name on it in almost a year.  I did it out of self-preservation….I did it as a life insurance policy because I have to live one day longer than A2.  My real life insurance policy runs out in 7 years so I either needed to up the ante and increase my red meat consumption to run out my clock or back away.  I chose back away.  And during that time a metamorphosis occurred.   I realized that it may be much easier and much more impactful to change the world around my children through advocacy rather than to fight the good fight one arduous and marginally successful battle at a time.  And if you know me personally, I think you saw it happening too because people are believing in my movement…quickly.  Very, very quickly.  It’s working already.

Advocacy for those with Autism and other developmental impairment is  becoming a trickier and trickier thing.  The landscape of Autism has changed significantly in the last 25 years.  The prevalence rate has hopscotched up from 1:2500 to about 1:68.  That’s a 600% increase.  One reason may be is that as professionals become more familiar with ASD it has been more frequently diagnosed.  While this is true, conventional wisdom tells me that this is only a small part.  Let’s face it…how many non-verbal, incontinent pre-adolescents did you know growing up?  Because at one point in the last few years I had 2 living on my cul-de-sac.  This is not counting the other 8 with varying degrees of ASD who live within a 3 block radius.  The prevalence rate has risen at the same time computers became a common household item and paying for the internet became yet another utility bill.  For the first time ever, previously isolated families and those with disabilities had a way to connect with a community and also gain information about treatments, supports and advocacy.  I have learned more about what to do for my children through the Internet than any professional has ever taught me.  People who were diagnosed (or perhaps misdiagnosed) 20 years ago are finding each other and forming a neurodiversity movement.  It is for these reasons that I believe the disabilities rights movement has the potential to be the swiftest civil rights movement in history.  However, I also believe that it could be one that never fully comes to light for the same reasons.  Advocacy and fighting for individual rights are actually very personal experiences.  We all have our stories…and some frankly would make most people’s ears bleed to hear them.  What is right for one individual may not be whats best for another…and the reasons vary.  Mix this in with hypervigilant parents, hypervigilant self-advocates, a fragmented healthcare system and school systems who may have been better equipped to deal with IDEA at a time when they might see 1 kid with ASD in their whole district rather than 20 just in one grade and we have a recipe for a whole system collapsing in on itself with the casualties being the very people we are advocating for.  (**Internet Troll Disclaimer:  REEELLLAAAXX…..I’m not talking about YOU specifically….I have included other hypothetical situations…as well as many I did not….).  As a group, I am challenging everyone  to think about the common threads rather than the details.  Go talk to an anti-vaxx parent…and then go talk to a pro-vaxx one.  Have a chat with a parent who paid for 40 hours a week of ABA therapy that was ultimately successful for their child…but also talk to an adult with ASD who had ABA back in a time we called it Lovaas and there was no such thing as “errorless learning”.  Talk to the retirement aged parent you don’t see because they are trapped in their house on lockdown with their adult child who is severely affected with Autism, violent, self injurious and an elopement risk but there is no funding to place them in a safe environment.  Then go talk to the Autistic adult who wants people to accept that people first language is harmful and ASD is not something to cure.  Ask them all to talk about a time they needed to advocate for themselves.  And listen closely.  Self preservation and love are both innate.

It’s Autism Awareness month.  Let’s raise the RIGHT kind of awareness shall we?  We can be a united front even when we have our own agendas.  He HAVE to be a united front even when we have our own agendas.  The future as society as a whole is depending on it…..

Random Acts of Dignity: The Ultimate Advocacy for My Disabled Child

IMG_3505

Dear Donna, Cashier at Wendy’s,

My 10 year old and I stopped in for lunch today on your shift. I could see after you asked him how he was doing today that his jumbled answer might have caught you off guard. You shifted your eyes to me and then back to him as he continued…something that happens all the time in our world. So I looked down at him and as his 24/7 speech and language coach I said “You can say, ‘I’m good!'”.

But then you caught me off guard. Instead of looking to me for his order, you asked him.

He answered you.

You leaned in and said “I think you said you want a cup of water. Is that right?”

He nodded.

“Aren’t you getting anything to eat?! What else?”

After he excitedly spit out a string of jargon you asked him to slow down and try again. So he did.

“Fuhweyes” he said.

What size?” you asked.

Mee-yum.

Great….anything else?” she asked, glancing quickly in my direction.

I shook my head as my son clearly said, “Nope!”

What you didn’t know as we held up the line is that my son has Childhood Apraxia of Speech, but the name of his disorder didn’t matter to you. What mattered to you was making sure you got his order right.

You didn’t “let” him be an equal patron at your restaurant…he just was.

You let him be his own expert.

You presumed competence. Not your version of competence, his.

You allowed him the dignity of time.

You asked him his name to put on the screen for his order just like everyone else and checked out to see if you said it right. You even asked him if he knew how to spell it for you. So he did.

Through this act I am certain you are not expecting a newspaper article or local talk show segment. You weren’t trying to be noticed or given kudos or wanting to be called a hero because you took a moment and tried a little harder. You wanted a 10 year old at your counter to order lunch just like any other 10-year-old might on a Friday afternoon.

Advocacy and inclusion are tricky things. When they come from a place of equality, empathy and understanding they are wonderful things. When it lacks authenticity, it can still have a place but can also be humiliating and damaging to an already fledgling movement. By “letting” my child be prom king, shoot the last basket in the last 10 minutes in the last game of the season, by being so kind as to “be his friend” , well meaning people are inadvertently continuing to marginalize him. No one has assumed that he was worthy of the crown on his own, able to make that basket without help or that maybe he makes one heck of an awesome friend and that perhaps HE is the kind one.

So you, Donna your authentic advocacy is the kind that will change the way we as a society deal with disability. Thank you for lunch with a side of hope.

Sincerely,
A2’s Mom

Autism Awareness Month. V is for Village

IMG_8068

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. Q is for Quirky

Day 17

“Why does he do that?” A common question for parents of children with autism. There is no easy answer for that in a global sense given each child with autism is as unique as any child without autism. Many times it’s because the wires are crossed neurologically causing some kids like A2 to perceive things in the world differently. Licking a basketball before he shoots it, flapping his arms whenever he is excited or anxious or hooting loudly when he sees something interesting….try thinking instead taste sometimes is like balance, repetitive movements are calming to the body and noise is quicker that coming up with words. Sometimes the quirk comes because the part of the brain responsible for things like memory, the time it takes to process information and the ability to take another persons’ perspective has a blip and experiences the world in the same way much like A1. Someone just said to me “I always thought he just marches to the beat of his own drummer”. And he does. They both do. My kids are as they are and as they should be but at the same time they do need to be functioning and hopefully contributing members of society. Sometimes though, to watch the struggle of loneliness because others don’t understand is painful and hope that I am projecting my own anxiety and that they are more resilient than I give credit for. This unique and quirky nature of autism makes my guys who they are…..and they are perfect to me. Perfect…and different, not less….

Autism Awareness Month Day 9 2015. I is for Independence.

Day 9

An Occupational Therapist once corrected me in a meeting when I mentioned that A2 ‘s progress is like being in a race. She said “no, it’s like being in a marathon, you have to pace yourself”….but not having a child with a disability herself what she didn’t understand is that he needs to be front runner in that marathon if he has any hope of functional independence as an adult. As any kid ages, it gets harder to learn new things easily–neural pathways are set, myelination slows down…so early on every moment needs to become practice or a learning opportunity. We celebrate small steps toward independence with hope. After 2 years of task analysis, A2 can almost navigate a bathroom (with the exception of going) with minimal assistance. Yesterday, he independently ordered fries. But he cannot be alone or play outside without supervision, he cannot make his needs known clearly, he doesn’t know what to do in emergencies. A2 is not likely to ever live independently and as older parents without a caretaker for him this is terrifying. So we move forward and relish and celebrate every step forward with hope…and so does A2. Each step represents countless hours of work, practice and sometimes frustration. Everything he does takes 50x longer 100% more effort to learn than a child sitting next to him. His independence is truly the embodiment of a strong spirit and determination.