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

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(originally posted April 2016)

G is for Genetics

I get asked often what I think caused my child’s Autism.  I believe it is completely counterproductive to even consider it until such a time that there is solid evidence.  They are here now. I love my kids fiercely. Our struggles would be the same whether or not we knew the ‘why’ part.

Infection in mother during pregnancy, vaccine accidents,  overweight in mother during pregnancy, gestational diabetes, inadequate iodine, diagnostic ultrasounds, prenatal stress, advanced paternal age at time of conception, pesticides both before and after gestation…I’ve read those all.  And they all have the same message:  “Dad….Mom (but more likely Mom)…you did something…IT’S YOUR FAULT.”   These theories are also part of what drives the Neurodiversity movement.  That is, that individual differences and biological diversity are a normal and natural part of evolution and Autism is no different, so it is not something to be treated. Behavioral disruption is misunderstood communication and all the comorbid conditions such as GI/bowel issues, intellectual impairments, mental health issues are just that. Something not related directly to Autism (a whole other can of worms within our community….).

Regardless of your belief system…there is only one thing we know for absolutely certain: NO ONE KNOWS WHAT CAUSES AUTISM.

To demonize parents who make decisions you would not necessarily make is also counterproductive. 

As parents we have an instinct to protect our children. When a parent watches the baby she knows slip away into a world of of silence or pain in front of her very eyes and no one can tell her why or really what to do..well….just take a moment to let that sink in regardless of your parenting/political/medical stance. I don’t have to agree, I just have to have empathy.

Here is what we do know.  There is a genetic component to Autism and it is likely paired with an environmental trigger.  Just like Type 2 Diabetes. You can’t develop this unless you have the genes.  You make it far less likely to get it if you get your butt up off the couch, exercise regularly and do not eat like a regular American.

We just are not 100% certain what that common genetic component or the environmental one in Autism.  I am not going to even pretend to know anything about genetics. The best I can do is tell you:

  1. Picture a city with 20,000 streets.
  2. Now lets figure out which streets have public mailboxes, one way traffic, standard poodles and single mothers living on them.
  3. Only some people who travel down those streets buy mandarin oranges (not regular naval) and we need to find those people.
  4. (But what about the naval orange buying people!? Those are a lot like mandarins!)

That is what it is like trying to figure out the common genetic factor and environmental trigger together. When I had a discussion about this with a pediatrician 12 years ago she said to me: “Autism is caused by a genetics. Period.  To consider anything else is ridiculous.”

I sat for a moment and thought about that.  I then I wondered out loud, “Can you tell me another genetic epidemic in history that unfolded like Autism?” Crickets. I’m a pretty moderate parent…however it is no wonder that many parents are suspect of the medical system with that kind of definitive statement when the bottom line is WE DON’T KNOW.

Does it mean my husband and I have Autism? No, not necessarily…but who knows?  If we do carry that genetic material and we combined it….we no more caused the autism than we “caused” their big gorgeous brown eyes or fact that they may need to wear glasses one day. Their eyes could have almost just as easily been blue instead all things considered.   And if environment did play a role and all the Fruity Pebbles I ate during pregnancy kicked those  genes into overdrive as the environmental trigger, there is not a damn thing I can do about that now.

I have never felt the “shame of blame”…and I don’t think any parent should.

We are wired to procreate and continue population.  We can just hope that this kind of information will one day find the link that allows children who suffer in silence or physical or emotional pain to grow to be independent and happy…just like all parents want their kids to do.

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

Day 3

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

Day 1. A is for Aides

Autism Awareness Month A-Z 2015
A is for Aides

Running through Water

Day 1

A is for Aides.

Though I can’t find pictures of all of them, they have all made a significant impact in our lives. Without them, A1 would not have made the gains in language, socialization and self care that he has. They have cleaned vomit out of their cars, do not ruffle at the idea of diaper changes, and have endured power struggles with grace and maturity. They are the extra eyes and hands in a world where we have none but need 20. They are young…and move on with their lives from us but we have always known that we sacrifice longevity for love and are happy that so many reach out to stay part of our village.

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

I smiled 5 times today.

Three times in public and twice in private.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And sometimes we smile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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(originally published 3/2016)

There is a large manila envelope still sealed sitting on my desk. No matter how much I stare at it, it doesn’t:

1. Spontaneously burst into flames

2. Disappear

3. Take care of itself.

It does not contain a subpoena, a warrant for my arrest or an eminent domain letter. It was not delivered certified mail or by official messenger. It was hand delivered by my 6th grader because the teacher very graciously contacted me ahead of time to ask me how I would like the prior written notice papers from the last IEP meeting delivered so I could sign and return them in a timely manner to the school. It has been sitting and judging me silently for over three months now as it sits untouched. I am reduced to a Pavlovian dog, except my bell is an envelope and my saliva is anxiety. A crippling-can’t-get-any-thing-else-done anxiety. And I rationally know there is likely nothing in that envelope that should really cause this kind of response. But that’s the thing with phobias or irrational fears and trauma response.

Yes…I said trauma response. 

Often times prior experience attaches itself to something innocuous and we then pair our previous response with a neutral stimuli and generalize it over time. Caller ID with the school prefix, email and now apparently manila envelopes have become the manifestation of years of battles, blockades and having my already fledgling parental competency called to the carpet.

For me….my defining moment were words uttered in a meeting 7 years in….but 3 years ago:  “Its not fair for one (A2) to get more just because of your parental advocacy”  (which was agreeable…but in a whole different way given we were discussing data collection that was reportedly correct, not collected by me…and concerning). 

It is silly I suppose if you are the one who stuffed the envelope and have no knowledge of my defining moment or my other, more academically impaired child. She certainly must be wondering about the warning likely issued by the elementary school about my hypervigilance, because the experience she is having is the opposite. A parent who is late to answer emails yet bizarrely will parse apart data collection in an IEP meeting….and be spot on why it was taken incorrectly must mess with her own schema of special needs parents.   I have learned to become a very hands-off parent in hopes of preserving my own life in the last year.  I have a double-decker weekly pill case that houses my capsules of life extending medications that would impress most of the AARP crowd.  Yet I am not yet even 50.  Years of sleep deprivation and external stress can only wear so long in a genetic cesspool.

So there it sits….but not without words. It screams to me every day over the din of my responsibilities. But I am strong and I can withstand long term, unfocused wailing.

So I leave you with 3 truths….

A. I am human.

B.  I love my child more than anything I could have ever imagined.

C.  I am preparing for an uncertain future in a time that I will no longer be here to advocate in a world that does not see my child as perfect as I do.

…and there are things that get in the way of of the co-existence of Notions A, B and C.  

Sorry about the envelope.

The Days Its About Me: The Dirty Secret of Taking a Break

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(originally posted 10/2015)

Every few years, I go on a life sabbatical. Life sabbaticals work differently than educational sabbaticals mostly because they are not real. The notion that there are people who receive paid time to disappear somewhere to have a temporary life that doubles as a say-no-more way to avoid other social responsibility is magical. “No, no, I won’t be here to chair that research project, I will be away on sabbatical.”  versus  “Well…you’ll just have to have that IEP meeting for my kid without me, I’ll be on life sabbatical. Have your people call my people” doesn’t quite have the same heady ring to it and might necessitate a call to a mental health professional.

Unlike our neurotypical cohorts, many of us special needs parents are preparing for a forever life. Though we feverishly plan for it, there might not be a high school graduation send off party unless of course that party is sending off what few resource and assistance waivers our children got before they age out of the system. Diapers and tantrums are likely going to get larger. With the passage of time I am already finding myself getting smaller, more tired and more complacent in the frenetic searching, learning and advocating as certain realities set in. This is troubling.

Apathy is the ugly stepsister of passion. While passion will gladly cut off a chunk of heel to make her foot fit into that glass slipper in hopes of a prince, apathy will do so because its easier to make do than to shop for something to wear to the ball.

Endless details and inconveniences are just part of daily life in parenting regardless of circumstance. Its like the service charge for the privilege of parenthood and an occasional break from that is necessary for even the strongest of mommy constitutions. However, there are those of us who are so steeped in the present at all times where there are rarely idle moments not spent trouble shooting, even in the middle of night as we play musical beds and double-check doors. So I am mindful in the moment and I am mindful in that moment contemplated 30 years from now. The whispers of all the things that will come in between need to shut the hell up because I simply have no room at the inn left to consider those things.

As caregivers we are told to take care of ourselves, take time off, do what we love. This seems like cheap advice and when heeded I am reminded that ultimately not much is different on my return. The airline may have lost my tagged luggage of anxiety  while I was away, but it is surely taking a circular ride on the carousel at gate 6 when I arrive home. Time away takes me to places from my past. A time when existential angst was poetic, selfishness was better defined as a deep level of internal awareness and laziness was a sleep credit I could one day consider cashing in. The dichotomy for the surrendered love for your child and also wondering what it would be like if your heart didn’t bleed through your blouse every day is a quiet and unreasonable Sophie’s Choice. Sometimes its just easier not to be a tourist in your alternate universe.

In my life sabbatical, I am lucky to be able to spend a few days away from my forever life with soul companions from my past who live in sleepy mountain towns in New England. Their lives are so vastly removed and different from mine, yet anchor me to a world where I once lived. Lingering, casual vegan meals out where my fork is already unwrapped and folded into a crimson origami pocket on the table. Conversations are still tangential but are about politics, performance art and anecdotes of escapades in places like Nice and Machu Picchu. I meet new people—interesting people who talk about ideas and experience rather than people or events. Though these conversations have evolved over the years and now include points about how difficult camping at high altitudes can be with stiff morning joints and schlepping a c-pap machine, I am transported into a life of things that were once very important to me. Supportive friendships not sullied in the day-to-day. I can have amnesia and even forget that words such as “occupational therapist’ and ‘trash day’ and ‘bus bully’ ever slowly seeped into my repertoire of significant and meaningful topics of interest.

While recently on one of these life sabbaticals, serendipity appeared in a cameo.  In an unexpected and out of my control change in travel plans, I had the opportunity to attend a reading of a famous contemporary writer with cult-like status. His prolific works speak to anyone who has ever had a family or even just been alive despite the level of quirk and shock and neurosis woven through his stories. There is a distended familiarity in his writing and when he lends his voice to the story telling it feels like you were reading the original works in the wrong dialect of a foreign language you learned in high school. That epiphany of disappointment of what was missed in the original reading is quickly tempered by excitement to re-read in the voice and inflection intended.  Book signings are often part of these events and this writer is certain to ask each fan a question and attempt to tailor a sentiment attached to how he feels about them in the moment. And he can be honest. And brutal. And weird. And sometimes all. But regardless of what is written, it is enough to brandish your signed copy around to show everyone how he thinks you smell like coins. He is a story-teller and I believe he likes to stoke fires and create the story to be told even when he isn’t directly the voice.

While he briefly engaged my theater dates for the evening, I already had a question posited regarding his physical writing process. I thought if I asked him something preemptively I could kill our allotted time without ruining my self-esteem. “You wrote for such a long time pre-PC. Was it difficult to make the transition from handwriting your ideas to typing them out? ”  He answered and asked why I was asking. I guess I should have realized that was possible as a visitor in my sabbatical of the impossible.

“I used to write a long time ago. And then I didn’t. And now I am trying again but now there are computers and expectations. And its hard.”  I started reaching for my book he had not yet finished signing, but he continued.

“What do you write?” Oh crap. I looked at my anchor friend who was smiling at me and nodding and guessing he must not have seen the poor young woman ahead of us get eviscerated over her cheap perfume. “Its just a blog”. He reached back to put something on the floor behind him and continued.  “What do you write about?” He still wasn’t done signing my book otherwise I would have grabbed and ran…..the door was still ajar.

“My kids. There are…disabilities.”

“What kind of disabilities?” he asks without pause (door squeaks open a bit more).

I run down a quick and dirty list. He then paused and thoughtfully balanced the Sharpie between his thumb and index finger while resting his chin in the palm of his hand.  “Autism, yeah. My (distant relative) has (another relative) with autism. I fucking hate him. I HATE that kid so much.”

And there it was. Door now wide open. Mouths of theater dates wide open.

Hole in my heart wide open.

I ruffled.  “What is it you hate about him so much?”
“He doesn’t play with toys. They buy him toys but he doesn’t play them. He makes a mess of everything, destroys everything. Their whole world revolves around him and its ruined their life. I fucking hate him.”

In that moment I tried to decide if he was:
A).  a creative genius and there is nothing like making people uncomfortable or angry to get to hear some real truths.
B).  a complete asshole amusing himself and disguised as a creative genius and gets people to talk about him no matter what
C). Has absolutely no filter and has potentially is on the spectrum himself. Which would make sense if you have ever read any of his stories. This one is familiar to me. And also likely the thing he purportedly hates about said distant relative.

Regardless, I had to respond.

“Well, I don’t hate my child, but  there are times I hate autism. Sometimes it feels like it is ruining my life. I want to be done still getting poop under my nails but my 10-year-old is in diapers…. I guess I see it this way. No matter how hard so many days can be there is one thing that I am sure. It must be way, way harder for him, harder than it can ever be for me . And that makes me sad for sometimes feeling the way I do.”

We stared at each other for a time that was a few seconds longer than comfortable.

“ I don’t think I would have thought of that perspective” he said. And he then finished signing my book. As he handed it to me and I turned to leave he said “Wait. Whats the name of your blog?”

After I got over the “I’m really angry and I don’t care if this is a schtick for ideas or even if he has autism himself”  I grappled with “THIS FAMOUS WRITER MIGHT READ MY BLOG!” HE’S GOING TO HATE IT!” (#humblebrag)  I spat out Running Through Water.

“I like that. It really captures what that’s like doesn’t it?” he said as I wondered if I just made him more uncomfortable than he made me.  “Yes” I told him “both on the good days and the bad ones. Sometimes you are exhausted and get nowhere …..and sometimes it makes you weightless.”

I peeked at my book where he had put two fish stickers over the writing errors he had made to both cover up his mistake and also call great attention to the fact he made them in the first place.

You make me want to live again” he wrote.

Frankly I don’t even know what it means, but my story is right here Mr. Writer and you got me to tell it.  My writing is far less than anything I would ever want it to be, but it lay dormant for 25 years. My muse comes in the form of a cherub faced innocent who makes my soul light brighter than I could ever imagine.  He doesn’t ever get a life sabbatical.  Life sabbatical is a sham.  I love my children  but I hate my fears for them. Time away makes me miss my old life but it also makes me know if not for my experiences now I would not know that there was something to miss.  And I suppose its ok to allow those ideas to coexist as past and present collide and am reminded of poetry from my old life that I just didn’t believe:

“When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.  When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” (Khalil Gibran)
Every day is an opportunity to live again with new perspectives our old selves could not have imagined.

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

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

(originally posted 10/2015)

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

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

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

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

2. SENSORY DIFFERENCES:

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

3. AUTISM:

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

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

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

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

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

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

(originally posted 9/2016)

I is for IEP, IDEA and Inclusion.

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

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

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

To the Regular Ed Teachers: Top 5 Ways to Keep Special Needs Parents Off Your Back

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My home phone rang the other day right before my kids got home from school. For those of you who do not know what I mean by “home phone”, its that thing that plugs into a wall and has the # symbol that cannot hashtag anything. When the home phone rings, I typically keep doing whatever I am doing unless I am feeling a bit of whimsy to torment the telemarketer likely on the other end. The only other time it rings is when someone at the school does not know to call my cell…which often then strikes fear in my heart. So I picked up.

“Mrs. ATeam?” Gulp.  It was A1’s new science teacher calling to say “First of all….let me tell you I think he is hilarious. He made this cartoon strip ….” He then went on to disclose all the other things drenched in awesomeness while I was waiting for the “Second of all….” part. That part never came. He called me to tell me I had a cool kid. And that was it.

I am already too experienced with the school system to be naive. That same morning I had to send an email to kindly remind another teacher to carefully review A1’s IEP and Health Plan as there were some important things not being followed. Coincidence to hear from the science teacher the same day? Probably not. I am guessing he may have just been reminded that he had a kid in his 4th period class who has an IEP and a Health Plan. Maybe not…but as I said, doe eyed ingenue does not work as well with crows feet.

Unfortunately, what struck me most about this amazing phone call is that in the 3 years that my younger A2 has been in public school…my very speech impaired child…I have never ONCE received a phone call from a regular ed teacher just to tell me about his day in their class. And let me be clear about 2 things. Real clear since this won’t apply to everyone.

1.   A2 tries to tell me about his day. Every day. And we CANNOT understand him.

2.   I have ASKED  for communication. Over and over. Every year. In front of other people. To almost no avail.

So teachers…this advice is completely free of charge. The key to keeping us special ed parents at bay.
1. CONTACT US FIRST: Before school even starts, call to introduce yourself and ask about our kid. Give us your contact information. Assure us you are the extra eyes and ears for a kid who has no voice.
2. DON’T ASSUME THE INTERVENTION SPECIALIST IS JUST TELLING US EVERYTHING. My kid has a whole 30-60 minutes a day of direct IS time required in his IEP in our high-end-award-winning-district. My severely learning disabled child. The paraprofessionals who are with him most of the day are not permitted to communicate with me directly due to their classified employee status. We often get second hand info from our IS that sounds something like “had a great time in music class learning new songs”. The small tidbits we do get…well…that’s all…that’s ALL we get to know. The nuances are never there for us…if they are making a new friend, if someone hurt their feelings if they thoughts something was cool or interesting. And those things are definitely happening in my child’s world and no matter how hard he may try to share those things with me, if I have no context, I will not know at all what he is telling me let alone what questions to ask. The paras also are not allowed to attend IEP meetings even at my request. Were you aware of any of that? A2’s Intervention Specialist has 10 kids who can’t tell their parents anything about their day. She is ALL of their voices….and she is trying very hard to be all knowing by being the 3rd party communicator. But why? This is a team approach. While you do have 25 kids in your room, if they are lucky and have parents who actually ask them about their day, their kids can tell them. You have so much you can tell us and I guarantee all of us want to know.
3. INVITE US IN: To volunteer, to be a fly on the wall, to talk about our kids to your class. Did you know that neither you nor any of his other caregivers during the day are allowed to divulge any information regarding our child’s diagnoses to the other children due to HIPAA**?  And there are SO many questions from children aren’t there? If you have an inclusive classroom, the information a parent can provide the children can be invaluable to the inclusive environment. Offer to include the IS to help that parent if they express interest but are uncomfortable. **IMPORTANT DISTINCTION:  FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) any information that is directory information is ok to give out.  So If a parent is asking for another child’s last name or to get in touch with another family, that is not confidential information if the family did not opt out of directory information.  You just can’t tell us the child is on an IEP or anything regarding diagnosis.
4. RECOGNIZE WE UNDERSTAND YOU ARE BUSY: We are not out to get you or have a “gotcha” moment. I cannot imagine being a teacher right now. Huge classloads, jobs dependent upon test scores that are dependent on more than just your ability, differentiated instruction, outliers flying under the radar, helicopter parents, uninvolved parents. A 10 minute phone call once a month to tell us something we wouldn’t know without your call. If you do that once a month without fail you will likely never hear from us. But your principal will almost definitely hear from us. To hear how awesome you are.
5. INCLUSION AND INTEGRATION ARE DIFFERENT: This doesn’t mean let them also have a desk and have peers help them hang up their backpacks (though we recognize the value in that too). I mean if you take a picture of our kids to put on a bulletin board make sure it is a good one like everyone else. If you are in reading to the class and you ask a question the other kids can answer, figure out a way to ask a question that could include our kids’ ability to answer. While you have kids who can fall through the cracks, ours have absolutely no way to mountain climb out of those crevices without you. I am sure like us you don’t want them just to be a warm body at another desk. Ask their IS for strategies…that is why they are there.

BONUS #6 also at no charge: THE MOST DIFFICULT PARENTS ARE LIKELY YOUR BIGGEST ALLIES: Yep. We are the wave makers, the getter-doners. We figure out what you want and need and we try to get it for you especially if it will benefit our kids. Sometimes you don’t even need to tell us what that is. We figure it out. Assume nothing regarding our motivations.

For those of you who went into regular education vs. special education–those days are long gone. Inclusion is not just the responsibility of your Intervention Specialists. Much like us parents of kids with special needs…we started out in the exact same place as all the other parents in your room. Maybe even as you did too as a parent. Our journey veered off years ago but the desire to get to know the same thing we would have if everything turned out as expected has not.

When is School Choice Not Really a Choice?

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Originally posted 1/18/2017.

While it is understandable why a parent like myself with a child with significant disabilities within a public education and governmental system would feel overwhelmed by all of the details, the truth is I felt that way about political systems before I even had children. I am very Gestalt and particularly nervous when it comes to leaving out a detail.  The Whole Is A Sum Of Its Parts is most assuredly how I have always seen the world.  If I miss a piece, I promise I won’t understand the big picture.  Often the bigger problem is knowing whether I have missed a piece, so I comb and comb for those pieces until I end in a pile of crumbs.  And then?  Well…..once I sweep up…watch out.

Our collective current public educational system is fraught with problems that overwhelm me to even consider how they can be overcome in a fair and meaningful way.

And to be clear, this does not mean our educators are at the top of the problem list.  I would challenge anyone who believes this is the case to go spend one year as an educator in even a high performing suburban school district.  The financial, legal, logistical and social  constraints that exist would send a person without the passion to make a difference in the the lives of kids running to do almost anything else.  The issues that exist in public education are systemic in nature. They are systemic but not static so I have believed it possible to slowly turn the ship around.  Fully funding IDEA would be a great start…but that is the thing about getting overwhelmed by details. Out of survival, you hone in on what will have the most impact on your own world to create your own big picture.

It would be easy to turn this into a 5000 word article and focus on all the talking points about why public education is failing everyone and also on all the fundamentally terrific things public education is doing right.  But focusing on those things is the parlor trick we all seem to be falling for these days. The guy with the horns and the trident is awfully entertaining with his sleight of hand while we’re busy, a well heeled woman sitting before the Senate is making plans to create a systemic and fundamentally flawed plan to oppress and contain the most vulnerable children.

There is no time to yell about unions or standardized testing or who we are not listening to when we don’t have an adequate solution and you don’t have the details to understand why they are there in the first place. It’s like slapping yourself in the face.

Yesterday at the Senate hearing for confirmation of Secretary of Education, opponents of Betsy DeVos were alarmed at just how unqualified she appears to be for this position as evident by her lack of knowledge of crucial educational and fiscal details and seeming inability to directly answer questions.  Mrs. DeVos struggled in the brief periods of questioning to give details about how she will ensure/protect/educate. I am not so certain that having someone who understands every detail of public education is actually necessary or even preferable.

However, I do not believe that Betsy DeVos was one bit “confused” about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act being federal law and not something that the states decide. I do not believe that she doesn’t understand the difference between proficiency and progress.  I do not believe that she was having trouble answering questions but rather she answered those questions loud and clear.

  • Should all schools, public, private and charter have EQUAL accountability standards when accepting taxpayer funding?
  • Do you think that all schools receiving federal dollars should have to adhere to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?
  • Should schools receiving government funding have to have the same reporting systems for bullying and harassment?
  • Will you enforce the law for disabled children should the charters go into place and they might be accepted at the charter?
  • Will you defund or privatize public school?

Instead, Mrs. DeVos let those members of the Senate know how happy she would be to make these discussion points in the future.

No…. I don’t think  Betsy DeVos was confused.  I think she doesn’t care, because in her world the devil is in THOSE details and it appears sometimes the devil comes in the form of anyone different or disadvantaged.

Her plan it seems is to create selective schools that she won’t state whether they will adhere to the federal civil rights protection for disabled students or potentially even for just their protection at all.  Over time, disabled students and socially/economically disadvantaged students, students with  behavioral issues are going to once again be segregated due to selective admissions processes, “waiting lists” differences in educational accountability and financial discrepancies between those who can afford the gap in tuition not covered by a voucher.  There will be no such thing as inclusion in schools it will vanish with the details.

For me, this isn’t a matter of lack of understanding or even sour grapes.  I live in a state where there is a “scholarship” program available for students identified with a disability which we used for A2 through pre-k and kindergarten. Given his Autism diagnosis, he qualified for (at the time) a $20,000 voucher through the state board of education to use with a scholarship provider.  Our district was still responsible for writing his IEP so we would meet annually to update.  We found an excellent match for him at a local private, not-for-profit Autism school and in just three months I was pleased to show our district the tight data tracking his improvements.

Short of realizing he wasn’t getting everything he needed in public school, overall, we had a positive experience using this system because the stars were aligned.  A kid happened to move away opening a spot in the classroom, otherwise A2 would have been on a waiting list.  Our district did not transport him so I was unable to work much so I could take him the 20 mile round trip jaunts twice a day. Things were very tight for awhile because we were still responsible for $8000 a year out of pocket toward the tuition.

The biggest trade off?  By accepting the scholarship, we relinquished our rights to FAPE (Free and Appropriate Public Education).  In other words our “school choices” were:

  1.  Stay put and spend thousands on attorneys to try to prove he was not getting an appropriate education (as evidenced by the amount of progress he made with a specialized ABA program)–but in the meantime, if we filed due process based on the law, he would have had to “stay put” until a resolution.  Which could be years.
  2. Find another school that could accept him, provide our own transportation, find $24,000 for three years of out of pocket expenses AND hope he gets what he needs because the private school technically does not have to follow the IEP.  Nor technically are there any repercussions for not meeting his needs.

Choice?  Like the Sophie’s Choice of the outcome of my child’s future.  They both sucked.  We only had a brief period of time to harness the little spongy brain of his.  We were very, very lucky it worked out the way it did.  But we were also very, very lucky because we are upper middle class white, intact suburban family with one paycheck that covered everything and a kiddo who did not present with behaviors too difficult to handle.  We were very, very lucky because the school was pretty great at what they did with a caring team to boot.  I am not against the idea of a voucher system and school choice, but in order for it truly to be choice, the playing field must be appropriately leveled. Otherwise, it is only really a choice for some.

Betsy DeVos wants to turn this ship around, but there is a huge iceberg in the way and only enough lifeboats for the privileged and the able-bodied leaving everyone else, including my beautiful boy to go down with the ship.  Our educational system needs fixing, no doubt…but first do no harm.