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10 Keys to Success in Working with Special Needs Parents

IMG_4722Every now and then, I come across articles giving suggestions for interacting with parents of special needs children.  Usually, they’re written by an educator or a special needs parent and are well-meaning.  But I’ve noticed that they’re usually missing something.  Either they don’t have a clue what special needs parents go through or need.  Or they don’t have a clue what the real life of a teacher is like or the precarious position they are operating from when advocating for students and advising parents.  So, the suggestions are incomplete because they’re either unrealistic or coming from a place of not knowing.

I’ve had the unique experience of sitting on both sides of the IEP table.  I’m both a veteran teacher and the parent of a high needs child with nonverbal autism.  And that gives me insight that’s both helpful as well as painful.  It’s difficult to sit in on an IEP now – either my own child’s or someone else’s – knowing what I know.  I want to jump in and say things that might not be welcome.  I want to fight for services I know there is little money for.  I want to bang my head on the table, knowing all too well how what I’m hearing will come across to the child’s parent.  I want to lash out, because I know when I’m being “handled.” I know, because I’ve been – and am – in their shoes, both the educators’ and the parents’.

Here is what I wish my colleagues knew about how to forge positive relationships with parents of special needs students:

  1. Assume nothing. Over the years, we meet a lot of parent types.  And like everybody else, we tend to categorize them.  We quickly infer whether they have an education, are likely to help their children with homework, or if they know anything about their child’s disability.  We then react or condescend accordingly.  Be careful about that.  I’ve met highly educated parents who know little about their child’s differences.  And I’ve known poor parents with terrible grammar and threadbare clothing who’ve researched their child’s condition tirelessly. People will surprise you, so make no assumptions based on appearance, community standing, or diction.
  2. Understand that the child you work with isn’t the child they live with. You’re seeing just a snapshot of that child in an environment that can be stressful, unfamiliar, and unforgiving.  The child you believe to be distant may be quite loving at home.  The child you believe won’t communicate at all may very well communicate with his siblings.  Remember that no one is the same in all settings. Not even you.  Once you learn what a child is capable of outside of school, work to create a similar comfort level in the school.
  3. Give them a chance to talk. Special needs parenting can be a lonely affair.  While friends are posting about baseball wins and science fair prizes, our children’s successes aren’t easily appreciated by all.  But parents of children with disabilities have the same need to brag on our children, to voice our fears, and to soak up all the little stories you can share with us.  It matters.  And this meeting with you may be the only chance they have all year.
  4. Ask for their insight. Just because they might not be fluent in educational or therapeutic terminology (or they may be), it doesn’t mean they don’t have unique insight into their child.  Listening to how the child functions at home and in the community can inform how you approach instruction, behavior management, etc.  There’s no lab quite like living with a child with a disability.  Respect their experience, and benefit from it when you can.
  5. Reward their child. Often, special needs kids aren’t recognized in front of their peers and their community.  This is defeating to everyone. The students need their accomplishments celebrated. Even if they aren’t cognitively capable of understanding the award being given, everyone can benefit from applause now and then. Peers need to learn to appreciate different kinds of success.  Parents need a moment to feel proud and take pictures.  Our communities can always use a smile.  Don’t forget your special needs students when it comes time to celebrate.  You may have to come up with creative and unusual rewards.  But do it.  And do it up big.
  6. Give the gentle nudge, and then walk the first step with them. If you want the parent to register with an autism center, special needs athletics, or a parent support group, take it one step further beyond merely mentioning it.  Facilitate an introduction, if possible.  Send a link by email.  Ask for a flyer and personally hand it to them.  Sometimes the daily life of a special needs parent is overwhelming.  You intend to do things, but other stuff gets in the way.  If you can, help them get started in things you think might benefit them and their family.  It might be just what they need but don’t quite have the energy to initiate.
  7. Offer support services for their other children. Alicia Arenas gave a wonderful TED Talk about “glass children” – the children of special needs siblings.  These kids have their own needs that are often unmet.  They may go years without ever being able to speak to anyone who knows where they’re coming from.  Start a support group for siblings of disabled students right in your school.  Give them a place to share their experiences.  This will support the entire family and earn you brownie points with parents who worry just as much about their typical kids – but, by necessity, must focus more attention on their siblings.
  8. Surprise them with positive emails and text messages. It’s funny how many school districts frown upon this sort of thing.  But they’re foolish to do so.  There is nothing that will put a parent in your corner quicker than to send random positive pictures and texts home.  I don’t have time to talk on the phone.  But a text in the middle of my day showing him participating in circle time with a “He did ____ today!” melts my heart to goo.  A teacher or aide taking time to do that convinces me he’s loved – which will go a long way to forging positive parent-school relationships.  Learn how to use the little emoticons and apps that will cover other kids’ faces from the photo and text happy things about your students.  It’s a sound investment.
  9. Help their peers to interact with and understand their children. Teach acceptance.  Talk about differences.  Start a lunch buddy program.  Read stories aloud that will foster empathy.  Push, cajole, and fight for the emotional well-being of their children in school.  Not only will this do much to increase parents’ confidence in the school, it will have a direct impact on the child’s school performance.
  10. Tell them the truth. If you know that services they want for their child will not be approved by higher-ups, do not lie and say they are unavailable in your school.  Technically, there is no such thing as “not available” – if a student with a disability requires it to learn.  Tell the parent to call for an IEP meeting, make your recommendations to the staffing specialist/ESE director/principal, etc., and make the higher-ups address the request.  Yes, advocating for students and not incurring the wrath of administrators is a balancing act.  But by playing a part in dishonesty, you are ultimately perpetuating the cycle of students in your district not getting needed services.  And that’s not why you became a teacher.

IEPs and some interactions with special needs parents aren’t always fun.  Lack of funding and awareness are to blame – although the system pits parents and schools against one another.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  My son’s IEP team laughs, shares cute stories, celebrates successes, speaks honestly about expectations and struggles, and generally functions beautifully.  But that didn’t happen magically or overnight.  In the end, positive school-parent relationships are key.  Invest in that, and you invest in both your students as well as your own happiness as a professional.

The Autism Parent’s 7 Keys to Sanity and Success

FullSizeRender (27)A few weeks ago, I received a heartfelt private message from a mother who is just confronting her young son’s likely autism diagnosis.  She had read a previous post of mine on recognizing signs of autism in your child and saw it in him.  And she was falling apart inside.  Her love for her son was evident, but she admitted she was struggling with her feelings of fear and worry and didn’t know how to move past them. She asked me how I coped with my own son’s diagnosis.  I’ll admit it feels funny to me to be asked that question just 6 years later.  I don’t quite feel my veteran status yet. But I realized that while I’ve been busy doing doing All the Things that I really have come far.  I’ve changed in ways I didn’t anticipate.  And she will too.  So, I made a list of what I think helped me to “cope” and, more importantly, what it’s been helpful to avoid.  Here is what I learned.

  1. I quickly realized that I needed a support group.  My own circle of friends, though lovely, simply couldn’t identify with what I was experiencing.  And they never will, any more than I can identify with bankruptcy or diabetes. I simply haven’t experienced it. Yes, they will still be important to you.  But you need to collect some friends who “get it” – both those who are where you are now and those who are where you will be in a few years.  For me, I found those folks online.  I experimented with a few online support groups and over time found people I could turn to on dark days.  Folks who were able to fully celebrate with me on good ones.  You need to process all of those emotions in a safe place in order to recycle them into something more productive for your child. And, more importantly, you need to make certain that he never views himself as something to be “coped.” Go join a few online groups today.  After a while, you’ll figure out which places you fit best.  Find your tribe. They’re out there. 

2.  I stopped saying, “Somebody needs to ______”, “There oughta be ______”, and “I wish ______.”  I realized that those things don’t happen unless someone makes them happen.  I decided to spend my time making things happen.  I started a nonprofit to bring elopement tracking bracelets to our county.  I began a Sensitive Santa ministry.  I asked the superintendent to allow me to begin teaching autism awareness in our school district.  I began a local special needs support group on Facebook.  I harassed our grocery stores into acquiring carts for those with special needs.  I joined a national research study (SPARK by the Simons Foundation). I did these things because doing feels better than not doing.  Because doing is contagious.  And because doing brings heightened consciousness of my son and his needs to the community he will one day live in as an adult.  A community I wanted to welcome and support him – but a community I knew wasn’t yet ready to do so.  None of this stuff was easy for an introvert.  But it’s far more therapeutic than waiting around for someone else to do it.  Because they never will. There is no someone else.

feta2.100.dpi5003. I immersed myself in learning about the IEP process, IDEA, special education, and now life after high school.  Do not be fooled into believing that a school district will have your child’s best interests at heart.  The people working for them will want to.  But their budgets are severely limited.  They’re trying to serve the most with the least.  That absolutely means they will attempt – however kindly – to limit the services your child receives.  That sucks for us all – including them (because schools ARE staffed with good people). But your job is your child, and you don’t want to have those regrets.  Read From Emotions to Advocacy by Wrightslaw.  Right now.  Don’t wait until there are problems. Don’t wait until he starts school.  Do not wait.  

4. I gave up the notion that communication must equal speech.  They’re not the same.  Your son might speak verbally.  He might not.  But he can be taught to communicate right now.  It might be via pictures or other assistive technology. (In my opinion, that’s not sign language.  He’s not deaf, won’t be a member of the deaf community, and just how many people do you know who are fluent in it?  He needs to be able to communicate in a way that the most amount of people can understand him immediately.) And don’t let anyone convince you that alternative means of communication will prevent him from speaking.  All evidence is to the contrary.  But hear me on this:  Nothing – and I mean nothing – is to take greater importance than teaching him to communicate in whatever way he proves able.  Once he can communicate effectively, everything else gets better.  Most importantly, for him.

 5. I found an excellent behavioral therapy clinic.  Those folks were the cavalry arriving.  I made certain they were a good fit – for some are better than others.  (There were dark days in behavioral therapy in the past, so you need to interview them and make sure you’re on the same page.)  I insisted that my goal was not to make him not autistic, but to help him to fully access his world to the extent he’s able.  To help him to communicate and to learn.  To assist me in learning how to positively shape his behavior.  To assist me in learning how to teach him myself.  They know how to do this without screaming, crying, and desperation.  I found a team who didn’t give a damn about flapping, stimming, and other recognizable autistic behaviors.  A team happy to let me observe and work with them so they could teach me how to help him too.  Keep going until you find the same.  But your life will change, because your child’s independence and happiness will change.  

6. I stopped following autism pages of people constantly whining and posting negative memes about autism (i.e. “Autism sucks.). Instead, I follow doers and advocates. (Feel free to go find some on my Page and Twitter.) That serves both my son and me.  My son is autistic.  Constantly reading and lamenting that something that is fundamental to his mind and life “sucks” isn’t helpful.  It’s not accepting. Ultimately, it’s not loving.  And it distracts from the good that happens and can be made to happen.  No, it’s not all sunshine and flowers.  (That’s what your support group is for.)  But I refuse to propagate a message that everything about my child is a negative.  Because all your friends, all your family, and even your community are watching.  They’re picking up your cues.  Do you really want to send a message that he’s a loss to be written off?  I’m thinking not.  And do you want to send him a message that he is less than who you dreamed of? No, I already know you don’t.  Share his triumphs.  Advocate for his needs.  It’s okay sometimes to share the sad stuff, so that others may feel compassion for his challenges.  But don’t compromise his worth to his community and his dignity.  You’re his protector.  That may include protecting him from yourself on bad days when you want to shout from the rooftops that toileting accidents suck.  They do, but would you want your loved ones to post it on Facebook if it were you?  Protect his dignity – whether you believe he’s aware of it or not.  You owe him that.

7. I took autism right out of the closet.  He is not a secret.  I am not ashamed by him.  It’s not my job to apologize for him, because he has nothing to apologize for. But it is my job to help his world understand him better.  I explain his differences to others, particularly other children (they’re miles ahead of adults in capacity to learn acceptance).  I allow others to ask questions and give them tips to better interact with him.  I encourage servers to look at the menu pictures he points to.  I give others a chance to help him navigate his world.  They want to.  They just don’t know how.  Help them.  If you need to, visit his classroom and talk to his peers.  Stand up and speak to your church.  Ask for what you think he needs. Later, teach him to ask for himself, if possible. You’d be surprised how good other people can be when you give them a chance.

Confidential to A.K.:  You can do this.  Because “this” is just loving and nurturing your child.  Yeah, it’s a stepped up level of parenthood for sure.  But I hardly need say he’s worth it.  If you’re not feeling optimistic the future will be bright, then operate on the assumption it will be.  Keep going and doing until you believe it.  Then do everything you can to ensure it. Have no regrets.  Try to remember that the child you envisioned never existed.  Stop mourning that child.  Because the child you’ve been blessed with has been here all along.  You just didn’t recognize him yet.  Love who he is.

Congratulations on being given this atypical little life to shepherd.  Yes, I said congratulations. I’m hoping that soon you’ll know what I mean.  And one day, I hope you sit and hold someone’s hand who is in the place you are now and tell them the same.  It really is going to be okay, because you’re going to make it okay.

A Little Girl Laughed Today: On Special Needs Feel-Good Shares That Don’t Feel So Good

download (4)Today, I saw a scene that would have stopped you in your tracks, if only you knew what preceded it.  I witnessed a moment I wouldn’t have imagined in darker days for this girl.  I won’t tell you how I know her story, because I know her parents aren’t looking to make her famous. There were no photographs.

What matters is what happened.  And what happened stole my breath.  Because this girl has been picked on — badly.  She has suffered enormously with triggers causing behaviors that are alienating and confusing to others.  She has no friends.  

But today was amazing.  Today, some kids who took the time to get to know her a little – kids who have no knowledge of autism, but don’t really require it because they are innately kind and cheerful – made her laugh.  And watching her laugh made them laugh and smile and laugh some more.  They were three kids just cracking up laughing over something that was pretty funny in a slapstick kind of way.  She laughed for a long time.

It was beautiful.  Not in that “How sweet and heroic of him to take the autistic girl to the prom” kind of viral sweetness that draws you in, despite the lingering questions over what kind of romantic hopes the girl might have on Saturday morning.  Not in the way that whispers, “See what a wonderful person I am? I’m kind to someone you’d never expect.   But I did this amazing thing.  Let’s tell everyone about it and make her one day possibly reflect on how she is so different that only one selfless person wanted her company.” 

I cringe over these stories.  I do think that what many of these kids, celebrities, and strangers have done has been well-intentioned.   It’s the way we share it that’s bothering me.  It’s the way we gush over it and make special needs people famous for a day — because some person did what others would have considered unthinkable.  My problem isn’t the action taken.  It’s the echoes left behind after we’ve marveled so publicly.  The questions the girl may have about her own worth as a person — if the whole world went crazy over somebody being kind to her.  

A little girl laughed today.  I don’t have a video to share of it.  But I can describe it for you.  An autistic girl who rarely smiled and interacted with others – because of cruelty and the nature of her disability – laughed with other children today.  A child who had need of friendship, shared interests, fun, and laughter like every other child— but who was plagued by sensory overload and a lack of awareness and acceptance – laughed with other children.  Giggled and snorted even.  How I wish I could’ve recorded it – not for you nice folks, but for those who love her.  They would’ve cherished it.  

And she laughed because some nice kids took a genuine interest in her.  It wasn’t to make a point or get praise; they just think she’s interesting and wanted her company.  And she thought they were worth knowing and laughing with.  It’s a triumph for her.  I’m the only person who saw it, and that’s perfectly okay with me.  Because they know it, and she’ll remember it.  She made friends.  They were happy for her and for themselves.  And that means she’ll likely try it again.  I sure hope so.  I hope that she laughs a lot more in her life.

Mostly, I hope that her friendship skills continue to grow and that she makes the kinds of friends who will be nurturing and a pleasure to spend time with.  The kind who aren’t looking to make a public statement, but who intend to value her friendship beyond the viral tweets and shares.  I hope that one day nobody sees her as a surprising candidate for prom date — and instead just wave at her as they dance by.  I want her to hear messages that aren’t “Yay!  You’re here! We’re so surprised!” and are instead “Of course, you are here, because you’re one of us, and it’s where you belong.”

These are my hopes for her.  And my hopes for my own child.  The circumstances and events may change, but I hope for the same thing for all the kids not yet on the playground.  

A little girl laughed today — and took a few steps closer to those in her world.  Every day, I pray that others will meet her halfway — only without looking over their shoulders for the camera.

Because I don’t ever want her to see that camera and wonder why it’s there.     

Product Review: The Yogibo Max

yogiboIf you’ve followed me for any time, then you already know that I don’t write a lot of reviews. However, occasionally I’m in need of the same kinds of things that other folks might be in need of as well. When that happens and the stars align, I’ll get an offer to test a product in exchange for an honest review – and I’ll actually respond and say yes.

 

In recent months, Callum has made a lot of progress. His willingness to attend to a task has greatly increased, and we’ve been all kinds of busy looking for new ways to engage him. That’s when I received a very nice email from the folks who make the Yogibo Max “lounge chair.” The email mentioned that some special needs families have seen benefits to owning one and offered me the chance to try it out. I said yes, picked my color (from 16 color choices), and waited for its arrival. It didn’t disappoint.

 

I’ll start off by saying that the box it came in was initially a bigger hit than the beanbag. (Isn’t that always the way with little ones?) But as soon as I set it out in the living room, my little sensory seeker fell in love with it. It’s a kind of bean bag. But bean bag isn’t really a fitting description for this thing. The Yogibo Max is more like a really flexible piece of furniture. You can position it in any number of ways, and we’ve used it for everything from reading to the kids to playing games to sleepovers to the only place my husband could sleep for a couple of nights after pulling his back. It’s pretty nifty and much sturdier than cheap bean bags you’d pick up from large retailers.

 

yogibomaxfamCallum gets a lot of sensory input from it. He rolls around on it, takes flying leaps onto it, and interacts with whoever is already sitting on it when he decides to join. He has snuggled with his sister on it, giggled along with her friends on it, and verbalizes “Daddy! Tickle me!” while presenting his belly. He loves this thing. He’ll soon be having his beloved 1:1 aide working in our home this summer doing behavioral therapy, and I know it’s going to be a big draw for them as she keeps him moving and interacting.

 

All-in-all, it’s a great little all-purpose addition to our home. We got it in chocolate brown to match our furniture so that it doesn’t feel like we’re in a therapy clinic or daycare. The cover is removable and washable, so it’s easy to keep clean. And it can be easily folded and leaned to keep out of the way, if need be. We’ve had it a couple of months in a home with two hyperactive little ones, and it’s held up well.

 

If you’re looking for a sensory friendly, kid friendly, but practical lounge chair, I recommend the Yogibo Max.  (You can use the code FLAPPINESS for a 10% discount.)

The SPECTRUM Alert: An Autism Elopement Protocol for Schools

elope1edit_edited-1On October 4, 2013, Vanessa Fontaine’s worst nightmare came to life.  Despite having warned her autistic son’s school that he was prone to wandering, her son ran right out the door of his classroom – past cameras and a security guard – and vanished.

 

Her son Avonte’s remains washed up from the river three months later.

 

In May of 2014, a nine year old autistic child from Bellevue, Nebraska, left school – unnoticed, surprising –and frightening–his mother by walking in the door and asking for a snack.  Her son functions at the level of a 5-year-old and crossed two busy streets to get home, with no understanding of how to do so safely.

 

Again, in May of 2014, another nine-year-old child on the autism spectrum left his Oakland Park, Florida school early and walked 12 blocks home.  He was found trying to get into his home through a window and later described chatting with a complete stranger along the way.

 

These aren’t the only incidents of autistic children wandering from school (commonly referred to as “elopement”)..  Following such stories, we usually hear school districts “express concern” and pledge to “work with parents to ensure their child’s future safety.”  I’m sure they mean it and will probably try.  But what do they say to mothers like Vanessa Fontaine?  Her son’s school can’t work with her now.

 

The vast majority of U.S. schools do not have an autism elopement protocol.  It’s not because they can’t afford it; an effective protocol like the one I will propose here is mostly free.  The reason schools don’t have one is simple — they don’t realize they need it.

 

In the not-too-distant past, many students on the spectrum would have attended special needs schools.  Such schools usually have a depth of experience with elopement.  But mainstream schools usually do not.  Inclusion has been a big thing in American education, with autistic students now attending class now with their typical peers.  However, these students do not always have the support they need.  Teachers and staff rarely receive autism-specific training.  Human beings make mistakes.  Doors get left open.  And, in the chaos and panic of discovering a child is missing, bad split-second decisions are made in the absence of an effective plan.

 

Today, one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism. Statistically, half of them will elope, and more than a third cannot effectively communicate their name, address, or phone number. (An even higher percentage will struggle with communication beyond this.) And autistic children are often drawn to water. Of the children who are found dead as a result of elopement, 91 percent will be found in water.

If a school district’s plan to address autistic elopement is merely to wait for it to happen and call police, they are planning for tragedy.

 

After consulting with members of law enforcement, here is a protocol I’m suggesting to my child’s school district.  I’m calling it The SPECTRUM Alert for Schools.  The important thing to remember is that this alert/code will necessarily look different for each school.  To be effective, it must be planned by individual schools based upon their location, size, design, proximity to water, etc.  The SPECTRUM Alert is not a ready-made plan, but a roadmap for designing one .

 

S  (Search grid)    In conjunction with law enforcement, the school and surrounding community should be mapped out on a search grid.  If the school is fenced in, there should be a perimeter walk to determine any areas vulnerable to elopement.  From there, the grid should expand outward a mile or two, taking into account any and all bodies of water, dangerous intersections, train stations, parks, playgrounds, etc.  School personnel not directly supervising students should already know and have practiced reporting to their assigned search areas.  Note:  Water should always be searched first.  No matter what.

P   (Pre-identification)    Each child prone to elopement should have on file a Quick Reference Sheet.  This should be compiled by the school with the assistance of parents and possibly personnel who have worked with the child previously.  It should contain the following information:

1. Child’s identifying information

2. Presence of GPS tracking technology

3. Current photograph

4. Child’s current level of communication

5. Child’s documented interests, behaviors, preferences, aversions, etc.

6. Health considerations

7. List of possible locations the child might go within the search grid

E  (Law Enforcement liaison)    One person’s job should be to call law enforcement immediately.  This should happen while the search begins – not following it.  In addition to contacting 911, this is the person who should contact parents immediately.  The liaison could also commence activating a “phone tree” already set in place by parents.  That phone tree might include friends, family, and neighbors willing to assist a search.  The child is likely to know these people well and may respond to them more easily.

C  (Code)    Typically, schools have alert codes.  In my district, they are based on colors and represent different emergency situations.  Students and staff know how to respond to each code.  A code should be called on the intercom.  This will keep students out of the way of the search party.  Teachers should be instructed to quickly look into the hallway and out windows and alert the office if they see the child in question.  In upper grades, it might also be possible to have students assist in a search in teams on school grounds.

T  (Training)    All school personnel and school resource officers should receive training in autism.  Such training can often ward off elopement incidents to begin with. That training should include information in sensory integration disorder, social difficulties, literal thinking, common triggers for meltdowns and elopement, law enforcement considerations, food aversions, bullying and autism, self-stimulation, and more.  It would be a good idea to consult an organization like CARD (there’s usually one in your area) and a behavior analyst in planning this training.  A 15-minute after school meeting isn’t going to suffice.

R  (Relationships)     Law enforcement, school personnel, and school resource officers should be encouraged to develop positive relationships with autistic students, who are often very literal in their thinking and may fear the police, based upon what they may have seen on TV.  Classroom visits in non-emergency situations should occur so that in an emergency ,these children will not fear police and jeopardize their recovery.  As soon a child prone to elopement enrolls at the school, the faculty and staff (including cafeteria workers, bus drivers, etc.) should be notified.  They should see the child’s photo and learn his or her background information.

U   (Understanding)     Common triggers that distress students on the autism spectrum should be understood by all staff, including substitute teachers and volunteers.  By stressing the Understanding component of this plan, schools can often avoid the situations that might prompt an autistic student to elope from school.  Because special events in gyms, auditoriums, and cafeterias are often painful to the senses of autistic students, there should be a careful plan to avoid subjecting these children to trauma.  A trigger for elopement could easily go unnoticed in the chaos of an activity day.   This component is the most powerful part of this plan, though the least understood if effective training of staff doesn’t occur.

M  (Media)     Radio, television, and social media are powerful when it comes to locating missing children.  A media strategy should be considered by the school district and law enforcement for use with autistic elopement situations.  Facebook would be a particularly useful tool in small cities.

 

Ideally, the SPECTRUM Alert will not be confined to the school.  Local law enforcement could enhance this alert system by allowing special needs families to pre-register a vulnerable child with the department in the event of a wandering incident outside of school.  Schools with personnel that could be made available to police departments for autism training would make this even easier.

 

The SPECTRUM Alert protocol would cost a school district little to no money.  Most of it involves planning with personnel already on the payroll.  It’s simply a matter of a school making the choice to plan for an elopement incident and putting it into practice.

 

Human beings are by nature inherently optimistic creatures.  We tend to go through life not prepared for the worst out of a self-protective need to believe it won’t.  But schools cannot afford to do this with regard to autistic elopement – any more than we can afford to not prepare for fires, tornadoes, or armed intruders on campus.  As educators, are in loco parentis.  It’s the prime directive for our profession – to do for our students what we would do for our own children.  Including the most vulnerable ones –like mine.

 

It’s time for every school district in this country, without delay, to adopt a SPECTRUM Alert for Schools.

The Bears in the Park: Anxiety and the Autism Parent

????????????????????“Worry is the thief of joy.” – Unknown

I read with interest the other day a post by psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz, “This Is You on Stress.”  Being stressed out all the time, I’m becoming increasingly aware of its effects.  Dr. Saltz says stress is an evolutionary thing, a fight or flight response triggered by a perceived danger.  In dangerous situations – such as the possibility of encountering bears in a park- it keeps us aware and can save our lives.  The problem, she says, is when you are removed from the danger but the fight or flight instinct is still going.  That kind of anxiety is harmful.  She goes on to suggest some strategies for breaking the cycle of unhelpful stress when danger isn’t nearby. I thought about that for a while and how to use those strategies to stop stressing and calm down.   I thought about those bears in the park.

And that’s when I realized.  It’s no wonder parents of severely autistic children are increasingly being diagnosed with anxiety disorders, PTSD, depression, etc.  It’s not because of their children.  No, our children give us just as much joy as any others.  It’s because there is rarely a time when you aren’t in the park looking around for all those bears.

What and who are these bears?  There are many.  Elopement, bullying, failure of school districts to provide an appropriate IEP, medical and dental appointments, unfamiliar situations, loud noises, lack of autism awareness, lack of autism acceptance, loved ones who don’t get it, judgmental stares and comments from strangers, inaccessibility from grocery store carts to Disney World, respite care, insurance battles, lack of appropriate housing for autistic adults –and on and on.

So we rarely leave that park.   And we stand – fight or flight response at the ready – clutching the hands of our children all the time.  While trying to live our lives in all the necessary ways.  Meeting the needs of other children.  Nurturing our marriages.  Paying bills.  Working.  Caring for older family members.  Taking care of ourselves – which, like this list, always comes last.  But we do all of these things while anxiously looking around, listening, and facing those bears when we encounter them.

I’d like to follow Dr. Saltz’s suggestions.  I’d like to try meditation, thinking myself calm, and reminding myself that I’m out the situation.  Except I’m not.  I don’t have the luxury of letting down my guard.  Because if I do, the bears are still there.  My child will not receive an appropriate education.  He may be traumatized by people not trained to work with autistic children.  Someone might forget to latch a door.  A door within minutes of busy intersections and bodies of water.  He might be treated as a disorder and not a child.  No, the only time I can relax is when he is safe in bed and the house alarm engaged.  Even then fears of my own mortality (who will take care of him?), his education, his health (feeding issues), and his future haunt me in those witching hours of worry.

The problem is these fears aren’t unjustified.  My anxiety isn’t occurring in the absence of danger.  These dangers are real.  Because this world is not ready to welcome my son.  A son who will one day outlive me.  A son whom I fear will not – if needed – be cared for by those with good hearts and a desire to allow him as much independence as he is able.  A child whom – in the wee hours of the night – I lie awake envisioning as an old man.  An old man – perhaps with no family of his own – lying in a bed and taking his last breaths with no one to hold his hand.

Yes, those bears are all around me.

I don’t want stress to win, but it’s ever present.  It steals from me sleep, laughter, and peace.  Joy?  It’s fleeting.  Found in bits and snatches – and always bestowed to me by my children.  Yes, it’s there.  But it’s often stolen by the thieves of anxiety and fear.

And in my darkest moments, I fear that lack of joy is turning me into a bear.  Someone who sometimes fails to appreciate the little things.  Someone who will fail to pass on joy to my children – who deserve that in their mother.

Some talk about a national autism plan.  Do we need one?  Yes.  Should it resemble any of the depressing and misleading suggestions we’ve heard so far?   No.  But we must begin to address the needs of children, adults, and families like mine.  We must begin to teach our citizens, our schools, our medical personnel, and our law enforcement how to interact with autistic persons.  We must learn new ways to teach, engage, employ, and live amongst those who experience the world differently.  And we must begin to plan for the futures of the most disabled on the spectrum.

Until then, I remain perpetually on watch for bears.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy “It’s Not Personal: A Special Needs Parent’s Apology to Everyone She’s Going to Upset.”

 

 

Prayer for the IEP

praying-hands-in-close-view_2247878Lord, this day means so very much.  This is the day decisions are made that will impact this special needs child’s life.  Some of those decisions will be good.  We might fail in others.  We will keep trying.  We will keep believing. And we will continue advocating. Today, we ask for:

 Calm – so that we may hear one another and communicate effectively.

Truth – for, without it, we cannot set a correct course.

Focus – so that we may avoid distractions and meet our goal.

Compassion – to acknowledge the needs of others.

Wisdom – to recognize when we need help and/or more information.

Strength – so that we may speak up for what is right.

Flexibility – to seek solutions that will benefit – first and foremost – the child.

Resolve – to carry out the plan we make, even when it becomes inconvenient.

ieptableAnd most of all…

Faith – in this child and our belief that he can learn and that we will make a difference.

May our minds and hearts remain open today –and we remember to place this child’s needs ahead of our own.

In this we pray.  Amen.

Hear Me Roar: Inspirational Songs for IEPs (a Playlist)

noteThanks so much to my wonderful followers on Facebook for contributing to this playlist.  There are some great suggestions — including several I’d never heard before.  Play this in the days leading up to your child’s IEP, mediation, resolution, etc. — and go advocate for your child!

Let me know if you think of any songs I should add.  :)

Losing My Convictions

buttingheadsNot so very long ago, I knew what I thought about things. I could debate them point by point with relative ease and felt comfortable with the conclusions I reached. I identified myself as a libertarian-leaning Republican – conservative both fiscally and in terms of defense, but socially liberal. Central to my thinking is the sincere belief that most things the government undertakes turn out to be disasters. I am suspicious of decisions made by committees and generally believe the fewer cooks in the kitchen the better. And – raised by a lawyer – I’m equally suspicious of new laws and constitutional amendments, believing them to often be the result of emotional reactions rather than well-considered policy.

 But convictions are a funny thing. Sometimes all it takes to shake up your belief system is a personal experience with what you didn’t know before. The fundamentalist Christian mother who finds herself loving a gay child. The pro-life couple whose amniocentesis shows a baby whose genetics are incompatible with life. The anti-marijuana legalization police officer who is racked with pain from bone cancer and nausea from chemo. The fiscally liberal woman who finds taxes and regulations strangling her small business. Life is like that sometimes, and irony mocks us.

 Five years ago, I had many convictions. One of them was a sincere belief that the Department of Education was the worst thing to ever happen to U.S. Education. My belief in that wasn’t based merely on my party’s stance. Unlike a lot a politicians, I actually graduated from a college of education. I have been trained in ridiculous theories, participated in wastes of expenditure, and seen firsthand the effects of an educational culture that values test scores over knowledge. I still believe that U.S. educational policy is absurd and that each new generation is just a bit more ignorant than their parents. It’s why I send my daughter to a private school, and I won’t apologize for that. But now I find myself unsure of my prior held convictions – and that’s because of Callum.

 You see, I now know that I’m a hypocrite. I’m a hypocrite because I am now depending upon the Department of Education and federal law to protect my child from a substandard education. If it were not for the IDEA, my son would not have any of what he has now nor would he have anything I am fighting for him to receive. If it were not for state oversight, school districts would not provide for his special needs. IDEA safeguards are the only big sticks available for me to carry as I walk softly through the IEP battleground. Now I find myself dependent upon the very agency I generally abhor. So, I’m a walking, talking hypocrite. And that has a lot of implications for many of my core beliefs.

 What else do I hold to be true – until I have walked in the shoes of one directly affected by it? What other political philosophies are incompatible with the needs of other human beings just like me? How can I gratefully accept that which I have decried – or voted against?

 Becoming the mother of a special needs child didn’t just shake up my world; it shook up my mind. I am not lost so much as I am now aware of everything I don’t know. Suspicious of every viewpoint I hear. And for a very simple reason – most people know not of what they speak. Not really know. They’ve heard about it. They’ve read about it. They imagine how they would feel if it were them. They compare it to something they know that isn’t entirely (or at all) related. And they espouse – and vote –from the comfort of their unaffected lives.

 That realization has left me without many convictions, cast adrift in a sea of political parties who don’t represent me at all. Reading social media commentary from friends and family who don’t yet realize the ease of becoming a hypocrite as well – when life runs up and knocks them over on the playground. People who haven’t yet had to fight for the well being of another. Who haven’t been desperate, shunned, violated, sick, divorced, disabled, broke, or any of the myriad occurrences that can shake up one’s world. People who weed their friends list based upon political parties or religious views. People who don’t know – or yet know – what they would really think if it happened to them.

 I see very little of the world in black and white these days. It’s all a bunch of varying shades of gray. Which makes it hard to wholly embrace any viewpoints at all or cheer any platform. Instead my mind immediately goes to “What if it was Bronwyn? What if it was Callum?” And then I have my answer., at least for me. The problem is that no political party exists whose mission statement is to do unto others as they would have done unto them. And none of them will admit “Clearly, what we thought would work didn’t. Let’s start over.” Which is exactly what we need with regard to education, health care, taxes, drugs, and so much more. Until that happens, color me unimpressed and label me an independent.

 In the meantime, World, please just…be kind to one another in how we define our problems. It’s rough out there.

“I don’t believe in superstars
Organic food and foreign cars
I don’t believe the price of gold
The certainty of growing old
That right is right and left is wrong
That north and south can’t get along
That east is east and west is west
And bein’ first is always best
But I believe in love
I believe in babies
I believe in mom and dad
And I believe in you.”

-Don Williams, “I Believe in Love

 

 

On the Failures of Triage: When Mom’s in Short Supply

I found this in Bronwyn's room one day after school.

I found this in Bronwyn’s room one day after school.

Triage tri·age (tr -äzh , tr äzh ) n. 1. A process for sorting injured people into groups based on their need for or likely benefit from immediate medical treatment. Triage is used in hospital emergency rooms, on battlefields, and at disaster sites when limited medical resources must be allocated. 2. A system used to allocate a scarce commodity, such as food, only to those capable of deriving the greatest benefit from it. 3. A process in which things are ranked in terms of importance or priority. –thefreedictionary.com

When it comes to loving, nurturing, and meeting the needs of one’s children, the term “triage” doesn’t come to mind. No mother holds a sleeping baby in the wee hours of the night and ever imagines a reality in which that child’s needs rank below another’s. I certainly didn’t.

I know differently now.

On the battlefield, triage is a necessity. It’s a cruel necessity, but it saves the greatest number of lives. When there aren’t enough medical personnel and beds, you simply have to determine who needs care the soonest. But, like all the hard decisions in life, the truth is that triage – being subjective – sometimes fails. Sometimes, the fellow you thought could hold off for a couple of hours has a heart attack in the waiting room while you are tending to a trauma victim.

When you have a special needs child and typical children, triage becomes your new reality. No, it isn’t triage in the life-saving sense, but it is in every other way that matters. If you must choose between gymnastics lessons for one and speech therapy for the other, you pick speech. And, if your typical child is having problems organizing her room, that problem gets trumped by the autistic child’s penchant for throwing household objects. No, it isn’t fair. It just is. In the ER, the limited resources are beds, imaging, and experts. In the special needs family, they are mom, dad, time, money, and energy. You’d like to think that – as a mother – you are limitless. But that’s a lie we tell ourselves. The only thing a mother has without limitation is love. Unfortunately, children do need more than love.

My little girl is six years-old. Bright, enthusiastic, silly, and sweet. And, because she loves playing with other children and left kindergarten reading at a third grade level, I thought she was okay. Yes, I knew that her father has ADHD. I knew that it is statistically more likely in siblings of autistic children. I knew that she is described by so many as “high energy”. But – compared to our autistic child’s global developmental delays, meltdowns, and busy therapy schedule – her issues didn’t seem like problems.

But they were.

This past summer, it started to become obvious something wasn’t right with her. Removed from her structured school schedule and cooped up in the house most of the time, she became a child who was very difficult to live with. She began to throw tantrums that were off the scale. Our household became a very stressful place to be. It was as if she had a motor attached to her that never needed recharging. When she spoke, she shouted. When she sang, she screamed. Her play was frenzied. She demanded constant attention – to the point of deliberately annoying us to get it. And she couldn’t attend to even the smallest task by herself. What began to really worry me, however, was that she seemed oblivious to the reactions of her same-age friends. She was annoying them with her outbursts, and she didn’t even realize it.

At first, I thought she was just feeling neglected and acting out. I made a concerted effort during the summer to take her on mommy-daughter days out, trips to the library without her brother, extra time spending the night at her grandmother’s, and anything I thought would make her feel extra-special. I even had her tested for gifted, knowing that some gifted characteristics can seem like hyperactivity. But the days out became unpleasant memories of pulling her off of store displays, repeated pleas to lower her voice or stop kicking someone’s chair, and more tantrums. Her grandmother began to voice concerns about Bronwyn wearing her out. She couldn’t sit still for the gifted screening. And the library? [Insert hysterical laughter here.]

I waited until school started to see if it would help. It didn’t. And then the notes started coming home. Red cards pulled. Trips to the principal’s office. Sitting out at recess to finish assignments. She was coming home sad, angry, and confused. And, as soon as she walked in the door, she bounced off the walls – almost literally. One day, she came home upset. She said that two of her friends now didn’t like her. Apparently, her jumping around knocked over one little boy and made him angry. Her constant kicking of her friend’s desk lead to “I’m not your friend anymore.” She didn’t want to go to school in the mornings.

The rule of thumb with regard to medication and ADHD is usually, “When it begins to affect a child academically and/or socially, it’s time to intervene.” Academically, she was fine. But I realized that she was hurting socially. It was time to have the ADHD talk with her doctor.

That talk went really well. I was worried that Bronwyn would behave like a complete angel during the visit. (You know –in the same way one’s car stops making that sound when you take it to the mechanic.) Yet, bless her little heart, she sang loudly, ran around the room, and even displayed her tendency to talk so fast she has to stop to take a deep breath before continuing. The doctor saw it, and she gave us the required questionnaires for her teachers and us to fill out. (I was so happy that she showed all her ADHD tendencies in one visit that I took her to Baskin-Robbins afterward. Yes, I did.) It was interesting to compare the teachers’ perspectives to ours. I was pretty relieved to see that – when you held the forms up to one another – the ratings were almost identical in every area. I confess that part of me is still suspicious about ADHD diagnoses. As a teacher, I’ve often felt that too many kids are diagnosed and on meds. Yes, it was a relief that others saw what we were seeing.

She began ADHD meds three weeks ago. I didn’t expect to see results very quickly. But she came home that day – and every day that week – with a green (good) card. She finished all her work. She told me it was easier for her “to be good”. (Which I’ll admit broke my heart a little. In truth, there is no such thing as a bad 6 year-old.) And, when we took her to speech and occupational therapy, the therapists came out and reported that she “was a different child.” Later that day, she came home and sat at the dining room table working on a marker masterpiece – for three hours without moving. It’s kind of surreal. When she is on that medicine, she has good days. She comes home happy and proud of herself.

Things still aren’t perfect. Right now, she takes just one dose per day that seems to wear off. When it wears off, it’s just as bad – if not a little worse. She spent a few nights waking way too early, but that seems to have eased a bit. She has afternoons when she is quite emotional and unreasonable. And she has become more finicky about food. We have already adjusted the medication once. I’m hoping we can tweak things a bit to help with those issues. But, overall, I’m amazed. I’ve had a couple of folks tell me that you can tell it’s a genuine case of ADHD sometimes by how instantaneous the response is to the meds. I hope that’s true. I hope we are doing the right thing. It feels right. But self-doubt still wakes me in the middle of the night and haunts me during the witching hours of anxiety.

It isn’t the only thing that haunts me. I’m haunted by the knowledge that my baby girl sat too long in the waiting room. That – while we have been obsessed trying to meet the needs of our son – we delayed meeting her needs as well. I wonder why it all wasn’t completely obvious to me. I know how to love them equally – and endlessly. But I’m not at all sure there is enough of me to go around.

Last night, while snuggling, she asked me how much I love her. Before I got to the part about “all the way to the moon and back”, she said, “I know you love me a lot. But you love Callum just a little bit more don’t you? Because he’s special, right?” A little part of me died inside. I quickly corrected her. Tried to find the right words. Prayed she’d never forget them. It was a great many more words I can’t and would not quote verbatim. But their essence was, “Before you were born, I dreamed of you. Just you.”

I hope she believes me. I hope that one day they know I did the best I could. I hope they will forget all the ways I could have done it better and will remember all the ways I loved them instead.

And I hope they know that while triage is a necessity of the world – it has never been recognized in the heart of a mother.

“A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity. It dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.”

– Agatha Christie