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Saturday, May 18, 2019

Freddy's college graduation, and why I'm not there

Today, my younger son Freddy graduates from Skidmore College with a degree in computer science.  It hasn't been the easiest road for him, and I am incredibly proud of him.  And I am also very, very frustrated, because I can't be with him.

Most days, I keep a positive attitude.  It's important to me to do so.  Janey means the world to me.  I love her more than I can possibly express. She has brought us so much joy.  That being said, there are times when the whole autism parenting life is so tough that I am overwhelmed completely.  Today is one of those days.

There is no-one who can care for Janey today, to make it possible for Tony, William and me together to be at Freddy's graduation and celebrate his success.  There is no respite---not on regular days and not on special days. There are several people who would have loved to be able to watch Janey, but that just were not up to the task, and honestly told me so.  I appreciate that.  The last thing I would ever want is someone caring for Janey that would be overwhelmed by doing so.  There are other people who would have been able to care for her but that live far away---I'm thinking of many of you!  But in reality, there is just not any respite.  Even today.

We thought about taking Janey and all going.  But a quick think-through of that killed that notion.  Janey would last about 5 minutes at most at the graduation. Then, one of us would have to take her outside, walk around with her. This would keep her happy maybe for 10 more minutes.  Then, she'd be upset, screaming.  The person watching her would, to say the very least, not be having a good time.  The family inside at graduation would not be able to concentrate and honor Freddy.  They would be thinking about how it was going with Janey.  Or, we could have gotten a hotel room for a few nights, to have a place to stay with Janey.  If that hadn't been extremely expensive (it's racing season in Saratoga Springs, and even a very cheap hotel, especially on graduation weekend, is insanely high priced), it still would have resulted in a long period of time in a room trying to keep Janey happy, and not seeing the graduation.  If one of us wasn't going to see the graduation anyway, it might as well be at home, with the resources we have here.  Tony missed Freddy's high school graduation.  At that time, Janey was in the hospital recovering with many complications from her burst appendix.  So---it was his turn to get to go to the graduation.

And I'm here, at home.  And Janey isn't happy.  She wants to go for a car ride.  I have taken her outside repeatedly to see there simply isn't a car here to ride in.  That doesn't matter.  If she wants a ride, there should be a car.  She is miserable.  There is no explaining to her that it's Freddy's day.  That is not something she understands.  She repeatedly says to me "Put on shoes!"  "Get jacket!"  "Get pocketbook!".  She tries in vain to get me to see that she needs her car ride.  And I am tired.

I've been sick for the last week.  It's a very slow recovery.  But like the car, that doesn't make a difference.  Janey doesn't get I'm sick.  I am exhausted.  And realizing, for the millionth time, how lucky it is that Tony is retired now.  We are broke, and we probably always will be from now on, but there really wasn't a choice.  Neither of us were going to last with him still working.  The years of little sleep and little down time added up.  It's incredible, still, that the two of us at times can sit down and watch a TV show alone, while Janey is at school or asleep.  And if this is life from now on, so be it.  But on days like this, it is hard to not reflect on the toll autism parenting has taken on our lives.  NOT that Janey has taken.  That autism in her particular form has taken.

I don't have solutions.  In thinking about writing this post, I wanted to close with ideas for making things better and easier for Janey and for all of us.  But I don't know how.  It would take an overhauling of our whole society, and at this point in time, that's beyond a pipe dream.

So, I asked myself, why write about this at all?  Why upset those who rightfully might feel that I should not explore the negative side, the negative feelings that this day has brought to me?

And I answered myself---well, why do I read memoirs?  Why do I avidly read about other lives?  For one of two reasons.  I read to hear about a life unlike my own, to better understand what it would be like to be someone else---someone affected by war, or by blindness, someone who grew up in a very different culture or family, someone living a life I'm not living.  I write to share our lives with others.  The second reason I read memoirs is to read about people living a life LIKE my own, to feel less alone.  That is the second reason I write here---because I know I'm not the only one living this life, and I want to be honest about my life to let them know they are not the only one.

All my love today to Freddy, my graduate.  I know you understand why I'm not there, but I hope you also know how much I wish I could be, and how much I love you, and William, and Janey.  Always.

Frederick David Amara, my dear son


Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Easter Bunny Hunt---A Story In Pictures

The quest begins.
 Those of you who have read this blog much mostly know we don't give Janey chocolate, because when we do, especially after noon, she doesn't sleep.  At all.  Whether it makes sense or not, it happens, and it's why I don't discount anyone's food issues or theories.  It doesn't seem like just a little chocolate could have that big an effect, but still, it does.  However, we make one exception.  There is nothing on earth Janey likes more than a chocolate bunny.  She often asks for them at random times, like the middle of the night in the middle of the summer.  So, for Easter, she gets a bunny.  We usually get it on Easter day, not to have it around the house ahead of times for her to find and eat at the wrong time.

Empty Rite-Aid bunny rack!
We set out this morning to get her the bunny.  The first place we went was the Rite-Aid.  It's where we get prescriptions, so we are there a lot.  The pharmacist said a big hi to Janey, and she smiled at him.  But...no bunnies!  The Easter area was completely empty of any chocolate rabbits.

Picking out salami
So we moved on, to the grocery store.  Janey and Tony often shop there together.  We picked up a few other things we need before we looked for bunnies.  High on the list, as always, was salami, Janey's hands-down favorite food.  Janey picked out some with Tony in the main salami area, and then ran off to a nearby auxiliary salami area to get another kind she wanted.  After we'd loaded up on salami, we got a few other things, and saw a worker who is always so sweet to Janey, and told her Happy Easter.  She has a grandson with autism, and it's always fun to have her talk to us.


Auxiliary Salami Area
Finally, we went to look for bunnies at the grocery store, but again, no bunnies at all!  It was like there was some huge run on bunnies!   Janey saw some Easter cakes that looked interesting near the cashier, but we resisted them.
No bunnies at the grocery store either!




Some interesting cakes
Salami choosing
 We went to the quickest line, and missed going to the line of a cashier who is yet another Janey fan, but we waved to her, and Janey gave her a smile.  Out by the car, Janey picked which salami to first try. 

We continued our quest at the Walgreens, and there, finally, we hit pay dirt.  We found bunnies!  Janey picked out the one she wanted---not the biggest one, but a smaller sweet little guy.  The cashier there didn't know Janey, but was so sweet to her, talking while realizing she probably wasn't getting a response.  She asked Janey to give her a high five, and Janey did.

The whole quest made me happy.  In our little part of Boston, where Tony has lived all his life, where Janey has lived since birth, we feel included.  Janey is part of the community.  She is valued and treated with kindness and respect.  What more could we ask?  Happy Easter to all of you who celebrate it, Happy Passover to those who celebrate it, and Happy Day to everyone!

Finally, bunnies!
Bunny time!

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Nana and Grandpa at the hotel house

Janey at the cheese and cracker reception time
This past Saturday, I realized how very long it had been since Janey had seen my parents.  I last saw them in October, when I went up there for a few days, but for Janey, it had been almost a year.  They used to drive down here from Maine for the day, a drive that is almost 4 hours each way, but as they get a bit older, and after my father's accident falling from a ladder, they can't make the trip as easily.  On the spot Saturday, I decided that despite all that was keeping us from getting away, we'd go spend a couple nights in Portland, half way in-between us, and have them come down for the day to see us at our hotel (Janey always calls them "hotel houses").

Breakfast, which Janey did not care for
In general, Janey likes trips.  That is, she likes them under her own terms.  It must be her music in the car, music that she wants us to change constantly.  Once we get to the hotel, except for car rides, she doesn't want to go much of anyplace.  Going away with her is not really a get-away or a vacation as just more a change of scenery.  It's great she doesn't mind being away from home.  But it's also harder to keep her happy in a hotel.  At home, if we have to say no, she often screams.  In a hotel, you really can't have someone screaming the way Janey does.  We can't stand our ground unless we want complaints and the front desk calling us to see if everything is okay, something that has happened a few times.  So, we keep her happy.  On this trip, it meant letting her take about 10 showers, having her play her iPad at full blast on YouTube Kids with the same videos 20 times an hour, and working on keeping her calm when she woke up at 2 am the 2nd night.  It was relaxing to come home.

Janey checking out a water feature in the lobby
However, it was worth it to see my parents.  We did manage a lunch out at a buffet, sort of a more downmarket Old Country clone.  Everyone found plenty to eat.  We got pizza from the hotel restaurant at night.  We exchanged Christmas presents, which we had not been able to do any sooner, and we sang some Christmas songs---Janey's favorite part of Christmas.

My parents commented on how clearly Janey sings, in contrast to her speaking, and that made me face something I haven't faced much.  Janey used to speak very clearly, when she did speak.  She doesn't any longer.  Often, no-one can understand what she is saying but Tony and me.  I hate thinking it, but it's become pretty obvious her speech is getting worse over the years.  But the singing---still lovely.  I sang the beginning of lines from carols, and she finished them, perfectly.  Hearing her sing parts of "O Holy Night" brings tears to my eyes every time.

Janey sees Nana, as Tony looks on!
During the car ride back, Tony and I talked about some small changes we are going to make with Janey.  For about 4 years now, we have been pretty much doing whatever it takes to make her happy.  Overall, it's been a huge help in making all of us happy.  But lately, she has become more frantic in her demands, and she doesn't seem happy even when she gets what she wants.  The big thing that has become almost impossible is the music in the car.  Janey will not listening to about 95% of the songs we put on, songs she has previously liked.  She just constantly says "Music please, music!" which means change the song.  This makes it very hard for Tony to drive when he's driving alone with her, because if you DON'T immediately change the song, she screams, sometimes kicks the seat, and makes it very hard to concentrate.  We decided on a new rule.  We'll change music only after listening to the rest of whatever song we are hearing.  We explained this to her, and then put the rule in place, and after not much push-back, she seemed to get it.  She didn't like it, but she got it.

Janey listening to Grandpa!
We decided to put a similar rule in place about putting on TV shows and videos, once we got home.  Again, she wasn't pleased, but she seemed to understand.  We am always balancing her need for control with Tony's and my need for sanity.  We are all in this for the long haul, and we as parents were starting to quite frankly be at the ends of our ropes.

Being away, even for a few nights, can give some new perspectives. They aren't always easy things to face.  We need to try to figure out Janey's speech regression.  We need to take back some control of routines that have started to make our lives very tough.  We need to find a way to see my parents more, while still being around for Tony's brother, who has been in and out of the hospital for a very long time now and who has severe health issues.  We need to take a hard look at our finances, which with Tony's retirement have become much more of an issue, making even 2 nights in a hotel a luxury we can't often do.  We need to have a life that better balances Janey's needs with our own.  None of these are easy tasks.  But they are necessary.




Thursday, April 11, 2019

Manic no sleep night

I hope you'll forgive me if any of this blog post doesn't make sense.  I'm operating on very little sleep.

Janey had one of her no-sleep nights last night.  These seem to be happening every month or two, but no matter how often they happen, they are impossible to get used to.

We're starting to be able to see the sleepless nights coming, though.  Yesterday afternoon and evening, Janey was very, very happy and excited.  I put a picture on the Facebook companion page to this blog, showing her huge smile as we left for a car ride. I'm including here three other pictures I took of her.  They all show the look, the look that foreshadows a very long night.   When bedtime came, and her usual bedtime is 7 to 7:30 (her choice, we wouldn't make her go to bed that early, but she gets up early and usually likes a lot of sleep), she was still hyped up.  She got on the bed, watching videos on her iPad as she usually does going to sleep.  But she didn't sleep.

Watching her on nights like last night, there are signs.  Every movement of her body is exaggerated and somehow stiff.  When she moves around, it's with big, wound up moves.  Her eyes get an excited look we don't see other times.  And she has an attention scan at these times of about 10 seconds.  She switches videos on YouTube at a pace that seems impossible.  As I listened last night, it almost seemed like she was using the videos as sound clips in some kind of rap song, switching back and forth and always stopping the audio of each clip at the exact same place to move to the next one, over and over and over.

The hours passed.  We took turns laying down with her, and then both did.  When we got up, she got up, running around the house and asking for things---rides, showers, walks, food, videos.  She'd go back to the bed when we asked, but would get back up in seconds.  If we stayed with her, she'd stay on the bed, but in the hyped state.

At times like this, she constantly re-arranges things around her.  One of the things she tries to re-arrange is my arms.  Somehow, she doesn't want to see my arms when she looks at me.  Her preference would be to have them behind my back, where they are out of sight.  Time after time, she moves them back to where she wants them. 

Around one in the morning, she got a foot cramp, and frantically said "Does your foot hurt?  Does your foot hurt?"  I could see her foot cramped up, and told her to stand up on it to help it.  She did, and jumped up and down for about 3 minutes straight.  I got her back into bed.  She started asking over and over "Angelina?"  Earlier in the night, I had typed Angelina into her YouTube Kids search area, and when some pre-populated choices came up, I had her pick "Angelina Ballerina"  She wanted to do that again.  I did it a few times, but a few times was never going to be enough.  I know I could have done that hundreds of times and she'd have still wanted more, as part of a routine that would include the quick switching of vidoes in-between.

At two, I was no longer able to keep my eyes open, and Tony took over.  She didn't sleep, of course.  She got on the bus happily at 6:30.  She is at school now.

These nights are awful, and we have no idea what causes them.  It's possible she got her hands on some chocolate at school, it being the Easter season.  But it could just be one of her periodic manic times.

We give her melatonin, most every night.  It works well, except when it doesn't work at all.  When she got the foot cramp, we gave her some Motrin, in case she was in pain she couldn't tell us about.  I don't know if it had any effect.  I am pretty sure nothing we could do or say or give her would make a bit of difference on manic nights.  Her own internal demons or angels or hormones or whatever are far stronger than anything external, at times like these.

During the day, when we've slept, we, and I mean the larger "we" of other families living this life, can be the kind of parents that match up with the books, blogs, advice, standards, of autism parenting.  At night, when we would do almost anything to just be able to sleep, we can't.  And that is where I don't think anyone who hasn't spent a night like our last night can really, truly, deeply get this life.  It's the initiation into our club.  It's the shared tribal ceremony.  It's the bonding experience that by its very nature gets experienced away from the others it's bonding us with.  I try to keep in mind, during those endless nights, the rest of you out there.

Please, Janey, sleep tonight.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Autism Non-Awareness, Human Acceptance

Today is World Autism Awareness/Acceptance Day.

Last night, as I spent time with Janey as she went to sleep, I thought about this day a lot.  I thought about it, as people most often think about things, from a very personal viewpoint---that of Janey, and how best to help her through the world.  And I realized, in a lot of ways, helping Janey be accepted, in a full way, involves something that is the opposite of autism awareness.

Taking a step back, I'm thinking of my own view of politics, or really, the larger world.  For the most part, I completely ignore politics.  When I don't, I become easily overwhelmed.  There are so many aspects to it, so many personalities and philosophies and emotions and ideas.  And I can affect all of it very, very little.  I vote, and then I probably actually bury my head in the sand.  I do so not out of apathy, but because I know what I can do and I can't do.  I can't change the world, not in my current life.  But I can do the best I can for my own family, and so I look inward.  I try my hardest to be the best mother I can, to have the best marriage I can.  I don't succeed, of course, but I try.

The wider world of autism is in many ways like politics.  It's a huge world, and a huge spectrum.  Sometimes I try to look at it all, and take it all in, and I am overwhelmed.  As I sometimes see little of my own life in political life, I sometimes see little of Janey's life in my views of the wider spectrum.

And sometimes, trying to think about autism as a whole keeps me from focusing on Janey.  I start to feel paralyzed, in writing here and in making decisions for her.  When I look at the media for views of autism, I see little that seems anything like Janey.  The spectrum is so wide that there is almost no intersection between lives like that of The Good Doctor or Temple Grandin and that of Janey.  And I say that not talking about high or low functioning.  I am talking about personality, strengths, interests.  Janey is not part of a group.  She is herself.

What I have found, over the years, is that people who most accept Janey are people who most know Janey, as a person.  In a big way, that includes us, her close family.  I don't look at Janey thinking about autism, 99% of the time.  I look at Janey as my daughter.  Like every other person on earth, she is a mixture of many things.  At times, she is a delight beyond imagining.  At times, she drives me out of my mind.  I can say exactly the same things about her brothers.  Her autism doesn't make her who she is, any more than Freddy's asthma did or William's premature birth did.  It has affected her life, sure, very much so, but it's not the essential Janey-ness of her.

I've had on occasion over the years a telling reaction from people meeting Janey for the first time that knew ahead of time she was autistic.  It's a surprised reaction, followed by them saying "But she's so beautiful!" or "But she is so happy!".  Or, a few times, "But she's, well....(and here they don't use the forbidden terms but say in their own way that she's intellectually disabled)"  These people were, before meeting Janey, what they considered aware of autism.  They had awareness that led them to believe Janey would somehow look different than the norm.  They are surprised when they see a lovely, happy girl.  Then they are surprised she doesn't talk like a doctor or a PhD, that she isn't quoting train statistics or holding court on some focused high level math concepts.  Autism awareness has failed them.

To accept Janey fully, to accept all of our girls fully, and in fact everyone fully, we need to see them with non-pre-aware eyes.  We need to see them as they are.  Janey isn't an example of anything.  Janey is a person.  Like everyone, she has some special needs, in the most literal sense of that word, and her particular special needs are ones that society doesn't readily provide, so we need to help her more than we would others.  But if we look at her with fresh eyes, those not pre-filtered with autism awareness, we see her---a 14 year old girl, one who loves music, loves car rides, loves dancing, loves running around in fresh air.  One who doesn't communicate verbally very effectively, one who needs help with many life skills, one for whom academic skills are at a very low level.  One who delights those around her with her enthusiasm for life, one who is the most adventurous eater I know, one who last night hugged me tight and said "Love you!"

Without the filter of "awareness", without the filter of autism, Happy Acceptance Day!

Sunday, March 24, 2019

A dream of a race

The other night, I had a dream about a race.  In the dream, as often in my dreams, I was a very good runner (in real life, I simply can't run at all).  The race was being held in a Nordic kind of place, on a snowy road.  I was near the lead when we came to a very steep hill.  I told myself I'd get up it fine if I kept my eyes closed, so I didn't notice I was on a hill.  That strategy was going well, but for some reason I opened my eyes, and I couldn't go on.  So I turned around and ran the opposite direction.  I felt unsure about this, wondering just what the procedure was for running a race backwards.  I stayed close to the edge of the road, as to not get in the way of the runners going the right direction.  The dream ended after I got back down the hill, still running.

I'm a heavy dreamer, with almost every night featuring dreams, usually even more complicated than this race one.  But the race has lingered in my mind, and I'm starting to see it as an analogy of my life with Janey.  Not that I think my mind was thinking up analogies in the night, although who knows?

The running with my eyes closed part, to keep from realizing what a steep hill I was on...well, I do that a lot, figuratively.  One way is by not being around typical kids Janey's age much.  Of course, I know that most 14 year olds can talk well, read well, are fully toilet trained, are starting on the path to adulthood.  But by just not thinking about that, I can keep from comparing Janey, and comparing is one of the few things I can say very strongly not to do.  I keep my eyes closed in other ways too. In a way, I also don't compare my life to other 53 year olds like myself.  Maybe of them are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel of childrearing.  They are seeing grandchildren, going on trips, looking toward retirement perhaps.  They are able to do such things as eat out for dinner.  They can attend college graduations without needing to worry about childcare.  They are at a different stage of adulthood than I am.  But if I don't think about that, don't compare, my life seems, well, just my life.

When I do open my eyes, at times a despair washes over me.  I feel, like in the dream, that I can't go on like this.  I am overwhelmed.  So mostly, I just don't think about the parts of my life which have so much left the mainstream.

Then---racing backwards.  Being on an opposite path, running the same race but in the other direction.

Life with Janey, as it races on, is often like an opposite race.  We aren't preparing her for college.  We aren't thinking ahead to her life on her own.  We are preparing to care for her for always, and if we look to the end of the race, it's a scary thing.  There is not much of a set path for an opposite race.  Sometimes it does feel like we are on the edges, staying out of the way of the regular racers, the ones heading steadily to the goal.

But in the dream, I recall seeing how lovely the snowy path was, even as I ran it in the opposite direction of the other runners.  That, too, is true.  I've followed the news of celebrity college cheating with a bit of a feeling close to snugness.  I don't have to worry about that.  I read about parents struggling with homework.  Janey doesn't have homework.  I hear about the pain of breakups, the worry about girls out on their own, the body image issues...and I can feel truly glad those aren't part of my life.  Not glad for Janey, missing the highs that go along with those lows, but glad purely selfishly for me, for the more intensive but vastly different parenting she requires.

I often like to search for an image to go with my posts.  I tried and tried to find a picture that looked like the hill in my dream.  I wish you could record dreams---maybe someday soon!  But until then, I'll include a picture of Janey I took this morning.  I guess dreams are like lives.  You never can quite see what another person's dream is like.  You can never quite live another person's life.  We can just live our own, and do our best with the particular path we are following.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

As a tribute to Mad Magazine, Snappy Answers to Stupid (or at least uninformed) Questions!

"Does she go to school?"

This one can still surprise me a lot, especially if it's asked by anyone under 70 or so.  Of course she goes to school.  Since 1975, all children go to school.  Are there still people who think that kids like Janey just have to stay home?


"But she'll live independently someday, won't she?"

Well, no.  She won't.  Unless something very, very unexpected happens between now and adulthood, Janey will never live independently.  And honestly, that's not something I dwell on or get upset about much.  She'll live with us.   She is not going to have the skills to safely live on her own, not at all. It's not a goal of ours.


"Did you take Janey with you on your vacation/weekend getaway/day trip?"

Yes.  Yes, we did.  Unless we do things within the hours Janey is at school, she is always with us.  I get this one more than I'd ever think I would.  There isn't anyone that watches Janey except our family and school.  No-one.  And that doesn't suddenly change because we want to go on vacation.  There isn't some backup corps of people that aren't usually there but will jump in if we are going away.



"But you must get a lot of help/services/respite/money because of her disability?"

No.  We don't.  I am not exactly sure where people get this idea.  Maybe in the past, there was more money out there, or maybe they are thinking of very specific cases, but basically, there is nothing now.  Someday, when Janey is an adult, she might get Social Security.  Some younger kids, if their famlies want it, get a lot of ABA therapy.  But there is no money for respite.  We do have a state Medicare type backup insurance for Janey, that supplements our regular insurance.  Once, for some reason, the state gave us $500, randomly, and we used it to buy Janey's first iPad.  But other than that, outside of school, no.

"She isn't, you know, SLOW?  Kids with autism are very smart, right?"

That's a tricky one.  I do think Janey is very smart, in some ways.  But in traditional ways, or in the ways of autistic people you sometimes see on TV, who are quirky but brilliant, no, she isn't.  She doesn't read, or write, or speak in complete sentences.  She doesn't have special skills, a savant type hidden ability.  She isn't going to college.  She isn't going to get a high school diploma. And that's no big deal.  She's herself.

"Have you tried (fill in the blank here with things like special diets or specific therapies)?"

 The answer is one of two things---yes, we've tried it and it didn't work, or no, we haven't tried it, and we aren't interested in trying it.  You are not going to ask that and get someone saying "Gee, we've never tried that, but now that you mention it, we will!"

"What a tragedy for you!  How do you go on? How do you live with a burden like that?"

The few times I've heard this, my breath was almost taken away with anger.  Janey is not a tragedy. She is our child.  A tragedy is losing a child, having a child die.  I know a few families who  have lost a child, and I can't even think about it without crying every time.  We have Janey.  No child's life is a tragedy.  No child is a burden.  I'm not minimizing how difficult raising a child can be, any child. But there is a difference between something being difficult and something being a tragedy or a burden.

"How do you do it?  I could never do what you do!"

Don't say this.  Don't say it like it's a compliment to us.  Don't say it at all.  You COULD do it.  You WOULD do it, if Janey was your child. You would do it to the very best of your abilities.  Saying that  you couldn't is saying we as parents are somehow specially chosen.  We aren't.  And while we are doing the best we can, making us seem like some kind of superheroes serves to give society a cop-out. Why give help, respite, services to super-parents?  They are amazing!  They are doing something other people couldn't do.  We will admire them, praise them, but we don't need to HELP parents like that!


And here's a few questions I'd like to be asked more often...

"What is Janey like?  Tell me about her!"
"What can I do to help you?"
"What services would be most helpful for the city/state/country to provide?"
"Want some coffee while we laugh about everything and anything, including but not exclusively life with a child with autism?"