Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Janey Awareness, Autism Awareness
1. Janey is eight years old. She's my third child, my first girl, the girl my husband Tony and I longed for. She was born on her brother Freddy's seventh birthday. Although she had some quirkiness from birth, she appeared to be basically normally developing until a bit before her third birthday, when she regressed severely. She was diagnosed at age 3 years, 3 months with autism.
2. Janey has low functioning autism. She, like many children with autism, is intellectually disabled. Although her skills are a little scattered, in general, she functions like a child of about 2. She speaks, but around 98% of what she says is either simple requests ("I want Kipper, I want green candy, I want snuggle on Mama's bed") or echolalia, delayed or direct (repeated phrases from videos, books, past conversations, etc) She says very little that is original or communicative beyond requesting. She knows some letters and some numbers, inconsistently, some shapes, she can sometimes write a J and is working on the rest of her name, she can name single objects she knows when she's in the mood. Learning this much academically has taken her 6 years of school (preschool through second grade, where she is now)
3. Our lives are hugely, extremely impacted by Janey. She literally cannot ever be unsupervised, not for even seconds. She has the impulsive nature and lack of safety concerns of your typical 2 years old, in a fairly tall 8 year old's body, and she's pretty good with physical things like climbing and opening. Someone must always be assigned to watching Janey, ALWAYS. That means even if you have to leave the room for a very short time, like to run to the bathroom or check the mail. Otherwise, Janey will put herself in dangerous situations or do things like pour liquids on the floor, or worse.
4. Because of Janey's lack of ability to communicate and her swings in emotion, she can become very, very upset for long periods of time. We have had stretches of days on end where Janey cried without stopping, all day, crying really being a mild word for what she did---more like screaming hysterically. There are other days she laughs for hours on end, and wakes manically in the night still laughing.
5. Janey attends an inclusion school, the William W. Henderson Inclusion School. She is in a classroom with kids that are typically developing and with a few other kids with various special needs. There are 2 teachers and an aide in the classroom, and Janey is also supported by a lot of specialists like physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, music therapists, an ABA specialist---it takes a full staff to education a Janey! We love Janey's school, and are very lucky she is there.
6. We don't know what caused Janey's autism, although I have plenty of theories. I don't really believe in autism cures. I don't have a fixed autism policy, belief or style. I believe in doing a hodgepodge of whatever works. Janey is on no special diets, takes no special vitamins. I am not saying that those diets or supplements might not work for other kids, but we haven't chosen to go that route.
7. Janey loves music. She knows hundreds of songs by heart, and if the spirit moves her, she can sing them in tunes with the full lyrics, but not on command! Listening to music with Janey is my favorite way to bond with her. We listen to a huge variety of songs on the iPod in the car, and when Janey likes one, she asks to re-hear it, and I add it to her list, which she knows how to access when I put the iPod on a base at home. She especially likes country gospel music (although our family is not very religious!), bluegrass, Weird Al, and most of all, Christmas music. She sometimes is intensely bothered by certain songs, and it could be those are sung out of tune---I'm not really musical enough to know!
8. One of the hardest parts of autism for me is the stares in public. If I could make the general, autism-unaware public aware of one thing, it would be how hard the stares are. If you see a child acting unusually, maybe making odd sounds or jumping up and down or crying when there doesn't seem to be a reason, or just acting much younger than they are, please try hard not to stare! I never mind people making eye contact with me and smiling, just to let me know they see us and are supportive, but please don't just look at us like we are a sideshow!
9. If you are interested in helping autistic kids and their families, my personal wish would be that you volunteer or give money or whatever to organizations providing direct support, direct services. That means people that are working directly with autistic kids---giving the parents a break, giving the children opportunities for recreation, providing afterschool programs, camps, parties, things like that. Just because an organization has "autism" in its name, that doesn't mean they work directly to help kids with autism who are living here and now. They might support one very specific type of autism therapy they believe in, or they might give money for research. I'm not knocking those things, but there are many families out there desperate for help RIGHT NOW. They already have the kids with autism, and knowing what caused it or working for some long term "cure" is not going to get them through the day. I speak from experience. I am very lucky that Janey can attend afterschool and summer school. I'm not sure how I'd survive otherwise, frankly. Even with that, vacations and weekends can be brutal. I'd do anything in the world for Janey, but there are times that her needs overwhelm our family. I worry about families with single parents, or more than one autistic child, or less school time. I worry about them very much.
10. Janey is an amazing person. I love her very, very much. That being said, life with autism is tough. It's tough for her, it's tough for our family. Those are the two big points I'd like to emphasize in the end, I guess----that children with autism are people, beloved family members, children that are as precious to their families as any child, but that doesn't change the fact that raising an autistic child is extremely, overwhelmingly, unbelievably tough. Or, to get back to my Janey-centered approach, I love Janey more than I could have ever imagined, and she is tougher than I ever imagined a child could be.
I'll end with a shout out to every family out there raising their own autistic child. Here's to all of you. I'm raising a toast in your honor. Cheers, and my love.