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Friday, March 20, 2020

Autism in the time of Coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic is, by very definition, a worldwide crisis.  It affects everyone on earth. I always try to guard against appropriating issues that are certainly not mine alone.  That being said, there are ways this crisis is affecting those with autism, and to narrow it down more, my daughter Janey, specifically and strongly.

Of course, because everyone with autism is a unique person, and there is no one autism personality, set of skills, collection of challenges, I can only speak only for the person with autism I know best, Janey, and even then, I can speak only as her mother, not as herself.  That being said...

Janey was having, up to last week, the best year of her life, I think it's fair to say.  She loves high school.  Loves it completely, with abandon.  All reports, all pictures sent home, all signs were that she felt she'd found her place.  The time from the start of this school year until now was the longest ever almost uninterrupted stretch of happiness for Janey ever.

And suddenly, that ended.  From one day to the next, there was no more high school to go to.  We know the reasons, but I truly don't think Janey does at all.  Of course, I explained it to her.  I try to always assume competence.  I told her as best I could what was happening.  I don't know how much she understood. Being completely frank, I don't think it was much.  Janey has a pretty significant intellectual disability, and I think the idea of a worldwide pandemic is beyond her.  What she did understand is that for now, school is over.  I know she understood that, because when I told her, she screamed.  And said, over and over, "No!  No!  No!"

I am constantly thinking back to when I was Janey's age, 15.  I loved high school too.  I look at pictures of me from that time, and the smile on my face, the very cheerful look, is so much like Janey's.  I loved the mix of structure and chaos, the feeling that anything could happen, but it was going to happen within a somewhat controlled framework.  I loved being out of the house, on my own but still with a home base.  I loved being with my friends.  And, like many 15 year old girls, I was a bit boy crazy, spending hours writing in my diary about whoever I had a crush on at the time.  At Janey's IEP meeting, I loved in a lot of ways hearing about how Janey had to be reminded we don't hold hands during class.  She is one of the few girls in a cluster of classrooms full to the brim with boys, and she is not unaware of that.

And now, for reasons she doesn't get, she is home.  She is not only home, but we aren't going anyplace fun.  In her eyes, I am sure it feels like we have just decided to take away what she most enjoys.  What bothers me the most is that I think she believes that everyone else is there at school, having the time of their lives, and she is home without them.  I've tried everything I can think of to explain that isn't the case, but I don't think she gets it at all.

Janey has reacted to all of this with a huge regression.  She is biting her arm all day until it's raw looking, she is screaming often, she is crying a great deal.  She is showing behaviors we haven't seen in this intensity for a long time.  And seeing her regress, it all comes rushing back.  We as parents of a child severely affected by autism are living one tantrum away always from fear of it all going to hell in a handbasket. My mind can't help but take me to one of the worse days ever---to a hospital emergency room where Janey is biting and flinging objects and so out of control that there are suddenly police officers all over and I am being walked out out of the room so Janey can be subdued without me.  I would guess many of you have your own scene like that---the scene that the mind has a strange attraction to.

The school system in Boston is doing all they can to help kids get through this time, and as almost always, I am grateful for that.  We are taking Janey every day to pick up breakfast and lunch, a little piece of routine.  Her teacher has set up a Google classroom and today I will show Janey the videos there.  But much of what the schools can do just simply doesn't work for Janey.  The kind of work she does at school at this point really can't be reproduced at home.  We can't give her a dance class full of other kids, or a big swimming pool, or field trips with her friends.  We can't give her a long bus ride through the city, or a big staff of people who love her.  We can only give her our little staff at home, and she isn't happy about that.

For many families like our own, school is our one and only source of respite. With Janey home, that respite is over for now, and that is one of the toughest parts of this all.  Her respite from us is gone, too.  It's much easier to take a step back and work on ways to deal with this crisis when you are getting sleep, which we aren't, when you are getting some time away from the screaming and the frantic demands of a confused and unhappy child.  

Under all this, of course, is the same fear that almost everyone has, that we will get sick.  Tony is a diabetic.  I have quite a few underlying conditions.  If either of us got sick, it could be, well, pretty bad.  It evokes the black hole of fears when you have a child like Janey---the fear that you won't be there as a parent.  As my friend Michelle and I often say, and as many living this life understand, we as parents have to live forever.  The thought of us not being there for Janey....I can't even go there.

I know that not every child with autism is Janey, is like Janey.  For some kids, this break from school, this time at home, is a dream come true.  Some kids and parents will probably look back at this, assuming we get through it and all in the family are okay, as one of the best times in their life, strange to say.  And that too is part of the story of autism at this strange time in history.  

Thank goodness for the internet.  I think that all the time.  Thank goodness we can be with each other virtually.  Thank goodness for that gift from above, Disney Plus, without which right now I can't imagine life.  Thank goodness for being in contact with my autism mother friends.  Thank goodness my son William can work at home, helping to keep Tony and me safe from sickness.  Thank goodness for all that helps us not feel alone.

I would love my Facebook companion page to be a place you can vent, a place that I will do everything I can to keep as a refuge for those who need it.  

I will close with what I've noticed has become the default close in this past week.  Be well.

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