One phrase that I think most families with special needs children don't like is "How do you do it?", sometimes phrased as its twin "I don't know how you do it!" We know the phrase is usually meant in the kindest of ways, and that it's an acknowledgement of some of the struggles our families can face. But it can feel hurtful in a couple ways. One is that it makes it seem like our child has created a situation so difficult that others can't even imagine what it would be like to live our life. Another is by saying, in a way, that we ARE doing it, by making us somehow separate, set apart, somehow as a family unit handling it all ourselves, and not in need of help, due to our superhero status. Both views of our families are untrue and unhelpful.
That being said, lately I've been thinking a version of the "How do you do it?" myself. It's in the form of "How WOULD we have done it?" How would we have handled this pandemic, this lack of school, this isolation, during what I always think of as the Tough Years---approximately from when Janey was 5 until 10? Those years...wow. Those were the years in which an inclusion school which aimed to include all special needs students realized they were not up to including Janey, and then, while in the autism program she moved to, she was so unhappy and angry that the day came that I got the call that she wasn't even safe to go home, that we needed to come to the school to go with her by ambulance to the emergency room, the start of an ordeal which include six horrible days at Children's Hospital and 3 weeks of Janey being in a psychiatric hospital. Those years featured many, many days where Janey screamed all day, literally, days when she bit herself hard, days when she cried heartbreaking tears for hours, nights of her fury and sadness that seemed like they would never end. But during those years, there was school. We had about six hours a day when we could sleep (or often, just I could---Tony was working, most of that time at a job an hour from home, and how he ever lived through those years I'll never know), recover, breathe, know that she was cared for.
But what if the pandemic had been during those years, and there was no school? I think about that all the time, and I truly wonder how we could have done it.
Of course, the thing is, lots of other people with children with severe autism are living through those tough years right now. And I think about them, all the time. I think about how it must feel to have a child so desperately unhappy, and to be trying so very hard to help them, and having absolutely no respite---no school, no activities, no nothing. I think of them trying to think of ways to fill the days, and to get some rest. I think of the siblings, trying to learn at home in a household that might be often filled with screaming or hitting or crying.
If COVID-19 had happened during the Tough Years, I have to say honestly that I would have sent Janey back to school the second school was open, even if I wasn't sure it was safe, even if I had huge fears about the virus. I would have sent her because I would have known that we simply had to---in order to stay sane---not just us as parents, but her too. I would have taken the risk, the possibility of sickness weighed against the absolute knowledge of what more time at home would be like.
This knowledge is why I am not sure how I feel about schools staying closed. If we lived in an ideal world, I would feel sure they should stay closed, but we don't live in that world, and I know there are families out there right now just barely hanging on. I think about the teachers, with families of their own often, and I know they will be put at risk going back to in-person school, as well as the aides and lunch workers and bus drivers and therapists. I worry about all of them. But I can picture most, of course, the situation we have lived through, the child who needs help so badly and the family so extremely stressed by that child's needs, and I worry so much about how they are managing to go on. I know some of you reading this might be living that life right now, and feeling like you are very alone. I wish I could help more. I wish I could come to your house and take care of your child for a day or two, so you could sleep and recover. I wish I had magic.I wish I could fast-forward your life to calmer years. But right now all I can do is tell you I am thinking of you.
We are so lucky. Janey, at almost 16, is happy most of the time. Aside from a period of adjustment at first, and from the days she got upset by Zoom meeting school, which we will no longer do, she has been a champ during this time at home. We are enjoying her. Most of that is just her maturing. Some of it is changes we made, changes in our expectations of her and also changes in our lives. Tony retired early, which has been a financial challenge but without a question absolutely a right decision. The boys are older. We are okay. We hope that Janey can safely go back to school at some point, because she loved high school, but for now, we are okay.
I hope all those in the places of decision making do give a thought to those who are in the Tough Years of severe autism. I hope we can find a way to help those families get through this. I won't say to them that I don't know how they do it. I know how they do it. They do it day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. They do it because they love their kids, their amazing kids. But they need help, and we as a society need to figure out how to help them, especially in these extraordinary times.