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Sunday, September 27, 2015

The kind of autism that isn't talked about

As a lot of you might already have done, I read this essay recently.  If you haven't, you might want to read it.  (Link here)

I don't agree with everything said in the essay.  I don't agree that more awareness necessarily would result in less isolation and less lawsuits.  I don't quite agree with how depressing a picture is painted in terms of the numbers of non-talked about kids with autism.  But those are little things.  In general, I agree very much with what is said here, and I applaud the author, Bonnie Zampino, for having the courage to say it.

And I ask myself, why?  Why is there so little awareness or discussion about the type of autism this author's son has, and my daughter Janey has, and so many of the people who read this blog have children with?

I can think of a few reasons.  One is that most parents don't like to present their kids in less than flattering lights.  I'd far rather write a post about some step forward Janey has taken than write about parts of the everyday that are far more depressing---the fact she is 11 and not toilet-trained, the fact she screams and cries part of most every day, the fact she bites her arm so much it has a permanent scar, the fact her communication skills are so poor she suffered with a burst appendix for three days without treatment, unable to tell us how she felt.  I want others to love Janey as I love her, and I am always conscious of not making her "look bad".  And I don't want to appear to be trying to make people feel sorry for me.  I'm very aware of that.  I want people never to feel I am looking for sympathy.  That's my own issue, but I think it affects other parents too.

Another reason the tougher side of autism isn't presented more in the media is because it's not a feel-good story.  I read something recently about those ads on TV trying to get you to sponsor a hungry child, and how they don't generally show starving children.  They show cute, somewhat thin children in piles of trash.  People tend to tune out if they are overly depressed by what is being presented.  It's a lot more appealing (and probably gets higher news ratings) to show the kid with autism winning a spelling bee, or going to the prom, or playing the piano perfectly by ear than to show a child biting themselves or others, or screaming for hours, or banging their heads.  People would be upset by that, and tune it out, most people anyway.

Also, I think people like stories with a villain.  I think that is a lot of why the whole unproven autism/vaccination story had far, far more than its 15 minutes of fame.  It's a villain story--the evil government and medical community poisoning our kids into autism.  The fact that in the vast majority of cases that is not what happened doesn't take away from it being a good story, one that celebrities latch onto.  I've heard that some groups go as far as saying there aren't any adults with autism, because that muddies the story---if autism wasn't caused by too many vaccines, how could those adults have gotten it?  A child with a severe disability that just seems to sort of happen isn't a story we can feel outrage over.

The reality of children like Janey is something that people are not prepared for.  I've had the experience a few times that I am sure a lot of you have had, when Janey is met by someone who hasn't before met close up a child with autism, the experience of watching their expectations crumble.  They expect to be charmed by her quirky and interesting take on life, to form some kind of pure and beautiful connection with an otherworldly, unique child.  When they are faced with the real life Janey, most likely screaming and biting herself, maybe wet from a soaked pull-up, not answering questions or showing any interest in them, or perhaps showing too much interest, wanting them to play a clapping game for an hour on end---they get the stunned look.  I have become very familiar with that look, the look of someone realizing for the first time what autism really looks like.

It would be fine for most of the world to continue to have their sanitized view of autism, if that didn't mean that they weren't preparing for a future with a lot of Janeys in it.  Whenever people vote down money for group homes or moan about how much is spent on special education or continue to support organizations that give almost no money for actual direct care of the Janeys out there (yes, Autism Speaks, I'm talking about you), they are building a world that is going to be in for a huge surprise when someday, the Janeys are no longer able to be cared for at home.  People like Janey exist.  They are out there.  They matter.  I am going to try hard to be one of the voices that DOES talk about the other autism.  It's what I can do, from this little corner, tell my own story and hopefully, be a voice for Janey---my  beloved daughter with the kind of autism that isn't talked about.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

If I could ask you, Janey...

What if somehow, I could ask Janey all the things I wonder about her, and she could answer me, answer me clearly and fully?  I have a store of questions a hundred pages long.  Here's a few of them.

Do you like school?   I hear from your teachers if you had a good or bad day, what activities you had, some of what you learn.  But no-one but you can really tell me if you are happy at school, or tell me how you feel about the types of things your brothers told me---what kid in the class annoys you, what lunch is like and who you sat with, a funny thing that happened in class, a moment you felt scared there about something.  I don't have any idea what school really feels like for you.

What makes you like certain movies and TV shows so much?  I certainly know what you like to watch, but I often wonder---why those particular videos or shows?  Why do you watch "The Goofy Movie", with the story of father son bonding and a road trip, over and over?  Why is your favorite Disney movie "Hercules", a movie most people think is one of their weakest offerings?  What is it about that certain episode of Little Bear where Uncle Rusty babysits that makes you want to see it over and over, and makes you scream if I try to put on a new episode?  I would love so much to know what you like about the shows that you like.

When your appendix burst, how did it feel?  How could we have not known how much pain you must have been in?  That one haunts me.  We think Janey's appendix had been ruptured for three days before it was removed.  The pain must have been incredible.  We knew she was sick, enough that we took her twice to the emergency room, but neither us nor the medical professionals at one of the best hospitals in the world knew how serious it was, not until a CAT scan was done.  How could that be?  Do you feel pain differently?  Did you think we did know somehow and just weren't doing anything?

Do you understand at all why people come and go?  You miss Daddy so much every day while he is at work.  Do you have any notion what "work" is, why he has to sometimes leave for the day?  We say your brothers are at college, and you have seen their rooms, but do you get at all why part of the year, they go to live someplace else?  You ask for Auntie Carrie, for Nana and Grandpa, for Auntie Rose.  Do you get that they have their own houses, some of them very far from us?

Why do you scream?  I know there might be all kinds of answers to that one, but what most upsets you?  Why can you be happily watching a movie and suddenly, you scream, like you are in horrible pain?  Are you?  Is it when you don't understand something?  How can we help?

Why do you say "duck" between thoughts?  This is one I wonder about a great deal, although it's not as big an issue as some of the others.  You use the word "duck" like a divider, like a period or a dash, or a repeat sign.  You'll say something like "I know what you mean, but it's just not funny!  DUCK.  I know what you mean, but it's just not funny!  DUCK  You stole my pencil!  DUCK  I can write your name better than you can!"  All quotes from one of your favorite episodes of The Simpsons, but why the Duck in-between parts?  What does it mean?  How did it get started?

What could I do to make your life happier?  That is what I want to know the most, Janey.  I wish you could tell me all the little things and big things that would make you happy.  What could I get for you?  Where do you want to go?  What are your dreams?  Do you have dreams?  I guess at these things; I try as hard as I can to make your life as meaningful as I can.  But the truth is, there is so much about you I just don't know.  I love you so intensely, Janey, but I often feel like I have failed you.  Without the ability to communicate verbally at more than a basic level, without another form of communication, I am so often left guessing.  I can read about people with autism that have learned to communicate, and I can get some ideas, but they are not you, Janey.  You are, like every person with autism, like every person in the world,  a unique, fascinating, complex person, and in so many ways, Janey, I don't know you.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The first week of school

Janey has finished her first week of school, and so far, pretty much so good.  The start of school is almost always a good time for her.  She has a honeymoon period every year, where I am sure her teachers think "This is the girl I've heard so much about?  She's a piece of cake!"  Things often start collapsing around mid-October.  I feel like I'm being negative to say these things, but the pattern is pretty unmistakable.  But we do enjoy these early weeks!

The bus comes around early, around 6:30.  Janey's sleep hasn't been perfect.  Last night and 2 nights ago, she woke at 3, never to go back to sleep.  It is amazing how she never seems bothered by that lack of sleep, whereas Tony and I are very much bothered by it.  She seems to wake in the same mood she went to sleep in, and she's been cheerful lately, so she wakes up cheerful and ready to start the day, oblivious to the fact it's dark out and her parents seem oddly unresponsive.

Janey's school runs a little longer this year than last, as they have added 40 minutes to the school day.  She get home on the bus around 3.  So far, she's hopped off the bus in a good mood, which is always nice.  Her first act after getting home is to fling herself on her bed, and the next is to take off her shoes and socks.  Then, she eats.  She eats and eats and eats.  She gets school breakfast and lunch, but she doesn't much like them.  We've tried sending in food, but she never eats that either, and in Boston, school food is free, so we figure she might as not eat free food as paid for food.  But she gets home hungry.  It's amazing how much that girl can put away and still stay slim.  She's gained back the weight she lost being in the hospital, but she's still quite slender, despite eating like a sailor.

The one problem so far this year was a report on Friday that she had hit the bus monitor the day before.  We think the issue was that they put her in a seat next to another kid, not by the window.  Janey loves almost any length of car or bus time, as long as it keeps moving and she can look out the window.  It's a testament to what you can get accustomed to that we didn't get really that upset about the hitting report.  I don't want her hitting anyone, but we have learned as the years go by there isn't a lot we can do to stop it.  We of course tell her over and over that she can't hit people, and she can recite that back with a voice that sounds sincere, but when the urge hits her, she hits.  The best we could do was to tell the bus people that a window seat would be best, and they listened and are now putting her by the window.  I think everyone learns after a while with Janey that it's often a lot easier to modify her surroundings than her behavior.  I feel like this summer, we finally really learned that lesson ourselves.

Janey doesn't tend to learn anything academic at school.  I have pretty much accepted that.  It's not for lack of trying, and of course, who knows what she is picking up and not showing that she is?  If she is happy at school, the truth is I honestly don't care if she learns academics.  What I do care is if she is frustrated trying to learn things she just can't learn.  I have more doubts about ABA all the time, in Janey's particular case.   I don't think it's worked for her, in just looking at what programs she was being taught at the age of 4 and now at 11.  They aren't much different.  She is not motivated by ABA, or by any rewards she is given by it.  If she wants to know how to do something, she learns it near instantly.  I showed her only once or twice how to push the "3" on the TV remote to get it on the right channel for videos.  She shows no sign of knowing which numeral is which under normal circumstances, but boy, does she know that 3.  She knows which song is on which CD in the car, and what order they are in, and the lyrics and tune for every song, I truly think, that she has ever heard.  Those are the things she cares about.  I wish I could make her care about learning to read, or, as I sometimes suspect, make her show that she already CAN read, but, and I am seeing a theme here, you can't make Janey do a lot she doesn't want to do.

So, another school year has started.  It's strange, with Janey the only child home, but otherwise, it feels pretty familiar.  My main hope for the year is no hospitalizations of any kind---that Janey can attend school all year without interruption.  I think that's a reasonable goal.  As the years go by, we become more rooted in reality.  Acceptance isn't just a catch word, it's the only real way to stay sane, I think.  We accept that Janey is who she is.  We try to respect who she is, and work with who she is.  Like with any child, we rejoice in parts of her personality and despair of others.  Trying to change a child, a person, any child, any person, is an exercise in futility.  That's the biggest piece of knowledge being a parent of three very different, very intense, and very cool kids has taught me.  Work with what you have, and love them as they are.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A great trip with Janey, but missing her brothers!

On Saturday, we headed out to upstate New York to take Freddy to college.  He is going to Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.  I must say that overall, in terms of Janey, it was a hugely successful trip.  She is a great traveler!  We kept looking for wood to knock on over and over, as we commented on how well she was doing.  I think if we took every minute of screaming and tantruming from the whole over 2 day trip, it wouldn't add up to more than half an hour---which is incredibly good.

Of course, the trip was hard on me anyway!  I had a hard time saying goodbye to Freddy.  He's an incredible kid, and it will feel very strange not having either him or his equally incredible brother William at home.  For now, it's just the three of us---Tony, Janey and me.  But as I said to Tony at one point, I'm feeling a little more optimistic about the future after seeing how well Janey did on the road.

Janey digging in at the Chinese buffet
Part of what made it work is that we kept things very low key.  Janey loves just being in the car, driving around, and Tony and I do too.  We rented a big SUV for the trip, which we loved!  Our car is an old Saturn with almost no modern features, not even automatic windows or a consistently working car radio, but the Ford Explorer we rented had everything.  We kept joking it was like we were suddenly in the world of the future.  I especially loved the Sirius Radio.  I wanted to explore all the stations, but Janey has a routine of listening to certain music in the car, mix disks that Tony has compiled, and to keep her happy, when she asked for "Disk?  Disk, please!  Disk"  we put one of hers on.  We also didn't try to do anything touristy besides driving around and looking at things.  We didn't try eating out except for quick places like fast food or a Chinese buffet on the way home, and we didn't visit local landmarks, except by driving by them.

The fancy lobby of the hotel.  The rooms were NOT as fancy!
I was very worried about the hotel.  It's racing season in Saratoga Springs, so all the hotels there were either fully booked or exceedingly expensive, so we stayed in a neighboring town in the hotel that made my Priceline offer.  It turned out to be a very old, once grand but no longer hotel.  I read reviews of it that mentioned the thin walls and the complaints about noise, and I could picture Janey's screaming getting us kicked out.  However, even with internet that didn't work at all the first night, Janey didn't scream!  When she got a little loud, I said in an exaggerated whisper "We have to be very quiet at hotel houses.  Shhhhh!"  Janey found that hysterical and started walking around imitating me, but in a whisper, which worked well for keeping her voice down!

One of the best parts of the trip was swimming.  The hotel had a lovely pool, and we used it mid-day, and had the whole pool completely to ourselves for over an hour.  Janey loved being in the water!  We also went into the hot tub next to the pool with her for a little bit, and that was amazing.  For the 10 or so minutes we were in there, she was completely quiet and calm.  We all three just sat there, enjoying the heat.  I can't remember, ever ever ever, having a time like that with the three of us.  Tony and I kept looking at each other in wonder.

Tony waving goodbye to Janey on her first day of 5th grade
We got back Monday night, and Tuesday morning early (6:30!) Janey got on the bus for the first day of school.  Evidently, things went well.  The bus was an hour late getting home, due to first day glitches and the hot weather, but Janey took it in stride and seemed perfectly happy getting off.

So now, we start the next phase of our lives, what will probably be the phase until we are gone, the three person family.  Of course, the boys will be home for vacations and summers, and I can't wait.  But it's never going to be quite the same.  I was surprised by the depth of my emotions at having both boys gone.  I kept thinking about how it seems only a few days ago they were toddlers, and I would think "Can't they ever go a second without needing me?"  Now they are adults.  It goes far too fast.  Even with Janey, where time sometimes seems to stand still.  She is almost as tall as I am.  None of the clothes I had set aside for the first day of 5th grade fit her.  We share shoes.  She is growing up too.  The future comes rushing at us relentlessly.  Best of luck, my college junior and my college freshman and my 5th grader.  I love you three.