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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Thoughts on vacation and school

Janey's April vacation was a good one.  We didn't have a lot planned, and most of the days were just Janey and me hanging out, watching TV or reading or playing outside.  We had two nice visits with my friend Maryellen, who Janey adores, and one outing for shopping (clothes, which Janey tolerated for FIFTEEN MINUTES!) and ice cream, but mostly we just did not much. 

Janey doing one of her favorite things!
By the end of the vacation week, I noticed something I often notice after times when Janey and I are at home a lot together.  Her talking increased a good deal.  She had been in a low ebb for talking, but by weeks end, I was hearing longer phrases and new words.  At one point, outside, I said "Look at my flowers, Janey!" and she said "The daffodils!", a word I had no idea she knew.  She was stringing together thoughts, like "want to go on the bed and snuggle under covers?" It just felt like we were communicating better than we had in a long while.

Janey's outbursts were short during vacation, and pretty easily dealt with.  I read a book about adopted children with attachment disorders.  That isn't what Janey has, as she isn't adopted and I don't think she has an attachment problems, but the strategies for dealing with that problem interested me, and weren't too different than I do anyway.  Mostly, it involves keeping calm when the child is not calm, and not ever using things like time out---instead, giving more attention when behavior is tough.  I've been trying that, not as something I'm going to always do, but trying it, and it is working well.  When Janey screams and bites herself, I say "I think you need a snuggle time with Mama" and often, very quickly, Janey is happy and smiling.  With her outbursts, it's a matter of whatever works, and it was nice to have that working for now.

I was interested to see how Janey did with school starting again.  I very much like Janey's teachers and therapists and everyone I've met in the autism program at her school.  But sometimes, I'm starting to wonder if just the whole structure of school is tough on Janey.  School is not really designed for someone like her.  I don't think she enjoys ABA, or any kinds of art type activities, or almost any structured learning.  She likes music, and being outdoors, and taking walks.  They do those things at school as much as they can, but she is not the only kid in her class, and they are charged with teaching her, not just keeping her happy.  

This morning, Janey was not at all eager to go to school.  That is new for her.  She almost always like going places, almost any place, and she's always been eager to get on the bus.  Today, she asked for a car ride right as she got up, and was very upset we told her it was a school day.  She seemed to resign herself after a bit, but as I watched her head to the bus, she looked grim, stressed.

Sometimes, that mean voice in my head which is my own judgemental side says "if you were a GOOD mother, you'd homeschool her!"  Well, that is not going to happen.  Janey needs school, and I need the respite that school provides.  Even with a good vacation, I was extremely ready for Monday to come and school to start again, and I feel quite sure Janey would be very sick of being home with me after not too long at all.  But I wonder what education for Janey would look like in an ideal world.  I am so lucky in that I honestly have never had a teacher for Janey I didn't love, and who I didn't feel loved Janey.  That's not the issue.  It's the whole structure of school.  School is set up for learning, not for life skills or for learning to do things that will provide lifetime happiness.  The goal at Janey's school, which has two parts, really, a "regular" part and an autism part, is stated as "We believe every student will attend college"  I do think they realize this is not a realistic goal for Janey, but my point is that the "normal" school model seems to be more modified than replaced when designing programs for kids like Janey, and that just doesn't always make sense.  This is a systemic problem, not a problem with Janey's specific school.

I'm doing a very lot of thinking lately about school and Janey, and about how I can be prepare her for the future.  I want to honor who she really is in this preparation, not a mold that doesn't fit her.  I hope I can figure out a way to do that which will work for her and for us.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Legoland Discovery Center Boston!

This past week has been vacation week here, and I must say something I never thought I'd say about a vacation week with Janey---it has been relaxing and fun!  For the most part, anyway.  She's been in a banner mood, cheerful and talkative and cooperative and just pretty much a joy.  It's been really something.

Janey looking at Boston in Lego form
And today we had a special treat to top off the week...Legoland Discovery Center Boston!  I was offered tickets to an autism-friendly special time at Legoland by one of the organizers, who had read this blog.  I've heard of bloggers getting offered things like that, but this was the first time it happened to me, and I was quite excited!  However, I really was unsure how it would go.  Janey has never shown a real interest in Legos, and I didn't know much at all about the place.  But I love the idea of autism-friendly times at museums and other venues, and I wanted to give it a try.

Well, it was a huge success!  The event was from 8:30am to 10am, before the regular opening time of Legoland.  I felt worried Janey would want to leave after a few minutes, and I wouldn't be able to write much about what we did there.  However, we wound up staying until around 10:15! (you could stay as long as you wanted, even once the regular opening time started)

Gillette Stadium, Lego style
The other surprise was how much Tony and I enjoyed ourselves.  The coolest part, to us, was the Boston made all out of Legos.  All the big tourist places were included---Fenway Park, Cheers, the Hancock Tower, Old Ironsides, and there were also things like a T bus and commuter rail, Logan Airport and City Hall.  It's really something what you can create with Legos.  Janey seemed to enjoy looking at the Lego buildings too.

Her favorite part, I think, was the two rides.  There was a ride sort of like the Dumbo ride at Disneyworld (from what I remember the one time I was there as a kid), where you go round and round and can also go higher or lower.  With this ride, you did that by pedaling bike-like.  There was also a train type ride where you could shoot spiders and bad guys with laser guns.  Janey didn't try the shooting part, but Tony and I did, and the ride kept score (Tony beat me!)

Fun on a ride
There were areas where you could build with Legos, which Janey wasn't too into, but there was enough else to do so that was fine.  There was also a 4-D movie, with 3-D glasses and special effects like snow.  I loved that, as I've never been to a modern 3-D movie, but Janey didn't last there.  That's what I love about autism events---nobody gets upset if you need to leave.  Tony took her out of the movie area and I stayed for the about 10 minute show.

Tony's cool creation---Janey is unimpressed
Janey enjoying the experience
I talked to one of the organizers of the event, and she said this was the 2nd time they've had an autism event.  She asked us how we heard about it, and told me that they don't like to advertise a lot, because they want to keep attendance low, so only kids with autism and their families are there, but they also want to get the word out to those who are their intended audience.  I can see how that would be hard.  They did send home a flyer from Janey's school, so I think they are doing a good job with outreach.

At the playground
It's wonderful to be able to take Janey to "regular" places, and to not have to worry about meltdowns in lines, overwhelming crowds and stares from her behaviors.  I think one of the best parts is that we ALL can enjoy ourselves, as a family.  So much of the time, it seems like either Janey can enjoy herself, or we can, but not both, and for us all to be having fun together---that's wonderful.

After the event, we walked around the area a bit, and went to a cool little riverside playground and then had a fancy piece of cake in a French type bakery.  It was a whole morning out.

I'll write more soon about vacation week and my thoughts on it.  Tomorrow is back to school.  Often, I would have been counting the seconds, but this vacation, there is a small part of me that almost wishes vacation was longer.  Miracles never end.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The word we don't say anymore

Even when I started writing this blog, about 8 years ago, it was still marginally acceptable to use what I will now call the "R" word.  Now, the acceptable term is "intellectual disability".  In many ways, that's a better term.  The R word meant behind, and implied that those it referred to would someday catch up.  Intellectual disability doesn't have that implication.

In general, I am not too hung up on semantics.  Part of the reason is that it often takes quite a while for the general public to catch up with those in whatever community it is that creates the word.  It is sometimes easier just to tell people straight out---"Janey is ....."  I have done that, a few times.  Generally, I resort to that when I heard something along the lines of "But all kids with autism are really, really smart!  You just need to unlock it!  Have you tried (insert latest hip treatment here)?"

However, as the years go by, I realize that both the incorrect term and the more correct one are pretty meaningless.  Yes, in many ways, Janey is intellectually disabled.  There is no question there.  Despite many, many years of teaching, she doesn't know her letters, or numbers.  She can't read or write, or really use a writing utensil at all.  She speaks mainly in short, familiar phrases or echolalia.  If her IQ was able to be tested, it would be very low.  But those academic areas are just a small part of who she is.

I don't like to think about it, but the truth is, before I had kids, I thought having a child that was the R word would be the one thing I simply couldn't deal with.  I would guess a lot of people think that.  I felt it would be the ultimate tragedy.  Now, I can say with complete honestly that I was wrong.  In day to day life, Janey's intellectual disability makes little difference in her life.  It matters far less than her happiness, her health, her safety.

I also get now that there are many, many kinds of smart.  I often say to Janey "You're so smart!" and totally mean it.  She is smarter than I am in a lot of ways.  She dances far better than I ever will.  She is good at using the computer and iPad.  She can run a lot further than I ever could.  She has more sophisticated taste buds.  She is less socially anxious.  She is a million times more musical than I am.  She has a wonderful sense of humor.  She has more fashion sense than I do.  I used to think, honestly, when people said there were many kind of intelligence, they were saying that to somehow cover up the fact that whoever they were talking about didn't have "real" intelligence.  I hate it that I used to think that.  It's not true.

So, you might ask, why even admit, why address the fact that Janey does indeed have an intellectual disability?  Well, because it does make a difference in terms of what the future holds for her.  I believe in living in reality.  The kinds of smart Janey has are not the kinds of smart that will make her able to succeed academically.  She will never get a high school diploma.  She will never go to college.  And beyond academics, she will never hold a real job, or live on her own.  And I hear already a chorus, probably mostly from my own mind, saying "You are assuming a lot there!  Don't you have hope?"  And the truth is, at this point, I think reality is more important than hope, at least hope for things that there are a vanishingly small chance will ever happen.

There are kids with autism, including non-verbal or low verbal kids, who don't have an intellectual disability.  That is extremely important to keep in mind.  But I think it's also important to admit there are kids that are indeed intellectually disabled. Sometimes, I feel like at some high level, it might be almost a conspiracy to not admit that, because not admitting it lets us as a society not truly deal with a future that is coming.  Janey will need lifelong care, and so will many, many others like her.  We can hope that isn't the case all we want, but it's reality.  Until we admit that as a society, we will not be planning for it.

In a bigger sense, I wish everyone could realize what it took having Janey for me to realize.  Being intellectually disabled is NOT A TRAGEDY.  It's not something so horrible that we have to pretend it doesn't even exist, have to say that somehow it will magically go away in the future.  It's not the end of the world.  Janey is one heck of a terrific person, despite being the word we don't say any more.
My terrific Janey

Friday, April 15, 2016

A drink and a song

Last night, we decided to live it up a little and get some dinner out---some Burger King.  We ordered just what we felt like, because we are like that, living large, you know.  And then we ate it in the scenic lovely parking lot of the mini mall the Burger King was at.  I told Tony as we ate that I knew when I married him he'd take me some special places, and a night like the one we were having certainly proved I was right.

Seriously, though, we enjoyed ourselves.  I was thinking how in some ways, I'm pretty suited to the lifestyle that life with Janey brings.  I am not much into getting dressed and going out, I wouldn't really call myself unsociable, but I'm probably low-sociable, and I am as happy eating in the car in a parking lot as I would be in a fancy restaurant overlooking the ocean, most of the time.  We had a nice meal, joking around and people-watching.

At one point, Janey asked for a drink of Tony's soda.  He had a big diet Coke (he is a diabetic).  We don't usually like Janey to have soda, but in the spirit of a carefree night, we gave it to her without a lot of thought, and she had a nice big draw of it.

When we got home, it was the time Janey usually goes to sleep, about 7:30, but she wasn't sleeping.  She finally did go down about 8:30, which was fine.  In another example of just how we roll, we all went to sleep at that time, which is I have to admit a fairly typical bedtime for us.  We are just not late night people.

At four in the morning, Tony woke me up to say Janey had been up almost all night and it was my turn to take over, so he could get a little sleep before work.  I was happy to, but not happy to hear about the sleepless night.  We've certainly had them at times, but not too often recently.  There's two types of them.  One is the upset, screaming up all night and the other is the cheerful but demanding up all night, and Janey was in the second mode.  Every time Tony drifted into a minute or two of shut-eye (we stay up when Janey's up, but the human body can only take so much not sleeping and we drift off for minutes here and there), Janey had a new request.  So he was not in a good way.

Janey switched over to requesting things from me.  She watched part of "Journey to Joke-a-lot", a Care Bears movie that I think was designed mostly for late night college parties where there might possibly be some non-sobriety going on, due to its many wild colorful scenes of roller coaster type rides going through bizarre landscapes.  Then she asked for another show on the "big TV", but I told her it was time to lie down, and if she couldn't sleep, she could use her iPad.  That was a mistake, as it turned out her iPad was out of charge.  That is something Janey doesn't get at all.  I think she thinks we just every now and then decide to take away the iPad, to show our dominance or something.  We've tried getting her to use it plugged in, but she immediately unplugs it.  So she was ready for a meltdown.

Grasping at straws, and cursing the caffeine in the diet coke, consumed after 12 noon, which we have to be reminded over and over and over results in her not sleeping, I asked her if she wanted me to sing her a song.  She said immediately "Yes!" which startled me, as she isn't usually a direct answerer and she generally isn't that into my singing.  I asked her what song, and she said "Angels we have heard on high!"  Another direct answer, and I knew what it really meant.  I pretended I didn't, and started to sing the carol, and she said "On the big computer!"

For some reason, Angels We Have Heard must always be played through iTunes on the computer, with the visualizer on.  I knew that from the start, and I dragged myself out of bed and put it on.  And we listened and watched, the unseasonable song and the mesmerizing colors and shapes.  We listened together to five versions of the song.  Janey danced next to me.  Some of the versions required me to clap along, which Janey let me know by clapping my hands for me to get me started.  We skipped version six, done by Neil Diamond, and went to version seven, a VeggieTales version, proving that Janey doesn't always have great taste in music.  We wiled away the very early morning hours, until it was time to get ready for school.

I thought, after I'd had a little rest, that like the parking lot dinner, that sometimes what Janey wants and needs is similar to what I'd want and need.  I love hearing many versions of a song, and getting into the light show the computer provides, and aside from not quite wanting to do it when I'd rather be sleeping, I'd enjoyed myself a lot with Janey, having a drink and a song with a friend.  My life today isn't exactly what I'd ever pictured, but whose life ever is?  Life is what happens while we're busy making other plans, to quote John Lennon.  Having a child like Janey isn't in most people's plans, but it's life, and like any life, it has its downs but it also has its nights of drink and song.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Mostly just pictures!

I took a bunch of pictures of Janey tonight, and thought I'd share them in a mostly just pictures post!  We have a routine with taking pictures which she loves.  I pretend to tickle her (she doesn't like to be actually tickled, but she loves me to say "tickle-tickle!" with my hands in tickle position), and then I take a picture, to get a smile!  Not that I only want smiling pictures of her, but I love seeing her smile.
Here's Janey playing with kinetic sand, a wonderful present from a dear friend.  It's the first toy in years Janey has had an interest in, and she loves it.

Smiling in the sunlight

I love to see my Janey happy.

Another big smile!

My shadow taking her picture!  Janey has the blessing or curse to have the family hair, thick and very curly.  Her brothers both have it too, as do assorted members of my family (not me!)  It changed when she was about 7 from being straight and very blond to being ash blond and curly.
Janey pointing!  She doesn't point a lot, except at herself as a way of saying "I want that", so this was a lucky shot.  She was wanting Tony to hurry up and come down to the driveway to take her for a car ride.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016


The scream.  It's incredibly loud, and incredibly sad.  It's a scream of despair, of extreme pain, of furious anger.  It will literally hurt your ears, wake you from a dead sleep, startle you into jumping.

Sometimes, it's in response to a request that can't be instantly filled.  Last night..."I want salami!"  I told Janey we were out of salami, and there it was, the scream.  Sometimes, it's during a video Janey has been watching happily for years.  Little Bear has the mildest of mild arguments with Cat?  Scream.  Sometimes, it's out of absolutely no-where we can see.

If the scream made Janey feel better, if the scream seemed to be an effective means of communication, if the scream was a sensory thing that let out steam---I would not try to find ways to stop it.  It would still restrict us from going places, it would still make it sound like Janey was being tortured, but I would accept it.  But the scream doesn't seem to help anyone, especially Janey.  It's almost always accompanied by arm biting---deep biting of Janey's right arm.  The arm has permanent bite marks.  Sometimes, after the biting, Janey says "My arm is hurty!" with tears in her eyes.  The biting, like the screaming, does not seem like a choice.  I am quite sure Janey doesn't want to scream, or to bite her arm.

What do I do about the screaming?  I don't know.  I have tried literally everything I can think of.  Nothing has worked.  We have tried ignoring, we have tried responding to what we can guess is the cause, we have tried a certain place in the house to go to scream, we have tried just hugging her when she screams, we have tried explaining calmly to her that we don't know why she is screaming and we would like her to tell us in words what is wrong.  Nothing seems to help.  When Janey is in a good mood, she doesn't scream.  When she's in a mildly upset mood, she screams at times.  When she is in one of her very, very bad moods, she screams most of the day.

I would do almost anything to help Janey feel better, to make her not need to scream and bite herself.  I would give her my voice, like The Little Mermaid movie she loves.  I would subtract twenty years from my life, as is said in "At This Moment", one of Janey's favorite songs.  I would give up everything I enjoy.  I would pretty much give my life.  That is how much I wish Janey was happier, how much I wish she didn't feel the despair that leads her to scream and to hurt herself.

When it comes to the scream, all the autism philosophies, all the methods of teaching, all the labels and interventions and behavior plans and ideas, all my sanity, they all go out the window.  All I can feel is sadness, sadness that my daughter I love more than anything is feeling the kind of pain that causes a scream like that, a self-injurious bite like that.  This is not something that can be sanitized, can be made part of anyone's agenda.  This is the horror of the child you love needing help you just can't give.  I'm sorry, Janey.

Monday, April 4, 2016

On Awareness/Acceptance/Whatever

Other years, I've tried to write a post about Autism Awareness/Acceptance Day/Month.  This year, I wasn't going to.  This is partly because the whole idea of an autism day or month seems to be very controversial, and I am not much into controversy.  For those who might not get why it would be controversial---from what I understand, Autism Awareness Month and the whole Light It Up Blue campaign was a brainchild of Autism Speaks.  Autism Speaks is not a well-liked organization with autism circles.  There's a variety of reasons, the big ones being that they portray autism very negatively often, and that they give very, very little money to actual help those with autism---most all their money goes to administration or to research.  They also haven't been too interested in having people with autism on their boards.  I would tend to feel these are pretty valid criticisms.  However, I know that most people who do things for autism awareness, like wearing blue or putting up blue lights, have no idea what the history behind it is.  I believe in taking gestures in the spirit in which they are given, and so I don't get that upset over all of it.

However, the other reason I'm not trying to write an autism awareness/acceptance post is that I more and more realize I am not aware of autism in general. Very few people are.  I am aware of one child, Janey, with autism.  And autism is only a part of her.  I can't take anything about her and generalize it to the larger autism world.  She is herself.  I can and do and will write about her, my daughter, and the joys and struggles involved in raising her, and I am happy if that helps others raising children with autism and if it helps others better understand what it's like, in my particular case, to raise a child with special needs.

Several times lately, I've seen writing about how in many ways, there truly is more awareness of autism than there was in the past.  I've noticed this.  When Janey breaks down in public, or when she doesn't answer someone who talks to her, or when she shows her unusual behaviors, I often am quick to say "She is autistic"  I do this partly to fend off those who might think she is misbehaving, and partly to do my own little part for awareness.  More and more, though, I get the response "Oh, I knew she was".  People are more aware than I'd say they were even five years ago of what autism can sometimes look like.

My hope is that there is a progression with issues like autism.  First, people become aware of it.  Then, they are open to helping with it, and open to government and schools and cities spending money to help people with autism.  You need to be aware of what is needed before you can understand why you need to give that help.  That is part of why I write here.  It's easier a lot of times to relate to one particular child than to a concept in the abstract.  I want to do my small part to make people aware of one child with autism.  I don't speak for anyone but Janey and our family, but in telling our story, if people become more aware of autism in general, I consider it a plus.

How did we spend our special autism day?  We had a good, quiet day.  Janey was quite happy all day (and all weekend).  She watched videos, played with her iPad, ate a lot and danced to music.  We took a couple car rides, including a long one to Dairy Queen (the closest one to us is a ways away) and she had chicken and french fries while we rocked to her car music.  There was of course a bit of screaming here and there, a little bit of arm biting, but a lot of happiness and laughter, too.  Janey, you have made me aware of autism.  You have led me to accept autism.  And I love you.