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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Silver Anniversary

Yesterday was our silver anniversary, marking 25 years of marriage.  And I was thinking all day that if I'd somehow been able to see the future, and needed to pick out a husband specifically to be my partner in parenting Janey, I couldn't have picked a better man than Tony.

You don't hear nearly as much about autism fathers as autism mothers.  But I'm pretty sure Tony's not the only fantastic autism father out there (in fact, I know for a fact he isn't---here's a shout-out to you, Dan!)  Tony is Janey's rock star.  I'm okay in her eyes, but Tony is her hero.  When he gets home from work, I see a smile that I just don't see any other time.  Daddy takes her for car rides, dances with her, cooks her favorite foods, makes silly voices for her, delights in funny things she says---Daddy is the sunshine of her life.

Almost every afternoon when Tony walks through the door, I say "Thank you for coming home".  He often jokingly replies "As if I have a choice!"  But he does have a choice.  I know that some fathers, faced with the challenges Janey brings (or the more typical challenges that William and Freddy brought) would not come home---would decide that it was all a little more than he bargained for.  And I won't say what I hate to hear---that I don't know how single mothers do it.  I know how they do it.  I know you do what you have to do.  But I will say I can imagine how incredibly tougher my life would be doing this on my own.

I've read that the toughest years on a marriage when parenting a child like Janey are the early years, but I don't think that's necessarily true.  Most people understand that parenting children in the early years is a very intense thing.  But most people also know that it gets easier, that eventually there will come a day when the children don't need to be cared for 24/7, when the children have lives of their own.  That day will not come for Tony and me, or for so many families like ours.  We will take care of Janey for the rest of our lives.  I am not saying this to try to say what a burden it is, how unfair it is, any of that. It is just how it is.  But I don't think many people would argue when I say that does put a strain on a marriage.

However, I think in many ways Janey has given us a stronger marriage.  We need each other.  We need each other desperately.  When Tony gets home, I am thrilled---each and every day.  I am thrilled not always for the reasons you might think of when reading romance novels---I am thrilled because I know I will get a little break, that I can sit and read for a bit.  When we do get a little bit of time alone together, we treasure it.  Yesterday, we had a wonderful day while Janey was at school.  We watched some TV, we went out to lunch, we talked and laughed and reflected on the past 25 years.  I am sure many people do more exotic things for their silver anniversary.  They might take a cruise, or have a huge party, or buy each other big gifts.  But I think we had just as much fun.

I'm not going to say it's all been sunshine and roses.  There have been times when the stresses of our lives certainly brought out the worst in both of us.  There have been bickering middle of the night fights over who slept less, there have been times that we lashed out at each other because we had run out of patience a few toileting disasters ago, there have been arguments over nit-picky things we felt the other wasn't handling correctly.  But in looking back, those moments fade behind the good moments, the moments we together watched Janey do something that amazed us, the times we quoted Janey's latest video obsession and both of us got the reference and we laughed until we cried, the amazing moments when all three kids were together and happy and we couldn't believe we've created the family we have.

To all the fathers out there, indeed, to all the married couples out there living this uniquely challenging life----we raise a cup of coffee in a virtual toast to you.  And to Tony, Happy Anniversary.  I love you.

Friday, April 21, 2017

On admitting it's ME who is overwhelmed and frustrated...

We are at Friday of spring vacation week.  Tony is taking today off, which is a huge, huge, HUGE relief.  It's been a long week.  Mostly for me, more than Janey, and that is what I'm thinking about.

Last summer when I talked about how Janey's life had little variety, I was very taken with the insight a lot of you gave me---that Janey might not mind the lack of variety, and in fact might like it.  I think you were right.  Janey takes enjoyment in simple things, and she loves having her days follow a pretty predictable script.  She is able to handle changes more than some kids with autism, but she likes it if the changes are within the framework of a general sameness.  With that in mine, I decided this week I would follow Janey's lead, let her set a routine and go with it.

Janey set a routine the first day and without me reminding her or prompting her, she requested it be followed for the next three days.  This is how it went....First, she woke up about six.  I snuggled with her a bit, we had some breakfast, she watched a little bit of TV.  Then she said "Go to the ice cream store?", which, as you've probably heard, is the convenience store near us.  We did the routine of getting dressed for the day, and walked to the store.  Janey loves this.  I got coffee and she looked for a long time at the chips and picked a bag, we payed and walked home.  Then she ate the chips outside while I had my coffee.  

Next, we went back inside for a little more videos time.  Then, Janey asked for a shower.  I set it up and she had one---washing her hair or not depending on if she needed it.  I let her take as long a shower as she felt like.  We got dressed again, a little more videos and then Janey asked for a car ride.  I suggested a place, which didn't really matter, as she wanted simply to be in the car.  We drove, got out wherever I had said, Janey put up with wherever we were for about five minutes, then asked to go home.  

The huge hug when Daddy gets home
When we got home, Janey screamed because the car ride was over.  That's where the routine still was routine, but not a very fun one.  For the rest of the day, until Tony came home early about 2 (he went into work very early so he could come home early), the routine was to scream and ask for Daddy.  As early as I could do it without it being too long, we went outside to wait for Daddy.  When he got home, Janey acted like she was seeing a returning soldier after many long years.  The smiles and hugs were incredible.  Then they went for the kind of car ride she really likes, long and without destination.

By last night, I was in a mood and a half, and I realized something.  As much as I want to be the perfect autism mother, as much as I feel like my own wants shouldn't matter, they do.  And I was bored, frustrated, hurt, tired.  

The ride yesterday was the last straw.  For the ride, I said we could go to Panda Express.  None of us but Janey like this fast food Chinese food, but she loves it.  However, I didn't realize that she had a routine in mind.  There was a line when we got there, as it was lunchtime.  I don't think Janey had ever experienced a line there before (it's not the most popular place, and is right next to a Five Guys and a Chipotle that get most of the customers) and she started freaking out and pushing people.  I got her to wait, we got our food, we sat down and she quickly ate the beef dish she likes, in about three minutes, and she was ready to go.  I had barely had a bite.  She grabbed the tray and wanted to throw it out.  She was rapidly becoming frantic and hysterical.  I gulped down a few bites on the way to the trash and threw out the rest, as the few other customers stared.

Then, Janey wanted to go in the Chipotle.  I realized that probably every other time she'd gone to Panda Express, it was because the boys wanted Chipotle, and Tony took her to Panda Express instead.  Then, they came over to see us at the Chipotle.  The fact that the boys are away at college and Tony was at work didn't matter.  We were supposed to go in the Chipotle and see them.  I got her into the car, screaming and highly upset, and she spent the rest of the afternoon highly angry.

When Tony got home, I started ranting.  I had done everything I could for four days to make it a week that would work for Janey.  Although I fully understand that she has a need for routine, although I know as well as anyone can that she is easily triggered by changes, I was just tired of it.  I was tired of trying so hard to keep her happy.  I was tired of dealing day and night with screaming.  I was tired of....well, all of it.  

And that's the thing of it.  All of us autism mothers and fathers are human beings.  We do our solid best.  But sometimes, it gets to us.  And that is where it gets hard.  Because what do I do?  There is no break from this.  There is no end to it.  There is no day that Janey's needs won't be overwhelming.  This is my life.

Last week I talked about the lack of programs or activities for those like Janey, with high needs autism.  The truth is, Janey doesn't much want outside activities, I don't think.  I do.  I want the break they would give me.  But the few activities that do exist---classes and therapies and so on---require I be there with her.  And that is just harder than no activity at all, and not worth it for something that in my heart I know she doesn't really enjoy anyway.  It's me that needs variety, and a break, not Janey.  

I got over my rant last night.  I am lucky in so many ways, and one of the top pieces of luck is one heck of a wonderful husband, who is taking over with Janey today.  But I keep being struck by that one thought---parents of kids like Janey are people too.  Sometimes it seems like we are supposed to not be. But we are, and sometimes, we are overwhelmed.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Baby Bubbles

It's hard to explain exactly, but lately we are seeing something in Janey that is new and wonderful.  She is talking a little more, but it's not just that---it's a change in how she seems, in how she connects.  It's not there all the time, and it can be hard to describe, but when we see it, Tony and I look at each other in amazement.

I'll try to describe the latest incident.  Janey came home from school the other day very upset.  It seemed she was in pain---she was grabbing her belly and twisting around a bit.  It looked to us like gas pain, or pain from constipation.  We eventually gave her some Tums, hoping to help her feel better, and after a while, she did seem to feel much better.

As we were lying down with her at bedtime, we were talking about the Tums.  I said to Tony "I think they work by taking big bubbles in the stomach and breaking them down into little bubbles, so they can get out"  I wasn't talking to Janey, or doing what we sometimes do, talking to Tony in terms we thought Janey would understand, so she could listen indirectly.  Doing that often seems easier for her than talking to her straight on---it's like there is less pressure, so she hears without feeling pressured to respond.  But that's not what I was doing right then.

Right after I said what I said about the bubbles, Janey pointed to her belly and said "Baby bubbles?"  She said it exactly like most people would reply, in a questioning voice, like she was looking for confirmation she understood correctly.  Tony and I looked at each other in amazement.

This might not sound like a big deal to someone who doesn't know Janey, but it was something in several ways we have hardly ever seen.  First, she responded with appropriate timing---no delay.  Secondly, her tone was right on---not echoed sounding or sing-song or anything else, but just questioning.  Thirdly, she used a word we hadn't used, "baby" instead of "little"---so she wasn't quoting or repeating, she was using a synonym to clarify.

It's this little kind of thing we are seeing more and more of.  Janey seems to be, for the lack of a better word, tracking our speech more.  She seems to be following what we say and processing it in real time.

Another story---kind of a funny one.  Janey's uncle Joe often asks her "What's my name?"  It's something he did with all three kids when they were little, as a way of making conversation.  With Janey, he's been asking her that for years.  She replies or not, depending on her mood.  However, the other night, Tony was out with Joe and Janey in the car and I got a call.  Tony said "Are you sitting down?  You won't believe this"  What had happened was that Joe asked Janey, for maybe the ten-thousandth time in her life, "What's my name?" and Janey replied "You forgot your name?"

That answer---wow.  We joked that she must have been sitting on that reply for years, waiting for the right time.  It's an amazing reply to us---it shows she understand the meaning of the word "forgot", that she gets that someone would ask a question to get information, and most of all, it breaks away from a script that has been years and years in the making.

For a long time, Janey's speech didn't progress.  Our theories of why it suddenly is---Janey's having a good year of school and a good year of health.  Things have been steady and fairly upbeat.  She has a great team at school---a terrific teacher, an ABA worker we get super reports about, and a speech therapist we met her at IEP meeting that seems to get Janey in a way that we haven't seen in a speech therapist for a long time.  Those elements together, along with Janey herself maturing and learning, seem to have prompted progress where we hadn't seen it for years.

I hope very much this speech and understanding trend continues.  I am not being pessimistic but rather realistic in saying it very well might level off or regress after time---we've seen that pattern often.  However, knowing that she CAN talk and understand in the way she's been showing---it's wonderful.  It will keep us working.

In the larger picture, I want to get this out there partly to give hope to others.  There is so much emphasis on early intervention, on "crucial stages".  There is always a feeling that the necessary therapy has to happen RIGHT NOW, or never.  Janey is the proof I need to say that isn't necessarily the case.  She's making progress now, at age 12, at a rate we haven't seen since she regressed at 3.  It might not be the kind of progress that you read about, the "miracle cures", the breakthroughs, but it's progress non-the-less, and we couldn't be prouder of her.

Friday, April 7, 2017

All Are Welcome---except, of course, when they aren't

As I made a depressing round of calls this week to try to find a source of outside of school speech therapy for Janey, as I once again looked at summer camp opportunities and realized that the Extended School Year program at the public schools was really her only option, as I thought about how restless Janey is on the weekends, I did some thought exercises.  How would we feel, in today's society, to think that activities, programs, lessons, camps, enrichment opportunities, all those things that are "open to everyone" are in fact closed to one small group of people?  How would we feel knowing that we exclude with polite speech and "of course you understand" and "we aren't equipped to deal with that sort of needs" and "we staff for children who can be in a 4 child to one adult ratio" and "we generally deal with younger children with more potential to someday return to regular classrooms (an actual quote)" and "we'd be happy to help you if you could hire a one on one aide to accompany your child" and many, many other such ways to say NO---we don't include your child?  If this were done on the basis of sex or religion or race or nationality, we'd be outraged.  But because the child in question, the children in question, are autistic, labeled as "low functioning", not "able to follow directions"---well, that's just life.

And the thing of it is, I usually accept it as just life.  I am not a fighter.  I was not especially chosen to fight this autism fight.  I accept reality.  I say "of course I understand".

And the other thing of it is, I don't want Janey where she isn't wanted.  She is so sensitive to tone of voice, to the mood of a room, that she often bursts into tears at tense moments occurring on such TV shows as "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" or "Clifford" or "Yo Gabba Gabba".  These are shows aimed at toddlers and preschoolers.  If Daniel's mother is annoyed at Daniel, or Clifford upsets Emily Elizabeth, or the Gabba folk have a misunderstanding, Janey will scream and cry and pound the TV.  So how would she do at a program or camp or activity that just plain doesn't want her there?  How would THEY deal with her toileting accidents, or arm biting, or such?  Would she be yelled at, or worse?

Although I might not like it, I can understand why Janey might not be able to attend some things.  In an ideal world, she should be able to go to anyplace "open to all".  But she can't.  But I cannot accept that after making all kinds of calls,having two kinds of insurance for her, being willing to pay,  there isn't even a place that will provide her with speech therapy, or a social skills group.  I can't accept that she can't attend the city's rec department summer program FOR KIDS WITH SPECIAL NEEDS.  I still can manage to get upset that she had to leave the inclusion school we loved.  I hate it that the only respite we are referred to, over and over and over, is a program we tried, where we personally witnessed a staff of two, one working on checking in children, supposedly supervising approximately 15 kids with severe special needs---a program held up as "the best"---one that now does officially say they can't deal with kids that need one on one attention.

I'm feeling angry today.  And I will calm down.  I'll go back to understanding that "everyone included" doesn't mean that.  I'll go back to realizing Janey is a special case.  I already do realize, very much, that we are incredibly lucky she is welcomed and loved and embraced by the public school she attends---that I can put her on the bus each morning knowing she is cared for all day, and there is a summer program for her that does the same.  But in this city, this country, this place with the money to wage wars and send people into space and provide young sports players with equipment and travel, the city that gave my sons so many incredible opportunities, there is so little for those among us with the most needs.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

At the Autism Whatever time of year, challenges, hopes, dreams and love

Over the years, writing this blog, my goals have been a few things.  One is to be honest---to write about how I really feel and how my life with Janey really is---to try my hardest to stay clear of any particular philosophy or approach that will limit how I feel I can express myself.  Another is to be respectful of Janey, to do my level best to represent her in a way she would want to be represent herself, if she were able to write.  And third, to give support and encouragement to others---to let them know that it's possible for things to get better even when they seem impossibly hard, to give them a virtual hand to hold when times are tough and to celebrate along with them when our girls surprise and delight us with their triumphs.

It's that time of year again---the time that goes by various names---Autism Awareness or Acceptance or no name at all because it shouldn't be a day, it should be all the time, or whatever.  It always makes me think I should write some kind of summing up post, some kind of meaningful conclusion post.  I had some things in mind, but today turned out to be a tough day.  Janey is not happy.  There's a lot of screaming, a lot of crying.  I am feeling discouraged, and that always makes it hard to stay makes it feel very fake to stay positive and upbeat, at least in the short run.

Where are we today? Overall, in a fairly good place, despite today's mood.  We had Janey's three year re-evaluation IEP meeting on Wednesday, and it was a good one.  She is making progress in ways she hadn't been for a long time---with talking, with learning skills, with expressing her needs.  Tony and I were very happy, as we almost always are, with the level of caring and understanding those working with Janey showed.  It's an example of this that one area she'd regressed a little in was "attention seeking", and her teacher remarked that is probably because she is almost always getting attention without having to seek it---that she knows more people in the school than most the teachers, and they all want to interact with her---that she draws people in.  That made me very happy, and it's something Janey really does do.  She's got an engaging personality, and we are seeing more and more of who she is as she gets older.

The biggest challenge I see for the next three years, if we look at Janey's life in three year blocks, is providing her with an interesting life.  At one point today, while crying, Janey said "I'm so bored!"  We've never heard that before, and I think it was a quote, but as so many of her quotes, it was used in context.  I asked her "Do you wish it was a school day?" and she said "WISH IT WAS A SCHOOL DAY!" very firmly.  Sometimes it can make me cry to think how limited Janey's life is.  She is nearing thirteen.  When I was thirteen, I started high school.  I had friends and crushes and homework and activities and hobbies.  I worked, babysitting and helping in my mother's store.  I wrote letters and diaries and read hundreds of books.  I walked for hours on the shore.  What does Janey do?  She goes to school and she comes home.  She watches videos.  She eats.  I need to expand her life.  We need to find activities for her, not busywork but activities she will really enjoy and be able to participate in.

Longer term, we need to start thinking about what Janey's life will look like as she becomes an adult.  How do you plan a life for someone like Janey?  At the IEP meeting, it was mentioned that sorting things was good training for sheltered workshop type work.  I have to say---that's not a goal of mine.  If you measure Janey's intelligence with any standard method, I know it would look like it should be a goal, even probably a rather ambitious goal.  But I don't think you can measure Janey with standard measuring tools.

I used to believe that people who said things like "There are many kinds of intelligence" and "IQ is just a meaningless number" were, well, I don't know...not correct.  But my thinking on that has changed radically.  Janey is very, very smart, in ways those tests can't measure.  She is smart in her own ways.  I can honestly say she has intelligence that can't be measured with tests.  She shows it with the song connections she makes, with the quotes that perfectly match situations, with her sense of humor, with her dancing and organizing and sophisticated palate.  I don't look at her, ever, and see a person with limited intelligence.

So---what do I hope for Janey?  I hope she has joy.  I hope she finds a way to pursue her interests and use her talents.  I hope she is able to find the care that she needs for the areas that she needs help with.  I hope she is always surrounded by people who love her and find her interesting.  I hope that she can rid herself of some of her demons, of whatever it is that makes her so unhappy often.  I hope she never encounters cruelty.

And what do I hope for myself?  I am realizing that's fair to ask, also.  I hope I can balance Janey's needs with my own.  I hope I value myself enough to do what I need to do to be healthy, for Janey and for myself.  I hope I am able to pursue my own interests and dreams without that hurting Janey.  I hope for a balanced life, one where of course my most important role is mother---to Janey and her brothers, but that I also am able to enjoy my own passions---that I can garden and read and travel and laugh with friends and have a life that is happy without that taking away from Janey's happiness.

I don't know what to call this time of year.  But whatever you choose to call it, I wish those with lives touched by autism happiness and love.