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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Summer without dread (mostly)

Smiles on the train
Tuesday was Janey's last day of school, and I kept thinking it didn't feel like the end of the school year and the start of summer.  After some thought, I put my finger on why---I didn't feel dread.

Of course, I feel guilty saying that.  It doesn't fit with the idolized autism mother I always compare myself to.  I'm not supposed to feel dread that school is over.  I'm supposed to feel happy, energized, ready to enrich Janey's life with all kinds of helpful and fun activities.  But every year up until this one, I felt dread instead.  Dread of long days full of tears, days where my good intentions to do all kinds of interesting activities with Janey ran up against the fact she didn't want to do those activities, or her behavior was such that I couldn't do those activities with her alone.  Dread of the feeling in mid-afternoon where all that keeps me going is counting the minutes until Tony gets home and I can collapse and have ten minutes to myself.  Dread, mostly, for Janey---for the unhappiness that I can do nothing about often, for the boredom I fear that she feels, for the confusion I worry she has about transitions like school to summer---dread of a summer that I always feel falls far short of what I want her summers to be.

Rest with William on the grass
However, this year, the dread was almost non-existent.  A lot of that is that Janey is just plain easier and happier than she used to be.  It's a rare day that she screams and cries all day.  It is possible, now to take her out in public even on my own at times, and certainly with one other adult.  But the other part is a change in my own attitude.  I have you, my dear blog friends, to thank for that for that to a large extend.  Last year I wrote about my guilt over the sameness of Janey's days when there isn't school, about how the highlight of the day is often just a walk to the corner convenience store, about how many videos she watches.  I was comparing her summer life to my own at her age----by the time I was 12, I worked at least part of every summer, I spent tons of time on the ocean, I did things with friends and read and biked and all the things that summer in Maine in the 70s and 80s meant.  But that was my life.  And you all reminded me that Janey might be quite content with her days as they are---that I should not feel guilty about what got us through the day---that a walk to the store for her might be like a walk along the coastline was for me.  I took what you all said very much to heart, and it helped me a huge amount.

Picking out a donut
So---I'm feeling better about this summer.  I've taken a few other steps to help too.  Tony has arranged his vacation time around Janey's summer school, so there are not long periods of time with just me at home.  I've figured out that making sure Janey gets a lot of walking exercise in early in the day leads to more relaxing afternoons.  I'm keeping the house very well stocked with foods she likes, and we are walking to the corner store several times a day.  And I'm letting her watch videos as much as she darn well pleases, and not feeling any guilt over it.

Yesterday, William and I took Janey into the city on the commuter train.  I would not have dared to do such a thing in the recent past.  It went fairly well.  We let Janey pick where we walked, and that resulted in an interesting random ramble around downtown, eventually into a small park with a fountain.  Janey said "I want to swim!" and I rolled up her pants and took off her shoes and she waded in the fountain for a long, long time.  And I didn't care that she got some looks for the financial world type people that were all over the park.  I enjoyed people-watching them, so the looking was two-way.  We met Tony to take the train home with him after work, and then I took a long nap.  If the summer can be like yesterday---not too bad, guilt-free and with Janey at least neutral if not happy all the time, I'm going to call it a success.
South Station, Boston
Walking along the Rose Kennedy Greenway

Friday, June 23, 2017

Searching for words

Last night, Janey said "I want to watch...." Then she stopped, and I could see she couldn't find the name of the show she wanted.  She started over "I want to watch...", and then did the same thing several more times.  Something about how she was saying it made me not jump in.  She had the look and the sound of someone who is searching for a word, who knows what they want to say but just can't quite bring the word up that moment.

When she started to look upset, which took a few tries, I did what I often do, and gave her a sentence with a blank.  I said "The show I want is named..."  I'm not sure why, but that sometimes makes it easier for her to fill in.  But this time, she didn't.  She kept looking at me, and the look started to break my heart.  It was lost, almost scared.  It was a look that said "Why can't I say this?  Why is what I need to say so hard to say?"

Janey's talking goes up and down.  There are times she talks more, and times she talks less.  We're in a low ebb right now, quite low.  I don't panic over this, because over and over I've seen that the talking will come back to higher levels in time.  But somehow, this felt like the first time she was aware of her own trouble finding words.  I could be reading too much into her look, but over time, I've gotten pretty good at reading her face.

After a few more attempts by me to give her a fill-in-the-blank, she said "The show I want is the show".  I then did what I had hoped to avoid.  I started listing shows she might want---"The show I want is..Angelina?  Blue's Clues?  Beauty and the Beast?   Kipper?  Wonder Pets?  Dora?  Barney?  Courage the Cowardly Dog?   Backyardigans?"  She stopped me there and said "Backyardigans"  So I put that on, and she seemed fairly content.  But still, I got the feeling that she simply was tired of the whole thing, and that she picked a show that didn't sound bad, not the show that she was really thinking of.

I thought about this incident a lot last night and this morning.  I wondered how I could have handled it better.  I wish she could manage the TV remote and pick the show herself, but it's so complicated to use Amazon Fire TV to pick a show that might be on Amazon Prime, Hulu or Netflix, that might be a video we've bought or one that is on the air---all of us have trouble with it.  I could try to get her to watch videos on her iPad instead, but she is very clear when she wants the big TV and not the iPad.  I could have a page of pictures of shows she likes to point to, but she rejects that kind of solution at home almost always, and even if she didn't, the list is limited to ones I think of, not all the ones that exist.

What I really wish is that she could learn more word retrieval skills.  She has a very good speech therapist at school right now, but her time with the therapist is limited, and I have the feeling there might be specific kinds of therapy that most help with word retrieval.  A few months back, I started trying to find a place for her to get outside speech therapy, and found it was far from easy.  There are lots of places that do autism therapies, but they are almost all exclusively ABA, and most word with kids under 13 only.  Janey will be 13 in two months. I have found iPad programs specifically to help with word retrieval, but they are aimed at people without intellectual disabilities, and quite honestly are far beyond Janey's abilities.

Before school this morning, I stopped Janey and said to her "I know sometimes it's hard for you when you can't find the word you want to say.  That must be very frustrating.  I saw how sad it made you last night.  I want to help you with that, and so does Daddy, and everyone at school"  I have no way of knowing how much she understood, but I am glad I said it, and she listened, and smiled at me.

There is so much about Janey that is mysterious to me.  How often does she settle for shows she doesn't really want, food that isn't what she is aiming for, songs playing that aren't really the song she wants, because she doesn't have the words?  Why can she sometimes talk so much more than other times?  How is it that she can remember endless song lyrics, or show dialogues, but not sometimes simple titles or names?  How can I help her?  And sometimes I ask myself the hardest questions of all---how is this fair for her?  Why does she have to struggle to be understood?  What would her life be like if she could talk more readily?  Those last ones don't have answers, I know---or if they do, they are beyond my own word retrieval skills.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Writing Raw

I don't normally write when I am feeling raw, when I am not in a calm writing state.  But today I will. I won't get into all the reasons, not to be mysterious but just because it's not always the forum here for that.  But I am feeling discouraged this week, very discouraged.

It's not really Janey's behavior that is discouraging me, but with my other worries, it's the constant grinding feeling of knowing there just doesn't seem to be a place in the world for kids like Janey.

I put an article from the New York Times on my Facebook page---here's a link to it--Link  It's just one thing in a long list of endless things, but it upset me.  It talked about a new program in schools for kids with autism, a program that in many ways is like the school Janey attended for the first 5 years of schooling, an inclusion program.  I liked what it had to say, until I read the line that said "To get into the program, children must be deemed capable of doing grade-level work"  Yeah.  Okay.  Like so many other programs supposedly for special needs or autism, kids like Janey are specifically excluded.  This is something I find over and over and over---camps and lessons and special events and on and on and on that simply don't want to deal with a child like Janey (or if I am being kinder, would like to deal with her but just don't have the resources)

And I will get really cranky here and say I'm sick of hearing that, basically, intellectual disability doesn't exist in autism.  It's not something I hear directly, but something that is often implied.  I am the first person to say that I know Janey has many, many strengths.  I know she understands more than she lets on.  I value her extremely much, AS SHE IS.  It is not necessary to make her something she ISN'T to value her.  She is a child that has a very significant intellectual disability.  It's fine if people choose to not accept that.  But they can't choose to not accept that but then still think they are helping all kids with autism.

What if I said "Janey IS capable of doing grade-level work!" and tried to put her in a class like the ones in the article?  Because, who knows?  Maybe she somehow is!  I can just imagine how that would go over.  It would not.  The truth is, what someone might be capable of is not, in practical daily life, that important.  She could not function in a class like the ones described.  I am not just guessing this.  She used to be in a school with classes like the ones described, or actually, a school far MORE inclusive than the ones described, classes that did welcome kids with intellectual disabilities, but were not able to deal with the full range of autism's challenges.  I wish she still could be at that school..  But she can't, and the school was right to admit she couldn't.

And there are so, so many other things like the inclusion classes the article talks about.  If you ever want a good laugh, do a search for camps in your areas that say they accept kids with special needs or even more specifically, kids with autism.  And then look at the details.  There is almost always a rule saying something like "child must be able to function in a 5 to 1 child to adult ratio", "Child must be able to safely follow routines"  or even "Child must be fully toilet trained"  I'm overstating a bit here, but if camp fliers were honest, they might say something like "Children with special needs accepted as long as they don't have any needs which are beyond those of other children"  Or in other words, special needs children are fine if they don't have special needs.

To me, whenever I feel that the media isn't presenting a full picture of children with autism, when voices of parents like me are silenced because we are "speaking for our children and not letting speak for themselves", because we are "portraying autism in a negative light"---well, to me that feels like the truth of Janey, the truth of children like her is something that is being hidden, something that is somehow too horrible to talk about.  And it isn't.  Janey is an amazing person.  Almost everyone who has met her is drawn to her.  She is amazing AS SHE IS.  She is amazing not because she might have mysterious hidden abilities, she is amazing WITH intellectual disabilities.  And WITH occasional self-injurious behaviors.  And WITH incomplete toileting skills.  And WITH aggressive behaviors when she is very upset.  And WITH very limited speech.  She is amazing as she actually is.  And I will fight until my last breath for children like her to be included, truly included.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

"William lives here too"

We've had a lot of success over the past year with new approaches to Janey's behavior and our responses to it, which I've written about a good deal.  In a nutshell, we've realized if we let her follow routines, and we focus on behavior outcomes more than on how we get to those outcomes, life is a lot easier for all of us.  However, there are limits to this approach, and we've been running up against them lately.

Janey and her big brother William
The difference in the last month is that Janey's brothers are home from college.  It's great having them home, for Tony and me.  Janey adores her brothers, and was very excited at first having them here.  But they don't always fit in with the routines she's set up for herself over the school year.  Often, they don't obey the rules she's made---rules like "Nobody can be in the living room with me while I watch TV", or "No music can be played in the house except as approved by me" or "Daddy and Mama give all their attention to me when I ask for it".

When I have read books about parenting kids with autism, especially the extreme "I cured my child" books, one thing I noticed often is that siblings are pushed to the background.  Either there are no siblings, or you get lines like "Of course, the other children often wound up missing out on our attention, but in return they learned so much compassion and love!"  I swore I'd never have that attitude.  Luckily, Janey's autism came to the forefront right around when the boys were reaching the age that less attention from Mama and Daddy was not a bad thing.  I have guilt that will last forever at events I missed and times I was too tired to listen well, but overall, I think Janey being seven years younger than Freddy, and ten years younger than William, was a lucky thing.

However, as anyone with adult or young adult children living at home knows, they still need you at times.  And I don't ever, ever want them to feel like Janey is more important than they are.  But what do you do when a force like Janey's will meets a force like her brothers?

The answer is---I often just don't know.  For Tony and me, the peace and calm that comes from letting Janey control the things she can control is so worth it.  But what do we do when Janey quite literally pushes William out of the room he wants to be in?  What do we do when she screams because Freddy is trying to show me something on the computer?

Generally, I stand firm.  I say things like "William lives here too.  William has a right to be in the room.  Freddy can watch a video on YouTube just like you can"  But, as I've written about, just being firm doesn't work with Janey.  Her routines, her need to control her environment---these things are not something she can change easily based on rewards or deterrents or our attitudes or words.

Over the last week, I've seen the return of some disturbing behaviors I haven't seen Janey show in a long while.  Last night, when I told her that she couldn't use the big TV right when she wanted to, she lunged and tried hard to bite me.  Only a quick reaction on my part stopped her.  This morning, when I was putting on her shoes, she wanted me to use the shoehorn, as Tony usually does.  When I didn't immediately comply, she tried her hardest to break the shoehorn she'd brought me, and almost succeeded.

So---what do I do?  It's one of those cases without a right answer.  All my kids are important to me.  The boys certainly have modified their lives and behaviors a huge amount over the years, but I am not willing to tell them they can't even be around, which is what Janey quite plainly wants at times.

All this is making me think of how extremely difficult it must be for those of you with children close in age to your child with autism.  It's something I have never had to deal with.  Like with so many ideas for dealing with autism that might work for one family but not another, many of the approaches we've had success with would quite literally be impossible if Janey had a close age sibling, or if not impossible, extremely unfair to that sibling.

We'll see how the summer plays out.  I'm glad Janey is still in school for now, and will be in summer school for a good chunk of the summer.  But I'm worried about the changes in behavior, worried with the fear of someone who has seen just how tough things can get.  I hope they don't.