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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Jealousy, Anger, Boredom, Fear....

In my own mind, there is a list of acceptable emotions to have as a parent, especially the parent of a child with autism. Happiness, pride, love, determination, hope, curiosity, amusement, empathy---you'll notice the list is full of positive or encouraging feelings. But there's also a list of feelings I classify as, if not forbidden, at least not to be spoken of much. I'm going to try hard here to be honest about some of those.


In my ideal version of myself, I'm never jealous of other parents or kids. I delight in what Janey can do, and never think about what other kids are doing. In reality, sometimes I am so jealous it's hard to describe. I see other girls her age on Facebook, doing all the regular 13 year old girl things, and I can barely stand it. I look at other mother/daughter relationships, with all their ups and down, and I long for that kind of relationship in my own life. Every child with autism that functions at a higher level than Janey can make the green-eyed monster come out in me. The jealousy isn't all the time, but when it shows up, it's powerful.


We got a new couch recently. For the few of you that have seen our furniture, you know it was highly, highly overdue. It's nothing fancy, but I had this dream of it looking fairly good for maybe, say, a month. This Sunday, as Tony drove Freddy back to school and I stayed with Janey, against my better judgement, I went to the bathroom while Janey was watching TV. In the few minutes that took, Janey got a bottle of salad dressing out of the refrigarator and, for reasons known only to herself, poured the whole bottle on the new couch. I don't get angry that easily, but I made an exception there. I was furious. Life with Janey presents a lot of moments like the Couch Incident. In some ways, it makes no sense to be angry at Janey. It does no good, I don't think she usually gets why I'm angry, it doesn't do anything but get us both worked up. But having a child who does inexplicable and destructive things on a fairly regular basis---yes, I get angry sometimes.


For some reason, this feels like one of the most taboo emotions to have when dealing with your autistic child. I feel like I'm supposed to consider every moment an exciting learning opportunity, a chance to teach and help. However, the truth is, sometimes life with Janey can get boring. Her favorite thing to do with me is what she calls “Snuggle on Mama's bed”. In reality, it's her bed, and it's not usually really snuggling, it's lying there next to each other. My role in this game is to sing little songs and recite nursery rhymes and otherwise carry on a monologue. Sometimes this time feels wonderful, a time of connection between us. Other times, though, I am just plain bored of it. Janey doesn't want me to sing or recite or talk about anything new. She is open to new music in the car, but not when we are snuggling and I'm singing. She doesn't want to talk herself, or be asked questions, or listen to any books except a few nursery rhyme ones and occasionally “Go Dog Go”. I'd say we spend a couple hours a day in this mode. And it gets boring. Very, very boring, at times.


Recently, there's been attention in the news to the hideously high rate of abuse of those with special needs. I can't read through these articles, but I've read enough. When I think about that kind of thing...well, often I just can't. The fear would overwhelm me. And in the background, there is a fear that never ever goes away, the fear of what will happen to Janey when Tony and I are gone. When I think about her in any kind of situation where she is scared or confused or being hurt or not cared for---the fear is horrible. Add to that the fear that was planted, planted deep, when she lived with a burst appendix for three days without us knowing, the fear of the harm that can come from her lack of ability to communicate well...the fear is always, always there.

There you have it---the emotions that often get left out of what is openly discussed when talking about this special needs parenting gig. It's not an easy job. It's the job I'm committed to for life, and my love of Janey is my pay. But like any job, no matter how well paid, there are days you just want to gripe, to speak openly about the sometimes tough work conditions with others on the work site. Thanks for listening.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Autism Ten Years In

Janey, age 13---Ten Years In
Last month, the tenth anniversary of Janey's diagnosis with autism passed unnoticed.  I realized it a few days ago, and I had a thought.  What if, on that December day in 2007, I'd been able to have a glimpse forward to now?  What would I have thought?

I will be honest and say I might have been quite discouraged in some ways.  Janey talks now probably less than she did at the time she was diagnosed, and far less than she did when she was two, before her big regression.  Her academic growth has been very, very slow.  She doesn't read, or write, or add or subtract or reliably do things like identify shapes or colors.  She is not fully toilet trained.  She still needs a huge amount of help with self-care.  In short, if you look at measures like standard IQ testing or academic achievement or potential to live an independent life, she is not one of autism's success stories.  That would be a hard thing to have known in advance.

However, in some ways, I think I would have been quite encouraged.  My glimpse forward might have landed on any of quite a number of happy times just this past weekend.  Maybe I'd have seen us all watching Weird Al videos, together on the couch, laughing our heads off.  Maybe it would have been the big Thai take-out feast we had as a pre-back to college treat with Freddy, Janey joining in with huge smiles and her usually adventurous appetite.  Or I might have just seen one of the many times Janey's engaging manner and enthusiasm for life improved our days.

While talking to my friend Michelle about these thoughts, we touched on what I think many out there have realized.  There are different kinds of autism.  I truly don't think it would have made a huge difference what we did in terms of Janey's speech and academic development.  I see other kids that are in the same program as her, kids who started at a baseline like hers or in some cases, far lower, and who now read with ease and speak in a way very close to typical.  However, Janey has something that I don't think all kids starting where she does develop.  It's hard to put my finger on.  It's not really social skills, or ability to engage with others, but it's a personality that in some ways is very unlike the stereotypical vision people have of autism.  In that way, she has progressed.  I would hope if I were able to glimpse forward, I'd have seen that---the spark, the joy, the humor.

When Janey was first diagnosed, fear and hope battled in my mind.  I had hope that she would regain all her speech, that she would somehow progress to the point she left autism behind.  I had fear that life for her would be a joyless life, that she would never be happy---and because it's very true that a mother is only as happy as her saddest child, I would never be happy either.  Now, ten years later, it is fair to say I have far less hope about Janey's potential for typical progress.  However, the fear is also much less.  The Janey that exists today is not defined by what she can't do.  Of course I fear for her future, often, but I also delight in her joys.  In many ways, I have changed more in the ten years than Janey has.  Even if I had been able to look forward, I would not have looked at Janey with the same eyes I do now---eyes that see her for who she is, a valuable, special, frustratingly but steadfastly complex and unique. 

Here's to the next ten years.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Long, Cold Days

Growing up in Maine, at a certain age, people seemed to have a brain subroutine that suddenly clicked into action.  When it did, they started going to Florida for the winter.  There are whole towns in Florida that are mostly populated by people from Maine.  I never really understood the urge.  I liked winter just fine.  But that subroutine must start at around age 51, because this year, it kicked in hard for me.

It's been unusually cold here.  Today is the first day above freezing since Christmas---a very long stretch for Boston.  Night after night has been below zero.  It's been windy a lot, and last Thursday we got a pretty good snowfall.  Janey went back to school after winter vacation last Wednesday, but then Thursday and Friday were snow days.  Today was a school day again, finally.

As you can guess, Janey has been having a hard time.  It's been hard for everyone, but I dare say even harder on her than most.  Janey doesn't ask a lot to be content, but she does want her days to contain certain elements---a car ride, a walk to the store, a bus ride to school in the morning on school days, predictable arrivals and departures of the people she cares about.  The cold and snow and vacation have thrown that all out the window, and it's tough.

Last Thursday night, as the storm still raged, Janey decided she needed a car ride.  She asked, over and over and over, politely and then more insistently.  In case we didn't get what she was saying, she asked other ways "Put on shoes?  Put on coat?  Music in the car?"  We tried very hard to explain that even if we had wanted to venture out in the heavy snow, our driveway was completely blocked off by the huge pile of snow the plow had left.  At one point I even took her outside after bundling her up hugely, and showed her the snow covered car.  It made no difference.  She pretty much cried herself to sleep.

On Friday, in the horribly bitter cold following the snow, Janey wanted to go to the "ice cream store", where she gets, despite the name, chips.  I tried to tell her temperatures were in the single digits, that the wind was whipping hard, that it would not be a fun walk.  I finally did give in and wrapped her up and we did the short walk---probably ill-advised, but she wore me down.

One of the toughest things has been the sudden unreliability of the school bus in the morning.  All year until now, the bus has been arriving very, very promptly at 6:15 am.  Early, but it works.  The afternoon bus is still exceptionally on time, and has a wonderful driver and aide, but the morning bus seems to have completely fallen apart.  The last 4 days there was actually school, it has just not shown up.  There is a radar app for seeing where it is, and one day, it just skipped Janey---went to all the other stops, but skipped her.  When I called the transportation number, they said the bus didn't have an aide, so it couldn't pick up Janey.  We drove her to school, found the bus, and saw the aide was on it, just fine.  Another day, the aide waited in his car by our house for the bus which again didn't show up.  He drove Tony and Janey to the school, which he probably isn't supposed to do, but we were glad he did.  Today, the bus seemed by the radar app to just completely skip all the stops except the ones right near the school.

I am not a confident driver, and driving to Janey's school is not an easy ride, especially when the streets are half filled with snow.  So Tony drove us (except the day the aide did) and he winds up going in late to work.  We have let the appropriate people know about the bus problems, but the truth is, at 6 in the morning, if the bus just doesn't come, there's not a lot that can be done that day about it. I wonder if the powers that be or the driver get how hard it is with a child like Janey.  She's outside, waiting for a bus that never comes, desperately wanting to do what she feels she is supposed to do, just get on that bus.  We wait and wait and wait, and maybe it comes or maybe it doesn't.  Luckily, Tony is still home at that hour, because keeping her from freaking out while waiting is a two person job.

I go into this in such detail because it illustrates how even fairly little things become big things when you have a child that simply doesn't understand changes in routine.  I feel like crying for Janey when I think about it.  I think the world is a very confusing place for her, and she holds onto the touchstones of the routine very closely.  She can be stoic about much of the whirling confusion, but by golly, she needs her car ride or bus ride or store walk.  It is beyond her to understand bad roads or aide requirements or buses running late that might skip kids to catch up or frigid temperatures keeping us from store walks.  Her sadness and confusion when things can't be as usual are very real and very strong feelings.

I hope it's an early spring.