Search This Blog

Saturday, December 19, 2020

"Listen to my mouth!"

Janey overall was having a fantastic day yesterday. She was cheerful and upbeat and fun, loving listening to Christmas music with me and having a car ride with Daddy after a day too snowy for a ride the day before. We were enjoying her company so much. Then, as happens, something changed. She started crying, screaming, freaking out over everything. We had no idea what was going on. I snuggled with her on her bed and tried talking about it, asking the same old questions I'm sure she's sick of---"What's wrong? Why are you sad? Does something hurt? How can I help?" She didn't answer. William came in the room and I asked again what was wrong, and somehow the combination of him being there and my asking seemed to bother her a lot, and she hit me hard. I stayed calm, told her that I didn't like being hit, told her I wasn't going to stay snuggling with someone who was hitting me, got up and walked away. She screamed and screamed and screamed.

 After a little while, when I'd gotten her to say she was sorry (with much prompting, and who knows why I ever bother, because I don't think she means it, but I need to have her say it), I went back to snuggling her. She then looked at me intently, stared in my eyes with a look that was unusual for her, and said, twice in a row "Listen to my mouth!" I don't know what it meant. I really don't. I don't think it meant to listen to what she was saying. Maybe it did. But she usually doesn't use language like that, in a slightly indirect way. And she wasn't saying anything about why she was upset. But it meant something. She took the effort to say it, and you could see it was an effort. I stayed up a long time in the night, trying to figure it out. It finally came to me that it might be related to what doctors say "I'm going to listen to your lungs now. I'm going to listen to your heart" I don't think she could pull up the words "lung" or "heart", and she might have been saying something in her mouth hurt and she wanted e to see that, or that she just felt sick and wanted help from a doctor. But she doesn't seem sick, doesn't have a fever, doesn't have low oxygen. In this COVID times, taking her to the doctor when she doens't seem sick is not really a good balance of safety and health. 

 The whole thing brought out so many issues. Why does she get upset out of the blue? Why is it so hard for her to tell us what is wrong? Why does she hit once in a while? What do mysterious phrases she says to us mean?

 The hitting seems like her way to say she's really, really seriously not liking something. She doesn't do it often at all now, and when she does, it doesn't have the feel of something spontaneous. It feels like a planned thing, at least planned a few seconds in advance. The last time she really hit me was when we were trying hard to do Zoom classes, and I told her it was time for one. I think last night she was telling me she really didn't like my endless questions. Of course, hitting is not at all the way I want her to communicate, and I need her to know that, but I also need to listen to what issues are upsetting enough for her that she feels she has to hit. 

 The "listen to my mouth"---phrases like that are about as frequent as hitting, not very frequent at all. You can tell she thinks about them before saying them. The way she looked at me was very striking. I could tell she really wanted me to pay attention. And it makes me feel awful that I wasn't able to quite get her message.

 It's frustrating so often, figuring out Janey's needs. I don't want her to be unhappy, but of course, like all of us, sometimes she's going to be unhappy. But it's so hard not knowing why she's unhappy. Was she just sick of being around me? Did she think about something upsetting? Did something hurt? Was it just too long a day, and she was tired? It's hard dealing with this, but of course I'm sure it's a million times harder for Janey, being so upset but so unable to explain why, doing her best to let me know in the way she can but not having me get it. Janey, I will try to listen to your mouth, and your heart, and your mind, and all of us. I am trying hard.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Finding words when you need them

 I missed a day of my aimed for week of new blog posts, but that's life in our household!  The best laid plans of mice and men...

I think constantly about Janey's speech and its oddities.  I was thinking for a long time that the main issue she has is with word retrieval.  The words are up there, in her head, but she just can't find them when she needs them.  Lately I've refined that in my mind.  She can retrieve them under certain circumstances, but not in conversations, or in casual remarks or questions.

Janey in a top featuring one of her favorite Christmas songs.

For example, as I've written about before, Janey can show a remarkable vocabulary under very specific conditions.  The best way to have her show it is, when she's in a good mood, to show her flash cards or point to pictures in a book.  If we do this rapidly, without saying anything but "What's this?", she can name pretty much anything you could imagine.  She'll name things we have no clue she'd know, like "iguana" or "moat" or "treasure chest"  I think this might be a bit like Rapid Prompting.  The key seems to be that you aren't asking ABOUT the words, and you aren't putting any other demands on her at the same time as asking her to name the words---not any social demands or extraneous comments or anything.  

Sometimes it also works to ask her a series of questions, as long as they aren't about what she wants to do or how she feels, but more just information questions.  For example, one night she wanted to go for a car ride, and I told her we couldn't because Tony was busy.  I said "What is Daddy watching?" and she answered quickly "The Patriots!" and I said "What do the Patriots play?" and quick as a flash she said "Football!"  I was very surprised at both answers.  I had no idea she knew the name of the team or what they played.  But it was up there in her brain.

Another clue to how Janey's speech is organized in her brain is the kind of mistakes she makes.  One morning, I was helping her put on some Santa socks.  I asked her who the socks showed.  She answered, after a little pause, "Christmas!"  I think there's categories she stores, and when she can't get the right word out the category, she gives the category name.  This might be a part of her most common response, when she wants help putting on a TV show, and we ask her "What show do you want?" and she says "This one!"  We are asking her for the specific show, and she is answering with a category, the category of all TV shows, because coming up with the name of the certain show is not something she can do right then.

Janey doesn't talk conversationally, without extreme prompting, not ever.  Her speech just doesn't seem to work that way.  She never says to us "How are you?" or "What are you doing?" or "Where are we going?"  She never responds spontaneously to questions like "How are you?"  She might say "I am fine!" if that's something she's been taught, but she'll never, ever just answer with a casual, on the spot answer.  That is why I think she just doesn't have access to her vocabulary in that context.  The words might as well not be stored at all, for how much she can use them in conversation.

I wish there was more written about how what's sometimes called "low-verbal" kids with autism talk.  It's pretty fascinating to me.  I've read a lot of science for laymen type books about how people learn to talk in general, such as "The Language Instinct" by Stephen Pinker, and I think a study of someone with a language disorder such as Janey has could help understand how words are stored in the brain. 

One very interesting fact I've read a lot about is how sometimes people lose the ability to talk but keep the ability to sing.  Janey's access to songs in her head is far better than her access to words.  She will often start singing spontaneously, in a way she never does with talking, and this doesn't seem scripted.  It just seems like a desire to sing a song, which we all have sometimes.

I would love to know how to better help Janey use the words she knows.  Janey's had lots of speech therapy, but I don't think it's ever addressed her specific issues with retrieving words for conversational speech, and maybe there is no way to teach that.  It's tough, because you can try to help her answer things, but in doing so, you almost always have to give an example, and that example becomes a script, and usually gets turned around in terms of pronouns.  You can say "How are you feeling?" and wait for answer, but when you don't get one, how do you show her how to answer?  If you say "I feel fine!", she doesn't seem to pick up on that as an example of how she can talk. So we'll say "Can you say 'I feel fine'"?  And she'll say the whole thing back "Can you say I feel fine?"  Or if we ask "Do you want to go for a car ride?", she comes to see that as a way to ask for a car ride, and we get the whole phrase "Do you want to go for a car ride?" to ask for a car ride.

Many days pass with Janey only saying three or four different things.  Her mainstays are "I need help!", "Want to go for a car ride?", "Want salami?" (sometimes substituting other foods there) and "Cuddle on Mama's bed?" (which means she wants us to cuddle on her bed---at some point wanting Mama to cuddle her got mixed in with the bed part and turned it into that combination)  That, along with "yes" and "no" and the always versatile scream are the core of her talking.

I'd love to hear from other parents of minimally verbal girls, and from those who communicate non-verbally as well as those who talk more freely.  Communication in autism is fascinating (and frustrating)

Sunday, December 6, 2020

What drives us up a wall

After many years of this autism parenting gig, we can be pretty unfazed by most behaviors Janey shows.  We get the reasons behind them, more and more, we understand they are ways for her to communicate, or sometimes, we know they are just teenage behaviors, not autism behaviors, and we try not to take them personally.  But we are human beings, as all of us are, and there are still things that Janey does that are highly trying, to say the least.  Here's some of them...


When Janey is very displeased, she screams.  If you've never heard her scream, you probably will have a hard time picturing just how loud it is.  I'm pretty unbothered by most loud noises, but when she screams right in my ear, it's painful.  She screams so loud that I'm very sure people on the sidewalk and perhaps even people in other states can hear her.  It's an incredible scream, and nothing we say or do seems to stop it.  I think she's figured out it's a weapon---something she can do that we can't do a thing about that certainly gets our attention.

"I need help!"

Of course, if Janey really needs help, we are happy to help her.  But usually, this "I need help!" doesn't really mean she needs help.  It means she wants us to stop whatever we are doing and participate in a ritual she wants performed.  Often, it's changing a TV show.  If she really couldn't change the shows, that would be one thing.  However, she can change shows with complete ease now when she wants to.  The other night, as Tony dozed and I watched from the other room, Janey switched shows around for hours, going from one streaming service to another, switching the TV into internet mode and back, rewinding and fast forwarding, changing shows probably a hundred times.  When I came into the room, though, suddenly she needed help doing the most basic TV action.  I get it...she wants or needs attention, or she somehow can't access the part of her brain that knows how to make the changes.  But that doesn't make it less irritating at times, especially when we hear the "I need help!" phrase every minute for hours and hours.

"You've helped me, now go away!"

This comes up most when Janey asks us to snuggle her on her bed.  What this means is for us to cover her with her comforter, get her pillow (the comforter and pillow are always thrown onto the floor by her when not in immediate use, no matter what), lie down with her for a millisecond, and then..."want to go away?"  Once we've done our part, we are no longer supposed to be there.  Which I get---a 16 year old girl doesn't want her parents around all the time.  But after a few minutes on her bed, Janey will get up, watch a little TV or eat a bit, and then want, once again, to snuggle on the bed.  And we are supposed to, again, lie down with her for a second and then go away.  Often, this happens after a night when she didn't sleep.  Once we get on her bed, we want nothing more than to just close our eyes for a minute and rest, but no---we must hop back up and wait for the next summons to lie down.  If we refuse the routine, which we often try to do, the scream comes out, Janey is in a mood probably for the rest of the day, she makes the demand far more's usually just not worth it.

"Go for a car ride?"

Janey's favorite thing on earth is going for a car ride with Tony, a car ride usually to nowhere, just a ride around listening to music.  Tony takes her for rides like this two to three times a day, every single day.  The rides are around an hour each.  So she gets LOTS of car ride time.  But it's never enough. Often, the minute they are back in the driveway, Janey immediately says "Go for a car ride?"  There's no credit for the car ride just completed.  And the car ride requests are not changed by weather conditions, the fact it's the middle of the night, or even the rare occasions when Tony has taken the car elsewhere and there is literally no car to have a ride in.  And like the other requests, us saying no brings on, always, a predictable series of reactions---screaming, arm biting, sometimes throwing things or smashing her fist into things.

"Music please, music!"

Janey loves music.  She always has.  But she doesn't just like any music.  She has very specific tastes, tastes that change from time to time.  Like any of us, she gets sick of certain songs after a while, or discovers something new, or just wants something different.  Unlike the rest of us, she often isn't able to tell us just what it is she wants.  This comes up the most in the car, and affects Tony far more than me.  Tony will be playing Sirius Radio, or Accuradio, or music he has on a thumb drive, and Janey won't like the song that's on, and she'll say "music please, music!" which means "change the song"  If Tony doesn't immediately comply, she repeats the phrase, much louder.  If he doesn't comply after that, she will kick his seat, scream, generally freak out.  Some days, she's listen happily for a long time to whatever comes on (and Tony does his level best to play playlists she likes---her favorite by far is any British Invasion music), but other days, the "music please" is continuous, stopping songs after just a second or two, over and over and over.  I think that's when she wants a certain song, but can't express it.  So she just hopes it comes up, and of course, with many thousands of songs out there, it's not likely to.  We've tried having her control the music via smart phone, but she won't do it.  It's Daddy's job.

There's more I could add to this list, but those are the big ones.  And thinking about them, they are much more annoyances than things that used to happen.  For the most part, she doesn't lash out at us or herself like she used to.  There can be hours and sometimes days when she's perfectly happy, and none of these behaviors show up.  But I'm not going say it's easy.  I'm not going to lie.  It's still tough, in a lot of ways, being Janey's parents, and tougher this year than ever before, without school as a respite for us and a change of scenery for her.  

I'd be so interested to hear what would be on all of your What Drives Us Up A Wall lists!

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Communicating Pain

If I could make a wish and be able to have Janey freely and easily talk about one subject only, that subject would be pain.  I wish so much she could tell us when she is in pain, and where the pain is, and how bad it is.  Not being able to do so almost cost her her life, when her appendix burst, but pain far less critical to know about than that still is something I would very much like to be able to have her tell me about.

Yesterday, Janey said "Do you want a band-aid?  Do your legs hurt?"  That was about as clear as her pain talk gets---in her trademark Jeopardy style form of a question talking.  She has her period, something that has only happened a few times without medication bringing it on, and I was able to figure out that was most likely cramps she was feeling.  I'm glad she could tell me that much, but there was so much more I wished to talk to her about---to ask her how bad the cramps were, to see if the Motrin we gave her helped, to ask if anything else hurt.  Today she was just cranky all day, and we were pretty sure she was feeling cramps again, and gave her Motrin again, but we could have been way off.  Maybe she was just bored, or upset about something else.

I try to imagine how it would be to not be able to describe pain, or understand why I was feeling it.  I think especially about headaches.  I get those a lot, and I wonder if Janey does too.  I wonder if a lot of the days she's just off, just upset, her head is hurting, and she doesn't know how to tell us that.  If I ask her, she generally just repeats when I've said---I say "Does your head hurt?" and she says back "Does your head hurt!"  I wonder how often she's had a stubbed toe or a stomachache or a sore throat and we had no clue.  I think she thinks we know what she is thinking, and I so hope she doesn't think we just ignore the pain she's feeling.

Of course we have tried AAC apps to communicate about pain.  And like most everything else with them, we've had very little success.  Either she pushes them away, or she chooses the middle button of each screen every time.  Or she picks a word she likes the sound of and picks it over and over, mainly "Grampa".  She knows how to get to that word on every app we've tried, and that shows us she can manipulate the screens when she wants to, but she doesn't want to, or at least she isn't able to do it consistently.  

I work hard on giving Janey the words she needs to describe pain, but I worry about putting words in her mouth.  Yesterday I kept saying "You have cramps", but of course, I don't know for sure she did.  I'm working too on taking her temperature by mouth, to have another way to judge illness. We had a forehead thermometer, but I never trusted it to be accurate. She will now hold the thermometer under her mouth for a minute or so.  I also check her oxygen with a little home meter now and then, just to get her used to medical checks.

I read the other day about a teen with autism who had COVID, whose parents weren't allowed to stay in the hospital with him.  That is the nightmare to me---that sometime Janey will be not with Tony or me, will be sick, and will be unable to explain what is wrong or understand what is happening.  That's the kind of thing that keeps me up nights.  I've seen the mixed bag that is medical care for those like Janey. There are those that are great at helping her and listening to us, like her current pediatrician or the surgical team at Mass General.  And there are those who were not, like her old pediatrician or the ER at Mass General.  In this pandemic time, I hope you are all well, but most especially your loved ones with autism.  The world, even the medical world, doesn't always understand that not everyone can speak up and say what hurts.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Laundry leads to an interesting realization

 Starting about a month ago, I began taking Janey down to the cellar with me while I do laundry.  This was partly out of the desperation of looking for activities within the house we could do.  To keep Janey interested, I told her she was going to do the laundry all by herself.

Of course, I didn't really expect her to do the laundry, but that first time, I led her through the steps.  And as so often happens, she surprised the heck out of me.  First I told her we needed to clean the lint screen in the dryer.  She immediately pulled it out, cleared the lint, threw it away and put the screen back.  I think she had maybe seen me do that once, years before.  Then we took out the dry clothes, and she tossed them in the basket.  I put the wet clothes on the dryer door, and she pushed them all in.  Then I told her to close the door, which she did.  The door to the dryer always needs an extra push to stay closed, and she, without me telling her to, gave it that extra push.  Just to see what happened, I told her to turn the timer and turn on the dryer.  I had to help a little with the timer, although she knew right where it was and the direction to turn it.  I had to help not at all with turning the dryer on, even though that involves pushing on another dial that doesn't look like a button.

Then the wash---she tossed in the clothes I gave her.  I poured the detergent in the cap, and she confidently pulled out the detergent holder.  I gave her the cap and she poured the detergent in without spilling, and shut the lid.  I wasn't even that surprised when I told her to start the washer, which involves pushing two different buttons in the order.  Absolutely right, first try.

The whole laundry routine, along with other areas where I've lately been observing Janey's level of competence, has made me think a lot about something.  I was reading something a few weeks ago which mentioned a family with a child with intellectual disabilities.  Instinctively, I thought to myself "Wow.  That must be tough"  And then I realized what I thought.  Because, of course, our family falls into the same category as that family.  Or I would have said so, for many years.

I realized after that reading and thought that I no longer think of Janey as intellectually disabled.  I'm not living in a dream world.  I know that she would and has scored extremely low on IQ tests, that by any academic standard you threw at her, she is in the severely intellectually disabled category.  But that's not how I think of her.  I think of her as...well, Janey.  I think of her as a person with strengths and weakness.  I think of her, often, as a bit of a mystery.  I can't say what's in her head, but the little hints she gives us make me think there's much going on there, much we are not privy to.  

I'm not saying this to tell anyone else what they should think, about Janey or more, about their own children.  It took me 16 years to get to this way of thinking.  I would hear about and agree with the idea of assuming competence, but I didn't truly mentally buy into it. I don't know if I still would word what I feel just that way.  I would say more...we don't know.  We don't know what Janey knows, what she thinks, what she's capable.  But actually, when I think about it, that results in kind of the same thing.  We don't know what she can do, so we need to give her a chance to show us.  We need to keep in mind she's always watching us and listening to us.  She must have observed the heck out of me doing laundry, at the very least, and I'm quite sure there are hundreds of other routines and ideas and conversations she's much more aware of that is visible at first glance.  

I've got some more thoughts on this subject, and on other surprise ways Janey has shown us what she knows.  I'm still planning on a blog entry da day for this week, so stay tuned for more tomorrow!

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Janey and remote learning

 Zoom meetings. Remote learning.  Those terms, in the future, when hopefully this COVID year is a memory and school once again means actually going to school, are going to send a shiver through me.

Remote learning just doesn't work well for Janey.  To be fair, sometimes in person learning doesn't work well either, but that's if we look at things from a strictly academic perspective.  In person learning has almost always worked in terms of helping Janey---making her happier, teaching her social skills, giving her life a purpose, keeping her active, and giving her time with some of the finest people I've ever known, her teachers and paras and therapists.  Remote learning can't replace school for her.  It probably can't for anyone, but for Janey, it's been a bit of a nightmare

What's hard about it for her?  The biggest challenge is just getting her to sit down and listen and engage with the computer.  I say "the computer" and not "her teachers" because I truly don't think she understands the people she sees on the screen are her teachers.  I think she sees it as some kind of video that talks back to her and makes demands on her that regular videos don't.   Unlike how she watches TV, it also requires her to stay in one place, to listen in order, to answer things.  When she watches a video, she moves around constantly, rewinds often, changes shows, turns things off and on.  No-one asks her questions.  It's her time.  Now, she's suddenly, in her eyes, being asked to watch videos that oddly feature people she knows in real life, and to watch them without constantly getting up, and without being able to stop and start and switch around.  It's not her cup of tea, to say the least.

At school, everyone learns pretty quickly there's some days that Janey is ready to engage and some days she isn't, and some times during each day she's more alert and other times you can't get a word out of her.  But remote learning is only at certain set times each day, and they often aren't her chosen times.  Her poor sleep lately means that sometimes it's time to do school when she's sleepy, or hyped up from not sleeping, or just not in the mood.  She's been doing fairly well each morning at 8 with the morning check-in, but that's only about 10 minutes.  Even that requires us to remind her over and over and over to stay at the screen.

There is also so much that can't be captured on a screen.  There's so many times Janey has answered a question when she's muted, or pointed to something on a screen when it's not a touch screen, or gave a response to something that was asked minutes ago.  In a classroom, that would be noticed, but when a teacher is trying to teach 5 or 6 kids like Janey at once, or even in one on one sessions when Janey is not positioned right in front of the screen or loud enough or clear enough, so much is missed.

A classroom is full of activity, things to look at, things to engage with.  A screen isn't.  The teachers have done their level best, but nobody was trained for this.  It's not something we ever anticipated.

So...what do we do?  I am not sure.  I know I've pretty much given up on remote learning.  Janey goes to the morning meeting, has music therapy once a week and once in a while watches recorded lessons, but I am not pushing a lot more.  When I did, it wasn't pretty.  Janey reverted to scarily tough behaviors.  We got the message.

I want Janey back in the classroom, IF that is safe.  It's looking more like it might be, from my reading.  I don't think COVID is spread much at schools.  COVID is hugely scary, something I would like our family to avoid getting at almost any cost, and I fully understand why schools closed.  And if science shows they need to stay closed---well, so be it.  Nothing is more important than staying alive, of course.  But I am now at the point that if school opens, and those with more knowledge than myself determine it's safe, even if no-one can say it's 100% safe, I'll send her.  Nothing is 100% safe, ever.

I wonder how other families are handling this, how remote learning works for your kids, what your schools are offering.  I'd love to hear from people around the US and around the world about your experiences.

Stay well!

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Every day for a week

 I've been neglecting this blog lately.  Most of that is the whole pandemic related every day feeling the same bit.  It feels like nothing changes, like we are all just in a big holding pattern.  But thinking about it yesterday, I realized actually lots has been happening.  Being with Janey 24/7, we are every day learning more things about her and figuring out more ways to engage her, and understanding more how her mind works.  I've had a lot of thoughts I'd like to share, but I kept feeling like I had to wait to write until I tied them all together and had some perfectly worded way to sum them up.  When thinking about this last night, I realized I just need to write, to get back in the habit.  So bear with me as I start my week of blogs---a little each day!

I'll start with---how are we doing?  Okay.  We're doing, well, okay.  Like everyone else, we are tired of this whole bit, but hopeful that maybe a light at the end of the tunnel is starting to be visible. Janey hasn't been in school in person since March, not a day.  At one point she was offered a hybrid model, which would have resulted in the end in her having about 4 days total in school before it shut down again.  I sensed that the renewed shutdown was coming, and I just didn't think it was worth the risk to send her.  I'm glad I didn't.  Now only a very, very few kids in Boston are going to school, and Janey is not one of them.

Remote learning---well, that' s not easy with Janey.   Her teachers and therapists have been trying hard.  Janey now pretty much tolerates the morning meeting, which lasts about 10 minutes, starting at 8 o'clock.  She will sometimes watch recorded lessons, with varying amounts of interest.  I can get her now and then to do a little bit of work on paper, circling things or listening to short stories.  But it all adds up to vastly, vastly less school than actual school, probably about 1/100th as much.  And no real social contact, no special things like swimming or dance, no time away from her family.  When I think about her being 16, and how limited her life is----well, it's not great.

And from the perspective of Tony and me---that's tough too.  We have absolutely no time at all without fully caring for Janey.  School always gave us a bit of time to breath, to nap if necessary, to regroup.  Caring for Janey is a lot like caring for a toddler in an adult's body, day and night and day and night.  We are tired.  Janey's sleep hasn't been great, to say the least.  About once a week, she doesn't sleep at all, and maybe two more nights of the week, she sleeps very little.  We can kind of catnap while she's awake, but not fully sleep (and I must give a shoutout to Tony, who does the vast majority of the night caring) and Janey wakes us up often to get help with videos, ask for food, ask for car rides, all that.  We are hugely worn out.

But it all could be a lot worse.  None of us have gotten sick, thank goodness.  Janey will wear a mask to go to the grocery store, the one place we go, and Tony takes her there almost every day.  Except for when we were trying hard to recreate school at home, which caused a huge pushback from Janey and some very tough behaviors, she has been mostly cheerful, and often a very lot of fun to be with.  We are getting by.

I'll write a lot more in the week, about Janey's speech, about remote learning, about things I've discovered about how she learns, about music and car rides and siblings and so.  For now, I'm just sending out love to all of you, and hoping you are coping.  Let me know, so we can all support each other!

Monday, October 19, 2020

As the pandemic rages on...

 We are hanging in there!  I keep thinking back to March, when the schools closed and they announced they were closing for a month, and I thought "A MONTH?  Isn't that a bit extreme?"  And here we are, in October.

The Boston schools did open part time for kids with more severe special needs, and Janey was eligible for in-person schooling a few days a week, but we opted against it.  Tony and I really need to not get sick, and it just didn't seem to make sense to send Janey off on a bus to a school when the daily routine would not be as she liked or expected, as hard as her teachers would have tried for her.  So we are doing modified homeschooling, using work delivered by her teacher each week.  We aren't pushing her much, to say the least.  When we started up last month, we tried, and she immediately pushed back, strongly.  We saw some very tough behaviors, things we haven't seen for ages.  When we stopped demanding as much from her, the behaviors eased and at this point, are gone.  She spoke loudly in the way she is able.  

It's hard seeing the divisions and anger and infighting in the Boston schools.  There are those who very much want more in-person schooling, and those who want no in-person schooling.  I can see both sides.  I feel sometimes like I sound like a wimp saying that, like I can't take a stand.  But the truth is, in this issue, like so many, there is no one right answer.  As I've said before, if we were in the middle of the toughest times with Janey, I would have sent her to school even with the risks involved, because we would have absolutely, completely needed that respite and support.  If I had a young child, just diagnosed, and I believed that every second was vital in her development, that I was missing out on some closing window to help her, I would insist on in person school.  So I understand anyone that feels that way.  I also know many school districts have safer buildings, less bus rides.  I have dear friends who are sending their children to school safely.  

In Boston, though, I feel very much for the teachers who are angry in person school is still happening.  The union made an agreement that if the positive test rate for COVID went over 4%, there would not be in person school, but somehow, once it did, that wasn't honored, due to some loophole.  So many of the school buildings in Boston are old and absolutely not well ventilated.  Teachers are being asked to teach under conditions that aren't safe, due to what seems like an unwillingness to only use the buildings that are actually safe.  I feel for my teacher friends and family, very very much.

All that aside, we are at times kind of enjoying this break from the routine.  Once we listened to Janey about what she could handle and not handle at home, she's a joy.  She's been so much fun to be with.  She is in one of her more active talking periods---mostly echolalia, delayed or not, and scripting, but as I am glad more people are realizing, that's not random.  It's a way of communicating, a kind of cut-and-paste way of talking.  Yesterday, for example, as Tony watched a little football, Janey came in the room and shouted "That's a touchdown!"  I'm sure she's heard that on the TV, either just then or another time, but she hears a lot of things on TV and doesn't say them.  She knows, to our surprise, that a touchdown is the vital thing with football, and it was so very cool to have her join in and speak up!

On the beach in Truro, Cape Cod

We've even travelled a bit, in a socially distanced way.  I've been doing a project for a while of taking pictures of all the town halls in Massachusetts, and we've done two overnight trips to parts of the state to collect pictures---one to Western Massachusetts and one to Cape Cod.  We've felt safe in very clean hotel rooms, wore masks and didn't go into any stores or restaurants, and we've had a great time.  Janey travels well.  She doesn't care for idle sightseeing or shopping or anything, so this type of travel works for her, although I certainly must admit I'd like to wander around quaint downtowns or relax at a beach a bit more than she likes.  It's sometimes frustrating, but it's still fun.  Not having the tied down school schedule is great for minor travel.  

In the car, Janey loves listening to music, but for a while, she was driving us crazy by saying "music please, music!" all the time, which means "I don't like this song, go to the next one!"  She would say it for every song for hours.  We have tried to give her control of the music by letting her hold a phone Bluetoothed to the speakers, but she doesn't like to do that.  Instead, she wants us to be her music changer, and I think often she has some specific song in mind, and just hopes to hit on it by us constantly changing music.  Needless to say, we couldn't take that forever.  So we actually stood our ground.  We told her that some car rides were her turn.  On those, she got to pick the music, and we'd change songs whenever she wanted.  But other car rides were Tony's or mine, and on those, we'd listen to what we wanted.  If on those rides, she said "Music please, Music!", we'd simply turn off the music, and say "We'll take a break"  We wouldn't force her to listen to music she hated, but we wouldn't constantly change the music either.  Surprisingly, this worked.  She has been listening to our music and not objecting (much!) and enjoying her music.

Janey in her Coco top

Life with Janey is interesting. We are learning, gradually, how to listen to her no matter how she communicates, and learning also when to stand our ground and when to give in.  It's like that with all children, I know, but with Janey, it's easy to fall into the extremes---being in total charge of her for what might be seen as her own good, or giving in on everything.  These recent easier years are partly just her growing up, and partly us learning what works, and how to trust our own instincts as to what works.

I hope you all are well, and I hope we all can stay in touch via Facebook during this crazy time.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Frustration with the schools (not the teachers!)

 Over the years, I've been a big cheerleader for the Boston Public Schools.  I am a fan of public schools in general, and I've always tried to let people know it's very possible to get a very good education in Boston without feeling like you have to send your child to private school or you have to move out of the city.  For those of you not in Boston or near it, the Boston schools don't have the greatest reputation.  I've felt for many years that poor reputation is not justified.  My three children, all very different from each other, have been for the most part well served in Boston.  

My feelings haven't changed when it comes to the teachers, or the therapists, or the paraprofessionals, or the principals.  I can truly say in all my years, which add up to 23 years now, of having my children educated in Boston, I've only encountered two or three teachers, out of literally hundreds, that I would not happily have teach my child again.  Indeed, I've had far more than my fair share of absolutely amazing teachers, of therapists that care deeply, of paraprofessionals that I would trust with my children's lives without a second thought, of principals that took a personal interest in my kids.  

But the school system in general?  The upper management, the central office, the bureaucracy?  Well, I'm not too happy with them.

Nobody can be blamed for COVID-19 existing.  It's a virus.  You can't be angry at a virus.  But I am angry at how the whole crisis has been handled in Boston, quite angry really.

I've talked through Facebook and by phone to many, many other parents in other parts of the US and world, and overall, it seems like most school districts are finding a way to educate kids like Janey.  At the very least, most districts seem to have used the summer to make plans, to find a way to  bring the kids that just don't learn well at home into the schools as safely as possible.  Some parents have chosen to keep their kids home anyway, and that is certainly understandable.

Technically, we were given a choice with Janey---remote learning or a hybrid method, 2 days a week at school.  But after talking to her teacher and hearing what those two days a week would be  They would be in one room, with masks on, never leaving the room, teachers not allowed to touch the kids at all, much of the teaching taking place by Zoom meeting even in the room, as teachers would not be circulating. That isn't a classroom model that would work in any way for Janey, or for most kids with autism.  So we chose home education.  Janey's amazing teacher understood that Zoom meetings don't work for her, and she is going to provide us with weekly materials (which she had to do a funding drive to get money for---no thanks to Boston there) to teach Janey with.  

Janey's room at school has no opening windows, none at all.  She rides a bus for an hour each way to school and back.  She will wear a mask for short times, but I'm quite sure she wouldn't leave one on all day.  She lives for walking around the school, for field trips and swimming and dance.  It would be both unsafe and deeply unsatisfying for Janey to go to school as it has been set up.

I attended a big Zoom meeting for Boston parents of special needs kids.  I won't go into it in detail, but it was awful.  A politician was allowed to grandstand for a long time, an ABA specialist took up a long period of time during a meeting meant for PARENTS to ask questions (she had good ideas, but at least 50 parents had questions that there was no time to answer during the too short meeting), and most disturbing to me, a school official outright lied.  He was asked (several times) if teachers were going to be given adequate PPE (personal protective equipment, like masks, shields, etc.)   He said emphatically "Yes!  Absolutely!"  Well, as of last week, I have been told that such equipment is not only not being given to teachers, it hasn't even been ordered.

Even if we had chosen to send Janey to school, school isn't starting in person until October 1st, or at all, even remotely, for another two weeks.  I don't see any other district anyway that isn't even having any school this September, basically.  The schools had all summer to prepare.  This didn't all come out of no-where.  But from what I can see, infighting and attempting to please every politically powerful faction took up the time that should have been spent on one big goal---finding a way to safely educate the kids of Boston.

I know that the powers that be would argue they just can't find a way to safely educate Janey and her peers.  But I wonder---why, elsewhere around the country and around the world, are so many other kids like her back in classrooms already, safely, with teachers that have the equipment they need to be safe, with classrooms that are ventilated, with few enough kids in a room for it to be safe, without a mask requirement for children whose special needs just make it impossible for them to understand why they need to keep a mask on?  

Boston school buildings are underutilized.  Janey's high school has a population far, far smaller than the school was built to hold.  All the time, attempts are made to close some of Boston's 125 school buildings.  Surely, somewhere in the city, there are enough classrooms for kids like Janey, the highest need students, to safely attend school, and surely, there are enough teachers that, if given the proper tools, would feel safe teaching the classes.  I don't want any teacher that doesn't feel safe or supported to teach.  Many teachers have small children, or medical conditions, or the like.  But if only teachers who felt safe teaching were to teach the high needs kids, as is happening what seems like virtually everywhere else, and if Boston could be flexible and open classrooms in buildings that have good air circulation and opening windows, even if that required Janey and others to temporarily go to a different school---well, you would really think a city like Boston could do that.  And you think they would be shamed by seeing that everyplace else pretty much in the world is finding a way to do what they can't seem to do.

We're fine, ourselves personally.  Janey is 16.  Although it's not what we want, truthfully she could stop going to school now and it wouldn't be a tragedy.  I was prepared to have her drop out if the schools had been rigid about Zoom meetings for her schooling.  But there are so many young kids with autism in Boston who desperately need schools.  And although we are managing, Janey is regressing in a lot of ways.  Her toilet training has been, well, set far, far back.  She is talking less much of the time, and lately, especially after seeing her teachers outside in a socially distanced meeting---which was great---she seems to be upset she's not in school.  She can't express that directly, but it's fall.  She knows fall, and she knows that is when you go to school. 

One of the things that was said at that infuriating Zoom meeting for parents, when a parent poured out her heart about how hard this all has been, and how she didn't feel equipped to teach her young child with autism, was that there are many social service agencies in Boston designed to help the special needs community, and "we are going to work with them to get services and help for kids who need it" (not the exact words, but along those lines)  I think of all of this, that makes me almost the angriest.  You are GOING to?  Why hasn't that been happening right along?  Why are there untold numbers of agencies that I know have a mission and funding to help kids like Janey, and that are I am sure are well-meaning, but that don't work with the schools, or each other, that don't ask parents what we really need, that hold endless workshops and support groups and make up nice fliers but don't provide ANY respite, ANY after school programs, ANY direct help, except maybe to a small number of people that know exactly the right way to ask for it and have the means and personality and connections to access the help?  Why can't help be OFFERED to those who truly need it?

I'm angry.  I'm angry that the overpaid, overstaffed, underworked bureaucracy of the Boston Public Schools is failing the children of Boston, and the teachers of Boston, and the everyday citizens of Boston.  I don't get angry easily, Boston.  It took me 23 years to get this angry.  But I'm angry.

Monday, August 10, 2020

How would we have done it?

One phrase that I think most families with special needs children don't like is "How do you do it?", sometimes phrased as its twin "I don't know how you do it!"  We know the phrase is usually meant in the kindest of ways, and that it's an acknowledgement of some of the struggles our families can face.  But it can feel hurtful in a couple ways.  One is that it makes it seem like our child has created a situation so difficult that others can't even imagine what it would be like to live our life.  Another is by saying, in a way, that we ARE doing it, by making us somehow separate, set apart, somehow as a family unit handling it all ourselves, and not in need of help, due to our superhero status.  Both views of our families are untrue and unhelpful.

That being said, lately I've been thinking a version of the "How do you do it?" myself.  It's in the form of "How WOULD we have done it?"  How would we have handled this pandemic, this lack of school, this isolation, during what I always think of as the Tough Years---approximately from when Janey was 5 until 10?  Those  Those were the years in which an inclusion school which aimed to include all special needs students realized they were not up to including Janey, and then, while in the autism program she moved to, she was so unhappy and angry that the day came that I got the call that she wasn't even safe to go home, that we needed to come to the school to go with her by ambulance to the emergency room, the start of an ordeal which include six horrible days at Children's Hospital and 3 weeks of Janey being in a psychiatric hospital.  Those years featured many, many days where Janey screamed all day, literally, days when she bit herself hard, days when she cried heartbreaking tears for hours, nights of her fury and sadness that seemed like they would never end.  But during those years, there was school.  We had about six hours a day when we could sleep (or often, just I could---Tony was working, most of that time at a job an hour from home, and how he ever lived through those years I'll never know), recover, breathe, know that she was cared for.

But what if the pandemic had been during those years, and there was no school?  I think about that all the time, and I truly wonder how we could have done it.

Of course, the thing is, lots of other people with children with severe autism are living through those tough years right now.  And I think about them, all the time.  I think about how it must feel to have a child so desperately unhappy, and to be trying so very hard to help them, and having absolutely no respite---no school, no activities, no nothing.  I think of them trying to think of ways to fill the days, and to get some rest.  I think of the siblings, trying to learn at home in a household that might be often filled with screaming or hitting or crying.

If COVID-19 had happened during the Tough Years, I have to say honestly that I would have sent Janey back to school the second school was open, even if I wasn't sure it was safe, even if I had huge fears about the virus.  I would have sent her because I would have known that we simply had to---in order to stay sane---not just us as parents, but her too.  I would have taken the risk, the possibility of sickness weighed against the absolute knowledge of what more time at home would be like.

This knowledge is why I am not sure how I feel about schools staying closed. If we lived in an ideal world, I would feel sure they should stay closed, but we don't live in that world, and I know there are families out there right now just barely hanging on.  I think about the teachers, with families of their own often, and I know they will be put at risk going back to in-person school, as well as the aides and lunch workers and bus drivers and therapists.  I worry about all of them.  But I can picture most, of course, the situation we have lived through, the child who needs help so badly and the family so extremely stressed by that child's needs, and I worry so much about how they are managing to go on. I know some of you reading this might be living that life right now, and feeling like you are very alone. I wish I could help more. I wish I could come to your house and take care of your child for a day or two, so you could sleep and recover. I wish I had magic.I wish I could fast-forward your life to calmer years.  But right now all I can do is tell you I am thinking of you.

We are so lucky.  Janey, at almost 16, is happy most of the time.  Aside from a period of adjustment at first, and from the days she got upset by Zoom meeting school, which we will no longer do, she has been a champ during this time at home.  We are enjoying her.  Most of that is just her maturing.  Some of it is changes we made, changes in our expectations of her and also changes in our lives.  Tony retired early, which has been a financial challenge but without a question absolutely a right decision.  The boys are older.  We are okay.  We hope that Janey can safely go back to school at some point, because she loved high school, but for now, we are okay.

I hope all those in the places of decision making do give a thought to those who are in the Tough Years of severe autism.  I hope we can find a way to help those families get through this.  I won't say to them that I don't know how they do it.  I know how they do it.  They do it day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute.  They do it because they love their kids, their amazing kids.  But they need help, and we as a society need to figure out how to help them, especially in these extraordinary times.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Tough realizations about school

I spent a few months living in a hopeful dream world.  I hoped that school could start in person in the fall, and Janey could go back to the high school experience she loved so much.  She could get on the bus early in the morning, have a nice long ride, spend the day with peers, go to music and dance and swimming, take field trips, be with adults who cared for her and enjoyed her, and then taken another nice long ride and came home again, contented after a full day.  

It's hard to believe the changes the last six months have wrought on the whole world.  

There has been no official words on the status of school in the fall for Boston, except that it won't be full time in person.  But after thinking it out and emailing with Janey's teacher, I finally had to face facts.  Janey won't be going back to school, not at all.  

If she went to school, it would be a school experience stripped of everything she likes about school, and everything that is important to us about her schooling.  Being in a classroom of teens with severe special needs, teens with little or no understanding of social distancing or the importance of masks, she would be behind plexi-glass shields.  She would not leave the classroom all day.  Teachers would not be able to touch her.  She couldn't move around.  

Even under those conditions, if someone got sick at her school, it would be closed, and the little hint, the pale shadow of her old schooling experience would shut down again for weeks.  Her school is very close to the area of Massachusetts the very hardest hit by COVID-19.  It wouldn't stay open much.

The bus would likely be impossible.  It was the weakest link last year, often not showing up, changing drivers almost weekly.  I can't imagine it would work, with older drivers, with kids that would certainly take off their masks often, with social distancing.  If Janey went to whatever version of school was available, we would have to drive her.  In Boston traffic, it's an hour's drive each way to her school.  We'd spend 4 hours of our day in school transport.

So...I finally,reluctantly admitted to myself---Janey isn't going back to school.

And distance learning, Zoom meetings?  It's almost an afterthought in my mind to say "No thanks".  Like so many other kids with Janey's kinds of needs I've heard about, Zoom meeting school simply doesn't work, in fact,more than that, it makes things worse.  Imagine a bored, frustrated teen, and trying to keep them from melting down all day, and then add in an hour or two or more of also trying to force them to sit in front of a screen they don't want to watch, one that seems to them to be playing a video strangely featuring some people they recognize, but one where now and then they are asked to say something on command.  A video that tries vainly to meet the needs of a dozen or so kids with wildly different needs, but all with high needs.  Imagine spending the whole time this video plays trying to keep your teen sitting in one place, waiting for their turn to answer a question they wouldn't be inclined to answer under the best of circumstances.  No, that is not school.

And so, one way or another, we are going to homeschool.  I'm not scared of that. It's not my preference, and I'm quite sure not Janey's preference either,but it's what we are going to have to do.

I think it's human nature when faced with a situation we don't like to place blame.  It's almost comforting to be able to have an enemy, a foe to defeat.  There is one in this situation, but it's not human.  It's a virus.  No-one human has done anything to cause this (politics aside, and that is how I generally try to live my life, with politics aside).  Everyone would like Janey to be able to have school in the way she could last year, but safely, and practically, she can't.

I lie awake nights thinking about how I can best educate Janey.  Sometimes, I admit thinking I might not really try, not to formally educate her.  She will be 16 in less than two weeks, and in our state, I think that's old enough to drop out.  I could just call it a school career for now.  But I don't think that's the best plan.  We had planned on Janey being in school until she was 22.  I am still hopeful that after a year or so, she will be able to go back to school.  

I'll write more in another post about how I'm going to try to set up homeschooling.  For now, I'd love to find out how the rest of you out there will be handling school this fall.  I'm feeling isolated, scared, alone, more than I have in many years.  It's such a house of cards, this life we cobble together for our kids, and it takes just a touch for it all to fall apart.  We have gotten, as a world, something more like a hurricane aimed at our house of cards.  It's going to take a while to build it back.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The summer of the virus

I'm thinking of all of you this summer, especially those earlier on in the whole autism journey.  Every day, I picture how hard it would have been to have a summer like this one if Janey was still as unhappy as she was for many years, and if her behaviors in showing that unhappiness and pain were still as intense.  As it is, it's not totally easy, of course, as it isn't for anyone on Earth right now, but it's nothing like it could have been.

We chose not to "send" Janey to summer school.  I put send in quotations as summer school was going to be totally virtual, all Zoom meetings, for THREE hours a day.  It was a no-brainer to turn it down.  Zoom meetings quite simply don't work for Janey.  We tried our best during the school year, for the hour a day her class met.  At the best, she would sit still and watch the screen, and perhaps participate with a word or two during that hour.  At the worse, she would scream, cry, turn off the computer, close the screen, run away constantly and then be in a terrible mood for the rest of the day.  Either way, it wasn't in any way worth it.

I don't think Janey understood at all that her teachers and fellow students were at the other end of the meetings.  I think she saw it as a TV show or movie,one that for some reason we forced her to watch, one that sometimes strangely called out her name specifically and tried to get her to respond.  This wasn't the case with all the kids in her class.  Some of them participated eagerly, and almost all the other kids at least were more engaged than Janey.  That surprised me.  But as we all know, every kid with autism is different.  I did think there were more kids similar to Janey at her high school, but perhaps those kids just weren't participating at all.

One thing that struck me is that Janey has much less liking of repetition than the other kids like her seemed to.  Or at least she has less liking of repetition she hasn't herself chosen.  She will watch the same movie day after day after day (Toy Story 1-4 and Coco and The Emperor's New Groove, I'm talking to you!) but that's her choice, and she does move on with movies or music after a while.  She'll eventually get bored and cycle in something new.  But the Zoom meetings featured the same songs and videos day after day---greeting songs, days of the week or months of the year or seasons videos---and Janey was not interested. This got complicated by technical problems when the audio or video wouldn't work well.  I felt for her teachers very much.  They had not signed up to be virtual teachers or educational technologists.  They are hands on, great teachers, and they were being forced by circumstances to teach in a totally different way.  And it just didn't work for Janey.

A typical scene this summer, watching videos outdoors
So---the lack of school this summer feels like a huge relief, truly.  I have no idea what I'll do in the fall if schooling is still virtual.  I don't think Janey will be going to that kind of school if it is, one way or another.  We will have to explore our options.  I also just don't know what will play out if school requires masks all day, and 6 foot distancing.  I know that Janey would not be able to comply with that.  She will wear a mask for very short time frames, just to be able to go to the 7-11 and get ice cream or chips, but all day long---that will not work.  I worry especially about the bus---there is no way it would work there.  I worry about her getting COVID, about her teachers or bus drivers or paras or another else getting it from her or giving it to her. It is hard to picture how it's all going to play out.

How are we at home, aside from all this?  Not bad, overall.  Janey has been fairly happy and content.  She is spending her days like a lot of teenagers do---sleeping in, staying up a bit later than usual, watching a lot of YouTube and movies, eating a lot, things like that.  We actually started having a bedtime for her, not to sleep, as no-one can make you sleep, but to be on her bed at 9:30.  The good thing, in a way, about her not knowing how to tell time is that 9:30 can be a bit flexible.  If we can tell she's not tired, it can be more like 11, if she's exhausted, it can be more like 8.  But the amazing thing is she is actually mostly staying on her bed once we say to.  The result is Tony and I are actually having some evenings mostly to ourselves, to watch TV or talk or whatever.  It's nice.

It's been a little tough this past week, as for the first time since she was 11, Janey actually got her period.  The only other time she has was when we gave her medication under the supervision of a specialist.  This time, it just occurred. She mostly seems fine with it, not really much noticing it, but she has had what I think are cramps off and on.  It's awful to see her crying in pain, and knowing she doesn't really get why it's happening.  I've done my best to explain it to her, but I don't know how much she understands.  We have been lucky that for whatever reason, she usually doesn't get a period.

I hope all of you are well, and surviving this tough time.  I'd love to hear how you are coping.  Is there summer school where you are?  How do things look for the fall?  How is it going with masks, with the isolation, with the general tension a pandemic brings?  I hope very much you are all healthy and hanging in there, and I send our love.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

"Frustrated, Angry, Bored"

Janey has had a tough week.  After almost two months handling the quarentine like a champ, I think she's had enough.  She's been screaming and acting out much of the day, every day, staying up most of the night and sleeping during the days, tossing things around---just not happy.  Last night she had been yelling for hours. Out of desperation, I turned to her iPad's talking programs.  Using the one program she seems to like, Proloquo2Go, I went to the feelings page and asked her to please tell me what she was feeling.  Without hesitation, she picked "hate".  And pushed it over and over and over.  Fair enough.  Then I went to the body parts page to ask her if anything hurt.  She picked "feet", which is something she often picks.  I asked her if she needed a foot rub and she said yes, so we did that, and then she went to the program and picked "legs" and "arms", so I gave her a leg and arm rub too.  Then she exited the program and told me to go away.  The rest of the night was far better---she slept well and didn't scream at all.

So...why don't we use the "talker", as we call it, more?  Because Janey won't.  We've tried and tried.  I've read whatever I could on using it.  I've tried modeling, tried having it open near her as much as we can, tried programming words she might want into it, tried all I can think of.  Most of the time, she strongly rejects it.  She's several times used her limited speech to say "I CAN TALK" when I try to get her to use it, when I've said how it can help her talk.  I don't know why she doesn't like it more.  But I have respected her wishes, partly because trying to force her to do anything is a losing game.  So for quite a while, we haven't even tried it much.

I realized last night that part of why I don't try it more is that I was a little obsessed with using it "right".  I wanted to have her learn to use it for sentences, to move between screens, to try new words with it.  But the times it worked best was when I first went to a screen with a theme, like I did last night, feelings or body parts, or foods or colors or things like that.  She readily chooses when I do that.  I think she can read the words some, and uses them more than the pictures, but I have no way to prove that.  But I am going to try to more often just open a screen for her and let her pick.

This morning, I pulled up the feelings screen again.  Instantly, Janey picked "Frustrated, Angry, Bored" in rapid succession.  Well, that about says it all about life being stuck at home.  I told her I felt the same way, and I wish there was more we could do to help.  The biggest problem right now is masks.  Janey will not wear a mask, and it's the law here in Massachusetts that masks must be worn in public.  There is an exception for people with special needs, and I know we could use that, but the other part of it is that we believe in the masks, and are very scared of getting sick.  Aside from the disaster that Janey getting COVID-19 would be, if she gave it to Tony or me, we could get very, very sick.  So, while the virus is still badly raging in this area, we are stuck.  We can go for car rides to nowhere or play in the driveway, but that's about it.  And who wouldn't be frustrated, angry and bored----especially if you were 15?

This whole virus life is hard on everyone, but especially hard on kids like Janey.  She doesn't have friends to text or FaceTime with.  She doesn't read books.  She can't take walks even right now...if she would wear a mask, there's still the problem of her touching everything in sight.  She is stuck in an endless dull day.  And we are trying, but it's hard to break up the boredom.  I'm surprised it took her as long as it did to get angry.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Autism Mother Myths and Truths

If I picture, without taking time to think much, a typical autism mother...well, do it yourself.  Just form a quick picture in your head of what you'd think of when you think "autism mother".

It's a strange exercise, because despite being an autism mother myself for a long time now, what I picture doesn't look much like me.  I picture a warrior.  I picture a mother who would do anything, anything at all, to help her child---a mother who fights for her child on every level every day.  This mother works day and night to get her child everything that might possible help them.  She also is completely devoted at home to her child.  She cooks special diets, she fills each day with enriching activities, she is completely accepting of her child while somehow also completely determined to give her child what is needed to live a life as close to "normal" as possible.

That's not me.  It's not anyone, really, or it's very few people.  I've been trying to figure out where the image comes from, and I think it's mostly from books.  Autism mothering books don't seem to be quite the vogue they were for a while, but when they were (I think the heyday was the 1990's), they seemed to follow a formula.  Child is diagnosed.  Mother briefly is overwhelmed and horrified, although of course she knew from the start something was wrong and had to fight to get doctors to see it.  Mother decides on a course of action to "cure" child, and follows that course without rest.  There are some tough days, but then there's a miracle breakthrough.  And at book's end, the child is either completely non-autistic, or they are still a little autistic but only because that autism helps them to have some amazing talent.  Not every book is like that, but a very lot were, and I'm a devoted reader.  Before ever having Janey, I knew just what an autism mother was like, and strangely, all those years later, I still kind of have that stereotyped picture.

What are autism mothers really like?  They are, at least to start, the same as any other mothers.  They aren't specially chosen. 

I can speak best for myself.  I'm no warrior.  I back away from any fight I can, or even any disagreement.  I'm not good at doing anything without rest.  If I knew a way to "cure" Janey, I'd probably be a slacker and not really do it very well.  OF course, there isn't a way to cure her, and that would not be my goal at this point even if there was.  I didn't fight for Janey to be diagnosed.  I didn't want her to be.  I am sure I was in quite a bit of denial, back then, but by the time she was diagnosed, it didn't take a lot of fighting to diagnose her---it was pretty obvious to almost anyone what was up.

However, I would have to say there ARE some traits of autism mothers.  They are traits that we develop, from living the autism mother life.  We don't have them to start, but we have them after some years of raising out kids.

What are they?  Well, protectiveness is one.  We might not be warriors, but we are ever vigilant.  We know how vulnerable our kids are, and we are constantly, every minute of our life, prepared to do what it takes to keep them safe.

Ability to live in the moment is another trait.  We can have a day which most parents not living our lives would consider about the toughest day of their life, and wake up the next morning, and if things are better, we can enjoy the new day.  We've learned things can change on a dime.  I'm willing to bet as a whole we are dealing with less anxiety than most with the whole COVID-19 bit.  We know how to live with uncertainly and stress, for sure.

I'd say most of us have a pretty good sense of humor.  We can laugh at ourselves, and laugh with our kids.  We see life's absurdities, see how what so many people take so earnestly isn't really as important as they think. 

That goes along with the next trait---an appreciation of what's really important in life.  We have come to know that it's not education.  It's not money.  It's not a perfect house, a fancy vacation, an active social life or a high IQ. Our kids teach us that.  The important things in life are the very little things and the very big things.  It's coffee in the morning and a song everyone sings along with.  It's a meal that we all enjoy, it's a movie we've seen a hundred times but still like.  It's running around in the driveway and getting a good night's sleep.  And it's love---loving our kids, loving them exactly as they are, loving them after a day full of screaming or a day full of manic laughter, love filled with pride, love sometimes mixed with tears, but love over all else.

I have to say---the mothers I have met that are living this autism mother life with me (and the fathers too, but in honor of Mother's Day, today is for the mothers) are amazing people.  We have a bond forged by shared experiences, and I would venture to say every one of us is a better person because of our loved ones with autism.  Happy Mother's Day, with much love, to the autism mothers out there.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Middle of the Night Thoughts

No, Janey's not awake.  It's just me awake.  I've been having a lot of trouble sleeping the past few nights.  Thoughts and worries swirl around in my mind and keep me up.

Every day around 4, the new numbers come out for Massachusetts---how many new cases of COVID 19, and how many deaths in the past day.  Today, the death number was 252----the highest yet.  Somehow, that really hit me.  I kept thinking---what if a tornado, or hurricane, or blizzard, or flood hit our state and killed 252 people in a day?  It would be something we'd never forget, a horror, something we'd still talk about many years later, like the Worcester Tornado or the Blizzard of '78, weather legends in Massachusetts.  It feels in this case like a terror happening off camera.  We hear some stories, but mostly, it's unseen---deaths that are all someone's loved one, someone's parent or child or sister or brother, but that we only know as a number.  It's terrifying.

And of course, I fear most of all that it will hit us.  How could either Tony or I do the job of being Janey's parent without the other?  Or what if Janey got sick? Or the boys?

We don't go anyplace.  Not at all.  Tony takes Janey for a car ride to no-where a few times a day.  We play with her in the driveway.  She hasn't set foot outside our house, driveway or car for over a month.  She would not wear a mask.  She wouldn't wear a mask when quite literally her life depended on it, in the hospital after her appendix burst.  She touches everything---when I take her for a walk, she runs her hands along walls and fences.  It is not safe for her to go out.  Even outdoor places in this crowded state are filled with people, many not wearing masks.  So we stay home.

Janey is still doing remarkably well being at home.  She seems to be thriving.  She watches videos, watches Tony cook, eats all day (luckily, she loves healthy food), listens to music, runs around in the driveway.  Every day is quite similar, but she doesn't seem to mind.  It's a low stress life for her.  She doesn't really understand at all why we are home, and that is probably good.

A few times a week, Janey has a short, maybe 20 minute, Zoom meeting with her teacher or with her speech or ABA therapists.  Janey tolerates this, and even seems to enjoy it for a few minutes at a time.  However, starting next week it's going to be every day, for 2 hours.  I have very mixed feelings about this.  I know it's being done because special education students are not able to access the learning that other students are currently doing---online resources, worksheets, homework.  They need direct teaching.  But I can't picture Janey or most of her classmates doing very well with that much Zoom teaching time.  It's not that she can't watch a video for that long---goodness knows she can---or that her teachers aren't doing a fabulous job working on ways to engage her---they are amazing.  But it has to do with Janey just not quite getting it.  She gets school.  She's been going to school for a long time.  She knows how that works.  But someone on a screen talking to her and listening to her and expecting her to respond?  I think in her eyes it's some kind of enhanced video, one with a cast of people she happens to know.  It's fun for a few minutes, but not for extended periods.

However, it's not like there are really any other options.  School can't be held in person right now, and everyone is doing the best they can with that.  It's not easy for anyone.  In some ways, it's probably easier for Janey than for a lot of kids. Her lack of understanding of the crisis is a protection from worry.  Of course she has peers she likes at school, but it's not like I would have been at 15---absolutely crazed being away from my friends for this long.

What really keeps me up at night is how this is all going to play out long time.  People seem more divided than ever.  Instead of this pulling us all together, it seems to be pulling people apart.  That's crazy to me.  It's not a matter of politics here.  A virus has no politics.  But fear can cause divisions, anger, irrationality.  I can handle that.  But how I fear for Janey, and for all those out there who will always depend on others.  She needs a world that is secure enough to leave people feeling they can help others.  She needs a world that cares about people, not about the latest political feud or scoring points or getting elected or re-elected.  I don't think the extremes on either side of any political rift really understand that.  She literally needs someone to watch over her, and she always will.  And I can't sleep, because I don't think the world sees her, or all those like her, when they bicker and argue while in one day, in one state, over 250 people died.  God help us all.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Daddy's thank you to Janey during trying times

Janey, I want to thank you for being such a very good girl during this Corona Virus time! I also want to thank you for making me so happy after you got better from being very sick from your appendix that burst about five years ago.
Too many times daddy feels angry or sad about things. But you help me forget my angry and sad feelings. You are always jumping up and down, smiling, laughing, singing and playing YouTube kids on your iPad. You helped me learn some of your favorite nursery rhyme songs because I watch a lot of CocoMelon, Chu Chu TV, Mother Goose Club, and Dave and Eva with you on the Internet. I even learned to play the harmonica for some of your favorite nursery rhyme songs! Your whole face smiles when you hear me play songs like Ten in the Bed, Looby Loo, Skip to My Lou, Five Green and Speckled Frogs, and a few more songs.
Thank you Janey for asking me everyday to give you car rides with music because you still want me to play British Invasion 1960s music on YouTube. You helped me find some super amazing songs and videos like "See See Rider" by the Animals, "Tobacco Road" by the Nashville Teens, "I Feel Free" by Cream, "Baby Please Don't Go" by Them, "Someday We're Gonna Love Again" by the Searchers, Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well," "Have I the Right" by the HoneyCombs, "I Can See for Miles" by the Who, "Shapes of Things" by the Yardbirds, "Sunny Afternoon" by the Kinks and "Long Tall Woman in a Black Dress" by the Hollies!
And Janey, you have me watch a lot of your favorite movies on Disney +! I have a lot of fun watching these movies as you ask me to play "Miguel the Guitar Boy," which is really called Coco, "Bad Llama," which is The Emperor's New Groove, and all your "Buzz Lightyear" movies, which you sometimes call by their real names, like Toy Story 3.
Janey, you make mamma and me laugh so loud when you sing to yourself or repeat some lines from your favorites movies. I often hear you sing "a cold cup of coffee and a piece of cake" which comes from a song named "Matthew and Son." Sometimes you say "put me down you idiot," and I laugh because that was when Big Baby from Toy Story 3 picked up evil Lotso and threw him into the trash!
Oh Janey, please never stop being yourself as you are just too funny! You smile and laugh for your brothers William and Freddy when they play with you! Mamma and daddy love it when you smile so much for your teacher when she uses her computer with Zoom to see you! We love it when you hug us over and over because you're so happy and enjoying life!
Thank you Janey for making me a better daddy and a happier person!
You are the best Janey!

Monday, April 13, 2020

As the quarantine continues...

First of all, I want to reach out to all of you with kids or someone else you love similar to Janey.  I hope you are all hanging in there, and I very much hope that none of you have caught the awful virus.

How are things here?  Well, mostly okay.  Better than I thought they would be a few weeks ago.  Janey had a terrible time adjusting to school being closed.  For a few weeks, she cried almost all day every day, screamed a great deal, bit her arm, just was not happy at all.  And then, fairly suddenly, she seemed to get used to the new normal.  It was so wonderful to see her smiling again, and dancing around, and seeming to enjoy life. 

The new normal does have some hard parts.  One is sleep.  Janey's teacher has told me a lot of kids in her class are having trouble with sleep.  Janey seems to have chosen a random sleep schedule.  She'll be up a lot of the night, sleep a lot of the day, then sleep a night and be up a day, and then have a day with long naps and a night with long anti-naps, awake periods.  It's tiring for all of us.  But often now at night, she'll watch videos or YouTube and require little help from us, so we can catnap much more than we ever used to be able to.

Janey also, like a lot of us, wants to do things she can't do.  We are being very, very, very careful about social distancing.  Tony and I know that catching the virus could be extremely serious for either of us, with his quite severe diabetes and my collection of issues.  We want to avoid it at all costs.  So we haven't been to any stores, we haven't gone to drive-thrus, we leave the house only for car rides to no-where.  Janey enjoys these rides, but often asks to go to the grocery store or get McDonalds, things she loves doing especially with Tony.  She is accepting no as an answer more than we would have thought, but she isn't happy about the nos. 

We are doing some Zoom sessions with Janey's teacher and will start doing some with her therapists, too.  Janey isn't too bad with the Zoom learning.  She does about 15 minutes worth without asking to stop, thanks to her teacher's creative ideas.  Mostly, though, Janey's kind of school activities just don't translate to homeschooling. And we are okay with that.  I think often how hard it would be if Janey were in a college prep type situation.  We can let this be a time of vocational learning.  Janey is helping me with the laundry, helping me vacuum, helping Tony cook, things like that.

My own stress has increased while Janey's has decreased, however.  I'm an introvert who can happily go weeks without leaving the house much, so that part is okay, but it's the everyday things in life that are getting harder and harder that keep me up nights.  At first, we were able to order groceries online for delivery.  Now, it's impossible to get a delivery slot, even if I stay up until midnight and try to get a time as a new day opens up.  At some point, we will have to shop.  That is going to be scary.  Boston is one of the most affected areas in the US, and our particular neighborhood is one of the most affected in the city. 

Today, it was very windy, and a tree landed on the wires that provide us with our landlines, cable and internet.  We are lucky that we have a backup internet, much slower but still use-able.  But somehow losing the landlines and cable scared me.  I tried, as did the neighbors, to call Verizon over and over, and it's impossible to get a live person, and for their own reasons, you can't report a down line on-line.  You have to talk to someone live.  I have no idea when they will be able to fix the wires.  I keep telling myself we are fine without them, but somehow this storm and wind and outages seemed like the straw that broke the camel's back for me in terms of stress.  Which I keep telling myself is very silly and selfish, as we are not sick and so many people have it so much harder.  I think, though, that we live with a base level of stress that never quite goes away, and when even a small amount gets added on, it's hard.

If I get even more self-analytical, I think I'm terrified by how quickly it feels like it all can fall apart---schools closed, hospitals overwhelmed, food shortages, the economy tanking, the ever-present feel of sickness.  And throughout history, when things fall apart, it's the most vulnerable among us, people like Janey, that often suffer.  Like many others, I read about how ventilators might be rationed, and how one of the criteria items to be considered was "mental retardation"  That gave me some nightmares.  But even on a less dire level, when budgets get tight, special education often seems to be cut first. More than most, Janey needs a society that cares about all, that provides for all, that sees all lives as valuable.

Someday, this time will be over.  I keep thinking of that WWII song "They'll Be Bluebirds Over The White Cliffs of Dover, Tomorrow,Just You Wait and See"  They'll be school again, grocery stores you can shop at without fear again, news other than the scary lists of new cases and lives lost.  We'll get through this.  I am thinking of all of you, and sending you love, and I will close with what so many calls and letters close with lately---be well.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

So far, not so good

School has been closed here in Boston for almost two weeks.  From what I've read, school is closed almost everywhere in the world, certainly almost everywhere in the US.

How's it going?  For us, not well.  Janey is very, very unhappy without school.  

We've wondered, during the last 2 or 3 great years, with this year up until the pandemic hit being the best of all, what was contributing the most to Janey's vastly happier mood.  Was it just her maturing?  Was it something we were doing differently at home?  Had she been in pain somehow, and now wasn't?  Or was it school, school she loved?  I'm sure it was some of all of those, but I think these weeks have shown the biggest part of it was school.  

For Janey, being social and connecting to people has always been one of her strengths.  This is especially the case with adults.  She forms strong connections to the people in her life.  She has special rituals and routines with each person she is close with, ones that are very different for each person but that she never forgets.  She lets people know strongly how important they are to her.  Being suddenly removed for all the people at school she grew so quickly to love very much is tearing her apart.  It's not that she doesn't love us at home, but honestly---what 15 year old would want to spend all their time at home with their parents?  Not Janey.

We're seeing behaviors we haven't seen in a long time.  Janey is biting her arm all the time, something that never has quite gone away but for years has been more like a gesture than an actual bite.  Now it's a bite again.  She is screaming, a lot, the very loud and anguished scream we knew so well but had heard so much less of lately.  She isn't sleeping. Last night she slept almost not at all, she didn't nap today, and at 10:30 at night she's still awake.  Her OCD has kicked into high gear.  She's obsessed with the pillows on her bed---rearranging them, asking for them and then throwing them, wanting us to lie down with her but then insisting we not have a pillow.  She tries to push her brother William out of the room every time she sees him---not that she doesn't like him, but he has become somehow something that needs to arranged also.  She is falling apart in a lot of ways.

And of course, it's nobody's fault.  There is nothing that can be done.  The schools are doing what they can remotely, friends have asked if there is anything they can do to help, we would buy or get anything that would make this easier for her, if there were anything.  There isn't.  We can't recreate school for her---the dance classes, the long bus rides, the morning meetings, the wonderful people who work with her, sing with her, have fun with her.  

There are resources being put out there for all the homebound kids all the time, but as is so often the case, they mostly don't work for someone like Janey.  She doesn't do academic work.  Online learning is not something she can access in any real way.  She has always rejected any time of virtual visual contact---I've tried any time I've been away for a day or two to Facetime her, and she hated it.  We try to follow a routine, but we run out of things to fill the routine with fast.  A big part of her routine at home has always involved things like going to the grocery store, or visiting her uncle in the nursing home near us, or going to the "ice cream store", the nearby 7-11, or other little local trips.  We can't do those safely or at all.  For a while, I was taking Janey with me each day for a walk to the post office.  But she compulsively touches everything---the walls, the lampposts, parked cars---and without literally holding down her hands, she's going to touch her face.  So we do car rides to nowhere or stay home.   

We will get through this, of course.  School will start again in time.  But what scares me is how easily all Janey's progress can dissolve.  I worry about when she turns 22, and is no longer in school.  I worry about budget cuts or administrative decisions that might change her school experience.  I worry the black hole of worries the most---about us as parents not being here on earth to care for her.

And due to some awful articles I saw and had to stop myself from reading, I worry about how society makes judgements when there are limited resources to keep people literally alive.  I worry about medical care that might not be equally available to all.  I worry about all people that are seen as less than.  I think of all the children like Janey I know through this blog, around the world, and I worry so much.  I hope you are all healthy, most of all, and finding ways to get through this. Love to all of you.