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Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The Question

 A few weeks ago, I had my 5th bout of diverticulitis in 3 years, and this time, went to the emergency room, as it had been only 3 weeks since the last bout (and only about a week since finishing antibiotics for that bout).  To my surprise, I wound up being admitted.  I've never spent a night in a hospital for my own illness except for being born and having my three kids.  It was eye-opening!  I don't know if any other mother of a child with special needs has had the silly fantasy I've had, of a couple days rest in a hospital bed, guilt-free because you don't WANT to be there, but HAVE to be there.  At some of the toughest moments of parenting, I've thought about how I could lay there, get food delivered to my bed, read, relax and not feel like I was being a bad mother being away from Janey.  Well, as I imagine most anyone who has actually spent sick time in a hospital knows, that was a pretty deluded fantasy.  I was in a double room, slept not at all due to a roommate who was having a lot of night issues which involved pain and screaming and yelling at nurses.  I couldn't eat at all, due to my illness. I didn't read a bit, due to being anxious and also having a coffee withdrawal migraine that just about did me, and I felt guilty being away even under the circumstances.  I stayed two nights, and was very happy to come home when I did, on heavy antibiotics and with an appointment to discuss possible surgery for my diagnosis, smoldering diverticulitis, a rare form of diverticulitis that never really goes away despite treatment, except if you just cut out the sections that have it.

I'm okay for now, but what looking  back hits me the hardest about the whole experience is the question I was asked by a doctor as I was being admitted.  I should have seen it coming---I know it's something they ask, but I didn't.  After going over my medical history, medications, stuff like, the doctor said "Now I'm going to ask you something else.  If something unforeseen and tragic were to happen, and you were dying, would you want everything done to keep you alive?"

I was thrown for a loop for a minute.  I just didn't know what to say.  After thinking a bit, I started on a long, rambling speech about how of course if I were brain dead and had no hope of conscious life again, or if I were going to need life support forever....those kind of provisos.  But she said (and I don't think this lady had the greatest bedside manner) "We are asking it more like a yes or no question".  And so I said, before I thought about it more, "Yes!  Revive me!  I have a 16 year old daughter with severe autism and I have to live forever!"  She answered "That sounds very reasonable", probably taken aback by my lack of basic knowledge of the inevitability of death.

And of course, in the moment, I meant it.  I've thought, as we all have, about how someday my children will hopefully outlive me.  But to think of it concretely, as a question like that, not that it was probably going to come up from that hospital visit, but thinking of it as something that COULD happen---wow.  It's a scary, scary thought.  

It was interesting how Janey reacted to my being in the hospital.  I've gone away for close to a week at a time before, to visit my parents in Maine, and I plan to go again this June, but those times, I prepared Janey well in advance.  I talked to her a lot about when I would be leaving and when I would come back.  This time, she came home from school on a Monday and I wasn't there.  She knew I was in the hospital, and I think she probably related that to when she herself was in the hospital, for something far more serious.  I think she was scared, although she really couldn't express that.  When I got home, she clung to me for a few days---something she almost never does.  I talked to her about what happened, reassured her I felt better, told her I didn't think I'd have to go back to the hospital soon but that if I did, I'd be home again after that soon---all that.  But with Janey, we never really know what she understands.  

Lately, we've noticed Janey is quicker to burst into tears over things.  Sometimes we have no idea what is up, but often, it's when she overhears us talking about anything even slightly upsetting.  I don't know if she reads our tones or understands or words or a combination of both, but she certainly is affected by what is said around her more and more.  She gets over this tears pretty quickly, and that kind of emotional up and downs is certainly something not foreign to any teenage girl, but unlike most of those girls, it's very hard for her to understand degrees of seriousness, to be reassured by reason and facts.  She lives in the present.  Even telling her we'll give her a car ride in a few hours or that school will be back after a vacation is more than I think she really can grasp.  We explain and reassure anyway, because we really don't know exactly what she does get, but it breaks my heart to think of her scared by her lack of understanding.

Before I was admitted, while I was in the emergency room, there was a woman a few beds down.  I never saw her, as there were curtains up, but I certainly heard her.  She screamed almost non-stop, for four hours.  At first I wasn't sure she was verbal, but then at a few points she stopped to ask for specific painkillers, and from the nurse's not quiet talk outside my curtain, I gathered she was seeking drugs.  But there was more going on than that, and I heard a nurse talking to a supervisor at her group home.  I don't know her story, of course, but of course, I thought of Janey.  I thought of her in pain, being brought to a hospital unable to communicate.  There didn't seem to be a lot of sympathy or caring for that woman, which I guess I can get---her screaming was pretty loud, and she was doing other things like making herself throw up and lashing out.  But still---I drew parallels, ones that might not be there, to Janey, to those who for so many reasons are not in the mainstream of society, who can't advocate effectively for themselves, who will always be dependent on others.  And that certainly added to the kick in the heart that I felt a few hours later when asked about my own mortality.  I have to live forever.  Janey, I wish I could.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Bison, The Scorpion and The Mystery

Janey watches certain videos on YouTube over and over and over and over. She has become very attached to my old decommissioned iPhone, and like many teenagers, has it by her side almost all the time. Her favorite video right now is a Cocomelon one, and if you don't know what Cocomelon is, you are lucky. Their videos feature a too good to be true family, especially the youngest, a strange looking toddler called JJ. JJ goes to an extremely fancy preschool---they go skiing, get tap dance in a studio, go on a submarine and learn to surf. In the video we hear all day every day, it's the Winter Show and Tell time, told about to a tune that is sort of like The Twelve Days of Christmas, but not exactly. JJ has forgotten his project, and his mother is going to bring it later. I wish I didn't know any of that. I am tortured by the video from start to finish. But I also generally believe in letting Janey pick on her own what she watches, and I've read much from others with autism saying that watching the same thing over and over can be very comforting. So...most of the time I just try to ignore it.

 One afternoon, however, I was at my wit's end. I took the iPhone and insisted on a break, and quickly, to try to keep Janey occupied, grabbed my laptop and looked for something she might like. I found for some reason an animal quiz, showing pictures of various animals to identify. The first one was a bison. I didn't think Janey would know what a bison was, and I was right. But what she called it was what really blew my mind. She looked at it for a minute and said "That's a scorpion" The bison in question had horns that folded back on themselves. Looked at close up, the horns looked exactly like the tail of a scorpion. 

 So many questions raced into my mind. How in the world did Janey know what a scorpion was? Why did she focus in on that part of the picture and make the connection? And how did she come up with the word "scorpion", when often she has a very hard time giving the correct name to the correct one of her two brothers, when her talking is so very limited, when she watches a mind-numbingly dull video hour after hour? How the heck does her mind work? What does it feel like to be her?

 I've wondered these things for many years, of course, but lately, it's hitting me more. A lot of it is the fear that Janey is bored out of her mind a lot of the time. It's not like we don't try to expand what she does. The house is full of books and toys, and I try very hard to engage her with them. We take her for multiple rides a day (the only other activity besides the videos she asked for much). We would jump on absolutely any interest she showed and go with it as far as we could. But she is hugely resistant to anything but the videos and car rides.

 It would almost be easier to think that her mind isn't full of knowledge. It truly bothers me to think of all she knows that never gets shown or used. I think about how I'd feel watching the same thing over and over, and I think I'd truly feel like I couldn't take it. I want Janey's life to be full and interesting. So what do I do? And why does it take what almost feels like a party trick to get Janey to let us know what she knows? We've figured out when she really wants a car ride, and we aren't ready to go, she'll answer almost anything we ask, somehow hoping that it's part of the routine to get us going. We don't say that, and we would never force her to answer questions to get to do something she wanted, but still, it can be interesting. Today, in that situation, she gave her phone number, her address, her full name, and when we asked "What planet do we live on?" she confidently answered "Jupiter!" How does she know that's a planet? How is she able to easily recite a 10 digit phone number but not always her name? How can I help her use her intelligence and knowledge to have a life with more variety? What can I do? What does she WANT me to do?

 I'm mostly ignoring Autism Awareness or Acceptance or whatever month. I am as aware of autism as I can be, and I fully accept Janey's autism, and I can't do much about anyone else but myself. But what I really want is to UNDERSTAND Janey. What is her mind like? I wish that there were more studies of kids like Janey, not just those kids with autism that can speak for themselves. I think it's vitally important that Janey and her peers, those with severe autism, with non-verbal or low verbal autism, be understood, that we know how they think so we can help them live their best lives. It means more than anything to me to be able to give Janey the best life possible, but in so many ways, after all these years, she's still a mystery to me.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Cabin fever for a year

 I woke up this morning and thought "Great---another day".  That's not a positive thought, and of course right away I told myself that I shouldn't feel that way, that just being alive and in a warm house and with food and health care and a family around me should be enough.  And it should, and I know that, but boy, is this endless pandemic making life with a teenager with autism tough.

Janey hasn't been happy.  School is complicated and off and on, but hopefully she'll be going more regularly soon.  However, this past week was vacation week.  Which did make us all laugh a bit, and brought up the inevitable line "vacation from what?"  In addition, it snowed off and on for days, never a blockbuster storm but enough so that to get out of the house required shoveling, and that any outdoor activities were not really possible.  Janey is bored.  She has had a life that's been incredibly limited for the past year.  We all have, but she has far less resources to keep herself happy and entertained.  She has no interest in toys, no hobbies, no ability to text friends or video chat or do crafts or cook or do just about anything that could keep a teenager happy when stuck inside the house for a year in a row.  We try, of course.  But even trying something as small as getting her to watch a different movie or TV show results in screaming, in arm biting, in anger. 

The list of what Janey likes to do at home is very, very limited.  She likes to eat, to watch a very small list of shows and movies on her iPad or on TV, she likes to have Tony take her for a car ride and she likes to snuggle on her bed.  Except for the endlessly repeated viewings of Toy Story 2 and 4, the activities require our help. 

Snuggling is a ritual---we have to stop whatever we are doing, go to her bed with her, watch as she puts a blanket over herself (getting her to do that on her own took months of work) and then lie down next to her.  We are supposed to stay there for about 30 seconds, then she has us get up.  About 5 minutes later, she gets up herself and it all gets repeated.  If we refuse to snuggle, she gets hysterical, screams, bites her arm, pulls our arms, cries...and it lasts however long we refuse.  If we refuse all day, it lasts all day.  Needless to say, we give in after a while.  It seems like a small thing, but it makes it impossible to do anything without constantly getting up and completing her ritual.  

Car rides---her favorite thing on earth.  Every morning, from the second she wakes up, she asks for a car ride.  She mixes thing up a little by asking sometimes for "clothes on" (whether her clothes are on or not) or "shoes on" or "jacket on".  We explain, as patiently as possible, why a car ride can't happen that very second.  Perhaps it's because it's 2 in the morning, or because the car is covered with a foot of snow, or because we just got back from a two hour car rides and we are exhausted.  No reason works, of course.  If she wants a car ride, she wants a car ride.  The car rides are rides to nowhere, rides around routes Tony has figured out over the years.  They listen to music, which depending on Janey's mood has to either be the same songs over and over or each song quickly advanced to the next song when she says "Music, please!"  In a pattern that you might notice, if we refuse, there is screaming, arm biting, hysteria---not always safe in the car.

Eating---Janey loves to eat.  Luckily, Tony loves to cook, and he's wonderful with her eating.  She eats a great variety of foods, mostly healthy. But her greatest love is salami.  She eats salami completely without a stop button.  We usually get her some good salami every day---we are trying to get only ones without a lot of additives or MSG or dyes or so on, and they are pricey.  But one salami pack never makes her happy, and much of the day is spent hearing her ask for salami, us telling her we are out of salami, her going to the fridge to rummage and see if we are lying about that (we aren't), her being angry there is no more get the picture.

And TV watching.  Janey used to watch more of a variety of shows, but this past year, she watches mostly Toy Story 2 or Toy Story 4.  We know them both by heart.  We are so tired of them we can barely take it.  Occasionally we can kind of force another show---sometimes Courage the Cowardly Dog, Penguins of Madagascar, Angelina Ballerina, Kipper, Coco---but those are being seen less and less.  If anyone monitors our Disney Plus viewing, they must be truly confused as to why anyone would need to watch Toy Story pretty much around the clock.

A pretty good movie, but boy, are we sick of it

We try hard to make Janey's life more interesting.  We try to dance with her, read to her, play toys with her, have her help us with things like snow shoveling or laundry or sweeping the floor.  We can, with much trial, get her to do these things for maybe two or three minutes.  Then she is done, and nothing on earth can make her do them longer.  

In normal times, we are able to mix things up.  There is school, there are car rides that actually go someplace, there is outdoors, even if she holds a device for watching her shows, there are stores we take her into, there are trips and there are visits and there is just regular life, or regular life pre-pandemic.  But the year of not being able to do these regular things has resulted in Janey doubling down on the things that feel safe and familiar and comforting to her.  I truly worry that it will take a very, very long time to get her back to where she was a year ago, if we ever, ever do.

The toll on Tony and me---the noble, long-suffering, perfect autism parent model I sometimes feel we are all expected to follow tells me that shouldn't matter.  But the truth is---we are not doing well.  We are really not doing well.  We are a mixture of bored and frustrated and tired and concerned and overwhelmed.  This feels endless, and at times, impossible.

Schools reopening, slowly, will be a help. The vaccine distribution, glacially slow and poorly done here in Massachusetts, will be a help if it ever gets going.  People doing whatever needs to be done to get this mess under control will be a help.  But I feel for the long term consequences.  I fear for all the Janeys in the world.  I fear that it will take many years to recover from this horrible year.  I am fighting my impulse to be hopeful and positive, to say I think some good will come of all this, to soften what I am really feeling, but I won't.  I will just say I hope you are all holding on, and healthy, and that you know you aren't alone.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

All the tough decisions---autism life in a COVID world

As the months go by and we are still living in this endless COVID bad dream, I suspect all of us living lives affected by autism are starting to feel the strain increase.  It's not at all easy for anyone, but for kids like Janey, and families like ours and so many of yours, it's a special kind of tough.

Starting with the new year, it seemed, Janey got more challenging.  We all did.  It's been a long, long haul, and it's winter, and the cases were increasing, and we all had been stuck together as a family for far longer than is mentally healthy.  The biggest issue was sleep.  Janey's sleep started a pattern of one night okay, one night with either a very late going to sleep time or a very early waking up time, and then one night of absolutely no sleep.  And although we did our bests to catnap while she was awake, or to sleep well on the nights she did, that kind of sleep  We were snapping at each other, constantly tense, really not doing well.  

Janey, in trying to cope, I think, was developing some quite repetitive routines.  One was watching Toy Story 4, and sometimes Toy Story 2, over and over and over.  The other shows and movies she used to like weren't being watched at all.  And not even all of the two Toy Stories were, just certain scenes, repeated time after time.  And while watching them, Janey would laugh, that laugh I think you all know, an insane sounding loud almost humorless laugh, a fake kind of high decibel laugh.  The nights she stayed awake all night would feature that laugh off and on for hours up on hours.

We kept trying, as we have been, to do school at home.  We do the morning meeting, at 8, for which Janey showed varying levels of engagement, and then video lessons such as books with a theme for the week or lessons like a great one her teachers have developed about body awareness and pain.  When we can catch her in the right mood, she'll listen with interest and answer questions, but other times, she simply screams at the top of her lungs at the very mention of the classes.  We resorted to making the lessons a requirement before car rides or other fun times.  That's not how I want school to be for her, some kind of chore.  And that's never how it has been.  None of this is the fault of her teachers, who are doing a hero's job of it all in the midst of impossible challenges.  It's that remote learning is not how Janey learns, and I don't think it ever will be.

With all this, we decided after huge family debate to request that Janey go back to school, which supposedly was available for kids of her level of disability.  We had turned down what was called the hybrid model of learning before, where she would have been able to go to school 4 days a week.  I thought this was a reversible decision, and that by requesting she switch out of remote, she'd be quickly able to return to school.  Well, I should have known better, as in one of the hugely contrasts that exist, the difference between the fantastic teachers in Boston and the (I won't use some of the words I'd like to use here) middle and upper level central administration of Boston, the admin people showed their colors again, and it seemed somehow either impossible or incredibly complicated to switch her model.  Meanwhile, somehow there was supposed to be a switch for most special needs kids to in person on February 1st, but in one of the many conflicting and complicated emails I got, we were told since Janey was in the highest needs level and we had before requested remote learning for her, now that those with less severe needs were going to be able to go back, our previous decision to be remote had to stand, unless we did some complicated other form and (presumably) prayed it worked.  If you are confused, so am I.

However, Janey's teacher and I had the idea that perhaps Janey could go to school for one day, or one day a week, for state testing she had to have.  Even just one day was such a thrill for all of us to think of.  So a week ago Thursday, Janey went to school for a day.  She had a wonderful day.  We had a wonderful day at home.  The effects of that one day, even, last for days and days---better sleep, better toilet use, better moods, and Tony and I, after 10 full months of absolutely zero respite, had about 4 hours to ourselves between driving her in and picking her up.

Part of the day at school was a COVID test.  Janey wasn't excited about the prospect, and resisted at first, but her teacher told her that after the nurse "tickled her nose", she could have a lot of salami.  Brilliant!  She gave Janey a minute, asked her if she was ready, Janey said yes, and the test was taken successfully.

That first week's test was negative. We took Janey to school again last Thursday, so happily.  I especially needed a break.  Midweek I had developed diverticulitis for the third time in three years, with a fever and lots of pain, and a remote appointment and antibiotics and warnings of what signs to go to the ER immediately if I got.  Janey was tested again that day.

Saturday morning Janey's teacher called us to say that the pooled test, where Janey and one other child's COVID tests were combined together and tested, were positive.  Either Janey had COVID, or the other child did, or both of them did.  The school nurse called me a few minutes later (her teacher called me first to tell me in person, which I so much appreciated)  She went over the next steps, which was to get Janey her own COVID test.  

We are getting Janey's test today.  And I'll just note here, when mayors and governors and so on urge testing, well, could they make it a little damn easier to get a test, even in a situation like this where there is more than just an exposure, where there is a 50% chance Janey has the virus?  Can they make it so you don't have to call around for hours and EXPLAIN to the nurse you finally talk to what pooled testing even is, and hear her say "I've never heard of that! That's stupid!  I don't understand why they would do that!" and then act like saying Janey could get a test is some kind of huge favor, and then asking me "Will she even cooperate with the test?"  

Janey has a few mild symptoms which might or might not be significant.  A few nights ago she was coughing a bit, and she had some diarrhea, which is rare for her.  But yesterday and today she seems perfectly healthy and happy.  And thankfully, the rest of us don't show any signs so far.  But still, of course, we have to quarantine, and in fact, the whole high school is going to have to go fully remote (although only about 20 kids weren't remote)  So, for now, our plans of having Janey go to school in person again are at the very least on hold for a while.

I don't have a strong conclusion here.  Were we wrong to send Janey in for those two days?  My older son strongly, strongly feels we were, and maybe he's right.  But as I told him, he hadn't been up night after night with Janey.  He wasn't the one responsible for keeping her together day after week after month, or for trying to get her to access an education in a way she didn't want to and couldn't seem to, she wasn't the one without one second of respite from a very high needs child for literally almost a year.  We want Janey to learn, to be with friends, to have fun, to get the benefits of the wonderful teachers and aides and therapists that are there for her.  But of course we also want to be well.  And you can't really be mad at a virus.  It's doing what all of us are doing---trying to stay alive and go on.  

I'll try to keep this blog updated on Janey's test results.  I hope you all are hanging in there.  Please know you aren't alone during these long months.  There's a lot of us out there living this life.  Whatever decisions you make about schooling, know that you are doing the best you can in your situation.  And join me in hoping that a year from now, this will be part of history.  Please.