September 19, 2017

Enough

Posted in AMT's Faves, Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , at 10:09 am by autismmommytherapist

I still remember the day I knew my autistic son would remain on the severe end of the spectrum.

Justin was five, and in the last few weeks of his pre-school program before he would transition back into district to his hometown public school. I recall going to his classroom for some type of program, the theme of which escapes me, and seeing a little blond haired girl he’d started with almost two years prior who had presented almost exactly like my boy. I remember watching as this young lady used words to get what she wanted, made eye contact with everyone around her, was able to sit still while waiting for the show to begin. She still flapped her hands as she waited, but none of the other stims I’d seen her do when she began school at the tender age of three seemed to have remained with her. She was joyful, talkative, engaged.

She no longer bore any resemblance to my son.

I recall how the realization hit me like a wave, starting in my gut, hitting me hard in my heart and flooding my eyes with tears I had trouble keeping back. My boy had been diagnosed at seventeen months, back when that was unheard of. He’d been in either a thirty hour a week ABA program or full day pre-school for three-and-a-half years. Had he made progress? Absolutely. He had gone from using meltdowns to get his needs met to using the PECS system very successfully to acquire what he wanted. He had finally learned how to sleep through the night (my favorite of all his skill acquisitions). He was eating things that didn’t fall into the carb category, and we’d finally found ourselves able to take him places with varying degrees of success. Potty training had been (mostly) conquered. His life, and by extension, his parents’ lives, were so much easier than those dark days of his infancy when we didn’t know how to make him happy, and his toddler years, where almost every aspect of his life was a struggle.

But still, there was so little eye contact unless it was with us. He still spent a good deal of time unhappy and at odds with the world around him.

There were still no words.

I remember watching the program with an overwhelming sadness, with hope waging a steady war with reality inside my head. Part of me said he was only five, how could I possibly predict the trajectory of his life at such a tender age, particularly when I knew he was bright?

But the truth is, I just knew. After all, I had another autistic child at home who had regressed at twenty-one months, lost all of his words, and had retreated into his own world. Within three months of therapy he was speaking again, and while different from the child we had known before, we watched as every day he made tremendous progress in regaining the skills he had lost, showed an increasing interest each day with the world and the people in it. All of his Early Intervention therapists were amazed at how quickly he progressed, touting him as an “early therapy success story.”

And I remember thinking fiercely as I drove home that day that despite the modest gains Justin had made, I considered him a “success story” too.

I admit, after my realization I mourned again, as I had when he had been diagnosed, and I knew from my prior teaching days exactly what he and our family were in for. I had never wished him off the spectrum- I didn’t believe it was possible frankly, and I had taught plenty of students with mild autism who had wonderful and fulfilling lives. Over time I accepted he would not have the life I had assumed he’d lead- the one with friends, and driving, and college, and sleepovers, and someone to love- and the one that was hardest of all for me, independence.

It’s his inability to lead an independent life that still lays me low today.

Over time, my premonitions about both boys turned out to be right. My youngest is now fully mainstreamed in a non-inclusion class, and shed his 504 this year. He has friends, participates in activities within and outside of school. He talks about his future wife and five kids, and my heart never clenches as I anticipate he will realize that dream someday (hopefully with a well-paying job to go with it).

My gut tells me he will be able to care for himself after I’m dead. For this, I am eternally grateful.

Justin will not. And I know, as I know I will never give up eating chocolate, that I will never get over this aspect of his disorder.

The truth is, I haven’t made my peace with it, and I expect I never will. When I think of the enormous amount of details that go into keeping my now teenaged autistic son happy and the dozens and dozens of people who will be charged with caring for him until his death, I am overwhelmed. The thing is however, his father and I and many, many, many other people have been able to craft a wonderful life for him, the one that he wants, not the one we wanted for him. Justin adores his school. He loves going places for short periods of time, and has a number of locations in his repertoire. He gives me more hugs and kisses than any teenager gives his mother on the entire planet.

My dreams for this level of detail to exist for the forty years he’ll be there without me will probably not be realized- my rational mind knows this.

I haven’t made my peace with having him live on this earth without me, but I have made my peace with this. I’ve let go of what I thought he’d need, and accepted what he does need. He needs his autism school. He needs his mom, his dad, and his little brother. He needs exactly fifteen pretzels nuggets daily to fill his tummy. He needs access to the computer so he can “drive” on the Hertz rent-a-car site (he’s been all over Jersey!).

He needs affection, and hugs, and love.

Don’t we all.

So I’m trying, and I am a work in progress, to dwell in the now, not in the later. My “now” is two ridiculously happy boys on the spectrum, who revel in their lives, one on the severe end, one not. They love school. They have activities that engage them. They relate to and adore their families. Both of them love their pretzels.

They are happy.

And for now, I am trying very hard for that to be enough.

 

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June 27, 2017

Try Something New

Posted in Fun Stuff, Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , at 10:06 am by autismmommytherapist

Ah, so much to share…

We’re in week two of Justin’s first summer hiatus, and there have been regressions and challenges. For the first time in years I’ve had to employ the angel guard on his seatbelt, as he was trying to get out of his seat to rearrange my CDs while I was driving (super fun, I know!). We went back to the days where he’s perseverating on the DVD player by pushing the buttons over and over and over (and over) to the point where the poor thing is going to break. There’s even been a bit of regression with toileting.

I’ll spare you the details on that one.

But throughout the chaos, there’s been light too.

About four months ago I got the crazy idea that Justin should try two new camps this summer. The truth is over the last five or six years Justin has not been big on trying new things. I am grateful that early on we got him out to places, because I believe that only since they’re now in his repertoire he enjoys time at the beach, Great Adventure, the boardwalks, and a few other locations, even if they’re for minimal amounts of time. To be fair in the last few years options for taking him places have dried up, so there haven’t been many opportunities to stretch him.

But then I heard about these two camps, which coincided with finding out his current camps weren’t running this year. So his momma decided to go for it.

The one camp I wasn’t too worried about was his week of horseback riding, although I knew it would be with totally different people and in a different location from his usual Saturday stint. His first day he hugged me really hard when I said goodbye, but I just knew it would be okay, that he’d acclimate.

He loved it, and they loved him.

Our second attempt into camp world gave me more hesitation. Its activities included soccer, stretching, arts and crafts, all things Justin has traditionally shunned since he turned five. I wasn’t sure he wouldn’t be clutching his aide and plaintively saying “Mama” in an effort to be saved from yoga, but again, he surprised me. They told me he participated in everything, that he loved it.

And again, they loved him and were disappointed I’d only put him in for two days.

Justin is fourteen now, and entering his transition phase. In seven short years (and I’ve been told they go fast) he will be graduating high school, headed for the big unknown. I don’t know what the future will bring for him, if I will be able to find a good day program for him, maybe a small job, eventually a place to live.

But I do know this.

No matter what his adult life entails, he will be asked to try new things, to go to new places, to adjust his routine and acclimate. He will be pushed and stretched to accept a new life, one that does not include his school, or one day living at home with his family.

And the best way I can help him to do that is to push him to stretch his limits now.

So I will continue to do this, even if the paperwork kills me (try applying for a Performcare aide, I dare you.) I will take chances for him, make the zillion appropriate phone calls, fill out the twenty page applications (by hand of course!) and keep trying to give him opportunities to grow. He deserves the most full and rewarding life possible.

And I’m going to do everything I can to see he gets it.

For more on my family visit my blog at autismmommytherapist.wordpress.com

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May 1, 2017

The Weight of It

Posted in AMT's Faves, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , at 2:13 pm by autismmommytherapist

Today we ran into each other at the grocery store. We don’t know each other well, but our kids have been in the same class together several years now, and once we were very compatible room mothers. We chat about our kids (of course), their school, how fast summer is approaching. It’s the obligatory two to three minutes of conversation, but truth be told we both like each other, and despite our long list of things to accomplish that day we’re happy to have seen one another.

I think in another lifetime we would have been friends. Hell, I like your daughter so much had she been born thirty years earlier we would have been friends too.

I have lots of acquaintanceships and friendships after living here more than a decade now. A number of my relationships have a great deal more depth to them (my cub scout wife comes to mind, thank God she volunteered to “be prepared” too), and a handful of them are moms to autistic kids as well. I made sure to make friends with moms of kids in both the severe and mild camps, as frankly while I know it’s a spectrum (who doesn’t now) my kids’ “autisms” present as totally different entities, with so little crossover to call them both just “autistic” is laughable.

Okay, I’m not laughing, but you know what I mean.

The truth is, I really only unburden myself to the other autism mommies, in part because to explain what’s really going on at home would take a lot more time than two to three minutes (understatement of the century), and in part because I need the people I vent to to just “get it.” My mommy friends of “high-functioning “ (a label I hate) kids get my angst when my youngest has a friend issue or has decided he’ll never take care of his older brother when he’s older because he’s too much work (which I really, really get, but one can have hope). My “low-functioning” (another label I hate) mommy friends talk me off the ledge when I talk about sleep deprivation/potty issues/ his overwhelming need to hide my keys twelve times a day and know just to listen and not suggest anything, because I’ve been on the autism rodeo for fourteen years, and damned if there isn’t anything left to try.

Believe me, I’m A type. I’m thorough.

I know, my grocery store friend, we see each other fairly often. I’m the one in the decent-looking blue t-shirt after school trying to interest seven boys in a scouting program that just got with the twenty-first century. I’m at PTA meetings (although I’ve backslided this year). I volunteer at school for various events I’m not sure my son cares if I attend anymore (he says he does, but perhaps he just knows how to work his mom). I usually have a smile on my face (I once won a scouting award which touted I was “Kim Happy Clown McCafferty,” which was accurate on so many levels it was uncanny.) I look happy. I am happy.

But there’s this too.

I won’t even attempt to speak for other parents of autistic children here. There’s not just a spectrum for our kids, there’s one for the parents as well. I have read essays and even met parents of severely autistic children who literally wouldn’t change a thing about their kids because they believe it might change the core of who they are. I have read pieces by and met parents of severely affected kids who would do anything for a cure, who would get them to take that magic pill no matter how many pill-swallowing programs their kid had to attend to get that damn magic down their gullet. For the record, I’m somewhere in between “autism is unicorns and rainbows” and “suck it out of him.”

Where I am on that spectrum depends on the day. Hell, sometimes it depends on the minute.

The truth is I vacillate on many things that affect my beautiful, severely affected teen-aged boy. There are some days I am deeply sad about my boy never attending college, getting married, or driving a car (okay, maybe not that one so much). Some days my rational mind tells me he doesn’t think about these things (yes, I presume competence, no, a child still entranced by Baby Einstein in puberty is not worrying about his ACT scores) and is mostly happy with his life, and I should just be grateful for that.

And I am. And despite the accompanying OCD that often threatens the fragile harmony of our family he is happy and thriving. It’s just that when things disappear constantly on his fifty-year-old mother who desperately needs visual cues, sometimes I am not.

Autism mostly happens to the individual who has it, but it happens to the rest of the family too.

If I’m being perfectly honest with you dear acquaintance, I function, I present that smiling countenance to the world because I compartmentalize. You see, my son’s age and impending adult have arrived, and that “future thing” I put on the shelf because I was trying to get him to pee in the potty for a year-and-a-half has come to call. This fall will be his first transition IEP, and while I know his amazing, “Disney World-esque school” (I know it’s not a word but it should be) will do their best by my boy, the reality of post twenty-one is scary as hell.

The truth is, contemplating his future, is, well, impossible. You see, even if his dad and I can figure out something worthwhile and safe for him most days after twenty-one; even if we can find a safe residence he’ll actually stay in when technically he’s old enough to drink; even if we can fashion a world that will never be as wonderful to him as his school placement but will hopefully keep him happy enough the problem is, his dad and I will die.

And planner that I am, even I can’t get out of this one.

I am confident that his little brother will play some role in his care-keeping, even if it doesn’t involve living with him. His cousins are close enough to his age I’m sure they will check in on him as hubbie and I approach our dotage, and will do so after our deaths. I’m hopeful I can figure out what the hell to do with him, as the “group home versus “buy a place with our last dime and staff it” options are a constant melody in my mind. Frankly, I mostly block out the statistics on his chances of being sexually assaulted or left in a van to die (and no, I’m not being dramatic) because these issues are too painful to contemplate, and even I can’t help him from beyond the grave.

But damn, I’d give it my best try.

The truth is, the weight of his future world is always there. It’s there when I slink into the back of a PTA meeting fifteen minutes late because I had to help my husband get my son upstairs for bed. It’s there when I’m hoping for forty-five minutes of solitude at my youngest’s karate class because that afternoon was soul-grindingly hard. It’s there when things are actually good and I’m just directing kids through an obstacle course at field day.

It’s there when I run into you in the produce section, the products of which are still considered an abomination by both my kids.

That weight, that tangible weight, is always there, no matter how deep my smile, or if I remembered your name. Please know that’s why I might have forgotten what you do for a living, or why I halved my volunteer services this year because I’m just too damn tired. Despite the beautiful, vindicating, soul-strengthening moments I have with my family, that weight, that uncertainty, that impossibility, is always there too.

So please, just know.

 

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May 23, 2016

Spinning

Posted in AMT's Faves, Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , at 11:51 am by autismmommytherapist

Justin BD 2016 Scouts 003

My head is spinning.

I’d like to tell you it’s for a fun reason, like when I used to be able to stay out late in my glory days (I remember them fondly). To tell you the truth my brain is literally pulsing with information, ideas, and choices.

If I’m honest, it’s mostly the choices throwing me for a loop.

I just finished reading Susan Senator’s “Autism Adulthood,” and while I’m contemplating the enormous amount of information within her tome (so much of it positive I’m happy to say), I’m also coming to terms with the fact that next week I’m the mother of a teenager.

Of course, that’s a sobering thought all by itself. Couple that with being the mom of a severely disabled teenager who will need lifetime care, and my chocolate stash is far from being safe.

Justin’s adulthood is creeping up on me, and believe it or not I feel blindsided as just yesterday we were conquering sleep issues and potty training, and it seems incomprehensible to me that he’s almost thirteen. Yes, he’s got eight more years of school before he’s in the real world, and officially “transition” and all it encompasses doesn’t start until he’s twenty-one, but his adult life is coming.

Like winter, it’s coming.

I would love to tell you I have a plan, although to be honest, my motherhood plans have more often than not deferred to “plan B” over the past decade. It’s not as if my husband and I haven’t been faced with big choices since our eldest’s diagnosis. One of our first dilemmas involved breaking into our savings to shell out four figures a month for our son’s ABA program which wasn’t covered at the time in Virginia, a decision we continue to be grateful we made. When we were faced with the fact that our school district’s autism program was good but would never provide him the one-on-one aide we felt he desperately needed for his academics, we made the decision to leave DC and relocate to Jersey which we’ve never regretted either (although we still miss our nation’s capitol to this day.)

We’ve known when to fire therapists, and when to try to keep people in our retinue at all costs. There’ve been med choices and school choices and “do we try this therapy even though it’s not covered” choices (oh my!), but I have to say most of the time Jeff and I knew what to do. Very rarely have we looked back and wished we’d taken the road less traveled.

And yet when it comes to Justin’s living/day-time arrangements post-21, I am literally in a quandary that even dark chocolate doesn’t seem to help.

I will preface what I’m about to say with the fact that eight years out I certainly don’t know what my options will be, and since the adult autism landscape seems to improve at least a bit every year I’m hopeful I will actually have choices in 2024, but we’ll see. Again, even my best-laid plans won’t come to fruition if there aren’t good programs and residential services, and equally importantly, openings.

But even if I one day have a smorgasbord of options (yes, I relate everything to food) at least at this point I’m just not sure what will be best for our son, and what’s best for us.

I’ve had the good fortune over the last few years to watch friends and acquaintances create post-twenty-one lives for their adult children, and I’ve seen all different scenarios come to life. One family I know has kept both their children home and have all-day care almost seven days a week, which enables my friend to work and have a modicum of freedom in her life. I’ve seen another friend place their child in a residential setting where he is finishing his schooling and absolutely thriving after having made a wonderful transition, seeing his parents frequently and seemingly loving his life.

One thing I’ve learned for sure with autism- it’s important to keep your mind open.

I know there will be immeasurable growth with Justin over the next eight years. He is a completely different child than he was at five, spends most of his days joyful, is very close to my husband and me. Honestly, except for his OCD moments and his frequent desire to not stay anywhere outside of our home for more than fifty-three minutes he is delightful. As the years have passed we’ve watched our lives grow easier, our ability to make our own choices grow, and his happiness with his life increase.

Amen to that.

And maybe I should table all this contemplation for a few years, but it’s not in my nature to do so, so here I am. If I’m really honest it’s the decades he’s here without me that are the most painful, and in truth I’ve shelved thinking about them in part because they’re not here yet, and in part because they haven’t invented that damn aging pill yet that lets me get to 110 with all (or most) of my faculties.

Here’s hoping.

So most of the time I choose to focus on the years I’ll still be here, guiding his life, hopefully providing a plan for him where he is as happy as he is now with school and living with us.

And here’s where I get stuck, because I’m not sure if what’s best for Justin is what’s best for us.

Jeff and I are both fiercely independent people. Honestly, one of the hardest parts of parenting for us was not the sleep deprivation (although that sucked too) but the loss of freedom one eight pounds of glory bundle presented us with thirteen years ago. When I think of retirement I imagine travel, and having those stay-in-bed days I lived for back in my youth. I can’t imagine worrying if my babysitter will bail when I want to go see colleges with my younger son, or go to my niece’s wedding.

I can’t imagine one day just not being able to do whatever the hell I want again. I really liked those days.

But as I think of this scenario I look at my boy, and I know people will say I shouldn’t speak for him, but I can’t ask him this, so I just have to guess. I know in my heart he’d want to stay with us forever, would be perfectly happy to go to his school until he was an octogenarian, loves the routine he craves that we’ve provided for him. He will not be a fan of day programs, and since Great Adventure isn’t open every day of the year I see long stretches of “sameness,” of a lack of stimulation and a lack of just something to damn do that I can’t figure out how I’ll provide for him.

Just in case you think we don’t think out of the box we’ve contemplated Hawaii which supposedly has fabulous adult services. Justin could spend his forty-three minutes at the beach and ride his horses daily, and Jeff and I could live in paradise.

I figure we’d be very popular with friends and family.

The truth is I just don’t know what’s best for all of us. I struggle, because I know that by potentially putting him in different settings the people who care for him won’t always know what he needs the way his mom and dad do, but I also know he will have to deal with that eventuality someday.

So when is it best to start?

Will I know what to do?

Will my expectations and hopes match my options?

Will Justin approve?

Wherever he is, will he be loved at least a little?

And as I pop that last allotted chocolate into my mouth, my head is still spinning.

 

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