December 7, 2012

I Spy

Posted in Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , at 12:19 pm by autismmommytherapist

Fall 2012 093

His grainy image scrolls in and out on the screen as his wonderful case manager attempts to secure such modern technology (this is a new device for me, as baby monitors with video were not the in thing when Justin was born), and finally, she triumphs. I see my smallest son come into focus, sitting compliantly at his table, listening to and executing instructions with ease.

Zach has no idea he’s being watched, is oblivious as the camera picks up his every move and sends it out to me. I smile to see him so engaged in his center’s activity, am curious to see how his transition will go to the next one. I am securely ensconced in the hallway, because if he knew I was watching him, it would be game over. I am excited, because this is the first time I’ve even seen one of my kids in “education action”.

Fingers are crossed it goes well.

I know that his case manager is often in his classroom checking up on him and her other charges, so I ask her if this behavioral shapshot is fairly representative of his overall behavior, and she says it is. I turn back to the monitor and watch as he nonchalantly finishes his work and moves to the next area with ease, ready to accomplish his next task.

He does this without drama or fanfare (a rarity in our household as often I feel we live on Broadway), even brings out some dance moves as he finishes early, obviously needing to burn off steam before the next round of activities.

In my thirty minutes of spying I watch him initiate conversation and follow through with two different children. I am pleased to see one of his teachers differentiate instruction in reading, as Zach is way past “identify this sight word”, and needs to be instructed in that area with “real” books. I notice how immersed he is in each task set before him, witness that small smile of pride as he basks in the verbal praise he receives.

It’s clear that Zach is happy here. He’s being challenged appropriately. I’ve been able to score several playdates with him, and he’s making friends, a skillset I’m noticing has carried over to the classroom.

My boy is happy.

I think back to the summer, when for a large part of his educational hiatus I wondered if we’d ever get to this point. Every time I turned around there seemed to be a tantrum, an argument, or just extreme crankiness (and these were exhibited in places where he was supposedly having a good time). As much as I love this child, I’d have to say I was embroiled in extreme parenting this summer with him, trying to walk the line between latitude for so many changes (new impending school, new camp), and not letting his manners run amok.

I wish I would have known this was possible (I have yet to relinquish my desire both to know and alter the future), and am grateful we’ve reached this mecca. He’s thriving. One might say, and it’s a phrase often bandied about in education, that he mostly appears “indistinguishable from his peers”.

And while I hope he continues to grow here, to soak up all the knowledge and social cues and praise so integral to his progress, I also hope he remains his unique and singular self. Zach’s a child equally at home with wielding a sword or spending an hour entrenched in poring through Ranger Rick magazines that remain way beyond his reading level.

He asks questions about exoskeletons, which are immediately followed by a query about my happiness as the sole female in the house. My youngest child is generally exuberant and inquisitive, as well as impulsive. I never want to drench his fire just so he can meld into the crowd.

I hope he’ll continue to wield those dance moves with impunity.

After half an hour I feel we’ve seen enough, and together my co-spy and I close up shop. I thank her for the experience, and wend my way through the long corridors back to where I think the main office is located, and contemplate the rest of my morning before my son returns home. As I head toward my car my thoughts turn toward Zach, to all that today’s “show” promises for him. Happy. Engaged. Still himself.

It’s all I can ask for.

November 23, 2012


Posted in Fun Stuff, Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , at 3:06 pm by autismmommytherapist

“You’re here, I didn’t even see you!” Zach yells across the room, as I enter the colorful and organized domain of my son’s kindergarten classroom. I smile and reply “yes, Zach, I made it”, as if there’s any other place I would be on the day I get to read a story to my son and his classmates. Since it’s late October I even have the bonus of being able to wear Halloween attire (just a shirt, I’m not going completely overboard), and of course our reading fare is spooky-themed. I tuck my purse into the corner and watch as my boy’s wonderful kindergarten teacher settles twentysomething whirling dervishes on the large “morning circle” rug, then take my seat with material in hand.

I immediately have flashbacks to my teaching days (the good kind).

Zach is told he may sit next to me in my “seat of honor” perch, and I can see  as he slides into his chair that he’s almost vibrating out of his little body with excitement. Before I settle him down a bit I make a mental note to remember this moment when he’s fourteen, and I transform into just his ‘stupid mom’. I begin speaking to the class, although the little bugger has already stolen my thunder a bit by telling all of his friends that I used to be a teacher (although once a teacher, always a teacher).

I forge on ahead anyway with my introductory spiel, and I watch as at least half the children’s eyes grow wide at my confession, particularly when I share that my students’ ages were in the double digits. They listen raptly, and I realize I’ve come to have a greater appreciation for the younger set, one I truly only developed after having my own children.

My rule about only instructing kids who are old enough to get my jokes remains. I still have my limits.

I begin reading “Room on the Broom”, one of Zach’s favorites that he knows inside and out, and I can literally see my son struggle to contain his emotions, he is so enthusiastic about my presence. I remind myself that this is still a vast improvement from his pre-school days, where as soon as he spotted me in any audience he’d well up with tears, then cry unabashedly when I left (a situation usually rectified as soon as he had a snack).

Today however this experience for him is just pure, unadulterated joy, with his desire to merge his most important worlds of parents and school just slightly overwhelming him. In an effort to help calm him a bit I quickly request permission to allow him to help me read our ghostly literature, and thankfully his teacher complies. And after at least a dozen interruptions, several “Boos!” and multiple unauthorized trips to the water fountain, we eventually conclude story time.

He’s still thrilled. I am exhausted. I remind myself that this is what I get for having him at forty.

My “fifteen minutes of fame” is over, but I’m thrilled to have been invited to his classroom, to win a window into the world that is my son’s place in a mainstream classroom. I thank the children and gather my things to make a quick exit, my boy blowing kisses at me as I leave, while the professionals behind him help him resettle with his peers. He is clearly thriving there, and I’m so grateful to his educators for truly “getting” Zach, for liking and accepting him the way he is, while simultaneously teaching him how to rein in his exuberance just enough to function appropriately in class.

Truly, this is the crux of all my angst and worries about him. I ponder daily how to encourage him to be exactly who he is, yet help him channel his energies so he can have the things he covets- positive attention, true inclusion, and friends. He stands out a bit, particularly with that energy level that just won’t quit (if only I could siphon some of that off for me), but it’s clear this facet of his nature is viewed as just a part of him. My boy is seen as a whole person, not broken, not in need of being fixed. It’s obvious he’s in a safe place, one where he can be free to be himself, yet learn the ways of the world without those strictures dissipating his true essence. Zach has lucked into a classroom where differences are not just tolerated, but celebrated. It’s clear he’s viewed as perfect the way he is.

And I think to myself for the millionth time how wonderful it would be if we all treated each another that way, if one day the world would just catch up to kindergarten.

October 28, 2012

Thirty Day Review

Posted in Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , at 1:10 pm by autismmommytherapist

A warm rain pelts me as I try to open my umbrella to no avail, and I silently curse our local supermarket for selling me a defective product. I soon give up on my pathetic attempts to protect my hair, and instead surrender my locks to the whims of Jersey weather. Quickly I hustle to the door of Zachary’s school and am promptly buzzed in, then wait patiently as I’m given the mandatory nametag proclaiming I’m his mother.

I assure the friendly secretary I know where I’m going (at least this time), and I turn and walk at a brisk pace down a hallway filled with children’s artwork, proudly and prominently displayed. I reach the child study team office and knock lightly as the sign tells me to do, then sit on the vacant bench and attempt triage on my mane. Within minutes I am ushered into the inner sanctum where my son’s principal, case manager, and teachers reside. I take a deep breath, seat myself and wait. Today is Zach’s thirty day review, otherwise known as the day we determine whether or not his mainstream placement is working out.

Not that that’s a big deal or anything.

I have to admit I walked into the meeting feeling fairly confident that for the most part all was well. Zach’s teachers have been great about communicating both the good and the bad, with academics being a strong point, and compliance and focusing in a larger group setting still requiring some work. Together we’ve weathered the morning my youngest decided to freak out about the banana I’d given him to eat for healthy snack day, and told him in no uncertain terms that both at school and at home a lack of gluten-free pretzels does not create a legitimate reason to yell at his teacher.

I’ve also shared with Zach how proud I am of the notes of praise he receives, how his father and I hope they’ll become a weekly staple. Frankly, we’ve also explained to him that attending the mainstream class for two-and-a-half hours in the morning is a privilege, not a right- that he has to behave in order to stay. I recall his eyes grew rather big on that one, but I felt the right thing to do was to let him know. He’s five years old now. It’s never too early to learn about the consequences of behavior.

I can personally think of a few adults who could use a refresher course on that lesson.

Quickly my panel of professionals settles in, and I whip out my notepad and pen, because after dozens of meetings I’ve learned that I retain very little these days if I don’t write things down. I am privy to reports from his special education teachers, his mainstream teacher, and his occupational therapist, and it is clear early on there’s a running theme. Zach is bright, social on his terms, and very interested in working hard as long as the task at hand is something that captures his interest.

Inwardly I smile, as this description depicts about 80% of the students I instructed when I was a teacher. No surprises here.

We discuss the fact that he’ll need differentiated instruction when it comes to reading, as he’s way past “what sound does ‘m’ make?”, is instead voraciously devouring easy-to-read chapter books. One of his teachers asks what his interests are (apparently Angry Birds and Phineas and Ferb are only discussed at home), and she kindly offers to use books including those characters as a reinforcer for both good work and good behavior. I grin again, as the thought of using a book as a reward for my child is just too good to be true.

He may not be thrilled with sand or chocolate, but he is definitely my kid.

Fairly quickly the meeting concludes, with the consensus being that Zach continue in his current program of attending the morning session of mainstream kindergarten, followed by an hour-and-a-half of instruction in a self-contained classroom with other children also bearing IEPs. Although I was anticipating this outcome, I’m still proud. It is both a pleasure and a relief to know we were right about the placement we picked for him in the spring.

There is a special education teacher with him and several other students in the morning, but he is thriving in the midst of mainstream without an aide, at almost an 8:1 child to adult ratio. This is a kid who’s transitioned from a 3:1 pre-school environment, has always had a “shadow” with him when he’s attended camp. Even the latter stricture has been removed from him this summer, as his camp counselor felt he no longer required it, that he “fit in”. All in all, with a great deal of social/emotional growth taking place this calendar year, my boy is thriving.

I thank all of the consummate professionals gathered around this table, a piece of furniture I know for certain is not always the receptacle for such good news. Zach is in wonderful hands, and he is rising to the occasion on a daily basis. He is striving to be included.

As I walk to my car I ponder all of these realities, and settle on the comment made this summer about him fitting in. I contemplate why I want this mainstream placement so much for him, and while the answer may seem obvious (doesn’t every parent want that?), I know it’s not so simple for me. I want Zach to secure his place seamlessly in the mainstream of life because that’s what he wants. I witness his desire every time we’re at a park and he tries to initiate a game. I’ve watched him brave the trials of “typical” when he attempted to insert himself into a group of fellow campers already at play, sometimes to great success. I see his urge to “fit in” revealed every weekday afternoon he tells me I’m boring him.

Full day kindergarten should be a rule, law and a sacred covenant.

Zach wants this life, this imperfect one that his father and I walk, the one which his older brother will never follow. I think of Justin then. I consider my beautiful boy who has also soared with his skills, who reads and delights in words, who has mastered the use of his iPad to get his needs met, who has mostly conquered the need to cry and instead has immersed himself in “happy”. I am so proud. I am so equally proud of them both, so grateful that joy, hope and peace now reign mostly unimpeded in our home.

And as I relegate my lame umbrella to the back of my car I let that often elusive peace settle over me, smile, and head home.




April 2, 2011

World Autism Day- Free To Be You and Me

Posted in My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 6:28 am by autismmommytherapist

“Justin, for the love of God, PLEASE SIT DOWN!” I implore my almost eight-year-old, as he thrusts his body through the narrow space between the front seats of our SUV, desperately trying to free Sheryl Crow from her imprisonment in our car’s player. We’re leaving for speech therapy ten minutes late as it is because his school bus was delayed, and I’m irritated by the thought of the impending traffic I know we’ll soon encounter. I’m really not in the mood for this OCD ritual today, the current “compact disc musical chairs” that has replaced shoe/toy/DVD rotation in his devotions. I’m especially chagrined because I’ve trained him to like MY music, allowed him to pick from a carefully selected musical portfolio prior to every trip, and none of these choices has ever encompassed children’s tunes.

Now that this new obsession has begun every CD in the house is a target, and unfortunately some songs from long ago have come back into play. I finally cajole/coerce him back into his own spot, manage to shove his hands clutching fistfuls of circular disks through the slotted holes of his harness, and rush back to the driver’s seat. Before we exit the driveway I reach back and say “Give me what you’ve got, Justin”, and as our fingertips brush briefly against one another I feel the cool, pliant plastic of his selection slip into my hand. If there’s any justice in the universe, it will neither be the Wiggles, nor Barney.

Thankfully, it’s “Free to Be, You and Me”. If he’s going to torture me with kids’ songs, at least he possesses good taste.

I smile as I insert his choice into the yawning maw of the DVD player, because these melodies summon pleasant childhood memories for me, hours spent in my room hiding from my little brother, afternoons playing with my dollhouse and grooving to vinyl. I’ve always thought of “Free to Be, You and Me” as the musical equivalent of the literary phenomenon “Everything You Ever Needed to Know You Learned in Kindergarten”, with its magical messages of tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion. I remember my mother telling me what a big hit it was at the time, particularly as it was introduced during an era of “peace, love and happiness”. I have to grin as I listen to the soothing baritone of Alan Alda reminding us it’s okay for boys to play with dolls, followed by the dulcet notes of Marlo Thomas imparting her message that girls must break free of stereotypes, and follow their own non-scripted dreams. There are other fundamental lessons imbued into these lyrics, monumental concepts such as crying is okay even if you’re male, we all deserve respect no matter what our skin tones, and one remaining especially current in today’s world, don’t believe everything you’re told on television.

Reality TV has made the latter particularly relevant (yes, I mean you, Rock of Love’s Brett Michaels).

We manage to make it through lights that usually halt us in our tracks, and as I check the time I realize we might only arrive a few minutes later than our intended hour. Justin is rocking out in the backseat to Don’t Dress Your Cat in an Apron, and I ponder how far we’ve evolved since this musical melange’s initial debut, how much kinder the world has become, and yet how far we still must strive to go. Since this record’s release I’ve witnessed gay military personnel win the opportunity for disclosure, as well as the right to celebrate the ritual of permanent union in many states. I’ve watched women not only destroy but redefine the concept of  the “ceiling”, as they’ve attained the highest positions both in business, and in government. Men have begun to take their wives’ names, as well as their traditional roles as caretakers of children. Finally, two years ago I sat with hot cocoa in hand, forced the boys to snuggle next to me, and reveled in the beauty of a man of color finally ascending to the most elevated office in the land.

There’s still so far for all of these groups to go, barriers yet to transcend, prejudices to puncture and dismiss. We’re certainly not completely the “land of the free”, just yet. But I do believe we’re getting there. And I think for those of us who raise children considered unique, special, differently-abled, now it might just be their turn, their time for the earth’s attention.

Their turn to have their differences celebrated, not denigrated.

Their turn to be treated with compassion, to consider kindness as their norm.

Their turn to shatter stereotypes, to be regarded as men and women, boys and girls, with gifts to share to a far more gracious world.

Their turn for free to be, you and me.

There’s a land that I see, where the children are free

And I say it ain’t far to this land from where you are

Take my hand, come along, where the children are free

Come with me, take my hand, and we’ll live

In a land where the river runs free

In a land through the green country

In a land with a shining sea

And you and me are free to be,

You and me.

It’s our Fourth Annual World Autism Awareness Day!!!

Don’t forget to turn your porch lights blue tonight!!!