June 18, 2011

Search Field Day 2011

Posted in Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , at 10:21 am by autismmommytherapist

“Mommy, where’s Justin?” my four-year-old inquires for perhaps the thousandth time, and I suck back my irritation (a technique I perfected during my twelve years teaching in elementary school), and tell him again, “soon”. A minute after imploring him for the millionth time to “please stop kicking my mutilated shin” under the picnic table, Justin indeed makes his glorious entrance. It’s Field Day at his school, and the festivities commence with every class from age three to twenty-one taking a promenade around the front entrance, until it’s finally my son’s turn.

Zach starts waving wildly as Justin’s teacher approaches and salutes him, and I crane my neck to look for my boy, hoping he won’t make a break for us and want me to take him home, as he has been wont to do in the past. Seconds later he comes into view, clutching the hand of his aide, looking mildly confused since he’s never participated in this pageant prior to today. He steps down off the curb and sees me, his grandma, and his little brother across the empty parking lot, and stops dead in his tracks, holding up the entire procession. I hold my breath to see what he’ll do next.

And then, he smiles.

This isn’t just any smile. This is his hundred watt, “I can’t believe three-fourths of the people I love the most are here right now” smile. With mild prompting from his para he waves, then continues on his way, checking back periodically to see if we’re still there.

Trust me, we’re not going anywhere.

Frankly, as I sit on my cold folding chair and watch the students of Search Day School parade by me I am ecstatic, because even a year ago, I would not have been able to remain at this picnic table. Although Justin enjoys parties, in his mind I am generally his primary reinforcer, or the equivalent of Disney. During his early childhood years in his first public school placement, I spent many a desperate hour in his classroom trying to convince him that musical chairs and chips were a far better deal than going home with mommy. There were entire years in our local school district where I didn’t attend any of his parties save the one dedicated to his birthday, which killed his shutter-bug, stay-at-home,  mom. It came down to this, as things so often do with autism- my having to choose to participate in a party which made me feel like a good mother, or boycotting the event and letting him have fun. I grudgingly chose the latter most of the time.

But as I look at him now, I realize at these events, I may finally be eligible for front row seats.


The children circle around the entrance way and reenter the building, as classes are staggered for this extravaganza, and it will be a good twenty minutes before we see Justin again. Since that doesn’t meet with King Zachary’s approval I take him on several walks around the premises, craning my neck back periodically to make certain we don’t miss Justin’s second debut. We wend our way back through brightly decorated picnic tables in time to see Justin march to the field for the first of his feats of strength, and I simultaneously watch my youngest commence meltdown mode.

This is completely inconvenient, as I seriously require commemorative photos of this event. Otherwise, my scrapbook will be devastated.

Just as I think I’ll have to do a “Sophie’s Choice” with my children, Jodi Ussuri, administrator extraordinaire, steps in and offers to take him off my hands for a while. Zach deigns to take her hand and walk/skip/hop/jump/run with her, which is not surprising since she has three kids, and is clearly a fun mom. When her babysitting stint is over, the words “bless you” accompany Zach’s tiny paw as it is handed back to me. These are words I frankly should have imparted to her, as the absence of my youngest enabled me to witness my oldest’s glory.

And glory, it was.

Sure, it was lovely that Justin carried an over-sized ball across a field successfully, then bounced on it as his classmates followed suit. Under his watch not one single tennis ball escaped the confines of a waiting barrel, deftly maneuvered for guaranteed capture by school personnell. He navigated a balance beam with relative ease, and at least attempted to sneak under the “luau-esque” wooden rods adjacent to those parallel lengths of wood.

In other words, Justin rocked Field day.

While I was thrilled by how far he’s come within the physical realm of things, happy to see him willingly and successfully participating in events requiring balance, concentration, and manual dexterity, there were a multitude of far subtler reasons I was grateful to regard these activities. Throughout every single request and demand, I witnessed my son’s eager compliance. I watched as he patiently took turns, neither rushing through nor attempting to avoid the task before him. Most importantly, I saw my son search for his family at every single station, executing his dazzling smile at us before switching to serious concentration mode, overjoyed we watched him perform.

Not only did he enjoy the festivities, he was ecstatic his family was there to cheer for him. Trust me, me and my mom are still hoarse.

Eventually, it literally rained on our parade, and students were hustled inside to consume their lunches while the three of us escaped to Panera for soups and salads (what a win-win day!). We returned to take home an excited Justin, a child happy to escape his routine whenever it includes going home early with me. As I walk him back to the car, I reminded myself that it’s not just the efforts of this particular school staff that have brought him to this place. In every moment of desired behavior, every nuance of glorious grin I received from my boy today, is the work of five schools, dozens of aides, teachers, specialists, doctors, Early Intervention workers, the fortitude of two parents, a patient brother, and the stubborn zeal of one determined grandma.

It takes a planet, not a village, to raise a kid like Justin.

We reach our waiting SUV chariot, he sees my mother and his sibling, and it’s like Christmas morning all over again. I strap him into his seat, kiss his forehead and tell him how proud I am of him, activate the GPS (just in case), and head for home.

And as we glide into traffic, I remind myself to live a little in the moment, and just be happy we’re here.

May 25, 2011

Search Day Dinner Dance 2011

Posted in Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , at 9:32 am by autismmommytherapist

I’ve mentioned this before in my writing- when it comes to my children’s education, I have two very fortunate offspring. My youngest is thriving in his local public school, entertaining himself almost weekly with fossil digs, and “bear hunts”. Most recently, his joy was compounded by singing exuberantly in a choir of a hundred pre-school children (how a music teacher can convince that many three-to-five-year-olds not only to mimic her hand movements but learn (most) of the songs’ lyrics as well, is beyond my comprehension). He loves his friends, the paras, his teacher (trust me, many of his sentences at home begin with “but Miss Liz says”), and is almost as eager to see that school bus arrive each morning as his mother is. In ABA terms, school, for Zach, is a primary reinforcer.

And then, there’s Justin.

My eldest child has always adored learning, easily surpassing my computer skills by the age of two (I know, that’s not saying much), and often flinging books at me over the years to read to him until I taught him to hand them to me (it’s tough to read the work of Eric Carle with double vision). That early love of literature has fortunately flourished into his own ability to read, a skill he possesses for which I am eternally grateful. He’s not big on math (neither was his mother), but I’m certain he would have been a killer contestant in a spelling bee. He’s formed a friendship with one of the students in his class who has technically adopted Justin as his little brother, and I’m told he now moves rather easily from task to task, location to location, with little angst.

And trust me, I’m grateful for that too.

Ms. Hillary Clinton once stated that it takes a village to raise a child, and I can assure you it takes an entire planet to raise one with autism. His progress to this point has been a culmination of the efforts of his teachers from his last two placements, as well as his current one. Justin has benefited from dedicated staff at all five of the schools he’s attended up to this point, educational facilities spanning two different states. His father and I are thankful for the compassion and caring he’s received from all of his centers of learning.

I simply must say however that his current school is different, and I was reminded just how special it is when I learned about its history this past weekend at the Search Day Annual Dinner Dance, where we celebrated the school’s fortieth anniversary.

The Search Day Program is unique in part because it was the very first twelve month specialized school for autism, the brain child of a very dedicated group of parents in the sixties who recognized a need for a different type of learning environment for their children, and stopped at nothing to achieve it. Some of these early founders went on to establish Autism New Jersey (formerly known as COSAC), a state organization which provides support and advocacy for parents of children with autism. I’m a proponent of putting things into context, and I can assure you that what these parents achieved in that time period, while IDEA was in its nascent stages, prior to the internet, and before any widespread knowledge of autism (or compassion for those who have it), is nothing short of miraculous. I’m forever indebted to their advocacy and determination, and I’d just like to thank these pioneers for providing a venue that has helped so many children, and their families, reach their full potential.

Due to the collective efforts of various teachers, parents, and corporate sponsors such as Home Depot, TD Bank, Foodtown and Wegman’s, Search Day has expanded from classrooms situated in the rented space of a church basement, to the excellent facilities it is comprised of today. Search’s campus now includes three buildings and thirteen acres of land, on which the various school programs, a Career and Life Center, and a Campus Store, are located. Through the efforts of those who helped raise funds for various projects a new playground has been constructed and a swimming pool installed, the latter in which I’m hoping my eldest will learn to paddle just long enough to save his life if necessary.

And while it also takes an entire planet to create a school of such caliber dedicated specifically to the advancement of those with autism, none of it would take place without the dedication of a brilliant, and highly motivated staff.

On a recent Friday night, after indulging happily in our two free drinks and cornering the market on the plentiful mini-quiches and pigs-in-a-blanket floating around the room, Jeff and I joined the other hundred-plus parents, educators, and sponsors who attended the gala at the English Manor in Wanamassa, in the large and beautifully furnished dining room where I was happy to be served a fine meal I neither had to cook nor clean up. We listened to a passionate and rousing speech by the school’s director, Kathy Solana, who almost made it to the end without crying. Jeff and I couldn’t help but revel in the rousing cheers, particularly from the teachers, for every single child featured in the moving slide show presentation (the one of our son seated next to Santa with a “why the hell am I doing this look” was particularly priceless).

The truth is, I could ramble on about the obvious commitment of the staff, some of whom have worked there for decades. I could describe the overwhelming compassion for not only the children, but for their parents as well, as evidenced in every conversation I had with Justin’s teacher, his aides, and his speech instructors that night. I could share with you that I wondered when these people ever sleep, that their sheer willingness to go above and beyond for their students on a day-to-day basis is what renders this school unique.

But the real reason this school is special is simply due to the staff’s palpable joy in working there.

I was an educator (well, will always be an educator), for thirteen years, starting as an aide at a school for emotionally challenged children in New Jersey, and eventually ending up at a magnet school in a public school district in northern Virginia. I’ve been fortunate during the span of my career to know phenomenal teachers, true visionaries in their fields. Some of them, to my never-ending gratitude, have worked with my children. Truly, I’m no stranger to amazing educators, whom we in the field often refer to as “lifers”.

I must admit however, that I have rarely encountered a school where every single faculty member I’ve met has resided in this exclusive club.

As Jeff and I eventually left the gala, total losers in the raffle and the 50/50 but happy to have gotten out of the house, the director took ten minutes of her time to escort us to the door and chat with us about Justin’s progress, and her vision for the school’s future. I admit I was a bit teary as we exited the premises (with my ramped-up crying these days I think Jeff’s worried I’ll be going through the “change” soon, and is concerned his prospects for a happy future are rapidly diminishing), but I pulled it together enough to convey to my husband how fortunate we were to have landed on this particular square, in the lifetime chess game of autism. The truth is, I may not ever be able to give my boy actual words, or the intimacy of a lifelong friend. I won’t dance with him at his wedding, or watch him drive off into the sunset with his lifetime love. He won’t make me insane with his incessant and unreasonable demands as a teenager (maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all).

But with a lot of hard work and the support of his incomparable grandma, his father and I were able to give him this school, this education, this pathway to progress, and that is no small thing. To the staff and supporters of Search Day School, and Justin’s home district who made it possible for him to attend, we would just like to say we are so deeply appreciative.

Thank you.

May 24, 2011

Gratitude Attitude

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 9:21 am by autismmommytherapist

This week’s Gratitude Attitude is dedicated to the students and staff of Search Day School, who created and participated in such a wonderful Field Day Event this past week. My hat is off to anyone who can get Justin to enjoy sports, and his little brother was equally excited to cheer him on. Thanks so much for all of your hard work!