The right to be safe.

ASD, autism, equal rights, equality, freedom of speech, mental health, motherhood, neurodiversity, parenting, special needs, special needs parenting, Times Up

The article below was written over a year ago. I would like to say things have improved in the world but the most I can say is that things have improved in my daughter’s world.

She spoke up to us, not for the first time, about being bullied and attacked at school so we’re keeping her at home. Sometimes what’s best for our kids isn’t the easiest option but doing what’s right rarely is the smoothest route in life. I hope my kids see monumental changes in their lifetime of better mental healthcare, equal rights created and protected, and an end to sexual violence.

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“Mama, why am I so different?”

For some reason I wasn’t expecting this question, not yet, not from my six year old. How can I explain to her and convince her of what I see and believe about her when everyone around her finds fault with her for those same reasons? She speaks softly and melodically. They tell her to speak up. She is achingly vulnerable without any guile and it terrifies me every day that she’ll be hurt by someone. They think it’s wonderful that she’s compliant to authority.

You see, she’s every teacher’s dream. A quiet kid who listens to directions and does everything she can to please them and doesn’t question authority. Yet she’s also the kid that gets forgotten, mistreated, fears speaking out, bullied, misunderstood, and is bewildered by the malice of others.

She “can’t find the words” and hits herself, “I’m a bad girl. I can’t get it right.”

She cries easily. Her feelings are often hurt. She feels so intensely the emotions of others around her that her stomach pains her with anxiety. This is autism in girls. This is what PTSD looks like in kids who have been sexually abused.

I love my daughter and accept everything about her but that doesn’t mean I love her autism, or my son’s, or my husband’s. Watching someone you love struggle to navigate the world is never a pleasant experience when it ends in tears or explosive tantrums. There are days where I feel like an incompetent ringmaster running from lions. Please hold my hat.

My least favorite moment recently was when a therapist asked, in front of my very verbal daughter with sensitive hearing, “How did you explain to her she was autistic?”

Sometimes I wish I could pause the world for my children so I could ream someone without them hearing my obscenities. I managed to bite on the inside of my cheek and ask, “Good question, she can hear you so why don’t you ask her?”

Nora smiled good-naturedly, waiting patiently, as the woman blanched in embarrassment. We continued the appointment and I suffered through yet another barrage of convince-us-your-daughter-is-autistic. It’s a great game, it only costs hundreds of dollars an hour, no one wins, and it always ends with, “Oh, yeah, she is…”

Diagnosis isn’t a one shot deal. It’s a process where you try to convince people of what you’ve observed and they test your ability to stay calm as you struggle to understand what the !$#% is going on with your kid. We’re at the tail end now and facing more therapy as we try to grasp at what we can do to make her life easier.

Accepting your children’s autism has little to do with yourself and more to do with what choices you make for them. Constantly debating when to get out of their way and when to push, when to go mama bear on their behalf, and when to let them struggle. I’ve made mistakes. I’ll make more mistakes. I can only hope my kids know how much I love them. Even if I’m the mom that says !$#% a lot.

“Mama, why am I so different?”

I bit back tears, hugged her, and looked her in the eye, “Because you’re wonderful.”

I took a deep breath for the next part, “You know how Owen and Papa think differently than others?”

She nodded and looked down at her lap. I made a mental note to myself as I noticed she was picking at her hands again and the skin on her lips. I would need to tell the doctor. I took her chin gently and kissed her cheek.

“You think differently too and that’s a good thing.”

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It’s been a year since that moment. We’ve since found a Psychologist and clinic that specialize in helping girls on the spectrum and supporting them with processing trauma. Our neighborhood school refused to acknowledge any of the medical diagnoses or recommendations so now we’re on a new adventure of finding what works for our kids. The road is bumpy but the journey is never boring.

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Amazing Things Do Happen

ASD, atypical, autism, inclusion, neurodiversity, parenting, special needs, special needs parenting

“Am I autistic?”
“Yes, honey,” I push a lock of hair behind her ear and watch the emotions flick across her face before she smiles knowingly, “Are you autistic?”
“Nope.”
“Can you tell me what it means again?”
“Sure.”
“Can you tell the other kids at Girl Scouts?”

I was stunned, proud, and bewildered yet again by this kid. This girl that never ceases to amaze me with her kindness, sensitivity, thoughtfulness, vulnerability, and, yes, her many wounds from the mistreatment of others. She desperately wants to fit in and be accepted yet many days this world doesn’t seem to be meant for her and it goes out of its way to show her so.

We watched a video recently, Amazing Things Happen. It popped up as a recommendation in my YouTube feed and my faith in the internet was restored. What a fantastic piece of work and a way to explain autism to kids, not only about themselves, but to others that want to understand how it feels. The first time we watched it she turned to me and said, “Can we watch it again?”

After the second time, she asked, “Can we show this to the other kids?”
“Yeah, is it accurate? Is this how you feel?”
She hugged me and whispered into my body, “It’s how I feel all the time.”

I cried not because I felt pity for her or any other kid that experiences the world as she does. I cried, like so many days, because I don’t see the world as she does and I struggle to understand how or to protect from the people that would abuse her because of this. What she senses eludes me at times and I’m trying to help someone that doesn’t need help but for the world to stop judging and imposing their expectations on her. To just stop. Stop being so loud, so demanding, so imposing, so much of everything.

Many have shared with me once that they’re offended by the puzzle piece symbol. The Autism Speaks rainbow puzzle piece has become ubiquitous with awareness around autism but the symbol itself has a negative connotation of implying that a person with autism is a “puzzle” to be solved, to be cured. This negative perception is only heightened by its origin of Autism Speaks creating its use seeing that they have come under fire from the society of autism for only investing towards a cure. A contentious outlook from those that believe autism is not a disease or disorder requiring a cure.

It’s unfortunate that so many parents use the puzzle symbol with wholly good intentions to represent the struggles that their children face and I understand why they identify with its use. They want to belong to a movement of awareness and for that I don’t blame or judge them. But, for me, I prefer the rainbow infinity symbol that represents neurodiversity and the acceptance of autism. Yet the use of either symbol doesn’t offend me or change my opinion towards the subject of autism or the people I love that are diagnosed. To me, it’s undeniably a large part of who they are and a physiological difference they have from others; however, it is only one aspect of them and not their entire identity.

So how do you explain all of that in terms that a neurotypical, average kid can understand? How do you create an activity analogous to autism to illustrate how autism feels to a child?

Well, that is exactly what we’ve undertaken these past two weeks. We’ve been preparing a presentation for my daughter’s Girl Scout troop and practicing answering questions that might come up. As we were eating lunch together, I asked her if she wanted to watch the video again today. She said yes and we watched it companionably in silence. It ended and I asked, like I do every time now, “Again?”

She smiled and said, “Yes,” with a giggle.

I hesitated and asked, “Nora, what does it feel like to be autistic?”

My throat tightened and I secretly hoped that she would share with me and not be upset with my question. That her feelings weren’t hurt by me pushing and prying a little further so that she would let me in to her world. Yet again, I was astounded by her insight that always seems to come unexpectedly and at an angle I could never predict.

“It feels amazing. I’m different but so is everyone else.”

Amazing Things Happen: http://amazingthingshappen.tv/?projects=amazing-things-happen

A label saved us.

ASD, autism, equality, motherhood, neurodiversity, parenting, special needs, Uncategorized

After a lifetime of fighting labels I’ve come full circle and now accept them daily without any hesitation because doing so means giving my kids access to services they wouldn’t have otherwise. I’ve fought hard for the few resources we receive despite the stereotype that kids with special needs get “lots of freebies”. (No, actually they don’t, Janice. Screw you and your spin class too.)

It also means being labeled myself in the process. “Mother of a child with special needs”, doesn’t really roll of the tongue but is far less hurtful than hearing others whisper as you pass, “She’s that mom with that kid in special ed.”

A friend of mine who is a mom to a kid with special needs (see how wordy that is?), said to me, “I feel like not having a diagnosis is one of the worst feelings.”

Yes, I knew immediately what she meant. That awareness that there are issues but not being able to name them. Knowing that your child needs help but not being able to ask for it because you’re not even sure what support they need to be able to get along with other kids because you’re not even sure what your kid is experiencing. You’re shut out when they’re nonverbal and left out in the cold once they can speak and have emotional meltdowns where they can’t explain to you what their world is like. It’s that feeling of struggling to speak to someone in another language. You’re trying to communicate what you need and relieved when they finally understand. Even if they can’t, or won’t, help you. That’s what it’s like being a parent of a kid with special needs. Alone and marginalized.

These past seven years have been many moments of feeling like a tourist struggling to understand a map in a foreign language. Of knowing the reality of what I saw my children experiencing yet not being believed. Minimized, dismissed, marginalized, ridiculed for speaking out. Told by professionals that I need counseling while my child ripped the doctor’s office apart and crumpled into tears, stimming, inconsolable only until they calmed themselves by rubbing their fingers together rhythmically. The doctor left the room and a nurse returned asking us to reschedule. They wouldn’t look at us or speak to us on the way out. The waiting room full of people stared and Owen grasped on to me to avoid their eyes. Nora calls it “the mean faces moment”. It’s the same moment we experience at school performances, restaurants, buses,…we’ve gotten used to consoling them and rushing them out to head off the impending meltdown all while shielding them from the prying eye contact of strangers. It’s as if our kid is allergic to direct stares and we’re rushing him out of the glare from others.

This month, after five years of being told I was imagining things, and even being told so after my son and husband were diagnosed, came the moment where someone listened. A doctor finally diagnosed our daughter. This doctor, she gave me the gift of clarity, my daughter the chance to be understood, our family the resources we need to move forward in supporting her, and me a light amidst the darkness – literally.

The day I met our daughter’s new doctor I was a jumble of nerves. I was prepared with my stack of folders, with all of my notes and lists to fully explain my daughter to her and defend my observations. I did all of this because I’ve learned the hard way. Every teacher, therapist, pediatrician, counselor, doctor of any type, and so-called experts have tried to talk me out of believing in what I knew to be true. My daughter was struggling. That morning I drove sweaty palmed and jittering in my seat high on too much caffeine to make up for a sleepless night of rehearsing questions in my head like I was preparing for a job interview.

The drive was plugged into my GPS even though I was pretty certain as to where the office was. Even with traffic, I arrived fifteen minutes early and patted myself on the back while I searched for a restroom. As luck would have it again, there was one just outside the entrance to the doctor’s office within the building and I dashed in. As the exterior door closed, I happened to catch out of the corner of my eye that they had a motion light much like the one we have at home in our basement. I passed through another door into where the stalls were located and went about my business. As my cheeks hit the paper liner a not-so-funny thing happened. The lights went out. Someone must have just left right before I came in and the light didn’t trigger for me but instead, went out.

My first thought was that someone was playing a joke but then I really panicked and my PTSD kicked in.

What if someone was attacking me?

What if the electricity was out in this windowless building? What if I can’t get out?

How long am I going to be sitting here waiting for someone to come in to use this bathroom out of this huge office park?

My hands began to shake and I quickly tried to find my phone in my purse. My phone fell out of my hands and went rolling across the floor. I began to cry. I was trapped in a bathroom coffin just waiting for someone to open the door to trigger the light or rescue me. At least my pants were up.

Then I noticed the stack of folders I had brought. One of them was a notebook I had bought when Nora was back-to-school shopping. It had a glow-in-the-dark cover and it was peaking its corner out from the bottom of the pile. I scrambled for it and managed to find my phone not far from the stack of paper and turned the flashlight feature on. The door was five feet away but it might as well have been fifty feet. I tried to pull myself together and managed to get into the doctor’s waiting room with acceptable decorum. A well meaning doctor walked in and made eye contact and I fell apart. She offered me water and patted my arm.

We went into her office and I did as I usually do when I’m embarrassed, I cracked jokes. We both were laughing within seconds of me being seated and she made one herself, “Well, I better be able to give you a correct diagnosis. It’s the least I can do after trapping you in my bathroom.” She took my stack of notes and we discussed Nora’s history. I cried some more. She listened. We agreed to meet again and that I would bring Nora with me next time. She promised me that we would sort out everything and help my daughter. I sat in my car afterwards and cried until I could see clearly enough to drive.

I returned with Nora two days later. The doctor greeted us and shocked me when I thought I could no longer be shocked. She didn’t need to do further testing. Most of it had been done previously based on the notes we requested and I hadn’t been informed of those tests or the results. The school knew all along. They had labeled her with autism themselves but didn’t want to acknowledge it because they would have to help her if they did.

The doctor reviewed Nora’s artwork, books she had constructed, and listened to her stories. She looked at me levelly and announced, “Your daughter is amazing.” I swallowed back tears and welcomed the hug as Nora sensed my emotion before I felt it and came to embrace me, “It’s ok, mama.” I set the stack of paperwork aside with the doctor’s summary and pulled her onto my lap.

“You’re right, baby. Everything is going to be ok now.”