It’s May, 2014.

We are sitting in Lewis’ kindergarten transition IEP meeting.  As a team we are reviewing every service and service delivery to make sure it fits right for Lewis as he leaves preschool.  It’s not my first rodeo and I have plenty of anxiety over the whole transition process based on past experience.  Lewis’ incredible preschool teacher and team know this – and know Lewis – and we discuss every detail to make sure we are all on board and understand how kindergarten will look for him for the new school year.

We discuss his social skills programming, his need for visual and written cues when transitioning, his extended school year plan, and all the supports he will need for success.

“So now let’s talk transportation,” says his teacher.

I sit up straight in my chair, stiffening a little.

I know this is something that we’ve talked about in the past.  But we don’t really feel like he needs specialized transportation.  I really think he will be okay on the big bus.”  His teacher stops talking for a moment.  “Um, you don’t agree?”

Tim elbows me.

“You’re pulling on your sleeves,” he says. 

That’s my “tell”.  My sign that I’m having an anxiety attack.

It’s not that I don’t think he can’t be on the big bus.  It’s just that…” I take a breath.

It’s just that I don’t know how I’m going to manage all three kids getting to school at different times with different modes of transportation.”

************

This morning I sent a message to my friend Jess.

“I’ve officially lost my ability to write,” I texted.  “I’m trying to write about how Lewis taking the bus and me driving Howie is an example of not just our acceptance of what each kid needs but an understanding of those needs….None of the kids asked why one was going to school one way and one another…we’ve taught them that everyone is different with no stigmas attached.  But the words aren’t coming without sounding stupid…”

And she gave me brilliant advice like she always does: “Start in the middle.  Where the feelings are.  Don’t try to start at the beginning.”

Where the feelings are.

So here goes.

A long time ago, that meeting would have made me sad.

The big bus would have seemed like “The Holy Grail” of transportation.  Going to school the way most kids do.  Getting that big “first day of school” bus picture.  I would have looked at it as one of my kids can ride the bus and one of them…can’t. My anxiety in that meeting would have  focused on their disabilities in the negative, the kind of deficit model of looking at challenges and accommodations as a something bad and temporary with the hopes that maybe someday things will get better. I would have focused on the fact that I had one kid whose challenges kept him off the big bus, while both his big brother and little brother were able to ride it.

But here’s the thing.  I’m not that me anymore.

Last school year, we took Howie off of the mini bus. He had been riding the mini-bus since kindergarten to and from school and it’s written into his IEP that he needs specialized transportation. But for second grade,  I started driving him to school and he would taking the mini bus home.  He needed a “sensory overload free” way to enter school in order to start his day off right.  He didn’t want to talk to anyone or have anyone talk to him.  About halfway through the year, that need for a sensory overload free trip became evident for the ride home as well.  He would be able to use his calming tools to get through the school day, but have a very difficult time with that on the way home.

Once I began driving him both ways, his stress level leaving the house and coming home lessened greatly, spilling over to a better day at school and at home in the afternoon.

It wasn’t that he couldn’t take the mini bus.  Or even the big bus.

It was that both of those choices weren’t right for him.  For his success – academically and emotionally – he needed me to drive.  This accommodation was no different than any of the other supports listed in his IEP.

Two kids – two brothers – with the same autism diagnosis.  Needing two completely different accommodations.

Perhaps it’s semantics again.

But changing the question from “Can my kids do something”  to asking  “what is appropriate for them” – it made all the difference.

 

**********

May 2014

“So what do you think?  Do you think Lewis can take the bus to kindergarten?”

All eyes of the team are on me.

“I know that with a lot of prep he can.  I think we should give it a try,” I say.

Are you worried that Howie will be upset or jealous that Lewis is on the big bus?”

I smile. “No, actually, I’m more worried that Lewis will wonder why he doesn’t ride with Mom to school.” I say.  “But he will know that’s just how he gets to kindergarten.  And Howie will know that too.

I sigh.

It’s the logistics that make me nervous.  Gerry’s bus to the junior high comes at one time, the elementary school bus at another.  And somewhere in there I need to drive  Howie to the elementary school too.  But we will figure it out.  We always do.”

I shift in my seat, pulling at my sleeves.

Can we talk again about the fact that my last kid is leaving this amazing preschool for kindergarten?  I’m not so sure how I feel about that…”

**********9c28158d427833b7df2425147b2e6445

We talk a lot in our house about fair not meaning equal.  My kids have seen the cartoon of three characters of all different heights looking over a fence.  They each have different sized boxes to stand on so they can see over the fence line.  They aren’t equal sized boxes.  Each character needed something different to get them to the same place.

We’ve never said “I hope someday you can take the big bus to school.”

In our town, some kids walk.  Some arrive in cars.  Some take the big bus.  Some take the mini bus.

There’s no better or worse way to get to school.  For my boys, there’s no stigma attached to any mode of transportation.

My three kids need something different to get them to school.

For one, it’s mom’s car.

For the other two, it’s the wheels on the bus.

All through the town.

On the bus yesterday for kindergarten orientation.  He did just fine.

On the bus yesterday for kindergarten orientation. He did just fine.

 

 

 

Howie was on the floor of his room. He was wrapped up in a towel, drying off from the shower.

“Mom. Do I look in sorts?”

“I don’t know. Not really I guess. Maybe a little? Are you?”

“No,” he responded. “I’m a little out of sorts.”

“I could tell. You think it’s because you’re not feeling well?” He had been battling a mystery fever for the past two days. No other symptoms, just a low grade fever.

“No. Not that.” He was looking up – not at my face but just passed me.

I stood over him as he stayed cocooned up on the floor.

“Why do you think you’re out of sorts?”

“Sensory overload,” he replied. His eyes shifted and immediately connected with mine.

“Really. What overloaded you?”

He sighed.

“Life.”

Howie paused for a moment.

“Sometimes that just happens,” he said.  “I need a fidget. Like something rubber. Or a ball.”

He said it in a very quiet, almost nasally voice. It’s the voice I recognize when he’s uncomfortable.

I looked around quickly in his room.

“I found a small Minecraft Creeper figure. Will this do?”

“Yeah.”

He took it from me and smiled.

I took a quick picture of him on the floor with the creeper and showed him his happy face. He stayed on the floor for a few minutes, rubbing his hands over the figure and squeezing it.

I left the room to help Lewis into the shower. When I returned, he was dressed in his pajamas and in bed.

“Can I share the picture I took of you with the creeper to show people how you look when you’re back in sorts?”

He snuggled under the covers and grabbed his weighted stuffed animal.

“No,” he said. “Don’t share it. Can I have a Mom squish?”

I leaned over and squished him tight. Part of his self-advocacy has to be the right of refusal of what I share and what I don’t.

“I won’t share it. I promise. I love you.”

I took my position at the end of his bed. He slid his legs under mine and fell asleep.

**********

I could write about the sheer enormity of that conversation and what it means for him, for me, and for the people in his world. About how much hard work he has done with his teachers and therapists to get here – to not only understand his body but express it in a way that we could understand. I could write about all the signs I missed during the day today that could have told me what he so eloquently did tonight and even though I preach “behavior is communication”, I ignored it all.

I could write that.

But right now I am just listening to him sleep. Soft, even breaths.

The ones that I now recognize come when he’s back “in sorts”.

And I’m just going to stay here a while.

A photo from a different wrapped in a towel day. One that I had permission to share in the past.

A photo from a different wrapped in a towel day. One that I’ve had permission to share in the past.

 Walk with me the diamond road
Tell me every story told
Give me something of your soul
That I can hold onto
I want to wake up to the sound of waves
Crashing on a brand new day
Keep the memory of your face
But wipe the pain away” – 
Diamond Road by Sheryl Crow

“Can I help you find something?”

“Yes.  I’m looking for an end of the year present for my son’s teachers.”

“Can you tell me a little about them?”

“Well, sure.  I need something special.  I know we all say that, but I really mean it.”

I pause for a moment.

“My son calls himself Hero Howie at school.  But his special education teachers? Actually all of my kids’ teachers? They are heroes too.  His and mine.”

“I have just the thing.”

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Because you help my kid out of the car in the school drop off circle with a hello every morning.

Because you watch him in the cafeteria before school starts to make sure he starts his day off on the right foot.

Because you welcome him in to the school and know him by name.

Because you believe in him when no one else does.

Because you understand how a slight muscle movement or seat squirm or change in town of voice means he’s overwhelmed and needs a break.

Because you modify the assignments to fit my kid.  Not because he can’t do the work but because you know when he’s reached his limit.

Because you read books and websites and attend seminars outside of school hours to understand my kid better.

Because you love to come to work every day knowing that it’s about my kid and his successes.

Because it’s not just a job to you.

Because you see autism not as a limit but as his strength and step out of the diagnosis box to see him as an individual.

Because you understand that the aggressions are not personal but part of the fight or flight overload of the day.

Because you wake up after those tough days ready to teach again.

Because you celebrate his successes and stay up at night figuring out how to help him the next day.

Because you believe in progress not perfection.

Because you do cartwheels in the halls and make collages of every single picture you’ve taken of him.

Because you request to be my child’s aide and teacher next year.

Because you love him.

Because you taught him to love himself.  And believe in himself.

To Mrs. M and Mrs. C and Mrs. S at the elementary school and Mrs. M at the preschool…

You.  You are the heroes.

And for that, I am forever grateful.

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And then a hero comes along
With the strength to carry on
And you cast your fears aside
And you know you can survive
So when you feel like hope is gone
Look inside you and be strong
And you’ll finally see the truth
That a hero lies in you.” – Hero by Mariah Carey

 

Note: As I wrote in part one, I asked Howie if I could share this story (and parts one and three) here.  I told him that I had a blog and that I liked to write about things that happen in our lives on it.  His response?  “Sure.  You can share this with the blogosphere.”  Well, okay then.

Second note:  While this is part two, the story actually happened first – before part one.  But it took me a long time to get the words together for this part of the story.  I am hoping the order makes sense some day.

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It was a Sunday morning a few weeks ago.  Howie and I were headed out.  It’s a work day for me and it’s our Sunday tradition that he comes with me.

He stopped short in the garage and said “Hey!  That’s not right!”

I turned to see what he was looking at.  It was his snow shovel.  On it there’s a picture of a snowman saying “Brrr!” and he’s surrounded by four drawings of snowflakes.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“All the snowflakes on that shovel are exactly the same.  That’s not right.  Every snowflake is different.”

“That’s true,” I said.  I looked over at the shovel.  “I would have never seen that.”

“I notice stuff like that.” he said.

I opened up the car door and helped him buckle his seat belt.  He’s getting faster at doing it himself, but when he’s thinking of other things the motor planning involved with buckling just doesn’t come as easily.

“Yes, you do notice stuff like that,” I said. “You always have.  You have a brain that sees things that others don’t.”

“I know,” he said.  And he named other things he notices.  Details on letters with different fonts.  Things that are just slightly out of place.

I pulled out of the driveway while he was talking.

“Does that make me a mutant?” he asked.

“What? No!”

I looked at his face in the rear view mirror as he looked a little crestfallen. Ah, like the X-Men…we’re in superhero mode again.

“You aren’t the only one in the world with that kind of brain.  But most people don’t.”

Smiles from the back seat.

I realized that this was the time.

I have spent the days since that moment we got Howie’s autism diagnosis in December 2009 wondering how I would talk to Howie about his autism.  I rehearsed it in my head many times.  Bought books.  Read blog posts.  Wanted to make sure I did it “right”.

We stopped at a light.

“So…” I said.  “That ability is a gift.”

“It is?”

“Yes.  You know what I mean by ‘gift’, right?  Not like a birthday party gift but more like a talent.  Something special you have.”

“I know! What is it? What’s it called?”

“It’s called autism.”

“So I have autism?”

“Yes.”

“Hmmmm.”

I decided to push it a little bit more.

“Hey, you know who else has a gift for seeing stuff like that?”

“Who?” he asked.

“Your friend Brooke.”

“Brooke has autism?”

AND THE BIGGEST SMILE FILLED UP MY REAR VIEW MIRROR.

I left the words hanging there for a moment as I turn into the parking lot for the sensory gym.

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Can I have the iPad?”

“Of course.  Once we’re inside.”

And we were done.

**********

A totally easy conversation about something not so easy.

I relayed the conversation to my friend Jess later on that morning, partly because it was through her words and guidance that I was even able to have that conversation that way, but also to thank her and Brooke for giving me the permission to share with Howie.

She texted me back with “You know what makes these conversations so hard? US.”

How true is that?

I wrote “It was just so natural as a progression from him seeing something no one else would ever notice…I figured it was a good moment to call it and not a challenging moment.”

That is where Howie and I left it that morning.   His autism is his gift.  He knows that his brain works differently than others.  He knows that it means he can smell things more intensely than others, that he can create things in his head and make them come to life, that he can interpret the world in a way that is uniquely his.

And he’s knows he’s not alone.  Knowing that he has a friend whose brain works a little differently is so important.  We’ve talked some more about other kids we know who are autistic and each time a smile fills the room.

At some point I know we’ll have to talk about the challenges that autism brings.  Because that is as important as knowing the strengths. Part of understanding his differences is knowing that the sensory issues, the difficult time sitting still, the frustration over school projects and social interactions, and the perseverations – these are not because he’s not smart or incapable.   Actually just the opposite.  Knowing that his brain works differently will help him understand that his aides in school are there not as a crutch or punishment but as a tool for support, just like his sensory tool box.  He needs to know that it’s okay to ask to leave the room when he can’t concentrate, and that it’s okay to ask for help not because he can’t do it but because he needs to frame it in a way that works for his unique brain.

But we aren’t at that point yet.  That conversation will come – it may be next week or next month or next year.  What I know now is that I can’t plan it.  It has to fit the time and place with no script or plan.

Unique to him.  Just like the snowflake that he is.

my favorite holiday present ever. Howie's teacher made a snow globe with his picture inside.  As Howie says "It shows my 'pizzazz'".

my favorite holiday present ever. Howie’s teacher made a snow globe with his picture inside. As Howie says “It shows my ‘pizzazz'”.

Whether life’s disabilities
Left you outcast, bullied or teased
Rejoice and love yourself today
‘Cause baby, you were born this way

I’m beautiful in my way
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way” – Born This Way by Lady Gaga

A few weeks ago, we got our notice for our annual IEP meeting for Howie.

And just like every other notice we’ve received for the past five years, this one included a one page purple sheet addressed to us as parents:

Please take a few moments to respond to the following questions.  Please return this completed sheet in the enclosed envelope.  Your comments will help the whole team develop an appropriate education program for your child.

1. What concerns do you, the parent (and student fourteen years of age or older) want to see addressed in the student’s educational program?

2. What are the student’s educational strengths, areas of interest, significant personal attributes, and personal accomplishments?

3. What is your vision for your child?  What would you like your child to be able to do within the next 1-3 years?  Beginning at age 14, think about your child’s preferences and interest.  Also think about desired outcomes in adult living, post secondary and working environments.

I’ve always taken these very seriously.  I return them every year with long detailed responses to each question, usually going on to the backside of the paper.  I felt like if they were asking, I was going to answer.

I sat with the sheet in front of me for a while.  I thought about how this whole year we’ve been working with Howie to help him identify his sensory needs and coping skills to help him stay in the classroom when he can, but also know when he can’t be there.  And to know that that’s okay. We’ve talked about him being his best advocate and using his words to explain what he’s thinking and feeling in the moment.  And working with his team to respect that and to really listen to what he’s saying.

For the first question…well I decided the best person to ask was Howie himself.  Waiting until he was fourteen didn’t make any sense.  So I asked him to tell me what was hard for him.  We talked about the times when he gets stressed and what calms him down.  I translated it into five issues we’d like addressed in this year’s program:

1) anxiety and stress in academics addressed through accommodations (specifically during time tests, reading out loud to peers, patience with learning new topics)

2) access to new sensory tools and accommodations for individual/group work (scribe, extended time, ability to type answers)

3) work on social/emotional regulation within the classroom space

4) development of self-advocacy skills

5) implementation of programs to work on rules/consequences and taking responsibility for his action.

My answer to the second question remained pretty consistent from the past five years.  I wrote that he’s very bright – strong in science and math concepts and loves social studies and history.  He loves to read on his own terms and enjoys project time and projects with some structure but without too many constraints.  He likes to feel like he’s the teacher and loves feeling popular in his class.

It was the vision question that made me stop for a very long time.

My vision statement for the past four years was this: We want Howie to show what he could do academically without his behaviors getting in the way.

I read that now and I cringe. I don’t even want to write that here.  But truth is that in the beginning I didn’t know what I know now.  I desperately wanted his teachers and the staff to see the bright incredible boy that I saw.  My concerns – my fears – were that they would never see that he had this incredible brain, a wicked sense of humor, and they would never know that he could read and write and draw just like every other kid in the class. I thought that his “behaviors” would keep him out of the classroom and away from the things that he excelled at. 

I didn’t know what the behaviors meant.  That they weren’t something to extinguish.  That we couldn’t “compliance training” them away.

Now I know.

I know that behavior is communication.  I know that stimming is not only okay, but necessary. I know the importance of learning how sensory and calming strategies work in different situations.  I know to look at my kid as my kid – not a series of antecedents, triggers, and behavior plans.  I know now to respect what he’s doing and listen to what he’s saying because by doing that – that’s how he achieves success.  Academically, socially and emotionally.

He has that success now with his current teacher and aides.  Educators who look at him as an individual and work with his strengths to overcome his challenges.

It was time to put all that into writing.

What is my vision for my child?

We would like Howie to be happy and enjoy school and learning in a classroom environment that meets and supports his needs.  This means helping him become a better self-advocate while creating a program that fits his individual strengths and challenges, with accommodations and supports necessary for academic, social and emotional success.

On Monday, we will sit down with his whole team and write an IEP that does just this. As we write objectives for pragmatics, sensorimotor breaks, and social/emotional growth,  the major thread through it all will be to  help him find ways to feel good and comfortable in his own skin, to feel respected for his differences, to advocate for himself and to – plain and simple – be happy.

That’s how he’ll show them what he can do.

By being himself.

photo(19)See my reflection change
Nothing ever stays the same
But you know the names The Game
We don’t know what it means
Nothing’s ever what it seems
Unforgiven…unforseen

I see the line in the sand
Time to find out, who I am
Looking back to see where I stand
Evolution, Evolution” – Evolution by Motorhead

I went into our local Paper Store to pick up a gift for a friend.

And it was like the universe was trying to tell me something after my last post:

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It will be going up on the wall in Howie’s bedroom.  As a reminder for us both.

I love you You love me
We’re a happy family
With a great big hug and a kiss from me to you.
Won’t you say you love me too” – I Love You from Barney

This is a hard one to write.

A few days ago, my friend Jess met me at the sensory gym with her daughter Brooke.  It was the last day of our very long holiday break.  The exact purpose for the gym unfolded before our eyes as Howie and Brooke played together in the gym space while Jess and I talked.

After about 20 minutes of playing and running around, Howie came over to me and climbed into my lap.  Jess took out her phone and snapped a few photos.  She sent them to me later that afternoon:

photo credit: Jess

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(photo credit: Jess)

I spent the rest of that night thinking about those photos.

True confession time?

When I saw that last picture, my stomach hurt.  My heart hurt.

I could only see the sensory seeking in this picture.

His hand in my hair.  Crawling all over me.

The constant requests for squishes.  Asking to “tunnel” : when he puts his hands on my neck and asks me to press down on his hands with the side of my head.  Begging for “snuggles” that aren’t really hugs.  The “mom will sit on my feet” demands.

I saw a dysregulated kid who had been out of school and out of a routine for too long.

I sent Tim this text with the last photo: “Jess captured how I spent all of vacation.”

“Yup.” was the reply back.

The following morning, I changed my personal Facebook profile picture to that last photo.

The comments I got from friends and family ranged from “Love is…” to “That is just precious!” to “So sweet!”

And the one that made me cry: “That’s true love. You being a non-hugger and all – this is ALL love. Beautiful!”

Guilt came flooding in.

Everyone else saw love.  Affection.  Connection.

The emotions I didn’t see.

I get so wrapped up in everything SPD/autism and looking for the meaning and cause of every single action and reaction…

I sometimes miss the beauty and the “normalcy” of these moments.

Of so. many. moments.

Taking him out to shovel the snow is “heavy work”, not just an outside fun activity together.

Swinging high on the swings has a purpose, not play.

A hug isn’t a hug.  It’s a need for deep pressure.

Truth is, I’m the only one he will hug and snuggle with like this.  He refuses all personal touch from his dad and older brother and relatives.  He will squish under blankets and pillows, but skin to skin touch is reserved for me.  Has been since he was born.

Because I know too much, I saw it as a sensory issue for him.

But to everyone else, it’s a loving bond between mother and son.

Cue guilt.

After reading those comments, I clicked on the photo on my phone and looked at it again.

I took a step out of my “autism mom” role and became “Mom”.

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because I needed to look at it again…

In those photos there is the smile.  The calm.  The love.

I can see that’s what Howie sees when he looks at me.

This is our connection.  Our affection.

His safe place.  Where he feels the most at peace.

I see it all.

And I feel at peace now too.

love I get so lost, sometimes
days pass and this emptiness fills my heart
when I want to run away
I drive off in my car
but whichever way I go
I come back to the place you are

all my instincts, they return
and the grand facade, so soon will burn
without a noise, without my pride
I reach out from the inside

in your eyes
the light the heat
in your eyes
I am complete
in your eyes” – In Your Eyes by Peter Gabriel

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