So I have this girl...
I had the opportunity this past weekend to participate in a local theater production called the Mamalogues. It was the brainchild of a friend of mine who feels that, as mothers, we all have valid stories to tell. While I know my story is not unique, and that many of you could probably just take out my daughter's name and insert the name of your child, here is the story I shared:
So I have this girl, she’s 18 years old, going to be a senior in high school in the fall, and has a heart of gold. When I mention her name I always hear, “Oh, I LOVE Izzy!” That wasn’t always the case.There actually was a time when teachers would see her name on their roster, roll their eyes and wonder how they were going to make it through the year. There was a time when no one, not even her extended family, would come to her birthday parties.
Izzy was born the last of 3 children, with almost 5 years between her and her closest sibling. She was a tough baby, cried a lot, was kind of small, not like my other 2 at all. I chalked it up to disposition, and the possibility that I may not be remembering their infancies with 100% accuracy. While she was a toddler Izzy really had me questioning my parenting skills. Everything I asked her to do was a battle. My patience was nearly nonexistent, partly because of her behavior and partly because of other people’s reaction to her.
Like when we tried a couple of different times to find a family church. Izzy’s flamboyant personality caused Sunday school teachers to politely ask us to try other alternatives for her if we wanted to continue to attend services. I tried taking her to story time at the library, to gymnastics classes, and to swimming. When none of those activities were consistently successful, I started to get nervous about what school was going to be like for her. Only I wasn’t prepared for how bad it would be. I wasn’t prepared for how crushing it would feel to have so many people reject my child.
I started to feel like a helicopter mom, so I decided to enroll Izzy in a daycare, give her other children to play with (and a chance to be away from my hovering!). Very shortly after she began Izzy was asked to leave. She had had a particularly noisy incident at naptime that ended with the staff locking her in a bathroom until she was quiet.The next place was a home childcare. The provider mentioned to me a couple of times that Izzy made the other kids uncomfortable because she always wore socks on her hands. I didn’t understand the problem, I thought it was adorable how she talked in third person with her little puppet hands! That sitter called me over the holidays and said she was going to stop doing childcare, effective immediately, so I needed to find a new place for Izzy before school started up again. I found out that never happened, she just didn’t know how to tell me she didn’t like my child. The next sitter was at least honest and told me she couldn’t handle Izzy, and didn’t want to watch her. And once it was finally time to start school Izzy’s behaviors did cause her to get suspended, multiple times.
I started to wonder if her home life was to blame, she had endured a lot of stress for a little girl (her daddy and grandma had cancer, and then her dad and I divorced). I assumed her behaviors were the result of her disposition and trauma, not anything else. When she was kicked out of first grade, and then second grade, I felt hopeless. By that point I was raising 3 kids alone, I had amped up my Prozac to 4X the original dose and still had this constant lump in my throat. I was feeling alone, and completely responsible for all of Izzy’s struggles. I mean, how did I make such a troubled person? What did I do wrong? She didn’t deserve this, she didn’t ask for this, and she was sooooo unhappy. She was running teachers out of her building (both her Kindergarten and First grade teachers retired after Izzy’s class!). For the longest time, her sister and brother were embarrassed to have friends over. The first time I talked to our doctor about my concerns and I was told Izzy was just a “spoiled brat.” Most other people shared that sentiment. But by now, deep down I knew this wasn’t true. So I kept digging. I researched her behaviors, I attended a gazillion lectures and workshops, I even went back to school to try to figure it out. When your child is suffering you will stop at nothing to alleviate their pain. I kept taking her to doctors and therapists, until someone said those magic letters- ADHD. Great, a starting point to get her some help!!
However, after just two years of therapy and medications Izzy‘s behaviors hadn’t really changed. She still didn’t like school, still didn’t have any friends, and now she was even was being targeted by bullies. Sometimes she would have meltdowns and cry so ferociously that she could not return to class. That’s when I would get the dreaded phone call, but before they could speak I already knew what they were going to say, “ You need to come get her, we can’t deal with this right now.”
By the time she was in 4th grade, Izzy’s therapist suggested I have her evaluated for autism. What? Was she serious?? At that moment I felt my whole world collapse. It literally felt like the ground dropped out from under me. My chest clenched, my ears shut off. I felt like a complete failure. I sat in that therapist’s office thinking “Why?” Because there is no turning back, no “growing out of” autism. Then, when that diagnosis was actually confirmed, I grieved, hard. I mean, I’m an educator, I work with kids with disabilities…how could I miss that about my own child? I’ll tell you how, it sneaks up on you. As a child grows we make little adjustments, one day at a time, and pretty soon all the strangeness is just your reality. It doesn’t seem so strange when its what you live every day. It can even be funny in retrospect. Like the time Izzy was watching a movie and her hair kept tickling her face, so she cut it. All. Or how, even to this day, she prefers to wear costumes (mostly ears and tails) over “regular” clothes.
At the end of 6th grade, when it was time for junior high, Izzy was panicking. She knew she would not thrive/survive that environment. We were lucky enough to find a school where she could start fresh, repeat 6th grade and stay through 8th. This school was pivotal in her opinion of school. And of herself. They welcomed her in, treated her like the valuable human being that she is. They made her proud of her unique view of the world. They helped her notice when she was making good choices, instead of waiting to punish the poor ones. Over time that allowed her to notice all the amazing things she does well. And, by reminding all of the students that every one of us has struggles, the level of empathy at that school was unlike any I had ever seen . We all need a bit of gentle kindness in our day, a safe place to learn and grow. I always hoped that my home would be that place for my family, but realistically I know it takes more than the good intentions of one momma to make a successful person. She needed to feel safe and secure throughout her whole day, especially while her confidence was rebuilt from ruins.
Since moving on to high school Izzy has still had some conflicts, but because of the strong foundation she was able to build during such an important growth period she believes that she is here to make a positive difference and has been able to resolve any issues fairly quickly. She just needed time, support, and people to patiently teach her appropriate behaviors when she is feeling overwhelmed. It felt good to have the backup, as a parent, from people who treat Izzy respectfully while guiding her to her fullest potential. Now she is a shining light in her school, not the student teachers groan about. Her perspective on the world has made my life so much more interesting and knowledge filled, so much more satisfying. People sometimes ask “how do you do it?” I didn’t realize I had a choice. This is my child, this is my life.
How many parents do you know who think they have done a perfect job raising their children? None, right?!! That is because we are all human, we all make mistakes. And for whatever reason, when you have a child with a disability you feel like people are judging you more harshly, watching your every move so to speak. That can lead us parents into a tailspin of doubt that can be really hard to find you way out of. I have gathered together some strategies today that have worked well for myself and other families I know when dealing with the ups and downs of parenting a child on the autism spectrum. These strategies will ideally keep you, and your family, out the tailspin altogether and maybe even enjoying your time with one another!
1. Make "Me" Time.
That goes for everyone in the family. We hear a lot of experts talk about taking care of yourself in order to be the best parent you can be, but people forget that children need their "me" time too. They need time and space to just relax, explore, let their minds wander without grown-ups directing their every move. For me it means waking up at least 30 minutes before anyone else so I can slowly prepare my mind for the day. For my daughter it means spending time in her room, as soon as she gets home from school, and simply listening to music and looking out the window. It makes for much kinder interactions, and it is noticeable when we have to break from our routines.
2. Plan Thoughtfulness.
In the hustle and bustle of parenting it is easy to overlook all the helpful things our friends and family do for us on a regular basis. But everyone likes to be appreciated, so make a habit (or put it on your schedule) to send words of thanks to some of your support network each week. Let your children see you expressing your thanks and appreciation too, so that it becomes more natural for them to recognize kindnesses. And don't forget to thank children for their efforts as well!
3. Be Screen-Free.
No, not all the time! I'm not that naive! But I have heard from a lot of families who enforce (at minimum) a nightly cut-off time for any screens, which includes phones, t.v., computers, handheld games...everything, for everyone (YES, parents too!). Research suggests that we allow our minds to slow down and adjust for sleeping by dimming the lights, turning off electronics, and listening to classical music at least 30 minutes before going to sleep. Perfect setting for a good bedtime read, don't you think?!
4. Declare Home a Safe Zone.
By no means am I implying that disagreements aren't allowed at home. However, I am suggesting that an arrangement be made that discussions happen, listening happens, and feedback happens...all with the intent of creating more capable, caring, successful people. A lot of conversations in homes (especially between siblings!) can be downright mean-spirited. I like the idea of home being a safe haven, where we can express our feelings and opinions without the fear of being attacked, and that really cannot happen unless everyone in the home is working from a place of growth rather than defensiveness. When you have a family member with a disability there is often more frustration than in a typical home. Just listening to one another, instead of trying to stir up controversy or play the blame game, is a wonderful way to remind our family that they are valuable and important.
I cannot tell you how many times a deep belly laugh made the difference between a good or bad day in my life! From the outside we might look incredibly goofy, but get those happy endorphins flowing and I don't care how silly I look!
Overall, these sound easy enough, right? They aren't though. They take some work. New routines can take anywhere from 21 days to a year to become habits, so be patient with yourself and your family when starting something new. I have seen plenty of homes where many of these ideas are a way of life, and it is well worth the effort in my opinion. Your family is worth it. And the more kindness you share, starting at home, the more kindness that will come your way. I don't know how or why it works that way, it just does. So, like Ellen says, be kind to one another.
Autism Awareness Month 2014
Welcome to the Land of Sunshine! Today is International Autism Awareness Day, which I thought was as good a time as any to start sharing some thoughts on the topic.
My daughter has autism. She also has brown hair, blue eyes, a twisted sense of humor, an enormous overflow of empathy, and an incredible artist eye. She is a lesson in patience, a constant reminder of the impact of our words, and my endless source of joy. It took almost 18 years to get here, but it was worth every minute. How, you ask, did i turn a potentially devastating diagnosis into something so amazing? Sunshine. And lots of hard work. Don't get me wrong, I am far from perfect. But enough things went well in raising my daughter (and enough people held my hand along the way) that she has been able to take her gifts and soar.
I made a conscious decision early in my daughter's life to be positive. I decided I would gather as much information as I could get my hands on, talk to as many professionals as would take time to speak with me, and develop a network of kindness with which to surround her. In my blog I intend to share some of the wonderful resources that have made a difference in our family, as well as try to keep up with more current data and tricks of the trade. I hope to touch your heart, offer glimmers of hope, and loads of smiles.
Here's to my 1 in 68!
Colleen writes with the real-life experience of raising three children as a single mom, one of whom happens to have autism. With too much on her plate, humor is Colleen's survival technique, often to the horror of her children! Welcome to the Land of Sunshine!
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