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Look At Us

I get versions of this question from time to time: Someone I know just received a hard diagnosis for their kid. What should I say to them? What would YOU say to them? 

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I remember the oppressive pain of those early days vividly, viscerally even. When bright hopes of a particular future are snuffed out, it’s like being instantaneously cold and alone. It’s dark. And the golden moments of your coming life haven't yet started to stack up in the corners of that cavernous darkness. 

There's no right answer, of course, for what to say when speaking into that kind of struggle. Just speaking is the main thing, so long as you mean what you say and don't lob platitudes.

But I've been thinking more about what I would say if I could only offer one thing to that terrified, despairing me of almost ten years ago, to any parent facing the previously unthinkable. And I think it’s simply: Look at us.

Not because we’re perfect at this. Not because we don’t have struggles anymore. But because we’re here, we’re real. And any future of your own you think you’re looking at isn’t really there. You haven’t made your future yet and what you’re seeing right now is mostly sketched with shadows and fear.

But look at us, with almost ten years under our belt. There is a lot of smiling around here. Lots of hugging and laughing. We do art projects. We watch movies. We pick pumpkins.

I don’t mean to downplay the difficulties. Hard things come. But we face them, solve what can be solved, and weather it all together. We keep on moving, and most of the time it’s not a trudge.

The picture above is from a morning after a long, hard night with Collin. I remember how peaceful that day turned out. How much we enjoyed just being together, cuddling and reading books and listening to music. And I had the thought: I wish I could have seen this day in the beginning. My early days as a mother were so strangled by fear for the future that it felt impossible to enjoy the present. But look at us. Happy on the heels of tough times. I think seeing that would have helped me to feel more okay. It may have freed me to focus on the day I was in.

Retreat

Here's what I think happened:

When things fell apart with school last year, it was a bigger shock than I anticipated. I thought I had been holding the outcome loosely. "We're just going to see what happens," I told people when they asked how it was going. At every step forward, I cautioned, "It isn't over till it's over." But then when it was over, the result felt like a confirmation of what I had feared all along: that there is no place for Collin. No place for us.

And without realizing what I was doing, I retreated.

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* * * * *

Attack doesn't make me retreat. That's when I stand my ground or make plans to advance and overcome. It's disappointment that makes me want to circle the wagons, and I was deeply disappointed. So, I pulled back. My writing on the blog became less personal and less frequent. I stopped talking about homeschool in particular and sometimes felt reluctant to talk about Collin at all.

When I first realized what had happened, I felt ashamed. To retreat is to admit defeat. I'm supposed to be Collin's warrior mama, never taking no for an answer. But as I journaled one day, I noticed that if you take the word 'retreat' from verb to noun, its tone changes. To retreat is to give up, but to take a retreat, to go on a retreat, is to withdraw with the purpose of coming back better.

* * * * *

Collin has outgrown a lot of the shows he watched as a little kid, but he is a long-time devotee of Yo Gabba Gabba. In one of his favorite episodes, Muno and Brobee build themselves a clubhouse. When their friends, Foofa and Toodee, come to play, Muno and Brobee won't let the girls come inside. They claim there is a secret password, but they won't share it.

Toodee and Foofa are surprised and hurt to be shut out when they thought they would be invited in. They get angry and want to make their friends do the right thing, but ultimately realize there's nothing they can do about it. So what do they do? They leave. They go somewhere else and build their own club house to their own liking. While they're learning this hard lesson, they sing "Do Our Own Thing," which I admit chokes me up from time to time:

We'll do our own thing, we'll have our own fun.

We'll do our own thing, we'll laugh, play, and run

We'll do our own thing, that's what we can do

When you want to play, but you get left out

When you want to go along, but get left behind

When you want to fit in, but there's no more room,

It's better not to let it get you down, and that's when we'll

Do our own thing.

A lot of Yo Gabba Gabba lessons are a little on the preachy side for my taste, trying to convince kids to act the right way through guilt or self-interest, but I love this one because it offers practical advice for what to do when you can't control a situation. When you can't make someone do the right thing. Which is always.

And now I realize that that's what we did. When the door was closed, we decided not to bang on it. We left. Yes, I was sad and didn't want to talk about it for a while. But we didn't spend much time sitting still. We were busy building our own place, finding our own people, doing our own thing.

School

Two years ago, after a wonderful experience with a private pre-K program, we started the process of trying to find a place for Collin in the public school system. 

From the beginning, we determined that the most important thing for ensuring an effective educational experience was an instructional assistant who knew Collin well enough to read his cues and respond appropriately. We made this clear from the start and again at every step in the long, long road. We met with resistance at first, but chose to wait it out with as much patience and kindness as we could muster while still sticking to our guns.

So when, 18 months into the process, an instructional assistant was approved to work with Collin at school, we were thrilled. The job opening was posted and someone who knows Collin very well, who has worked with him in both home and educational settings for years, applied for the job and got called in for an interview.

Did this person get hired? No, she did not. Someone "better qualified" was chosen.

Could anyone in any position of authority explain to me how the chosen candidate was better qualified for the position? No, they could not. The only information I got was that the other candidate has more experience in the school system.

And at any point in the process did someone contact us to say, "We know that you feel very strongly about this, but we think another option might be better"? No, they did not. The school chose someone with no knowledge of Collin and didn't even tell us about it. I found out through another avenue.

We were being asked to trust a panel of people whom we didn't know and who didn't know Collin in their decision to choose a person with no experience with Collin to be his primary caregiver and facilitator at school. And our first opportunity to meet the assistant would be two days before school starts. No one we spoke with could/would answer any of our questions about the process, the decision, or the candidate and dismissed every concern with an "I understand your frustration."

So, after two years of meetings and phone calls and paperwork and hoping and hoping and hoping, we withdrew Collin from school.

Parents in our situation, who have children with a wide range of disabilities and no verbal communication, approach school in all different ways and I deeply respect those decisions. This was just the approach we chose and I still believe it was and is the best for us.

So, today I am returning Collin's school uniforms to the store. My heart wrenches thinking of his cousins and friends starting school without him and I'm avoiding back-to-school advertisements. After a few more days of being sad, I will regroup and start to think about what's next -- how to continue to give Collin what he needs in a way that's best for him.

What Am I Doing?

I'm discouraged.

After our wonderful, inclusive pre-K program last year, I slipped into thinking that a positive long-term educational experience might be possible for Collin. The teachers and administrators trusted that we knew Collin best. They listened to our input and acted on it. We all learned together as we went, asking questions and adapting as needed, thus creating a mutually beneficial learning environment. 

Some people hint that I'm being naive when I explain what I want from Collin's school experience, but I'm not; I've seen it.

However, every step since our first contact with the public education system has been a fight. Every answer is no. My calls aren't returned. Every 'authority' throws up his or her hands and claims there's nothing they can do. The advice I'm getting from other parents and experts involves filing official grievances and contacting professionals. I haven't been squeaky enough, they tell me. 

But as I read books on special education law, pen letters, and make lists of people to call, I find myself asking: What am I doing?

One part of me says: It's Collin's legal right to receive a free, appropriate public education and I dare somebody try to keep him from having it. I will not allow my son to be placed in a certain school or classroom or situation just because it's cheaper or more convenient. I will not give up on the idea that I can send him to his local school without fear for his safety. I will not let go of the image of Collin surrounded by typically developing peers with every support he needs to be integrated to his fullest potential. I will not accept reasons like "policy" or "protocol". I will not defer. I will not be put off. 

But another part of me asks: Why am I really fighting this? Just to win? Will Collin be getting anything better from the public schools than he would get from a combination of homeschool and community activities? Is this battle for Collin, or for the principle of the matter?

I don't know. And I don't know how to sort through the questions and motives that inevitably surround an issue like this one. For now, I am taking small steps in both directions. I'm flipping through curriculum books, thinking about fine motor activities, and scouting out groups of peers. I'm making calls and getting things in writing and educating myself. And - all of the time - I'm reminding myself that, either way, Collin is going to be just fine.

How Much Therapy Is Too Much?

When your child is living with a rare disease, therapy is most likely a necessity. Collin started feeding therapy at three months old and over the next few months we added physical therapy, occupational therapy, vision therapy, and nutritionist services. For the first few years, we had a therapist in our home almost every day. When Collin aged out of Early Intervention at three years old, we started spending our days driving all over the region to therapies galore.

Somewhere along the way, I made a shocking realization: there is such a thing as too much therapy.

I remember racing cross-county from one therapy to another one fall day, chewing my lip in anxiety because Collin didn't seem to be making any progress. He might have even been regressing. What was I missing? Did we need to add something new? Do an intensive program?

But then the holidays came and people's schedules collided and we ended up missing every therapy for almost a full month. We did his exercises and stretches, but mostly we played and cuddled and watched Christmas movies. And Collin lifted his head while laying on his tummy for the first time ever. 

Collin has always been my best teacher. Here's what he taught me: therapy is a tool. One tool in the big, big toolbox we draw from to build happy, healthy childhoods for our kids. Like doctors, therapists are resources. Their expertise is so valuable, but our job as parents is to gather their insights and instructions and take them back to be integrated into our daily life. The measure of therapeutic success isn't how many times we attend therapy, it's what kind of a difference it is making in our child's quality of life. So, while sometimes a therapy has to happen at a certain frequency, in most situations you have much more flexibility than you might think.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to help determine whether there is too much therapy in your life. Ask yourself these questions every so often because, you know, life happens.

1. Is my kid stalling out? Of course, lack of progress and regression can be due to lots of things, but this is an easy place to start in figuring out the source. Kids need time to integrate what they've learned in therapy, which can't happen if they're going all the dang time. You might be amazed at what develops when your child has down time to play and explore. But my kid doesn't play and explore, you say? Well neither does mine. At least, not in the typical way. But he sure can listen to an audio book or watch a video or get set up with a toy or just be left alone for a few blessed minutes.

2.Do I or my kid dread going? OK, somebody is always going to whine (even if it's internally) about going to therapy. It's work. But there's a difference between not wanting to go and dreading it. My clue from Collin was when he started shutting down every time we walked in the door. My clue from myself was a clenched stomach and way more Starbucks detours.

3. Is it interfering with our Big Picture? You know how I feel about having a Big Picture for your kid's childhood and for your family as a whole. It helps you to prioritize when you're trying to make decisions to keep things happy and healthy. If therapy is interfering with that, something has to change. Period.

If you determine that there is too much therapy in your life right now, here are some things to try:

1.  Back Off. This seems like a no brainer, but it is HARD to back away from something you have always been told is vital to your child's well being. Maybe go from once a week to once every other week. Try it in one therapy or in all of them. See what happens. 

2. Take a Short Break. Skipping one session is not a short break. Think a month. Short breaks are easy to orchestrate around holidays. Nothing bad is going to happen if you take four weeks off, but you might be surprised at how your outlook changes during that time.

3. Take a Long Break. What if you took the summer off? Either from one therapy or - GASP - from everything? Once, I decided to take a year off from a therapy that was stressing me the heck out. It was a gut wrenching decision and I made it with the understanding that if Collin started to tank, I could start back up at any time. Big surprise: he did awesome and while I still employ a lot of the things I learned from that therapy, we haven't gone back.

The world of disability and rare disease has so little in the way of guidelines or norms. You might feel like you're flying by the seat of your pants all of the time, or like you're just trying to hang on to your sanity. So, it can be very tempting to just put therapies on autopilot and let them be something to check off The List. I really do get it. But just know that you have options. You get to make the call.