autism · Down syndrome · special needs parenting

How Summer Changes When You Have Kids With High Needs

Summer break isn’t my favorite.

I used to love it. We had a camper and several times each summer our family would visit different parks around the state, enjoying nature and time together. It was idyllic, and this, or something similar is what summer means to many families.

If I had to choose just one word for what has changed, that word would be vigilance.

Our son, Ben, has high needs. Yes, he has Down syndrome, but so does Alex, there’s a difference. Add in autism, with some hefty medical and psychiatric diagnoses, and time with him requires constant vigilance. Like bringing super busy and fearless two-year-old twins to the Grand Canyon overlook without a rail kind of vigilance. And that is just outside at our home, when we go anywhere else our efforts are multiplied.

This is why:

  1. Our child doesn’t have discernment. He occupies a twelve-year-old body, but his mind is much like that of a toddler. Dangers like busy roads, campfires and water mean nothing to him, and we have no way to explain it to him.
  2. He doesn’t learn from experience. Family members have been flummoxed to see him run into the water until it’s over his head, then stand there until someone rescues him. After coming out coughing and hacking, he will turn around and do it again. And again. And again. He will even laugh while doing it because he gets attention for it. He has yet to grow out of it, and I have my doubts that he will. Any time spent near anything dangerous is similar.
  3. He doesn’t respond to punishment of any sort. Neither in school nor at home. We have yet to find a way to create a consequence for his actions which discourages him from doing the same in the future, and that is with social workers and psychologists using their best tools. (No, this isn’t an invitation for you to share your idea with us).
  4. He melts down. Too much stimulation, too many “no’s” or transitions, or just any change of setting are triggers for meltdowns. Anyone with a toddler knows what it looks like, flopping on the floor, screaming, kicking, hitting, biting and more, with murderous rage. But this is a twelve-year-old. He weighs about 100 pounds now, and he isn’t getting any smaller.
  5. He has discovered that taking his clothes off gets a reaction, and he loves reactions. Any time spent in public is taking the risk of public nudity.
  6. It’s a break from the structure and routine that keeps him together. School is a setting with professionals who work with him on these and many other things. He craves the predictability, and reproducing it at home doesn’t and won’t work, and goes against the fluidity that makes summer fun for the other kids.

We aren’t alone either. You may not see them, chances are they are holed up at home being selective about going out, but there are many families like ours, struggling just to visit the lake for an hour, or stop at the ice cream store for a cone on a hot evening. We know we need to get our kids into the community, but we do it judiciously, because so often it ends in frustrated exhaustion and tears. We live this year-round, but during the school year, our children have the structure and stability of professionals during the day, and we meet them refreshed and ready in the evening. Those with school during the summer have less of it, and the free time feels chaotic to them, and their families both.

Why do I bother with telling you this?

Because not very many people will. We left church, one with a special needs ministry because our son’s behavior and medical needs were too much for the volunteers. We no longer attend the special needs family camp we tried, because his needs were too much for the volunteers. We are the outsiders, the resources there are don’t fit for us, and we struggle alone. And I think it needs to be said.

 

Down syndrome · parenting · special needs parenting

Making Peace With Our Question Mark

When you have a child, they say your heart walks around outside your body, and I couldn’t agree more. All of the hopes and dreams of another person somehow mean as much to me as my own ever have.

We tend to think we will know what parenthood looks like going in. It starts with midnight feeds and changing diapers and blossoms into milestones. Before you know it there’s an independent human being making decisions and taking on the world. Supposedly, if you do a halfway decent job of it, the child becomes successful and lives a good life. But the reality is seldom so cut and dried.

When you have a baby with a developmental disability, you get advance notice that children don’t come with a recipe, guaranteed to come out as expected as long as you follow the directions properly. You know how it’s supposed to go: play sports, do well in school, go to a good college, find a wonderful spouse and enter a great career. Ensure good values and belief system of your leaning. Stick a toothpick in it to ensure it’s baked through and voila!

The recipe is punctuated with random question marks, some more than others, but we don’t understand them, don’t like them, and do our best to ignore them or stomp them into the ground.

Our son Alex is 16 now (hokey Pete, how did that happen?) and we aren’t sure if or how or when college or trade school will happen. He has career aspirations, and we work together with his school team to make step by step goals towards them. He is thoughtful and tender hearted, so we hope for him to find true love. Independence is still millions of baby steps away, and not a clear picture yet.

The recipe card most people cling to is the length of a novel for us, with many revisions and impromptu modifications. Our question marks are neither random nor infrequent. They started immediately and they’re everywhere. Early on we looked question marks straight in the eyes, then made it a full partner in the effort instead of something we try to avoid or ignore. We embrace the questions because we recognize that nothing is given or assumed for anyone, but especially so when parenting children who are not neurotypical.

Once you acknowledge the question mark, you can make peace with it, not only on behalf of your child, but in general. There’s a certain comfort in saying aloud that results are not always proportional to the effort and plans , no matter how brilliantly derived, unravel here and there. Once it’s on the table, the question mark isn’t so terrifying anymore, and it frees you up to focus on the process without clinging so desperately to results.

In so doing we find the magic in the process. And oh boy do we know about magic around here.

special needs parenting

Dusting Off My Gratitude Perspective

Sunday night it started with a fever, vomiting, runny nose and cough. We thought Ben had influenza, so right away on Monday we took him to the doctor for the flu test and to get Tamiflu, which is the recommendation from his Infectious Disease Doctor and Immunologist. The test was negative, leaving us to wait it out instead of getting a plan of action.

I prefer action.

His symptoms have ebbed, flowed, and yesterday triggered a Cyclical Vomiting episode, which we caught early and aborted. It’s Thursday and there’s no end to this mysterious sickness in sight.

Do you happen to have a thesaurus in front of you? Because I am every single synonym available in the English language for frustrated and worried. If you take the normal angst that sets in as a child’s illness lingers past four days and add to it the zebra qualities that Ben has and his uncanny ability to develop bizarre illnesses, then add a few drops of the stress of the potential for leukemia recurrence that always occupies a small piece of my brain. I’m sure you can imagine the scenarios playing out in my mind. And hey, guess what?! I have a hysterectomy scheduled for next week.

I’ve found myself sinking into a mire of what ifs.

This morning I recalled an old trick. It’s been awhile since life has been this chaotic, so my trick was stuffed away in a corner and pretty dusty, but I pulled it out and shook it off to find it in excellent working condition.

My trick is something I call gratitude perspective, and it goes like this:

  • Ben is like a wounded T Rex when he’s sick. He stomps through his day making the whole family as miserable as he is. But gratitude perspective says thank goodness for Tylenol to take the edge off.
  • I’m panicking about my surgery next week. It’s a huge adjustment for the whole family to have me needing care instead of giving it, and if Ben doesn’t get better before then…But gratitude perspective says thank goodness this isn’t happening next week.
  • I’m tired; mentally, physically and emotionally. But gratitude perspective reminds me that Ben is sleeping through the night, so that at least I don’t have sleep deprivation on top of the fatigue that accompanies caring for a sick child.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. It’s a trick I learned when Ben was sick all the time (Gratitude perspective says thank goodness it has been a good long while since his sickness was a daily fact of life, and now it is an exception instead of the rule.) This trick literally kept my head on straight through many of the months and years of Hirschsprung’s, leukemia and dozens of hospitalizations. (Gratitude perspective; he isn’t in the hospital!)

I’m not sure I would have developed and refined this trick had it not been for the many times that Ben’s situation was dire enough to sap me of my joy and peace and forced me to cling to the tiny victories to survive.

Since those years I have stumbled into reading about resilience psychology, and gratitude is a major factor in resilience. Finding small slivers of goodness in rotten situations snatches back a sense of control in an otherwise uncontrollable circumstance. It may sound insignificant, but it’s a life ring in a rip tide.

I wish I hadn’t packed it up for so long, this gratitude perspective. It’s just as effective as tool in daily life as it is in the disruptions. Rather than grasping for a life ring after getting caught in the rip tide, wouldn’t it be better to just zip on a life preserver as a preventative measure?

special needs parenting

If Comparison is the Thief of Joy, Then Count Me Out

As a blogger, I follow many bloggers, it’s what bloggers do. I love reading about other families and lifestyles and I often find myself nodding in agreement with the words on the pages, sometimes daubing away tears, other times spewing coffee with laughter; and when I read those, it makes my day.

On the flip side, there are many headlines that I scroll right on by.

When I do, it’s a bonafide case of “it’s not you, it’s me” I can be a little touchy, you see.

Actually, I’m not certain that touchy is the right word. It’s just that the normal challenges of parenthood elude me. When I read about potty training a 3-year-old (as challenging as that may be) I can’t relate, it never has been and never will be my challenge (Hannah was so the world’s easiest child to potty train, and the rest were a whole different ballgame). Just insert whatever normalish rite of passage parents are struggling with, and picture me making this face and scrolling right on by.

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Most bloggers strive for relatability, and that relatability is for the masses, the typical families with the usual struggles and normal crises.

Which means that they don’t relate to me at all, not even the tiniest little bit.

In a 16 year series of combined baby steps, normal steps and a few truly giant leaps, we have left behind any semblance of relatabilty in exchange for quirkiness and complexity.

This leaves us in a situation of continually trying to help people see us and make a bit of headspace for us where we are. Wading though the depths of normalcy on a daily basis, which reinforce just how unrelatable we have become. It’s a constant, relentless cycle.

Social media is like that for parents of kids with complex needs.

There’s this dichotomy for us when we log on and scroll down. My feed is a mix of folks from my family, high school, college and my former jobs, so there’s a pretty sizeable chunk of average in my timeline. That average is foreign to me, and often reminds me of just how many ways we veer away from average. Another contingent is my cadre of parents of complex kids. The ones whose lives are just as unusual as my own. Connecting with them feeds my soul. I write for them, and I read their posts and breathe in the connection.

In order to keep balance, though, I tend to avoid much of the Normal McNormalson that pops into my life via my screens. Leading our family through each day is a feat in itself, I don’t need the constant comparison to slow me down.

Keeping up with the Joneses will never happen. You know how they say that good fences make good neighbors? The same is true of the social media and blogging neighbors. I maintain a virtual privacy fence loaded up with latches and locks, not to keep my family in, but to limit the potential for constantly comparing and contrasting on my end.

That yellow tulip, popping up right there in the midst of all the purple makes for great contrast. It doesn’t blend, it doesn’t match, it just stands out. The tulip almost certainly hasn’t a care in the world about it’s mismatched setting, and likewise, I prefer not to fuss about all the purple flowers surrounding our singular yellow bloom. Our blossom is lovely in it’s own right, and needs not concern itself too much with the vast purple expanse surrounding it.

If comparison is the thief of joy, then I don’t think it’s a game I need to play. Protecting my heart and shielding my joy makes life around here so much sweeter, which is just the way I like it.

marriage · parenting · special needs parenting

A Tribute To My Husband…

We are a case study of opposites attracting. He’s a headstrong doer, I’m a heart-strong be-er. He takes conflict with his daily coffee, whereas I will go to the end of the world to avoid hurt feelings. He’s decisive, I procrastinate. He talks on the phone and connects with people, I text and keep to myself.

Yet somehow it works. We’ve been married almost 23 years now, and though it took us awhile, we figured out a thing or two along the way. I have to say, we do all right.

When the neonatologist told us our son appeared to have Down syndrome, it was him who took the lead, accepting the diagnosis and plunging ahead. I might have floated adrift for quite some time, but Mike rallied immediately, then threw me a lifeline and reeled me in.

We often have tough decisions to make, and when I waffle he’s strong. When I procrastinate he pushes. When I get bogged down in my feelings, he’s pragmatic. When frustration gets the best of me, he’s diplomatic. When I demure, he asserts. When I feel, he thinks.

I’m pretty sure people envision me in the driver’s seat in our complex family, and I don’t think that’s wrong, but if I’m the driver, he’s the engine. One of us wouldn’t get anywhere without the other.

I don’t know how much I actually pause to appreciate my husband. Certainly not enough. In case I haven’t said it lately, I notice you. I appreciate you. I value you for who you are and for all you do. I can’t imagine living this life and parenting this crew without you right here with me for every little detail. In the midst of it, you make me a better me. You call me out when I’m off-base, you challenge me to improve myself, but you love me exactly where I am. I know you didn’t ask for this crazy life, but you have stepped into it and mastered it. I love you completely. And just in case I forgot to tell you, thank you. You are a treasure.

adoption · Down syndrome · special needs parenting

The Next Step in Pro-Life

This weekend marks the 45th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision which legalized abortion nationally. I am not even going to attempt to discuss the law, rather, I’d like to examine the next step.

What happens after birth?

What happens when children are born with disabilities, and in an instant a parent becomes a caregiver?

What happens when a parent gets addicted to opioids or dies of an overdose?

What happens when parents hurt their children because of human frailty, or neglect, or substance abuse?

What happens when children have enormous medical challenges?

What about services and support for people living with mental illness?

And so much more.

Wouldn’t robust support of families caring for children with exceptional needs be pro-life? Would women be less likely to terminate a pregnancy with a child who has a prenatal diagnosis of disability if they knew that access to everything their child would need to thrive would be available and affordable?

Wouldn’t it be pro-life to fund research and resolution for opioid addition? And while we’re at it, there are record numbers of children in foster care at present, in large part related to opioid addition, being a foster parent is, in my humble opinion, the most stunningly beautiful example of pro-life imaginable.

Do you get what I’m saying here?

There are dozens of ways to embody a full-circle, lifelong pro-life stance without even bringing abortion into the conversation.

But it’s hard.

It’s easy to talk about changing a single law, and to carefully hand select politicians who have a certain box checked on their platform. But if that’s your stance, can you answer what should happen after the children are born?

Adoption.

But wait, is it right to separate a child from their ancestry for life? Biology is enormously important, and while infant adoption is sometimes necessary, far too often it’s a lifelong solution to a short term problem when better solutions for both the child and parents are available.

I don’t claim to have answers, in fact, it’s the questions that overwhelm me.

But as a person who has spent my adult life focused on the children who are already born, the ones with disabilities, the ones whose parents are addicted, the ones who have been orphaned, the ones with mental illness, the ones with so little support. I have come to believe that if everyone who made sure that they voted for the pro-life candidate took a step or two to care for the children once they’re born that it would transform everything. We have the ability and the obligation to fill in those vast gaps for the children who are already born.

introvert · special needs parenting

Has Social Media Changed The Meaning of The Word “Friend”?

I’ve always kept a tiny circle of friends. When I was younger I felt insecure about my relative unpopularity. It seems I’m somewhat of an acquired taste.

Add to that a family with complicated needs and working at home, and if I get out with a friend a few times a year I’m lucky.

If you look at my Facebook, though, it’s a whole different story. I have a hundred or so friends that I encountered through an adoption related discussion board about 12 years ago. I’ve actually met fewer than half of them, but I consider every one of them good friends, and some quite close.

Then I have a broad group of people who have some kind of connection to Down syndrome, special needs pare ting, or some type of disabilities with whom I’ve connected over the years. And, of course, childhood cancer connections.

Throw in people from high school and a few jobs, and my latest additions of fellow writers, and my list of Facebook friends belies my claim to be an introvert.

The funny thing is, with rare exception, I feel like I know these people well. In fact, when I have met the people with whom I’ve developed online friendships, the transition has been seamless.

Maybe this means that I spend too much time surfing social media, and I won’t argue that. I will say, though, that for the socially anxious introvert, the advent of socializing through my phone screen has been revolutionary.

Even before social media came along I demurred when invited to any gathering. If it is a large group or there’s alcohol involved, there’s not much chance of me attending a get together.

But now, especially through groups and private messaging, I am able to have meaningful discussions, connect with like minds, and enjoy a form of interaction that enriches my life without finding a non-existent babysitter or using up my energy on tedious small talk.

While many find social media a simple distraction or time killer, I suspect that many, like me, find a way to fill a void that had previously been insurmountable, and do so unapologetically.