The February Dive

Just a word of caution: the grades of kids on the spectrum (and other kids with organizational difficulties) tend to dip this time of year.

During the first few months of school, we are focused on getting a good start to the new year – students, teachers and parents alike.  We’re all on the lookout for difficulties.  Teachers know they’re going to have to help students adapt to their new classroom.  The kids are doing their best to live up to the new expectations placed on them, from social demands, to learning how their classroom works, keeping their work organized and turning it in on time, and keeping their cool as best they can.  Parents are on top of homework and schoolwork, are working with teachers to solve problems, and are trying to keep everyone’s emotions in check, including their own.  All parties involved are on their toes, trying to make this school year work.

For most kids things tend to calm down a bit over the next few months.  They learn the ropes in the new classroom and come up with some strategies to help them survive the worst of the day.  Parents and teachers have adapted school and family life where they can and have established some sort of working relationship, (some work better than others.)  Homework routines are in place, parents and teachers are monitoring them diligently, and things kind of pull together.

Then the holidays arrive.  Suddenly, all the adults have a lot of things other than the kids to think about.  There are holiday programs, gifts to buy, cookies to bake, parties to arrange, decorations to be plastered over classrooms and homes, and holiday vacations to arrange.  School is still a priority – older kids have finals to take, and teachers are still trying to cram in as much learning as they can, but there’s a lot of pressure and stress on the adults who are trying to do everything they normally do plus the holidays, too.  It’s hard on them and their brains tend to melt a little around this time. 

Fortunately, winter break arrives.  Parents and teachers can ignore school for awhile and concentrate on the rest of their lives.  Kids are cut loose.  They may have family commitments they have to meet, but for the most part the adults are so busy that the kids get a lot of free time.  They get to relax, put in a few too many hours on video games, and do what they want for a change.  Life is good.

The holidays come and go.  The adults, exhausted by the demands of the holidays, crash into a heap of exhaustion.  They are tired.  Most of the women go into a brief coma.  The men enjoy the peace and quiet.  Again, the kids are getting a lot of free time and they’re okay with that.

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end and winter break does, too.  Teachers go back to work.  Parents peel their kids off the front of their computer and TV screens and throw them on the school bus.  The adults are ready for life to get back to normal.  The kids, however, are not.

Going back to school in January is not like starting a new school year in the fall.  The kids have had enough time off to get out of the school routine, but not enough time away from the classroom to build up that “new school year” energy.  It’s only been two weeks.  They still remember that school means a lot of work.  They know that extra video game time is ending and a bunch of drudgery is beginning.  Even the most dedicated kids can be a bit slow moving when it comes to school work in January.  They may not get all their homework turned in.  They may not study for tests as much.  This is a time of year when our kids aren’t at their best organization-wise, and it shows.  Their grades start to dip.

Parents and teachers don’t always catch the downslide.  They’re often not monitoring the kids quite so closely this time of year.  Things were going well in the fall and the kid didn’t need extra oversight then, so they assume he doesn’t need it now either.  It’s not until progress reports come out in February that everyone realizes there’s a problem.  Junior’s (or Junioress’) grades have taken a bit of a tumble.

If you’re like most mothers, this is when your guilt goes into overdrive.  You stand there, looking at your child’s progress report, and realize that you’re the worst parent in the whole world.  You’ve ignored your child and this is the result.  All his carefully nurtured organizational skills and homework routines are in shambles and it’s all your fault because you didn’t love him enough to monitor his homework as carefully as you should have.  He would be looking at a life of flipping burgers except since his social skills aren’t that great and he can’t handle noise, he won’t be able to hold even that job, so as a result he will starve to death. 

(Note that I said “like most mothers”.  From what I can gather, fathers just thump the kid on the back of the head and tell him to do his darn work, then come up with ways to make sure he does.  They seem to move from recognizing there’s a problem to coming up with a solution without spending near as much time in the “Oh my God, I’ve ruined my child!” stage as we mothers do.  There’s a lesson for us there, moms.)

February is often no fun.  We figure out that our kid needs help getting back on track and we knuckle down to it.  We spend March (and sometimes a lot of spring break) getting him caught up with school work, and the rest of the school year getting his grades pulled back up to acceptable levels.  Our guilt gets worn back down to normal levels (to where we think our child may just succeed in life even though he was blessed with a totally incompetent parent) and we make a final dash for the finish line and summer vacation.

Here’s a tip, from someone who’s been through this cycle many, many times.  Even if your child did really well last November and December, check his homework for the next month or so.  Make sure he’s writing down all his assignments and actually turning them in.  If he got to the point last fall that he didn’t needed your help studying for tests, double check his knowledge anyway.  It’s worth the twenty minutes it takes to run through his spelling words or to ask him questions from his study guide.  If you’ve got any doubts on how he’s performing at school, drop a note or make a visit to his teacher.  The effort it takes to help him get a strong start back to school in January is a lot less than the time, energy and tears you’d both spend getting his grades back up after they plummet. 

It might also free up some of your Spring Break, too.  That way you’ll have more time to nag your child to quit spending so many hours glued to video games, and enough room on your brain circuits to handle most moms’ other big worry that time of the year.  Yup, the dreaded “oh-my-goodness, bathing-suit-season-is-right-around-the-corner-and-I-haven’t-exercised-in-the-last-six-months” guilt.  Sorry, I’ve got no good ideas on how to help us all through that one. 

– Cassie

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Rights and Wrongs

As parents of kids with autism, we spend a lot of time talking about our children’s rights.   “It’s my son’s right to a free and appropriate education.”  “It’s my daughter’s right to be fully included in a general education class.”  “Be sure you get a lawyer so the school doesn’t trample your child’s rights.”  Search the internet for the words “autism” and “rights” and you’ll be flooded with results.  We spend a lot of bandwidth learning about our children’s rights and how to protect them, as we should.  But why do we rarely hear parents of autistic children talk about the rights of kids who don’t have disabilities?

For instance, I’ve heard parents say, “My child has difficulties with auditory processing, so he needs assistive technology.”  But I’ve never heard, “My child screams so much in the classroom that the other students can’t hear the teacher and it’s affecting their education.”

Frequently parents tell me, “The school needs to implement a behavior plan so my child learns how to use his words instead of hitting.”  Only twice have I heard, “How can we stop my child from hitting other kids?  They shouldn’t be afraid to come to school.”

I’ve heard, “The teacher isn’t helping my child enough,” but not, “If my child is taking up 35% of the teacher’s time, how are the other children getting the attention they need?”

I’ve even seen, “My child has special needs.  She should be on the cheerleading squad even if she isn’t as good as the other girls.”  I don’t think that mom ever thought, “There are only six cheerleaders at our school.  If I insist my daughter is on the team, is she depriving another girl who deserves to be there because of her abilities?”

Note that I’m not talking about when the other kids in a classroom have to suffer inconveniences so that our children can be there.  Not being able to take a peanut butter sandwich to school because another child might die is not a huge sacrifice.  No one has the right to put someone’s life in danger just because their parents can’t figure out something else to put in their lunchbox.  If a child disrupts the classroom occasionally or the disruptions are mild and manageable, the rest of the students can learn to ignore it and move on.  No, what I’m talking about is when the accommodation of our children means other kids are harmed.

The rights of individuals with disabilities are precious, necessary and just as unalienable as those of people without disabilities.  We fought long and hard to ensure that those with special needs have as equal access to the benefits of our society as we can provide.  If we parents don’t defend the rights of our disabled children, our children will lose out.  

But should other people’s children be made to suffer so that our children benefit?  Are children with disabilities the only ones who have rights?  Is one six year old less of a person than another?  

Parents of typical children are expanding their viewpoints and insisting that all children are important, valuable and to be protected, even those with disabilities.  Surely, we parents of kids with special needs can do the same.

– Cassie

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Social Expectations

 I don’t know why it’s so hard for me to remember that my goal is to teach my child how to socialize with other people so that when he wants to or needs to, he can.   It is not, nor can it be, to have him socialize as much as I want him to.

My son enjoys his solitude.  He likes being on the computer and reading interesting facts.  His interaction with his siblings and parents satisfy most of his social needs.  He has a few friends that he occasionally spends time with and that’s enough for him.  He’s happy.

His social skills are enough that he can navigate high school.  He can go to the movies, buy something at a store, and interact politely with people in the community.  He has enough social skills to meet his immediate needs.

So why do I keep pushing him to do more?

Because I want him to be safe.  I want him to be able to tell when someone is lying or taking advantage of him.  I want him to know when a girl is receptive to his romantic interests and when to leave her alone.  I want him to be able to spot a bad relationship or friendship and know how to avoid them.  I want him to be loved, have friends and not be lonely.  I don’t want him to be hurt, not ever.  But that’s not realistic.

The fact is, our children are going to get hurt.  Our children with special needs will get hurt and our typical children will, too.  They’re going to get dumped, broken hearted, cheated out of money, and maybe even beat up.  That’s a sad fact of life.  It’s part of growing up.  All we can do, as parents and teachers, is try to teach them how to make the best decisions they can and what to do when they make mistakes.  We can teach them to try to figure out why they made a mistake and how to avoid making it again.  All we can do is try to teach them how to learn as they go along, just like we do, just like everyone does.  The fact that they’re starting with less skills than other people is regrettable, but it’s something we can’t change.  All we can do is move forward from where they are now.  But in the process, we have to try not to make them miserable.

So, the question is: when do I push my son to be more social and when do I leave him alone?  When do I accept that this is who he is?  After all, if I continually push him into social situations that he doesn’t want, I’m not letting him learn to make his own social decisions – who to hang out with and when, also an important skill.  I don’t want him to believe that he has to stay in the company of people he doesn’t want to be around.

Generally my solution is a compromise.  I insist that he participate for a while in particular social activities, then when that time is up, allow him to choose when to leave.  Sometimes he stays; sometimes he goes.  That way he has the opportunity to learn whatever social skills he will from the engagement, but he’s not continually forced into situations where he’s uncomfortable or downright miserable. 

The trick to this, is for me to remember that when he wants to leave, I have to let him leave.  And I have to be okay with that.  I have to remember that what I like may not be what he likes.  I have to not be unhappy because he’s choosing solitude over society.  I have to give him the dignity of making his own social choices and allow him to develop the skills to do it. 

And my fears for his safety and happiness?  I guess I have to deal with them just like most other parents do.  A lot of hope, a little delusion, and lending a hand when he needs it.

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An Apology For Flaking Out

I just wanted to drop a note to those of you who are die-hard readers to apologize for not posting over the holiday season. Sometimes life gets hectic around here. Christmas for our family of five this year included thirteen rounds of antibiotics, eight doctor’s appointments, seven trips to the dentist, five migraine headaches, two urgent care visits, a canceled trip to Grandma’s, a check up with the orthopedist, one oral surgery, and a new health insurance policy that I’d love to shove in a tree.

Fortunately, all our health troubles were minor things – throat infections, cavities, wisdom teeth, etc. We have insurance and though I don’t like the new changes, I’m thankful we have it. All in all, we had a very pleasant Christmas at home with just us, too many cookies and too many hours spent playing the video games Santa brought. (Shame on Santa for adding to my children’s video game addiction. Bad Santa!!)

Now we’re ready to face the New Year. Our exercise and weight loss goals are in place. I’m throwing out the last of the candy. (Except the good stuff, which will go into my secret hidey spot just in case I really need it – you know, like in case of zombie apocalypse or my teenagers are really driving me nuts.) I’ve committed to my writing goals for the new year: keeping up my blog and writing my next book. (The outline is mostly done and I’ve got the first four pages written. Yay!) School will start up again in a few days and Open Doors Now will, too. The sun is shining, the roses need pruning, and my nose has stopped running.

You know, I think it’s going to be a good year.

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