Third Day, Positively Sleepy?

From my perspective, School Day No. 3, which was a Wednesday, commenced as inauspiciously as School Day No. 2. Martin woke himself early by coughing, then had to be dragged from bed to the breakfast table. (Not literally. Everyone be chill.) He barely ate, except what I loaded onto a spoon and lifted to his mouth. (Literally.) He was scratching his legs—bug bites, remnants of Costa Rica—so intently that I made him wear pants, though the forecast was steamy. We trudged to the bus stop where, again, he isolated himself.

If they don’t kick him out of general education based on whatever he does today, I will be satisfied with that, I told myself. It was the best I could conjure, in terms of reassurance.

Beginning at 1:08 pm, I had this text exchange with Darlene, the behaviorist:

[Darlene:He is exhausted but compliant and doing his work. Looking a little warm too. Shorts tomorrow for sure.

[Me:On it. I put the pants on him today only because he was scratching the bug bites on his legs! No behavior issues?

Nope.

He has brand-new [school name] shorts and is eager to wear them.

He started laughing at one point this a.m. and was told to stop. He didn’t. Was told to stop or he would move to yellow and he stopped immediately.

The afternoons he is tired so [Mrs. N] asked resource room teacher to pull him in morning during morning work. (This is a maintenance and review period when many ESL students get pulled.) They’re going to try to accommodate that.

He’s definitely doing a lot of writing in school. I know they already wrote up a science experiment and an “about my summer” paragraph. And today he finished a poem about himself.

Overall it sounds good, except for the laughing. On the other hand, if he stopped for yellow that’s an improvement. His old school couldn’t address that behavior well.

He’s doing great.

Thanks, Darlene.

So they did not kick him out of general education based on his Day No. 3.

I told myself to be satisfied with that.

Second Day, Not So Great. Or?

Martin’s school year started Friday before Labor Day. With the long weekend, the kids had three days off between the first and second days of school. Weird, right?

Labor Day weekend, Martin’s cousin Mandy was staying with us, because her school didn’t pick up until the following Wednesday. Martin and Mandy had an exhausting visit. Friday afternoon they attended a birthday party at one of those “inflatable party zones”—basically, a warehouse filled with bouncy houses. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights Martin and Mandy built blanket forts in our family room and insisted on sleeping in them (which meant not sleeping much). Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon we had guests. Although it was cool and rainy, Mandy dragged Martin into our swimming pool. Repeatedly. Monday my father and I took the kids to an indoor fun park with trampolines and climbing equipment, and then Adrian took everyone out to lunch. In trying to accommodate both kids, I let Martin have more sweets than usual: juices, fruits, homemade cake and ice cream.

More or less, it was the last great party of the summer.

When Tuesday rolled around, we received the bill for all that fun. I could barely rouse Martin, he was crabby at breakfast, and he refused even to say hi to the other kids at the bus stop. He ended up isolating himself: sitting alone on a rock, running back and forth, checking out. (Mandy, meanwhile, stood next to me and chatted amicably with the other moms.)

When the bus came, Martin clung to me and said, “Mommy! Mommy!” but then boarded without additional delay.

I escorted my father and niece to Port Authority to catch their bus, and then I returned to my home office, because I hadn’t worked all weekend and had to play catch-up. I was glad to have work to keep me occupied; I couldn’t shake the feeling that Martin would have a tough day, being as tired as he was and also thrown into such a new situation.

I arrived at the bus stop early and waited ten minutes before any other parents showed up. When the bus came, Martin disembarked with the other kids and hugged me. He seemed okay. We walked the five minutes home, where I eagerly pulled his binder to check for any notes from his aide.

I found a note. It said: “Martin had a good day.”

I’m a Wreck

Get used to this: I’m going to post about Martin’s newest adventure, general education. I’m going to post and post and post and post about Martin in general education.

At age two, Martin received center-based Early Intervention services in a six-child, seven-adult setting, that is, one-on-one.

Ages three and four, Martin attended pre-school in a self-contained special-education setting, where he was deemed too unfocused for a 12-child, two-adult classroom. He was placed instead in an eight-child, five-adult classroom, i.e., eight kids, one teacher, two assistant teachers, and two aides.

Martin attended kindergarten, first, and second grade in a self-contained special-education setting, in a classroom with 10-to-12 children and four adults, i.e., two teachers and two assistant teachers.

Two weeks ago Martin started second grade (again; he’s repeating) in our local public school, mainstream classroom, with an aide. That means 21 kids and two adults, i.e., a teacher and a teacher’s assistant, who is designated to assist Martin as needed.

This is a remarkable leap for Martin. For the first time, he will attend school with typically developing peers, and he will have to manage with far less classroom support. He will walk with me to the bus stop—in a 2016 suburb, I’ve learned, an eight-year-old does not navigate two blocks to the bus stop alone—and ride a regular school bus: no more short-bus pick-up and delivery directly to our door. He will eat lunch in a big cafeteria. He will be cast out upon the playground without any planned “social awareness activity.”

He may learn that not every child in his class is his friend.

He may get hurt.

The first morning unfurled with great fanfare. Martin chose to wear a t-shirt bearing his new school’s name. Adrian stayed home from work. He and my mother-in-law (still visiting) and I accompanied Martin to the bus stop, where we found five other families, some we knew and some we didn’t. All the other moms and dads had come to the bus stop, along with an uncle and a couple nannies, so we made quite a crowd. Martin greeted the twins from across the street but otherwise kept to himself. When a parent suggested a first-day photo, all the kids lined up and smiled, and Martin lined up and smiled with them. He even posed and managed to smile toward the cameras. When the bus came, he hugged me and Adrian and his grandmother good-bye—this was appropriate; all the kids were giving hugs—and boarded the bus without hesitation. The assembled adults remained, waving as the bus headed schoolwards. Adrian and I stood in the crowd, waving.

My mother-in-law and I had tickets to the U.S. Open that day. We went, only for a couple hours. I was a wreck, checking my phone constantly. I don’t know what I expected. Maybe a message that Martin was having a meltdown? Maybe a call from the school administrators to inform me, in hushed and apologetic tones, that they’d made a mistake, and Martin wasn’t the right fit for general education?

Our district offers us the services of a behaviorist, Darlene, who has worked with Martin weekly (or so) for more than two years. God bless Darlene. Knowing I would be nervous, she decided to visit Martin’s school that first day and observe him. Early afternoon, she sent me these text messages:

Doing great. When I walked in kids were sitting on carpet. It took me a few minutes to find him. He blended right in. Aide was sitting on the other side of the cluster from him. Teacher said he needs a lot of structure but responds well to it. Said she noticed that he thinks his thoughts out loud but we can work on that. He is participating in discussions and is doing well.

Recess he tends to like the swing. I spoke to Mrs. I [the aide assigned to Martin] and we gave him some small tasks. (Find someone from class, go say hi, go down slide, etc.) Then he could come back and swing. Will explain more later what I’m thinking of how to structure re essential while teaching social skills. Heading to another school! All good though!!

I responded, “Thank you!! This is awesome!”

My mother-in-law and I were home from the U.S. Open in time to join Adrian at the bus stop, along with my father and my niece, who arrived that afternoon for a visit. Martin alit the bus all smiles. With prompting, he told us about his new classroom and teacher and friends.

Day One was in the books.

I was optimistic. Still, as I told my friend Stacey, if this general-education placement doesn’t work out, that won’t mean we’ve failed. It will mean only that we moved too fast.

Del Sur IV: That Doesn’t Sound So Bad

Adrian’s two sisters, each a mother herself, don’t know about Martin’s autism, because Adrian refuses to tell them. Adrian’s official position is that, given the discrimination that still exists against disabilities and difference in his country of origin (where my in-laws reside), he would rather not see Martin “branded.” (Adrian’s parents and brother, Pancho, know the diagnosis. Adrian is closer to them.) I don’t begrudge Adrian’s choice. Even here in the States, we haven’t been public about Martin’s autism, or former autism.

On the other hand, the ignorance of my sisters-in-law leaves me in an awkward spot when Martin and I visit South America. For years I’ve avoided spending too much time for them, or covered when it came to Martin’s behavior, like I covered on our first day this visit. How many times can I say Martin is tired, jet-lagged, on a different schedule, shy, not feeling his best? Try me.

I decided this year I might be able to do something different. I approached Adrian with the idea of telling one sister—Claudia, who lives in the capital city we were visiting, and whom Adrian likes better—about Martin’s new diagnosis, ADHD. “Autism” strikes fear. “ADHD,” on the other hand, makes people wonder if your kid is taking the same drugs as their kids. Adrian agreed. ADHD doesn’t sound scary like autism sounds scary. We decided that I would share with Claudia “our challenges with ADHD.”

I didn’t really find a good opportunity to talk until our last evening in town, when Martin stayed with my mother-in-law while I went out to dinner with Pancho and Claudia. Then I fumbled, trying to come up with a way to initiate the conversation. An hour into dinner, Claudia said we should come down in July to go skiing during her children’s winter break.

“I wish we could! But Martin goes to school during the summer. Next year maybe we could come—he might change to a new school and have summers off.”

Awkward. Still, my comment moved the conversation in the desired direction. Claudia asked, “Martin is changing to a new school?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Right now he goes to a special school for kids with ADHD. But his attention has been getting better. We are thinking he can go to a regular school, with some extra help.”

If this fazed Claudia, she gave no hint. She said, “And then he would have the summer off? Do you think you could come here for the whole summer? We could do so much skiing!”

“I don’t know about the whole summer. We could probably come for a while,” I said. “It all depends on whether he gets to switch schools. We still have work to do on the attention span and all the issues that have to do with ADHD. We’re not sure he’s totally ready to leave his special school.”

Across from me, Pancho was nodding. He has known about Martin’s issues for years and could see what I was trying to do.

Claudia said, “This will be great. I’ll send you the schedule for my kids’ school vacation, so you’ll know when to come.”

Last try. I said, “I will have to let you know what happens. ADHD is very hard to accommodate properly in school. You can see Martin’s poor attention span.”

Claudia said, “I’ve heard it’s very common in America to change schools. Not here. My children will go to the same school until university, just like we did.”

There went my big talk with Claudia. At least, somewhere in her head is the notion that Martin has special challenges. I suppose that’s enough for now.

Final note: In the first paragraph of this post, I mentioned “the discrimination that still exists against disabilities and difference in [Adrian’s] county of origin.” I don’t know whether the culture of Adrian’s country of origin engenders unusual bias against disability. On my visits there, some 10 times and counting, I haven’t witnessed autism discrimination. But when it comes to Adrian’s own country of origin, I will let his opinion carry the day.

 

The Bigger Perspective

Martin’s school is a self-contained special-education setting for children with speech and language disorders, including autism. The teachers possess patience and experience in equal measure, the administration is supportive, and I feel fortunate that has been placed there since kindergarten.

Yesterday, when I arrived to pick Martin up for personal training, I ran into the mother of Brian, another boy in Martin’s class. I’ll call the mother Chrissy. This is the third year Brian and Martin have been in the same class, so I know Chrissy well enough. Chrissy was picking up Brian, and as usual, she had her younger son, Aaron, with her. Aaron attends a special-needs preschool in the City, and I know that the family has been looking for a kindergarten spot for him, so I asked how the process is going.

“Good,” Chrissy replied. “I think we are actually going to be able to get a spot for him here.”

“Here? That’s terrific,” I said. “Both boys in the same school—they’ll be able to see each other, act like brothers. You must be happy!”

“Yeah. I’m happy.”

Chrissy didn’t sound happy.

“Not a great thing?” I asked, tentatively.

“I mean—both my kids are going to be here.”

Ah, yes. Of course. Both her kids will be in the superior self-contained special-education setting for children with speech and language disorders, including autism.

Because both her kids have autism.

Because we are losing a generation of boys, and a lot of girls, no one is doing anything about the crisis.

Last

Martin attends our church’s Tuesday after-school program for kindergarten-through-fifth graders. Because the program is volunteer-run, and because I want Martin to participate as fully as possible, I send an aide with him. The aide, Janine, is a special-education professional whose assignment is to ensure that Martin is included, to help Martin with any projects or activities that might otherwise overwhelm him, and to back off whenever Martin is able to handle the situation unassisted. I would accompany Martin myself, except that my presence is nothing but a distraction. When Mommy is in the room, I’m afraid, Martin has eyes for nothing else. Besides, who wants to play with the kid whose mother is hovering behind?

I can’t say that Martin loves going to the Tuesday program. He tries to get out of it whenever possible. (“I’m so tired!” “I don’t feel well!” “Oh, I just want to do my homework.”) Compare that with Sunday mornings, when Martin eagerly accompanies me to church and participates in children’s Sunday school. I don’t know what accounts for the contrasting attitudes. It could be that Tuesday afternoons he is exhausted from school and wants time alone, or that the Sunday school teacher (Sundays he has no aide) lets him get away with only minimal participation. It could be that he doesn’t like having an aide, although he’s never asked to attend Tuesday alone, only to skip the event altogether.

I wrote that verbose introduction to establish that although I am not present at the Tuesday after-school program, I know a lot (through Janine) about what happens there. (Perhaps I got distracted from that point.) Often Janine’s report is super: Martin was asked to light the candles and did so without help; Martin sang along in choir practice; Martin played tag properly in gym; Martin raised his hand and answered questions after storytime. Some weeks Janine’s report is tougher to swallow, such as the two occasions on which no one wanted to hold Martin’s hand during the prayer circle. (He was in the grip of allergies and probably using his hand as a tissue.)

This Tuesday, Janine said that the gym teacher, who usually has the kids count off or otherwise randomly divides them for sports and games, decided to appoint two team captains and let them pick teams. Remember those days from grade-school gym class? Two kids stand up front, pointing to the best athletes first. The chosen teammates join their captains, relieved. I remember well. I was usually the first girl chosen, and I liked that. I also understood why the teachers stopped the process when half or two-thirds of the kids had been picked, and just split the left-overs between the teams. This Tuesday, at the church, the gym teacher didn’t do that. He let the picking go on and on, right down to the very last kid, on and on until only one kid was un-picked, until there was only one kid standing alone, unwanted by either team.

I’m sure you know who that kid was. Take any group of typically developing grade schoolers, mix in one kid with autism, and see who gets picked last.

Martin did not show any overt reaction, Janine reports, but it is always hard to tell what he’s internalizing.

I hate when things like this happen. I hate the insensitivity of an adult who would let that happen. (Next Tuesday I will show up at the church a few minutes before the program begins and explain to the gym teacher, in kind and polite words, the effect of his decision on my son.) I hate wondering how much Martin’s self-esteem suffers from his difference, and the irony that our efforts have improved his awareness enough to know that he’s being left out, but not enough to know how to fit in. I hate wondering whether Martin will ever be fully included.

I also hate dealing with these questions at this time, because Adrian and I are facing a difficult decision. Since kindergarten (he’s in second grade now), Martin has attended a wonderful self-contained special-education school. His class has twelve students, each with autism or some other type of disorder that affects the ability to communicate. The pupils are bright, and they soldier on under the “common core” standards now stamped onto our public schools as widely as vaccination requirements. Adrian and I have realized, however, that Martin is perhaps not being challenged academically; his homework packet takes him no more than ten minutes to complete, and about eight of those minutes are dedicated to arguing with me over whether he can illustrate the homework because he’s bored. Adrian and I have wanted to believe that, even if Martin isn’t challenged academically, at least he has social role models; half the kids in his class have language challenges but no particular social impairments. On the other hand, over the past year, Martin has made enough progress, socially, that he is nearing the level of those social-top-tier classmates. So now what? What is the next level that Martin can reach, if he remains in his self-contained special-education school?

For that reason, we are considering attempting to find a private school, with small general-education classes, that would be willing to let Martin come to school with an aide, at least for the first year or two. Martin might not be ready, yet, to make the jump to general education. Moreover, it would be a one-way street; if we pull Martin from his current school, we will likely lose his placement there, and have no option to re-enroll him. On the other hand, we know that elementary curriculum (public school, or private) becomes advances rapidly in third grade, requiring more drawing conclusions and making inferences. If there is a “best” time to more Martin out of special education, we may be approaching it.

Then I remember what I hate. Even if Martin isn’t challenged in his current environment, at least he’s safe. At least he’s neither bullied nor left standing, alone, when the teams are picked. At least his self-esteem—maybe his most fragile attribute—is padded and protected.

To leap, or to stay safe? Even on that everyday question, autism leaves its mark.

IMG_1054

In Hope, Acknowledging the Despair

Remember last week’s post so long it required subheadings? Remember the subheading “Whence My Anxiety?” and how I described the City Kids Club rejecting two-year-old Martin? Remember yesterday’s post, which was a follow-up to the post so long it required subheadings? Okay. This is another follow-up to the post so long it required subheadings, and specifically a follow-up to the “Whence My Anxiety?” section.

Done with introduction/explanation. Thanks for your patience.

It was summer 2010, around Martin’s second birthday, when Adrian and I realized something was “off” with Martin. If you read this blog, you probably don’t need details about autism’s warning signs: lack of attention, inability to follow simple directions, nighttime wakefulness, daytime exhaustion. In September 2010, an old friend of mine, an Early Intervention provider, traveled from my hometown to the City and helped us complete an M-CHAT (modified checklist for autism in toddlers) questionnaire, which she evaluated. (As it turned out, my friend didn’t really need the M-CHAT. After ten minutes just interacting with Martin, she knew that he almost certainly had autism.) By October 2010, we had begun the process of formal diagnosis and enrollment in EI.

I remember autumn 2010 as a time of Martin not really regressing, but slipping. The symptoms moved from “something off” to “obvious.” He lost all eye contact. He no longer responded to his name. His communication skills stopped developing. He drifted the perimeter of our apartment, dragging his fingertips along the wall as he hummed to himself. What we’d once called Martin’s “happy dance”—running circles around our open staircase when Samara arrived—became instead a self-stimulatory ritual beyond his control, ever more circles, ever longer, until finally he’d collapse into a lethargic slump and spend the next hour on the floor, pushing a toy back and forth.

We began changing Martin’s diet in January 2011, and started biomedical interventions in February. The initial progress was so swift that I thought we’d be done with autism within a year or two. Within months, Martin was sleeping through the night, and we the first seeds of functional, i.e., non-echolalic, language were sprouting.

For September 2011, seven months after we started biomed, we were able to secure a spot in one of the City’s preeminent special-needs preschools. Stop your giggling. It’s New York City. We compete for special-needs preschool placements, of which the City has far too few. Martin was placed into a bilingual (Spanish/English), 12-1-1 (12 students, one teacher, one assistant teacher) classroom. It was a stretch, we knew. The instructors from Martin’s EI center said he needed a smaller student-teacher ratio than 12-1-1. Adrian and I figured, however, that Martin was getting better, and that soon he would be able to function in the 12-student class, and that in any event, the only spots still available in preschool were in the bilingual, 12-1-1 setting. So we took the spot, with gratitude.

From the beginning, Martin’s classroom teacher reported problems. The other kids could follow one-step directions, at least, and already were learning to cut with safety scissors. Martin followed no directions and melted down when it was time to transition activities. The other kids were fully toilet-trained, or well underway toward that goal. The other kids could watch short films. The other kids could walk to the classroom by themselves. Martin—Martin was himself. Very soon we began to hear murmurs that Martin might need to change classes.

The hammer fell a few months later. Adrian and I were called to a meeting with the teacher and administrators. Martin could not handle a 12-1-1 classroom. Fortunately, the school now had a spot available in an English-language, 8-1-2 classroom (eight students, one teacher, two assistant teachers). Martin would be moved slowly, spending short periods of time in the new classroom, and then half days in the new classroom, and finally saying goodbye to his 12-1-1 friends.

Martin’s removal from the 12-1-1 classroom ranks second in the painful moments I’ve experienced on this journey, behind his rejection from the City Kids Club. To be sure, the 12-1-1-to-8-1-2 classroom move is a distant second. The preschool wasn’t kicking Martin out; they were thoughtfully placing him in a setting to meet his then-current needs. And I was more prepared. I’d had weeks to internalize this possibility, and didn’t even need to reach for the tissue box someone had put on the table at our meeting. Still, the decision forced me to acknowledge that Martin’s recovery was not going to happen as fast as I’d thought, and that after the rapid initial progress, his improvement had slowed. His needs were still great, more extensive even than the needs of most preschoolers in special education.

Also on the Top 10 Most Painful Moments List? Touring private special-education elementary schools, trying to find an appropriate kindergarten placement for Martin, and hearing repeatedly that while dyslexia, learning disabilities, dyspraxia, &c. were acceptable, children with “autism and other global delays” should not bother to apply. Let’s not go there, this post.

I was already blogging when Martin changed preschool classes. I didn’t write about the event, at the time, because it was too painful. Later, when autism’s grip had loosened a bit more and I was feeling better, I decided to write about it. I meant to write about it. But I didn’t. For whatever reason, I still couldn’t get there.

So what’s going on now? Why am I dragging these dark moments onto the internet for all to read?

It’s because of hope. Martin right now is living a bold season for recovery. Language, good. Sleep, good. Health, good. Attention, improving. Socialization, improving. Physical skills, improving. I am surfing an wave of hope. Full recovery seems more possible than it has in years. More possible, maybe, than since the 12-1-1-to-8-1-2 switch.

I might regret reviving, here on the blog, our journey’s lowest points. Wind, you can have my caution. I’m overjoyed for the confidence to share.