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Archive for the ‘developmental disability’ Category

Here’s another in my toolbox series of techniques that inspire me to live with joy, compassion and courage, as inspired by the Hindu goddess Durga  — my nominee for patron saint of special needs parents.

When it comes to raising kids with special needs, there are a lot of gatekeepers who get to be on our “team”– insurance company reps, city officials, special ed departments, healthcare providers, state agency eligibility screeners.

Cultivating trusting relationships with these folks is essential to me; not just because I believe in the old adage about catching more flies with sugar than with vinegar, but because treating people with respect and compassion and humanity is important to my integrity. Confrontation is so draining. Besides, it’s a great opportunity to pay off some old bad karma!

Though from time to time an impasse occurs and it is tempting to lose my temper in anger or fear. Often what’s going through my mind is those situations are questions like: “How can they expect my child to make progress with so little?” or “How dare they tell me what’s best for my child?” or even “This person seems to like my child a lot and they have a lot of expertise, but why doesn’t what they’re proposing feel right to me?”

Blurting out these questions, especially in a tone of mistrust, anger or rage can damage these relationships. In my experience, even calm-headed, straight-out debating — trying to convince the person whose opinion differs from mine why their position is “wrong” — doesn’t often work either. They often shut down, get defensive, dig their heels in deeper. It’s useful in these situations to have a go-to strategy that keeps the conversation productive.

In their popular and helpful book Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy – The Special Education Survival Guide, authors and advocates Pam and Pete Wright propose what they call “The Columbo Strategy”:

“Tell the School Staff that you are confused. You want to ask a stupid question.”

Remember Columbo? With his trademark cigar and his hand to his forehead, he’d give his suspects plenty of rope with which to hang themselves in the form of one “stupid question” (usually when his hand was on the door and he was about to leave). Always friendly, never confrontational, he’d play the seeming fool before tripping them up in their own lies.

Employing the Columbo Strategy, you can sometimes bring the team around without having a head-on confrontation. Telling educators and other helpful people that you have a stupid question usually brings out their desire to help and mentor. I must admit I’ve used this technique successfully in meetings to illicit an increase in resources without having to ask for it directly.

The problem for me with this technique is that it feels duplicitous and can make people feel “handled.” The key is to keep a curious, neutral tone and to actively listen to their answer.

In Zen Buddhism, this state of openness and curiosity is referred to as Beginner’s Mind. In this space, one has no preconceived answers, only an eagerness to learn. While this might seem like a powerless posture to assume in a negotiation for something as important as your own child’s needs, it can be exactly the opposite. It doesn’t create defensiveness in others because it is at its heart an open, inclusive, team-oriented state.

Beginner’s Mind can reveal a lot of illogical holes in systems. Asking “why?” over and over again, when it leads to responses like “Because that’s the way we always do it,” or “Because we don’t have a budget to do any more,” is an extremely effective tool, especially when you simply let such answers hang in the air.

There are no guarantees of course. Each situation calls for its own approach, but having a sincere beginner’s mind is never a bad starting place, in my experience.

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Other people’s dreams can be so tedious, I know, but it can’t be helped.

I’m at a support group with other parents of special needs kids; I can’t see the other participants (am invisible to them, too) because the room is all obstructed views. I ask if we can re-arrange the seats, but am told that I don’t need to be there, this meeting isn’t about me, I seem to be doing fine and this is a support group for people with urgent issues, but why do I ask, they wonder, do I need to talk? I burst out crying, “I ALWAYS need to talk,” and I’m whisked away to another part of the room before I infect the others with my hysteria.

I am led to a table surrounded by a Greek chorus of special needs parents who in real life know my heart the best, and I plead “When will I need to stop talking about this?”, embarrassed, ashamed that I’m not cool about all this, that my struggle means that I don’t love my son, that I’m not a good mother. “I mean, he’s healthy, he’s not in pain, he’s not sick, he’s loving, he’s great. So why do I still feel like I need to talk about this?” They absorb my words impassively. Without pause my words continue to flood out, “Sometimes I think about what it would be like if I could take all of his challenges away,” and they shake their heads vigorously, moaning, “No, no, we must never do that, it can’t be done,” but I can’t help it, the words are already out, Pandora’s box has been opened, and the only way to describe what that would be like is to show them, and I raise my face upward and gasp for breath, arms floating as if I am breaking the surface after being underwater much too long, and they all raise their faces too, and they all inhale deeply with me.

“But that’s not the right metaphor,” I said, “because that would mean that now, I am drowning.”

And I wake up gasping for breath.

———–

Last weekend I went on a retreat called “Living Beautifully with Complexity and Change.” Our theme, we were told, would be this prophesy, taken from Perseverance by one of our teachers, Margaret Wheatley.

From the Elders of the Hopi Nation
Oraibi, Arizona  June 8, 2000
 
To my fellow swimmers:
 
Here is a river flowing now very fast.
It is so great and swift that there are those
who will be afraid, who will try
to hold on to the shore.
They are being torn apart and
will suffer greatly.
 
Know that the river has its destination.
The elders say we must let go of the shore.
Push off into the middle of the river,
and keep our heads above water.
 
And I say see who is there with you
and celebrate.
At this time in history,
we are to take nothing personally,
least of all ourselves,
for the moment we do,
our spiritual growth and journey come to a halt.
 
The time of the lone wolf is over.
Gather yourselves.
Banish the word struggle from your attitude
and vocabulary.
 
All that we do now must be done
in a sacred manner and in celebration.
For we are the ones we have been waiting for.
 
————

In my dream, I was right. Drowning wasn’t exactly the right metaphor. I wasn’t drowning, but being torn apart from clinging to the shore. And the clinging, I see now, doesn’t come from me wanting him to be anyone other than exactly who he is, but from wanting the rest of the world to be a place where he — where all of us — is safe, welcome, valued. I know that to help the world become this place, I must let go, surrender to the river and its destination, and sometimes I can. There are no guarantees that the middle of the river is any safer, any less treacherous, but it feels like the right thing to do. Every moment becomes the chance to do it again, to re-commit to letting go and being in the middle, where all the important work gets done.

Here I float, in the middle of the river, in sacredness and celebration, banishing the word struggle from my attitude and vocabulary. Will you join me here? When I forget, will you remind me to let go?

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As a parent of a child with special needs, I often shy away from memoirs and auto-biographies of self-advocates and family members.  I know I should want to be more informed, but after a day of IEP meetings, behavior plan implementation and toilet training, I tell myself that I simply can’t find the energy, let alone the time, to immerse myself in someone else’s experience. If I’m completely honest with myself, I must admit that as someone who hasn’t gotten her own story straight on what it means to be a parent of a child with special needs, I can feel guilty or inadequate when reading how some other parent has gleaned insights and found acceptance where I still struggle.

So it was with some trepidation that I learned I would be required to read just such a book for a developmental disability class I’m taking. We were allowed to pick the book, so I chose My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The unabashedly human experience of raising kids with disabilities for our assignment; I remembered hearing from several other parents that it was good, but had never gotten around to reading it for the reasons mentioned above. As an anthology of essays, it might be easier to dip in and out of it between loads of laundry and calls to doctors and state agencies.

My trepidation disappeared in the first page. Assembling thirty-eight stories from “non-conformist” parents “on the fringe of the fringe,” the anthology’s editors expressly collected voices representing a diversity of class, gender, race and struggle; I knew this wouldn’t be the usual special needs parenting book. The authors “range from a Burmese mother overcoming her own physical disability as she works through her son’s challenges, to a lesbian minister who becomes a foster parent and advocate of a developmentally delayed teenager not much younger than she is, and a ‘quirky’ single mama who quit school at the age of sixteen, yet successfully took on her son’s school system to find an accessible placement that accommodated his cerebral palsy.”

Quickly I found my first question: Is there such a thing as a universal experience of parenting a special needs child? More questions quickly followed: Is there such a thing as non-conformist special needs parenting? Aren’t we all a little (or a lot) on the outside already? I got curious to see what themes would repeat within the essays and which voices would stand out as different.

The essays are brash, funny, outraged and outrageous, heartbreaking, disturbing—sometimes all at once. Reading Kathy Bricetti’s “A Bus(wo)man’s Holiday” about her experience working as a school psychologist while parenting a child with Asperger’s Syndrome, I was reminded how many of the school professionals and other experts we so eagerly mistrust are themselves parents of children with special needs doing their best in an imperfect system. Sharis Ingram told what could easily be my story in “What I Said, and What I Didn’t Say.” She recounts the evening she was invited to speak to social work grad students and all the many things she felt so compelled to share about her experience that she ran far over her allotted time; I often feel that same sensation as I participate as one of two parent voices in this developmental disability class. Some essays offer simply a glimpse into a sliver of someone else’s world, like Jennifer Byde Myers recanting of the challenge of writing an honest-but-not-scary ad for a childcare sitter in “No Use in Crying.”

As soon as I began to assemble a unifying theme to the book, I would read one more essay and it would prove the exception to my rule. It became clear pretty quickly that the authors, while united in the label of being parents of children with special needs, were not sharing the same experience. For example, many authors write about their struggle to connect with their child, and how their family provides the child with a sense of belonging. Then along comes Andrea Winninghoff’s “Interpreting the Signs,” the story of how she, a young, poor, single, hearing mother, after years of trying to keep her son close, releases him to his Deaf culture and lets him attend a residential school. “As he becomes older and more complex person, I am afraid that the nuances of his culture will escape me. The fear that breaks my heart is that because I found the strength to love him enough to let him go find himself in the freedom of his own world, he may never come back home to mine.”

Many of the authors write about feeling judged by other parents of typically developing children. Some feel judged by the healthcare and education systems or by their friends or family, but most often by strangers in public. I begin to assume that because of our experience of being constantly judged, we should be a fairly tolerant bunch. Not so! Amber Taylor, in “’Because He’s Retarded, Ass!’” writes about her experience of tension and backlash in support groups when the other parents learn that she became a mother through adoption, as though her “choice” to adopt a child with special needs negates her experiences and challenges. Again, no universal theme appears, at least for me.

This sense of feeling judged that permeates the book is often expressed as being offended by the word choices of others. Several authors write about how much they dislike when people use a particular platitude, like “I don’t know how you do it,” and yet many express that they think the very same thing when thinking of a parent with a child whose needs are greater than theirs. In “Jackpot!” Amy Saxon Bosworth writes about how people tell special needs parents “what a present they’ve received, what a strong person they must be to have been given such a magnificent gift, like you won some disabled kid lotto.” But then in Christy Everett’s essay, “A View through the Woods,” we are reminded that we could have been those strangers staring at us and our kids and saying the wrong things if things had been different. “To the Woman Who Stares and Looks Away,” she writes, “I’m no different from you, not really. I wasn’t born to do this, not chosen because of my wealth of compassion, patience, or grace. I looked away once, just like you.”

I think the strength of the anthology is this complexity, this lack of unifying theme or concrete answers. The editors do organize the book into loose chapters that parallel the rather inevitable journey from diagnosis, to navigating the system, finding validation, and community support and transition. But what the collection captures is not just a diversity of parents or experience, but a depth of emotion, and by providing a space for the writers to be raw and honest—sometimes so much so that we want to turn away—they are letting all of us feel less ashamed of the breadth and depth of our own feelings.

“This is what love looks like,” Andrea S. Givens ends the last essay. No single entry could have painted a complete picture, but together they do create something that is rich, complex and worth looking at.

My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The unabashedly human experience of raising kids with disabilities. Edited by Yantra Bertelli, Jennifer Silverman, and Sarah Talbot

If any of the authors happen by some chance to find their way to this blog entry and have links to more of their work–please plug away in the comments below. And thank you for writing!

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INT. AT A BREAKFAST TABLE – MID-MORNING

The table is set for four although only two people sit at the table — an energetic seven-year-old DAUGHTER and a slightly groggy and disheveled woman, her MOTHER. At the two other place settings, a full but untouched bowl and a cup of obviously cold coffee sit opposite a rather messy, half-eaten dish of food.

Off-camera, a boy and a man are heard upstairs in the bathroom, where Week 8 of an Intensive Potty Training Siege is under way. Strains of Angry Birds and Thomas the Tank Engine spill down the stairs.

DAUGHTER

(With a maturity completely out of character, perhaps intending to distract her mother from the fact that she has covered her oatmeal in a vast quantity of brown sugar.)

So, Mother, what are you studying these days when you go to Children’s Hospital? (Takes more coconut flakes. And some raisins.) Like, are you studying to be a physical therapist, or an assistant doctor?

MOTHER

(voiceover, as she chews a bite excessively thoroughly)

Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap. Teachable moment approaching at 100 mph. Do I take it? WTF, why not. We saw the movie “A Dolphin’s Tale” this week and I think I did a good job teaching her about physical disabilities. I think I can handle taking this to the next level. Let’s do this!

(Aloud in a deceptively unaffected voice.)

Well, I’m actually studying kids who have something called developmental disabilities. Do you know what that is?

DAUGHTER

Oh, you’re studying Brother? Are you learning how to take care of him?

MOTHER

(Voiceover, completely freaking out but managing to act cool.)

What? How does she know? I’ve barely been able to refer to him as having a developmental disability to myself. I don’t even think I’ve ever used that term in front her her. Damn kids, they repeat everything. Shit, I have to stop cursing. OK, calm down. This is it! You’re going to have The Talk! Stay cool. What did the books say to do? Oh yeah, I never found those books.

 (aloud)

Well, actually, I’m studying in a class of people who are doctors and nurses and physical therapists and people like that who want to learn how to take care of kids like him. They’ve invited me to study with them because they want to hear what it’s like to be a parent of a kid with a developmental disability….They ask me about you, too. They want to know what it’s like for brothers and sisters of kids with developmental disabilities. Maybe you could come to class with me some day and they could talk to you. (Pause.) What would you tell them?

DAUGHTER

(Without hesitation)

That’s it’s hard to get my parents’ attention because they’re so busy with Brother.

 (She glances to get reassurance from her mom as she realizes that she might be saying something that’s not good.)

MOTHER

(Sips her coffee, nodding in agreement. Voiceover)

Oh crap, she noticed. OK, just acknowledge her reality, don’t try to fix it. Let her talk.

DAUGHTER

Because he needs a lot of help doing things, and he’s active and moves around a lot. And I help him, too.

(Though she has been speaking at a rapid clip, it’s clear she feels she has crossed a line and somehow betrayed her brother to the imaginary group she is talking to and begins to backpedal.)

I mean, he helps me and I help him. We teach each other stuff. I teach him things he needs to learn, like the alphabet and counting.

 MOTHER

What does he teach you?

 DAUGHTER

He teaches me that he’s been learning things at school. It makes me feel good to know that he’s learning things and growing.

(With a certain amount of surprised realization)

 Being a sister of a person with a developmental disability actually makes you feel pretty special.

MOTHER turns her head to hide her smile and watery eyes. She wants to cheer and hug her daughter; she realizes that the conversation went so well that if it was scripted it would seem fake. But she is acutely aware of the danger in praising her too much at this moment; she fears that she will condition her daughter to be self-sacrificing and ultimately resentful, which she desperately wants to avoid.

DAUGHTER too decides that that’s about all she can handle, and asks if she can have more coconut flakes on her oatmeal. Her day continues as if this conversation has never happened.

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