School Lunch

My 8 year old usually brings a lunch to school instead of purchasing one from the cafeteria.

I enjoy helping her pack well balanced, fun and tasty food. It’s one way I know she is cared for at school.

Sometimes I add in a little prize or notecard or game to brighten her day. It’s a little touchpoint for me to communicate that I love her and am thinking of her even when I am not with her.

She loves lunchables and I don’t. I think they are not great quality, not nutritious, and overpriced.

But our pantry was low on normal staples so I decided to pack a “Build Your Own Pizza”, Inspired by grocery store lunchables.

I split an English muffin and placed it in a bento lunch box with separate compartments. I love Amazon, by the way. They have everything.

I added a little container of pizza sauce (also known as leftover marinara), with a cocktail spoon to spread the sauce.

I took cupcake paper/foil covers and used them as containers. I added a Monterey Jack/Parmesan blend into one cupcake paper (I had those cheeses from other recipes) and put pepperoni slices in the other.

To make it extra fun (and entice her to try the English muffins which I knew she wouldn’t be super thrilled about) I added a note with the steps to make the pizza and some fun encouragement on it and stickers to fancy it up.

The notecard was the key to her enjoyment of her meal.

I also added some “would you rather” questions.

She came home delighted. She told me she didn’t think she would like the English muffins but it turns out she does!! And she loved showing her friends the notes I packed.

Mom win!

And I still haven’t made it to Publix so she gets it again tomorrow! (But never 3 days in a row, don’t worry…)

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School Meetings and Phone Calls

When I get a phone call from the school, my stomach sinks. I pause, wondering about how my day will change. When I hesitantly answer, the fake cheery voice doesn’t soothe me. It scares me. I silently breathe a prayer as I hear about the latest problem.

When I hang up, I cry.

Then I steel myself to whatever action is necessary on my part. I leave my job early, or turn around on my way. I call my husband and we formulate a new plan. I spend my life on the stupid phone.

When we walk into an IEP meeting, we feel like sitting ducks.

Sure, the staff try to begin by talking about positive things regarding our child. And then we dive into all the tantrums, the bad grades, the melt downs, the language, the inability to cope, the self injurious behavior. It’s taken me 5 years of these meetings to start to realize they’re probably not blaming us.

But we feel responsible. We feel defensive. We hate having to go over all of the data and incidents. It’s just another meeting to them–but to us, it feels like one more nail in his coffin of Hope and Possibilities.

And sometimes, I think they do blame us.

We try so hard. It never feels like enough. We want our lives to be normal, uneventful, boring. Instead they’re so filled with stress and adrenaline and cortisol that we can barely breathe. We’ve been to trainings. We’ve implemented everything we possibly can. We are as present as possible. We give everything we have to our children. Someone always feels left out.

And when we hear from the school that our kid is failing, is tantrum-ing, is out of control–it’s more than we can bear. I’m sorry, but what more can we do? We drive 65 miles to the nearest psychiatrist on our insurance plan. We take all of our children to therapy several times a month.

We create a stable, predictable home environment for the very child who creates chaos and disruption.

We spend hours on homework, we follow up with teachers (for the love of donuts–PLEASE keep your electronic grade records up to date! I cannot follow through if I don’t know an assignment exists!).

And we bring an advocate or attorney to meetings now because we have been let down so many times. We have tried on our own–just to have services removed or not be offered that actually benefit our child.

You act like we are combatants, when we are actually tax paying parents who desperately want our child to have an appropriate education.

I wouldn’t call it free when we’ve shelled out thousands of dollars for therapies you wouldn’t provide. Like how his speech wasn’t bad enough to qualify when he was 4-6 years old little so we paid for that privately out of pocket until our insurance plan changed. Now he’s 13 and difficult to understand.

Or like how he didn’t receive services he desperately needed the first day of middle school and was so stressed that the SRO institutionalized him.

So please don’t blame us for bringing whatever experts we can finagle to these meetings.

His volatile emotions are understandably challenging to navigate. Imagine living with him. I know my son better than anyone.Yet I often feel like I have zero authority or “expert status” when discussing his education and behavior.

I know most staff members try their very best. I’ve witnessed kind, warm, loving words. I know my son is regarded affectionately by many. And I am grateful they catch a glimpse of his humor and kind soul. Thank you for that.

Please understand that as his parents, we are responsible for him above all else. When we entrust him into your care, we are praying that you will treat him tenderly and help guide him to be his very best.

We pray for you every day. We hope that you are praying for us, too.

ABCs, Stars and Dots

Who invented report cards, anyway??

My youngest came bouncing home with her first report card using a  traditional grading scale (A-F, instead of Os and Ss). She has always been a conscientious student, eager to attend school, follow the rules and help other students who are struggling. She is bright, always reading and quick to learn.

She and I were both surprised to see two “C”s on her report card. Admittedly, I’ve been distracted with her brother this quarter after our traumatic beginning to the year. She requested to change to a new class that opened after the school year began, and her dad and I supported her in her request. As a sibling of someone with autism, she has unique stressors including a volatile, irritable sibling and she often has to exercise patience beyond her years.

We let the new teacher know about our family circumstances, and I offered to volunteer in the classroom.  We eat lunch with her at school about once a week, and we know she is making friends and assumed her academics were fine.

A “C” is passing. A “C” is average. A “C” is not an academically respectable grade. There goes Honor Roll . . .

I believe my daughter has absolutely done her best–but I also know she is academically extremely capable. There is a disconnect and I can’t yet pinpoint it.

Her report card stated they are fostering “independent learning” and she needs to ask for help when she doesn’t understand the instructions because she is very quiet and obedient.

She is 8.

I hugged her and told her it was fine, we would schedule a parent conference, and it’s ok. We moved on with our evening.

And then bed time rolled around. My daughter was sobbing into her pillow, feeling ashamed. I wanted to say bad words about grades in general but didn’t.

I remembered this amazing children’s book we have been reading written by Max Lucado called “You Are Special.”

It’s about these wooden dolls who stick dots for bad things and stars for good things on each other all day. Except for one character, to whom the stickers don’t stick. She ends up taking a sad dot-covered doll to meet their maker, who tells him, “The stickers only stick if they matter to you.”

I reminded my daughter of this story and the perspective  “A”s are stars and “C”s are dots to her.

But I asked her, “Does this change how much I love you?”

Does this change how much God loves you?

Does this change who God has made you to be?

Does this change whether you can make a difference  in the world?”

She shook her head.

“That’s right, darling daughter. NO. A thousand times, NO.

Nothing you do will make me not love you. Nothing you do will make God not love you.

“You are so loved. I’m sorry you’re feeling bad about your grades. Daddy and I are going to meet with your teacher to find out how to help you earn better grades.

I whispered: “(And don’t tell your brother, but grades don’t matter as long as you learn what you need to learn, until high school.)

She hugged me and said, “You always know how to make me feel better, Mom. thanks.”

I prayed for and with her, thanking God for loving her so very much. Asking God to give her courage at school and teaching her what God wants her to learn.

I still want to say bad words about report cards and arbitrary grading systems. I will employ self control.

Self Care

Self Care is the name of the game for long term wellness.

My child’s therapist said I’m the only mom my kids have; that it’s stressful enough having a child with special needs not to mention when medication isn’t balanced and we are recovering from earlier events. She challenged me to think of concrete things that I can and will do to ensure I come out of this season strong.

1. Self Care Fridays.

Once the kids are out of the house, I reserve the right to do what I want. Watch a show, get my nails painted, ignore emails, eat some chocolate. This is my rest, reflect, be still Sabbath time. I’m keeping my calendar clear

2. Exercise.

I have never regretted a workout. I will remember this when it seems like too much work to find my sneakers and sports bra.

3. Plan.

I love my Erin Condren planner. Planning my weekly tasks and to dos helps me feel in control.

4. Detailed notes.

I’m keeping a large spiral notebook handy where I log everything I do for my child: phone calls, meetings, appointments. I am surprised at the amount of time I have invested into keeping him healthy, educated and treated fairly. (I keep a separate notebook for work)

5. Breakfast or Lunch with friends.

I know brilliant, funny, insightful women. I love sharing a meal with them.

6. Devotion time.

This is an opportunity to hear God and connect with the Divine. It brings me direction, purpose and courage.

7. Piano.

I don’t play in public but I love to play and sing when no one else is home.

8. Read a book.

9. Call:

my sister, mom or best friend.

10. Take a nap.

11. Spend time with my dogs and horses.

Autism scares me.

Autism sucks. There. I said it.

I love my kid. I love his all consuming zest for Legos, architecture, graphic novels, art, the Bible. I could get past the overstimulation, the bluntness of speech, the lack of social niceties.

What I hate most is being afraid.

I’m afraid all the time.

I am scared for my kiddo—that his feelings will be hurt when he’s not included. That other kids will tease or exclude him and it’s better for him not to notice than to notice and be emotionally wounded.

Every time my son has a meltdown, I am afraid.

I am frightened for his future—will he be able to have a job and live on his own as an adult?

I am afraid of my own reputation: do people think I’m a bad mom? That I let my child run wild because I don’t discipline properly? I was disinvited from a family Bible study years ago because my child was “unruly.” Looking at you, CAV.

And now I’m terrified that my child will be taken from me.

This fear was realized when my son was taken to a psychiatric inpatient facility from his school. We trusted his school—his guidance counselor, the administrative deans, the teachers—to care for and about him. There were so many times that day he was distressed (as recognized by the guidance counselor) and he had no tools in this new school to cope and no recognizable safe people to lean on.

The one person who seemed to care ended up Baker Acting my child rather than investigating his file and interviewing me to determine what was happening.

I can’t seem to recover from this incident.

It was the worst day of my life.

Every time my children encounter a police officer, I feel afraid. Every time I send my children to school, I feel afraid.

And I’ve heard from so many other parents of children with autism that they are afraid too. This is their biggest fear. I am making my voice heard so that children with autism can be treated kindly, fairly and with justice. So that they won’t be inappropriately removed from homes with loving, competent parents because their school doesn’t know what else to do with them.

I have met with school administrators, high level county administrators, autism experts and I will not rest until I am reassured that our children will be given the appropriate education for which they have a constitutional right.

Because there is no place for fear.

My courage comes from the many messages of love and support I’ve received. People check in with me to see how we are doing and I am so grateful for their care. Recently, I was able to escape to my one of my favorite places on earth for a weekend. As luck would have it, a professional training at the same location was the following week. God takes such good care of me–and I know that God cares for my son even more than I do. God’s love manifested through people gives me strength to continue in spite of fear.

Thanks to all of you for the love and light you lift on my behalf. I’m ever grateful. Keep the prayers coming because this mama is tired of feeling tired and afraid. 

 

 

Home Coming

Researchers say the sense of smell holds the longest memory.

I believe it.

This weekend, I enjoyed a long walk down memory lane.

I exited my vehicle and stepped into the dusty parking lot, exhilarated at the prospects of sitting in rocking chairs alongside old friends and disconnecting from recent stressors.

Registration went smoothly as a familiar face greeted me with a hug and issued my cabin assignment and name tag. I was ready for a Camp Team Member reunion.

I walked around the grounds with a million thoughts competing in my mind.

I smelled the musty chapel and was instantly transported to 26 years ago when I first entered this space as a tween girl. Stained glass windows are present no longer (and are missed) but the clear glass replacing them enhances the natural beauty and I accepted the change.

I caught the fresh, fishy aroma of Lake Griffin and breathed in deep.

I entered a cabin (#3) and caught my breath in the delightful smell of old carpet and mildew and plastic.

I was home.

Other senses caught me, too:

The rustling of the plastic mattresses, easier to clean than to rest comfortably.

The sight of the beautiful cross on the lake, newly lit with LED bulbs that glowed blue at night but still somehow felt the same.

The feel of the itchy grass, mosquitoes and wind in my hair.

The camp food: predictable salad bar, mystery meat (Chinese style) served on spaghetti noodles with a garlic breadstick?; breakfast waffles and bacon.

They were all served on classic trays and don’t forget to “Stack yo’ dishes!!”

The camp snacks: Zebra cakes and chilled root beer from a glass bottle. And the nacho bar and ice cream sundae bar because I think I must still be a teenager who doesn’t need to count calories.

Every step I took, I sunk into Camp a little more deeply.

I set foot here and am instantly filled with a thousand memories of people I met, people I loved. Of looking for God and peace and purpose.

Veggie Tales. The Fruits of the Spirit song. (I can still sing it!) Indiana Jones’ Leap of Faith. Caedmon’s Call.

I see the ghost of my past self, sneaking out of my cabin just once, trying desperately to appease campers and fellow Team members. And getting caught, scared to death I’d be sent home.

Going to breakfast on Monday mornings in pajamas because there were no campers until the afternoon. 100 team members piling into busses for Wet’n’Wild water park, Christian concerts and Sunday morning church. Garfield’s restaurant where we colored on the paper tablecloths and Chili’s for Saturday dinner where we obnoxiously sang their baby back rib song.

We listened to morning devotions as the sun rose over the lake, shining directly into our faces as we tried to pay attention to the speaker.

I sense the spirits of those who have been before me; those who found Jesus, their Calling and for some, even their spouse here.

I see in my mind the empty chapel before me filled with children and teens worshipping, laughing, crying, dancing.

Silly and obvious dance motions to old camp songs.

Pharaoh, Pharaoh”, anyone?

Bare feet behind the altar, leading worship on the keyboard.

Makeup free fresh faces, pony tails and messy hair, sweaty bodies grateful for the roar of air conditioning, arms raised praising God.

Praying for our campers, and for each other.

Weekly communion–with big loaves of Hawaiian bread. Savoring the blessed leftovers; grateful for the late night snack.

This sacred space whispers of peace, joy, Love.

I feel time becomes different, shifting from chronos to kairos. Linear to circular. Human time to God’s time.

My daughter begins to learn 4 square here. I explain the rules and demonstrate the proper serve.

“Mom, are you crying again?” she observed several times over this weekend.

And then I find the prayer room–now housing stacks of chairs–where I remember earnestly praying that I would someday have children who would be as blessed as I in this space.

I am reminded: God keeps promises. Faithfulness is a standard God has demonstrated first by example.

I had forgotten the intensity of God’s love somehow. This Love that passionately calls to those who have been cast aside, marginalized and considered afflicted.

Camp is a place where God reveals through nature and through other flawed, spirit filled humans consistently:

You are loved. You are special. I want you. You are Mine.

Welcome Home.

A second try for middle school

We have decided to try a middle school recommended at the IEP meeting.

Note: Many people have suggested homeschooling or private school. I toured several private schools in our county, and many have wonderful programs for children with autism, combining behavioral therapy with academics.

As appealing as those options sound, they’re not feasible in our case at the present time.

My husband and I both work. We have more than one child. Pulling our child out of public school and driving him twice daily, paying a great deal out of pocket in private school fees, or supervising/entertaining/educating/socializing him every day is a tall order that adds unbearable strain to a family already stressed to our limits. “Just —-” isn’t as simple as it sounds.

So when we scheduled an emergency IEP meeting, it was with the intention of sending our child to a school with strong leadership, effective communication and positive culture for students with special needs.

In essence, where his IEP would be communicated and implemented.

In the meeting, despite pressure to return our son to his original school–from where he was institutionalized–we stood firm that this is not a safe option for him and unacceptable to us. We have zero confidence in administration after what our family endured.

Essentially, the arguments for “meeting kids in the neighborhood” rang hollow for us.

A principal of a neighboring middle school attended this meeting (it’s like they knew we wouldn’t consider returning him to the original school!) and explained in detail how her particular school would accommodate my son.

(So the team defined his needs and then the school will work to meet them, instead of trying to make my son fit into a system)

In the meeting, it was suggested we meet with teachers and staff ahead of time.

I couldn’t help but explain the numerous efforts we had made to do so at his previous school but we had been told that was too hard to accommodate.

In this meeting, we were affirmed in our reasonable request and received an apology that we hadn’t been accommodated.

We emphasized that he will make triggering statements again, that he will continue to engage in self injurious behavior, and that we are deeply worried we will end up with our child institutionalized again.

As a result, we put in his IEP that he is not to have the school resource officer become one of his preferred persons at school. We added in extra behavior supports. We have new assessments scheduled to better teach and support our child as he learns how to transition and how to cope with stress.

I have also added a non-consent form to each of my children’s file. More on that later.

This meeting was 3 hours long, and did not include rehashing the past incident. We remained focused on putting in place accommodations that will allow our child to be successful and to thrive.

Following the IEP , we drove our son to the new school.

The principal was waiting for us! She had guidance, administrators, and the friendliest 8th grader I have ever had the pleasure of meeting to greet us and give us a tour after school ended for the day.

They were friendly, kind and gentle. They showed our child many options for where to eat lunch, how to ask for help, and which hallways would be the least crowded.

He received his school planner and learned how to assemble his binder.

They plan to have him attend school the first day and just spend time with guidance and administrators, getting acclimated to the sounds and sensory stimuli of the school. They have art for him to do and will allow him to desensitize at his own pace.

They are planning to add one class at a time each day to break him in gently.

Their kindness and sensitivity to us brings me to tears.

We realize this is a long road but we are committed to supporting our child and to advocating for his quality of life.

We still have legal aspects to handle, but our primary goal was to get our child into an appropriate, safe educational program as quickly as possible.

Step 1: ✅ check.