Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Reflections on New Year’s Eve 2014

Ben and his Dad at Downtown Disney.  Ben likes to tell his Dad, "One day, I will be bigger than you!" 

There’s only a few hours left of 2014.

Overall, it’s been a good year for this family.

It has been a year of learning and year of growth. 

When Ben was first diagnosed with autism over a year ago, I read every book I could find on the subject.

But my greatest learning by far has come from the blogs and posts that I read from fellow autism parents and adults who are on the spectrum.   I have felt love and support from family, friends, and community, both in the real world and the virtual world. 

A year ago, I was frightened by the unknown, but I realize that I am no longer afraid.  I have all of you, and I realize that I am not alone in this.  We all face challenges of one sort or another, and even though each person’s story is different, we are here for each other, and that is a very comforting thing. 

This blog has been a wonderful way to connect with others.  I have heard from many of you that this blog has helped you to have a deeper understanding of Ben, and, by extension, of autism.  I am always grateful about how my blog has touched someone personally, often in ways I never could have anticipated.  For me, this blog has been a voice for my feelings and a time capsule for memories that would have otherwise disappeared. 

Time passes much to quickly. 

Every morning when Ben wakes up, he asks me if he looks bigger. 

He’s in a huge hurry to grow up. 

He talks about what he’ll do when he’s a grown up (which includes things like riding rollercoasters, buying a house down the street from my parents, owning a cat, a dog, and a bird, and having a little girl). 

Yes, Ben, you are getting bigger.  You have grown up in so many ways this year.

You started kindergarten at your very own school (away from me).

You played on a soccer team (for two seasons!)

You learned to play board games (and lose without crying).

You started taking showers and washing your hair on your own.

You started calling me Mom (not Mommy).

You learned to read, write, and color (mostly) in the lines.

You were able to stand in line for 45 minutes waiting to build that bear.

…and more….so much more!

Ben, I know you are in a hurry to get bigger, but don’t grow up too fast.

2014 flew by much too quickly.

I didn’t have nearly enough time to spend with each of you, but to all of my friends and family (both near and far), I would like to say this.

Thank you for your continued support this year. 

Thanks for always being ready to lend an ear, a kind word, or a chat over a cup of Starbucks. 

Thanks to the parents who invited Ben to birthday parties this year and over to swim.  Thanks for letting us tag along to backyard movie nights and to days at the beach.  Ben’s friendships with your children mean more to me then you can know. 

Thanks for writing to me, pulling me aside at family dinners, and sending me little texts telling me that I’m on the right path and doing a good job.  Because… even though I know it’s never enough, and that we’re all doing the best we can… it’s nice to hear that someone sees and someone cares. 

Thanks for being part of our journey, and we look forward to seeing you next year!

I can’t wait to see what 2015 will bring!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Small Acts of Kindness

In this picture, Ben is busily writing a letter to Santa.  In the letter he tells Santa that he's been a good, good boy this year.  

“Maybe Christmas,” the Grinch thought, “doesn’t come from a store.  Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more…”  This is one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite movies, “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” by Dr. Seuss. 

Commercialism can easily overtake the Christmas spirit if we are not careful. 

This year, I vowed, will be different.

My son Ben is an only child, and the only grandchild on my side of the family, so he gets more than his share of presents. 

I want him to understand that Christmas is about more than just getting presents. 

I want him to care about helping others. 

Some might say that, because Ben is autistic, this is an unreasonable goal.  Those naysayers believe that autistic individuals lack something called theory of mind, or the ability to take on the perspective of others.  In other words, they believe that those on the spectrum lack empathy.   Click here to read more of my thoughts on this topic.

This year I’ve made a thoughtful effort to insert acts of kindness into our holiday merry-making.  Rather than focusing so much on what Ben wants for Christmas, our conversations have been much more centered around thinking about the needs and wants of others.

I didn’t intentionally set out to create a five-step plan, but these events seemed to have evolved nicely into five steps, and so here they are:

1)  Help him to think about his closest friends and the things that they like.

This year Ben has made a few close buddies at school who he talks about a lot.   He hangs out with them before school and plays with them every day on the playground.  In order to help him with the concept of giving gifts to others, we first spent time thinking about the toys his friends enjoy playing with, the things they enjoy doing, and what they talk about most at school.  From there, we matched these interests to gift ideas.  For Nikki, his best friend, it was easy.  Ben knows that Nikki loves cars, so anything with Hot Wheels or Lightning McQueen is a safe bet for him.  We talked about how Emily loves Frozen and he has lots of fun building Legos with Mason.

2)  Make homemade presents for close friends and family members.

Every year Ben makes homemade ornaments and gifts for his family, but this year we really spent time talking about what each relative would like and taking care when making the item, whether it is a homemade card for his teacher with a carefully written letter, or choosing pretty colors that he knows his Mimi and Papaw will enjoy.  I’m not going to give too many details about the presents since they haven’t been opened yet, but you get the idea!

3)  Shop with a purpose

This year at school, Ben got shop for presents at Santa’s Secret Shop.  We sent Ben with a certain amount of money to spend on each friend and he picked out a small gift for his four closest pals.  Then, we made goody bags for the entire class that he filled with little toys and trinkets.  We went to the Dollar Tree and talked about which items his friends would like most.  We chose a few toys to include in each bag, and Ben got to fill the bags for each child.  Then, he made a small card with his name on it and put it inside each bag.  He’s very excited to give his presents to his friends on the last day of school before the break.

4)  Talk about why helping others is important

After shopping for friends, the next step was talking about helping people he didn’t know.  This is a very abstract concept, but I decided to try anyway.  We discussed how some families don’t have as much money as we do.  Ben really understands money these days.  He gets a dollar every day that he feeds the dogs and cleans up his toys.  He uses his dollars to play the game machines at the local pizza place, or he saves them up to go to Toys R Us.  When we explained that some families wouldn’t have money to buy toys for Christmas, he truly felt for them.  And then when we explained that he could help Santa by buying toys for kids who wouldn’t have toys, he was all in.

5) Talk about how donating feels good to do

Ben was finally ready to donate.  My husband took Ben to the local toy store.  He explained to Ben that he could pick out one toy for himself with his money, but he needed to choose one toy to donate to a child in need.  Ben accepted this and went to the store, carefully looking up and down the aisles for the perfect gift to give.  Finally, he settled on a Frozen doll to donate, something he knew a girl like Emily would like.

When he got to the cash register, he eagerly presented the money to the cashier and promptly walked over to the donation box. As he placed the toy in the box, the line of customers erupted in applause and Ben grinned from ear to ear.  One lady even gave him a dollar to put towards his next donation.  This got his attention.  Donations weren’t so bad after all.

The next weekend he wanted to donate again.  We explained to him that donating didn’t always mean applause or little old ladies handing out money, but he had to see that for himself.  We went to Toys R Us, and this time he chose a Hot Wheels set to place in the box.  This time, as we predicted, there was no applause and no free money handouts.  Amazingly, however, Ben took this all in stride.  He looked at the toys in the box, his hands empty, and walked out the door to the next stop on our shopping journey.

Since the second Toys R Us trip, Ben has donated twice more, once at school to the Toys for Tots box and once putting some change into the Salvation Army bucket. 

I like to think that he’s learning that giving feels good. 

I know he likes it that Santa’s watching and it’s earning him points on the nice list. 

And I’m pleased as heck that all this coming from a kid who’s not supposed to have the capacity for empathy.

I hope you and your loved ones have a wonderfully giving holiday season!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

When Tragedy Strikes Close to Home: Inside A School Lockdown

Today started just like any normal weekday would.

I dropped my son off at his school.

I signed him in, gave him a hug, and off he ran to the table where his friends were sitting, building Legos, as they do every morning before the school day begins.

As I waved to the teacher standing in the cafeteria, I silently passed the baton to her.

I transferred my little boy into her care.

I placed his life in her hands.

Most days I do not think about this.

Most days I am busy thinking ahead to the many things I have to get accomplished as soon as I walk into my own classroom at the school down the street.

Most days, I don’t allow fear into my heart.

I trust God to keep me safe and to keep my family safe.

But the fact remains that evil lurks in this world and our safety is not always guaranteed.

Too often I open the newspaper only to read about another school shooting or some other senseless tragedy.

I shudder and hug my little boy close.

My heart has ached for the families torn apart by senseless violence and I imagine what I would do if I were in the shoes of the grieving parents. 

I cry as I watch moms and dads break down in tears on national TV. 

I scream at the unfairness of lives taken away before their time. 

And I marvel at the bravery of the teachers who risk, and sometimes lose, their lives to protect children who are not even their own flesh and blood.  And they do this without hesitation. 

But once the most current tragedy is no longer front page news, the events begin to fade from my mind.  I need them to fade because I cannot handle the pain of it.  It is too much.  And, for a time, the gnawing fear subsides.  I breathe again, because the threat seems far away once more.

Today was not that day.

Today the threat felt very real and very close. 

Today my school went under lockdown.

I have been teaching for thirteen years, so a school lockdown is not new to me.

But this lockdown was different. 

This time my son was locked down at his school down the street, and a very real killer was on the loose in the neighborhood. 

Only I didn’t know this at the time. 

Let me walk you through my day, minute by minute.

Because when you are in a lockdown, every moment counts.

2:50 pm- My school is in the midst of the end of day dismissal.  Throngs of students flood the hallways as they head for home.  Suddenly, my principal’s voice booms on the intercom, announcing a lockdown.  All students and staff are to report to interior classrooms immediately.  Adults spring into action all around me.  The Media Specialist and I begin rounding up all nearby children and usher them into my classroom.   I glance at my colleague as we work side by side, and I notice an urgency and intensity in her manner that lets me know she is aware of something very real and dangerous happening.  This is no drill.  I lock the doors and turn off all the lights.  I feel my way to the back of the corner of my classroom, the spot farthest from the doors.  We huddle quietly, behind the bookshelves, out of sight.  We huddle in the darkness and wait.

2:51 pm- Less than a minute later, our principal returns on the loudspeaker and ends the lockdown but asks all adults to help escort students off campus in a safe and orderly manner.  Students and teachers fill the hallways, and as we pass by each other, our eyes all ask each other the same question. “What is going on?  Are we really safe?”  Through whispered snatches of conversation, I come to realize that there has been a tragedy in the neighborhood.  Two women have been murdered in a home nearby, and the pastor of a local church has been found dead.  The woman’s husband is believed to be the killer.  Three murders in two separate locations, and the man is at large.  From what we can gather from information in the local paper, this man is the father of six children, and he is currently trying to get to the kids.  Four other schools in our area have been locked down.  One of those schools is my son’s.  Once the children at my school are safely in their buses and cars, I race to my cell phone to find out about my son.

3:00 pm- I pace the assistant principal’s office, one of the few places in the school where I can get cell phone reception.  Finally, my phone finds a signal, and voicemail messages come flooding through.  The first is an automated message from the principal at my son’s school from 2 pm.  Their school had been locked down over an hour ago.  The next message, at 2:45 pm, was his principal saying the lockdown had been lifted.  My heart sinks as I realize that my kindergarten son had been sitting in lockdown for the past 45 minutes.  I immediately send a text message my son’s teacher to check on the situation.  She quickly texts me back, reassuring me that Ben did great during the lockdown and all was fine.  Finally, I can start to breathe again.  I begin responding to the other texts in my inbox.  I call my husband and mother, both of whom had received the lockdown alert, and I reassure them that the immediate crisis has passed.  But the fear is still inside me.  The man is still at large, possibly in the area.  And he is looking for his children.  My heart is breaking for those children and the families whose lives are now forever altered.

4:00 pm- I am back in my classroom, meeting with a group of teachers, trying to get back to business as usual but failing miserably.  All of us are still tense from the events that have unfolded.  Once the teachers become involved with their work and no longer need my help, I can’t handle it any longer. I have to get to my son, so I say goodbye and head to his school.

4:15 pm- I arrive at my son’s school after driving past several undercover police officers, stationed quietly on side streets, watching and waiting diligently.  Several parents wait impatiently in the front office, though I suspect that the room was packed with concerned adults an hour earlier.  The parents around me question the office staff.  “What’s going on?  Why was the school locked down?  Is everything okay now?”  Everyone wears the same tense expression.  I collect my son and quickly head home.

It is not until the next day after school when I get a chance to talk to Ben’s teacher about what happened during the lockdown.

Lockdown drills are scary for all kids, but they have been downright unbearable for Ben in the past.  Last year when he was in PreKindergarten, he screamed during an entire lockdown drill.  The immediate change in routine coupled with the need to keep his voice and body still had been just too much for him.  Luckily, last year’s drills were only practice. 
This year's lockdown was different for Ben.  Ben’s teacher spoke to her students and talked to them about keeping their bodies calm and still.  She soothed them through the entire 45 minutes.   She said that every time she looked over at Ben, he was doing exactly what she asked, and she would praise him for keeping his body calm.  In my mind I can see her class of kindergarteners huddled in the corner for 45 minutes while she kept watch over them as each moment ticked by.  Each moment was filled with uncertainty about what was happening in the neighborhood around her and yet, she kept herself calm for the sake of the children.  For the sake of my son.

Ben’s teacher and I have both been working hard to help Ben to learn to control his emotions.   Tiny things that would probably not bother you and I can cause him to lose his composure in a very short time.   He gets upset and shrieks loudly when he drops his pencil or paper on the floor.   He has a hard time waiting, and sitting for a few moments when he really wants to do something can cause him to become unglued.  His teacher is also working on getting him to follow her directions, like coming to the carpet with the other children right away, even if he hasn’t finished his current classwork.   I know this is an important skill for him to master as a learner. 

But, today, I realized that Ben’s ability to follow his teacher’s directions has a much greater purpose.

If, heaven forbid, the worst ever did happen and an assailant found his way into my son’s school, following an adult's directions could literally save his life and the lives of the children and teachers in that room. 

I am so grateful that the calming techniques that we are teaching Ben are working.  

Because keeping calm and quiet if the worst were to occur could potentially be life saving.

So, to Ben’s teacher, and to all teachers, I would like to say this.

Thank you.

I simply do not have the words to express the gratitude I feel for what you do every day.

I owe you a debt that I can never repay.

I know that your job is not easy.

You deal with so much every day. 

Parents who complain that you are not doing your job correctly.

Publishing companies that tell you how to teach.  

Meetings that steal away your precious time.

Copy machines that jam during your few minutes of planning time.

Colleagues that get sick, and that you have to cover for.

You come to school early, work through your lunch, and continue to work late into the night.

And, even when you are not working, you are thinking and worrying about your students.

Thank you is not enough.

Not only do you teach your heart out every day, but you do this while making sure that children like my son safe, nurtured, and loved.

You protect them in so many ways.

You watch for suspicious people on campus.

You are vigilant on the playground while the children play at recess.

You keep a walkie talkie with you and stay alert about situations occurring in the community.

You check to make sure that your students get home the right way at dismissal, and with the correct person.

And then, you make time to stay and talk to parents like me.

So, for all this, and so much more, I say thank you.

Thank you for teaching my son. 

Thank you for keeping him safe.

Thank you for always being available to me.

And, despite all the external factors that make teaching so difficult and often disheartening, thank you for doing it anyway.

Every day.

Every hour.

Every minute.

Thank you.

***Author's Note:  As of the time of publication, the man responsible for the murders of his wife, his neighbor, and the pastor of the local church has confessed and has been charged with three counts of second degree murder.  He was on the run for two days before the police found him in a mobile home park a few blocks from the scene of the first murders.  The six children were taken to a safe house at an undisclosed location until the man was found.  The local community is rallying around the family and has set up donations to help.  If you would like more information about the family, please click here.