An American 4th @ Morgan’s Wonderland

Authentic moments of American pride are scarce in our contentious political environment of late, but I experienced such an occasion this morning. Today our family celebrated the Fourth of July at Morgan’s Wonderland in San Antonio, Texas, an inclusive amusement park that is especially accommodating to those with special needs.

While waiting for the water park to open we attended the ceremony honoring first responders and military personnel, current and veterans. We were treated with a presentation of the national anthem you won’t hear at your typical America sporting event. Two students from The Academy at Morgan’s Wonderland school for students with special needs, Leah and Gabriel, along with their teacher, Sierra, humbly sang the words “Oh say can you see”.  Afterward, Leah sang a passionate cover of  Firework that would have brought tears to Katy Perry’s eyes.

13_colonies_American_FlagWhat moved me was watching two individuals, who, for me, represent the vast population of special needs Americans, honor another group of Americans, and I mean specifically veterans here, that share a common reality; neither of these groups receive the fully funded care that they need and deserve.  And yet, they faithfully stood and honored the very country that deprives them.  It was a dose of humility that we all need to swallow. Surely, we can do better by these and others. We must!

Our nation’s leaders sit a very power tables. While they have laid out fear and despair on the table-cloth, there are still those, like Leah and Gabriel, who remind us of an America that can still offer hope to its most fragile citizens and to those beyond her borders.  So, on this day as we remember the words of our founding declaration that ALL have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, let us be about the business of improving life for, not just some, but ALL Americans.

Thanks, Morgan’s Wonderland. We’ll be back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 Year Old With Autism Arrested

The Washington Post recently reported that a 10 year old boy with Autism was arrested at his school for a 3rd degree felony charge.

I read this story with great interest as a parent of a child with Autism and as an educator. The story is no doubt incomplete.  There is always more information than what the public is given. One thing is for sure, getting upset or offended by the vile comments made by those with little understanding or compassion would be futile. I’m here to educate and foster constructive dialogue.

No two individuals on the spectrum are alike. For example, some cannot communicate verbally, while others, like the 10 year old at the center of the report, can verbalize quite well.  And, yes, just like the boy does in the video, that may include dropping the proverbial “f-bomb”.  But I hear that from neurotypical students every day. So, it’s inconsequential to the story as far as I’m concerned. I am more concerned how instances like these, as outrageous as they are, can serve as a learning opportunity for all.

While we cannot ignore the  “throw ’em in jail” attitude when dealing with difficult students. Our culture has a long history of this easy way out.  But this incident, like most, was likely avoidable. It highlights the need to better train our public educators and to cultivate a greater understanding in the hearts and minds of the general public on the subjects of Autism and neurodiversity.  A properly trained educator will better detect the triggers that can lead to a tantrum, meltdown, or an aggressive episode.

This is an opportunity for understanding and new learning -not judgment. My prayers are with the boy, his mother, as well as the educators involved.

 

 

 

 

Lessons From Autism: #1

Prior to meeting my wife, Kerri, I had limited exposure to Autism.  Sure, there were students with Autism on the campus where I taught English at the time. I’d see the them in the hallway or stop by their classroom to say “hello,” but that’s about all I knew.

When Kerri and I began writing back and forth via an online dating website it was clear there was a connection between the two of us.  The writing went on longer than I experienced as typical [typical: I’ll return to this word often].  Anyhow. ..I began to wonder if things would ever progress to a phone call.

“She’s hiding something. . .I know it!” I thought.  Hmmm.

AS205So, I nudged. And still she held out on giving out her phone number.   “I get it,” I thought. She’s a single mom of two. . .doesn’t want to jump in to things.   But there was a connection!  Why the hesitation? Surely this is worth of a phone conversation. So, I twisted her arm in a virtual sense and, finally, the digits.

Several conversations later, Kerri took a significant personal risk and told me about her son with Autism. This, I later learned, went against the advice of her friends.  To my own surprise I didn’t flinch.  I wanted to hear about him. The connect only grew stronger and I could explain why. Little did I know I was standing a the two roads that diverged in a yellow wood.

After that conversation, I had multiple epiphanies.  This was a big deal for Kerri.  It’s kind of disclosure that results in a great deal of vulnerability.  And it’s the kind of information  would cause the recipient to bow out and move on. This is a real fear of many single parents with Autistic children…”Will the person I’ve grown to love leave?”

I’ll be honest.  If I had met Kerri a few years earlier I might have been that person to take my first exit.  But I was experiencing something I hadn’t in a long time.   My spiritual, emotional, and mental heath had simultaneously found a calm place.  The time was right for, not just any relationship, but one that would involve anything but the typical state of affairs.

I’ve learned a great deal about life in the past two years.  There have been, and will continue to be, frustrations that challenge every ounce of human patience.  Likewise, there are moments that reach the peak of joy.  And there is literally every emotion in between.  Autism, like other disabilities, brings perspective to life.  There is little energy to spend on matters that are  of little consequence (and those matters differ from person to person).

One of the many lessons I have learned thus far is to challenge people  who say, “I couldn’t do what you do.”  My response?  “Yes, you can, and someday you likely will.”  It might be caring for a child with a disability, a parent that develops Alzheimer’s, a sibling who suddenly needs lifelong care, or a spouse that one day needs you to feed them.

Sure, there will always be those who cut and run because they are too afraid to come out of their narcissism.  For the most of us, however, love and compassion will prevail.  And we will deepen our understanding what it means to be human.

 

 

Guns, Mental Illness, and “Autistic Shooters”

Screenshot of a now deleted Facebook page intended to scapegoat people with Autism for America's gun problem.
Screenshot of a now deleted Facebook page intended to scapegoat people with Autism for America’s gun problem.
In the wake of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, a  Facebook page was created with the title, “Families Against Autistic Shooters.”   Scapegoating people with autism for America’s gun problem is as irresponsible as blaming people with mental illness.

We can have a conversation about autism.  We can also have a conversation about mental illness.  But if we are going to have a  conversation about gun violence in American life, then we need to talk about guns.

Gun advocates like to point to anything but the problem, whether it’s misplaced blame or irrelevant statistics.  Automobile deaths are a favorite among the most vehement opponents to sensible gun legislation. But that stat is no longer at their disposal, as deaths from gun violence  (deaths- not including casualties) are poised to surpass auto mobile deaths in the U.S.  Downplaying the frquency of mass shootings is another. But there have been 994 mass shootings– 4 or more fatalities and/or casualties in 1 incident- over the last 1,004 days in the United States.  In 2011, the most recent year compiled by the CDC, there were 32,351 firearm related deaths.  It isn’t just homicides recorded by the FBI that must factor into this conversation.  We must include ALL firearm incidents that result in fatalities AND casualties.

This problem isn’t a parenting issue, or an autistic issue, or a mental health issue, or a blacks-in-Chicago-issue: this is a gun problem. The only pathology I see is the defend-the-second-amendment-at-all-cost mentality, even it means a rising body count of innocent people. The 2nd Amendment won’t be repealed.  But it needs a serious reinterpretation for the 21st century.  This isn’t 1778.  We’re not carrying around musket rifles anymore and we have a standing army (modern day militias are usually driven by hate and fear mongering). There’s no such thing as a zombie apocalypse and nobody is coming for our weapons.  The latter would be  a terrible decision anyway, as it would be a fantasy come true for gun fanatics itching to use their weapons  against the government.

It’s time we start finding solutions born out of reason and concern for the safety of the public and not driven by scapegoating, fear, paranoia, or profits from gun sales.

*Part of this post was paraphrased from the linked articles and reports found in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and form the CDC.

The Handicap Placard: Why We Use It

UnknownOn occasion one will find my vehicle parked in a handicapped space. And there’s a good reason for it.

This post is not a defense, nor is it an apology. It is an explanation to increase awareness.

Obtaining a handicap placard isn’t as easy as some people assume. There are specific disabilities that qualify an individual (or his or her driver) to park in reserved parking. Some of these disabilities are visible to the eye: some are not. Therein lies the problem for those who do not understand, or worse, roll their eyes and cast stones when they see someone using a handicap space that they think shouldn’t be.

Imagine an 8 year old boy whose neurological processing does not allow for the same awareness of surroundings as the typical individual. Place that boy in a crowded and busy parking lot and the likelihood of him running in front of a moving vehicle is increased exponentially. To an onlooker it’s the child of a neglectful parent. In reality, it’s a boy with autism who, growing stronger everyday, that, at any moment, will impulsively pull away from his parents and run haphazardly into danger.

My wife and I use the placard when we feel it’s necessary, especially when visiting a “big box” store. Most of the time we don’t. But when we do passersby won’t see Jakob’s disability. But it’s there. And our job as parents is to get him safely from the car to the front door.

So, to those who are quick to judge those without visible disabilities, please give pause and consider what limitations lie beneath the surface.

Likewise, to those who have a family member that qualifies for a handicap placard, please don’t use it if that person isn’t in the car. It doesn’t help the rest of us.

I Caught You Looking: The joys of public scrutiny.

J can be loud in public. Any child can. I suppose a loud scream is expected more from a small child than an 8-year-old boy. But J has autism. That’s his (and my family’s) reality. He’s going to make noise at any moment and it can be piercing to the ear.

Today, as my wife took the boys out to the car while I paid for our items at Costco, J did his thing as he passed by the woman in front of me. She glanced at me and then I caught her full-on-turn-the-head-look at him as he walked out. I wanted to say, “He spared you his best effort.” But I moved on with my life.

This happens frequently. I don’t know what people think when they look. I don’t care.

I’ve never been bothered by children in public, save the rare climber behind me in a restaurant booth. And I have always tried to curb my judgment about their parents.

One of the young parents I follow on Facebook, a woman who used to be in a church youth group I served years ago, recently told a story about the sharp judgment she received from an onlooker when her child was in full on tantrum mode in public. This mom was simply trying to get her child to the car for safety and a place to calm down. To the onlooker, I say, your insertion into this mom’s life is unwarranted and unwanted. Thanks for being unhelpful. Move along.

Our society is plagued with people who seem to know what’s better for other people’s children, even if they themselves have children. But such arrogant superiority doesn’t stop at judging how others parent. Folks will look and judge and shake their heads over many other things: the fashion a woman chooses, watching two men walk down the street holding hands, loud children, the eye roll when a single mother takes out her WIC card to buy groceries, children in public, and so on. Oh, did I mention children in public?

I would think people have enough on their plate than to cast stones at those around them. Parents will do what they feel works best (an I’m not speaking of abuse- that’s a different conversation) for their children or what they simply know how to do. People will live their lives in the way suits them: sometimes it’s the only option they have at the moment.

So, if you must look, offer a smile or an expression of understanding. Otherwise, look away and go about your business.

Use [Choose] Your Words

When my stepson, Jakob, wants something he typically communicates via an assistive application on his iPad. The phrase “I want popsicle please,” spoken in a computerized voice, is frequently heard in our household.

But he often tries to get away with an “uhhhhh”, while simultaneously pointing to whatever it is he wants. Kerri and I have to remind him, “Use your words.” We either prompt him to speak (assuming it’s a word he’s practiced) or use the iPad.

The ability to speak and articulate with a voice is, for most of us, something easily taken for granted.

When I was seventeen I was involved in a bicycle accident that I was fortunate to survive. But escaping death wasn’t the end of the story. For the next several weeks there was a question as to whether I would be able to speak again. This was devastating news to someone considering becoming a pastor. Thankfully, I recovered.

I’ve often understood my recovery in terms of a calling to, not only use “my words,” but to choose my words carefully. I felt called to speak up for those whose voice is muted or who have no voice at all: like the marginalized, the dehumanized, the ignored, and even people like Jakob. I haven’t always used my voice in the most faithful and productive way. But these last few months in my new role as a stepfather to a child with autism and apraxia have helped me regain some perspective.

Words have power- the power to convey hate or love, indifference or compassion, injury or healing, division or reconciliation, and so on.

Unfortunately, I fear our world is losing its verbal nerve. Public speech is sour and toxic. Interpersonal conversation is often disingenuous. Words between loved ones are often sharp. Hateful and snarky comments plague social media. Productive dialogue is broken.

The words we choose have real consequences. The health of our personal relationships, as well as our local and global communities depend, in part, on how we communicate with one another.

This poignant video was shared with me today. It’s a couple of years old but it’s new to me. Its message is on point. Enjoy.

Autism Stepdad Training: Mischief Makers

In my previous Autism Stepdad post I highlighted just a few of the many lessons I’ve learned about being in a family with an Autistic child. But there’s another child in this family, Jakob’s twin brother, Clay.

(Bias alert)

Clay is a very intelligent young boy. During one of our first meetings he asked me, since I’m a teacher, if I could get him a copy of the Periodic Table of the Elements. “That’s a unexpected but welcomed request,” I thought. So, I obliged. And who wouldn’t? Better to encourage those academic curiosities as early as possible.

His vocabulary is a little scary sometimes. In fact, Kerri and I have to be careful what we say around Clay because he deciphers some of our sarcasm and nuances all too easy.   And, just when we think he’s engrossed in one of the many board games he has created, he lets us know he’s heard every word we’ve said.

But one thing I love most is that he sometimes reminds me of how I behaved as a child.

He often prefers the company of adults.

So did I.

He really isn’t all that interested in playing team sports.

Neither did I (although I gave them a shot and prefer to be a spectator).

And, despite his smile and innocent face, he knows how to cause trouble.

So did I.

Just a few days ago he came to me and said, “Kyle, guess what I found.”   Before I could respond he revealed from behind his back two large air-packing pillows that came with our most recent Amazon order and exclaimed:

“MISCHIEF MAKERS!”

I knew then that an air pillow would be popped behind me, unexpectedly, in my near future.

He keeps it in check though, mischief that is . . .well for the most part. It’s part of the joy that is Clay.

At least has yet to go the length I did when I was about his age. I recall once being irritated by a girl that lived down the street. So, the moment I saw her riding toward me on her bicycle I got s ready . . .with a handful of tacks I found in the garage- the kind the required the use of a hammer. With my best effort I threw those tacks all over the street hoping to pop the tires of her bicycle. I thought it was hilarious. My mom thought otherwise. I spent the rest of my “outside time” picking up tacks from the middle of the street. And I’m sure my punishment included a swift hand to the butt.

I don’t want to paint Clay as a constant “mischief maker” because he’s not. He’s a child whose sibling does not play and wonder with him the way my siblings were capable of doing. Other parents of Autistic children know this reality all to well. But children adjust, sometimes with ease, other times with difficulty. Clay is no different. He could easily harbor resentment given some of Jakob’s needs. But he doesn’t and I admire him for it. He loves his brother.

I can’t predict future challenges. But one thing is certain: Clay takes cues from me as I learn to adapt. So, I’m mindful of the words I choose and the tone in which they are spoken. Patience is more that some virtue in this scenario . . .it’s a necessity.   If Clay can live with grace and patience in this family, so can I.

Autism Stepdad in Training

I’m ten months into learning how to be a stepfather to twin 8 year old boys- one of whom is diagnosed with Autism and apraxia. Together they bring bring all the joys and challenges that come with parenting any child.  But when special needs are in the mix there’s a completely different dynamic at play.

In short, my stepson with Autism and apraxia processes the senses differently than I do.  Further, he requires an assistive device to communicate, as he cannot form consonant or vowel sounds in the way most people do.  This requires an added dose of love and patience.  And I can tell you it’s a lot easier to offer than one might think. By the way, we often call him J Bird, in addition to his real name.

No doubt I will have plenty to write about over the years.  But here are just a few of the things I’ve learned in the past few months.

  • Affirmation of love and safety comes before any form of correction.
  • All that push back over the word “retard” is for a reason.  Outside a musical composition it’s never used in a positive manner.  I’ve dropped it from my vocabulary.
  • Bursts of anger or frustration are more about wanting to be understood than “there’s something wrong with that child.”
  • A child with Autism, particularly one with a twin brother, is just as protective of his sibling as any other would be- and he has his way of letting you no….”that’s my brother your scolding!”
  • “Naked as a J Bird” moments may happen at anytime.  We’re working on this one.
  • If J Bird is outside and it’s in his hand there’s a high probability it will end up in the pool.  I’ve seen it all: hot dogs, bicycle locks, rocks, bowls of pretzels, the popsicle he just asked me for, his cup of juice that’s now adding a nice color to the water, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll suddenly see his swimsuit at the bottom (see previous bullet point).
  • Moments of affection from  J Bird without prompting are golden.
  • I’ve learned to ignore the stares from others who just don’t understand.
  • Use handicap parking when necessary without apology.  The same holds true for the disability pass at Six Flags Over Texas.  A forthcoming post on this issue is in the works.
  • When J Bird invites you to join him on the trampoline you gladly accept. It’s one of his favorite things to do.

Like I said, I’m only 10 months into this.  I’ve learned to  expect. . .well, the unexpected.  There’s more to come for sure.  My hope in writing about this journey is to bring awareness, neutralize the judgments, and deepen the compassion toward a growing segment of the population that is . . .well, a unique piece of the puzzle that makes up all of us.  So, if you’re still reading I hope you’ll return for more.

Brent Woodall Foundation Walkabout for Autism 2014.
J Bird and me. Brent Wooodall Foundation’s Walkabout for Autism, 2014.