WTAF: Special Needs Education During the Pandemic

MOOD: Homeschooling 3 kids with autism.

I try to be funny and encouraging and post about the little victories. But there are days when the grind that is parenting children with special needs is just overwhelmingly impossible. It doesn’t FEEL impossible, it’s like, actually impossible. How we make it to bedtime each day most often feels like it involved magic.

Now, we have the Covid-19 pandemic and the life that felt impossible has been replaced by a vortex of electric anxiety and fury. I am mad. Every. Day.

Do you know why? The schools.

I live in California. In our school district, we had the choice in August to keep our children home for the entire school year, or to send them back to campus. We didn’t know how things were going to shake out. Cases were blowing up! And I have 3 kids who need a 1 to 1 aide to keep them safe and engaged in their learning. Safe, as in, don’t let me kid run away into the parking lot or hit himself because he’s so frustrated that a friend took his LEGOs.

Yeah. I was not sending those children to the dystopian school of “Dune” meets “12 Monkeys”.

This is a very divisive subject and I am not here to argue keeping kids home vs sending them to campus. That’s a family choice. And this is mine.

It seems, from my own experience, that families of special kids are keeping their children home in a higher proportion to those with neuro-typical children. And that means that children who need the most in-person help, are not being receiving these services. Or, they are being offered a minimum of these services compared to when these kids were on campus up until March when campuses closed across the state.

In our school district, distance learning was offered for the entire school year of 20/21. We had to choose in August how we thought the severity of the pandemic would play out. And how we thought the schools would handle educating our children. As the mother of a 6th grader, a 2nd grader and an pre-k student, I am realizing the disparity of educational and therapeutic services being offered.

My eldest has been in a holding pattern for 5 weeks, waiting for his out-of-district placement to come through because the district has their own opinion about where he belongs based on his behavioral issues — issues that he had due to an inappropriate placement that stretched back to the summer of 2019 — when he was triggered by bullies and peers who would spit on him and threatened to beat him with sticks. Nice, huh? This is my sweet Aspie who uses baby talk whenever he talks to our pet cat and can tell you anything about dinosaurs or Godzilla and can draw amazing paleo art. He’s not hitting any of his academic benchmarks because they spent every day trying, and failing, to get him to be present in the classroom.

My middle child is in a general education classroom and he spends 5 hours sitting in front of a laptop doing Zoom School. He has a “break out” room where he, his teacher, his aide, or myself can elect to place him if he’s struggling to engage in learning. Let me tell you, he’s in that break out room half of his time. With autism and ADHD, he can’t sit through all of the assignments. He can’t absorb the verbal instruction offered by his gen ed teacher. His special education minutes, as outlined in his IEP, mean that he is to receive 55% of his education translated to him through a special ed teacher or therapist. This is not happening. Finally, in the 5th week of school, we received a package of chewy necklaces. There you go! That’s your OT services! Good luck!

For my pre-k child, his school did not even open their campus and they couldn’t figure out a safe way to instruct these children. Instead, they are being offered a paltry fraction of live education and therapies. There are two 15 minutes sessions with his teacher and then 5 or 6 videos that we watch. These “assignments” are about blue cars! Or building with blocks! Or watching the teacher read a book! I get that he’s 4 and that other peers might have intellectual delays that make these lessons appropriate. But my autistic child is very bright and doing 1st grade math. His delays are emotional and behavioral. So, what are they offering to help him? Not enough. I’m the one who’s regulating his behavior.

Yes, I chose this path. Yes, you can say that was my choice. But what is the district doing with all of the money that they continue to receive were they on campus?

It seems like they’re spending it on litigation.

My own peers, other parents of special children are each in negotiations with the district over failure to offer equal access. That might be for in-person education, for OT, speech, adaptive PE, or transportation to participate in on-campus learning.

We’re spending hours working with special education consultants, advocates and lawyers! Then we moan an rage to each other with what little energy we have left.

My most fervent wish for my kids, other than their physical safety, is that they don’t regress…more.

Ask around and every special needs parent will say, “my child has lost language”, “my child hits and throws the laptop”, “my child is anxious to leave the house! “

How are these children going to recover all of this lost ground when what they’re being offered for learning and therapies is just enough to satisfy the minimum requirements, or whatever they think they can get away with.

Money, money, money. The school gets the funding for my child and he’s not even on campus.

I could cry imagining how this is playing out is less affluent parts of the country, or in homes where parents aren’t educated about their child’s legal right to these services.

I know what’s going on. Not everything, but enough, and it makes me so furious and tired. That’s my covid state of being. Go to bed late, dream about the nasty emails I have to write, wake up and start the 360 degree spin move of fury on all of the fronts.

It is little wonder that I feel like a toilet paper tube with wonky eyes.

REJOICE! The kids are actually playing with toys!

Every parent knows that they have *cough* hundreds of dollars in toys malingering in bins and closets.

The trick is, you wait long enough and then, oh, sacrifice a white goat while singing “I am the Walrus”, then drag out that box of pretend food. But when they actually play with the food?? Like, in an actual imagination game with a story line. It’s like a parenting Truth has actualized. It seems ridiculous that I’m this excited, but that’s a damn miracle and needs to be celebrated. I will happily play restaurant every damn day. It’s infinitely better than trying to play Godzilla, which we’re also into. Shudder. Or having Minecraft explained to me? Kill me now.

Today they played with the imaginary food for an hour and then, one kid disappeared…he had dragged out the exceeding costly toy trains we all own!

It’s cosmic. I’m having a glass of wine and yes, leave that shit everywhere because maybe we’ll get another game going tomorrow. I’ll order some fake ice cream and lots of fake coffee. I think if they charge me for it, this also counts as math.

Hot. Damn.

51% Worth It!

It’s known as 51/49 around here, and it refers to something being just barely more “fun” than “shit show”.

If my odds of having a successful mission are 51% then I am going for it. Those are the best odds I’m going to get. Ever.

I could label it an autism thing, or a three little boys things, but whatever it is, it’s my measuring stick for attempting to have a life. And since I insist on actually leaving the house, it is my credo.

The beach is my current safest bet for a pandemic outing with three autistic kids under 12. We have a window of 2 hours to get from the house, to our destination, unload, get the fun/tantrums in, pack it in, and get home. Any longer and mission failure is assured.

Assume there is an hour of prep time during which everyone to runs around, yelling, refusing to do things, then finally doing the things, while I prepare four people to leave the house. A backpack remains at the ready with cups and snacks, masks and wipes, and first aid supplies. Throw in water and towels. Slather sunscreen on little people with sensory issues. Yell more. Get in the car!

Let’s start the clock!

We are fortunate to live a quick 15 minute drive from an amazing beach. This is key.

Crank music so I cannot hear inane questions and can send fervent prayers to the Goddess of street parking.

Park! That! Mini-van!

Somehow unload beach toys and life vests, survival backpack, and 3 masked children.

Weave around blankets and surfers and tents to the far end of the beach where there is an estuary that appeals to those who like waves, those who are afraid of waves, and those who like to chase birds. Sorry birds. You can fly so I’m going to assume you can escape my kids.

Toes in the water.

We’re probably at an hour now.

Aaaaaaand, the fighting commences.

I have packed incentive snacks that I reference repeatedly as I urge people to control themselves and behave well enough to earn them. It’s all about the carrot, people. (The carrot is usually donuts.)

I have learned that if I’m between the water and the beach blanket and 1 or more of the children are buried in the sand up to their necks that this is my best chance to enjoy my life for 10 minutes. I’m not joking.

Also, being buried counts as occupational therapy and digging burns calories. Double points.

I’ve got 30 minutes left. Time to “casually” inspire moat digging or shell searching or bird chasing while I suck in all of those positive beach ions. I also have to glare at people not wearing masks who veer too close to my brood. I have an epic glare.

When the smallest imp has destroyed the diligently built sand structure or has kicked sand in someone’s face, I start to pack it all in. Have I mentioned that efficiency is critical?

It’s time to march those sandy bodies back across the beach and heave ourselves into permanently sandy car seats. Bust out the wipes! Donuts out! Music back on!

I get 15 minutes of driving to pretend that it was worth all of the effort as I steer us back towards suburbia.

And it was. 51% worth it.

Pandemic Distance Learning 2020: Parenting Survival Hacks (the Autism Version)

During synchronous learning with the teacher, don’t stress about having a Pinterest-worthy classroom. Leave that laundry right there. If little brother is yelling about having to pee, even better. Best to set that bar nice and low from the outset.

Finding your Halloween Monster magnet set with the phonics toys is a wonderful opportunity to learn about other cultures. Plus, fine motor skills are challenged pulling and pushing the magnets. Yup. You’re crushing it.

The consequence for non-participation in lessons is always going to be doing a chore. Don’t want to finish that math? Sweep the house. You finally get some domestic help and your child’s executive functioning skills just got a healthy dose of therapy.

Leave the Zoom call un-muted during the 15 minute snack break so the teacher can hear when you need to yell 15 times to get everyone to pick what kind of cracker they’re going to be eating. This is critical data for their next FBA assessment. We are not hitting our benchmark in 1 step instructions.

National Geographic shows are the equivalent of a substitute teacher and a science filmstrip. May utilize biweekly.

Vacuuming is large muscle work and counts as occupational therapy AND adaptive PE. Double dip and now the floors are spotless.

Mental health days happen just like a typical sick days. Sometimes, the swirling vibrations of autism will tear down your house. A family hang on the sofa with a Pixar movie is more effective than half of the counseling the school delivers. Extra mommy points if you serve popcorn. Which is full of fiber. Way to encourage healthy eat habits!

You cut up the child’s chicken nuggets at dinner. 3 nuggets turns into 6 pieces. BOOM. Fractions. Math is done.

Bestow yourself liberally with gift cards to Target and new coffee mugs. You’re also the “class parent” and who knows you need glitter bath bombs and Hershey’s Kisses more that you?

Homeshcool teacher, special education teacher, occupational therapist, speech/language pathologist, counselor, STEAM+ instructor…these are so many hats to wear, and you’ve already been doing so much. Be brave. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Your kids are with a loving parent and that counts more than everything.

So, the kids will be great.

You are totally going to crack up. Oh, guaranteed.

Now is the most important time to have even that one mom who you can text about any bonkers shit your kids pull. The are no women more fierce than a special needs mama bear whose friend has a problem. We will climb down into that hole and carry you out.

**I acknowledge that there are special needs dads out there who are working extra hard to support their kids education and their community. Hats off to you, gents!**

A “stay-at-home” mom experiences life validation as homeschooling becomes what we do now.

Homeschooling HQ: Mom’s Room

I have long chided myself that my education has been squandered. I never finished my master’s or published my research. And that career I was scraping together? No, that’s not what I do now. I am a full-time parent who does not “work”.

I had spent years chasing my education before graduating with a sexy double major in Cultural Anthropology and Art History. I will be the first to admit that while I was thoroughly enjoying learning for it’s own sake that did not make me very employable in the 90’s job market.

I banged around the work force for years when I decided that further education was the solution. Graduate studies and kismet afforded me a position in a Boston museum; falling in love with my adventurous future husband provided me another opportunity in a new museum in San Diego.

I thought that my studies had finally paid off! I was on track with the career of my dreams. Until…bad luck and an asshole boss lead me to my own #metoo encounter. Naive and unsupported, I fled that job. (Separate blog post of the regret of that decision!)

I shifted my focus to starting my family. I expected that I could be a stay-at-home mother and still have, well, not a career, but a job, an outlet, a toe hold. I wanted to be home with children when they were young and then I expected to pop back onto my career path once they were in school. Well, that didn’t go as planned! BOOM. Autistic children. Now I really needed to be home and for the long-haul.

Loads of emotional self-plundering later, I discovered that I was back on my path of furthering my education. With an astronomical learning curve, I accrued a massive amount of knowledge about a neurological disorder. Then I became a full-time human rights activist, fighting for the legal and civil rights for my tribe of three boys. I became a local ambassador, pushing back against the stereotypes held by family and playgroup mommies. A community services proponent. A special education advocate, wringing out privileges from reluctant schools and recreation groups. A litigator against government agencies. I earned the gleaming promotion to “Warrior Mom”. Autism Moms know this is higher than any of the executive “C” titles. But no way was I pretending that I was a teacher.

Enter covid-19.

Phase 1 of homeschooling was the panicked shut-down in March which was surreal.
I spent most of those 12 weeks asking my husband,

“But this doesn’t count, right??!”

I was more focused on acquiring toilet paper food than worrying about how to teach a first grader how to write a hook sentence. I panicked! I am still panicking! But, betwixt anxiety attacks and existential crises, I discovering that, while I never envisioned myself as a teacher, I am amply capable. Weirdly, all of my paths have lead me to just this moment and I may be deluded, in part by lots of coffee, but I am doing this teaching thing and I’m not the worst.

This is what I do now. I am home with these hooligans, actually doing SUMMER SCHOOL, and managing their behaviors and their therapies (the equivalence of four additional degrees, thank you very much), while still trying to be a woman who values art, literacy, basic mathematics and citizenship.

We are keeping the kids at home for the next school year. For better or for worse. I’ve set up my teacher’s desk in my bedroom cum preschool classroom from where I shout instructions at the 2nd and 6th grader.

I did not realize that my own quest for education was going to put me right where I needed to be. That degree in anthropology is actually very useful in piecing together the bizarre and fascinating people with whom I live and “work”.

Paranoid Behaviors That Predict The Future?

This lean-to of sticks is my tinfoil hat

I’m feeling like that little girl from the movie “Signs”, the one who left the glasses of water everywhere that later became instrumental in the annihilation of creepy aliens.

Except it’s packets of hand wipes and my obsessive penchant for hand cleanliness that will save my family from getting covid-19.

For 15 years, I have been “the germaphobe”, carrying around Wet Ones in my purse just to have this moment of validation! And while I do so enjoy being right, there’s not a lot to savor here.

Has my anxiety disorder and OCD traits lent me evolutionary protection?

I’m being glib, but I am really trying to build a case here that being a stress-bag can pay out huge dividends as a survival strategy. Let us examine my mild tendency to horde things.

During my first pregnancy, I developed a mild hording mentality. This was pre 2-day shipping on Amazon, pre grocery delivery. (Yes, I refer to the antiquated days of early 2009.)

I bought extra everything! Extra toothpaste, extra shampoo, extra first aid supplies, extra diapers and pacifiers and wipes. I somehow “knew” that I was going to have a colicky baby who would not let me easily leave the house.

Was that an anxiety induced premonition? If I was making a human, he was going to be stressed out, too, so stock up on aisle 1 through 12 at Target. Know thyself and live to fight another day.

Let’s jump ahead to covid-19 times.

Right out of the gate, I took to the whole mask situation like a duck to water. I did not need any convincing that we were at war with an unseen entity. And thus, I now have a diverse cloth mask collection, as well as a substantial supply of surgical masks. I stress-buy masks many a late night, recently adding new filter material (get your Oly-fun fabric!). OCD? Perhaps? Hording? A lil’ bit! Yet, it gives me a sense of control during this pandemic.

I did not obsessively horde toilet paper. But I do understand why it happened. When confronted with an invisible enemy, the tangible roll or twelve is a touchstone and lends calm. These are my people, my mentally ill brothers and sisters.

Conversely, I feel like those people who are very lackadaisical about the future and the unknown might well be putting themselves in harms way. And harming others, more significantly. Their tendency to believe that nothing bad is going to happen to them could actually result in death.

What if those laissez faire people get exterminated? This pandemic is one hell of a case for Social Darwinism… And don’t we all know the person we’d most like to see win the Darwin Awards?

Where an ounce of precaution is worth a pound of cure, perhaps an ounce of OCD is what is keeping me safe.

While positive cases are spiking in my home state of California, my tendency to overdo it with the precautionary measures is definitely keeping my family better protected. My genetic material, “my nervous preparedness”, is going to survive and be passed along. That’s some evolution for you.

What I fear, or rather, another thing that I fear, is that after covid-19, is how am I going to tone this all down and get back to “normal”?

It could be argued that many of us are all going to come out of this pandemic with a manner of PTSD. It’s going to be a long time before I feel casual about many of the activities in which I once so casually engaged.

Shopping in a busy store, going to the movies, drinking at a bar?
Erm, not for me. Hard pass on arcades and children’s museums, too. Sorry kids. It’s nature hikes and picnics another decade.

It leaves me to wonder which other of my OCD traits will predict the next pandemic? I sure am buying a load of house plants these days. Maybe I’ll be protected against climate change? Yes, this is what I will tell my husband. It’s all about combating global climate change.

Savage Potty Training

I never imagined that I would be writing a potty training success story that involved carnivorous plants!

I have offered literally everything to my child if only we could say goodbye to diapers. And this is a walking, talking, knows-how-to-use-a-tablet-better-than-me little person. It was well past time.

In a family of thee autistic kids, I have wrestled, begged, bargained, and pleaded over pretty much any scenario you can concoct. If it involves the cooperation of a willful child, I’ve lived that life.

Our entourage of developmental therapists were each consulted. I choked on each bit of well-intended advice, at the suggestion of sticker charts. Oh, what a novel idea! That’s totally going to work! One M&M for a pee? He’s too smart for that raw deal.

I ignored the situation. I achieved acceptance. I surrendered.

Then, one morning, fighting down my wafer thin patience, I had an epic tantrum of my own and ranted, “I’M TAKING THE DIAPERS AWAY!”

Dramatically, I pulled the bin of diapers from the bathroom drawer and tossed them into my room. Rummaging, I found the underpants I bought 6 months ago.

Yes, I was not my best self. But it was time for SAVAGE POTTY TRAINING!

Our nanny had been trying to entice this child as well, and had bought an itty-bitty venus fly trap (“itty-bitty” and “flesh-eating” currently being two appealing concepts to my imp).

A bingo chart was quickly transformed to start the earning.

And it fucking worked! Finally! For a plant!

In three days, we had an extremely engaged toilet pee-er! In three days, he logged 24 visits to the loo and he’s EARNED HIS CARNIVOROUS PLANT!

In these Covid times, when we’re all pissing our pants from the conveyor belt of more and more bad news, I know someone with dry undies!

And, I now have two other children, willing to earn miniature flesh-eating plants for positive behavior.

Savage Potty Training. Patent Pending.

This was going to be the year I focused on “Me”.

I’m a woman of a certain age and I am due my mid-life crisis.

For a dozen years, my life has been the tough slog of motherhood. Making the babies, birthing the babies, caring for and raising the babies. I’m done with babies! Now, I’m surrounded by preschool to pre-pubescent boys and I’m really feeling the heat!

It was time for a mental shift. Many of my peers are deep into their careers, having never left the work force to follow the the level of domesticity that I chose as a full-time parent. Many women, I was feeling, had a lot more to crow about than I did.

So, I made my New Year’s resolution to write more. I have always been a writer. A poet. An essayist. An academic. A blogger. None of this professional, mind you. Or my full focus. But I was keeping my irons in the fire.

Now it’s time to get serious, I committed, and rediscover my individual purpose in life! No time like 2020! Time to find out who I am beyond a “mother” and a “home-maker”. I’m going to write, write, write! Publish some essays! Unlock my poetic heart!

Then, about 8 weeks and as many blog posts later, well, covid-19.

I’m not sure. Is that a verb yet?

“We all got covid-19’d”?

It should be.

Because we did, didn’t we?

You know that old chestnut where woman makes plans and the Universe laughs?

It turns out, I am very tuned into the Universe because the timing, it’s impeccable! I have a crisis of identity. BOOM. Try on these roles!

I’m now a homeschooling mom to 3, a navigator of scarcity, DIY mask maker, an alphabet of therapy specialists (OT, APE, SLP) to my autistic love bugs, and a fairly decent home barber, thank you very much!

Have I figured out the subject, an outline, or characters for my long awaited novel? Nope. But I have many tabs open in my Google docs with terrible first attempts.

I’m not ruling it out that something creative will come from this experience. I’m certainly doing a lot of navel gazing. Self-reflection is being forced upon each of us. Some days it sparks and others, I curl up and stress eat goldfish crackers. OK, most days.

Yesterday was a nerve-wracking shit show. Today, I’m hoping to keep it together until at least lunch. No promises! But, I did write this while the kids were quietly doing learning apps. So, you know, points.

Note: I would like to smack the people, (“People” being famous, accomplished writers/performers/celebrities, isolated in their mansions) who suggest that NOW is the time to ACHIEVE and CREATE! Well, yes, good point. I will try. But on the daily my current life goals are:

Securing food

Tolerating the constant presence of offspring and spouse

Showering? Eh, dry shampooing

Losing myself in a novel/binge-watching TV

Teaching math to resistant children. Failing and teaching math by playing Go Fish

Reorganizing my tchotchkes, because I miss shopping at HomeGoods so. damn. much!

It’s not going to be the sweeping transformative year I imagined. Instead, I’m focusing on baby steps. A global pandemic will teach a woman that little movements forward have value.

People who claim to enjoy enjoy homeschooling, and other tools I’ll be unfollowing on Instagram

Oh, you think this is an amazing opportunity to spend more time together? You’re excited to learn common core math? Those few hours when you had the house to yourself made you feel lonely and unproductive?

Well, bless your heart.

That means go fuck yourself.

I have never been less excited about the prospect of my children taking conference calls from my living room than during a global pandemic.

I’m trying to find FOOD AND MEDICINE. I don’t give a rats ass about sight words! And every teacher on my Facebook feed is talking about how much more challenging it is to do distance learning. Well, stop trying to out fucking do yourself! Can you not PLEASE assign a drawing of a rainbow or ask that they learn how to make their beds?

These adorable “learning resources” everyone keeps emailing me make my chest tight. And please, please do not suggest that I need ideas to keep my kids busy. That’s why our family has spent thousands of dollars on all of these toys that I keep stepping on.

No one can agree when the kids will be back in school, or if they’ll all be graduated or advanced to the next year. So, it sort of seems ill-advised to blast out of the gate with a distance learning plan geared at imploding my mind.

I hate to play the autism card, but, OK! Hey! My kids are autistic and guess what doesn’t really translate over the Chrome Book? Oh, my kids 1:1 aide or the occupational therapy room where they go so they don’t spin in 50 circles and smash their little faces into the counter.

You’re dealing with a woman whose worst nightmare is summer break. Guess what just happened three months early?

I really don’t need to challenge myself right now. I’m looking for ways to still find my children charming past 9:30 in the morning.

So, mom vlogger who is super excited to realize how great she is at teaching her kids, bye! More room in my feed for The Onion and reality show memes.

Casual Facebook friends who have set up little mock classrooms replete with desk and white board, ah-feck off!

This is a dark time! Can’t we drop the pretense that your kid made that popsicle stick periscope?

My children and I are going to draw a bunch of monsters and dragons, argue about what time is snack, take a walk and then I am going to reward their not being terrible with an hour of screen time. Because I would like some time to blot out this crap reality and read my trashy Kindle book!

That’s my home school. You will have detention if you send me a single suggested learning opportunity.

Top 10 “silver linings” of sheltering-in-place during the COVID-19 pandemic

10. Grocery shopping is simplified — it’s all “out of stock”.

9. Think of the money I’ll save on haircuts!

8. No more school pick-up line. (wait, this might be my #1)

7. Social distancing = freedom from feeling socially awkward.

6. Finally, scarcity will force me to use all of the beauty samples and hotel toiletries I always bring home.

5. Self-validation for having always been a spaz about hand cleanliness.

4. Having more virtual friends than actual friends makes isolating feel warm and familiar.

3. I get to postpone my dental cleaning, guilt free.

2. See, having three kids was a smart choice — playmates during the quarantine!

And, of course

1. Yoga pants all day, every day, baby!

Please share your silver linings in the comments or send me a message about how you’re coping with the new normal.