Adventures in Airport Advocacy

Airplane! Logo

Every now and then I am reminded of how far we have to go before our world welcomes people with disabilities and neurological differences. Yesterday gave me two such reminders back to back. I was at the airport at the start of a business trip to visit my publisher in St. Augustine, Florida.

“Gawd!”

The first reminder happened as I was standing in line, waiting to board the plane. I spot an older man (~70-75) walking in circles at the gate area. He is cross-eyed and has the pleasant-but-pouty look of someone with cognitive challenges. When his care giver walks him to the gate for pre-boarding, he hands his pass to the agent and declares in a loud, excited voice, “I’m ready to fly!”

The agent smiles back. “Yes you are, sir,” and shares an ill-timed high-five with him.

A beautiful scene. Until the woman waiting in line ahead of me (~60-65) grimaces and turns to her friend. “Gawd, I hope he don’t end up sitting next to me,” she practically spits. “I’m here to relax, not deal with his kind of people.”

Her friend nods. A knife to my heart. A very brief thought that maybe I should say something. But I decide against it. What’s the point? She does not seem the type given to respectful dialogue. Instead, I offer up three prayers: one for the man, one for the woman, and one for myself.

For the man: “Thank you, Lord, for this fellow’s joy. Please keep him safe in your arms.”

For her: “Lord, please help her become more understanding and welcoming. I cannot fix stupid, but you can fix everything. Please help her out here.”

For me: “Please, God, help me be more forgiving. And maybe more brave.”

The Regular Dads Club.

The second reminder happened on the plane. I sat next to a Navy JAG officer and his wife. Both about my age. A delightful couple. Pleasant, engaging conversation with a good amount of back and forth between the JAG and myself. (The wife was a quiet sort.) We talked about our travels: his deployments to Iraq and Addis Ababa, and my six months in Tehran and post-Soviet trips to Central Europe. We talked about school: him at the Naval Academy, and me at The Mount. We talked about politics—after some careful circling to tease out each other’s views, of course. (He didn’t like Trump either, so we continued amicably.)

Then we talked about kids. His daughter, a linguist who was getting her Air Force commission this weekend. His son, who just graduated from Cornell, his second son, with an MBA from Stanford. And his third son, who is graduating from high school with a swimming scholarship to Colorado. He was obviously proud of his kids, but not in a snotty way. He didn’t even humble brag.

Then he asked me about my kids. “You have a lot of kids. Have you got colleges all figured out yet?” When I told him that we weren’t so sure about who would be going and who wouldn’t, he looked puzzled and asked why. I told him about their ASD diagnoses and some of the challenges they face.

It got awkward. He tried to say something like, “Well, not everyone’s cut out for college,” and “There’s plenty of trade jobs out there that need to be done.” I tried to change the subject, but he had essentially checked out. The conversation politely petered out, and a couple of minutes later, he opened his laptop, plugged in his ear buds, and settled in to a movie.

I don’t fault him. He just didn’t know what to say. His world had been circumscribed by success after success—of course, with hard work and sacrifice—and he didn’t have any reference point to orient him to special needs parenting. It’s a shame, too. We were having a good conversation. For a few moments, I was a Regular Dad. I was part of the club. I was just like everyone else.

Don’t get me wrong. I like the club I’m in. It would just be nice to bridge the gap between these two clubs every now and then. 

Even better, it would be even nice if there were no gaps. No separate clubs at all.

That’s why we need to keep advocating.

After the Intake

Notebook Writing

So we took our Little Guy to a pediatric hospital in Baltimore to begin the process of evaluating him for ASD. Up to this point, all we had for him was a provisional diagnosis from our psychologist in Florida—about three years ago. She had just begun her own evaluation when we ended up moving to Maryland, and we’re just now getting around to getting something more formal.

Anyway, today’s appointment was “intake”—a bunch of questions about his early development, his family history, his current state, and our concerns. As she asked us the standard barrage of questions, the psychologist also observed our boy in action. But the main focus was on us. For an hour.

It sucked. Not because we couldn’t answer her questions. We could. Not because the Little Guy was out of control. He wasn’t. It sucked because, well, you know why. A whole hour describing our family’s challenges. A whole hour listing our son’s deficits and telling stories about his meltdowns and his sensory issues and his social struggles and his attention deficits.

Poignant Reminders.

Katie did awesome. She always does. Her memory is sharp as a tack. She could recall his early developmental challenges far better than I could. She was clearer on his current challenges than I was. She spends more time with the kids than I do. She works part time, and I’m on a ten-hour-a-day schedule. Plus, she takes more therapy appointments than I do. So what was standard fare for her came flooding over me with a quickness and a matter-of-fact tone that felt like a gut punch.

You see, when your whole household is ASD, you tend not to notice all the details. It’s just part of your normal. We don’t have any neurotypical kids, so we don’t know what standard behavior looks like. After a few years, you begin to glide over the ticks and twitches of ASD. You take them in stride and keep trying to move forward. You get so accustomed to them that you don’t even recognize how many of them there are. That is, until you have to recount them to a perfect stranger with a degree.

So to hear the Little Guy’s symptoms rattled off with precision one after the other . . . well, let’s just say it was hard. Lumpy-throat hard. It broke my heart. Today was a reminder of how tough life will be for my kids—of how tough it already is.

It was a reminder of every tense, contentious, and tearful IEP meeting we ever had. It was a reminder of the friendships my kids have lost due to their social challenges, as well as the friendships Katie and I have lost because of people’s misunderstanding. It was a reminder of all that we are missing out on, like family dinners out or vacations or even peaceful walks in the woods. It was a reminder of the earlier days, when we were both new to this gig and so much more scared than we are today. And it was a reminder of the large amount of work that lies ahead of us as we plan and prepare for our children’s futures. So yeah, it was hard.

I so want to see my kids have the best future possible. I so want to see them thrive and kick ass in the world. I want to see them happy and productive, welcomed and loved. Some have a greater chance at this than others, but none of them will find it easy. All of them will ask the “Why me” question more frequently and with more poignancy than their typically developing peers. That’s why it was so hard.

Mission Accomplished.

Today was also hard because this evening our Little Guy put up a huge, weepy, melt-downy fuss about something he normally enjoys: soccer practice. He was probably worn out from the trip to Baltimore. It wasn’t that demanding in any ordinary way, but it was a break in his routine, and that never ends well. It hurt to see him so upset, but I knew I had to help him power through it. If he could just get on the field and start running around, he would end up having a good time. But the drive there seemed unending. No amount of consoling words or attempts at humor could calm him down. All I could do was keep driving.

We got to the field, and his mood lifted as soon as he saw his team mates. He ran onto the pitch and started kicking the ball around with them. Mission accomplished—for him at least.

It took me a little longer. Once I saw that he was okay, I took a long walk and prayed, my Rosary in hand. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us. . . .” It helped. A ton.

Now I’m sitting here on the sideline, watching my son. He’s hesitant about mixing it up with the other kids. His kick and his run can be awkward at times. His teammates engage in typical boy humor that he doesn’t quite get. And he takes every misstep of another player far too seriously. Standard Little Guy stuff.

But it’s okay. I’m sitting in the shade of a tree. A cool breeze is blowing. I catch the scent of honeysuckle on the wind. And I know God’s going to take care of us.

Everything’s going to be all right.

How Hard Can It Be? Just Cut It.

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It’s a small thing; I’ve planted seeds that are bigger than this pill. It’s so small that sometimes it can slip through my fingers as I’m getting it out of the bottle. Imagine trying to find this little thing on the floor—before your eager, ever-hungry dog does. Or one of your five curious, playful cats.

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The doctor wants my boy to have only one-half of a tablet every morning. See that line in the middle of the pill? That’s there so that you can split it in half with your fingers. Only it’s so tiny that you can’t get the leverage you need to break it—see the picture above. So into the pill cutter it goes. But not like that. It has to be straight, parallel to the edge of the box so that the cutter on the top can make a clean, even slice. Let me just get my finger in there to straighten it out.

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No, no, not that way. It has to be horizontal, not vertical. Vertical is too thin. Here, let me try it this way . . . almost got it . . . no, not like that . . . hang on, I think that’s right . . . oops . . . so close . . . let me try again . . . uh . . . Dammit!

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Okay. There it is. I have no idea how it got there. But at least it’s ready now.

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Mission accomplished.

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Twenty-nine pills and a half-hour later. I know it’s only breakfast time, but I need a drink.

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The Ballad of the Bedeviling Bedroom

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See that picture up there? That’s my boy (fourth child, third son, 11 years old), trying to go to sleep in his new bed in his new bedroom. We moved just about everyone around this past weekend. Usually, I would balk at such a thought—ASD kids have a hard time with transitions. But this was a pretty important move for a couple of reasons that I can’t get into right now.

Anyway, this poor boy was having a hard time with the change. He was excited to be moving to his older brother’s (third child, second son, 13 years old) room. The two of them had been roommates a few years back, and they had a blast together. But once he got into the room, he couldn’t cope. Within five minutes of Katie and me praying over him and giving him a good night kiss, he was back in our room, eyebrows knit, hands wringing, voice aquiver. Continue reading

Failure Is Not an Option

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A couple of days ago, I posted a picture of my oldest daughter and described her struggles with anxiety and school. I talked about how proud I was of her for fighting—even when she is fighting me. Although it looked like she was being obstinate and resistant, I could tell she was getting the message that she can’t give in.

Well, now it’s my oldest son’s turn. Continue reading

The Struggle Is Real

 

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Remember my story about my girl having a couple of seizures last summer? Remember my story about how hard it was for her to go to Mass during the summer? Well, the saga continues to unfold. Continue reading

Stubborn Faith in a Heavenly Vision

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A chilly morning in Emmitsburg, Maryland

Here they are: our six kids. All sitting quietly at the grotto on the campus of Mount St. Mary’s University, in Emmitsburg, Maryland. “The Grotto” (a replica of the Lourdes grotto in France) has been a place of quiet, prayer, and reflection for students and pilgrims for decades. Many were the afternoons and evenings I spent here during my college years, and I feel blessed to be able to bring my kids up here every now and then.

It’s a lovely sight, isn’t it? Anyone passing by would look at them and think nothing but warm and comforting thoughts. “What a wonderful family! They must be the most prayerful, holy, and well-behaved kids. Their parents must be awesome saints!”

Ha!

Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Of course my kids are wonderful. They’re loving and kind and generous and good-natured. I’m crazy-proud of all of them. But angels? Don’t fall for it. They’re everyday kids with all of the challenges and temptations that their peers experience. They all have a checkered history of both fighting these temptations and giving in to them–sometimes very eagerly. They’re kids; what do you expect?

But they’re not just everyday kids facing everyday temptations. They’re also autistic. Every one of them. And that adds layers of complexity. This past Sunday morning was a prime example of these layers—and the reason why we ended up here.

A Familiar Drill.

Two of our kids had a tough Sunday morning. It began early for them. And by early, I mean six-o’clock early. I don’t want to go into the details, but suffice it to say that when one kid’s specific autistic traits trigger another kid’s specific autistic traits, it never ends well. And it rarely remains contained between the two kids. The disturbance spills over to at least one more, and that’s when the fun really begins.

So by the time we should have been leaving for Mass, four out of the six kids had been triggered in one way or another (another one would have been triggered too, but he just hadn’t gotten out of bed yet). With the melt downs and resulting emotional chaos, it became clear that Mass wouldn’t work. They were too keyed up, their emotions too raw. So we activated Plan B. We loaded everyone into the van, and headed for the Grotto. It wasn’t hard, either. By this time, they know the drill. They know that a quiet time in the mountains is much easier than sitting in a crowded church wondering if Dad was going to spring a pop quiz on them based on the Scripture readings for the day.

Once we got to the Grotto we did a few things. First, there was quiet time in the Grotto itself. Then, walking the path out toward the main entrance, we prayed a bit of the Rosary—but just three Hail Marys each instead of the traditional ten. Then, just off the main entrance, we stepped into the Chapel on the Hill, where we read the first reading from Mass, and I said a few words about it. That was it: forty-five minutes of God stuff. And not once did I have to deal with any major objections, melt downs or triggers. They were good as gold. Just as I had suspected.

Visions of Heaven.

I think it was significant that the passage we read (Isaiah 11:1-10) spoke about God’s desire to restore creation to its original harmony. The reading is filled with images like the wolf and the lamb living together in peace and a baby playing by a cobra’s den. It talks about there being “no harm or ruin” and about the earth being filled “with the knowledge of the Lord.”

We normally read this passage as a depiction of heaven. But during Advent, the Church plucks this vision out of the distant future and tells us that Christmas is a partial fulfillment of the promises. It tells us that we don’t have to wait until we die to find the kingdom of God. Right here, right now, we can take one or two steps closer to the kind of peace Isaiah talks about.

This is what I told the kids in the chapel. I told them that I’m not giving up on this vision, and neither should they. God has promised, and I’m going to hold him to his word. I will keep teaching and supporting and encouraging them to become the best version of themselves possible. Even if the forces arrayed against us are large and intimidating, I am still going to lean on God and his faithfulness. I am still going to do everything I can and trust that God’s plan for my family mirrors the plan described in this passage.

Stubborn Faith.

This may sound unrealistic or heroic, but what other choice do I have? Ours is far from a typical family. We have so many challenges distributed across so many different personalities that we would never survive without faith in a generous, loving God.

I don’t mean a generic faith. I don’t mean a naïve faith that is really an abdication of responsibility. I mean the kind of faith that lets you yell and cuss at God when things get out of hand. I mean the kind of faith that believes in God’s direct intervention in our lives—according to his inscrutable wisdom and on his unpredictable schedule. I mean stubborn, grit-your-teeth-and-believe-despite-all-evidence-to-the-contrary faith.

I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it many times in the future: I am convinced that this whole messy, beautiful, frustrating, agonizing, energizing, liberating thing is God’s doing. And so every time the challenges get too hard, or the weight feels unbearable, I know I have recourse. I can tell God, “This is the family you have given me, so I’m counting on you to give us what we need to make it through. You didn’t send your Son into the world just to tell us to pray more and try harder. So here I am. I’m waiting. Take your time if you want, but I’m not going to let you off the hook.”

I don’t know. Maybe I’m being too cheeky. Too arrogant. But this kind of prayer has gotten me through some very rough patches in the past. What’s more, it’s the kind of attitude I want my kids to have: trusting in God, but also expectant; humble before their Maker, but with the familiarity of a child to his father; accepting who they are, but never settling for a “lesser” life because of it.

In other words, I want to teach them the same kind of stubborn faith I’m learning.

I think it’s working.