September 29, 2010

A quick note for parents of AAC users

So an I've mentioned before, I'm giving a presentation next week at ALATEC on AAC implementation, from a parent's perspective. (More about that trip soon.) The truth, however, is that my own experiences aren't terribly representative.

I'd love to get input from other parents who have experience implementing AAC into their child's life and curriculum. If you have any particular points that you think I should consider, please drop me a note, either here or by email.

Thanks for your input.

September 23, 2010

Charmed Life

Space Boy, Fly Girl
Originally uploaded by Citizen Rob
I was having a discussion with a good friend of mine last night, and the topic had turned to health, specifically her own, which had hit a few bumps recently. She wasn't complaining, but nevertheless she interrupted herself to say, "But I know you've got a lot more on your plate to worry about."

This might sound strange, considering the sort of downer tone my writing has taken over the past few months, but I was a little surprised to hear her say that. I guess I've had a lot of issues concerning finances and my own health that have piled up on top of everything else, but as I said in a recent post, none of those other concerns are ever going to eclipse my worries over Schuyler. Like that anecdotal unconcerned frog in the slowly heating water, however, I think I've become accustomed to my fears.

I write about them here, because I'm a writer and this is where I go to sort these things out. But in my day to day life, I don't think I walk around wringing my hands and muttering to myself, my brows constantly furrowed. That's not me at all. I might live in the shadow of my concerns, but I don't know, perhaps most of the time I just think of it as shade.

The fact is, yeah, I worry. Schuyler's future is daunting, and as more and more of that future turns into the present, the more oppressive that present becomes. Schuyler's own personal development issues are frankly terrifying; she remains an incredibly naive little girl, and middle school does not typically present a very nurturing environment for innocents. I feel like we might be serving her up like a buffet for bullies, and I'm not sure I still have confidence in the school to take care of her.

There are all the other possible future issues to give me fits, too. Bad boys, mean girls, apathetic teachers, poor fathering decisions, bad tween television, a $7000 speech device disappearing, evangelizing Christians, the Plano PTA, Amber Alerts, No Child Left Behind, Lady Gaga worship, pieced ears, boobs, and her first period. And I never allow myself to completely relax about seizures. Some of her monsters are Everygirl monsters, but the ones that are just hers make the rest of them bigger as well.

But here's the thing that's important for everyone to remember, myself most of all. Schuyler's future is murky and unseeable because she is, in a very real sense of the word, entirely unique. She really is that purple snowflake. And while that means that every step feel like it could be the wrong one, it also means that I get to live a life unlike anyone else's.

Schuyler is a little girl with a monster in her head, yes. She uses a computer to communicate, she's going to be in special education classes for the foreseeable future and her prospects for living a completely independent life are questionable at best. She's got some hard years ahead of her, and there's just no way to dodge that.

But Schuyler is also a vibrant, energetic little girl. She's curious and positive and genuinely funny. She's more beautiful than any girl who shares my DNA has any right to be, and she's got a sense of style all her own. She will draw a picture of you in an instant, and you'll always get a crown. Schuyler loves easily and hugely. She takes bites out of the world without hesitation or inhibition, and certainly without regard to how rough that world might be. She might live part of her time in an internal world that she cannot or will not describe in detail to the rest of us, but if you allow yourself to be open to her and the way she expresses herself, she might just let you see snippets of it for yourself.

And I am the guy who gets to be her father.

I am the one who gets to guide her, but I'm also the one who gets to grow with her, and in ways that the rest of you can only glimpse from afar. Schuyler makes neurotypical sound boring. She makes the idea of parenting a typical child with a typical narrative sound a little empty and a little grey. People meet Schuyler and see the astonishing human she's turning into, and they envy me for having her in my life and in my home every day. And they know that as sad as it might sound that Schuyler might spend the better part of her life living with her parents, that scenario might not be all that terrible for me.

And if the fear and the worry and the fight and the sacrifices are the fee I pay to secure the privilege of being Schuyler's father and walking down that path with her for as long as she'll have me and for as long as I'm able, then I would say that I have been blessed with a charmed life.

The anxiety and the fear and the sacrifice, those are the pieces I write about, and I'm sure she's aware of them already on some level. I'm not interested in pretending otherwise; it's the reason I wrote my book, for her to understand one day. But the rest of it, the stuff that makes me richer than anyone I know, the moments of my life that I don't share as often here because they're hard to describe but also because I kind of like keeping them to myself -- that's the stuff by which I believe Schuyler defines her life and her father. And I think that even when things are hard for her, she understands that she's living a bit of a charmed life herself.

September 18, 2010

Adventure Camp

Adventure Camp
Originally uploaded by Citizen Rob
Some of us have had a better week than others.

Mine was a little shaky. First of all, I've been tracking my blood glucose levels for the past week and a half or so on account of a somewhat disastrous doctor's visit, and it's been something of a struggle. I'm not going to go into it in detail because any time I mention my diabetes, I seem to hear from the kook fringe on a whole new level, about how I'm a fat piece of shit who deserves my diabetes, or how I'm a Type 2 and not a Type 1, so I don't even KNOW how bad I could have it. So no, not a topical door I'm kicking open, but the beedies have been something of a bummer.

On top of that, Schuyler went away for a three day camp. By herself. And I was a big ball of anxiety the whole time.

I've been calling it "Adventure Camp" for weeks, even though the school inexplicably (and boringly) refers to it as "Fifth Grade Outdoor School" for some reason, but I was pleased to note that the facility itself is actually called the Collin County Adventure Camp. Schuyler has been in a state of alternating excitement and fear about going to camp. She's indicated that she's having a tough time making new friends at school this year and that some of the kids have been mean to her. She told us that she didn't want to go to camp unless we were there (apparently there's no party like a Smelly Old Boring Parents Party), and at school, she told her classmates that she wasn't going (because we wouldn't let her). But in the days leading up to camp, her excitement level grew, and she was telling stories about how she was going to catch a bear at camp, and quite possibly eat him, too. By the time Monday rolled around, she hopped on the bus excitedly without so much as a glance behind her.

I wish I could say that my own anxiety level diminished, but I've been very keenly aware of how high the stakes are here. If she made friends and had a good time, it would very likely make the rest of her school year go much more smoothly, and help grow the community of classmates that will follow her into the horrific Lord of the Flies wasteland that promises to be middle school next year. And if camp went poorly, I feared that she would never get back on track.

Well, apparently Adventure Camp went very well for Schuyler. She missed out on that bear hunt, sadly (although really, I would prefer to be with her when she makes her first kill), but she engaged in archery, paddled a canoe, and even caught a fish. ("But just one," she's quick to emphasize; apparently she already has an intuitive feel for some of the wackadoo animal rights email I've gotten over the years.) She came home with a souvenir mug signed by her friends and teachers, a layer of kid filth that was impressive even for her, and a general air of contentment that we hadn't seen for a while. I think Adventure Camp was exactly what she needed. What we all needed, really.

Things aren't perfect; this didn't reset any of our concerns about the school year. The notebook that was supposed to be filled with scientific observations was mostly blank, for example. And in the few weeks she's been in school, Schuyler has yet to bring home a single piece of homework from her mainstream class. We won't be meeting with her mainstream teacher for a few weeks yet, but when we do, we'll still have the same questions and concerns that we've had for some time now. We're not interested in mainstreaming as an exercise in macaroni art; Schuyler will not be attending Potemkin Village Elementary School if we can help it. And I know that we're not the only parents who have had a rough year so far. There's still a lot of work to be done here.

But at the same time, Schuyler's experience at Adventure Camp appears to have been a step in the right direction. She survived, and she wasn't tormented or abandoned in the woods by the mean girls. For that, I am happier than I have the words to express.

Incidentally, we only heard about Schuyler's activities from her teacher. When asked how it went and what she did, Schuyler merely gave the same infuriating little smirk and said nothing much more than she had fun. Maddeningly, Schuyler still loves her secrets. I hope that the ones she chooses to keep over the next few months and years continue to be positive ones.

But I fear otherwise, and that breaks my heart.

September 4, 2010

Forever Monsters

Schuyler has been in fifth grade for two weeks now. It's hard to get a direct sense of how it's going for her. By the very nature of her condition, communication with Schuyler always takes place on her terms. More than typical kids, she expresses exactly what she wants and not one word more, and even her expression of what she's feeling and thinking is wildly imperfect. Sometimes she lacks the words for exactly what she's feeling, and other times she lacks the patience to put them together on her device. And often, she's lacks all of the above. I think she gets tired of her monster, more now than ever before.

Nevertheless, some details are coming out. She occasionally says she doesn't like going to school, which is certainly not unusual for most kids but is very much so for Schuyler. She has, until this year, shown an unfaltering nerd's love for school. Now she goes, but dutifully. When asked about new friends that she might be making, she dodges the question by saying she'd rather talk to her old friends. And when asked about the big 5th grade adventure camp getaway that's coming up, she either says she doesn't want to go, or that she only wants to go if we go with her.

Most of all, we've observed how her neurotypical classmates treat her in person, how they avoid her attention and are far too cool for her heartbreakingly naive affections. I find myself sort of hating them. It's wrong, I know, to hate little kids. But there you go. One more shameful confession for the therapy file.

Schuyler is very conscious of how the ease with which she once made friends doesn't always come for her. She's aware of how she really is very different from her NT classmates in ways that perhaps she looked past before. It's happening now, we're watching it happen, and it turns out that despite the fact that I've said it before about other things, THIS is now the hardest part for me about Schuyler's monster. The world is becoming hard for her, and she knows it.

I had an event at work the other day, a back-to-school cookout at the university. I sat and ate my low-bid, state university food service burger (who am I kidding, though; it was delicious), and I watched all these young students, so full of promise, and their faculty, confident and at the tops of their careers. I sat there amidst it all, watching these people as they took hold of their futures and of the discipline that they'd chosen into which to pour their passions, and I felt separate from them.

I know Julie feels this way at work sometimes, too. We listen to the petty complaints or the small victories of people whose lives are so simple, and we know that when they go home to their non-working lives, there aren't necessarily monsters waiting for them. And they don't know what waits for us when we go home, either, our world of uncertainty and of loving this little girl so hard that it hurts, because that's what it does. It hurts, this love, it hurts when you love someone but feel powerless to help them. And the rest of the world, the people we work with and the people we deal with every day, they can't see that.

Watching everyone at this cookout reminded me that this life, this thing that I do and that I think about every minute of every day, this is who I am now. I can try to identify myself as a writer, and I still like to pretend that I'm a halfway decent trombonist, but in reality, that's mostly beside the point. I am Schuyler's father, and her advocate, her overbeliever and her protector. I get it right, and I get it wrong, but it's what I do now. It's my life's work and I get how privileged I am to have it, but since last fall's meeting with the school, we are facing up to the probability that when she's an adult, Schuyler will likely live under our care. This is a rest-of-my-life gig, and that's just the way it is.

There have been people in my life who haven't understood that, people I've had to walk away from in the end. Some have seen this as a life I've somehow chosen to live, and maybe they think I'm not even living it all that well anyway. It's hard to explain to someone who has no frame of reference that I can never walk away, and that when I make mistakes and when I get it wrong, those failures cut deep because I'm afraid that I will never be able to make things right. I'll run out of time, and that will be that. Schuyler will miss her window of opportunity because I didn't get it right, or because I took my eye off the ball and the game just fell apart.

When I look back on what I've written of late, I can see how I've been repeating myself a lot, ever since last spring. I can see how sad and self-indulgent my writing has become, to the point that I actually find it a little challenging to even go back and proofread my work without becoming irritated at the big fucking baby I've become. But the truth is that I am a bit lost.

When something goes wrong at work, or when I get a phone call because I'm late making a car payment or paying a bill, or I disappoint someone in ways small and even not so small, I react in the same ways that everyone else does, because that's the world I live in. My car finance company doesn't care, and maybe they shouldn't.

But when someone is clamoring for my attention or waving a bill in my face or wanting a piece of me that I can't give them or expressing how very very much I've disappointed them, they need to understand something that I can't change, as much as I'd like to.

No matter how dire their need is, it's not ever going to be the thing I am the most worried about on any given day. It's simply not. And the things I do worry about the very most are the ones that I can change the very least.

These are the monsters that never go away, the tenacious, forever monsters.

Do you want to hear something really awful? And it is sort of horrible, made more so by the discovery in a recent conversation that Julie feels exactly the same way. One of my worst fears is that one day, hopefully far in the future, but on the day that I die, I'm afraid that my last whispered words, my last conscious thought, will be simply, "But who will take care of Schuyler now?"

September 3, 2010



I gave an eye to save from night
A babe born blind;
And now with eager semi-sight
Vast joy I find
To think a child can share with me
Earth ecstasy!

Delight of dawn with dewy gleam
On damask rose;
Crimson and gold as pennons stream
Where sunset flows;
And sight most nigh to paradise,
Star-studded skies.

Ah! How in old of age I feel,
E'er end my days,
Could I star-splendoured sky reveal
To childish gaze,
Not one eye would I give, but two,--
Well, wouldn't you?

-- Robert William Service