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My ASD Princess

A family helping a girl explore her world through the lens of autism

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High School – Unpredictable, Harsh, Damn Hard Work.

 

With a tremendous start to the year, we were on a winning start to our princesses the first year of high school. Everyday attendance, new friends, low anxiety, birthday party success and a zeal for learning. We had seen similar success last year when her primary school finally developed an individual education plan (IEP), and we were confident and expectant of what the year would bring.

We developed an IEP with the high school, excluded her from subjects that have previously cause stress and anxiety (for example, language and sciences.) and started to talk up the possibilities with our princess. This well-intentioned plan was seeing some success, and we saw tremendous growth and zeal for learning for about 7-8weeks.

We hit a wall, a common trend for our princess, a wall that rears its head this time each year. The excitement of ‘a new thing’ had worn out, the unkind words started from her peers, the feeling that people are watching her, looking at her, staring and then her anxiety skyrocketed. I started the predictable next phase of digging, questioning and trying to explore what was going on for her.

Jenna’s anxiety manifests in stomach pains, tears, low mood and generalised unhappiness. These periods of pain quite often end with multiple trips to the doctors and ultimately a visit to the hospital for test and scans. She gets herself so worked up that she loses any ability to communicate rationally and usually regression is seen in all aspects of learning and communication.

We have been in this headspace the past eight weeks. Jenna is tired; her siblings quite frankly want to kill her have had enough, and her parents are in desperate need for some respite and rest.
During these past eight weeks, we have had four doctors appointments, one psychiatric review, one hospital visit, a paediatrician review and eight phycologist appointments across two different practitioners. Each in their own language and expertise trying to assist our Princess in developing a ‘kit bag’ of resources, tools, tricks and education to succeed survive this harsh reality we may call everyday life.

Each appointment we are hopeful that new techniques sticks and philosophy we reinforce at homes are again reinforced during therapy. It seems we are sitting at about 100:1 odds and the investment made seems mostly money thrown down the drain. Regression, seclusion, frustration is becoming the norm and each day moving farther and farther away from her peers.

fidget
Jenna’s artwork about her fidget spinners

Our dreams of independence, a life away from mum and dad, a career, family and lifelong friends seem unattainable, and that’s gut-wrenching, painful and a scary future. Each day I try and push away refusing to accept, and I continue to help her dream, push her farther and again try a new strategy to get through a somewhat typical predictable day.

So our reality currently has been 1-2hours of school attendance per week, that’s right not 1-2days per week but hours. Getting a predictable phone call every day she attends from the office (hearing uncontrollable crying in the background) asking us to pick up Jenna.

The school is at a loss, and us at home having a bored, under stimulated girl that can not handle any social interactions.

We took a bold step this week. As like an IEP, we have developed an individual timetable with the school for Jenna. We have arranged a curriculum that is key learning only (English & Math, with a little cooking) this means that she doesn’t need to enter the school playground, no mainstream classes and no full school assemblies. We have school attendance agreed at four days per week at a maximum of 2.5hours per day. Although a headache and quite a strain on us to organise transportation around work, we are confident that this is a necessary step to ensure some social engagement, some stress and anxiety experienced in a staff place and hopefully stretched scholastically over time.

We can only hope that tomorrow is a better day, that school attendance becomes routine and that I can better understand her anxiety to in turn better support her to growth, be stretched and succeed.

 

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Take 3

2016 marks the last year of primary school for Jenna. It was hoped that this would be a year to fully prepare for high school. The concept was, we would introduce her to multiple teachers, larger lesson sizes and a variety of different peer groups. We had planned that the introduction to a vast array of classes, more complex timetables and different teachers (specialist) i.e. Language, music and the arts would be a fantastic platform to high school life.

Academically this was a huge win for Jenna, she was progressing well and for the first time in her schooling journey received a pass mark for the majority of core subjects (English, Science, Math.)

Although, to our regret the cost of academia was a reduction in school based supports; this was disastrous for our princess. The progress of the first semester was lost, the wins on her report card forgotten, but more disastrously the want to engage and even attend school had been forfeited.

It took a stint of illness, poor school attendance and a dramatic increase in behaviours for us to ask more questions to the school. By the time we understood the changes that occurred at school (i.e. reduction of support hours, 1:1 teacher aide support etc.), it was too late. Damage already was done, and the trust of the system and teachers had been lost by our princess.

It was again time for a change and to try a different angle.

This lead us to school number two, and soon to be three schools in 2016 for our princess.

Each one had promise:

  • School one was close to work.
  • School two was close to home.
  • School three is in the new community we are moving to next year.
First Day of School Number 3

 

All three schools have advantages, and all gave a promise of better engagement, better friendships, no bullying and improvements in her academic achievements.

Our second school said all the right words, made all the right promises and had a bonus. It was 3 km from home and Jenna’s younger brother attended the school.

Isaac was a huge benefit; he became her protector, the bus monitor and a watchful eye. It’s amazing how much support an eight-year-old boy could be; we were super proud of him, and this made the first few weeks effortless for Jen.

 

The help of the younger brother, although a chore for him and embarrassment for her was beautiful. It assisted with Jenna’s anxiety levels and meant she didn’t need to worry about ‘big’ things, things like catching a bus home. This simple act brought back again her disability and struggles with simple tasks that everyone takes for granted.

 

This second school did not have the capacity to cater for the complexity of her needs. Social anxiety, making friends and maintaining grades made impossible due to their limitations. The school had a huge heart, excellent teaching staff, and beautiful ideals. The dream didn’t last; Jenna made friends with the teachers, not the students. Bullying occurred and continued from day one. The hope of finding a perfect fit and a place that was able to accommodate quickly faded. Again we turned to weeks of illness, a return to non-school attendance, and the search again started. School number 3.

Over the past six years, our focus has been mainstream schooling, normalisation and a sense of sameness for our princess. Pushing with everything we had to offer her the ‘same’ education and experiences as her three siblings. We fought, argued and when needed disagreed  with the education department for  her needs to be met. We discussed the stigma of ‘the naughty kid’ ‘misfit’ ‘trouble maker.’ We wanted the best, and the best in our eyes was the ‘same.’ We continued to make adjustments, exclusions and exceptions in order to keep the elusive dream alive, a normal education.

 

These past six weeks I have needed to acknowledge again that her disability has limitations, that it takes a team of professionals to educate her, and she will never ‘fit in’ with the crowd or hit those elusive benchmarks that every parent awaits. I needed to grieve again for what of could have been and continue to ask the same questions that I kept avoiding.

  • What does the future hold?
  • What will her normal be?
  • What’s best for her?

I’ve come to the realisation that I needed her to be valued for her ability, individually and interdependently. She did not need to be benchmarked against other students, already established milestones or community expectations, etc. I needed to benchmark her on her capabilities, goals and desires. There needed to be an individual approach, one that was developed for Jen, and her alone.

Two weeks ago I was posed with a question, mainstream schooling verse attending the special education unit (SEP.) I chose the SEP; I selected a stream of education that will focus on life skills, core competencies and relationship building. We have a new plan, a plan to overcome anxiety, to daily learn new skills, to slowly feel comfortable in the community and to make lifelong friends. We have a new path, a new direction and a future that again looks promising and exciting for our princess.

But still I am learning to step back when needed and push/advocate for better. Never being satisfied with expected norms, always dreaming for better, always being challenged to allow her to fail, learn and try.

It’s lifelong learning, and each day is an adventure, an adventure of the possibilities that await our princess.

 

Fishing with Granddad

And we celebrate little wins daily : learning to cook Mac and cheese, scrambled eggs and cheese and bacon pastry puffs, just a few wins this month.

New fascinations: slime, drawings, printing, birthdays (and numbers in general.)

Its always an adventure, and always exhausting, but so worth the ride.

 

Learning to Push Harder

It’s been a while between drinks (88 days to be exact), but here we go my latest instalment.
After seven days in the hospital, one month at home and numerous medical appointment I’m on the mend. But it’s taken its toll on my princess.

This blog forms an update of the last 90days, a crazy 90 days of learnings, frustrations, healings and for my princess a time of much-needed pushing.

Our 17th Wedding Anniversary

“Ataxia unknown origin” it’s what I was labelled with, what that meant for the family was a dad that couldn’t walk. The father who walked every day went to the shops and the park for ‘timeout’ was housebound. To say my princess was scared and angry at her dad was an understatement.

My health was the families security; my ability to keep running was the lifeblood that kept our families crazy routines intact. It was the security at the end of each day and it was the strength to push when everyone else needed rest.

My ability to endure even the craziest of days enabled Jenna to run as much as she needed, ground herself, rebalance and find her centre. The release she felt from shopping and parks was so satisfying, the anxiety dissipated. It was Daddy daughter time at its best.

I didn’t realise the extent of this ‘extra’ supports until it was impossible to provide. My wife had no chance, no ability to compete and was set up to fail in an impractical, impossible routine.

Parks were special times for our princess, not only did she get her sensory realise, expel stirred up energy, the whole family had time to breathe. Park time was a time where all 6 of us had ‘space’ Jenna and dad time, and the other 4 had a break. This afternoon routine kept balance, brought laughter and always enabled me to smile.

Shopping was painful for Dad; we couldn’t just ‘pop in the buy milk’ we needed to walk every aisle. Meticulously checking for updates of shopkins seasons, touching, smelling, tasting. Every time out was an adventure.  The shops are Jenna’s life, unbeknownst to her, Dad had already checked the crowds, events and best times to shop. What seemed like a spontaneous ‘I’m bored’ fit was organised and set up to a tee.

Shopping was an endless money pit, with unfounded expectations put on Dad. But never the less an enjoyable experience. Again like the park it was an escape from reality, a rush and an adventure. It was fantastic.

Then STOP… It was sudden, without warning, and life was out on hold.

Without the ability to walk, I couldn’t maintain these expected activities, without these activities Jenna couldn’t find balance. Chaos.

During the month of illness, anxiety increased, anger grew and hospital visits made it worse. My baby girl thought her dad was dying and with that the death of the frequently that she had become accustomed. Outdoor play all but ceased.

It was tough times, times that were only possible with the strength of my wife and the flexibility of my dad. Without both, the success of these past months would have been impossible.

My wife was more than able to provide supports for Jenna, although it didn’t meet her need of hanging with her dad. Nothing but having routine established would fix the void.

I’ve always wanted to protect my baby girl; I’m a nurturer at heart. I wanted to be a dad that hides the hard stuff from her, sheltered her from the storm we call life. I hate seeing her in pain; I hate seeing her struggle in what I consider being the norms of this world.

I wanted to hide her from the hard stuff, protect her from the trouble and as much as possible allow her to be my little girl for eternity. Being sick brought to light very quickly that her dad can’t be all things and also can’t shield her from all things, that wrecked me.

Not always the hugest fan of autism giant Temple Grandin I was forced to reflect on several of her quotes. 

I have added these in pictorial form for your reflection.

I wanted to hide her from pushing harder; I wanted to protect her from the ‘cannot’. With doing this, I forgot the ‘could’ and in the art of defending, I lost sight of her potential.

Mainly I wanted to find an alternate to the seemly pressure to succeed, fit in and be the ‘big’ girl that the world desires her to be. These are the learnings that were inspired by my incredible wife and our princess’s exceptional mother during my journey of recovery. In the form of keyword dot points, I have reflected on my learnings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Pressure 

My wife has an amazing ability to know when to push. She has been assisting me for the past 20years. As stated above I have been unwell for the past 2 or so months, meaning  I needed to take a backwards step. I hate to be out of the spotlight; my wife rarely has the chance to shine, always hiding behind my loud personality and never ending the drive. I had little choice but to get out of the way, with doing so, magic happened.

During this time, my daughter blossomed, Kathryn with her artful timing knew just when to push and she has an uncanny understanding of what the appropriate pressure was and is and how to apply.

  • When to rest

I knew that my need to rest was unquestionable, but upon reflection, this need taught our princess a life lesson that I hope she will treasure for life, rest. I had little choice, but Jen through unintended modelling followed suit. This meant that for moments in time ‘im bored’ diminished and downtime blossomed. Again magic from a wife that oozes patience, success, we have found rest.

  • New routine

Routine had to change; from hospital stays an inability to drive and grandad being chief shofar, life has changed. The unwelcomed and unplanned new reality appeared. It was not comfortable and adjustment was the only solution. With the exception of distancing herself from me, the routine was expected and embraced when normality and predictability were kept in motion. Sameness was our saviour throughout the change.

  • Work constraints

As stated in previous blogs, maintaining a family of 6, we made choices to both works, bringing in income to maintain lifestyle, pay medical bills and have the occasional family dinner out on the weekend. (if we get the timing, venue and mood correct, which happens very rarely).

As we both move up in management and career development, the flexibility reduces for our princess. Thinking this was always a bad thing I was the king of adaptability, flexibility and predictability. I have been learning that bouts of the reverse have been beneficial and even helpful on our journey of independence, self-reliance and maturity.

Again the genius of illness and the unpredictability of healing and progress meant that our princess had to learn a new skill. This new ability was unwelcomed and at times still told us and others to “F off”, this skill was the coping mentioned above of unpredictability. Although acknowledging that routine, predictability and stability are what ensures a quiet relaxed and in control princess, it seems absurd to wish the reverse. This was our need and upon reflection, our desire and in snippets, pure bliss.

  • Saying no

Learning when to say no, similar to pushing was a skill that was in dire need of development. A skill that I still struggle to implement and my soft nature struggles with the concept. There was little choice, with one parent down, routine and commitments still needing to be maintained, something had to give. A healthy dose of relatively and an easily said two letter word was used. We needed to say No. With little success previously it seemed we were about to enter a minefield of meltdown and tantrum, upon reflection another success. Although not a perfect science, we know have the ability to response, for the most part, to wait, not yet, soon and for some part no. Progress.

  • Traffic jams

In short out daily commute sux. Adding to the pressure medical appointment, extra commitments at work needed the addition of after-school care. Although not always welcomed, traffic, outside school hours care and various adjustments to timeframes have forced our princess to stretch. Our job has been to communicate our intention effectively, make agreements in advance and apologies at times when we get it wrong.

  • Sisters

Wow, this is hard work, they love they hate, they connect they want space. We never get this balance correct but the value is there in investing this relationship and importance to family. It’s been a blessing to watch this develop. I don’t promise that there will always be true harmony at the ‘house of many hopes’ aka home although I am hopefully that love prevails and the good times are etched into their memories for a lifetime.

  • Choice and control

How to find the balance, when to admit I got it wrong, when to discipline and when to celebrate. I almost never get this right but we are learning together. An unintended bonus of being sick, was I needed to lose control, in this control being lost my princess has found her ability to choose. It’s been a humbling experience watch her develop. Listen to mum and follow a slightly different set of rules. This past 90 days has made her stronger, more independence and proved to her dad that she is ready to grow. I’m still scared of what is to come but in turn much more confident for success.
It’s been an intense 90days, but I have never been prouder of my family and my princess. Together we can achieve the impossible and it’s okay to push harder at times, that last one is just a reminder for me.

  • An update on parks and shopping

We are finding our normal again; I still struggle with walking further than a few hundred metres but the routine is returning. Late night shops, afternoons strolls and 1:1 time is again giving us time to recharge and create space for others in the family.

Oh and Target is once again burning a hole in my credit card.

 

My top 13 tips as a Dad.

I was having trouble sleeping last night (the joys of a 10 years with sleeping difficulties) so I thought I’d write a few thoughts of my own on parenting, mostly just for a laugh.

My faith is the center of all decisions I make. Hopefully without the references to seamless bible verses and the cheesy one liners you know that my parenting is done with the lens of a personal relationship with Jesus.

My family is my life. All else truly comes a distant second, even my career, friends and wine. Making this a conscience choice several years ago has been the best decision I have recently made, second only to when I said ‘I do’ many years ago.

My Top Tips

  • Never stop laughing at farts.

Trivial I know, but vital. My wife thinks I don’t have a sense of humour, but….. Have fun, laugh heaps and when needed be disgusting just because you can. Your kids will thank you for it, and its fun.

  • Always make time for play.

I have trouble switching off, and I am not the world’s biggest fan or gymnastics, AFL, drama or the arts. But my kids are, so play, not what I think is important or fun, but what they do.

  • You’re never too old to dance with your children.

Top 40 is all we listen to and I have been told that I am the world worst dancer (refused to dance for so, so long) but again, this is important. I even danced at church on the weekend, front and center (Ring a Ring o Roses style).

  • Don’t try and equal your time out between kids, just make it count.

I don’t do the daddy date thing, but when I’m focused with one of the children I work to be involved, make it unique, and make it count.

  • Apologize when you get it wrong.

Own your mistakes, I blow it often but make a point to apologize and try and move forward. I also give the kids time to be upset with me.

  • Love your spouse, and when needed gross out the kids with affection

I show affection, and my kids always know that I love their mum to bits; I don’t want this to be abnormal or ever to change.

  • Be consistent with discipline, but make it unique to them.

With a child with autism in the family it sometimes feels that life is unfair at times, the truth is it is. But learn what discipline your child responds to best and be consistent and in partnership with your spouse.

  • Extracurricular activities are boring as hell but important. Make it a priority to help your kids find something they love.

Yes, we do piano, football, drama, musical, youth group, sleepovers, and gymnastics. We have made this a priority at home, yes it can be a pain and some are expensive. But for us it’s worth it.

  • Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know”, but help find a solution.

My kids think I know everything (mostly I do), but when I don’t, I let them know and help find the answer. We learn together.

  • Tell your kids often that you’re proud of them

Hard one for me, but vital that our children know they are doing well, and kicking significant goals. We don’t measure against their siblings or others. We measure their effort and application.

  • Listen.

Make time to hear them out.

  • Make time for family.

This is really really hard.  Busyness, different interests, autism, adolescence all put a strain on family time. We are still looking for what fits best, but when needed we compromise. Movies seem to be the winner most times.

  • Be flexible, and willing to change your plans.

Again a hard one, but my family trumps church, work, and friends every time.

Thanks for hearing my thoughts, please feel free to comment.

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