The Free Ranger

My 19-year-old son did not graduate from high school last year with his peers. Instead we made the decision to keep him in the public school system until he is 21. Ben has a genetic disease called Familial Dysautonomia which affects his cognitive and physical abilities. College is not in his future and we thought it would be best to utilize the public school/county services as he begins the next phase of his life.

Contemplating this next chapter is so much harder than with my typical children. While they may have an inkling of what they want to do when they grow up, Ben truly has no idea. I don’t think he can visualize his future beyond the present and would probably be happy living at home for the rest of his life. So besides taking care of his physical health, which is no walk in the park, I now am responsible for imagining his future. Sometimes this feels like a crushing responsibility.

We were elated to arrange an “internship” at our local Jewish Community Center’s preschool where Ben will help in a classroom of 4-year-olds from 8am – 10:30am. The high school Transition Counselor travel-trained him to ride a public bus from the JCC to his high school for some afternoon classes. Ben has gone to camp at the JCC since he was 3-years-old so it is a safe, comfortable place for him.

It’s still a little terrifying. There is no nurse at work, like there is at school. We put together a plan so Ben can take care of his daily medicine and g-tube feeding before he leaves the JCC. If one of his health episodes arises while at work, we taught him how to handle the situation. This is a huge step in his self-care, heightening his body awareness and giving him the ability to take care of himself.

I have zero concern about Ben liking the work or his behavior in the preschool classroom. He is sweet and thinks the little kids are “adorable.” Ben gives me daily reports about what they did and what they had for snack. He said he helps the little kids with activities and clean up.

The bus ride definitely gave me pause but I was excited and fairly confident that Ben could do it. The travel trainer was a careful professional who thought of things that I had never really contemplated for Ben, much less my typical children.

She said, “Ben said that he has never discussed safety in the community with you.  Not sure if this was an accurate statement, but he seemed surprised that someone on the bus might want to take his cellphone, ask for money, appear to be drunk or on drugs, looks a bit sketchy, etc.  He was unsure how to respond when discussing ways to stay safe. Have you talked in detail with him about this?  What about if there is an emergency (such as weather related or a terrorist attack)?  Have you discussed a family emergency plan?”

Clearly I have failed as a mother. I have inadvertently sheltered Ben as I have been so focused on keeping him healthy and happy. I haven’t been completely negligent but my “safety” focus was on his personal space, i.e. “no one should touch your private parts, etc.” We have always handed Ben off to another responsible person or institution who was looking out for his well-being. This is a new level of “free-ranging” that we have not experienced with our most vulnerable child. I taught my other children many of these things but they also use their intuitive senses to pick up danger in the world around them. Rather than beat myself up, the teaching for Ben begins now – it’s not too late. He has learned to always sit near the bus driver who he can ask for help if needed. With his phone in his pocket, Ben has become aware of the people and places around him. Yes, he has a little fear but no more than a typical person. New things are exciting and a little scary.

But a family emergency plan? Does everyone have these? I don’t recall one from when I was growing up. I hadn’t really thought about how to instruct my kids in the event of a disaster or say, a nuclear attack. The only thing that comes to mind is something my smart aleck uncle told me when I was a teenager. We were sitting on my grandmother’s apartment balcony and I wondered aloud what would happen if the balcony snapped off the building and sent us plunging down.

“You know what you would do?” he asked me.

“Yes?” I asked, eager to hear his sage advice.

“You put your head between your knees and kiss your rear end goodbye,” he slyly said.

And that is all I could think of. I know, I know – I will tell my kids to find the nearest adult if their cell phones don’t work. Do we have to come up with a meeting place? Maybe I’m just too much of a fatalist to think these plans make much of a difference. Hopefully I have given my children the tools they need to be resourceful and strong.

Ben has successfully learned to take the 13 minute bus ride from work to school. He has an ID card, a bus pass and his backpack and is very proud of his achievement. It’s thrilling for me to watch him achieve this independence since he is unable to drive. His 16 year old brother is about to get his driver’s license but the bus riding brother makes me just as proud.

It’s scary sending children out into the world after keeping them safe when they are young. But there are many wonderful experiences to be had out there. Here’s to keeping my fingers crossed and hoping for the best. Oh, the places you’ll go Ben!

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Discluded

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The topic of inclusion for people with special needs has been on my mind lately. In particular, I’m focused on my seventeen-year-old son who recently auditioned and was selected to be in a two-year conservatory program for students with cognitive and/or developmental disabilities. It was a group audition with a one minute solo opportunity of the actor’s choice. Our son told a brief story about his beach vacation, complete with his amazingly good animal imitations. I wasn’t there, but I can only imagine that he brought down the house.

To be included, or not to be included? That is the question.

It is especially pertinent to the parent of a child with special needs. My son has a genetic disease, Familial Dysautonomia. He walks and talks, but his balance and gait are not great. He has a feeding tube, through which he can feed himself and he also eats by mouth. He has no behavior problems and is sweet with an innocent personality. We encourage him to be as independent as possible.

I recall a holiday dinner with friends a few years ago when my then eight-year-old daughter and her friend came to complain to the adults that the big kids weren’t playing with them.

“They’re discluding us,” they announced to our amusement. We did what adults do – told the big kids to be nice and tried to persuade the little ones to give them some space.

But really, must everyone be together all the time? Sometimes I like to hang out with people like me, sometimes I don’t.

When my disabled son was younger, I was very focused on inclusion and mainstreaming. I was so hopeful that he would fit in, make friends, and lead a typical life. Why shouldn’t my child be included? I was his advocate and tried so hard to focus on the parts of him that were like everyone else, rather than the things that made him different. He goes to a large public high school where he is mainstreamed and manages amazingly well with a lot of loving support.

As he’s gotten older, however, my acceptance of his differences has evolved. I can embrace the wacky, fun, quirky things about him. When he aged out of day camp and their wonderful inclusion program, the next option within the camp was with a self-contained group of disabled kids. At first I bristled at the idea of him being with a group of disabled kids – what about typical peers and role models? But, I had no other options, the camp had been great for my son since he was three-years-old, and it was better than him spending the summer playing video games in my basement.  We decided to give it a try.

I learned that my son didn’t mind being in the group at all – in fact he liked it. Even if I perceived that he was higher functioning than many of the other kids, he enjoyed making his friends laugh, helping out and hanging out with the counselors. It was the beginning of my being able to watch him move into and out of inclusion with fluidity and grace.

The campers went on a field trip to an improv place. The counselors told me my son loved it, which gave me the idea to pursue a theater class. While the theater program offers both inclusion and self-contained classes, we opted for the self-contained ones since he had no previous “training.” He took two classes last year. We went to the end of the semester observation. My husband felt that our son seemed so different than the other kids. I, on the other hand, saw him as belonging in the group and was so happy to see him shine. Apparently, inclusion is in the eye of the beholder.

I am thrilled that my son has this opportunity to learn some new skills, have fun, make friends, and be part of another nurturing community. As Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” These kids hit their marks, sing mostly on cue, and exit stage right and stage left, albeit slowly. They may have different abilities, but their performances are no less sweet.

 

“It’s Appropriate”

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Has this ever happened to you? One of your children is watching something on a screen that seems questionable to you. You ask if it is appropriate for them. They assure you that, yes, it is appropriate.

“Oh. Okay,” you say.

You know they say this because they want you to go away and leave them in peace. You want the same thing, so you choose to believe them because sometimes you don’t feel like taking the time to investigate if it’s truly appropriate. Sure – I can count on my child to know what’s appropriate and what’s not, can’t I? The kids and I would agree on certain things that are clearly not appropriate, such as highly sexual content or gory violence – they wouldn’t want to watch these things anyway (not yet, at least.) It’s all the other things (like bad language, mature themes, silly reality shows) where the line is not always so clear.

Sometimes things are inappropriate but in the opposite direction – not mature enough. Take for instance my 16-year-old son with special needs. He has a penchant for watching shows that some might say are too young for him. I used to tell him he is too old to watch these shows.

“But I like them,” he told me.

Sigh. He likes them. Who am I to force him to watch shows that he doesn’t really get or enjoy, just because they are more age appropriate? For me, there’s a fine line between expecting him to act his age and allowing him to be how God made him. Where is the perfect balance? I’m always looking for it.

My daughter recently reported that this brother was watching “Family Guy.” Oh good, my husband and I thought – that’s semi-appropriate for a teenage boy. Then she told us that it was really a cover for him to watch a children’s show on the computer – he too clearly understands the whole “It’s Appropriate” game. Too bad this cognitive ability doesn’t actually transfer to age-appropriate television for him, but oh well. He did participate in a recent “Simpsons”-fest with his cousins, keeping him somewhat in the adolescent TV loop.

My daughter chastised me for allowing her brother to watch “baby” shows.

“Really? Do I need a critique of my parenting from you?” I asked.

Let me just say that she loves “Dance Moms” and God-knows what other shows that some may say are inappropriate for an 11-year-old girl. It’s amusing to me that my youngest thinks she is the maven of appropriate material. When she was nine she picked the song “Mean” by Taylor Swift to sing in a recital. It’s a great song. We both thought the tune was catchy but neither of us paid much attention to the words. I just thought she was so adorable. As I sat there watching her, I realized the song is about an abusive relationship and my stomach dropped to my toes.

Maybe not my best call in this grey area we call parenting, but the world didn’t come to an end. The video of her singing still makes me smile to this day. Is that really so inappropriate?