August 25, 2014

To the people like her, which is perhaps everyone

Today at Support for Special Needs:
When Schuyler looks at the future, she does so with her disability in mind, but not at the front of her thoughts. I envy her that. She's growing up quickly; today is her first day of high school, after all. We're having conversations identical to those happening in other houses around the world, about how it's appropriate for her to be thinking about boys she'd like to date, or girls she'd like to date, for that matter. ("Or both!" she said during our last conversation about dating; she's going to be trouble.) She asks me to teach her how to drive approximately every other day. When she breaks through her social anxiety, she laughs loudly and easily, and flirts without hesitation. Even a few months ago, I had my doubts about how she will navigate high school. She has those doubts, too, but she's working on them. And the thing is, only some of those doubts stem from her disability.

August 18, 2014

Unwanted monsters

Today at Support for Special Needs:
Schuyler understands her disability better now than she ever has before. I'm immeasurably proud of her for that. But every so often, when things are hard, she pushes back a little. She doesn't rage, she doesn't cry or fall into despair, all of which I imagine would be my own response if I were in her shoes. She simply goes on record as saying that she doesn't want it. She knows her monster doesn't require her permission to do its wicked work, but she denies it that permission anyway. I'm incredibly proud of her for that as well.

August 11, 2014

Deconstructing the Gentle Lie

This morning at Support for Special Needs:
Beyond mythological figures, there's the gradually disintegrating gentle lie we tell our children, the one that says that if they work hard enough or want it bad enough, they can do anything they want in the world. For kids with special needs, I suppose it's not all that different. As parents, we overbelieve, and we sell that overbelief to our kids, and that's not a bad thing, I don't think. As they grow older, like Santa, they begin to see the flaws in our lie, and as they deconstruct it bit by bit, they begin to incrementally build a more pragmatic truth in its place. They sniff out the path that does await them, the one that is meaningful and possible. As their parents, we can help, but in the end, it's not our quest. It's theirs.

August 4, 2014

The High School Chapter, Page One

Today at Support for Special Needs:
Schuyler started her summer band camp this morning, so I guess this is sort of the unofficial beginning of her high school years. Two weeks of 7am-to-noon rehearsals, a week of evening practices, and then ninth grade classes begin for real. I remember my own high school days, of marching band practice beginning in August, under a hot West Texas sun. It sounds miserable, and it was. It was also kind of glorious. In a weird way, I envy her, although it must be said, I also predict I'll be back in bed by 7:30.

July 28, 2014

The World in a Room

Today at Support for Special Needs:
The hard part comes in trying to help Schuyler decide what to give away and what to keep. We stay out of her way, even though honestly, she's not making a lot of progress. But it's up to her to decide, not so much what's appropriate to her age, because her age gives an incomplete picture of who she is and what's appropriate for her. No, for Schuyler, it's a process of deciding what is relevant to her now, to her life at this stage. When she starts high school in the coming weeks, I suspect her choices might change.

July 21, 2014

Eleven Years

Today at Support for Special Needs:
Mostly, though, the last eleven years have given me Schuyler. They've allowed me the time to let go of my selfish expectations of who I thought my daughter was going to be, and they've allowed me to adapt and appreciate and unconditionally love the weird and wonderful girl she is. It's the girl she is despite her condition, and because of it. And I'm the father I am because of the many mistakes I've made and the occasional things I've gotten right. None of us in this family are the people we were then. The past eleven years have been a crucible and a wonder. We all bear scars and the remnants of war paint, and we all shine a little brighter when called upon to do so.

July 14, 2014

Schuyler's Sense of Self

Today at Support for Special Needs:
It really is a beautiful photo, haunting and sweet. In most of her pics, Schuyler is laughing, and not gently, either. But as she gets older and more secure in her sense of self, and as she continues to construct and deconstruct her personal sense of who she is, the Schuyler she wants the world to know is more nuanced. She's growing up, and she knows it. I think it's beginning to excite her, the knowledge that she's in control of the person she is to become.

July 7, 2014

Independence Days

Today at Support for Special Needs:
Watching Schuyler and her friend navigate their shared space was an eye-opening experience for me. I observed the ways in which they connected, and watched them dance around the ways that they simply couldn't connect. It gave me a sense of what a friendship with a neurotypical kid might look like, as well as why it has been so hard for Schuyler to make those friendships work out for long. I don't always have a very good concept of how far Schuyler really is from the developmental norm of kids her age. It's not something of which I should be so ignorant.

June 30, 2014

"Thanks, but..."

Today at Support for Special Needs:
Special education is a funny thing. (Not so much “ha ha” funny, more like “Huh, that doesn’t make a lick of sense” funny. Not actually all that funny at all, sorry.) We believe deeply in early intervention and a robust special education system in place from the very beginning, but there’s little agreement on what success actually looks like. And to those of us who live in the world of special education, there are few things that make us at best roll our eyes and at worst lay awake at night than hearing even the most well-intentioned policy-makers and elected officials talk about how they’re going to fix special education.

June 23, 2014

The Gatekeepers of Entitlement

Today at Support for Special Needs:
We are so convinced that we have a right to know and understand every single scenario that we see. We are offended by nuance, and confused by invisible impairment. We are the gatekeepers of entitlement (a word that is itself loaded with judgment), and if there's one thing we cannot stand, it's the idea that someone with a disadvantage somewhere is getting something that we don't think they deserve.

June 17, 2014

"Once more, unto the breach..."

Today (a day late, sorry) at Support for Special Needs.
We've always advocated strongly for Schuyler to be educated in an inclusive public school environment, even moving to our current city to make sure she'd be able to integrate using assistive technology to bridge the communication gap between her and the typical world. I have to be honest and say that her current school situation is a poor reflection of that goal. There are a lot of reasons for that. It's a complicated situation, which is usually a pretty accurate way to describe the lives of special needs families. There are goals, and there is reality, and if you're lucky they might look a little bit similar. If you're very, very lucky.

June 14, 2014

Unseen Giants

I wrote a Father's Day piece for my friends over at BridgingApps. They're great people and I'm honored that they're featuring my words.

Happy Father's Day to all my fellow dads of the world. I hope you get a nice tie.
If you asked me that oft-repeated but generally useless question, whether or not I'd take my daughter's disability away from her if i could, I won't lie to you. My answer now, as always, would be yes, without hesitation.

Should we want to take away our child's disabling condition? It's a hotly contested question, but it misses the point. The thing we come to learn as special needs fathers is that it doesn't actually matter how we answer. No one is ever going to ask that question as the prelude to a miracle.

We can't fix, but we can see. We can look and really see our kids, and come to understand that their disabilities are a part of their construction, threads that run deep and true in their tapestry. We become caregivers, and we become champions. We learn to fight and we learn to nurture, in ways that the fathers of typical kids might never have to do. We don't allow ourselves to become Homer Simpson because our worlds won't work with that character.

June 9, 2014


Today at Support for Special Needs:
I don't think there's anything wrong with letting your kid dream past their disability. If it involves a small lie, I think it's not much different from the Santa story (SPOILER...) or the "anyone can be president" fib. (Watch Fox News for a few minutes, until your eyes begin to bleed, to see how the exception probably illustrates the rule.) Our kids are learning a great deal during their early years. That learning process involves more than finding alternate paths through the world. Kids like Schuyler are figuring out who they are, and how their disability can shape them even as they reject the idea that it should define who they are.

June 2, 2014

A Simpler Season

Today, at Support for Special Needs:
Many of us with special needs kids make noises of outward exasperation at the onset of summer, and we mean it, too. But at the same time, when pressed, I suspect many would admit that we're relieved, too. The schools will be giving us back our kids. Whether those schools have gotten it mostly right or mostly wrong, when we get our kids back for the summer, we leave a great deal behind. We're done, for the time being, with all the complications of negotiating school policy and modified curriculum and imperfect behavioral plans and all the modification required to make our beloved square pegs fit into those educational round holes.

May 26, 2014

Insufficient Instrument

Today at Support for Special Needs:
For a guy who's not too smart, I think I do a reasonably good job of navigating the chaos around me. And yet, it is in respect to the most important part of my world where I think I know the least. Schuyler has always been, and remains today, the central mystery of my life. I think I made peace with that years ago, mostly because it is in the journey to understand her mystery that I've grown the most as a person, and found my closest approximation to lasting happiness. I've accepted that as lucky as I am to have Schuyler in my life, I'm mostly not going to get her.
It's beginning to occur to me that I'm not the only one.

May 25, 2014

American Poison

You're probably reading this on Sunday or Monday ("Happy" Memorial Day seems like a weird thing to say), but I'm writing this on Saturday night, in the middle of the media coverage of another horrific mass killing in America. It's at that stage where we're just now getting enough information to begin to understand what happened, and the justified outrage is building up steam, but there's still a lot we don't know. Worse revelations are no doubt still to come. Even at this early stage, though, it feels like a quintessentially American story.

I'm not going to get into the specifics of what happened. I'm not going to name the killer because, well, fuck that guy. He doesn't deserve his new-found, posthumous fame. I'm not going to name the town where it happened, either, because that community doesn't deserve the notoriety that will no doubt follow the event for years to come. If you're reading this the day or the week it was posted, you know it all anyway. If you're reading it months or years from now, I suspect some other terrible but interchangeable thing will have replaced it in the news. If you miss one mass murder in this country, you'll never have to wait long for another. My own feelings about the event are pretty straightforward. As a pacifist, I'm horrified. As a man, I'm ashamed. But as a father, and the father of a daughter, I'm particularly moved, and troubled.

Once again, the media is reporting that the accused shooter is mentally ill, a "madman", according to the first reports from local law enforcement. He's also been identified by the family attorney as having been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, specifically Aspergers syndrome.

For some, it's easy, even comforting, to blame something like this on mental illness or a neurological disability. "That's awful," one might think. "It's a good thing my own kids aren't mentally ill or intellectually disabled."

Separation gives us a sense of safety. "Terrible acts are committed by monsters," we tell ourselves, "and I don't know any monsters." We've been taught our whole lives on some level, perhaps not always directly but with the subtle stain of common vocabulary and social narrative, to fear the mentally ill or neurologically disabled.

Those of us who live in a world of mental illnesses or neurological imperfections understand a deeper truth. People with mental illnesses aren't prone to kill, and persons with disabilities are far more likely to be victims of violence and sexual assault than they are to be perpetrators. And as we're not defined by our afflictions, neither are those who share them but who commit atrocious acts. Mental illness, emotional difficulties, neurological differences, these are part of the tapestry of who we are. Sometimes they are woven in the tapestry of very bad people, too.

"That guy was fucking crazy" feels comfortable, but in this case, as in so many cases, there's a deep and disturbing well of misogyny from which the shooter drew his anger. And like it or not, we need to face the fact that his philosophy, while twisted, did not appear in a void. Even tonight, just a day after the shooting, there's an ugly subculture out there expressing understanding for his rage. This feels significant to me; I don't remember the Newtown massacre bringing out messages of support from people who just don't like kids. But then, hating children isn't acceptable in this country. Hating women is.

The shooter blamed women for the tragedy that he unleashed, and of course this is entirely false. The knee-jerk response of so many is to blame mental illness or a neurological disability for his horrific actions, and this is also wrong, simply a grotesque oversimplification. The responsibility for the murderer's actions fall squarely on him, but with an asterisk. We live in a culture where poison flows in rivers just under the surface. "Fear the fool and the madman. And she was asking for it."

As the father of a teenaged girl with an intellectual disability, my own fears are simple and clear. Schuyler is growing up in a society in which she is devalued twice over. And that fills me with a deep, enduring sadness.

Not just because I can't always be there to protect her. But also because I shouldn't have to be.

May 19, 2014

The Thin Line Between Wrong and Wrong

Today at Support for Special Needs:
But perhaps more importantly, for special needs parents, it's not always as simply the choice between right and wrong. Sometimes, you just have to shoot for the choices that will probably turn out to be wrong, but just perhaps a little less wrong than others. Less damage to undo, fewer apologies, maybe even marginally more restful nights.

May 18, 2014

"...and my heart is closing like a fist."

Schuyler and I are at a quiet burger place. We're having a late lunch after working on a homework project most of the afternoon, and there are only a few other people here. The burgers are good, and they have wi-fi and milkshakes. She's on her iPad watching Netflix, and I'm on my laptop catching up on some work. It's not perfect, but it might be close.

The doors open, and a high school cheerleading squad enters like a tsunami, followed by their parents and friends. The parents are almost comically loud, and the boys are posturing and preening with a forced casualness. The girls are energetic and interchangeable, matching uniforms and identical hair and high wattage smiles. They have quintessential Texas suburban names like Brooke and Madison.

The noise is intense, that much more so for the contrast with the near silence only a few minutes before. I hunker down like a curmudgeon, but Schuyler simply ignores the swirl and noise at first. She's engrossed in whatever movie she's watching. It occurs to me that five days a week, she occupies a world full of teenage chaos. She's unflappable.

Eventually Schuyler begins to watch the kids as they run around, groups forming and breaking up and reforming minutes later. I realize as I watch that this is how I'd hoped Schuyler's cheer squad would behave this year. All my misgivings about Schuyler becoming a cheerleader had been balanced by this idea of a bond between girls, a protective group dynamic. I can see it in this group, in ways that I never saw it in Schuyler's squad. Here there are no outliers, no girl trying to fit in, attempting to join the discussions before finally sitting apart.

There's no Schuyler in this squad.

I can't imagine what Schuyler is thinking, although it is clear that she's very deep in thought. I sneak a few photos of her, trying to catch the reverie in her eyes. I think I manage. When I show her the photo I like the most, she smiles. I ask if I can post it, as I always do, and she says yes.

"Does this remind you of your cheer squad?" I ask her.

"A little," she says. "They're having fun. I wish we had fun."

She watches the girls a bit longer, and her face isn't sad so much as resigned, perhaps. The day before, she and Julie went on a trip with Schuyler's middle school band to a local water park, and the report back from Julie was reminiscent of the year before, and the year before that. It was a repeated sequence, Schuyler trying to break into a group of friends and running with them for a short while before being left behind. Schuyler can be a hard kid to be friends with, I understand. She's excitable and handsy, in that way that many nonverbal kids can be even after they grow older and develop speech. Crucial early childhood years with no expressive language have trained her to communicate with a kind of physicality that can be awkward now that she's a teenager.

Now, the next day, she has withdrawn into herself, not morosely but with a kind of sigh. This is the cycle of Schuyler. She tries to integrate socially, she succeeds at first but all too soon falls out into solitude, and spends some time regrouping before going back into the fray. It's not all because of her disability, I know, because I function in much the same way, and today, Schuyler and I are both turtles pulled into our shells.

Seated in the middle of this cacophony, we've got our walls up. And it's okay. It's not ideal, but it's what we need.

May 17, 2014

Borrowed Happy

"So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I'm still trying to figure out how that could be." 
- Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

This is one of those posts I might not actually publish, or that I might think better of and delete after posting it. If you're reading this, you're either Johnny-on-the-Spot, or perhaps I decided not to give the going rate of two shits and left it up. This might be one of those cases where just writing this is cathartic enough to shake me out of my mood and send me on my merry way.

I've been thinking about happiness lately.

(Because of privacy rules, this paragraph is going to be vague. Sorry, I know that's irritating.) I recently embarked on a venture of sorts, one that I thought might lead me down a new path, one that would make me genuinely happy. It ultimately didn't, and I'm taking that failure particularly hard, I won't lie. I feel foolish, and I feel disposable, and if there's a worse way to feel, I'm not sure what it might be. I aspired to something, and my wax wings melted pretty quickly.

The thing is, and I think this is significant, I can't remember the last time I did feel authentic happiness. I know it's been a very long time. If the idea of being truly content with my place in the world is so elusive that I can't even tell you how long it's been, I guess maybe that's an issue. I thought I could see the path until this week. I can't, though.

It's important to note that I'm not some sad mopey bastard with not an ounce of happiness in my life. I think rather the opposite. And when I find my confidence again, as I will shortly, I'll be fine. But it's an undeniable truth that the true satisfaction I find myself feeling is almost always a result of Schuyler's happiness. It comes in things large from time to time, but it's mostly the small joys. A monster movie well-realized. A trip to a comic book store that neither of us expected until we found ourselves standing outside. A joke we've told each other a thousand times. ("Knock knock!" "Come in!")

Schuyler experiences joy, and as a result, I feel some of that reflected warmth as well. I suppose, like a lot of parents (Julie very much included), my own happiness has probably become too caught up in my kid's. I've become dependent on the borrowed happiness I get from her.

If that sounds desperate or sad, I guess perhaps it is. But as I stand here at the end of a shaky week, it might just have to be enough, at least for now.

May 12, 2014

Advocacy, with Heart

Today at Support for Special Needs:
There's a balance to be struck, I imagine. We don't want hysterical, emotional professionals (as entertaining as that might sound), nor do we want dispassion. Experience matters, not so much as a driver of curriculum and the approaches taken with individual kids, because the idea that every kid is a unique snowflake takes on a very different and important meaning when it comes to teaching and treating individuals with disabilities. But personal experience makes us better listeners. It makes us more flexible, and it enables us to think on our feet and, perhaps more importantly, to use our intuition to guide us.