“Kathleen? Do you have any suggestions on how to get your daughter to focus?”
Category Archives: Special Needs
“Please let her be alright, please let her be alright, please let her be alright.”
The hubs and I walked into our daughter’s classroom early on a chilly Thursday morning. Even though she is in kindergarten, parent/teacher conferences are nothing new to us – our daughter’s need for special education was identified early in her life, so we’d already been through 3 years of preschool. Maybe we haven’t heard it all, but we’ve heard a lot – the devastating “she should be…”s, the hopeful “it’s great to see…”s, the teachers who are clearly trying to churn through their list of parents, and the teachers whose passion for what they do is palpable.
We sat down on tiny chairs and stifled their pleads for mercy. I wasn’t expecting much out of the ordinary; I was looking forward to hearing what her teacher had to say and talking about what our next goals were, but I was also (#workingmomconfession) thinking about the meeting I was going to have to bust my ass to get to on time after the conference. Then her regular classroom teacher (vs. special education teacher) sat down on her own tiny chair, and said:
“She’s doing a really nice job of making friends.”
I did not see that coming. I am not a crier, I kind of detest crying. But my child feeling included is on my mind and on my heart all. the. time.
After the teacher found me a box of tissues, we talked about how the more nurturing children in the class will cater to her, and how in general, a lot of the children treat her like a little sister. And that is fine with me – I don’t need her to be prom queen (or queen of the blocks, or whatever equivalent kindergartners can be queen of), I just don’t want her to feel alone.
My daughter is with other kids all the time. School, neighborhood friends, church choir. But when you can’t communicate the same way everyone else can, I question if she ever feels truly “with” them. People are scared of what they don’t understand, even adults (actually, maybe especially adults). I’ve seen kids be mean to her. I’ve seen kids ignore her. I’ve seen kids approach her, realize something is a little different, and not know how to react. I’ve also seen kids be really sweet and kind.
Children are figuring out their way in the world, and teaching them how to treat other people is the responsibility of us as parents. Yes I think about this when I think of my child who has some extra needs, but I also think about it when my three year old tells me she doesn’t want to play with a certain child who is always scared at preschool. How do I make her understand how that kiddo might feel? How do I explain to her how much joy she might bring to him just by inviting him into her game? And even the most perfect parent in the world can’t teach everything – some of this they have to figure out on their own. Which means sometimes others will be mean to them, and sometimes they will be the one being mean. I was a kid once, I remember.
So as a non-perfect parent, I hope other non-perfect parents don’t mind me making a request. If you’re lucky enough to have only the “average” amount of worry that your child won’t make friends, appreciate that. I am so envious of you. And teach your child that different doesn’t mean bad, and extending an invitation to play to someone who looks lonely just might make their day.
So, your kiddo just got quite the diagnosis, huh? A disability. Something you never think will happen to your family. I’m guessing you’re either crying non stop, or numb and feeling nothing at all. And whichever it is, the other is bound to happen any minute now. I remember those days well.
I could say a bunch of positive things: “Keep your chin up…” “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle…” “At least now you know what you’re dealing with…” but I know from experience that it won’t matter. Everyone needs to deal with news like this in their own way, and at their own pace. So here is what I will say: Dude…that sucks.
That SUCKS. No one asks for this. No one asks for near impossibility in what should be simple developmental milestones, for never feeling 100% a part of the group, for having to refigure every aspect of the life you had imagined. So take your time. Cry, scream and curse.
But here is my bit of positive: you will be happy again.
I know it doesn’t seem like it right now. I very clearly remember thinking I didn’t know how I would ever feel joy again; I couldn’t imagine, with all the extra challenges we were going to face, how the enormity of those challenges wouldn’t cast a shadow over every activity in every minute of every day for the rest of my life.
But the anger began to ebb. Not all at once, it was quite the roller coaster – but you can’t have peaks without a few valleys. Eventually, the roller coaster became a nice plateau, with the intermittent dips that are to be expected. Then one day, I woke up with that comforting feeling of “happy” that I used to take for granted. It was nice to feel that again. As they say, life goes on. And as I say, receiving a disability diagnosis for your child is a life changer, not a life stopper.
Figure out how to move forward. Do all the tests and prioritize your therapies. Ask all the questions, get mad when no one can give you a straight answer, and then do what you think is right. And figure out how to still be you. What fills your bucket – your interests, your marriage, your friendships, your career (or not).
I read and run. My husband and I are very active with our kiddos, and in supporting each other. Life is busy, but I have a solid core group of friends I draw immense strength from (thank goodness for text messaging). And I found a company that keeps me challenged and energized while being flexible enough to allow for the things my family needs. These pieces didn’t all fall into place at once, and will need nurturing and adjustment, but they did fall into place. They will for you, too.
That doesn’t mean to say something won’t happen to throw all this in a tizzy next week. And by no means do I want to imply that this will be easy. Just last night, I read my daughter’s most recent preschool report; the most positive thing in there was that she is steady when she sits on a chair. That’s fine. While seeing the words on paper is jarring, I need those reports to be accurate. Today, I will go in and ask how we work to make it better.
So Mama, take your time. I don’t see any point in rushing yourself through what is a necessary adjustment process. Be mad and confused, be lost and unable to understand, hate the world. Just remind yourself, in the moments when you can stomach a bit of positive, that the light in your life won’t always be that dim. You will be happy again.
I would have spent a lot less time crying that first year. Hearing something is “wrong” with your precious little one…I can’t even explain the lost, isolated feeling.
Who I would have been without you may have been less frustrated, had maybe a little less gray. I’d also be less patient. I might work more, and value time to teach you things less, because the need for that time to who I am is so very clear.
I’d worry less. Or maybe not, but I’d spend my time worrying about what I can only assume are less important things. Not if someone is going to be mean to you, exclude you because you are “different.” Maybe when you don’t want to go to bed at night, I’d think “she doesn’t want to go to bed,’ rather than worrying that something is really wrong, but you can’t figure out how to tell me.
Who I would have been without you wouldn’t have been so defensive. When your teacher says you need to be able to put your coat on by yourself, my reaction would probably be “Yeah okay, we’ll work on it” rather than “are you effing kidding me? Do you REALIZE how much progress we’ve made?”
Speaking of those teachers…I would not appreciate them as whole heartedly as I do, if I would have been without you. We’ve gotten so far because of their guidance. They work with children who at times make little progress, and snarky parents who don’t want to hear what they have to say – these people are heros.
Who I would have been without you would probably be less empathetic. When nothing ever goes wrong, it’s easy to maintain a “sucks to be you, glad it’s not me” attitude. Now when I see struggling, physical or emotional pain, I wonder how it is so easy for the rest of us to ignore it. Whether it is families fleeing for a better life, or an accident survivor now confined to a wheelchair – I’m guessing none of them thought it could ever happen to them, either.
Who I would have been without you would have a smaller view of the world. You’ve taught me so much. I’d walk down the toy aisle and think “ice cream store, dial phone, cup and ball game, trampoline” rather than “social & behavioral, fine motor, object permanence, gross motor.”
I would have been less bold. The courage to speak up when I hear someone say something mean – yes, words like “retarded” – but also cruel comments that have nothing to do with me, is because of you.
Who I would have been without you would appreciate her husband less. This isn’t Sliding Doors, so I can’t see that life that might have been, but this one I’m sure of. Seeing your husband care for your child takes “love” to a whole new level. When there are extra challenges…I can’t explain it. I’m just so thankful he is here to walk beside me.
Who I would have been without you would have had less faith in herself. She might have looked at someone like me and thought “I don’t know how you do it.” But I know how. You cry, you scream at God, you throw yourself a pity party for all the unfairness. Then you tell yourself to get the f over it, dry those tears, and get to work, because that wonderful little love NEEDS you.
I don’t know all that might have been. But this much I know is true; who I am, is so much better, than who I would have been without you.
You walk into swim lessons. The air is heavy with the smell of chlorine and a cacophony of sound; children laughing, splashing, a few crying (oops). Yet you don’t worry that the little person whose arms are wrapped around your neck is going to let out a frustrated scream, overwhelmed by her environment. You sit and wait for your turn in the pool, your little bundle of love curiously checking out her surroundings while seated comfortably on your lap. As you enter into the water, you say hello to the instructor without contemplating if you should explain to her right off the bat why something seems a little “off,” because you know she’s going to wonder anyway. As the class gathers and makes introductions, you and your babe join in, and you don’t feel the need to translate her words so the other parents know she’s smart too, just like their little ones. And as you all start to sing the opening, splash along song, you relax, and find yourself thinking “is this what other parents feel like ALL of the time?!”
And you are instantly hit with a wave of guilt, like feeling this way means you are doing wrong by your other bundle of love.
Welcome to special needs parenting: the second, typical child edition.
My first child has a disability. My second does not. I’m incredibly proud of both of them.
Even though our daughter’s diagnosis was not inherited, I was worried when we got pregnant again. I’m guessing many parents worry to some extent, but we had the extra layer of having unimaginable happen once, plus I was older. I remember telling myself “well, if she isn’t normal, at least they can be unique together.” Because a typical child was what we were expecting, but was a bit scary, as well.
How long before little surpasses big? How do I explain when little someday asks why big can’t do what she can do? How do I comfort big when she is envious of athletic ability, academic opportunities, party invites, etc. etc. that she will very likely watch little partake of from the sidelines?
My first question was answered quickly. It took us seven months to teach big to roll over. We worked tirelessly with physical therapists, had the couch cushions rigged up all sorts of ways to support some muscles and leave others to learn to do the work. Little just did it one day. I think she was a month and a half. I remember just staring at her, thinking “is it really going to be that easy this time?”
I struggled the most with this as little started learning to talk. It was SO early. Okay, it actually was a little early – but given my past experience, it feels like she exited my uterus and said “What’s up Mom?!” I actually found myself wishing she would slow down, because the more she talked, the more it emphasized how behind big was. One day at speech therapy, I wondered to big’s therapist if little would surpass her. She responded, “Oh yeah. Probably soon.” Her frank answer forced me to rip the bandage off – no point in pretending it wasn’t going to happen. And it wasn’t fair to little, to be afraid of, instead of celebrating, her accomplishments.
The other two questions are yet to come. It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about having to answer them. But as of yet, these sisters don’t know anything is different. They know one loves Paw Patrol, and the other prefers nursery rhymes. One is all about trail mix and the other can’t get enough macaroni and cheese. They fight over toys, but couldn’t be better friends when bedtime, aka “run around giggling like crazy while mom and dad try and get us in pajamas” time comes.
I’m enforcing the family togetherness aspect. Mandatory family fun time in the evenings, taking turns doing what each other likes – normal family stuff. Little spends a lot of her life taking big to appointments, so we make sure they both get one on one time with each parent, and get to try new things. This fall, little will take swimming lessons with Daddy, and big will try out dance lessons (OMG the cuteness is going to be unbearable).
Scary questions will come and go. I’m sure I’ll have some in five years that I couldn’t even fathom now. Love and learn, love and learn, is how we will continue.
I don’t do these posts too much anymore, partly for Teagie’s privacy, and partly because I feel that a better use of this blog is to give insight into what it is like to be a part of a special needs family. I want to introduce this world to family, friends, everyone, so that this part of life isn’t something that should make anyone uncomfortable. But as it’s the end of the school year, it seemed like a good time for an update.
Teagan had a very happy year at Arbor Lakes. She was in a class of six children with a variety of special needs. Along with her teacher, Ms. Katie, there were two classroom assistants, and then a physical, occupational, and speech therapist that she worked – all of whom were wonderful.
Teagan and Ms. Katie
Her last progress report, which happens every six months, wasn’t that great. And I’m not even mad – yes Teagan has her own strengths and challenges, but I’m glad her teachers give it to me straight, and that they are holding her to high expectations. The most reoccurring problem is that Teagan looks to adults for guidance and approval – at this age, we’d like to see her more interested in engaging with her peers, as well as participating in activities on her own, without seeking adult approval. One of her goals was to play or participate in one activity on her own for five minutes…we’re still working on this one. She is easily distracted by other students or the classroom around her.
She also still requires a lot of prompts and enthusiasm from adults to complete tasks. If she doesn’t want to do something, she give an enthusiastic “NO,” or knocks the materials on the ground, or acts silly and tries to avoid whomever is trying to get her to complete the activity. Sigh. This is something we will continue to work on.
One area we are very pleased with is her speech. Between school, private therapy with our speech pathologist LeeAnn, and her little sister becoming a talker (and WOW is Alice a talker), Teagan is being pushed and making great progress. She LOVES going to see LeeAnn, and asks almost every day if we’re going to “Lee-Ahnns, af-ta nap.”
We work on a whole host of different things with LeeAnn, from new words to specific sounds to how to drink out of a cup (this is difficult because of Teagan’s low tone – she compensates by wrapping her tongue around a straw or cup). LeeAnn comments regularly on how pleased she is to see Teagan doing something new every week, and is very happy about the increase in her Mean Length of Utterance. What is that? Oh, let me show you what I’ve learned! 😉 It’s basically the number of words, with extra points for things like making a world plural or changing tenses. “I like dog” would have a MLU of 3. “I like dogs” would have an MLU of 4. Last week, Teagan said to me “Alice all done in the bath,” which is a really long sentence for her! Her words come out slowly, and not pronounced perfectly, but I’m so glad she is gradually becoming more able to share the thoughts going on in her head.
Working hard with LeeAnn
We will miss the teachers and therapists from this past year very much, as well as a wonderful little friend Teagan made at school. Her name is Molly, she has down syndrome, and Teagan talked about her EVERY day. Molly was sick the last day of school and I’m so bummed I didn’t get a picture of the two of them together, they were the cutest little pair. Luckily, Molly lives pretty close to us, so her mom and I will make sure to get the two buddies together.
Next year Teagan will start her third year of preschool, and…drum roll please…BE IN A REGULAR CLASSROOM!! Three days a week, she will be in a class with typically developing children, and one day a week she will be in a small special needs class. The teachers from this year and Joel and I went back on forth on this a few times. Because Teagan is timid, we didn’t want her to be left by the wayside in a regular class…but we are eager for her to learn from other children, plus this will make kindergarten less of a shock. So it is something we are going to monitor closely once the school year starts to make sure it is the best situation for her and she is getting the most out of school that she can – but I’m excited to give it a try!
Fun in the neighborhood
As for now, Team Petersen plans to enjoy the summer. We have a few of our regular summer trips planned – up north to Breezy point, down south to Iowa for family and friends – as well as lots of neighborhood fun. We are lucky to have families with two year old twins, a three and a five year old, and a one and a half year old, all in our backyard – never a dull moment around here!
I’m a bit insecure about this post. I don’t like sounding preachy, and as I think about what is coming, I don’t think there is any way for me not to. So thank you for bearing with me; I appreciate you putting up with a little bit of preach.
I used to use the word “retarded” as part of, I guess, slang. That stopped abruptly when I had a child with special needs. I’ve had others around me use it since then; they catch themselves, apologize, it’s awkward for two seconds, and we move on. I’ve seen people I’m friends with on social platforms use it, and depending on my relationship with them, I might reach out and say “hey heads up, maybe a different word.” One day just before Christmas I had an experience that was different. This time, it was someone who didn’t know my situation. It was the woman who cuts my hair.
It was the day after the Ms. Universe debacle. We were discussing how horrible the members of that situation must feel, and laughing because it actually got people talking about the Ms. Universe pageant again. We were chatting happily when this phrase came out of her mouth: “her answer didn’t make any sense and I thought she sounded retarded.”
My heart jumped the way it does every time I hear this word. My mind went into an internal civil war…
Do I call her on it? I know she wasn’t trying to offend me.
That doesn’t make it right. Use of that word is hurtful.
But it’s going to make her feel bad! And besides, she didn’t “mean it.”
Maybe she’ll use that word around someone impressionable and
they’ll start using it too. I’d better tell her.
I don’t like the use of that word. So why the internal back and forth? Because, I get it. Many people who use this word don’t mean to be harmful. Most don’t give a second thought to what it really means. Because what it really means, isn’t an insult. It’s a diagnosis (and actually not used that often anymore)…and the way that term is used in diagnosis is not the same as the way it’s used in slang.
But unfortunately, some people make fun of those with disabilities in really mean ways. Sometimes because they’re mean people, and sometimes because they don’t understand how cruel their actions are. Kids go through the McDonald’s drive-thu impersonating someone who can’t talk quite normally. A group of friends call guys they know and pretend to be a special needs person asking them on a date. I was witness to – and laughed at – both these situations in my younger days. Now I ask myself, what if one of those guys had a sibling with special needs? What if the person working at that drive-thru WAS a person with special needs? These memories haunt me now. At the time, I just thought it was funny.
I know most people don’t actually mean “a person with cognitive delay” when they use the word retard. But if we don’t tell them, how will they ever know they’re causing pain? So I decided to screw the very Minnesotan fear of bringing up an uncomfortable subject – I mustered my courage and spoke.
“Can I tell you something, and I don’t want you to feel bad?”
“Yes, of course!” Her body language changed; she straightened up, took her eyes off my hair and made direct eye contact with me in the mirror.
“I have a special needs child.”
“OH!” Her hand snapped up to her mouth, her eyes wide. “OH, I’m so sorry!! I didn’t even think about what I was saying!”
We recovered from a few moments of awkwardness and continued about our business. We had a brief Merry Christmas hug goodbye and I went back to work, hoping she wasn’t being too hard on herself, but happy that I’d spoken up.
The next day, I received a text from her. “Hey Kathleen! I know you said it wasn’t a big deal but I wanted to apologize again for what I said yesterday. I’m so glad you said something because it really made me think about it and be aware of the effects. Thank you and again I’m sorry.”
That she was texting me 24 hours later told me she was still thinking about it – and while the whole reason I spoke up was because I want people to realize what this word means, I didn’t want her to dwell on it. I responded immediately, telling her how much I appreciated how thoughtful she was about it, and that I thought she was a lovely person. Which I do.
So the next time you hear the r-word (or, for that matter, any other pejorative once used to describe a person), catch yourself. Think of me and my stylist friend. Yes, you and I both may have grown up thinking that word was cool or ok to use. We also thought that rolled jeans and Zima were cool. Now we know better.
(Thanks for your help Laura :-))
When I wrote about the cookies, my friend Becky commented on how Teagan has opened her and her family’s eyes and hearts. It got me thinking about everything I’ve learned being a special needs parent that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I could talk all day about these lessons – but thought it would be more fun to hear from people with differing levels of association with special needs families. So I did some asking around – here are a few of my favorites.
The question: what has having someone with special needs in your life opened your eyes to or made you realize that you hadn’t before?
“It has made me grateful for the little things; things you would just expect a child to do can really be milestones.” – Maryellyn, Grandma
“Before I knew Teagan, I naively thought of a special needs child being completely different from a typical child, and I think a lot of people think that way. I’ve realized she has a very similar personality, likes/dislikes, attitude, etc. as my own kids. ” – Morgan, neighbor
Just one of the crew
“I’ve learned that parents of kids with special needs still like to talk about every day kid stuff.…when to switch beds, potty training trials, how to overcome picky eating, etc. In other words, kids with special needs are, well, kids.” – Laura, friend
“I’m not that important. Sometimes at the grocery store the baggers are men and women with special needs. I used to get frustrated having to wait for them to bag my groceries. But you know what? My life is not so busy or important that I can’t take that time to chat with them or ask them how they are doing. Maybe it will make the people who love them so happy that someone took the time to say hi. Maybe it will make their day. It actually makes mine.” – Tracie, friend
“I appreciate life so much more and see that people with disabilities can really be angels on this earth showing us the true meaning of life, if we let them! Acceptance, love, community,strength and faith… these things matter! Not whether you buy a house, it’s size, your car, your job, your weight, your looks. If you can see past all that, you can know real love, experience true friendships, the simple joys in life. We should look to those who accept their challenges head on, or are different than everyone else, as inspiration to be more like them!!” – Lisa, friend
“I want to help and have so many questions, but sometimes the biggest help I can be is to be a friend and not ask them. Because sometimes the parents need a break from it.” – DeAnn, a friend who is also an educator
“So many kids with special needs are incredibly happy and at the end of the day, they want to love and be loved, the same way all people do. We get lost in material items or even accomplishments sometimes, thinking “If I just had that one thing…” or “If I could just do this…I’d be happy…” But I think my time with kids with varying learning needs has taught me that they love and want to be loved just like anyone else and can be extremely happy.” – Amy, friend, cousin by marriage, also an educator
“In the past I was ignorant in the use of words. Not realizing that they can be hurtful when used incorrectly. Also, I now give special needs teachers and families so much respect for the work and care that they give; I see how much work is involved in each goal and accomplishment.” – Jason, neighbor
“Kids don’t make the rigid judgements we do. There are children of varying skill levels in my daughter Maddy’s class. I’ve tried to encourage her to be accepting, and even more so to appreciate the things that come naturally to her.” – Becky, friend
Teagan adores Maddy
“I’ve learned not to place limits on anyone. I have an Uncle who has special needs. Troy can be sneaky to get some things he wants – obviously not always a good thing – but it taught me he is a lot smarter than we sometimes give him credit for. I’ve also learned to SMILE. I don’t know what it is, but when Troy smiles big, everyone smiles! I’m not sure if it is because he is a pure soul or that he exudes so much happiness when he smiles.” – Tiff, neighbor
And the one I’ll leave on comes from Uncle Jeff (my brother). He said “I have to admit, I never really thought there’d be someone in my family with special needs so it was something I never really thought about, but then it happened.” Word. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that it (whatever “it” is) CAN happen to you. So be kind. Shove it all in there – your heart has room.
He also said “I love my little Teags very much” – I agree with him on that point too 🙂
So that one time, when it took me a whole year to respond to a question…
A good friend asked me this question last October. When she asked, I was really excited to give a profound, eloquent answer. An answer that would open peoples’ minds. An answer that would make lives better for kids with special needs.
Problem was, I didn’t have one. Because it’s a really tough question.
“What do you want me to tell my child about yours?”
Oy. How do you explain to children that everyone is different, and some are even more different? How do you illustrate empathy? How do you teach that just because something is unfamiliar to you, it doesn’t mean it’s scary or something to make fun of – a concept some adults have trouble accepting?
After a lot of thought, I’ve boiled it down to something I think kids can understand. It’s a subject everyone likes, and as it’s December 7th, it’s timely:
Cookies, and the recipes used to make these wonderful treats.
There are recipes for all different kinds of cookies. Sugar cookies, chocolate chip cookies, some with M&Ms, some that taste like gingerbread. Cookies with hershey’s kisses, cookies with sprinkles, and even cookies that have frosting. Raisin cookies, giant cookies, cookies in sandwich form. Heck, some cookies even look like a brownie! There are more cookies and cookie recipes than you could possibly list – but at the end of the meal, when you get right down to it, they are all still cookies.
People are kind of like cookies. We are all different, and we are all made from a recipe that tells us what we will be – except instead of “chocolate with coconut,” our recipe calls for brown hair and blue eyes. Or maybe an ingredient that is a little more extreme – like not growing as tall as everyone else. Or not being able to learn as fast, or being able to talk the way everyone else does. It all goes back to the recipe. We don’t know why some recipes have ingredients that aren’t the same as others, but that’s okay – while I love me some oatmeal raisin, what a boring world it would be if that was the only cookie there was.
Now here is the part I can’t equate to cookies…teaching children to accept those who are different. Some children are more nurturing than others – I’ve seen it. They are perhaps more willing to be patient, or even enjoy being the special helper. And some kids are just busy being kids, and that’s fine too. But what I hope everyone teaches their children, is that everyone wants to be included, and everyone wants to be accepted.
That is a subject for another day. Hmmm, I’m thinking…maybe something about pies.