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For the September issue of the Capital District Parent Pages, I thanked Wildwood School.  I will never be able to repay what they have done for my son and my sanity.  Always I felt supported.  Always I knew they were doing their best with Jonah, with all the kids, treating each like an individual.  The school year has started at Wildwood and Jonah’s not there. It’s surreal.

For those of you who don’t read the magazine, here’s the article I wrote:

Normal is a Dryer Setting

September 2011

Autism: When your child is diagnosed, you’re abruptly initiated into a fraternity of parents, all asking questions for which there are no straightforward answers.  Before you have a chance to fully comprehend what’s happening, you’re hurled into a world of acronyms, specialists, and an array of treatments – most different, some opposed to one another, and none guaranteed to alleviate the symptoms of this mystifying condition.  It’s no coincidence that the autism awareness ribbon has an array of colorful puzzle pieces on it.  Like a rainbow, the spectrum of autism spreads across the population and manifests itself in a million different ways.  If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.  And yet their individual colors are beautiful and bright.

We are lucky; Jonah was diagnosed and received special education intervention services early.  Just before he turned three, I visited special education schools all over the Capital District and was especially impressed with Wildwood School.  When we enrolled him, we had no idea how lucky we were to snag an opening – oftentimes there’s a waiting list.

In the 6+ years Jonah’s been at Wildwood, we consistently encountered teachers, social workers, and staff with an amazing dedication to the nurturing of each individual’s learning potential.  We watched as his speech teachers worked tirelessly to draw language and other communication from him.  We loved hearing about his love of rhythm, music, and performing.  To this day he can speak only in short phrases, but can sing whole songs  – usually Guster (since that’s what mama plays in the car all the time).  We laughed as he once stole the mic (and the stage) at an annual concert amid the mild chaos that’s normally the backdrop for these events.  Nobody minds.  There is solidarity there.  We all understand the shrieks, bouncing, flapping, and whatever other mayhem.

Every year Wildwood has a “moving up” ceremony for each class.  This year, Jonah’s “moving up“ ceremony was also a “moving out” ceremony; instead of returning in September, he’s moved to  residential educational placement an hour and a half away.  At first I had no intention of attending the ceremony.  For one thing, it’s painful emotionally, and I also figured he’d go all violent on someone/everyone, hurting people, screaming, caught and restrained.  But then I decided, if the people at Wildwood are determined to include him, I can’t ignore their efforts.  And so I decided to go.  Not surprisingly, they had a plan for Jonah.  Until it was his turn to walk onto stage, they wheeled him around in the hallway on his “scooter,” keeping him calm.  At the last moment they got him off the scooter, opened the auditorium door, ushered him through, and guided him onto the stage, where he was handed a rolled certificate. The MC gave him a verbal accolade, best challenge of the summer or something I don’t remember.  I was too nervous.

I’m so glad I went.  I got two decent pictures of him accepting his “diploma” with a look of confusion on his face.  In one of the pictures he’s looking right at me; I can almost hear him:  hey mama?

On the way home from the ceremony, I realized what makes Wildwood such an excellent school.  When things seem hopeless, they hope anyway.  When there is no way, they find one.  If a method doesn’t work, they try another.  Determined to nurture the children and young adults in their care, Wildwood School is a place where individuals are guided to reach their greatest potential.

I will always be grateful to Wildwood School for advancing their vision:  …”a world that embraces a fundamental respect for ALL people, their strengths, their uniqueness, their creativity and the infinite diversity that we each represent.”

Thank you, Wildwood.  May your kindnesses come back to you a thousand fold.

Love,

Jonah Krebs and his family

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Cheryl DeDecker from Springbrook did call us and she basically told us that Jonah would not be able to enter their current program because of the level of his aggression (the kids share rooms and he could hurt his roommate) but that they think he’d be a perfect match for the new residences they are building, where every child has his/her bedroom.  The problem is, the new buildings are evidently earmarked to get NYS kids attending out-of-state programs back into NYS.

She wants to advocate to place Jonah in one of the new buildings under construction right now, and I told her I would help her do so, but there’s no guarantee we’ll be able to get him in – and if we did it would be October or November at the very earliest.  I don’t know if we can make it until then.

On Thursday, April 7th, this is (in part) the note Wildwood sent home in his log book:  Jonah had a tough day today.  He’s had 5 aggressions – 3 being of very high intensity.  We had difficulty getting him in and out of the safe room because he wouldn’t stop aggressing.  We had to hold him in the safe room until he was calm enough to leave. 

Next day:  Jonah’s had 6 aggressions today – some more intense than others…

Meanwhile he’s already been accepted at Tradewinds and we liked it there too; they will likely have a spot sooner and their kids all have their own rooms. Andy and I don’t know what to do. We don’t want to risk losing the Tradewinds spot by holding out for Springbrook, which may or may not take him at all.  Not that we know when there will be an opening at Tradewinds, because we don’t…but it’s a bird in the hand.

Andy says he’s doing okay emotionally – my cousin D came and helped him this weekend while I was working at our yearly convention in Saratoga.  They shaved his head because it was getting so long, and I came over Sunday to help for a while; Andy was just getting him out of the car and Jonah was limping awful – so pronounced it brought tears to my eyes, and I must have cried for 4 hours over our whole situation and probably exhaustion from the weekend mixed in.  Jonah’s been limping but it’s getting worse, and there are no pediatric rheumatologists in our area.  We have to figure something out though, because it’s obvious something is really wrong with his leg – every morning he limps now, Andy tells me.  Andy is holding everything together while I fall apart, weeping and worrying.  Paarents of these kids are not supposed to be so weak.   It’s simply not allowed.

And yet I’m the weak one in a sea of strength.

That’s going to have to be part one of two, because I’m out of time to type…I’ll leave you today with some new pictures of Jonah Russell:

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Here’s the thing.

It’s not the one day of attacks, or the one incident of aggression; it’s the accumulation of day after day after day of the same thing, the same attempts to quell the behaviors that end in failure after falure, the same silence that falls on a situation we’re in – a cage, prison walls, something inescapable that has now become our “normal.”

Yesterday at school Jonah went to the safe room three times, and all three times he pooped and smeared it all over the walls and himself.  They cleaned him up as best they could while he fought them, then he cried and cried, and finally tried to run out of the building (a new trick for him).  The undoubtedly underpaid workers at Wildwood are angels and saints.   

Here’s one of his speech teachers, teaching Jonah about emotions and asking him to mock her facial expressions while they watch themselves in a mirror.  This is from June of 2010 – they are doing “excited” – I love this picture:

When I got out of work I went straight to the house and Jonah wanted a car ride.  As expensive as gas is, it is worth it to us when he is good on the rides (we have no idea why he was such a hellion in school and then was so much better for us at home)… Andy sat in the passenger seat and we drove over to the Voorheeesville Stewarts to get Jonah a peanut butter roll and visit the train tracks where we saw two trains, which this time neither excited nor annoyed him.  He was good, so we kept riding.  And riding.  We’d ride around forever if it meant our boy would be calm, and happy, sucking his thumb and looking around contentedly.  This kind of silence is welcome; we let Guster play on the CD player and drive along without speaking much.

We’d give anything to take away whatever anxiety or fear or confusion or pain that’s inside him.  It’s the accumulation of days, now, that piles on, swaying and unbalanced – and apt to fall at any time.

Thank you to my commenters, who always encourage and support, inform and try to help.  I appreciate you all more than you know!

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Yesterday Jonah had another appointment at the child psychiatrist.  Andy and I tried to time it so I’d get there first to check him in, meet the social worker from Wildwood, and then Andy and Jonah would meet us there so Jonah wouldn’t have to wait (thus hopefully decreasing the chances of him flipping out).  It worked out pretty well.  Jonah did a very good job of staying relatively calm for the small amount of time the doc and a med student observed him- then Jonah and Andy left and I stayed behind with the social worker to talk to the doc. 

Doc wanted to change Jonah’s meds a bit – increase the risperdal by a little and remove the atavan PRN (as needed) and replace it with klonopin PRN.  When Andy and Jonah left, he wrote the scripts up and I explained that we were going on a tour of Tradewinds on Thursday.  Then I asked a “what if” question I’d been thinking about:

“What if we find the magical mix of meds and the aggression goes away?  Do we still place him?  Does he still need residential care?  Do you ever hit upon the right cocktail of meds and fix the problem?”

“Occasionally,” he answered, “but I wouldn’t get your hopes up.  Usually we can mitigate the symptoms for a short time.  But the decision is up to you.  Remember, the choice is yours.  If you place him, you can always take him back home.” 

Sigh.

I don’t like this kind of decision-making.  This ‘playing around’ with the course of my child’s whole life.  When I dropped the scripts off at the pharmacy and stopped at the house, I talked to Andy about this.

“He definitely needs to be placed,” Andy asserted. “I can’t even handle him anymore.”  At least he isn’t arguing with me – we are on the same page about doing the best for our son.  But how can we really know what that is?

Jonah’s log book from school reads like a roller coaster.  On Monday he had 6 aggressions.  On Tuesday he had only one.  Wednesday he scratched a peer.  Thursday he threw a toy at a teacher.  Friday he tried to throw a computer. 

I hate the inscrutability of it all. 

I hate the way my mother is falling apart over this; she doesn’t eat right, isn’t sleeping, and some days she just cries all the time.  She refuses my help to find her a therapist or get on some medication.  I can’t help her accept this and I feel like I have become her scapegoat and I hate that too.

Both she and Andy have indicated that they want to pack up and move to wherever Jonah is placed, when it happens.  I don’t know if they just said that, if they really meant it, but I must stay here.  I have a good job that pays well – much more than I could ever make in Oneonta or Utica.  I carry the health insurance for all of us.  I am the one who has the means to set up a special needs trust for our son, to draft a will, to set up life insurance, to afford a mediator for our separation, to maintain a home Jonah can come back to if and when he is able to do so. 

It all makes me feel abandoned.  I lose my child, my mother, my child’s father. 

I lose.  (Not that there are any winners).

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Yesterday was day two of Jonah having zero aggressions at school – not sure how long it’s been since we’ve had two days in a row, and once again the hope rises in me.  The people at Wildwood are determined, wonderful social workers, teachers and staff…they do not give up but rather continually change and tweak and modify each child’s individual program, tenaciously working toward an answer, resolute in their skillful, caring methods to lead every child to his or her best self.  I am so grateful to have them.

Yesterday after work M and I came over to the house to watch Jonah for a while.  Andy went to the library and to pick up Jonah’s pull-ups, and I played with Jonah (he loves to jump on the bed, yelling “Jump!  jump!  everybody jump!”), fed him his dinner, and put him to bed.  It was so nice to spend a little time with him, brief as it was, even though I had a nagging fear in the back of my head the whole time that we was going to attack me.  On Saturday M and I took Jonah for a few hours but when I brought him back inside the house and asked him for a kiss, he tipped his little head up toward me and as I bent down to give him a kiss, he grabbed my glasses with one hand and pulled a chunk of my hair in the other.  Andy quickly intervened, leading him away, and I just left, saddened by the end of what was, all in all, a nice visit.

Today it’s snowing hard – we’re expecting 7 to 12″ before the storm’s over, so there’s no school.  Andy is taking Jonah to an early morning eye doctor appointment in this mess, and then maybe Jonah will want to play in the snow or go sledding.  I hope Jonah is good for Andy today.

Yesterday I did some research on four more schools, all of which have 365-day-a-year residential programs for children with autism:

The Anderson Center for Autism (near Kingston/Rhinebrook) will be conacting us in a day or two to set up a tour.  http://andersoncenterforautism.com 

Devereux (Red Hook) Campus – 1:1 ratio – I left a message with them so I don’t know what our status is – supposedly all these schools have been sent admission packets about Jonah.  http://www.devereuxny.org

Tradewinds Education Center at the foothills of the Adirondacks – Utica/Rome (serves cerebral palsy and autism kids) – they have a 12-month residential school program but have not yet received paperwork on Jonah.  They have no current openings but there should be 7 or 8 this year.  http://www.upstatecerebralpalsy.org 

Springbrook (near Oneonta) – spoke with admissions coordinator Cheryl DeDecker; she did not receive any paperwork on Jonah yet.  They are a 365-day-a-year program, and currently there are no beds available.  There should be beds in April and May, and in September they are starting a brand new autism program which can handle 24 more students.  www.springbrookny.org

There is another one in Massachusetts that I forget the name of, and our caseworker from Catholic Charities told us about a place in Baltimore, MD (I forget the name of that one too) that takes kids w/autism who have severe behavioral problems, puts them through an intensive ABA program for 3-6 months, and then sends them home again.  We’ll be looking into that too.

If anyone knows anything about any of these programs or places, or knows of any other ones (the closer to Albany, NY the better), please share whatever you know.  The more informed we are, the better.

The snow is so pretty outside my window at work right now.  I’m going to just stare at it for a while and try to forget that I’m searching for a place to send my precious boy away.

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Placement.

The word itself sounds crisp and almost pretty, a deliberate and careful motion to put something in a certain spot.  I love words but I don’t like this one, despite its euphemistic connotation in the context of educating Jonah in a residential setting somewhere.  Somewhere else.  Somewhere Andy and I won’t be.  And today is the dreaded meeting to decide about it.

He was doing so much better on the new dosage of meds, and then yesterday at school he fell apart again.  Five attacks, lots of time on the scooter platform with his weighted blanket.  It’s the worst timing there could be, for the teachers in his class will weigh in heavily on what to do here, and if he is getting such a low quality of education now that they’re simply managing his behaviors, I can understand a move toward residential education.  Understand, but only intellectually.  In my heart this is all unthinkable.  An unimaginable move.

I harbor resentment for all the normalcy other children get to have, what with arguments over homework and setting the dinner table and who pushed who, all the while excitedly counting down the days til’ Christmas…and then I squelch the resentment by reminding myself that there really is no such thing as normalcy:  normal is a dryer setting, I declare here after all, and pain and joy and suffering and hope and anguish are everywhere.  

I feel guilt too, for what could I have done differently to change what has happened?  What should and could I be doing now to effect a difference, in our lives, at Wildwood School like the parent volunteers, in the community, to advocate for better care and treatment of individuals with autism and other disabilities?

There are so many things I don’t know.  So much over which I have no control.   So much helplessness.  What is going on in our boy’s heart?  In his body, his brain?  What does he wish he could tell us?

Are you in pain, sweet little boo?  Are you frustrated because you want to speak volumes you cannot express?

Can I love the pain out of you?  Hug the frustration away?

 He lies on the table with his markers lined up next to him.  He is looking out of the window with his little butt in the air, dressed in comfortable sweats, asking for grandma.  His dependence and innocence are complete.

Fifty years ago he may have been hidden away in a back room somewhere.  A few hundred years ago he may have been labeled “possessed” and burned at the stake.

Today he will be the focus of people who love him, who will work together to get him the best care and education possible. 

But I’m really scared anyway.

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Happy boy is still with us – only a few attacks here and there, none of which I’ve witnessed, at least not in quite a few days now.  Maybe even a week.  We took Jonah to a new pediatrician on Monday – one who specializes in developmental disabilities and behavioral problems.  I loved him; he’s level-headed, kind, and intelligent.  If we want Jonah to have his second chicken pox shot or the flu shot we’ll have to go back, but we might opt out of both of them this year.

We’re putting the wheels in motion to go to Boston to see a pediatric rheumatologist (there aren’t any around here and the ones for adults won’t even see children, for some reason) because of Jonah’s uveitis and iritis, and the synovitis they found some time ago in his hip and jaw.  He may have pediatric arthritis, they’re thinking, so that’s our next big medical project to tackle.

Also on the Jonah horizon is a big meeting tomorrow with the school district officials – teachers from Wildwood will be there, and his caseworker from Catholic Charities, and of course Andy and me, and we’ll try to decide what’s the best course of action educationally and placement-wise for Jonah.  I know we have to at least investigate our options but now that he’s so much better I want to keep him home and at Wildwood School.  They say he’s participating more and yesterday he had no aggressions at school at all – granted it was a half day, but still…he came home with math sheets all completed (it still baffles me that the kid can solve math problems) and a hastily scribbled art project (he’s not the biggest fan of coloring, though he does love to carry markers and colored pencils around, & roll them on the table and floor).  He still falls asleep early but he sleeps well, and peacefully, and I am grateful for every day he is himself again.

I love to see him skip around…hear him happy, even loud, again – lately he has been singing and shouting out the “hear-ar-ar-ar-ah-art” part to Guster’s “This is How it Feels to Have a Broken Heart” (which, despite its title, is actually kind of a lively song).

“We’ve colored in the lines and followed all the signs
Fought a war till the war was over;
Said you’d never be the kind with an ordinary life…

~ Guster

(You can say that again, guys)

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