Back To School Musings Of An Autism Mom

George writing words

A week from now, the kids will be going back to school, and I’m not sure whether to jump for joy or quiver with worry.

On the one hand, the kids being back in school will mean more time for me. Being home with them for the summer was a circumstance that I found myself in due to my unexpected unemployment, and it’s been quite a revelation. I have enjoyed it, but I do have new respect for stay-at-home moms – especially those who homeschool their kids. I am looking forward to being able to spend time by myself to focus on my job search efforts.

On the other hand, back-to-school time is always a bit of an ordeal for my older son George. After two months at home, his school routine has gone completely out the window. He has to relearn the whole process of getting up at a certain time, getting onto a school bus and being expected to spend each day in the classroom. For most kids – like my younger son – this represents a resumption of an already known routine. But for kids with autism, it’s like starting a whole new routine all over again.

Autism and new routines go together about as well as tuna and chocolate syrup. In addition to the daytime disruptions, George goes through insomnia while he’s adjusting to the transition. Which means we’re in for about six weeks of not sleeping.

With George going into 5th grade, this is old hat to us. We do whatever preparation we can. We use social stories, drive through the school parking lot from time to time throughout the month of August, and start easing into school-like morning routines during the last two weeks of the holidays. And then, when school resumes, we just brace ourselves and deal with it as best we can.

We go through the transition with the attitude that “this too shall pass”. Because it always does. We won’t necessarily see things get easier from one day to the next, but one morning George will wake up and be completely OK with going to school. He will get dressed and stay in his clothes instead of changing back into his pyjamas at the last minute. He will calmly get onto the bus and fasten his own seatbelt. When he comes home in the afternoon, he will be happy. That night, he will sleep. For the whole night.

Once George gets over the bump of going back to school each year, he does quite well. His brain is like a sponge, and although progress on his speech and social skills is oh-so-slow, it is definitely there.

I am nervous about the start of the school year, but I am excited to see what the year will bring for George.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit to the author.


The Gift Of Summertime Chaos

The kids enjoying summer fun

The kids enjoying summer fun

Since entering the ranks of the unemployed two weeks ago, my daily routine has changed dramatically. The idea of abandoning routine altogether is tempting but dangerous. I am forcing myself to wake up at the same time, get dressed in respectable clothes, and do productive stuff. I am keeping more or less the same working hours that I did before, only without the long commute. Being unemployed is surprisingly hard work.

That being said, I am enjoying some flexibility that I didn’t have before. I can go running without getting up at an ungodly hour of the morning. I can wear sweats every day. They’re nice sweats that I’m perfectly comfortable being seen in public in, but they’re clothes that wouldn’t be allowed at my previous place of work. I can turn on the TV when I want to take a break.

Above all, I am making the most of getting time to myself, without coworkers, kids and the husband. Don’t get me wrong, I liked my coworkers, and I love my kids and my husband. But I kind of like myself too, and I’m finally getting to spend more time with myself.

That will be changing very soon, of course. The kids only have two and a half weeks before school lets out for the summer, and at that point, my period of blissful solitude is going to come to an end. I will still keep my working hours as best I can, but I anticipate frequent breaks – both voluntary and involuntary.

The kids generally never have a problem with the transition from school to summer. I try to keep the semblance of a routine in place for them. They get up at more or less the same time each day, they are expected to get dressed instead of lounging around in their PJ’s, and things like mealtimes, snacks and bedtimes remain unchanged. We do plan some activities for them over the summer, but for the most part, their time is their own.

The bigger challenge comes when it’s time to go back to school in the fall. At least, it’s a challenge for George. James takes to the new school year just fine. He is excited about seeing friends who have been away for the summer, and he likes the thrill of being in a new grade.

For George, though, it is very difficult. He doesn’t mind school too much, and going from this school year to the next, he will be in the same room with the same teacher and for the most part, the same kids. But the summer break is long, and by the time it’s over, George has to be reacquainted with the whole school routine. It’s hard for a child with autism who likes to have things just so.

One of our most important summer activities is therefore the back-to-school social story: a personalized book that tells the story of George getting onto a bus and going to school. We read the book with George over and over during the last weeks of the summer break, with the hope that the new school routine won’t come as a complete surprise to him.

And what does the summer mean to me, now that I will have to spend time focusing on the next steps in my professional life? It means additional chaos, for sure. It means that I will have to repeatedly stop what I’m doing to wipe up a spill, mediate a dispute or set up a game in the back yard.

It means that I will be here, with my children. It will be the best summer ever, and I cannot wait.



The Angst Of Back-To-School Shopping

I’m a last-minute shopping kind of girl. Despite my annual promises to the contrary, I am still running around doing Christmas shopping at noon on Christmas Eve. While my husband greets family members as they arrive for our annual Christmas Eve dinner, I am upstairs frantically wrapping presents.

When it’s back-to-school time, I put myself through a variation of the same thing. It would make far too much sense to get the necessary shopping done early in the summer, when the stores are less crowded and the people are less manic. But instead, there I am, the day before Labour Day, scrambling to get shoes and backpacks for the kids. The only reason I don’t do my shopping on Labour Day itself is that nothing is open.

You’d think I’d know better. You’d think that I, special needs Mom, would take reasonable endeavours not to expose my autistic son to last-minute crowds of frenzied children and their equally frenzied parents.

But no. Try as I might, I just cannot seem to get myself into the stores until I absolutely have to. Either I have some kind of illness or I thrive on the pressure of last-minute shopping.

It therefore comes as no surprise that I found myself and my two boys in a shoe store on Sunday afternoon, along with every other family in the Greater Toronto Area. The kids’ feet were measured without incident, and then we started browsing the aisles for shoes that would fit them.

I started with George, just because the display of shoes his size happened to be right where we were standing. Initially, I had trouble distracting him from the girls’ display, where he had seen shoes with castles on them. Once I got him looking in the right direction, he picked out a pair of shoes that he wanted to try on. He put them on, and then, in a moment of verbal clarity that was utterly astonishing, he said, “The shoes are too small.”

While internally celebrating the fact that he had clearly verbalized a problem instead of simply melting down, I found the same shoes in the next size up. They fit, and George was happy.

While all of this was going on, James was walking down the aisle, removing shoes from their boxes and leaving them on the floor. My stern warning looks morphed into verbal reprimands that gradually increased in intensity and desperation. James’ innocent explanations that he was “just looking” did nothing to dissipate the cloud of dark thunder that was slowly but surely gathering above my head.

I succeeded in getting him to stop and put all of the shoes back in their boxes by threatening to take away his Bumblebee Car. He did, of course, cry and loudly declare me to be a Mean Mommy, but there you go. Sometimes a Mom’s gotta do what a Mom’s gotta do.

James ceased and desisted from crying when I told him it was his turn to pick out shoes. All of a sudden, I was the best mommy ever and he loved me “all the way up to space”. The Plight Of The Bumblebee was forgotten.

As we waded through masses of squiggly kids, I held firmly onto George’s hand. He was not having a meltdown, but he was visibly restless, and I could tell that he was itching to make a dash for it.

James picked out a pair of Lightning McQueen shoes and tried them on. I let go of George for a moment to help James with the Velcro strap, and just like that, George had taken off at the speed of light. Yelling at an assistant to keep an eye on James, I took off after my firstborn, dodging and leaping acrobatically over children. I flew after George into the stockroom as startled assistants looked up from their stockroom tasks. I finally caught up with him at the end of the stockroom. He only knocked down two large piles of shoeboxes. I crouched down and started picking up the shoes, but a kindly man with an Irish accent waved away my efforts and said he would take care of it. I apologized for the extra work we had caused, and he gently said, “Looks like you’re the one with the work, love”. He added that I should go and get myself a lovely cup of tea.

He was a nice, nice man.

Fortunately, James was sitting exactly where I had left him, and the Lightning McQueen shoes met with his approval. We paid for our purchases and left.

Calm gradually returned, and later that night, I took the advice of the kindly Irishman. Except instead of tea, I had wine.

Next year, I will do my back-to-school shopping at the beginning of summer.

(Photo credit: This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)


Turn, turn, turn

To everything there is, apparently, a season.  There is a time for the sweltering heat of summer to give way to cooler temperatures and later sunrises.  There is a time for the light traffic associated with school vacations to be replaced by the usual mind-numbing gridlock.  There is a time for yellow school buses to reappear, for kids to start new grades and new schools, for parents to high-five each other over the fact that their household has survived an entire summer at the hands of little hooligans.

For families living with autism, there is a time to anxiously ride out the tough times that invariably come with a change in routine.

And for runners approaching their major race of the season, there is a time to kick up the training for the long runs, and there is a time to taper and rest.

There have been a lot of changes happening in my family, many of them typical back-to-school kind of stuff.  For James, our youngest, the changes have been minimal.  He has just started Senior Kindergarten, although I must admit that I have a hard time thinking about a four-year-old as a senior anything.  He is in the same classroom at the same school as last year, he has the same teacher and many of the same classmates.  I can only hope that this year will involve less upheaval and trauma then last year, when the much-loved teacher of James’ class suddenly died.

James himself is taking the new school year in his stride.  In fact, he was somewhat irritated when the previous school year ended.  From the day school let out for the summer, James wanted to go back. For the last two weeks of the school holiday, I had to do a daily countdown thing on the calendar to maintain my sanity and also James’.  Now that school has resumed, he’s as happy as a rat with a gold tooth. Will he be like this five years from now? Time will tell.

Change is also afoot for George. Last week he completed his formal one-on-one IBI therapy. On his last day we attended a graduation ceremony held in honour of George and one other little boy who was completing the program with him.  The two graduates stood there proudly holding their certificates (laminated, to prevent ripping) and wearing their little graduation caps.  I looked at my son thinking of how far he had come during his two years in the IBI program. Gone was the completely non-verbal, isolated, uncertain little boy who started the therapy.  In his place was a smiling, happy child, still not exactly talkative but at least talking to some extent. He savoured the attention being lavished on him, and rightly so.

This week George started a new phase in his life.  We are fortunate that although his routine has changed substantially, the new routine at least involves the same places that he is used to, and some of the same people.  In the mornings, he is going to the same therapy centre where he did the IBI, and he is attending a “school stream” program (a simulated classroom environment where there is a teacher as well as a one-on-one support person for each of the five kids). In the afternoons he is bussed to school, where he is in a special ed class.  Over the next two years he will be gradually mainstreamed, the general idea being that by the time he is in fourth grade, he will be fully mainstreamed in a regular class, but with special support.

So far, the change in routine has not caused that much disruption. George seems to be enjoying school stream and school.  He likes the school bus, and as mentioned, both school and the therapy centre are places that he already knows.  So we may get lucky with this one – we may escape the usual transition angst that hits our household at this time of year.

And me?  Well, my run for autism is a mere seventeen days away. My training is peaking round about now, with intense speed workouts and long runs.  My final long run before the race will be this weekend, when I will be hitting the road for 20km.  After that I am in taper mode.  I will run less, pre-race jitters will set in, and I will be driving everyone crazy by the time race day arrives.

Oh, and George finally lost his first tooth.  He has already announced that he wants to buy another pineapple with the money left for him by the tooth fairy.