Daybook: December 7

(I loved the Daybook format from Kara’s Simple Kids Monday entries, so I thought I’d borrow it with due credit. It’s fun! Try it yourself!)

Outside my window: last night’s rain held off for a startlingly crisp, clear afternoon. Around 2:30 we realized we only had another hour of daylight so we took a long stroll through the neighborhood. The rain is crashing down again, and taking with it the rest of the autumn’s leaves. Winter’s not *quite* here, but since last year it never snowed at all I wonder if this raw rainfall is all we’ll get.

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I am thinking: I wish I had a camera handy to record Maggie’s improvisation of a birthday/Christmas serenade to my mom, because it was awesome. “It’s your…Christmas birthday…and I love you…” It’s cool that her speech is such that she *can* sing improvised lyrics (though the actual cadence bore a strong resemblance to Buddy the Elf’s holidaygram).

I am thankful: for turning 31 surrounded by my nearest and dearest, and for celebrating a lovely 8th anniversary with Tom.

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(photo by Mary Kate McKenna Photography)

I am wearing: wool socks (mandatory November-March) and was wearing my Girl Guides leader shirt earlier. Maggie’s had a successful first term as a Rainbow, and we did a Sunday parade service at church today. Maggie’s not quite ready for the sounds of church, but wants to try next time. Here’s hoping! This is my second time trying an Anglican service and while I have no interest in returning to formal worship right now, I can see us making room in our lives for something later on. Perhaps a feel-good progressive Unitarian Universalist church where we can still be grumpy heathen doubters/deists. Also, Tom got me this amazing shirt for my birthday that I cannot take off.

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I am creating: room on my camera to record Moira’s first Nativity performance tomorrow at her nursery school. She claims she’s going to be Mary but I think she’s self-appointed the role and the school might have other ideas.

I am wondering: how our family portrait sitting came out. I’ll find out tomorrow!

I am learning: what went right and what went wrong during our first term of homeschooling, which concludes in two weeks. I have big thoughts and plans for next term, which need to be tempered with a bit of realism.

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Around the house: this is our first year with two trees. We have a real tree in our living room and a small tabletop tree in the girls’ room. The idea that they could have one of their very own might just be the highlight of the holiday season for them, and I’m so glad we had enough ornaments to make it really festive.

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One of my favorite things: is the way the mantle came out this year. There’s a mix of handicrafts from multiple loved ones, treasures from our travels, scented wreaths and nature crafts from our town, and it’s so sweet and happy.

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A few plans for the week:

     The Christmas pantomime show at the local theater!

     Moira’s Nativity and Maggie’s last Rainbows meeting for the term

     Sorting our toys for donation

I am feeling: incredibly grateful for what has so far been one of our easier, more low-key Christmases in years. The profound positive effect of simplicity on Maggie and Moira can’t be denied. And that’s good, because big stuff will start coming down the pipe in the next 18 months (planning our next move! grandparent visits! Moira starting full days next September! probably other stuff too!). I’m thankful for, however long it lasts, this tiny window of peace.

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Happy Holidays!!

Where You Lead

Dear Moira,

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I have a note-taking app on my phone that has a specific file just for you: “Moira’s Quotes.” The other day I got to add this gem:

“Do you know where you were born?”
“Um, England.”
“Do you know where in England you were born?”
“In Harrogate.”
“Do you know where in Harrogate?”
“Um. In a car. And it chased me. And I went over the rocks. It was busy work.”

One of the things I love most about you is that you have an answer for anything and everything. It may not be right–it may not bear even the remotest resemblance to reality, like the time you said Batman was going to buy you a villa in Tuscany–but you’re going to commit to the answer. You blink a little and I can see you thinking “Is that right? Did I do that right? Um…that’s probably not right. But I’m going ahead anyway.”

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You make us laugh so hard. You’re just so cheeky, and you love to be loved on–wrestled with, snuggled, kissed, poked and prodded. It’s impossible to stay mad at you. Even your hair is cheeky. It’s sassy and orange and thick, with cheerful blonde streaks in the front. It’s lightened and I don’t know if we can truly call you a redhead anymore, but as befits a strawberry blonde you are as full of sunny cheer as a strawberry. It doesn’t seem possible that you only have twenty teeth; every pearly-white bit gleams when you smile from ear to ear. It’s so winningly bright and confident, so self-assured, that we throw up our hands, half-exasperated and half-besotted, and try to redirect you…with varying success.

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“I hurt my human!” – You called your body your “human” for a while

Your love feels like you’re rushing into a rugby scrum, and we sometimes have to remind you that “Not everyone thinks crashy-bangy is fun, honey. You have to play in a way that’s comfortable for everyone.” When you DO find a playmate who shares your love of romping and stomping, oh girl, it is ON. You are the Queen of All Wild Things, and you will eat them up. You find friends everywhere you go, no matter the age or the situation. The first day of your new gymnastics class–not a parent-child class, so the first class where you were flying solo–you latched on to a little girl named Charlotte. “Tarloht” finds you equally wondrous, so you spend the entire class giggling hand-in-hand. You move socially with such ease.

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Your particular brand of extroversion is so fascinating to me. You’re the outlier in a family of introverts, and already you have forged paths for us. In Italy, you introduced yourself to a little girl who had a doll you admired. We got to talking to her mother and discovered she was American, her husband was Italian, and they owned a villa outside town. They knew all the great spots and when the evening festivals were taking place, and we met up twice during our trip for play dates and for an evening of noodles, wine, desserts, and great memories. We could never have done that on our own; making the introduction wouldn’t have happened. We need you, little one. Oh, how we need you and how we appreciate the role you were born to take in our family. You open doors for us.

“Hey! It’s my friends!” – everywhere, all the time, to people you’ve met and to people you’ve never met

Like any toddler, you’re stubborn. Unique to you is the courage of your convictions. You’ll stand up before anyone and anything if you believe you’re right, and you won’t back down. On our last family trip, an overeager tourist put her arm around Maggie to get a photo of her and the little blonde girl eating ice cream. Maggie quietly panicked and Daddy and I blinked, frozen, but not you. You got right up in her face: “HEY! Don’t you touch my sister. Sister DOESN’T LIKE IT.” Older, bigger, outnumbering you, it doesn’t matter. You square your shoulders, and you step up.

“Dragon! Go away! Someone bring me my pink sword! I’ll cut it into slices!” – talking in your almost-awake sleep one morning

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On the same trip, you saw two little boys harassing a peacock. The boys were much older. They were easily twice your size. You didn’t care. You ran up to them and said “HEY! Stop it. You be nice to that bird. IT NEEDS SOME SPACE.” The anguish on your face when we tried to explain that they didn’t speak English and didn’t understand–or didn’t want to understand–everyone’s admonitions to be nice was real–a truly adult emotion. Your heart was bursting for those poor birds, and the injustice was enraging you.

Of course, you’re a normal toddler and there are times when you want what you want and you’re going to stomp on people to get it, their feelings be damned. Woe betide those who step between you and the last yogurt. But there are also times like with the peacocks or with your sister when you step up and step in when you see something wrong, and one of my favorite things about you is that you aren’t easily discouraged from your path. Failure doesn’t seem to bother you much. You grit your teeth and try to get it done anyway, and only when you’ve exhausted all possibilities for doing it yourself do you ask me to step in. In the greater scheme of things, I can think of no better assurance of your success: you aren’t afraid to fall down and get up again.

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Once in a while, though, you slow down. Usually it’s to watch TV with me, and since I’ve had about as much Diego as I can take, but less than your inexhaustible heart demands, I let you watch Gilmore Girls with me. And there I had it: your song. Your song for the year simply had to be Carole King’s lovely “Where You Lead.” Specifically, taken out of its initial romantic context as the Gilmore Girls theme song, in its form as an ode to mothers and daughters who are behind each other 100%.

Moira, even though it feels like I’m constantly redirecting you, in your face, begging you to stop or slow down, I also need you to know that I was yours from the get-go. I’m in. I’ll follow you anywhere. You’re bright, and pretty, and those are nice things, but you have the three biggest ingredients to thriving in this world already mixed into your fiery orange head:

You have a voice guided by a good heart, you’re not afraid to use it, and you don’t quit.

You have power. You’re capable. You, with your great heart and great determination, will do great things. I’m not always sure how to parent around your personality, or how to raise you to channel your vibrance for the greater good. Even if we don’t understand each other, and even if I step on your toes by accident, know this:

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I love you. I believe. And where you lead, I will follow. Happy birthday, little three-year-old.

Love, Mama

Mrs. Hooter’s Homeschool

Halfway through our fourth week of homeschooling, I must admit something to you all: I am not Maggie’s primary teacher. I know. It’s like you can’t trust anything you read on the internet. But it’s the truth. Maggie’s instruction comes from the redoubtable yet lovable Mrs. Hooter.

Mrs. Hooter is a good listener. She hugs when frustrated tears come to light; she changes things up. Maggie can talk to her openly and honestly, and Mrs. Hooter will change course. Mrs. Hooter takes no nonsense, either. She sees through stalling tactics and takes Maggie over the jumps with firm kindness. She is everything you would imagine a teacher could be, if she had the time to devote all her energy into one student and sounded more like Mrs. Doubtfire with a head cold.

This is that worthy lady:

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No, I haven’t been eating glue. That is Mrs. Hooter, hand puppet and educator.

A few months ago, Maggie started asking me to participate in scripts (a form of echolalia that relaxes and soothes her mind). The more I said in character, the more she enjoyed it. She responded to characters (particularly my Stitch to her Lilo; I’m really good at Stitch) making requests. It added an element of fun, and an element of safety as well.

When you’re little, and especially when you’re little and Autistic, grown-ups are inherently unsafe. They say odd things, unpredictable things. They laugh at jokes you don’t have a hope of understanding, even if you didn’t mean to be funny. Maybe especially if you didn’t mean to be funny.

Adults are so cruel to kids, without ever noticing or seeing–or intending to be. Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind said it best, and seeing that movie in 2004 laid the bedrock for the parent I would become ten years later: “Sometimes I think people don’t understand how lonely it is to be a kid, like you don’t matter.” Even with the best intentions, I make mistakes like that. Sometimes I laugh when the girls are deadly serious, without realizing until a second too late how serious they are. I say the wrong thing without realizing how wrong I was. It hurts. I have to regain ground and become safe again.

Enter Mrs. Hooter.

Mrs. Hooter follows scripts. Mrs. Hooter’s eyes are just right for gazing into, without that panicky overstimulation of an emoting face staring back at you. Mrs. Hooter is quiet and thoughtful, and just the right texture for a warm hug. Mrs. Hooter is safe, and it is of paramount importance to us that Maggie feel safe everywhere, but especially in her classroom. We need her confidence high to clear the hurdle of perfectionism/low frustration threshold. Mrs. Hooter’s rumbly voice (brought to you by throat lozenges) and gentle nature becomes a confidante as well as a mentor.

Today, believe it or not, I didn’t remember Mrs. Hooter. Maggie got so frustrated with me that she excused herself, found Mrs. Hooter, and had a conversation with her: “I just make mistakes and get scared and angry of them and need to cry. Then I’m okay and I’ll try again.”

Do you get what kind of a breakthrough speech that is for her? If you don’t, let me fill you in: THAT IS A HUGE F’ING DEAL. HUGE. Self-advocacy! Identifying emotions! Isolating cause and treatment of a meltdown ON HER OWN. That is gigantic.

So we’ll press on, Mrs. Hooter and I. One day Maggie may outgrow Mrs. Hooter the way she outgrew needing pencils that were as big around as a small branch, the way she outgrew needing chubby-handled forks, and outgrew needing jackets that button instead of zip. Moira may grow into her, liking (perhaps needing) the element of silly but reassuring safety that Mrs. Hooter provides.

But when I look back on our first year of homeschooling, it won’t be at her forming letters or her delicate but increasingly firm grasp on the number line. It will be on Mrs. Hooter’s throaty rumble, and the joy and security–and love–she brought to Maggie in her time in the classroom.

A Month of Lasts

This month has marked a watershed of life changes. I think I’ve been handling it admirably.

Hah, I’m kidding. I just like looking at Robert Downey, Jr. But there’s been a lot of reflection: my babies…really aren’t. Aside from half a Rubbermaid tub of keepsakes, all the baby clothes are gone. All the cloth diapers (aside from prefolds that I use for cleaning) have been sold or given away. The co-sleeper is gone. Moira does not enjoy the Ergo anymore. Maggie is full-on five now, and Moira is a huge-for-her-age two-year-old with confidence and personality even bigger than her size.

But that’s how it’s supposed to go; progress is progress, can’t stop time, so on, blah blah, where’s Robert Downey, Jr again?

Ahhh.

Anyway. I’m loving this stage. Moira still has that toddler lisp, which makes asking for Hello Kitty special underpants–a treat to her–a true delight: “I need my Hello Titty special teats!” (No one ever said I was mature.) It’s just dozens and dozens of tiny pink underpants in the laundry now–nary a cloth diaper to be seen.

This month Moira finished up her toddler group, where I’ve taken her on Tuesdays for the last year and done a sensory table (cloud dough, water beads, rainbow rice, painting bags, slime, scented play dough) monthly. It was the kind of loud, raucous group Maggie wouldn’t have liked, so when Maggie started 3x/week full days I started taking Moira. Moira walked in, threw up her hands like “MY PEOPLE!” and I didn’t see her for the next two hours.

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Her other last was Little Gym toddler class. Little Gym’s parent/child classes run up to age 36 months. Because Maggie will be home in the fall and Moira is…well, see below:

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Her size and confidence (and mid-November birthday) allowed her to jump up to the age 3-5 combined class with Maggie starting in September. That gives me until April to have an hour-long class hanging out by myself before Maggie moves up to the next age level, . But gone are the days of parent-child clapping and facilitating; Moira’s on her own (albeit with sister) now.

This was also her last term as an non-enrolled student. This September Moira starts at the same preschool Maggie’s attended for the last three years. And speaking of lasts, that’s the biggest: Maggie graduated from that lovely little school, the little school that was so helpful and instrumental in getting us a diagnosis and the teachers who were so supportive while we tried to find our way. Maggie was at home there, but she agreed that she’s ready to go. I mean, look at this face. This is not a preschooler’s face anymore.

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It was time to move on, and now it’s Moira’s turn. She had her first two trial sessions and did beautifully. We got the same report for Moira we’ve been getting from her Little Gym instructors and others who encounter her: “She moves so confidently!” Quite. See above.

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So there we are. The beauty of time, marching on, and growth and progress. It’s a gorgeous, bittersweet, sad and thrilling and happy time for my girls. With all these lasts, it only means a new series of fascinating firsts lie ahead for them. Keeping that in mind, I’ll find a way through…

…With a little RDJ to assist.

The Road Back Home

At the beginning of June, we assured Margaret we’d know where she was going to school in September by the time we had to turn another calendar page. About a week before our deadline, we notified the local county that we were withdrawing Margaret’s application and making our plans to homeschool official.

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We had always wanted to try homeschooling. The world’s our oyster, we’re young, the kids are young, we have steady income, why not? Why not just be flexible and live how we want to live? Why be beholden to a school schedule? Then Margaret got her autism diagnosis and the plans came crashing down. Did we have what it takes to homeschool a child with her particular set of needs and accommodations? More to the point, did I have what it took? Tom works full time keeping us afloat, and aside from history (which I made clear is and always will be entirely his domain) I’d be doing all the teaching. Could I? Am I good enough? For a long time the answer was no.

Then we started an occupational therapy routine. We socialized. We did more at home. Quality time is Maggie’s currency and we used it to find joyous, playful ways of integrating therapy tasks that were fun for her. While I was worried about her learning to use a pencil and write her letters, she began to do it anyway. Ditto numbers and phonics.

If there’s only one takeaway, it is this: while you worry and wait and fuss, things will happen anyway.

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There was a lot of bureaucratic hoopla (North Yorkshire’s) and yelling (mine) trying to secure a Year One (that’s the equivalent of kindergarten to you Yanks) spot for Maggie, but it’s not important now. What IS important is that she loved her little Montessori school. She absolutely adored it. She liked the games, the puzzles, the play, the independent focus. Maggie was happy there.

But.

When it came to more academic pursuits, she bristled. Finally, after years of attendance, she was able to tell me that trying to learn to read and do math with so many classroom distractions made her feel “funny in my belly and wrong in my head.” It was just a few short weeks before the end of her last term so I didn’t bother passing that information on. It was enough to know she was loved, socializing, and enjoying the outdoors with her friends. Sums and phonics could wait.

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Ultimately, it came down to this: we want to be together. We want to do this. There are a hundred other small factors contributing to the decision to keep her home, but knowing I can give her that one-on-one time to mature (we’ve got loads going on socially, don’t you worry) and ease into academics in a low-stress environment gives us all great peace. Maggie is annoyed that she isn’t going to a particular district school, but it happens to be a school that told me early on that they were completely full. I can tell her without a hint of dishonesty that she was never ever going to go there anyway. I sensed she’s disappointed, but when pressed she said “I want to stay home with you and you can be my class teacher and the house will be my class palace. Please? I’ll be a good learner.”

That was the end of the line. We notified the district two days later.

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We have a classroom palace in our attic. Maggie helped me choose the decor and set it up. It’s full of games, bright markers, a giant map of America, an iPad, and her Lego collection for when she’s done. It’s become the nexus of the house; the girls love spending time up there and the four of us can often be found cramming in under the eaves, opening the skylights, and enjoying our little “classroom palace.”

Really, it was all over when Maggie named our home and our homeschool room.

I don’t know what I can give her. Time will tell if I’m good enough for this job. But in the end, she gets to have her start in a self-named palace of learning. And she’ll have love.

And, I hope, nothing wrong in her head.

The Chatterboxth

Almost overnight, Moira’s speech blossomed from a lot of single words and a handful of two-word sentences into full-blown conversations. And monologues. And decrees, and orders. All at top volume.

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It should not surprise any of you that her first language is “Sassy,” nor that one of her first long sentences was “No Mama! I DO IT MYSELF.” Except she has the most precious little two-year-old lisp, the kind that they outgrow all too quickly, so it’s actually “No Mama! I DO IT MYTHELF.”

And she does do it herthelf. She insists (or inthithts, if you prefer). Fiercely independent, that one, and you best not deny her the satisfaction of doing something she could do for herself by doing it your way to save time. Our routines have gotten longer, but Moira’s confidence has grown undeniably. 

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The best part of her newfound voice is when she tries to make friends. She usually does so with aplomb. We ran into friends at the grocery store, and their little girl Natalie is just about Moira’s age. Moira had pink wellie boots on, and so did Natalie. “Look! I have pink wellies!” “MAMA, NATALIE HAS PINK WELLIES! I HAVE PINK WELLIES.” Similar taste in shoes is a sound basis for friendship, as far as I’m concerned.

Another attempt at making a connection was less successful, but pretty funny (if also a little insulting). At the pool at my grandmother’s condo in Florida, we encountered a group of 16-year-old spring breakers and their parents. Moira paddled up in her brand-new Disney Princess swimmy float (a gift from a friend) and proceeded to give them all a tour of the characters and the castles. That she didn’t really know all of the characters didn’t stop her. “DITH IS CINDERYELLYA AND DITH HER CATHLE AND…” After the fourth or fifth round through her soliloquy I could see “She’s so adorable” giving away to “polite interest” to “This again?” so I came over to save them.

“Moira, honey, come swim with me.”

“NO. I TALKIN’ MY FRIENDS. YOU SWIM BY OOSELF.”

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Buuuuuuurn. As soon as they left she acted like we were best buddies again, but I knew the thcore. This kid is going to drop me like a hot potato as soon as she’s old enough to navigate the mall with her babysitting money and a gaggle of pink-booted buddies.

She loves stories, and like her sister she enjoys Frozen. We were asking the girls “What do they need to thaw Anna?” Moira called it in: “It’s love! IT’S TRUE LOVE!” And she positioned my face in front of hers for a very sweet, very soggy, “TRUE LOVE KISS, MAMA.” Then she gave her sister a “True love hug, Sis-Sis.”

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That part is my favorite. She’s rambunctious and a handful, and she can be way too rough, but she’s a basically very loving child and verbalization has given her a new way to share her love: noisily, sloppily, messily, perfectly. People complain about the Terrible Twos and Threes, and while I can’t deny that those ages have their challenges it can all be redeemed by the tone. You know the one–not the one clamoring for a snack, or howling after bedtime. No, no. This one is much purer: that breathless, “OH MY GOSH ARE YOU SERIOUS?!” gasp of realization when they just have to share something with you, or play a game, and it can’t wait. It just can’t. IT’TH TOO IMPORTANT.

Long, long ago I used to be in my town’s recreation department’s skiing program. (You can do that in Maine and not go dead-broke.) We left before dark and were on the slopes first thing on Sunday mornings. Nobody had touched the powder groomed just the night before, and the mountain face we skied faced east so the new morning sunlight made the slope sparkle like a fabulous spray of diamonds. I attended church until I was eighteen but never felt closer to a true spiritual moment on a Sunday morning than those mornings in New England, full of glittering, crackling freshness and possibility.

That’s how toddlers talk, to me: like skiing on a sunny Sunday morning. And there’s no finer feeling than them loving you and wanting you to be part of their possibilities. 

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Thanks, Moira. Thanks for letting us in, and for telling us all about it.

It was never about autism

Trigger warning: discussions of misogyny, rape, and murder

In high school I was once offered a ride home from an older classmate with a bit of a reputation. I didn’t know what to make of it–the fact that awkward little ol’ me registered on his radar at all totally floored me–I’m not good being put on the spot, and I didn’t like what I knew of him. I fell back on a line my parents, had they known, would have approved of: “I’m sorry, I can’t. I have to stay after for math help. I’m really not supposed to ride with other kids anyway. Thank you for the offer, though.” Later I found out through a mutual friend that he had been angry.

“I was just trying to do her a favor. What’s her problem?” Yes. A favor. A favor I hadn’t asked for, hadn’t wanted, and was now being socially punished for rejecting. I didn’t know I remembered that until I sat down to think about writing this. I do remember that I had no idea what autism was then. I do know he wasn’t autistic. He was just a guy.

I am still literally losing sleep, wondering if or when that transformation is supposed to happen. I know logically it will not happen. I know I have no interest in hurting anyone. I know the statistics on who actually commits this sort of violence. I know my history is not going to magically impart a knowledge of guns or explosives or a desire to hurt a large number of people. My anger and hurt do not manifest that way, they never have, and that is not going to change.

But now autism is the scapegoat du jour. Now every time someone does something violent, they are speculated to be autistic. And, just as some killers who were speculated to have crappy home lives actually did, just as the Columbine killers actually were bullied, there is a possibility that there will be a mass shooter who is Autistic.

But that does not make all of us dangerous. The immediate speculation makes my blood run cold.

It brings bile to my throat and a panic to my chest.

Have we learned nothing? Have the bullied children and abused children and medicated children and other scapegoats who have done no violence learned nothing? Passing the hot potato is a relief, but it is wrong.

Kassiane, “Plea from the Scariest Kid on the Block”

In college we knew the places to avoid–the fraternities that had been kicked off campus, “rapey” fraternities, as if not going to their house parties was insurance against assault. An acquaintance left school our first year after a half-hearted suicide attempt following an assault; after she had her stomach pumped we took her mom up to her room to read the statement to the university that the young woman had written. As far as I know nothing ever came of it. I don’t know where she is today. A neighbor of mine was berated and yelled at by a clinic doctor less than 24 hours after her rape after she told him, still in shock, that she didn’t know about pressing charges. Rather than try to understand how huge that would be on top of the monstrous assault on her body–her life paraded out for judgment and that moment relived in a he said/she said courtroom hell–he chose to dismiss her as a creature worthy of contempt, beneath him. That was never about autism either.

In the end, I’ve started asking different questions. It’s less often, “Why did this mass tragedy happen?” and more often, “Why do people insist that the only people capable of committing such horrible crimes must be an Other?” and “Why do we treat specific instances of mass tragedies as both more important and more horrible than the continuous and brutal violence against marginalized people?”

I don’t mean to belittle the real victimhood of people killed by mass murderers or the pain for their living loved ones. I don’t mean to belittle the internal struggle that must happen for anyone who finds out someone they loved or knew well was responsible for those killings either.

But the questions are worth asking because they, too, carry life or death consequences. They carry consequences for my life and my experiences, and they carry consequences for those of so many of my friends and colleagues too.

I don’t want my children to grow up in a world where they have to worry about whether their teachers or bosses will peg them as the next mass shooters if they just happen to be loners, socially awkward, interested in violent games, autistic, or mentally ill. If my children are autistic or mentally ill or both, I don’t want them to grow up in a world where their humanity is questioned every single day, or where police brutality based on their disability status could end their lives.

Lydia Brown, Autistic Hoya. “I am Autistic and I am obsessed with violence”

A childhood friend of mine is on trial for murder, which the prosecution believes occurred during a rape. I met Seth in karate class when we were both kids; fifth grade, maybe? We knew each other through early high school and lost touch after I quit. Sitting proudly, I was there when he took his black belt test; we used to work together in sparring matches. He wasn’t a monster then, I don’t think, but I’d be lying if I said I knew for sure that the seeds of entitlement, dominance, and ownership over women had not yet been planted. His ex-girlfriend spoke of his past sexual violence. If one believes everything in the media and trial reports, his poisonous appetites escalated until it ended with him dumping a young woman’s body into the Piscataqua River.

For the record, I believe the prosecution. Also for the record, I don’t believe the DSM has a word or a condition for what he is. “Monster” is not a formally diagnosable condition; neither is “evil.” I believe he knew right from wrong and didn’t care. I believe that he came to believe that he was owed, by virtue of his own imaginings of his dominance and superiority, female playthings to use and discard as he saw fit. That his playthings were human stopped mattering to him–if it ever mattered. It’s comforting to try to make a human monster into an Other, an aberration. While Seth is terrible, he isn’t, I’m sorry to say, uncommon. And it has nothing to do with mental illness or autism–neither of which describe him. It’s just that some people decided they can own women, and people don’t try very hard to stop them.

75% of women who are murdered by their batterers are killed when they leave or after they leave the relationship. – Domestic Abuse Shelter of the Florida Keys

“What if I told you the Friend Zone was bullshit, and that women are not machines that you put kindness coins into until sex falls out?” – Internet meme seen on Pinterest

Elliot Rodgers wrote down and filmed exactly why he wanted to kill. He did not have a diagnosis. What he did have was a community that backed up his entitled misogyny and a home in a society that is willing to let a thousand–a million–small aggressions go unchecked until they absolutely are forced to deal with the fact that women have the right to bodily safety and sovereignty. It was not about autism.

Recent media reports have attempted to suggest a link between individuals on the autism spectrum and violent behavior. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network is concerned by the proliferation of misinformation which may contribute to increased stigma and discrimination against Autistic Americans. Autistic people are no more likely than any other group to commit acts of violence. People with disabilities of all kinds, including autism, are vastly more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. There is no link between autism and violent crime. Similarly, there is no link between psychiatric disability and violent crime.

Autistic Self Advocacy Network Statement on Media Claims Linking Autism and Violence, May 24 2014

Maggie has become interested in the idea of death. Age-appropriate enough, really–she’s five, starting to understand what happens to the villains at the end of Disney movies, starting to wonder why family members who appear in photographs don’t appear in person, starting to understand that she has three grandparents instead of four, that flowers die in winter, and so on. She had a dream that her dad died, and it scared her so we talked about it. But she is also autistic, and with that comes communication challenges. Pronouns, past/present tense, and synonyms are challenging enough for any five year old, so when she said “I’m gonna kill Dad” I took a HUGE breath and patiently helped her dissect her thoughts. The distinction of “kill” versus “die” was tough to understand. Do I think we have a burgeoning We Need To Talk About Kevin situation here? Absolutely not. But that didn’t keep me from being relieved that she said it to me and not someone who wasn’t able or willing to parse out what she REALLY meant–that her dad died in a dream in her mind, and it upset her.

For me, the usual everyday fright that a parent of a daughter feels knowing they’re walking around in a society that gives mere lip service to her rights has been compounded by terror of Othering–she’s Autistic. She is not a monster. She is not some Other. She is more at risk for being the victim of crime than a perpetrator. But a society unwilling to examine its own misogyny and entitlement problems cannot see that; they need to pretend that the Elliot Rodgers of the world are cut from a different cloth, Not Like Them. And friends, that just isn’t going to do.

My stories are true. Our stories, women’s stories, the stories of a million aggressions and hurts and assaults, are legion.

They were never, ever about autism.

Please–don’t make them about autism.

For Good

Dear Maggie,

This is birthday letter is quite overdue, but there’s a good reason for it. We spent most of your birth month visiting your grandparents and great-grandmothers in Florida. You turned five there, and it was the perfect way to finish off the amazing ride that was age four. I’ve been trying hard to think of a song (isn’t that how I always frame these things?) that encapsulates the year and how it touched us all. 

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The first thought that comes to mind is, of course, “Let It Go.” The world was swept by Frozen fever, and we were no exception. It was the first movie you saw in theaters; sitting on my lap and enjoying popcorn, you sang when “Let It Go” came on and declared yourself Olaf. (Your sister insists on being called The Princess Of Arendelle, which is another story.) But that led to the second song, and much more appropriate inspiration for this post: in an effort to break the endless cycle of Frozen YouTube videos, we showed you Idina Menzel’s fantastic “Defying Gravity.”

And my sweet girl, you were hooked.

I’m through with playing by the rules
 / Of someone else’s game / 
Too late for second-guessing / 
Too late to go back to sleep / 
It’s time to trust my instincts
 / Close my eyes and leap! It’s time to try / 
Defying gravity
 / I think I’ll try / 
Defying gravity


And you can’t pull me down

The theatricality of the video, the flying, the soaring lyrics–you were beyond moved. This is your song, baby girl. This is what you are about. When we had you we took the huge jump of faith into parenting, and sure enough, with you leading the way we are all soaring. I love that the song embodies everything the last thirteen months have been about, and I think you love it too. You sing softly (and beautifully) to yourself all the time, and I could hardly believe it when I realized this verse was the one I was hearing most often:

I’m through accepting limits / ’cause someone says they’re so / Some things I cannot change / But till I try, I’ll never know!

So many people have tried to tell me that echolalia, the means through which you construct a lot of your speech, is just rote memorization without meaning. I don’t believe it. How can I, when you’ve blown me away with it before? How could I take that affirmation of spirit as meaningless when compared to the depth of your accomplishments over the last year? (Least of which was performing as the Donkey in the Nativity play at school.)

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When you turned four the sight of a blank page filled you with panic. When you turned five, our home had been quite literally papered in your intricate, beautiful, detailed artwork. 

When you turned four, you had moderate/severe fine motor delays. When you turned five, you were putting together 500-piece Lego sets and asked for this awesome set for next Christmas.

When you turned four, we could not find a way to help you reconcile a fear of a particular skill. When you turned five, through your strength of will (and a few Lego bribes) you had overcome your fear and mastered it.

When you turned four, you could not ask or answer a “Why?” question. When you turned five, you had begun to ask and answer, and every single “Why…?” takes my breath away. I cannot get enough. 

You walked up to a little girl to ask her to be your friend. She said yes. You jumped into a fray of screaming, cavorting children…and you danced.

You were through accepting limits. You were through with the bullshit “can’t/never/won’t” and you turn it all on its head. You have a brilliance and depth that has, and I say this without a hint of hyperbole, actually stopped people in their tracks. You have won the hearts of several professionals on our team and left them staring, captivated. You have reorganized what everyone we know thought they knew about who you are and what you can do. 

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To those who’d ground me / Take a message back from me / Tell them how I am / Defying gravity / I’m flying high / Defying gravity / And soon I’ll match them in renown!

That’s your song. That’s your story. That’s your legacy. And you’re only five. How amazing you are, and how deep your power runs.

That’s your song, but since part of these birthday letters are telling you about what you meant to me during this part of our journey together for you to read later, I have to include what I have come to think of as Our Song. And once again, it was the year of Idina Menzel–this time with Kristen Chenoweth.

Because as hard as I try, I can’t imagine you in greenface–you are a Glinda, bright and sparkly. And this line more applies to me anyway:

I’m limited. Just look at you, you can do all I couldn’t do…

I cannot–and wouldn’t try–to claim perfection as a mom. I know if I tried I wouldn’t be believed, but I also know you would remember the truth; the times I was immature, or reacted poorly, or lost my temper over something silly. I’ve been over the legal age of majority for twelve years now and a mother for five, but it has just been in this last year that I’ve started to feel like an adult. I’ve started to shed the authoritarian hardass image I once thought a parent had to project in order to become the kind of mom I actually want to be. And it’s because of you.

I’ve heard it said / That people come into our lives / For a reason / Bringing something we must learn / And we are lead to those / Who help us most to grow if we let them. / And we help them in return. / Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true / But I know I’m who I am today / Because I knew you.

The process of rebuilding that I’ve spoken of in the past is still ongoing, but as you go and defy gravity in your own way I realize we have given each other a gift. So often, I see parents and families disappointed in their children for reasons big and small, and again so often it revolves around expectations. The expectation they’d have a certain orientation, a certain value system, a certain lifestyle. While in some cases the child has made bad choices, in others the hurt has everything to do with the parent projecting their expectations onto a tabula rasa that had the audacity to grow up and become a person of their own. You have shown me the hurt those projected expectations can cause–a realization more common to parents in their 40s and 50s, I think–and in turn I hope that I can live up to the kind of true acceptance and unconditional support, advocacy, and cheerleading you need. The kind of mom you deserve. The kind of mom that makes you know that–even if you make choices that make my head hurt (you will) or if I don’t always understand you (I won’t)–from the second you were born, you have always been loved and wanted for who you are.

 

So much of me / Is made of what I learned from you / You’ll be with me / Like a handprint on my heart / And now whatever way our stories end / I know you’ll have rewritten mine / By being my friend

Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
I do believe I have been changed for the better.

And because I knew you…

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Because I knew you…

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Because I knew you
I have been changed…

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For good.

I love you. Always will.

Love,

Mama

A Sweatshirt

Two weekends ago the weather in this corner of North Yorkshire turned (with apologies to my American friends) to full-blast spring: high 50s/low 60s, mild breeze, bright sun, and a cloudless sky. We took to the backyard and stayed all day long, tidying up the winter dregs and throwing away debris.

Fun fact: when you have a public footpath behind your house and the wind in your area regularly kicks up to gale-force strength on Recycling Day, you routinely find everyone else’s empty crisp packets and Coke cans in your garden.

At some point I dragged out a bunch of books and was lying on my side reading to the girls. It was a bit cool so I put on a large draping-front wrap cardigan. It’s the sort of vaguely trendy yet shapeless garment I favor these days, worn over leggings, because it gives the illusion of having dressed without actually putting on real pants. Maggie got down next to me.

“I’m cold. I need a sweatshirt.”

“Okay. Yours are upstairs.”

“No, I need your sweatshirt.” With that, she pulled out the side closest to the ground to make a blanket to lie upon, lay down next to me, and wrapped the other side of the cardigan around her. “Hug me. Don’t squeeze me.”

I followed orders, and I’m not sure how long we stayed like that. It wasn’t long; maybe a minute and a half? Surely no more than two minutes. But it was so quiet, and she patted my face, and I hugged her but did not squeeze, and promised myself I would write it down so I would never forget that silent moment of perfect, miraculous contentment.

Amazing how ninety quick seconds on a lazy Sunday afternoon can turn into one of those moments you’ll want to come back to and live in forever.