Welcome to high school

The start of anything new can often be confusing and overwhelming. We’ve only had seven actual days of high school so far, but with everything we’ve navigated during that time, it seems like we should be well into the year by now.

Let’s begin with the mornings. High school starts at 7:23 am, so we initially set our alarm for 5:45 am to make a 6:43 am bus. Waking up daily with a 5 on the clock is a hard adjustment. It’s dark. It feels so early. I am exhausted all day (caffeine intake has doubled). Now, they did tell us at orientation to let our teens wake up on their own as they are old enough to use an alarm and should be responsible for themselves. I don’t think they’ve met my boys, who sleep through alarms, through the light Dan turns on when he tells them it’s time to get up, through my second wake up call to them 10 minutes after that… therefore, Dan and I will be getting up in the fives for now.

Once he is up, Ryan is extremely motivated to be ready on time for his bus (which comes right to our house) and plans his morning routine so he make it. However, on Thursday, the bus never came. After it was 10 minutes late, we called transportation, who informed us the bus actually did arrive, waited, and left when no one came out.

“What time did the bus get here?” Dan asked, confused, as Ryan is never late.

“6:35,” the person on the phone told him.

What??? Apparently, transportation arbitrarily decided to change Ryan’s pick up time because 6:43 did not give the bus driver enough time to pick up all of the kids. Dan politely told them it would have been nice to know this, especially given Ryan’s anxiety when the bus never showed. (To their credit, they sent a van to get him right away that day.) We are now getting up at 5:35 am to make this new bus time.

Moving on to gym… Despite us telling Jordan to get to bed early, he cannot seem to fall asleep before 10:00. On Thursday, Jordan came home with a cold and low-grade fever, which I attributed to his lack of sleep.

“If I still have a fever tomorrow, I want to go. But you can pick me up after third period, which is gym,” he said.

Yes, you read that correctly. Jordan was planning his day around gym. On Wednesday, we had received a note from the gym teacher letting us know if a student misses gym because of an absence or because they forget their uniform or swimsuit (9th grade boys take swimming the first half of the year), they have to make up the period. Now I am all for physical fitness and I think my boys could use a lot more of it, but make up an entire gym class?

Our options for gym make-ups are: during a study hall (neither boy has a study hall this year); during an extension period (which happens once or twice a month – I don’t really understand this part of the schedule yet); or – wait for it – at 6:25 in the morning during zero period (don’t even ask what that is)! As you can imagine, none of us want to wake up any earlier, so we are all extremely motivated to make sure Jordan and Ryan are in gym and prepared for it with their swim trunks. Of course Ryan has gym on A and C days and Jordan on B and E days. These letters actually coincide with different days each week, but I’ve been on top of it for the last seven days. I think that’s worthy of a high five or a cheers to Mom moment. (Ok, being realistic, I’m taking bets for how long it is until we lose track of the schedule and someone forgets his trunks!)

Jordan has also experienced culture shock where homework is concerned. This is a kid who I don’t think cracked a book at home during his entire middle school career (he managed to get his work done at school each day), yet got great grades, so I couldn’t complain. Now he comes home and works for hours. Last Wednesday, he had an orthodontist appointment after school, followed by a school theater meeting in the early evening. He was visibly stressed about not having time to do his homework.

“We’ll be home from the theater meeting before 7. You have all night,” I told him.

“Do homework at night?” he gasped, horrified.

“Welcome to high school,” I said.

The orthodontist said Jordan could get his braces off in eight weeks. However, since he would have to miss school if he did that, he is choosing to wait an additional two weeks so he can get them off on a half day. Wow. If someone told me a few months ago my son would voluntarily delay getting his braces off so he could be in school all day, I would never have believed them.

Despite the homework stress, Jordan has identified multiple activities he wants to join, which are all extensive time commitments. On the one hand, it makes me happy he wants to get involved, but on the other hand, of course I’m stressing out about it from a scheduling perspective.

Finally, let’s talk about Ryan’s classes. This is the first year where Ryan has had a different teacher or aide with him for nearly every class. He takes three classes in the autistic support room in the morning and is mainstreamed with an aide for four classes in the afternoon. That means there is no one consistent individual who can answer our questions – and we’ve had many. Most had to do with the homework – where to find it and what Ryan actually has to do or study vs the rest of the class as many of his classes are modified.

The district has a portal called Schoology, where teachers post assignments and students can work on them and turn them in. On a few days, when my parents or my aunt were with Ryan after school, they would help him do the Schoology assignments. We would then learn he should have been doing a modified assignment, which could be found in one of many possible locations – in Google classroom, in his email, or in one of his seven folders in his schoolbag. Also, some of the assignments listed on Schoology were actually done in class, but that wasn’t made clear.

You’re probably thinking, why don’t you ask Ryan what he has to do? We’ve tried. Example conversations:

“Ryan, what do you have to do for this Spanish poem project?”

“I don’t know.”

“You were there. How do you not know?”

“It was a few hours ago. I forget. I don’t want to think about school anymore.”

Or

“Ryan, it looks like you changed your Google password. What is it?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Well, we can’t get into your account and do homework if you don’t remember.”

“Good, I don’t want to do homework. It was a long day and I want to relax.”

Between all of the e-mails to various teachers trying to make sense of everything, and with one project due last week and two quizzes this coming week, I was pulling my hair out by Thursday night. I started thinking about how we could make this process less complicated. What we needed was one document everyone could access on a daily basis to let us know 1) what Ryan did in class; 2) what his homework is for that day; and 3) where to find it. In that same document, Dan and I (or any family member working with Ryan) could ask questions and the appropriate teacher or aide could answer.

Since every teacher works with Ryan on his Chromebook (similar to a laptop) at some point during the day, I decided to create a Google document (doc) for all of us to use. Dan and I can also easily log in at any time to update it and see what’s been added. The intent is for this to be the first place we look for information, and Ryan’s teachers can direct us to other sites from the Google doc, as needed.

Dan, who has never used Google docs, was amazed as he logged in on his phone and watched me updating the doc from Ryan’s Chromebook in real time. (Cue song, “A Whole New World.” Seriously, if you’ve never used Google docs, it makes working on a project with multiple people so much easier.)

I sent the doc to one of Ryan’s aides and his autistic support teacher and they loved it. Ryan’s aide added a table to make it even easier to follow, and when Ryan came home on Friday, it was filled in and questions were answered. Whoo hoo! We had a solution!

Friday night around 10:00, Dan found me in bed, about to pass out.

You look exhausted,” he said. “Do you want me to turn out the light?”

“If we put on something good on TV, I can probably rally till 10:30,” I told him.

Yep, it was a wild Friday night in the Singer house. And we haven’t even had a full week of getting up in the fives yet. Imagine how fun I’ll be after one of those!

Only 66 schools days until winter break!

Weathering the Storm

For many parents of children with autism, schedules are a lifeline. Knowing what to expect each day — and when to expect it — is often critical for minimizing anxiety and as a result, tantrums.

We learned quickly if we created a schedule with pictures and times, Ryan would read it over and over, become familiar with it, and remain calm. His teachers did the same in school. As he got older and could read, just giving him a list of dates and events or a calendar with our plans served the same purpose.

But what happens when that schedule unexpectedly changes? There is that little thing called the weather which has gotten in the way of many plans and caused many a tantrum over the years. Ryan’s reaction to weather events can be a storm unto itself.

In the early days, it was difficult to reason with him if something got cancelled – he didn’t understand why his schedule suddenly changed due to rain or snow and would scream and cry.  

As he’s matured, Ryan has heard many times that sometimes plans change and we have to be flexible. Does he understand? Yes, in theory. Is he accepting of it? Not always. Does he talk incessantly about how he wants to do the activity that might get cancelled and threaten to ‘freak out’ if it does? Of course. For hours.

And for some reason, he seems to think I, alone, control the weather.

This is a typical conversation:

“Mommy, make it sunny!” Ryan will often whine if it’s raining and we can’t do something.

“Ryan, I don’t control the weather,” I’ll respond.

“Who controls the weather?”

“The weather is controlled by what happens in the atmosphere. Not by a person.”

“Well, tell the atmosphere to be sunny.”

Winter is very similar. Back in elementary school, Ryan hated snow days. He wanted to be in school every day the calendar said there was school. Any chance of snow caused anxiety.

Similar conversations:

“Mommy, tell the snow not to come so I can go to school.”  

“Ry, I don’t control the weather.”

See dialogue above for the rest.

“Believe me, Ryan,” I would often think to myself, “I have no desire for snow. Snow messes with my schedule, too. If I had the power you seem to think I do, our weather would be amazing year-round.”

These days, Ryan is a little more flexible about snow (as long as it doesn’t ruin his weekend plans). He’s ok with school closings – but only full days, as late arrivals mean he has to adjust to a slightly different schedule.

One night this past year, we were discussing what might happen with school the next day.

“I don’t want a late arrival, Mommy. Tell the woman to close schools for the whole day.”

The woman? Dan, Jordan and I all looked at each other in confusion. Mother Nature? G-d? Me?  

“What woman?” I asked.

“The woman! You know, the one on the phone!”

Ohhh! “The woman” was our superintendent. Years ago when we started school, we had to provide our phone numbers and e-mails for mass messages from the district about things like school closings. We gave them every number we have, several e-mail addresses and opted in for text messages, as well, just in case we missed something. As a result, each time there is an early dismissal, late arrival, or school closing, four phones will simultaneously ring, and multiple e-mails and text messages will ping with pre-recorded messages, where we’ll hear the voice of our superintendent with the news.

Since last winter was a horrible one, I think the order of who called our landline the most (yes, we still have a landline. The cell signal is terrible in our house) was probably my mom, my sister, and the superintendent. If we’re lucky enough where she makes a decision at night rather than 5am, I’ll answer one of the calls on speakerphone so everyone can hear her relay the news.

“You mean [superintendent‘s name]?” I asked.

“Yes!” Ryan said, excited I finally got it. “Call her and tell her to close schools.”

Right,” I thought. “Since she and I are BFFs, I’ll just give her a call right now and tell her how to run her district.

Fast forward to this past weekend… Ryan loves to swim. We go to family and friends’ pools a lot in the summer, along with our gym pool. We watch the weather religiously the week leading up to any major outdoor event and this week was no exception. We had plans at two different pools. Saturday we were going to swim with friends at a rooftop pool in the city, and yesterday we were planning to visit Dan’s sister and family, who have a beautiful pool at their house. As the week went on, the forecast did not look pretty for either day.

Ryan watched the weather reports nervously. Each day: “Mommy, I want to swim this weekend.”

“I know. So do I. But we can’t control the weather.”

Friday: “Mommy, I’m going to freak out if we don’t swim tomorrow.”

“You’re 14 and too old to freak out.”

“I don’t want it to rain. Make it sunny. Please, Mommy.”

Serenity now! Or at least some wine!

Saturday was a washout. It was a long day in the house, with Ryan telling me how bored he was, how I needed to make the rain stop for Sunday, and how much he wanted to go to Aunt Anna’s pool.

We fell asleep to pouring rain. I prayed for it to stop the next day – at least for a few hours. Yesterday morning started off cloudy but dry. By the time we got to Anna and Mike’s house, there was sun! We swam for several hours and it actually turned out to be a decent day. Ryan was calm, content and smiling.

At the end of our visit, we made plans to come back at the end of the summer.

“Mommy, will it be sunny then?” Ryan asked.

“Ry!” I said, exasperated,It’s 6 weeks away. I have no idea what the weather will be then! Look at this gorgeous day you ended up with!” I gestured to the blue skies and sun. “How about appreciating it?”

“Thank you for the sun, Mommy,” Ryan said.

“Ryan,I laughed. “I don’t control the weath–” Oh, never mind. I give up. After a weekend of taking beatings for the rain, why not take credit for something good?

I smiled sweetly. “You’re very welcome, Ry.”

A Teacher’s Impact

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week

As we’re approaching the end of our fiscal year, everyone in the US firm is getting their files together – asking for feedback from those they supported throughout the year and hoping the feedback tells a story of the high impact they’ve made on the firm and on their teams.

A recent experience with Ryan’s teacher got me thinking about the importance of not only giving teachers feedback, but sharing the impact teachers have had on our children with others.

Teachers are truly the unsung heroes in many parents’ lives – they put their heart and soul into educating, developing and nurturing our children. I feel this is even more amplified with special education teachers and have the utmost respect for those who are committed to working with children like Ryan – their patience, tolerance, and kindness is inspiring. And when I take a step back and look at where Ryan is now compared to two and a half years ago when he started middle school, the impact his teachers have had on him is incredible.

While Ryan is mainstreamed half the day in regular education classrooms, he is in the autistic support room for a few of his classes and has had the same autistic support teacher – and team – (aides, speech and OT therapists, and behaviorist) for the past three years. In fact, Ryan’s relationship with his autistic support teacher – Mrs. D – goes back to his elementary school, when she was his aide in the early years.

We recently attended our school district’s annual choral Music in our Schools concert – which includes the high school and middle school choirs and all of the 5th graders from four elementary schools. Ryan has performed in the middle school chorus concerts over the past couple of years and has done well, but last year we opted out of this particular concert, thinking it would be too much for him. It was mandatory this year since chorus is his elective, so we decided to push him to participate.

Dan, my parents and I were blown away at how nicely Ryan not only stood with a large group of students for more than an hour and sang the songs but then stood/sat off to the side in a crowd while the 5th graders performed. It was loud and a little chaotic with the moving back and forth, and Ryan remained calm and did not even use his headphones, which he’s relied on in past years for noisy, overwhelming situations.

Ryan’s ability now to do all of this is a direct result of the hard work and dedication of Mrs. D and her team. They are patient, yet firm, and have challenged him over the years to go beyond his comfort zone. He no longer needs an aide to go with him to chorus and has not had an aide with him at any of the concerts. Ryan has enjoyed chorus so much that he will be taking it as an elective in high school.

When I think about impact, Mrs. D and team have gone above and beyond their day jobs of teaching Ryan academics as well as improving his behavior and enhancing his speech and OT skills. They have also helped Ryan develop emotionally and as an independent student. He was far from this level of independence when he started middle school, and I never could have pictured him participating in chorus in this way. In Ryan’s early elementary school years, he would run away in these types of situations; as the years went on, he stopped running and remained with the group but needed constant redirecting and an aide, as well as his headphones. He has grown leaps and bounds thanks to Mrs. D and her team. He’s a different person.

I told Mrs. D how impressed I was after the concert. She asked if she could share that story with her supervisors. I offered to send them a note instead – let them hear praise directly from a parent. I put these observations into an email and sent it to the school principal and Mrs. D’s  two special ed supervisors.

The response was incredible. You’d think no parent had ever written a note like this. The principal and one of the supervisors replied with how wonderful it was to hear from me, and Ryan’s teacher was the most touched:  “I love this email. I cannot thank you enough. My whole team is so appreciative of this. Of course it goes without saying this wouldn’t have been possible without your positive partnership with the team! Thank you once again from the bottom of my heart! Ry has and will always have a special place in my heart.”

Wow – making her day made MY day. And inspired me to share positive feedback more often. Saying goodbye to this group of teachers on promotion day next month is going to be very difficult. Thank you, Mrs. D and team, for the extremely high impact you’ve had on Ryan during his middle school years!