Raising an Autistic Child in the Era of COVID19

Like about 90% of Americans, I’ve spent the two months under a stay-at-home order.  Being introverted this would have appealed to me 15 years ago. I would have happily worked, read, and watched movies from my tiny one-bedroom apartment.  I lead a different life than that younger, thinner guy.  I’m a husband and father to an energetic special needs child. 

Cristian, like many autistic children, thrives on routine.  Until recently, the school bus picked him up five days a week at 7:15.  For Cristian, school was about more than basic math and advanced crayon.  Cristian’s school, the Gersh Academy, structured his schedule so his ABA, OT, PT, and Speech therapies were part of his weekly schedule, per his IEP.  When he’s on a routine, Cristian is a cute five-year-old boy — disrupt his routine, and cute goes flying out the window.

My son’s world changed on March 15th, when Nassau County closed their schools, because of the pandemic.  Like many parents, Esther hoped it would be a short-term thing.  As a news junkie watching the numbers rise and the daily news briefings, I knew he wasn’t going back to school anytime soon. 

The Pandemic is an unprecedented event, and for two weeks, schools scrambled putting together plans for virtual learning.  Esther and I put together our own plan to keep Cristian engaged, entertained, and to minimize regression.  Besides being on the spectrum, Cristian is ADHD, the hyperactivity is more challenging than the autism.  Esther and I have sought outlets for his excess energy — it’s become more challenging in the era of social distancing.   

The first days were easy. I’d time his trips to parks so he could run around the playground before the locals came out for their morning walks or before it started raining.  Two weeks later, I took Cristian to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Preserve; it was big and empty or taking him with me to the cemetery.  As I paid respects to my Dad, on what would have been his 94th birthday, Cristian ran around a large, empty grass field, enclosed by iron gates.  Sometimes you have to get creative.

I’ve spent the past two months home with Cristian, juggling, working from home with his schoolwork.  Morning Zoom classes and therapy sessions part of our daily routine.  Like most people, I can’t wait until our lives return to normal.  The challenge is opening our society in a responsible way and hoping Cristian’s regression is minimal.

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Was Darwin Right? Surviving the Coronavirus.

Selfquarantining at home

COVID19 aka, the Coronavirus has changed our lives globally.  Working from home, social distancing, and wearing rubber gloves and masks before going outside is the new normal.  Initially, it wasn’t so bad, but once schools were closed, our kids were home with us.  There is a difference between staying home and being forced to stay home. 

Spending the past two weeks working from home on a laptop while keeping an eye on a hyperactive five-year-old is NOT a snow day.  Did I mention that Cristian is autistic and ADHD?  I’ve spent two weeks watching my little guy bounce off the walls like the Tazmanian Devil in a Looney Tunes cartoon.  Don’t you wish you were me?

Here’s what I observed watching COVID19 go from a health emergency to a global pandemic from the comfort of my living room.

People Are Stupid – We were given one task — stay home. Mayors, Governors, and the President, for maybe a week, told us two things: Stay Home, and employ social distancing. It’s not rocket science. We’re a country of fat, lazy, people, who have been waiting for this kind of national emergency, but we didn’t follow orders.  Let’s add stupid to the list.

Don’t believe me? I have four words for you, Starbucks and cruise ships. Before shutting them down, both were jammed with people like filthy Petri dishes in high-school lab experiments, yet we couldn’t stay away.

Pandemics are Different than Blizzards – Stocking our homes with supplies has forced us to become hunter/gatherers. It’s the pandemic equivalent of going out with a crossbow and taking down a deer.  I live in the Northeast and am no stranger to blizzards and nor’easters. During a blizzard, milk, eggs, and bread are the first things to disappear from supermarket shelves. Why does an intense snowstorm makes people crave french toast?

My mom and dad grew up poor and knew what it was like to go to bed hungry. It prepared them for this type of situation. Their home was always stocked with enough supplies to survive any natural disaster.  This was my guide while foraging for toilet paper, bleach, and paper towels. My 90-year old mother beamed with pride every time I can home with a new haul of supplies as if I dragged home a 300-pound deer.

COVID19 Has Kept Conspiracy Theorists Busy – The geniuses spotting UFOs outside their trailers are busy indulging a new hobby—conspiracy theories.   I’ve heard everything from COVID19 is a Democrat Hoax started to bring down the Trump Administration, it was engineered in lab in China, or is the actual version of Captain Tripps, the virus in Steven King’s The Stand. The nutcases are having a field day aligning their specific theory to match their ideology. Listen to it long enough and you’ll want to rush out and lick a few doorknobs.

Donald Trump and Andrew Cuomo Replaced March Madness – If you follow me, you know I’m not a fan of March Madness..  In recent weeks, the NBA, the NHL, March Madness, and Major League Baseball all suspended operations.  Sports fans and degenerate gamblers were never able to fill out their brackets.  Instead, we’ve watched Governor Andrew Cuomo and President Trump hold daily briefings.  I’d gladly fill out a bracket every year for the rest of my life to never hear either of them again.

Maybe It’s Time to Thin the Herd – Darwin believed humans and animals in the wild were subject to the same laws of natural selection. Throughout human existence, wars, plagues, and famines prevented overpopulation. I’ve seen college students enjoying Spring Break in Florida, while others who are treating this pandemic like it’s a joke.  Maybe Darwin was right.

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A Gift For a Day and Another For a Lifetime.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted new material – about eight months.   A few things changed since my last post while others have stayed the same.  Cristian has kept Esther and I busy.  I’ve been writing — just not for this blog.  I’ll be posting about that in 2020.

A few months ago, Cristian turned 5.  Last year, I wrote a heartfelt post for his birthday, this year we focused on giving him a birthday party that focused on the children.  Too many times, we’ve gone to birthday parties disguised as weddings.  I’ll admit, I enjoyed the bacon-wrapped scallops, pigs in a blanket, and open bar — a lot — it wasn’t how we wanted to celebrate Cristian’s birthday.   Cristian and his cousins had a blast running and running and bouncing around the trampoline park where we celebrated his birthday.

In addition to planning his birthday, Esther and I spent much of 2019 finding a good kindergarten for Cristian.  The old me would have spent a good twenty minutes goofing on any person using that last sentence.  It’s amazing how one’s opinion changes when one’s perspective does.  I still goof on things, like gender-reveal parties — I was at one of those a few days ago.

In New York City, special needs children, including those with autism, cognitive delays, emotional disturbances, sensory impairments, or multiple disabilities are assigned to a District 75 School.  We spent much of the past year having Cristian evaluated by various mental health professionals and specialists or conducting site visits of potential schools.  This daunting process is more difficult because the bureaucrats parents are required to work with — they don’t make the process easy. 

The system is Darwinian — set up for most to fail.  Esther’s background as an Early Intervention and CPSE (Committee of Special Education) Coordinator gave her insight to how the system worked — but it didn’t make navigating it easier.  To someone like me, it seemed like the goal was to have parents bang their heads against the wall from all the bureaucratic nonsense.  After a few too many bumps and bruises, many give up and quit.

Cristian is fortunate that his favorite person is a capable advocate.  People meeting Esther learn quickly that she doesn’t give up easily.  Whether she’s a running a marathon, or fighting for her son’s services—his mom has a never-say die attitude that serves him well. 

During an OT session

By late Summer, after a series of phone calls to case managers, and follow-ups with their supervisors, we ensured placement in a District 75 school where we felt Cristian’s needs would be met.  At the end of July, Esther and I toured the school with a group of anxious parents.  The administrators said all the right things as we visited the facilities where the children would get therapy and services.  Everything should have been fine, but looking over at Esther, I realized they weren’t.  She wasn’t feeling it in her gut.  If eleven years together taught me anything, it’s trust her gut. 

Trusting her intuition, she found a private school in Nassau County where she was blown away by what she saw.  They use the ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) method, which Cristian has responded to.  Unlike the Public Schools we toured, they were better equipped to deal with Cristian’s specific needs.  Besides being autistic, he’s ADHD.  In a classroom setting, he’s a runner.  He ran out of his preschool classroom during this Turning Five Evaluation.  That incident stuck with Esther.  The non-answers she received on several school tours gave her that funny feeling.

A week later, Cristian and I joined Esther for a tour of this private school in West Hempstead — The Gersh Academy.  After several months of touring schools and feeling something was missing, we found a school that got Cristian.  There was one problem — the school was pricy — out of our budget pricey. 

After some research, we retained the services of a lawyer to take Cristian’s case to the Department of Education.  If the DOE cannot meet his specific needs, let’s put him in an environment with professionals who can.

Cristian started at The Gersh Academy in September, while his case is still pending.  Since then, his growth and development have been remarkable.

As I look back on 2019, I’ll remember two things about Cristian.  The joy and happiness he showed us bouncing around a trampoline park with his cousins and closest friends on his fifth birthday.  The other is the meetings, phone calls, and evaluations to ensure we placed Cristian in an environment that ensured his growth and development when that day at the trampoline park is a distant memory. 

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