Summer vacation is here! As grown up as I may look, I still find myself feeling giddy thinking about past summer vacations not only from my childhood but also from the time when I was a teacher. At this time of year I remember so clearly many happy memories of exploring new places, meeting up with old friends and taking time to stop and relax since there were no time clocks or deadlines waiting for me.
When I was a kid getting ready for summer vacation, I packed up my backpack, threw out old pencils and papers I didn’t need and hugged my teacher goodbye while skipping home to start an adventure with my neighborhood friends. As a teacher wrapping up a year full of elementary knowledge, I pulled posters off the bulletin boards. I gathered all of my personal supplies from my classroom and stored everything for another academic year in September. I felt as happy as my own students felt with a summer vacation countdown—I was full of excitement knowing that freedom was mine!
Now that I’m a Mom, I have a different outlook on summer vacation.
I used to think that school was going to “fix” my kid just like our doctors were supposed to “fix” him. I used to think that I couldn’t be the one to educate my special needs child since I felt under-qualified as a special ed educator. Even with my background in early childhood education and development, I doubted myself when it came to Ronan’s needs. For that reason, I used to look forward to dropping my son off for six hours of separation thinking it would make him more manageable. He was supposed to gain skills to help us help him. I was hoping the time he was away from us would make him long to be home with me.
Nothing has “fixed” my child yet. No one has offered me a miracle cure or a magical wand to wipe all of the struggles and regressions away. Asking for help did raise eyebrows of some while others lowered the bar of performance. Some providers even turned their backs when I sought advice. Others flat out denied any chance of hope. Gaps in Ronan’s education, medical needs and general skills began to plague me which led me to question, to doubt and to grill those whom I thought I could trust. As time crushed my optimistic side, waves of anger and guilt engulfed me.
I couldn’t turn away though. Even when I felt like I was drowning in my own fears, I couldn’t let Ronan down. I can’t stop asking for help because around a corner, someone new could have the answers I’m looking for. I can lessen my fears because I do know that others’ dreams have come true. Look at the success stories in the last month of children who have overcome academic struggle—students with autism are high school graduates. Some are even in the top of their class giving commencement speeches! That’s a bottle full of hope I’d like to drink and share with Ronan.
Why do I stay firm in my beliefs and my faith and my efforts with Ronan and all his needs? Why not! He's proved to me time and time again that I just don't know what he's going to do or say or be able to accomplish unless I give him the chance. If I believe he'll be a “moaning on the couch in pain” little boy as he once was, he and I wouldn't be where we are today. Ronan may not have a résumé full of accomplishments like other children, and he’s certainly not ready to give a speech yet, but that wonderful child is closing an academic gap I had hoped would one day come.
Ronan's past is peppered with lots of heartache but his future is definitely more exciting. Spontaneously, with meaning, very effectively and looking for approval immediately afterward, Ronan started to tell me things. A few months ago during another school break, Ronan was looking at some flashcards and printed pages of an activity. I knew Ronan enjoyed books but he had never communicated being able to read. I sat on the floor and said, ‘Hey, Ronan. What does this say?’ I wasn’t expecting a response but, Ronan looked up at me and told me the answer. He signed “baby.” I showed him another card and he used sign language again to tell me “fish.” He did it again, “corn.” One more time, “cat.” By the end of that vacation week, as Ronan read, he signed ten words back to me. He defeated so many barriers. He opened my eyes and my heart and made me cry and laugh with joy at the same time.
I will always have hope, even if I need to remind myself to go find it. Ronan got sick so long ago. His delays shattered my world as I learned how different his needs were compared to typical kids. It didn’t stop that child of mine though. Ronan has proven once again that on the days I am about to throw in the towel and cry myself to sleep, one of his small feats brings my priorities back to where they need to be. Ronan has read over 30 words since his last school break. With his summer vacation just around the corner, I’ll schedule nothing to do at all for the majority of the day, but I know we’ll find time to do some work so I can see what else Ronan knows.
Ronan still needs lots of help and more intervention. There are days I see typical boys about Ronan's age at the grocery store. I see them while I’m waiting to pick Ronan up from his school. They are there with their Moms squeezing in a shopping trip and I feel a twinge of jealousy--look at that normal boy talking to his mother, putting fun snacks in the basket, getting ready for a play date or some kind of after-school sports activity. Ronan is still working, doing some kind of lesson or finishing up at therapy while that other child can do everything with his eyes closed and asleep. My child lags behind, needs assistance to walk into the store, to pay attention and to get through the experience that may make little or no sense to him. There will be no after-school activity to look forward to--Ronan's in a constantly bombarded state of work. He goes to therapy and classes to achieve the necessary skills we know he needs to live in the world, to be a more typically-abled boy.
Through all the hard work, to catch up on what is missing, to stay ahead of potential regressions, we do get to enjoy the here and now. I recently got a sneak peek at what vacation with Ronan will be like. Most of our weekends are relaxing and full of just being together. Since it’s so hot already, we go to a friend’s pool with every floating toy we can shove in the car. I pack the snack bag with food to last through at least two meals and head over to a fun and sun-filled afternoon of water play. Ronan thrives in the water and comes home cognitively clearer after a few hours of being outside. Very recently, I put goggles on Ronan and watched him change right in front of me. He held his breath, dunked his head under water and stayed afloat in a doggy-paddle stance while exploring what lies below the surface. My husband and I watched in awe cheering for Ronan as he naturally took to water. It was yet another eye-opening event that jump started my heart and my head. This little boy has a way of making me more optimistic when I least expect it.
Ronan’s schooling is intense and time consuming and I will welcome his short break. I can’t wait for him to be home and to breathe in Ronan’s current skills, to see what he’s learned and find out where he’s going. I have his entire life to stay optimistic. We’ll get to the pool as much as we can to encourage that cognitive clearing, to give Ronan the chance to open his own eyes and experience something life saving—teaching himself to swim.
I can’t wait to be encouraged once again by my own son. Life’s not always bright and full of sunshine for we do have some negative behaviors and uphill battles to get through. On those days, when I can barely see past my own hopes and dreams of where I think he should be, all I have to do is look over at Ronan and see how successful he is right now. Ronan, you work so hard. You inspire many. I need you to continue to learn. Please. And hurry. I miss the old you but I'm amazed at the new you.
Cathy Jameson is a Contributing Editor of Age of Autism.