The Same But Different

with Susan Wagner

Susan Wagner is a freelance writer and editor, an avid runner and a mom of two boys. She's tentatively navigating the teen years with her oldest son, who has ADHD and an anxiety disorder (because puberty isn't hard enough already). [Insert blog name here] chronicles her efforts to balance science homework, basketball practice and panic attacks without completely losing her mind. Follow Susan on Twitter and Instagram (@workingcloset) and at her personal blog, The Working Closet

Constructive Procrastination

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I’m running a half marathon on Sunday. I really shouldn’t be; I haven’t trained for it, and the weather forecast is horrible (hot, humid, windy, rainy). And yet, I am stupidly excited about the whole idea of getting up at 4:00 am to run 13.1 miles, including a long painful uphill stretch that will most likely be straight into a driving headwind.

Also? There’s a chance of thunderstorms. And yet, I’m still excited. Which probably says something about how things have been going around here.

This has been a hard school year, for a lot of reasons, and the worst part fell just as I was starting to train for this race. A stretch of terrible polar vortex-induced weather kept me off the roads and on the treadmill, which is frustrating because I’m not someone who can run long miles on the treadmill. But at least I was running. That is, until I wasn’t.

See, the treadmill is at my gym. On the days when everyone went to school, I would stop on the way home and run. But we had a lot of days this winter where Henry didn’t make it to school, and leaving him home alone to go work out just wasn’t an option.

(When I say that Henry “didn’t make it to school” I mean exactly that: He was completely unable to get himself together to go to school. If you don’t have a child like Henry, you are probably shaking your head in bafflement at this point — and also maybe judging me a little — because why can’t the boy go to school? Just make him go to school! I can’t explain it; some days, he just cannot find it in him to get dressed and show up for class. Of course, if you are raising your own Henry, you read that and started nodding your head and looking for my email address so you could reach out and say GOD YES! US TOO! SOLIDARITY, SISTER!)

So between the weather (stressful) and the boy (more stressful), I essentially stopped running. Instead of logging my usual 30ish miles a week, I was down to 10. Or 5. Or, in one particularly bad week, 0. It was awful.

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The Reading Hour: Why This Childhood Ritual Worked For My Kids

Categories: children, family, parenting, special needs kid

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The first thing the doctor tells you when your child is diagnosed with ADHD is that structure and consistency are incredibly important. In our house, this translated itself into specific family rituals that were designed to keep everyone focused and calm and functioning. Like reading together as a family.

When my kids were little, bedtime was a big deal. I had read somewhere, after Henry was born, that it was crucial that the baby have a consistent bedtime routine, every night, although I can’t remember now what that was supposed to do. (Promote good sleep? Maybe, but Henry was a terrible sleeper, always, despite all the routines in the world.) Bedtime was sacred at our house. And an important part of the bedtime routine was reading.

My husband and I are both big readers; we just took for granted, from the beginning, that our kids would be, too. We have always had books in our house, and one of our favorite family outings is still the bookstore. When the boys were very small we read picture books — our favorites were the now-out-of-print “Toot and Puddle” books, about two pigs who lived in rural New England. As the boys got older, though, we started reading bigger books, and we quickly learned that many of the chapter books for young readers are terrible. My kids loved the Magic Treehouse series, and while I appreciated how well-researched they were, the bad writing was painful to me. Too many incomplete sentences. There had to be something better.

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No Excuses: Explaining My Son’s Disability

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I spend a lot of time explaining Henry’s disability to people — teachers, coaches, other parents. I try to do this proactively, before there is an issue or a problem, because I want to be sure that everyone understands that I’m not making excuses for him. He occasionally needs specific accommodations in order to succeed, but beyond that, I don’t want anyone letting him off the hook just because he’s different.

But it can be hard to distinguish an explanation from an excuse, and Henry and I are both having to work to see the difference.

The summer before sixth grade, we took Henry back to the psychologist who initially diagnosed his ADHD (when he was five) for another round of testing. This time she gave us a slightly new set of labels to work with: generalized anxiety disorder, disorder of written expression (or dysgraphia, if you’re old school like I am), ADHD (again) and sensory processing disorder. Taken together, she told us, it added up to Asperger syndrome, and she gave us some recommendations on ways to talk with Henry about being an Aspie, as well as resources and strategies for helping him connect with other kids like him.

We had known two things going into this round of evaluations: the first was that we would need to talk with his teachers about his quirks and how they affected his ability to function at school, both socially and academically. The second — and in our minds, the more difficult — part was going to be talking to Henry. Because the last thing any kid wants to hear, particularly in middle school, is that he’s different from his peers.

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My Communist Approach to Kid’s Homework

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My Motto: “From Each According to His Ability, to Each According to His Need”

I like to believe that I don’t ever help my kids with their homework, although that’s only half true and really depends on how we are defining “help.” I never cross the line into actually doing the work for them or telling them the answers, although the temptation is often there, particularly at the end of a long day or a long project or both.

But I always resist. Because, as I like to remind the boys, this is their homework, not mine. I’ve done middle school English/math/social studies/whatever and I’m not required to do it again. Thank goodness.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t help at all. And it doesn’t mean that I offer both kids the same kind of help.

Last week, I helped Charlie memorize the preamble to the Constitution. My help consisted of two specific things: finding the Schoolhouse Rock video for him on YouTube and listening to him recite the whole thing over and over once he had learned the words. (I also encouraged him to sing it for his teacher, rather than simply reciting, but he had no interest in that, which is kind of a bummer because how awesome would that have been??? So awesome.) My help was so minimal, in fact, that even he didn’t realize I was helping, which is exactly how it should be. For him, at least.
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The New Mom Motto: What’s the Worst That Can Happen?

Categories: children, parenting, special needs kid, stress

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I have a new mantra these days: What’s the worst thing that can happen? I ask myself this all the time, in moments where I am getting overwhelmed and stressed out, and I use it with both of my kids. And no matter what the situation, the answer is rarely anything of real consequence.

What do I mean by that? Here’s an example: Henry loses things, all the time. Most frequently, he loses his schoolwork. Assignments disappear into his backpack or his binder or his cubby and show up on the weekly grade report as zeros. Until recently, he would completely fall apart when this happened because those missing vocabulary cards meant that he would fail English which meant that he would fail seventh grade which meant that his life was ruined and why couldn’t I just leave him alone?!?

That was always fun.

And then one day he was frantically searching through his things for a paper he had lost and starting to flip out and Wade said to him, “If you don’t find it, what’t the worst thing that will happen?” Henry started to yell about failing out of school and Wade said, “What is your grade right now? What will a zero do that that grade, mathematically?” And Henry stopped yelling and did the math and said, “Huh, so if I get a zero on this I’ll still have a B in the class.”

“Right,” Wade said. “That’s the worst possible thing that could happen. Your grade will go from an A to a B.”

That moment changed our whole family.

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Why “Fear” is My Co-parent

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When I was little, I would occasionally have a nightmare. My father would come in to my room and bring me a tiny Dixie cup of water. He would tell me, very seriously, that this was Magic Water and it would take care of the bad dream, but I had to drink it all for it to work. (I’m sure that was just to stop the crying — kids can’t drink and cry.) He would sit on the side of my bed and talk to me about what we were going to do the next day or some other mundane, unscary thing. When I was done with the Magic Water, he would tuck me in and kiss me on the head and say goodnight.

And it worked, every time.

My friend Rita made monster repellant for her kids when they were small; she took a spray bottle and filled it with glitter and confetti and before bed, her preschooler would go around the upstairs of their house and spray anywhere he thought there might be monsters lurking. He was very serious about it, and like the magic water, it worked to keep the scary things at bay.

These days, my kids are big and the scary things don’t respond to magic water or glitter spray. Instead, it takes therapy and anxiety medication to get us through the day. Although maybe that’s the same thing.

I never realized what a big part of parenting fear would be for me. I like to have all my ducks in a row, all the time, but ducks are unruly and they don’t like to stay lined up; they go where they want to and won’t always cooperate. Children are the same way, even the good ones who, for the most part, don’t cause anyone any worry — there’s always some monster lurking out there that needs to be managed with glitter spray and a shot of magic water.


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The End of Family Vacation

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Last summer, we went to New Mexico for a week, to spend time with my extended family. On the first day, Henry’s ear buds broke and we spend fully a third of the week trying to find a replacement pair that sounded exactly the same. This meant driving to a Best Buy store that was nowhere near where we were staying — twice. It meant managing the nightly panic attacks Henry had about how he was going to survive the drive back to Oklahoma City without his music. It meant borrowing a car from my parents so that we could split up during the day and give Henry a chance to unwind and recover.

It was not fun. At all.

We went in to that vacation thinking we had it all figured out. The summer before, we’d gone to Colorado with Wade’s family and had managed to have a fairly pleasant week. We’d planned lots of activities to keep everyone busy and built in lots of down time for Henry, to let him recover. The trip was a success, but it wasn’t at all what I would think of as a “vacation.”

In fact, it was kind of a beating.

When my kids were little, my friends used to joke that traveling with children was never really a vacation; it was a trip. Taking small people on the road is a lot of work — the packing and unpacking, the sleep deprivation, the new foods. But eventually, those little kids turn into big kids and travel gets to be fun and being away from home is restful and relaxing. A vacation, in fact! Right?

Not always.

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3 Things Not To Say To The Parents of a Special Needs Kid

Categories: children, special needs kid, support system

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I’ve always been protective of my children’s privacy, largely because they go to a very small school. I’ve been extra cautious about what I tell other parents about Henry’s issues in particular, because I didn’t want anyone to judge him — or me. But when he started middle school, it became clear that unless we were honest about his struggles — with him and with the people around him — he wouldn’t get the right kind of help.

I tell people that he has an anxiety disorder; that’s the most salient part of his profile. And for the most part, everyone is kind and accepting. But a lot of the time, even the people who are going out of their way to be nice will say the wrong thing. They mean well, but they’re not being helpful. At all.

What should you not say to parents of kids with autism spectrum disorders? Here are three things to avoid — and two things we’re happy to hear.

He’ll grow out of it. Disabilities like Henry’s can be hard to process because they’re invisible — he doesn’t talk with a lisp or walk with a limp, so it’s hard to see that he’s not like other kids. Well-meaning adults will also say It’s just a phase and They all act like this. But the truth is that he won’t and it isn’t and they don’t, and dismissing his disability, even in a supportive way, doesn’t help him — or me.
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Why My In-laws Don’t Get a Say In How I Parent

Categories: family, mom guilt, parenting, support system

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It takes a village to raise a quirky kid — or at least to keep that quirky kid’s parents from losing their minds — and my husband and I are fortunate: We have a wonderful support network of friends and family who are there for us, all the time. And while it would seem that there would be no down side to that, there occasionally is, particularly when we talk about people who are super invested in our son and his life, and who have strong opinions about how we should be raising him.

For example, the grandparents.

We’ve always known that Henry was different, but it’s only been in the last few years that we’ve clearly identified what is different about him and begun to find strategies that really work for him. When he was younger, we would talk with our parents about how hard it was to raise him and how much we were struggling. And they were always there with a sympathetic ear and a suggestion.

My mother-in-law thought we were just too hard on Henry, too strict, that if we would just relax a little, we would all be less stressed. My dad, on the other hand, recommended that we push him a little harder, make him do more things, challenge him a little more. Their suggestions, while always thoughtful and well-meant, often left us feeling even more defeated, because we had tried all those things and nothing worked. Clearly we were failing at parenting — everyone could see it, even the grandparents.

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How My Aspie Kid Made Me an Introvert

Categories: special needs kid, stress, therapy

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It’s Saturday afternoon; Charlie is at a friend’s house. He’s been there all day, playing football and basketball in the driveway with his friend and two other boys from their baseball team. But now it’s almost dinner time and we’re trying to sort out our plans for the evening. I text the friend’s mother and suggest that we come get Charlie. She texts back: Can he spend the night?

Sure! I say. We’ll bring him some clothes.

And then she says, We’re grilling steaks. Why don’t you all come eat with us?

Honestly, I would have loved nothing more. This family always makes everyone feel welcome and loved, and it’s always fun — for Charlie and for us — to hang out at their house.

But going to dinner there would have meant taking Henry to a house that was already full of kids, and it would have been overwhelming. For him and for us.

So we said thanks, but no thanks. We already have plans. Next time!

My husband and I used to be social people; in grad school, our weekends always included dinner with friends or a bike ride or an impromptu evening of drinking beer and watching basketball.

After Henry was born, we made friends with other couples with small children. On the weekends, we would grill while the kids played in the yard. During the week, while the dads were at work, the moms would organize play dates, which were less for the kids and more for us — it was a precious couple of hours of talking to someone who was potty trained and spoke in complete sentences. Those play dates got me through the toddler years, truly.
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