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The page that I’m on

11 Dec

Some days I look at her and I can’t believe how lucky I am.

Not everyone has an Oli.

Some days I look at her and I can’t believe how lucky she is.

She’s not sick. She’s not in the hospital. She’s not hooked up to any machines. She’s alive.

And some days just the fact that those are my blessings, makes my stomach turn.

It still feels like a rollar coaster ride some days. A lot of days. But not as many as before.

I can look at her now and most of the time not compare her to her friends. To her classmates. To the kids who were supposed to be her classmates.

Every once in a while I’ll get a glimpse of the little girl who I thought she would become.

Sometimes it’s in a photograph. Sometimes it’s in a dream.

Every time it makes me lose my breath.

Like someone just punched me in the stomach and I can’t quite get enough air into my body.

I saw a picture once of Oli portrayed in a book as a ballarina. She was smiling at the camera; looking at the camera. She was beautiful in that picture. Such a perfect little seven year old girl, dressed up in a tutu, posing for a picture. I can’t look at that page in the book. That’s not my Oli and if I start imagining and pretending it is… I will grieve for the loss of that little girl all over again.

I don’t want to lose that little girl all over again.

And some days… I just do.

Some months she will progress so much. She will speak a few words, take a few steps, stop stimming so much… and I will begin to believe that she will make it. That she will become the little girl that grazes my dreams every once in a while.

But then she’ll stop.

She always stops.

And then she’ll go backwards.

And then I lie awake at night and wonder what I did. What did I do? Did I not praise her enough? Did I not do enough at home? Was there some therapy that I should have looked into? What would have made the difference this time? What could I have done to propel her forward? To keep her where she was and not keep falling behind.

I think about that for a few days and then I remember.

This is Oli

This is who she is.

At some point after she was born I stopped agreeing with other parents who told me that she was going to be okay. And by “okay” they meant that she would catch up to her peers.

I think that maybe they believed it.

I probably believed it too.

Or maybe we were all just trying to make me feel better.

Now, no one tells me that she will catch up. No one tells me that she will be okay. At seven years old, no one believes it anymore I guess.

I miss how it was before.

Tonight I sit at my computer trying to figure out how I’m going to schedule ALL of her therapy sessions that she gets now.

Occupational therapy

Physical therapy

Speech therapy

Music therapy

Massage therapy

Aquatic therapy

Hippotherapy

I start to question just what it is that I’m doing?

What am I doing?

Are these helping her? Are they helping us?

What are we doing?

I fight and I fight and I fight.

I research different therapies and teaching techniques. I go to ARD’s at school and fight for more services.

I fight for her home therapy sessions.

Her home PT cut her therapy in half.

And I fought.

And I lost.

I lost that one. She doesn’t get as much home physical therapy as she used to and I’m pissed.

Don’t they KNOW how much she needs it?! Don’t they KNOW that she is almost walking independently? Don’t they KNOW?!

Yes. They probably do know. They probably know what I am reluctant to admit.

That all of these things are just not helping like they used to.

That Oli has come as far as she will come right now.

So what do I do?

Do I give up? Do I cut back?

Do I sit and hold and hug and kiss my daughter more? Do I do all of the things that normal families do with their children if they’re not in hours and hours of therapy sessions?

How is this affecting my other children?

What does Oli’s schedule do to them?

They never complain. At 9 and 4 years old, her brother and sister have not once, ever complained.

If you ask my son if he ever gets jealous of Oli’s attention, he just looks at you like you’re speaking another language.

Trust me, I’ve had this conversation with him.

“What do you mean mom? Oli needs help.”

But as their mother, at some point, I have to stop and consider us as a whole family supporting each other.

Not all of us supporting Oli.

But how can I look at this amazing little girl and not offer up the whole world for her?

How can I look at her and see just how far she really has come and not want to do more?

How can I get access to all of these wonderful therapies and say no?

What if it helps?

What if it works this time?

What if she begins to walk and talk?

What if I stop and she never does? Was it because we didn’t do everything?

I’m not sure, at this point, that I can live with the thought of not doing everything.

So…If you ask me what it feels like to be a special needs parent I will tell you this,

It feels like you are reading an amazing story with excitement and joy and suspense and so much love. You get to the last chapter because you just know that it is going to be the best ending ever….

And the entire last chapter is missing.

It’s just not there.

You have so many questions. Did she speak? Did she walk? Did she go to the prom? Did she have a best friend? Did she ever play with her brother and sister or learn to ski or go fishing or read a book or even learn the alphabet?

You don’t know.

You’ll never, ever know.

Until one day you stumble upon an old, threadbare copy of that same book sitting on the back shelf of some dusty, second hand book store.

You pay $1 for the copy and rush home to read that final chapter, only to realize…

That the ending never really mattered all that much.

It was the journey to the end that is what made the story.

So that’s how we live here.

We live the journey and not the destination.

I live my life one page at a time.

I live my life knowing that the last chapter is missing.

And I try to make the best of the page that I’m on.

Just a mom

6 Mar

I’m about to close another chapter in my life and open a new one.

I…am going back to work.

In another life, I was a nurse. I’ve said that for a long time whenever anyone asked me what I do for a living.
“I was a nurse in another life. Now I stay at home with my children.” I would reply with a great deal of sadness. A great deal of remorse and a certain feeling of loss. I always felt like I had lost part of my identity once I stopped going to work. Once I stopped putting on those scrubs and walking through that lobby of the hospital to take the elevator up to the 5th floor of the Pediatric ICU unit…I simply stopped being a nurse. Now I was just a mom.

I never wanted to be just a mom.

“What do you do?”
“I’m just a mom.”

Four and a half years later, I now realize what I was leaving out with that word “just”. How much I was devaluing myself by saying that. I have never been “just” anything, least of all just a mom.

That word leaves out alllllll of these other things that I have been for them.

I was a teacher and a referee. A cheerleader and a coach. A therapist, a doctor, a nurse, a counselor, a confidant, a friend, an enemy, a prosecutor, defender, judge, jury, warden, jailer, and probation officer..
I was all of those things in addition to being their mom.

Now I’m not going to be just a mom anymore.

As this part of my life is ending…I’m sad. I kind of grew to like just being a mom.

But I’m so incredibly happy.

I LOVED being a nurse. I miss it.

But I LOVE being a mom too.

I look back on these last 4 years with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Look at what I’ve been able to do and see in these years! Look at how much I’ve grown and changed as the direct result of the 3 little people under my direct supervision. Look at how much they’ve taught me.

I was extremely sad when I walked out of those hospital doors for the last time in August of 2009. I felt like part of me had died and I did not want to stay at home.

Now I can’t even begin to register how I ever felt that way.

I was there for all of the amazing things that happened.

And all of the devastating things too.

I was there when Oli took her first steps. I was there when she learned to stand by herself. I was there when she said “mom” for the first time. I was there for her when she went to school for the first time.
I was there when she stopped talking. I was there when she had her first seizure, and then her second and third and…. I was there for the ambulance rides and the hospital stays. The doctor appointments, the evaluations, the new therapy sessions.

I have been there for Ginger since the day she was born. I haven’t missed a moment, a milestone, a bedtime kiss…

I was there when Kekoa went to school for the first time, when he fell off of his bike and had to get stitches. I’ve been there when he came home crying because the kids at school just don’t understand what it’s like to have Oli at home.
I’ve been there for it all.

Going back to work may mean missing out on a few of those moments.

I know that with change comes growth. I know that I am in a spot in my life where it is time for me to change, but I’m scared. I’m scared of not being there anymore.

Even though I know that I will be and I know that my kids are going to be in good hands because their dad is going to be here.

Even though my brain knows all of these things….my heart isn’t quite there yet.

I never realized until this moment how much I had grown to love staying at home with my kids. I never knew how much I would treasure the car rider lane and waiting for the bus. Preparing after school snacks and breaking up fights.

Okay. I can live without that last one.

I guess I needed this opportunity to really appreciate the amazing gift that I was given when I walked out of the hospital on that hot August day in 2009.

Whenever I meet a woman and I ask her what she does, I can honestly say that I will NEVER hear the words “just a mom” again without looking into the woman’s eyes and seeing all of the things that she is leaving out.

NO ONE is just a mom.

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A blind little girl and her deaf dog.

27 Feb

He picked us, we did not pick him.

I’ve heard people say that about their pets before. I’ve always thought it was kind of hookey.

Until it happened to me.

I was sitting on a chair in my living room, watching Oli’s physical therapist Cat work with her, when our lives were changed unexpectedly by fate.

Cat and I were making small conversation about random things, as Oli practiced balancing on one foot.

She suddenly looked up at me and said “Hey! I forgot to tell you something! We got a new dog! Well, not really. We’re fostering a dog. His name is Ziggy and he’s deaf and missing one eye.”

“Really? What happened to him?” I asked, not really thinking anything about it, but interested in hearing what happened to this poor dog.

“They don’t really know. The woman who rescued him got him from a shelter in Dallas. He was scheduled to be put to sleep the next day. I guess he was in a different shelter as a puppy, a no kill shelter, where he had his eye removed because it was punctured. He was adopted out of that shelter only to be surrendered to a kill shelter later. Lynn rescued him from there and then I got him as a foster. Do you want to see a picture?” She asked, pulling out her phone.

“Sure.” I replied, still interested, but really NOT interested. I didn’t want a dog. I didn’t need a dog. WE didn’t need a dog. I was very firm in my rule that we were NOT going to get a dog until AFTER we rented a house with a yard. Right now we lived in a small apartment.

I started repeating this rule of mine as I looked at his picture.

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Oh no. I started to get that feeling where I know something, but I don’t really want to know something.

I got the feeling that this dog was supposed to come to us.

“Oh he’s cute!”

Of course I didn’t tell her all of that other stuff. I didn’t need her thinking I was a weirdo.

“So does he have any potential adopters?” I asked nonchalantly.

“He’s had a couple of home visits. Nothing for sure yet. Lynn has to make the final decision on where he goes.”

“Oh yeah. The family that he goes to has to have a yard I’m sure right? Since he’s deaf, he needs a yard to be able to run around in without a leash. Right?” I ask slyly.

“I’m sure. She’s going to be very picky about who he goes to. Especially since he was surrendered. He needs the perfect forever home. I’m sure she’ll want the family to have a yard. Why?”
I see she’s starting to get suspicious.

“No reason. Well. He’s really cute and you know…kind of blind. A little bit. And deaf. I bet we’d be a really good family. But we don’t need a dog. We CAN’T have a dog yet. So…yeah. Nevermind.”

“Well I can ask Lynn about the yard if you want.” She volunteers.

“Okay. If you want. No big deal. I was just curious.” I try to blow it off and hide my disappointment, knowing full well that no rescuer is going to give this dog to a family who lives in an apartment.

And that was the end of our conversation.

For 2 weeks I never mentioned him and neither did she. I honestly thought that he had probably been adopted right away and maintained my “No dog stance” and my firm belief that if something is meant to be it will be.

If he was supposed to come to us? He would.

A few weeks later I got a text from Cat that read “Hey! Can I bring Ziggy over to meet the kids? I think he would like that.”

I responded “Of course. They would love that.”

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As soon as he walked up the stairs I was already in love with him. He was so calm and so gentle. He just walked around the living room and then laid down on the floor like that was exactly where he belonged.

Once she arrived I asked her “Soooooo…did Ziggy find a home yet?”

“No! He didn’t! And I forgot to ask Lynn about you guys! Let me text her right now.”

She sent the text, telling Lynn about my family and Oli.

Once Oli arrived home I KNEW without a doubt that this dog had chosen my family. That he had chosen my daughter.

I knew that it WAS meant to be and that I wasn’t crazy.
Well, at least not about this.

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I knew that he was meant to be Oli’s dog and he was meant to help her in any way that he could.

I knew that I wanted him to be trained as her service dog.

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Ziggy went home with Cat that afternoon and Lynn called me later that night.

“Well he’s actually promised to go to another family, but I just don’t think that they’re the right family for him. He didn’t wag his tail the entire home visit! I just don’t have a good feeling about it. As soon as Cat told me about your family and about Oli, I just knew that this is what he is supposed to do. He’s meant to help a child. When I had him we walked by a school playground one day and he just stopped and started staring at the children. He was so content just watching them. Once I heard that you wanted to train him as a service dog I knew that you were his family.”

Tears filled my eyes as I heard the exact words that had been playing in my head ever since I saw his picture.

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Ziggy, Cat, and Lynn came over for a home visit the next day and he’s been with us ever since.

Ziggy became Shaka.

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How did this all happen?

How did I look at a picture and KNOW without a doubt, that this was my dog?

How did he bond so quickly with Oli? How did she bond so quickly with him?

It was like they had known each other in a past life and had been searching for one another ever since.

It sounds crazy, but it’s true!

He had gone from wandering the streets of Dallas with a punctured eye, deaf, without a home, to being rescued by one shelter, adopted, surrendered to another shelter, be scheduled to die, rescued, driven to Austin, and ended up being fostered by one of my very good friends.

Why did she just happen to ask me if she could bring him over on that particular day?

If she’d asked just one day later he would have gone to the other family.

If any of these things had happened just a few days later… we would not have him.

This was the very first night that he spent with us. It's as if they are saying to each other  "Yay! You made it home!"

This was the very first night that he spent with us.
It’s as if they are saying to each other
“Yay! I found you!”

OLI would not have him.

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It was as if fate had interjected along all of our paths to ensure that this dog came home.

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He has never belonged anywhere else.

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I know that Oli and Shaka were meant to be in each others lives.

I know that, without a shadow of a doubt, she was meant to love him and he was meant to love and help her.

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I wonder if they share a unique bond because she can’t see him and he can’t hear her.

I wonder if they communicate on a level that I will never understand.

When’s she’s sick, like she is today, he never leaves her side.

I have watched them both for over 4 hours now and he has not budged.

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He has been her constant, loving friend since he first met her.

He has not left her.

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Something tells me…that he never will.

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The Power of Touch: Learning Tactile Communication

24 Feb

The power of touch.

What does that mean?
Touch.
For many different people, it can mean many different things. Really it depends on what the person’s touch memories are. These are memories that mostly come from childhood.

Were you hugged and kissed a lot? Were your parents constantly rubbing your head or holding your hand? Were they more distant? Did they frown on public displays of affection? Were you abused as a child? Were you hospitalized a lot? Do you associate touch with warmth and love? Or do you associate it with pain and fear?

For many people it can bring up a flood of memories when I say the word “touch”.
Couple the word “touch” with the word “power” and it can bring up strong memories for some.
Some good. Some bad.

For many special needs children, touch can be scary. Especially if they are visually impaired. Most of our kids spend at least some of their childhood in and out of hospitals.
A lot of times doctors don’t know what’s going on with them medically and our tiny babies must be poked, prodded, stuck, pinched, measured, x-rayed, scanned, biopsied, operated on, casted, molded, fit, helmeted…. The list is endless.

This must be terrifying for them.

Even the most compassionate nurse, technician, or doctor may unavoidably traumatize our child as we stand there feeling helpless and scared ourselves.

Add to the mix a visual or hearing impairment or both…and our child is experiencing negative touch inside a black hole, strange instruments assaulting them from every direction.

Touch? Will then become the enemy.
A thing to pull away from and fear.

As we leave the hospital, confident that once we are home with them we can make it all better with a little snuggle, we may be met with resistance.
Which leaves parents even more devastated.

So how do we teach our children to begin to trust us and learn that touch is good?
That touch can be calming and loving. How do we teach them to begin to explore their world though a different form, a more positive form, of powerful touch? How do we teach a non verbal child that touch can be a way to communicate with another person? That touch has power.

This was the topic of a conference that I recently attended at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Before I go on I must state that I AM NOT a teacher of the visually impaired.
I DO NOT work for TSBVI nor represent them or their employees in any way.
The opinions and experiences contained in this blog are strictly my own.
I am only stating what I learned in this workshop and my experiences as a mother of a blind child who is non verbal and has other disabilities.

Okay. Whew. That was awkward.
Moving on.

When Oli was first born there were two things that were emphasized constantly.

1. Carry her around everywhere.
“Attach that baby to your body as if you had grown a second head. If you go? She goes.”
Okay. I carried her around for 9 months inside my body. It shouldn’t be that hard to carry her outside it. And it wasn’t. For about a month. And then do you know what happened? She got bigger! How dare she! So it became a bigger deal. But I did it and I carried her around faithfully for a very long time. Now she’s almost 7 sooooo… You know what’s funny? I STILL carry her around sometimes. That girl can walk! So now I get yelled at for carrying her. “You need to let that girl walk! Don’t you carry her!” Ah well… Whadaya gonna do right?! Old habits and all that.

2. You need to talk to her.
“Constantly. Talk about this and that and the other thing. Talk about all of the things all of the time. Talk. Talk. Talk.”
I’ll let you in on a hard to believe secret.
I wasn’t always as talkative as I am now.
No really! I promise! I used to be quiet!! Ask my mom!
But when you give birth unexpectedly to a blind child, you adapt.
So I became a talker.
Another little secret.
I don’t just do things a little bit.
Oh no. I do them all the way and around the block, down the street, running, racing. I do them until everyone wishes that I would stop doing them and then I do them some more because…
what do THEY know?!
I’m going to do all of the things.

I talked to that baby morning and night. I explained and described, sang, whispered, made up voices, chanted, hummed…if you could do it with your voice? I did it.
All the time.

Do you know what they told me at this conference? Almost 7 years later.

That I don’t need to talk so much.

Ummmmm….

Excuse me? I don’t think I heard that right.

Apparently I had heard right. I talk too much.

Shocking, I know!

When you start to use touch with a visually impaired child and pair it with too much auditory information the child becomes overwhelmed and cannot focus on what you are trying to teach.

If I’m trying to show Oli a cup and she’s holding it I can guarantee you, if I’m trying to teach her about that cup, I’m going to tell her it’s yellow and has a picture of a flower on it and that she drinks juice from it and that the lid is green and that it has a straw.

But I don’t NEED to tell her all of these things.
I just need to say “cup”. That’s it.

Here we get into the nitty gritty information from the conference.
Here we talk about touch.

Don’t touch your child right away. Observe your child.

Man this is confusing right?! First I tell you we’re going to talk about how to touch your child and then I tell you not to touch them! Just wait. Next I’m going to tell you not to talk to them either.
Stay with me here guys.
I’ll explain. I promise.

Do not talk.
Do not touch.
Just watch.
As you watch them think about these words…
“I notice…”
and
“I wonder…”

Notice that every movement your child makes may have meaning to him or her. It may be some kind of communication. And then wonder what they are trying to say.

For example, one of the teachers noticed that Oli flaps her hand against the side of her face sometimes. She wondered if maybe that movement had meaning. Maybe she was replaying a particular movement from a song they sung at school or something that she had played with earlier.
I had just always assumed that it was a stim, but maybe it’s not. Maybe it means something to Oli.
I had never thought of that before.

Watch to see if the child is open to talking to you.

Nope. Don’t do it. Don’t touch them yet.
We’re getting there. Trust me.

First of all you need to check your own agenda. Are you wanting to force some information and touch on a child that is clearly showing that he/she is not open to talking with you? Did they turn away from you? (Oli does this a lot. Especially when she knows someone is going to make her work.) Or is the child displaying an open posture with relaxed hands (or as relaxed as that child’s may get)?

Second, greet the child. This does not have to start with words.

Yep. Don’t touch them yet. Don’t talk to them either. Even in greeting.

I know!
This is just crazy stuff right?!
Really though. You don’t want to overwhelm them if they have shown an interest in talking with you.

I’ll say it again.

This does not have to start with words.

You may just go up to the child and place your forearm or hand next to theirs. You can also offer them an open hand and place your hand under his/hers.
Go slowly. Go calmly. Even if you say nothing and don’t even touch the child, they know you’re there.
(Trust me. I’ve had many, many experiences with my daughter where I walk in the room and she knows I’m there immediately. It’s impossible to sneak around her.)
Afterwards you can say “Hi. It’s mommy.”

Then you wait.
DO NOT GRAB THE CHILD’S HAND.
Let the child decide whether or not they want to say hi.
Limit the auditory communication and just focus on touch so you do not overwhelm them.

Tactile following.

Yay!!! We get to touch them!!

Finally.

This is to do be done all hand UNDER hand. NEVER hand OVER hand.
You are just going to have your hands under theirs.
Don’t anticipate their movements or cues, but get them from the child.
The best way to keep any conversation going is by asking the person you’re talking to questions about their topic.
That’s exactly what you are going to do with the child.
By following the movements of their hands with your own, you are “talking” about THEIR topic.
Not your own.
You are just following or imitating their hand movements.
When we follow them we are attending to their conversation topic.
If we do this hand over hand the child is not having the experience because we are doing it FOR THEM.
This is not their topic.
If the child will not allow your hands under theirs that’s fine. Don’t push it.
Just leave your forearm against theirs and mimic their movement. They will still feel your movements. You are still talking with them. Eventually they may allow you under their hands.

When you introduce an object to explore and play with, do the exact same thing.
Offer the object with an open palm, allowing the child to touch or grab it as they wish.
Then as they explore it, put your hand near or under theirs and follow the movement. If they tap? You tap. If they bang? You bang.

Tactile Modeling or Sharing

NOW we can talk. A little bit. A VERY little bit.

This is where you are sharing something with the child.
You are trying to get them to “watch” what you are doing with their hands.
This does not mean you are grabbing their hands and forcing them.
You are still maintaining your hands under theirs and are starting to direct the conversation to let them know something about you.

For example, if you are telling me about a movie with a tornado in it and you go on and on about this tornado and I’m asking all of the questions about the tornado “Have you been in a tornado? Have you ever seen one close up? Did you watch that other movie about the tornado?” eventually I’m going to want to tell you about my experience in a tornado.
(I really have a good story about a tornado.)

This is how a conversation works. Both parties give and take from the dialogue.
This is what we want to do with our non verbal kids with touch.
This is also where we begin to label objects with words.
Not up there in observing or following. In the sharing stage.
Make sure to use simple consistent labels, Don’t use too many words.

We take the topic that the child is interested in and we begin to change it and show them a different perspective.

For example:
With Oli, the common topic with her hands is clapping.
My god that girl loves to clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. All. Day. Long.
So as I observed and then followed her, she wanted to clap. I followed her clapping for a while and then I began to rub my hand together back and forth. Well, she was NOT going to talk about that. She wanted to clap! So she began clapping her hands again. I followed her hands for a bit and then began to rub them together again.

Once again she didn’t want to talk about that! She could care less about my experience in the tornado. She wanted to talk about herself!

I again followed her clapping and then began to rub them together again.

She stopped.

And then she hung on to my hands and followed along while I rubbed them together!

And then she went back to clapping.
Because my girl is nothing if not stubborn.

But as we repeated this over and over she started to want to talk about what I was talking about and began following my hands more and more.

Finally, as I rubbed them together, she stuck her little hands in between mine and felt the inside of my hands as I moved them back and forth.

And then she did something amazing.

She pulled her hands away and STARTED RUBBING THEM TOGETHER!!

She rubbed them quickly and then smiled HUGE and clapped her hands, but this time like “Yes! I see what you’re saying girlfriend!! I want to talk about your tornado!!”

It was awesome!!
She was so excited and it was so beautiful to watch as that lighbulb went off inside her head.
She understood.
She knew what I was saying.

It was beautiful and I was so SO very proud of her.
I wore a smile the rest of the day with that memory and the knowledge that my girl was beginning to understand that touch meant communication for her.

That her touch had power.

I am so very grateful for these moments with my daughter.

Through all of the sadness and the heartache and that continuous guilt that what I do for her is never enough…

That I am never enough…

There is a light in the darkness and it is moments like these when I know…

that I am.

If you would like to see a good example of tactile following, there is a video below of Seth and Oli demonstrating it with a shaky can. A toy that she normally would have thrown over her shoulder in about 10 seconds. Because Seth was playing with her she was engaged for at least 5 minutes. She probably would have played longer, had we more time.

Here is the thing about our kids and toys. They do not have to play with the toy correctly. The same with objects. They do not have to use them appropriately. Just go with it. Just play however they want to play and follow their lead. Don’t feel guilty or bad if they are like my daughter and lick the hairbrush instead of brushing their hair. They are exploring and learning and it’s fine. Don’t worry about it. There is plenty of time to teach them what a hairbrush is for. And if they never learn it or use it appropriately? Then it’s still fine. They are who they are and will be how they will be. Regardless of the amount of time we waste trying to force them to be different. Just love them and play with them and enjoy them. It will be how it’s going to be and I promise you it will be fine.

It will be MORE than fine.

It will be amazing.

Instead of talking about it, let me show you.

20 Feb

Since I have been sharing so much lately about my son Kekoa and his recent sadness surrounding Oli and her seizures, I wanted to tell you about their relationship.

I could tell you about the moment when he first met her. The time that he immediately closed his eyes and started walking around the room with his hands out in front of him.

I could tell you that for some reason, my son knew that she was blind, even though he was only 17 months old and no one had told him.

I could tell you how he immediately fell in love with her and kissed her whenever given the opportunity.

I could tell you how much he loves her and protects her. How he defends her and supports her. How he believes in her and admires her.

I could tell you a lot.

Instead?

I’d like to show you…

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Kekoa and Oliana in June 2007 070

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K & O June 14

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K & O trailer3

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That was only a fraction of their first year together.

6 years later? Not a lot has changed.

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That’s why it really is a pretty big deal.

It makes me really sad mom.

9 Feb

I got the call that I am always terrified to get when I’m away from Oli.

“Shannon. Something is wrong with Oli. I think I need to call an ambulance.”

My heart fell to the floor and stayed there until she was wheeled into the ER on a stretcher and I could see her.

“What do you mean? What’s wrong?” I asked as my heart raced, but my mind cleared.

“Well she’s breathing really funny. Like holding her breath and I can’t keep her awake. Here. Listen.” My mom, who had been home with her while I took my other two kids to a horse vaulting stable, put the phone up to Oli’s lips.
I hear a strange grunting sound coming from my daughter.

“She’s been doing this for a while now and it’s getting worse. When she falls asleep it’s better, but as soon as she stirs she does it again.

“Mom. Listen. Lift up her shirt. Can you see her ribs or her sternum as she breathes? Does it look like she’s sucking in?”

My mom quickly checks. “No. No I don’t see that.”

“Okay good. What about her lips? Are they pink or do they look blue?”

“They’re really pale. I just don’t feel right about this. I feel like something is really wrong with her. She just keeps falling asleep.”

“Mom. Do you feel like you should call an ambulance?” I ask calmly. Going into more nurse mode at this point than mother mode.

“I’m not sure. Maybe. Something is wrong with her breathing.” She answers. I can hear the fear in her voice.

“Okay. If there is even a question that maybe you should, I need you to call. I am at least an hour away and by the time I get there to check her, things could have gone dramatically downhill. My phone is almost dead. I only have about 10% battery left. I’m going to call Seth and tell him to go home right now. I’ll have him call you on the way. He should be there in 10 minutes. Hang up and call 911.”

“Okay.”

I hang up and quickly call my husband.

No answer.

I call again.

No answer.

Oh my god. My phone is going dead.

I shoot him a quick text.

‘Call me NOW.’

He calls back immediately.

“Seth. I need to you to go home right now. Oli is not breathing right.”

“I’m on my way.” He replies in a calm voice.

I start to tell him that I’m leaving the stable now and that I’ll be about an hour…but he’s gone. I’m talking to dead air.

That morning Oli woke up happy. My mom and I had plans to take all three kids down to a stable in south Austin where their horse vaulting team has a Barn Buddies day once a month to raise money. The kids get to come down, learn some tricks on the barrels, and then get up on the horse to practice them with an experienced horse vaulter.

After Oli got up on Saturday morning she fell back asleep right after breakfast. I sent my mom a text and told her that maybe Oli shouldn’t go. I thought maybe she wasn’t feeling very well. My mom decided that she would just stay home with her and that I would take the other two kids and our dog. Shaka had service dog training right after the kids were done riding.

When I left, Oli was playing happily with her toys.

Kekoa and Ginger had an awesome time on the horses. It was really great because they always watch Oli ride at hippotherapy, but never get to ride themselves.

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That morning of fun quickly turned into a nightmare.

This was not Oli’s first ambulance ride.

Not even her second.

Her first executive ride to the hospital was one of the absolute worst days of my life.

October 4, 2011 is a day I will never, ever forget. Never.

That morning I woke up next to Oli violently convulsing and gasping for breath. She ended up being intubated with a machine breathing for her for two days.

The next ride was August 26, 2012.

And the last was on Saturday February 7, 2014.

I’d like to say that this will be her last, but I know that it might not be.

Her seizures, any person’s seizures, are no joke. I know that lots of kids have them. Some have hundreds a day. Some are lucky like Oli and only have them once in a while.

It’s really all about perspective. I don’t know anything but what I know about Oli. Her journey is no more or less than anyone else’s. We only know the life we live so it’s important not to minimize or over exaggerate something that we have no experience in.

I get really uncomfortable when I meet someone and they say “I just don’t know how you do it?! I could never do what you do!”

Yes you could. Yes you would.

I find myself thinking those same things though when talking with my friend who has a daughter who literally can have 100 seizures per day.

How does she get through it? How would I?

But I don’t have to worry about that because that’s not our life. I can talk with her about it. I can tell her how extremely terrified I was to get that call. I can tell her how Oli wasn’t breathing well and how awful it was because I’m sure she had more than one seizure yesterday. Like maybe 3 or 4 or 5. (I don’t know because they were seizures that we couldn’t see.)

And you know what she says? Not “Well that’s NOTHING! You should be grateful it was only a couple. My daughter…” Blah blah blah.

Nope. She doesn’t say any of those things.

She says “Wow! How scary! Do you need anything? Do you want to talk about it? How can I help you get through this?”

She validates my reality.

She doesn’t compare it.

That is powerful.
So incredible powerful.

I hear people compare themselves and their struggles to other families all the time.
Why?
Why are we judging when we should be supporting?

I’m so lucky to have so many incredible families in my life who do just that.
They support Oli. They support me. They support my kids and my husband.

We desperately need support because scenarios like the one we had on Saturday, do not leave a family unscathed.

The words I spoke to my children in the van as we left the stable, will not soon be forgotten.

Especially by my 8 year old son.

“What’s wrong mom? Why aren’t we going to take Shaka to training?”

“Your sister is having trouble breathing and is on her way to the hospital. We need to go there now.”

He immediately becomes quiet.

My three year old, Ginger, does the exact opposite. She has a million questions.

“What do you mean? What is she doing? I’m hungry. Can we stop for lunch? Can I have a snack? Do you have any juice? Are we going to see Grandma now? Are we going to Shaka’s training? Where’s Oli? Where is she going? Where are we going again?”

Oh. My. God. Ginger.

Ginger is either the best person to have with you in a crisis or the absolute worst.

I’m leaning towards the worst. 🙂

It was good because she was distracting me with her 5 billion questions and it was frustrating because I was trying to figure out where I was going, who was going to take the dog, which hospital they were taking her to? Did my husband get home? Are they on their way? When was Ginger going to STOP TALKING!

I got a hold of my friend, Cat, who just happened to be at the stable with me.

“Cat. I need you to come get the dog. Oli is being taken to the hospital by ambulance. They’re taking her to Dell Children’s.” I speak rapidly into the phone.

“I’m on my way.”

Man I have some good friends and family.

I had so many people texting and messaging me, offering kind words, support, and offers to watch my other two kids. It was very very humbling to realize how many people were willing to drop what they were doing and help.

Once we got to the hospital Kekoa was even quieter and Ginger even more inquisitive.

Fortunately Cat got there as soon as I did and took the two kids before Oli was wheeled into the room.

We didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I didn’t want my kids to see her surrounded by hospital staff, talking, asking questions, and working on Oli.

My son has already seen too much in his short 8 years.

Once Oli got there she was breathing better. She was doing some breath holding off and on, but didn’t seem to be in distress. She definitely wasn’t herself. She was constantly falling asleep and wasn’t really moving at all.
If you know Oli, this is completely out of character. She is always going.

After we had been there a little while Cat asked if we could bring the kids in. Just so they could see that she was okay.

Unfortunately as soon as they got there a team came in to start her IV. My poor Kekoa was so flustered that when Cat escorted him back out of the room he grabbed my purse and tried to walk off with it.

After that, they didn’t come back in.

I can’t even begin to imagine what he must have been going through. I know what I was going through and it was awful. And I knew what was going on! He only knows that one of the times his sister took an ambulance ride, she almost didn’t make it back home.

Oli stayed at the hospital for about 9 hours. They ran a bunch of tests and then did an EEG.

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By the time they did it she was mostly back to herself. She was worn out and acting sick, she had been running a fever too, but she was aware of what was going on and awake. Once the EEG came back normal at 11 pm they said that, if we were comfortable, we could take her home.

We opted to go home.

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Oli was more than happy to be sprung from the hospital.

The verdict was seizure activity brought on by… we don’t know. A little virus maybe.

Seth had taken the kids to another friends house in the afternoon and then my mom went and picked them up so they could stay with her for the night.

Shaka stayed with Cat and his girlfriend Dubi.

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Yeah. He didn’t miss us at all. He is in love.

This morning my mom said that Kekoa was very tearful at her house.

We finally got him to talk about it when he came home.

“It makes me really sad mom.” He admits in a quiet voice.

He also said that he was really scared for Oli. Really scared.

Me too buddy. Me too.

It’s important that I never ever minimize his feelings.

I need to never compare, judge, or make him feel like he has to feel any other way, than the way he does.

As important as it is to me to have my friends and family validate how I feel…it is more important to me

that I validate my son’s.

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Where was my key?

9 Jan

I used to read blogs and find links on the internet after Oli was born about children with special needs. More specifically I looked for those words describing BLIND children with special needs. Blind. They had to be totally and completely blind or I couldn’t relate. They couldn’t be JUST blind either. They had to have other disabilities. Other delays, or I couldn’t relate. The children couldn’t be too much older, they couldn’t live in another country, they couldn’t be able to walk or crawl… or I couldn’t relate.
Looking back on it now, I just couldn’t relate to anyone.
I would find the differences in the people, circumstances, and situations so that I was left standing utterly alone, unable to find comfort in any of the sentences that I read on the screen.
Reading those words and seeing the hope and the progress as the parents of these children reveled in their accomplishments, left me yearning to find the key that opened the door to their secret world.
The world, in which people who believed in their special children and accepted them, lived.

Where was my key?

How do you learn about all of the differences in your child, how do you sit through evaluation after evaluation of disappointing prospects and yet still find the key to acceptance?
How do you get to that place?
I sought out those stories of the milestones these children met, delayed yes, but nonetheless met, and wondered if my girl would ever do any of those things.
I wasn’t sure that she would.
I tried to compare her to similar children (when I found them which was rare) and felt defeat after defeat as they surpassed her by miles.
They learned to crawl and walk and talk and when my daughter reached that same age? She just didn’t.
The remorse and regret and guilt of all the possible things that I could have done different or better or faster… It just crushed me.
When she didn’t do the things that I thought she should do, I felt like such a failure as a mother.
I had failed her.
I hated that feeling, but I just couldn’t make it disappear.
I met lots of doctors who, when asked questions of what she would do, responded with shadows of “might not”‘s.
I also met lots of therapists who replied to the same questions with cheerful “might”‘s.
I tended to drift and focus more on the might nots.
When I would try to discuss my fears of the future with people, and I did so rarely, they responded as people do.
They told me to believe that she would grow up normally. They told me that my fears were silly and that I shouldn’t think such things.
They told me to look on the bright side.
Easy to do when it’s not happening to your child.
In truth, they were well meaning people with good hearts who wanted to help me but were completely
clueless.
Sometimes it’s hard to talk to people like me.
People who, when in such a place of darkness, find fault with every well meant comment or upbeat possibility.

Where was that key?

As time passed I just stopped talking about it. I didn’t want to be the downer of the conversation wallowing in all of the shame I felt. The self pity, that I didn’t see as self pity, but most definitely was.
I couldn’t talk about the guilt.
Who do you tell when you have feelings like that?
God?
Ummmmm…. No.
God and I were definitely NOT on speaking terms after Oli was born.
How could HE let this happen to a child? To MY child more importantly.
My husband?
No.
I felt like it was all my fault and I couldn’t admit that to him.
I guess I felt that it was his fault too.
Like this was something that we had done to her. Something that shouldn’t have happened.
I couldn’t tell him that.
My friends.
No. We already talked about that up there^^.
My mom?
Nope. Not her either. Too much guilt. Too much shame.
What had I done to her very first granddaughter?
Sooooo… that left?
No one.
Except it didn’t really.
It turns out there were a few people that I would meet along the way that would help me to find my key.
People who had been in and out of my house since this whole thing happened.
People who saw mothers like me and children like Oli every single day.

They were the therapists who worked with my daughter.

Not all of them were warm and cuddly.
Not all of them were inviting.
Not all of them I could open up to.
But some of them… I could.
Some of them had a compassion and a keen sense of understanding for a situation that they had never lived.
Some of them didn’t even have children of their own!
But it didn’t matter.
For some reason they had the right tone of voice, they said the right words, they were silent when I needed them to be, and the outer shell that I had created began to dissolve.
It turns out that I met a succession of these therapists in the exact right time in my life where I was able to hear them.
I was able to be honest about my fears and my wounds and as I listened they began to heal me.

In the beginning I guess they couldn’t help me because I was so engrossed in putting on a good front. I was so focused on pretending to be strong that I never let my fear seep through the words of strength that I wove together.
I didn’t feel like I could tell anyone let alone a stranger!
I ended up learning that sometimes a stranger is a heck of a lot easier to talk with.
Especially a stranger that isn’t really stranger because they come into my house every week and watch me fold laundry (including my underwear that likes to fall out of the basket at the most I inopportune times!)
They watch my children bicker and me burn the dinner.
They watch my 3 year old run out of the bathroom naked from the waist down and listen as she recounts less than savory tales of our household.
Basically they just see us…as us.
They see me…as me.
Eventually it becomes very difficult not to open up to someone who sees you as you are.
It might have started with a simple question.
“So how are you doing with all of this?”
Followed by a quiet stare as I repeated my all too well known response to that question.
“Fine.”
It might might have started with that stare that bore through my soul.
That stare that unequivocally meant
“No really. I know you can’t be fine so how are you?”
I don’t really remember, but I know it started with them.
It started with them showing kindness and empathy and it started with a trust that developed between us.
As I allowed the door of communication to be opened, as I began to finally relate with people who understood me, they began to lead me down a path towards finding my key.
My key to peace.
My key to happiness.

My key to acceptance.

…to be continued.
First part of an upcoming speech on communication between team members.

It’s a beautiful life.

20 Nov

When Oli was born my son Kekoa was only 17 months old. He had not even spent a year and a half in this life. On this earth. He was so incredibly young that I was still getting to know his little personality. I was trying to figure out what kind of person, what kind of man, he would grow into.

What kind of grooves would this little boy fall into after having a sister born with significant disabilities?
Would he stay locked into hers? Would he be able to find his way out? Would he be able to tread his own path, defining his own grooves? Would he be able to define himself and to find his own identity or would he continually be forced to follow along behind her?

Would I force him to follow along behind her?

Would he be mad at ME? Would he resent ME for the events in his life that were about to take place?
Would he resent HER for being born the way that she was?

As I sat on the corner of the tub, bathing my 17 month old little boy, I asked myself all of those questions. I cried over all of the possible answers that lay before me.

I cried for the little boy that I had promised to do everything for. I cried over the fact that I had somehow unintentionally just made his life so much harder. I cried because I was not going to be able to fix this for him. I was not going to be able to make this easy.

When she was born I never even considered the possibility that her birth could be the best thing that would ever happen to my family. I couldn’t even dream of recognizing the positive outcomes because I was so drawn into the pity parties and the negativity. I couldn’t stop feeling sorry for myself long enough to see the beautiful forest from the trees. I was stuck in an outcropping of horribly ugly, brown, leafless, dark, gnarly, trees. I hated those stinking trees.

As life moved on…

As I moved on…

As the world moved on… I began wondering what kind of person this experience would mold my son into. I began realizing that we had a unique opportunity to view our daily life as a constant lesson to learn about humanity. The good and the bad.

I learned and began to teach my son how to respond rather than react to people and situations that might not always be positive. I learned and then taught my son compassion and understanding rather than anger and resentment.

We talked about WHY people sometimes respond the way that they do to Oli. We talked about HOW we could and should respond when people are mean. We talked about how most people just don’t see the world the way that we do. We talked about how people are generally good and that sometimes they just don’t understand and are curious, but might not know how to ask about her condition.

We talked about a lot of things. We still talk about a lot of things.

Kekoa is 8 years old now. We talk like we’ve always talked, but now I try to get him to tell me how he feels about things. I try to get him to tell me how it makes him feel if someone is mean to his sister, but it’s hard.

He’s only 8.

Mostly he just says that it makes him sad. He says that he wished people understood her better. He wishes that people knew that she was just like them, but unable to speak or to see. He says that he wishes that they would consider her feelings when they were mean and not treat her like she doesn’t understand.

I wish that too Kekoa…

So we talk about those feelings and the actions that we can take to make it better.

I never really know how much he understands when I try to help him work through these things. I never know what he does with these talks and these experiences when he walks out of my front door in the morning and heads off to school.

Until now.

The mom of one of the girls in Kekoa’s school emailed me this morning to tell me a story about my sweet boy.

She said that her daughter Rachel, was being picked on by some boys at recess earlier this week. Her daughter told her that Kekoa had stood by her, comforting her, and helped her to reach a teacher who could help. Rachel told her mother later “Kekoa knows how to treat girls because he has sisters.”

Because he has sisters.

Because he has Oli.

Really that’s what it comes down to.

He has learned such compassion, such respect, such infinite wisdom because he has Oli to teach him.

He has a sister who has never looked into his eyes, never spoken his name, never uttered a sentence, but has taught him to be an incredible human being.

She is teaching him how to become a wonderful man.

I can see how beautiful my trees are now.

I can look my son in the eyes and never feel remorse or sadness about the way our life has turned out.

I can look at him and see the amazing gift that Oli has given all of us.

She has made every single one of us into a better person and has allowed us to live a life that I never even would have imagined.

It’s a beautiful life.

I know I’m okay as long as I don’t make pancakes for dinner.

21 Oct

“Close the door Michael. I can still hear them.”

Michael obediently pauses Zelda and walks over to the lightweight door, closing it on the sounds of my parent’s argument.

“Now turn up the sound on the TV and just ignore them.”

Michael again complies without protest, spinning the volume control on the old 32” TV. He picks up the remote control of the Nintendo and scrunches up his little face in concentration.

He is probably about 7 years old.

I am probably about 10.

This is not the first time we have performed this ritual.

It will not be the last time either.

About an hour later my mother knocks softly on our bedroom door.

I get up, reluctantly pausing Link mid stride across his never ending quest through the green maze, and open the door.

Michael looks at me worriedly.

I look up and into my mother’s red rimmed, glassy eyes.

I see the tears still pooling in the corners of them just about ready to spill over. Just about, but not quite.

My mother will rein them in, sparing me from having to wipe them from her cheeks.

My mom will pretend to be strong for me.

Even though I know she’s not.

Even though I know that she has once again been defeated.

“Are you okay?” I ask although I already know what her response will be.

“Yes. I’m fine.” She answers in a voice that is too high, too cheery, to be anything but fake.

It is only now that I notice that she is carrying two plates in her hands. She lifts them up towards my face.

“I’ve made pancakes for dinner!” She says this like someone would announce that they are going to Disneyland.

She says it like she’s just given me exceptional news.

I’VE MADE PANCAKES FOR DINNER!!

“Thanks mom.” I respond quietly. I try to pretend that this is good news. Pancakes. I love pancakes and so does my brother Michael.

I know what those pancakes mean though.

My eyes cast around her to the doorway and towards the silence that sits awkwardly beyond it.

My mother is confused at first by my sad expression. Then she meets my gaze with eyes pooling with tears once again.

She knows that I know.

She knows that even though I am only 10 years old, I now understand that pancakes for dinner is never a good thing.

Pancakes for dinner means that my mother is not okay.

I’ve kept that memory since childhood. I still associate pancakes and dinner as a very bad thing. I’ve had my own children now. Three of them. And guess what?

I’ve made them pancakes for dinner a few times.

Very few times, but I have and I cringe at that memory too.

I told the young child me that I would never do it.

I would never turn those light, fluffy, syrupy plates of deliciousness into a dripping plate of sorrow…but I have.

I have fought against instinct and upbringing and tried to swim against the tide that tries to push me in the direction of my mother’s life.

To no avail.

Points in my life have begun to mirror my mother’s despite my every attempt to fight it.

Of course it doesn’t all look the same. But a lot of it does.

More than I’d probably like to admit.

And so when my life falls apart and the tears stream down my face and my sobs threaten to choke me… I do what feels right. What feels comfortable.

I make pancakes for dinner.

That’s how I’ve come to measure my sadness and my coping skills.

Am I making pancakes for dinner?

If I am?

It’s bad.

Autism is just one color on the rainbow

27 Sep

I am doing an autism walk with and for Oli tomorrow. Because of that, I have been thinking a lot about what autism looks like and what it means in my family.

Oli was diagnosed with autism 3 years ago.

She was diagnosed by a team of specialists who specifically look at the differences between autism and blindness because they can appear on the outside to have shockingly similar behaviors.

Flapping in a typically developing sighted child is not part of normal (and I use that word loosely of course) development.

Flapping in a typically developing NON sighted child IS part of development.

A child speaking with echolalic patterns is not normal in a typically developing, sighted child.

Echolalia can be normal for a blind child.

Speaking, followed by a sudden lapse into being completely non verbal over a period of a few months, that is not caused by anything neurological…is NOT NORMAL in any child blind or sighted.

Yet this is exactly what my child did.

This is what led me to seek further answers by a team of specialists in Philadelphia.

This, along with other things, is what led to Oli’s diagnosis of autism.

So…there I was…3 years ago…raising a child with no vision, no language, and no way of communicating with me…

I was devastated.

This is the thing that kept running through my head,

“She can’t see. She can’t speak.”

Can you imagine, as a mother, what that feels like?

I had to face the reality that #1 Oli was never going to meet my gaze. She was never going to look into my eyes or look at me at all. I was never going to be able to look into her eyes and see an unspoken emotion that might lie hidden there. I was never going to be able to discern ANYTHING from her eyes.

And #2 Oli may never speak. I might never hear “I love you” roll off of her tongue.

(Granted, I might never hear the words “I hate you” either, spoken from the angst filled heart of a teenager, but that’s a different blog topic.)

Trying to explain this sadness to my family and friends was and still is difficult for me.

Most of them, when I do try and talk about it, respond with “Yeah but what if’s…” or “Yeah but it could be worse…”

They are right.

But it doesn’t make me feel any better.

I would rather hear “That must be hard” or “I’m sorry” or nothing at all.

I have found that the majority of the times that I do speak about the sadness, I do it NOT looking for answers to this problem. I am not looking for a solution to fix my heart. I am looking for an ear just to listen. I am only looking to get it off of my chest and express my sadness in words rather than bottle it all up inside and never speak about it. Which is what I did when she was born. I would rather tell you about it and leave it out there on the floor for those 5 minutes than carry it around with me for the next few days or weeks.

I know that Oli’s blindness is never going to be fixed or cured and it will never even improve. It just won’t. That’s life. That’s reality.

It took me longer to accept the fact that her autism will never be fixed or cured and it may never improve either.

But the truth is that it does not matter what label she has or what diagnosis she is given.

It doesn’t matter if those horrible evaluation histories label her as “Globally developmentally delayed” or “Autistic”.

It doesn’t matter because she still receives every possible service that would be available to her through either diagnosis.

And it doesn’t matter to me because that label says nothing about who she IS as a person. It may make her act a bit different on the outside. It may make language more difficult, but it will never define who she is as a person.

Just like the blindness will not define her.

It just won’t.

It took me a long time to figure that out too.

So today autism means less to me than it probably does to other people.

Autism for Oli is just one more color on the vibrant rainbow that makes her who she is on the outside.

But it can’t even come close to touching the spectacular kaleidoscope that she is on the inside.

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