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She finally called me mom.

23 Jul

Yesterday was the first day that Oli ever called me mom.
Today when she said it again someone else was here to validate for me that she actually said it. My husband heard her.

She is 6.

She called me mom.

Not mom-mom or ma-ma-ma. Not ommm or mmmmm or ahhhh or any of the other things that she has called me in the past.

Just mom.

I knew she could. I hoped she would.

I just didn’t know when?

As we were sitting on the chair this morning after breakfast she quieted her head shaking, tipped her head towards mine and said “Mom”. Then she smiled and leaned forward to give me a hug and pat me on the back. She hugged me tightly like “I know mommy. I know you’ve been waiting to hear that from me for a very long time. There you go. I said it.”

I was so shocked that I don’t even think I registered the fact that it was SUCH a big deal until after she left for school. Until after I came back upstairs and sat down with my coffee.

And then it hit me.

I finally heard the word that I have been waiting to hear since she was born. The word that I have dreamt of all of my children saying since the moment that I knew that I wanted to become a mother.

After 6 long years…I finally heard it from Oli.

If she has taught me anything it’s patience. If she has shown me anything it’s that we have to celebrate the tiniest accomplishments because for a child like her, the smallest things become the most memorable.

I remember each of her little moments like it happened yesterday. The pictures of those things are etched in my brain like a tiny portrait of the perfect day. I remember where we were sitting, what we were saying, who was in the room, and the big smile on her face once she realizes what she has done.

I’ll give you an example…

The second time she put two words together (the first time was at 2 years old before she stopped speaking) happened a few months ago. Kekoa, Ginger and I were playing a Lego board game. Kekoa was working on building a car out of red Legos with grey doors and black rubber wheels. Ginger was sitting to my left pulling out all of the tiny grey pieces, trying to annoy her brother. Oli was sitting with my mom eating applesauce. My mom asked her if she was all done eating. Oli tipped her head to the side and quietly said with the confidence of a super star “All done.”

Cue the big smile that graced her perfect lips and the huge yells of celebration and congratulations from the rest of us.

The itty bitty moments, in a regular house, on a regular day, mark the events of my lifetime.

THESE are the moments that I will remember when I grow older and reflect on the good times in my life.

I won’t remember when I bought my first car, when I moved into my first house, or what I wore on my first date.

I WILL remember when my Oli girl said mom for the first time.

I will remember when all of my kids did, but she works so much harder for these milestones. Months and months turn into years and years of therapy to achieve the things that other children seem to do so without effort.

And yet…that is almost exactly what she did today.

Somehow, working on it for all of these years instantly turned into a distant memory.

She said it so clearly, smoothly, and confidently that it just rolled off of her tongue like it had always been there.

Like she had been saying it all along.

I have many people joke with me and say things like “Just wait! Wait until she starts talking all of the time and then you’ll wish for the days that she didn’t.”

I laugh and say “Yeah” like I have some comprehension of what they’re talking about.

I don’t.

I can’t imagine a day that I wouldn’t want her to speak. She could speak to me all day, every day for the rest of her life and I honestly don’t think that I would ever get tired of hearing her sweet voice.

Can you imagine the day that she could have a conversation with me? Can you imagine a time when she could tell me what she wanted for dinner?

I can.

It gives me butterflies.

Nope.

I will never ever wish for these days when she can’t.

But, I know that she will be able to someday because she surprises me all of the time with her accomplishments.

It may have taken her 6 years to call me mom, but she said it!

She said it.

That’s all that matters.

What if she never speaks?

20 Jul

As I stood in the hallway, talking and listening to this Italian mother speak about her 14 year old, blind, autistic daughter Eliza, one thought kept racing relentlessly through my mind. I had one question that I needed to ask this mom about the daughter that looked, and acted so much like my own. I wanted a tiny glimpse into the future of this Italian world that seemed to mirror my own.

“Does your daughter speak now?” I asked her quietly, trying to hide the desperation from my voice.

“No. No she doesn’t.” She replied, quite clearly seeing the pain seep into my eyes.

In that moment, in those brief few seconds that passed between us, the reality of what we both were feeling, the dreams that we had for our girls, were spoken without any words from our lips. They were spoken between the souls of one heartbroken mother to another.

She knew that when she reveled that truth and her reality to me, that she was giving me an answer that I didn’t want to hear.

I didn’t want to hear it.

Do you know what I wanted to hear? Of course you do.

I wanted to hear that her daughter had learned to talk. I wanted to hear that after years of silence, 14 years of silence…that she could now talk about what was going through her mind.

I desperately wanted to hear that one day my daughter would learn how to talk to me.

But that wasn’t what had happened.

As she began telling me the story of her daughter’s communication struggles, I began to feel more and more uncomfortable. I began to feel more and more angry. I began to see more and more similarities between our children.

And I didn’t like what I heard.

Her daughter had also learned to talk when she was 2. She had also stopped when she was 3. She had started speaking again right about the age that Oli is now…

And then she stopped.

She just simply quit speaking.

One day it was there, and the next day it just wasn’t.

Poof.

BOOM!

There it was.

One of my biggest fears had once again been dropped at my feet.

When Oli began speaking again a few months ago I couldn’t believe it. After 3 long years of complete silence I couldn’t believe my ears when she started to say a few words again. With every new word she spoke the fear of what she wouldn’t say the next day crept in the back of my mind. The questions of “What if she doesn’t talk today?” came with each morning sunrise. The fear of “Will today be the last day that I hear her speak?” came with each nightfall.

And here stood this mother telling me that all of my fears that I so successfully banished to the back of mind, might one day come true.

What now? What do I do with this information?

After a few days of living within that fear and those terrible alternate realities that my mind likes to create; the ones where everything goes wrong and I am helpless again struggling against a monster that I could never hope to defeat, I realized that I was projecting a future upon Oli that I have no control over. I was sentencing her to a life of silence without any knowledge or proof that this is what would happen. I was letting myself believe once again in a hopeless situation that has absolutely no reason to be hopeless.

Oli is not Eliza. Oli is Oli.

What she will or won’t do has nothing to do with what another child has or has not done. Even though that other child is so similar to her. She still is an individual. One capable of fulfilling any potential, achieving any goal and overcoming any obstacle that lies before her.

Oli is Oli.

I have said it before, she will do what she will do regardless of how much time I spend worrying about it. Regardless of how much time I spend crying over it.

So I took my own advice.

I spoke the words to myself that I have spoken to other parents about their children.

As her mother, one of my most important jobs is to never stop believing in her.

And then there were two…

18 Jul

Last weekend I had the privilege of attending the ICAN conference in Chicago, IL. ICAN stands for the International Children’s Anophthalmia/Microphthalmia Network. Every two years, children and families from all over the world, travel to learn about and meet other people with anophthalmia and microphthalmia.

It’s always great to learn about the new technology available for blind people. It’s always fantastic to learn about new advancements in the treatment of these conditions.

But nothing beats what it feels like to look at another child or another family that knows exactly what your life is like.

No one knows what it’s like to raise a blind baby, to deal with the trials and tribulations of conformer therapy, to deal with other people who stare at your child…

Than other parents with a child just like yours.

No one knows about the breakdowns in the car because someone said something hurtful about your beautiful daughter…

Except another family who has walked in your shoes.

No one knows what it’s like to hide your newborn baby underneath a pile of blankets in her car seat because you just can’t stand to have one more person comment on how your very wiggly, giggly, very AWAKE baby, is sleeping because she can’t open her eyes…

Than the other mom who has had it happen to her.

The families that I met this weekend? Know EXACTLY what I’m talking about.

It’s so refreshing to talk about all of these things and to look into another mom’s eyes and see that flash of recognition. That spark of “Yes! Yes! That’s happened to me! That’s how I feel!” I don’t have to explain everything. Half the time, I didn’t even have to finish my story. I would get half way through and then see her head start to bob up and down and a knowing smile, play on her lips. Ahhhh…yes. You get it.

There was still some explaining to be done though. There were still a lot of walking, talking, interactive blind children running around the halls that weekend.

There were many many children who were NOT like my Oli.

To be honest…it makes me feel a little bit weird and strange to be around them. I feel kind of awkward. I don’t know what to say to a talking blind kid. Give me a non-verbal, blind kiddo with multiple disabilities and I feel right at home. Otherwise, I’m out in deep water. Do I offer my hand to them? How do I introduce myself? What do I say?

I’m just not used to it. I don’t know that life. I only know my own.

It was still pretty cool though. I was sitting at dinner and was watching a new friend talk to her son at the table. She was telling him where his knife and fork were. That there was a little lip on the edge of the plate. And then she took his hand and guided it over the plate to show him. I could only stare and smile and think to myself, “Yes. I must be doing it right. I do all of those things with Oli even though she can’t tell me if that’s correct or not. It must be, otherwise this other little boy would tell his mom that it wasn’t.” I need to see those kinds of things. I need to know that I’m doing it right with Oli.

There was one little girl that I just can’t get out of my head. A 14 year old girl from Italy. She was just like my Oli. After seeing her, I don’t think I’ll doubt Oli’s autism diagnosis again.

Little Eliza from Italy was JUST like Oli and she also has the diagnosis of autism. She too, is totally blind and non verbal.

Her and her parents sat next to us at dinner on Saturday. I had spoken to her parents a little during the day. The geneticist wanted me to talk to them about some different forms of communication techniques and tactile symbols, to use with her.

I knew that when they described her, I had that look on my face. I know that as I listened to her mother speak about her, I had that spark in my eyes. “Yes. Yes! I know exactly what you’re talking about.”

Meeting Eliza, was a whole different experience. I have never met another child that was like Oli. I mean like her in EVERY SINGLE WAY!

I couldn’t take my eyes off of her during dinner. Her mannerisms, behaviors, the way she moved her hands, the way she ate her food, the way she relied on her mom…it was ALL like Oli.

It may have been a little strange for her parents. More than once they caught me with my mouth hanging open, looking like an a-hole, staring, smiling, and nodding in their daughter’s direction. More than once I had to excuse myself and say, “Oh my gosh!! She’s just so much like my daughter!! I’ve never seen that before! I’m sorry for staring.”

More than once I felt like bursting into tears because I was just so happy that I had found another mom who knew what it was like.

There are, of course, other children born blind and who have the autism diagnosis. I’ve met some of them.

They were not like Oli.

I later asked the genetic counselor at the convention what made Eliza and Oli so similar. They have the same eye condition, but different gene deletions. Oli is missing the OTX2 gene, while Eliza is missing the SOX2 gene.

She couldn’t really give me a definite answer, other than to say that there had to be some genetic correlation that caused the blindness and the autism. Somewhere in those genes lies the answer, or rather, the missing answer to the puzzle. Something about those missing genes that caused their eyes not to develop and then whatever caused the autism, is the same in Oli and Eliza.

It was fascinating.

The next day when it was time to leave, I said good bye to Eliza at breakfast. She took my hand in hers and ran her fingers over and over my palm. She found my ring and was twisting it around. She smiled and smiled… Her mom said, “Wow! She really likes you!” I told her “I know. It’s because I just totally understand her. It’s because we have this bond that ties us together. It’s because of Oli.”

And that is the story of the day that I finally met another child like Oli.

When the sun goes down and the rainbows disappear.

18 Jun

It’s almost time for Oli to start summer school. She goes for 4 hours a day, 4 days a week, for 5 weeks. She has gone to summer school every year since she began going to school at 3 years of age. ESY (extended school year) is for special needs kids who have shown regression over the Christmas break. If you regress, you go to summer school.

It’s a win, lose situation for us. It’s great that she gets to go because summer break is so long, I don’t want her losing any of her skills, and she really likes school. It gives her more of a structured day and a schedule, which she does well with. It’s bad because it means that she isn’t doing as well as some of the other kids. I guess it makes me a little sad because she NEEDS it. Although, her teachers have told me every year (the 3rd year now) that they are qualifying her based on the emergence of critical skills. Walking and talking. I’m not sure if these really were emerging at the time of her evaluation though.
When they qualified her for ESY this year she wasn’t talking again yet. She didn’t start that until a few weeks before school got out. They agreed on ESY sometime after Christmas. Her walking skills have improved over the last 3 years since she took her first steps. I wouldn’t classify this as emerging however. She’s stronger now, but her walking isn’t that much different than when she was 4 or 5. I think it’s mostly a balance problem. I’m hoping that one day her balance will get better. It has, little by little, year by year, but it’s a slow process.

All that being said…she gets to participate in summer school. With all the other kids who NEED to be there. Who cannot afford to have a regular summer vacation like all of the other kids. This is the part that is hard to swallow. She isn’t like the rest of the kids. She never will be. This is both wonderfully special and woefully heartbreaking.

I try to be positive and upbeat. I focus on what she can do, how far she has come, and the progress she’s made. I try to focus on all of her abilities and not her disabilities. But I would be a terrible, fake, fraud if I told you that I never get sad or mourn her struggles. If I told you that I never get angry at the injustice and unfairness of her multiple disabilities.

Here’s part of the real, honest truth. I get sad. I get sad a lot. Not every day. Not even every couple of days, but it happens. When she’s having an especially hard day and the meltdowns become epic, and the tears become frequent and she refuses to walk and she doesn’t speak a word, and it feels like the day will last forever, I remember exactly how much she is NOT like other children. I am faced with how different she is. I am reminded of what makes me a different kind of mother. I’m not very fond of those days because I REALLY want to be like you. Most days I try to pretend that I am. Most days I treat Oli like she is just like your child. And then we have those days where I just can’t pretend and I can’t ignore the fact that she’s not.

It’s during those days that it becomes hard to chronicle our story and write about our journey through our unique life. I mostly wrote about the positive and people always love reading about the warm fuzzy encounters we have. The pink cloud moments where everyone is smiling and life is full of rainbows and roses. Everyone knows though, this is not always the reality of our situation.

No ones reality looks like that all of the time. So sometimes I’ll write about the hard times, the sad emotions, the tears, and the fear…in the hopes of portraying an accurate account of her life. Of my life. I’ll write it knowing that people will worry about me, they will worry about her, they will question my strength, they will be afraid to offer words of comfort, they will offer too many, they will feel sorry for us, and they will be glad that they don’t have a special needs child. I will write it knowing that some people will not want to hear about this part, they will refuse to read about the struggles because life is easier when you don’t know about the difficulties of it all. Life is easier when you ignore the pain and only celebrate the happiness. I know. I was like that too. Some days…I still am. People may choose not to read this part, but hopefully… they will come back. Hopefully, people will continue to be inspired and hopeful about my daughter even when I describe my hard days. Even when I talk about my pain and disappointment.

Because this is our life. We live life on life’s terms through the good, the bad, the smiles, and the tears.

And I really wouldn’t want it any other way.

Mother Moments

14 Jun

In the darkest of my fears, I sat alone, watching my little girl sleep. She was three days old. I felt like I had aged 50 years in those three short days. My life as I knew it, was over.

Before me slept an enormous responsibility. Before me slept one of the most vulnerable babies I had ever known. Before me slept my fear, my betrayal, my heartache…my love, my new life…my daughter.

From the moment that I found out that she was blind, I began to have “moments”. Moments are hallmark to all new mothers, but mine became drastically different from theirs. I began to have special needs mother moments.

In order for me to describe to you what those are, I have to tell you about my moments when my first chid was born. When he was born I had lots of those mommy moments where my heart filled with fear and anticipation. My brain would race full speed ahead to the future and I would begin to worry about what would happen to my baby boy.

Will he sit up before he’s 6 months old? Will he crawl by 9 months? Will he walk before he turns 1? Will he be potty trained by the time he’s 3? Will he learn his colors, numbers, and letters before kindergarten? Will he learn to read without difficulty? Will he get good grades, make friends, join the soccer team or play basketball? Will he be a responsible driver at 16? Will he take a girl to the prom? Will he graduate high school with honors? Will he go to college out of state?

All of my worries with my son were not questions of “what if he doesn’t___”. They were questions of will he do this now or later? Will he do this or that? I never feared that he wouldn’t walk or talk, be potty trained, learn the alphabet, read, write, drive, play sports, have girlfriends, graduate or go to college. I knew that he would do all of those things.

I simply worried the biggest worry since the invention of motherhood. My uneasiness festered within the age old question that millions of moms before me have tortured themselves with.

“Was I doing it right?”

After the birth of Oliana my moments of “Was I doing this right?” became overwhelmed by the heavier contemplation and an inward reflection of myself. I began to worry “Can I do this at all?”

In the beginning I had no one to lead me down a previously cultivated path, pointing out all of the obstacles. I had no mother who had been there before me who could assure me that I was doing this thing correctly.

When my son was born I simply picked up the phone and called my mother if I had a question. If she didn’t answer I called a friend. Now when I asked my mom questions about what to do with Oli or what the next step should be, she shrugged her shoulders and responded “I just don’t know.” My friends didn’t know either. If I tried to describe how I felt they all got a look in their eyes of total compassion, but complete incomprehension. They just didn’t understand.

I had been thrown into a tumultuous sea with a flimsy life raft that had a slow leak in it.

No one knew what I was supposed to do. No one could tell me how I was supposed to feel.

I began to ask myself some of those same questions that I asked myself with my son, but with a completely different context. Instead of wondering when she would do things, I began to wonder if she would EVER do them.

Will she learn to read, write, or spell her name? Will she ever be able to tie her shoes? Will she learn to walk down the street by herself? Will she one day be able to say the alphabet, be potty trained, or learn to use a fork and spoon by herself?

I didn’t know.

I started to have moments where I just could not stop myself from reliving what my life had been like before and what it was going to be like in the future. I began to daydream and create alternate realities where I would live the best and worst case scenarios.

The best of the best case scenario was one where upon a trip to an eye specialist, he would look into her non-existent eyes and tell me that there had been some kind of terrible mistake. She wasn’t blind at all.

Best case scenario was that she was only blind and cognitively and developmentally appropriate.

Worst case scenario involved a wheel chair, hospital bed, ventilators, and round the clock nurses. Life would creep slowly by with every minute spent worrying about her health for the rest of my life.

I ended up somewhere in the middle.

These “moments” now take on a whole different perspective as she gets older. Most often it happens when I see another little girl that is her age doing something normal. Something completely average and typical. Running through the park, laughing and playing, tying her shoes, eating an ice cream cone, hugging her mother, saying I love you.

These moments creep up on me and slam that heartache fiercely into my chest and steal the breath from my lips.

Those are the things that my little girl should be doing. I close my eyes and superimpose my girl’s face onto the other child’s body and imagine her living her life without blindness or delays. I imagine her running and playing. I see her looking into my eyes and feel her breath against my cheek as she whispers “I love you mommy.”

But when I open my eyes, those dreams disappear and vanish quietly. Thin, transparent, wisps of smoke that drift effortlessly through my fingers.

This was simply not how it was meant to be. She has a disability. She will ALWAYS have a disability. I cherish who she is and what she can do. I celebrate her numerous victories and feel gratitude towards what we have.

Sometimes…I still get sad. I’m human. I’m a mom.

Those are some of my moments today.

What is it like to have a special needs sister? A 7 year old gives his opinion.

13 Jun

I wonder all the time what it is like growing up as the sibling of a special needs child. My 7 year old son, Kekoa, opened up and answered some questions about life with Oli.

What is the very first memory you have of Oli?
-“I think the first thing that I saw about Oli was that she was blind. Well that, she had ummm…she had no eyes and that was kind of creepy at first.”

Do you remember her getting her first pair of real looking eyes?
-“Ummm..I think I remember. I just saw online that she had the clear ones first.”

What do you want people to know about Oli?
-“I want people to know that just because she doesn’t have eyes, doesn’t mean that she doesn’t know what you’re saying. She understands whatever you say. You should talk to her normal.”

How does it make you feel if people stare at her or say mean things to her?
-“It makes me feel sad. It makes me feel like I’M the person being bullied by those people because she’s my sister.”

What would you say to those people?
-“She’s a normal person. She just doesn’t have eyes.”

What does it feel like to have a sister with a disability?
-“I’m just worried about people being mean to her. Sometimes I worry about her falling down and getting really hurt. I worry about her having to go to the hospital.”

Do you remember the first time Oli had a big seizure and had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance?
-“Yes. I remember daddy telling me to go upstairs. I remember wondering if she was going to be okay. Or was she not. I was just really worried that she wasn’t going to be okay that time.”

Do your friends ask you questions about Oli?
-“Yes. A bunch of times. They ask me like ‘Can she blink?’ I say yes. ‘Why does she have fake eyes?’ I say that people will accept her more because she looks like everyone else. I don’t think it’s very important to look like everyone else because everybody has differences and God just made us that way. That’s the way He wants us to be.”

Are you excited that she started talking again?
-“Yes. Very excited. I think that since she started talking, she’ll start doing other stuff too.”

What kind of stuff do you want her to be able to do?
-“I want her to be able to walk. To have lots of friends. I want her to be able to like do normal things like everybody. I want her to be able to play with me.”

Is it hard at home to have a special needs sister?
-“Sometimes. Because it’s hard to do stuff and concentrate when she’s crying.”

Is it hard because she has lots of therapy and doctor appointments?
-“Well no. Not really.”

Is it hard because it takes more time away from you, for mommy and daddy to help her?
-“Yes. You guys spend more time with Oli, helping her do things, than Ginger and I do. You guys just know more about her than we do. I like to help her. I like to help her walk. I like to hold her hand.”

If you had one wish for Oli, what would it be?
-“I would wish that she would be able to see. And that’s it. I just wish she could see because it would be easier for her.”

If she was autistic…where did that leave me?

7 Jun

When Oli was two years old, a few drastic changes took place in her life. We moved 1500 miles away. We moved away from one of her grandmas, her aunties, her cousins, and the only house she ever knew. We moved away from her sister.

At the time that we moved, Oli was still taking. On the drive down she repeated the words “up” and “out” over and over and over. It was a looooong drive. I remember that we stopped for breakfast one morning on the second day. My mom asked her what she wanted for breakfast. Oli answered “eggs” and then clapped enthusiastically. My girl loves eggs. She also said “Mom. Dad. Grandma. Koa. Milk. Juice. Eat. Hi. Bye.” Those are just a few.

Six months after we got to Texas, I had another baby. By this point her speech had already started to decline. Ginger was born in March 2010 and by September, Oli had completely stopped speaking.

She did NOT do well when Ginger was born. None of us did. Ginger cried all the time, day and night for 4 months straight. I couldn’t put her down. Ever. She was either eating or crying. She rarely slept. Oli was stressed out and hated the baby. If she heard Ginger near her she would scrunch up her face and push her away. If I tried to get her to hold the baby she would cry. She didn’t understand what she was or why she was so loud.

Oli started stimming more and more. She stopped repeating simple words and didn’t use the words that had been frequent in her vocabulary six months prior.

By Christmas of that year I knew that something had happened. Something else was wrong that had caused her to stop talking. Was it the stress of the move and the birth of her sister? Or was it something else?

I knew that I couldn’t just take her to a regular doctor to evaluate her. Blindness complicated the diagnosis and I didn’t want them to misdiagnose her or misinterpret her behaviors (blindisms) as autistic behaviors because in blind kids they are not.
Most kids born blind have a lot of the same self-stimulatory behaviors that autistic kids have. They have a lot of the same sensory issues too.

Oli constantly shakes her head back and forth. Continually. All day long. (Think Stevie Wonder.) She has done this since she was a year old. She started flapping her hands around 2 years old. She loves to spin and swing and she’ll rock violently back and forth when she’s mad. She’s always seeking more and more input because she is missing the main way that human beings get their information. Through our sight. She puts everything in her mouth. Blind children typically go through a longer oral stage because of the reason I stated above. This is just one more way to get information if you can’t see it.

None of those things set off any alarm bells though. I knew that was just her blindness.

What DID set my heart racing and began to fill it with unspeakable dread and fear? What one thing lead me to question what was wrong with her?

Why did she stop speaking?

It felt like one day she was talking and the next day she just wasn’t.

What would cause this to happen?

One terrifying word came into my mind.

Autism.

I called the research center for anophthalmic and microphthalmic children. The Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. I made her an appointment for an evaluation. They had developed a specific clinic staffed with experts on blindness to determine if our kiddos really were autistic or if their behaviors and characteristics were simply the results of being born blind. Many of our kids were receiving the diagnosis of autism when they weren’t and many of them were not being given the label when they were. That team was supposed to be able to clarify and correct the appropriate clinical diagnosis.

So I flew her to Pennsylvania and asked them the million dollar question.

Was my baby girl autistic?

During the months leading up to that evaluation I began to question, pray, bargain, and plead with a God that I had started to lose faith in. I began to cry and scream at him “You made her blind! You made her physically and developmentally delayed! Don’t make her autistic too! Please! I will do anything! ANYTHNG! Don’t make my baby autistic too!”

I laid in bed at night questioning my very life and existence. I began asking questions that I would never receive answers to.

I wondered why He would do this to her? Why would He do this to me?
Why had my life been so easy before? Why had it become so hard?
When was my nightmare going to be over? When was I going to wake up?
The more I prayed and pleaded…the farther away I drifted.
The more questions I asked…the less answers I received.

I flew Oli to Philadelphia with a heavy heart, a stomach full of knots, and an empty soul.

Where was my God? Would He answer my prayers?

I feared that I already knew the answer to those questions.

Where did that leave me now?

I used to wonder if she would ever have friends.

29 May

As I waited at school with Oli after her therapy, a remarkable thing happened. I watched my daughter interact with two little girls in her kindergarten class. Oli isn’t in her kindergarten class regularly. She is in an FLC (functional learning class). She does attend music twice a week with them and has gone on a field trip with their class.

What I witnessed today at her school…will never be forgotten.

To the little girls I watched in the elementary school hallway, this letter is for you.

Dear little girls,

I watched you today as you walked past us. You were lined up with your class on the way to the library. You looked over towards the entrance and stared at Oli, walking in with me. She was holding my hand, shaking her head, flapping her other hand and humming loudly.

I don’t think you were staring at those things though.

You were staring at your friend as she returned to school.

You both ran excitedly up to her calling her name. “Oli! Oli! It’s Oli! Hi Oli! How are you?”

You touched her arm, leaned in close and said hi again. Then each of you took turns hugging my girl.

You talked to her, touched her and hugged her like you were her best friends. Like she belonged with you. Like you never even noticed that she was any different from you.

It seemed like you didn’t notice that she couldn’t share secrets with you, play like other kids or run and jump on the playground.

Those things didn’t matter to you.

You just treated her like she was your friend.

You didn’t see her face light up behind your back as your arms were wrapped tightly around her. You didn’t see the peace in her hands as she gently ran them down your braid. You didn’t see the light radiate from her smile as you talked to her.

I saw.

You didn’t see the tears well up in my eyes either.

You won’t know how I will forever treasure that moment.

You see girls, when you have a child that is born different from other children, you have certain fears. Certain things that absolutely terrify you. You pray with all of your heart and dream that it will be different and that your fears will not become her reality.

You fear that other kids will be mean to your child. You fear the bullies and the hateful words that can spew from heartless people. You fear that your child won’t have any friends.

You dream that people will understand her. You dream that kids will look past her differences and treat her with compassion and understanding. You dream that your child will never walk the halls, eat lunch or play at recess alone.

As I watched you with Oli today, I saw that everything that I have ever dreamt for her…was standing right before me. It was present in the quiet voices, the gentle touch and the shy smiles that took place between the three of you.

It was present in your friendship.

You’ll never understand what you have done for me today. I don’t even think you’ll understand what you have done for Oli.

I understand though. I know what it means to have children who love her for who she is.

If my daughter grows up around children like you…she will NEVER feel apart from. She will ALWAYS feel a part of.

In your single act of kindness, something that you didn’t even think twice of before acting on, you have erased some of my fears.

I will sleep well tonight, little girls.

I will sleep well knowing that my daughter is not alone and that she has people like you to walk beside her.

Thank you.

From the bottom of my heart…

Thank you.

*tears* Oli has friends.

I have been Carly’d, Stevie Wonder’d, Ray Charles’d and Andrea Bocelli’d.

23 May

I read a post the other day written by Living on the spectrum: The Connor Chronicles called “Have you been Carly’d recently? The blogger has a child with autism and she talks about people comparing her child to Carly. You can read her fantastic post HERE.

If you have a child with autism you know Carly. The amazing autistic girl featured on 20/20. You can watch that video HERE.

Carly was completely non-verbal and autism rendered her unable to communicate with anyone until she found that she could use a computer. Once she discovered speech and language through a keyboard, her entire world opened up. She was discovered to be a “normal” highly intelligent young girl locked within the confines of her own body without the use of her voice. Her fingers became her voice and a link between her and the rest of the world was forged.

It’s truly an amazing and remarkable story.

Unfortunately…it is also a very very uncommon occurrence.

Most of the children who are autistic will not have an experience like Carly. 40% of children with autism also have the diagnosis of an intellectual disability.

Oli has that dual diagnosis along with several others.

Oli will probably never have a Carly experience. She might…but she probably won’t for several other reasons. Her diagnoses plus her blindness complicates matters. It’s perfectly fine if she doesn’t end up being like Carly. She will find her voice in another way.

Many autism families have been Carly’d.

Strangers, friends and family say “Hey! Have you heard of Carly? I bet that can happen to your child too!” This is what the Connor Chronicles blogger specifically wrote about.

I have been Carly’d.

A lot of us probably have been, by well meaning, good hearted people, who just want to give us hope.

The most interesting thing is that I have been Carly’d. I have been Stevie Wonder’d. I’ve been Ray Charles’d. I have been Andrea Bocelli’d. I think that it just happens when you have a child with a disability. People look to that one person with a similar condition that has gone above and beyond and exceeded all expectations of the prognosis laid upon him.

When Oli was born people would always tell me stories of so and so who was blind and did this amazing thing or that amazing thing. They would tell me that she would probably grow up to be a famous musician or a composer. A singer, a piano player, a drummer, a guitarist…because you know Stevie Wonder is blind and he’s musically inclined. So Oli will be too because she’s blind. All blind people have musical talents.

Ummm…well? Not really. No. She’s doesn’t really.

She loves music. She really really loves it.

However… Musically inclined? Not so much.

She loves to bang on everything. Is that drumming? I could probably put her in a heavy metal band and maybe no one would know the difference.

She doesn’t know how to keep a tempo. She bangs on the keys of a piano. She can’t actually “play” anything. She does love music, but I’m not so sure that she will ever be like Stevie Wonder.

And that’s okay.

Oli is Oli. She doesn’t have to be anyone else.

I really think that we need to stop trying to compare our kids with disabilities to others who have a similar diagnosis, but not so common outcomes.

If my African American friend had a baby I wouldn’t look at her and say “Do you know Michael Jordan? I bet your baby will be just like him because he’s black.” Ridiculous right?!

In a sense, that’s basically what we are doing when we say these types of things to parents of special needs kids. We’re placing extremely high expectations on that child and that parent because WE are uncomfortable. Because WE don’t know what else to say. Because WE want to give hope to that parent. Because we WANT to say the right thing.

The truth is…that parent might not need that kind of hope.

That parent probably already believes in that child and knows that they will be an amazing individual regardless of what others before them have done.

I am a child.

20 May

Oli is 6 years old, blind and autistic. Her autism has left her non-verbal.

I know that I don’t really know what she thinks about, what she dreams about, or what she would want to say.

But because I am her mom, I get the honor of speaking for her until she finds her words.

Here is what I think Oli would want you to know about her.

“Hi! My name is Oli. I know that my mom gets this look from strangers when she tells them about me or when they meet me for the first time. She calls it “the look”. I don’t know what “the look” looks like because I can’t see it, but I know that it makes my mommy sad.

I know that it makes her sad because I can hear it in her voice when she talks about it. I can feel it in the way her shoulders sag when she thinks about it. And I can taste it in the tears that roll down her face when she cries about it when she thinks no one is looking. I’m looking. I’m always looking because I know my mommy better than she thinks I do.

I know that “the look” hurts my mommy’s feelings.

I also hear her talking about it with my daddy. I hear her tell him that this look means that people feel sorry for her. That they feel sorry for me.

Most importantly, I hear her tell daddy that people don’t need to feel sorry for her or for me. She also tells ME that I don’t need to feel sorry for MYSELF. That there is nothing wrong with me. I just do things differently than other children.

Despite our differences, I’m still a child.

I want you to know that the way I am… is not wrong. That the way your child is…is not right. It’s just different.

I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to feel sorry for me. You don’t need to pity my family. I am fine. I will do what I will do when the time is right. My parents will push me and advocate for me. They believe in me and I will do everything that I can in this life. My life is not sad. My life does not deserve your tears. It should be celebrated. Please don’t be sad for me.

I am only a child. A child with special needs yes, but still a child.

I know that I’m not the same as you. I know that there are things that I do that might seem strange. I don’t understand what they are, nor could I tell you why I do those things. All I can tell you is that I have to do them. That is just part of me.

I have a wonderful life. I live life to the fullest and I enjoy most of every day. I have good days and bad days just like every other 6 year old. I cry when I don’t get my way. I smile when I do. I throw tantrums when I don’t get what I want. I give kisses and hugs when I do. I don’t listen when I don’t want to do what you’re telling me to do. I listen when I do. I giggle. I test boundaries. I play. I am a child.

I am my parent’s child.

They are proud of me. They love me. They are not ashamed of me. They don’t feel sorry for me.

Neither should you.

Mommy and daddy bring new people into our house sometimes. New therapists, friends, and family I haven’t seen in a long time. I can feel their tension. Sometimes they don’t know what to do with me. How to touch me or talk to me. How to play with me.

I know that other people don’t understand my life, but you don’t need to feel uncomfortable around me. You don’t need to be frightened or nervous. Interacting with me cannot be done wrong.

Just remember…

I am a child.

I may be different than your child, but I am still a child.

I’m just Oli.”

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