There’s a lot of laughter in our house. Our three children, Katherine (23), and our twins, Austin and Harry (19), have all inherited the funny gene from my husband, Mike Shoemaker and me. Mike has worked in the comedy business for nearly 30 years and my Irish DNA won’t let me tell a short story when a longer, funnier one will do. So the atmosphere in the house is a little . . . chaotic. There’s always some sit-com playing out of Katherine’s room. Austin is always finding the latest joke contest to enter or sending around jib-jab cartoons. And Harry’s all-time favorite activity is to carefully place a banana peel on the hall stairs, peak around the corner, and wait for some unsuspecting victim to fall prey to his hilarious set-up. Fun!
But, not all the time.
All three of our kids have been diagnosed with special needs of one type or another; ranging from high functioning autism, PDD-NOS, auditory processing disorder, sensory processing disorder, ADD, ADHD, dyslexia and learning disabilities. I like to say we’ve won the trifecta.
I first suspected something was wrong with Harry shortly after his first birthday. While he was speaking, he wasn’t speaking in spontaneous sentences. He was using echolalia – not that I knew what that was at the time. Another mom mentioned she got speech therapy for her child through Early Intervention and I thought we should see if Harry would be eligible. Little did I realize the EI evaluations were the entryway down the rabbit hole of special education services. My thoughts of “a little speech therapy” turned into a diagnosis of PDD-NOS, special ed pre-school, speech therapy, OT, and ABA therapy. During one of our trips to the Developmental Pediatrician for the endless rounds of testing, my husband suggested we get Austin tested as well. I wasn’t so convinced, but we began the evaluation process with Austin. His diagnosis was auditory processing disorder. Once again, special ed pre-school, speech therapy, OT and ABA. It was overwhelming.
The next few years passed in a blur that’s all too familiar to parents of children with special needs. The days flew by filled with two working parents, babysitter issues, therapy appointments, therapy team meetings, CPSE meetings, testing, school decisions, and worries, worries, worries. The boys participated in the Tomatis Listening Therapy and they went to special camps and special recreational activities. Some were great, and some were not. We were bumping along.
And then when Katherine was in 4th grade it became clear that she was really struggling in school. We had worked very hard to make sure that Katherine wasn’t being completely overshadowed by the needs of her brothers so we were already very involved with her school and social activities. And we knew that school wasn’t very easy for her. But it was still heartbreaking to hear that she had a severe reading deficit and attention issues. So . . . we added Orton Gillingham tutoring, resource room, Fast ForWord programs, the Wilson Reading program, integrated co-taught classes and another CSE packet into the mix.
But that is the point. Even with all the therapies, and tutors and meltdowns and set backs there were successes and yes, even fun. Trips to Disney World, Harry finally learning how to ride a bike, sleep away camp for Katherine, Austin getting the lead in the summer camp production of Oliver, Harry doing a comedy routine at the elementary school assembly, Austin’s first sleep-over at a friend’s house, Katherine’s driver license. These milestones may have taken longer to achieve, they may have even been achieved in a roundabout fashion, but they were achieved. The kids all worked very, very, very hard and they all moved forward.
So where are we now? Katherine was accepted into 12 out of the 14 colleges she applied to in senior year. She attended Marist College and graduated with a degree in Communications. She learned how to self-advocate for the accommodations she needed in college and now has a job with a production company in New York City. Austin has been attending a Transition Program at a college in New London, CT. He has handled the transition to living independently extremely well. We are incredibly proud of him, but more importantly, he is very proud of himself. He has deferred acceptances to two colleges already as he decides where he will go to school next year. Harry is also in school, participating in a Transition Program at a local private college. The jury is still out whether an academic track or a vocational track is the right one for him, but he is also very proud of his accomplishments in this year after high school, and we are too.
I realize this may sound like your second-cousin-once-removed’s annual Holiday letter – full of only the positive news from the family. That’s not my intent. It has not been easy for any of us in the family. We have all made sacrifices as the years have gone by. More than anything I wish I could make my kids’ lives easier. If I could take away their difficulties, I would in a minute. But . . .
So, the best we can do is to prepare them for the years ahead: give them the tools to choose productive paths; help them create and use their own safety nets; and celebrate their innate sense of fun.
And, of course, remind them to look out for any banana peels.