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I just don’t get it – thoughts on the #ElmoMom controversy

7 Mar

It caught my eye on Twitter, a retweet of a headline with a link attached – “Bystanders were horrified. But my son has autism, and I was desperate.”

I clicked on the link.

I read the article.

I’m pretty sure my mouth gaped open as this woman described how she dragged herself and her kid across the floor in an attempt to break him of his phobia of indoor spaces to where Elmo was performing.

Read at your own discretion over on the Washington Post

I’ve been mulling over this for days, still flabbergasted by it all. I read it to my husband, who turned to me, horrified. “Sorry, but that’s just abuse. Why didn’t anyone call the police?”

Mind you, we had an incident with Maura last year that caused mall security to rush our way to assess the situation when she was having a meltdown. They had heard there was a “woman screaming on the sky bridge”. We’d been on the sky bridge for, oh, three minutes. We were still in the middle of the sky bridge that spanned the six lane city street below us and we had security guards running up to intervene.

This woman’s determination to drag her son in to see Elmo took “36 minutes and 45 seconds”. Thirty six minutes of her “heaving and dragging us both, inch by dreadful inch” across the floor of some arena as her five year old was ” shrieking at an alarmingly high pitch”.

That was the thing that still bothers me the most. Almost no one intervened as this woman literally dragged her child in a restraining hold across a floor. One manager tried, she threw out that her son had autism and had the right to be there.
The manager backed off.

Otherwise, no one stopped them. No one helped them either. No one did anything – except maybe to hurry past, shielding their own small children from this spectacle while trying to explain to their own children why this child was being dragged across the floor screaming.

And I just don’t get it. 

I can’t wrap my brain around it.

I can’t imagine having the strength and determination to fight a child on their phobia for 36 minutes while they screamed and flailed in fear.



[Image description – an in-ground pool] Photo by Casey Clingan on Unsplash

When I was a kid, I had a fear of being underwater. I enjoyed being in the pool, just don’t ask me to put my head under, or make me take off my water wings.

Ironically, my grandparents had an in-ground pool – they had bought a house during the Blizzard of 1978 in Chicago, and the sellers didn’t disclose the pool. It appeared when the snow melted.

We kids thought the pool was amazing. I hung out in the 3ft section, but would put on my floatation devices to go in the 8ft section. I was given a hard time, being 8-9 years old, still unable to swim, clinging to my floaties. Not by my grandparents – they bought different floaties for me to use.

But one day, my dad got fed up and decided the best way for me to get over my fear of swimming and being underwater was to throw me, floatie-free, into the 8ft section. I was panicked, desperately trying to keep my head underwater. I heard my grandfather yell “What the hell is wrong with you?” as my grandmother dove in.

See, my dad couldn’t swim either.

But I was supposed to conquer my fear. 

I can still remember the panic I felt, being forced to face my fear that day. And while I didn’t stop going into the pool, I still had the fear of going underwater. I didn’t learn how to swim that afternoon. I didn’t learn how to swim that summer even. It took another year or two. And it happened on my terms. 

That was me, as a child with an above average IQ, and my fears. Fears that I could use reason to overcome. Fears I could explain, having a very large vocabulary for my age.

Maura has had a few fears, weird fears – for instance, play tunnels. She was terrified of them. We discovered this at a very busy IKEA store. The three older siblings ducked through the short tunnel with a curtain of plastic streamers at the entrance of the kid’s section. Josh thought that Maura would want to do what the others were doing – as that was her usual tendency. He gave her a nudge into the tunnel.

Her piercing shrieks made every head turn.

Josh quickly pulled her out of there and comforted her. And we avoided every play tunnel with her until once day, years later, when she decided she was ready to try it.

Going back even further than that, Maura had a fear of bathing. Placing her in a tub was like placing her in a vat of lava. She would shriek and try to climb back up me. I tried everything – tub seats, sitting in the tub with her, using the sink instead of the tub. None of it mattered – it all terrified her. We resorted to washcloth baths with the occasional shower where one parent held her while the other one scrubbed her quickly.

Her cleanliness wasn’t worth her being traumatized. 



[Image description – black and white photo of a dark tiled wall, a white towel hanging on the right] Photo by David Cohen on Unsplash

One day, at about nine months, I sat her in the tub, giving the bath thing another try. Her face began to tremble. I made the water splash a little – splinky splinky.

Her eyes grew wide.

I splashed a little again.

She splashed a little.

She grinned.

Just like that, the fear of the bathtub was done. It got to the point where she’d hear the faucet and come speed crawling down the hall, grinning ear to ear. To this day, she adores the water.

So why the fear for the first 9 months of her life?

I figured it out months later. When she was nine months old, she had conquered sitting up. Before that, she had a hard time keeping her balance in a sitting position. She wasn’t born with that natural ability to self-right. Nor was she able to catch herself when she was unbalanced. These things had to be taught to her.

So any time the water started moving against her, she’d startle. She would feel unsecure, and have no sense of balance. She had no control over her own body. No wonder she felt terrified.

Thank God I didn’t force her to just deal with baths every night. I can only imagine the phobias and avoidances I would have created. 

This is why this article, this example of “saving” a child from their phobias in a do or die, forcing the issue in such a dramatic fashion…just doesn’t sit right with me. Not as a parent of a child who has had what seemed like unreasonable fears, and not as the child who was thrown into the deep end in an attempt to overcome an unreasonable fear.

As a mom, I’m supposed to be the safe place for my child. I should be the one they can always trust.  

Over the weekend, Maura and I were out and heading back to the parking garage where we’d left the car. Maura was insisting we had to go one direction to the car. I explained to her that it was not that way but the way I was pointing. It had begun to rain. I stood on that corner, in the cold rain,  holding all our stuff as Maura insisted we had to go the other way.

“Maura, the car is over there.” I pointed in the opposing direction. “Can you trust me on this?”

She paused.

“Okay Mom.”

And with that, she followed me. She trusted me. Because while I’ve been teaching her all sorts of things, I’ve also made sure I’ve retained her trust. I didn’t have to force her, drag her by the arm, etc.

This didn’t happen overnight. This didn’t happen within a calendar year. I took things at Maura’s pace within reason. (If she was trying to play in the street and a car was coming, then no, it’s a grab and run to safety motion, explain later – which you’d do with any child.) I slowed my steps down to match hers.

Some things just take a lot more time with Maura.  And as the parent, I didn’t/don’t get to determine the time line, because while I may have benefited from some things, ultimately, this was/is Maura’s life, and what we do should be for her benefit.

This example of this mother taking matters into her own hands, taking it upon herself to break him of a habit instantly, brings up another thought I have always had –

Parents, as a whole, make lousy therapists. This is why we take our kids to someone else to teach them certain things or correct certain problems.

I make a lousy speech therapist, despite having been a kid in speech therapy myself.

This mom? Would make a lousy behavioral therapist. I wouldn’t take my kid to be manhandled by her.

Yes, as parents, we are our kid’s first teachers.

Yes, as parents, we teach them so much.

But there’s something about having to be a therapist to your child that crosses a line. You can’t be that safe space, that soft landing, when you have to also play therapist and make them do things they don’t want to do.

Maura doesn’t want me to be her therapist. She wants me to be her mother.

She let me know this the first time I was asked to hang out in her preschool classroom. She looked at me and yelled. I didn’t belong there, and we both knew it. The teacher even laughed and said “She feels you don’t belong here.”

Maura may have a label of moderately intellectually disabled. Maura may not be as verbal as either of us would like. But she expresses herself and my job is to listen.

The boy in the article was melting down because of fear, and his mom refused to listen to him and put her own will and desires first.

And the worst part of the article, to me, is that everyone around her just let her do this.

They let her drag him across the floor screaming.

They walked by as he screamed in terror.

Mom yelled “He has autism!” and everyone went “Well, okay then.”

Since when does “He has autism!” allow for mistreatment to happen? Because it was mistreatment. As she stated, no doctor thought this was a good move. She wasn’t trained to do this.

And they let it go on.

For thirty-six minutes. 

For thirty-six minutes people walked by this mother on the floor, her screaming son clamped between her legs, dragging them both across the floor. And let it happen “because autism”.

How is that acceptable?

Newsflash – it isn’t. But it just sets up children like mine to be abused by people more. Because we’re legitimatizing this sort of treatment towards kids with special needs. We’re excusing ill-treatment of children because they’re not “normal”. Because the goal for kids like Maura isn’t to stand out, it’s to blend in. Even if it means bullying them into submission.

And we’re okay with that as a society. 

We are allowing it.

We allow it by walking past.

We allow it by saying nothing.

We allow it by letting this article be published.

We allow it by giving this woman a book deal.

We allow it by letting her speak to other parents whose child has been newly diagnosed with a cognitive disorder. And she’s telling them “Do what it takes to break them. It’s okay. You want them to blend in. The goal is to make them blend in.”

Someone please explain to me why this is alright. Because I don’t get it.



[Image description – Maura, sitting in front of our really messy bookshelves, wearing black headphones and a blue tee shirt, looking down]













As Maura’s mom, I’ve had to make her participate in certain things she wasn’t thrilled about. Like blood draws, or wearing seatbelts. There are certain things, for health or safety reasons, you just have to enforce as a parent. Not playing with fire – that’s a hill I will die on.

Parenting, in general, is about picking your battles. Knowing which to fight, which to concede, which to compromise and meet in the middle over.

I was a parent before I became a special needs parent. There were three others who came before Maura, who shaped me as a mother before she entered the scene. In many ways, my parenting didn’t change with Maura.

Thank goodness.

Stepping into the world of special needs parenting after having gotten three kids through toddlerhood was overwhelming. Suddenly, I was supposed to do everything, try everything, be everything. All my focus was supposed to be put on Maura, in fixing her.

Except I knew Maura before I knew of her disabilities. And I liked who this tiny smiling girl was. She didn’t seem to need fixing, just aide and assistance.

Not to mention, I still had three other children who needed my attention. Three other children who taught me how to pick battles, how to take a step back and realize it wasn’t about me and my wants.

I had three other children who reminded me that maybe none of them would be brain surgeons.  That part of their life wasn’t about me.

Those three siblings of Maura, who were her biggest cheerleaders and best examples back then, were also a good litmus test when it came to parenting Maura.

“Would I do this with Collin?”

“Would I do this to Miriam?”



Why or why not?




The terms we use

13 Nov

I read a post by a disability blogger I follow, about the use of infantilizing words and phrases we use in lieu of “disabled” – like “Differently Abled” and it’s shorter term “Diffabled”.

I’ve always hated differently abled. Diffabled just is ridiculous.

I got what this blogger was saying, because I’ve seen grown adults do gymnastics to avoid the word “disabled”. Like the one I heard, where the person used the term “special abilities” – I interrupted slightly and pointed out that the phrase they used made them sound more like Superman. My daughter isn’t a member of the X-Men, she is disabled.

The part of the post written by the disability advocate that made me pause was that they considered “special needs” basically as bad as “differently abled”.

There is a part of me that gets it. It is a bit cotton candy of a descriptor, and it’s something that people usurp unnecessarily. “We ALL have Special Needs.” they’ll quip in a show of false solidarity. No Gladys, your preference to mayo over mustard on your sandwich is not the same as my daughter’s apraxia. Thanks for playing.

But there’s a part of me who has had the experience where we’ve had to use it to describe our daughter, and would still use it even though I kind of knew better. 


Well, part of it is because of society. When you think of the word “disabled” or conjure up a picture of a disabled person, what picture pops up in your mind’s eye? I bet there’s a wheelchair involved, or a person with Down’s Syndrome. Those are the disabilities we’ve come to know as society.

If I walked out of the disabled toilet with my disabled daughter in tow, we will sometimes get a stink eye from those waiting. Because my daughter doesn’t look disabled, therefore, we have no right to use it. Even though she IS disabled.

Society reminds me that my daughter doesn’t fit the visual of “disabled”. 

Add to that, the fact that my daughter doesn’t have a diagnosis. We can’t say “She has autism.” or “She has Fragile X Syndrome.” So we have no label that society can embrace warmly and say “Oh, I’ve heard of that because some celebrity’s kid has that.”

Frankly, we weren’t even allowed to use “disabled” with her for the longest time, partially because we didn’t have that qualifying diagnosis that made her legitimately disabled in society’s eyes. Oh sure, the girl wore ankle braces and was in OT/PT/ST and had a laundry list of issues – but the school kept checking off the box of “developmentally delayed” until it was ridiculous. As the special education director didn’t like spending SpEd money on SpEd students, I’m pretty sure ticking off the “delayed” box meant that they could spend less on her.

But even before that, I had people tell me that I was overblowing Maura’s issues. That she’d be fine. That it wasn’t like she had a real disability like other kids they knew. Doctors at first said she’d probably outgrow her delays. They were, after all, just delays. They weren’t real disabilities. If they were, surely she would be worse off, have a label, have a diagnosis.

You can see how we hesitated to use the term “disabled” with our daughter. Not because we saw it as a dirty word – but because in many ways, we weren’t allowed to use it. 

It wasn’t until we moved to Ireland that we started feeling like it was okay to use the phrase “disabled” with Maura. Mainly because in Ireland, they looked at her and said “Yep, she’s disabled, here’s a school for disabled kids, here’s some disability benefits, what do you mean people in the States didn’t think she was disabled? And what’s wrong with being disabled anyway? Nothing. Nothing’s wrong with that.”

Just like that, we were legit – though I still got a bit of a stink eye coming out of the disabled toilet with her at the shopping centre at Christmastime with the long lines. I swear, we weren’t cheating! She is disabled!

Because at the end of the day, Maura still doesn’t look disabled. We still don’t have a diagnosis. All we have is “intellectual disability”, which is a mouthful and honestly, I don’t think really describes her well. It’s too generic, and doesn’t take into account her savvy ways and cleverness.

Just today though, I came across a blog written by a mom of a child with physical disabilities. And the tag line for it stated how she was writing for disability and special needs awareness. I wondered – if they’re both supposed to be the same, why the “and”? They aren’t two different things.

And just like that, I understood better the disability advocate’s point of view. That by using “special needs”, we’re downplaying actual disabilities. 

Something I should know already because it happened to us.

Or maybe, because it happened to us, I was too close to things, and needed that fresh perspective.

I’ve been working to phase out my use of “special needs” – but I need society to catch up with me, to follow my lead.

So please – I’m asking you – call my daughter disabled. Consider her disabled. Her disabilities are legitimate. Her disability is real even if it doesn’t have a name, or if we don’t know the cause of it. In a way, we’ve worked really hard to earn that label of disabled. It isn’t an insult…unless you think being disabled is a sad burden of a life. Then you need to rethink a lot of things, because my daughter’s life is a fabulous one.


Maura – 2011 – Killiney Beach, Ireland [image description: little brown haired girl in a light pink top and darker pink skirt, wading slightly into the Irish Sea, hands up in surprise as a wave hits her ankles]










Everyday Caregiving

6 Nov

It’s the things we do by rote, things that have become second nature, things we don’t even realize we do until someone looks at us with one eyebrow raised and a “Well, that’s weird” expression. Things we do for a teenager who should have been doing these things for herself years ago. Things we avoid in order to keep the peace.

Those things have become our norm.

I am Maura’s mom. I am also her full-time caregiver.

A mom teaches her child life skills so her child becomes an independent adult. A caregiver fills in where those life skills have been hampered or have no developed. Two very valuable vocations, one pays crap, the other doesn’t pay at all. Lucky me, I get to do both for free.

Good thing my boss is so cool.

Today, I did things for Maura like wash her hair, blow dry it, helped her get dressed, helped her turn on a show, helped set up her tablet so that it could charge via extension cord. I threw her clothes in the washer. I shall throw them in the dryer, and put them away for her. I took care of other needs she had that I won’t get into.

I also watched her pull out pizza boxes and dish herself up some cold pizza for breakfast like a regular teenager, intervened when she picked a fight with her sister over the use of the television, and fought her for the chocolate her brother gave both of us.

There’s so much normal interspersed with the extraordinary. And the thing is, the extraordinary I do for her is something expected of all moms when their children are infants, toddlers, preschoolers. That stuff extended its need naturally. It’s not like one day she was blow drying her own hair and the next day I had to do it for her. I’ve always had to do it for her. Someday she may be able to do it on her own.

And that’s the hope I’ve been given. For each task I do for her now, each act of caregiving, I still have the hope that she can manage it a bit on her own someday. Any step of independence, no matter how small, is huge. Last year, I still had to prompt her to get out of the bath. And by prompt, I mean plead and bargain and empty the tub first before being able to pry her out of it. Her ending her bath on her own is amazing.

She also now will let the dogs out or back inside when asked. She can take her plate to the kitchen. She could someday empty the dishwasher or take bagged up trash to the garbage can. She can help around the house, which would be awesome.

But for now, I’m still cleaning her room.

Outside of the house, it’s a balance of giving her freedoms and keeping her on target. There’s verbal prepping that I must do, triggers to watch out for, and always on the look out for quick exits and restrooms, depending on the emergency. It’s how I’ll try to park so that she has extra room to open the car door without hitting another car. It’s worrying the few times I let her go into the bathroom alone. It’s hoping we can hit three stores only to change plans after one. It’s both an opportunity for self-advocacy and a lesson in following rules and taking turns. Mom needs to go to the dog food aisle. Yes, we can look at clothes. No, we’re not going to the toy aisle today, you already picked out a book.

It’s letting a stranger ask her a question, and waiting to see if they understand her before stepping in to provide translation of what Maura said. It’s letting her move at her own pace when the person behind us thinks we’re going too slow. Which happens a lot. On stairs. It’s backing her up in her the right to own her space in this world. It’s letting her choose the music in the car, even though shotgun should shut her cakehole because driver picks the music.

It’s letting her choose her backpack, choose her jacket, choose if she wears socks with her shoes. It’s standing back to let her put on her own socks and stepping in to help with the shoes. It’s cutting her fingernails.  It’s fixing her plate at dinner time because she will overfill it. It’s letting her pour her own drink. It’s pulling back her hair into a pony tail every time she asks, but asking “Do you want one or two?” first. It’s putting sheets on her bed because she just. can’t. do. that.

It’s finding the energy to go watch when she says “Watch Mom!”. It’s sitting to watch a movie for the 87th time because she’s patted the seat next to her on the couch. It’s high fiving her, hugging her, tickling her because she still needs those things constantly. It’s me at my friend’s party, being the one checking on her teenager every five seconds while on the swing set – partially for safety reasons, and partially because the girl is enjoying herself so much, I can’t help but mirror the big smile on her face.

It’s everything, all the time, twenty-four hours, seven days, 52 weeks, and so on, and so forth, world without end, amen.

I’m lucky she puts up with all my interference.

I’m lucky that this very cool kid lets me hang out with her.

I’m lucky that when I leave, she misses me, and when I come back, she gives me the rockstar treatment, screaming and laughing and hugging me now that I’m home.

I’m lucky that she makes this dual life of mom and caregiver not just easy, but fun.

It’s exhausting at times, and the pay, as I said, is less than crap. But the rewards – getting a front row seat in her amazing life – are worth it.




[photo of Maura, long brown hair hanging down, pink jacket and gloves on, face beaming as she enjoys a rare PNW snowfall]



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