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The Cycling Life

The Cycling Life

 Janey turned 18 last month.  I would have pictured myself writing a post about that, talking about her becoming an adult, reflecting on her childhood.  I found myself unable to do that.

It hit me today what made it so hard for me to write about the milestone in Janey’s life.  It’s the lack of forward motion in her life, and ours.  Janey changes, all the time, but the changes are cycles, for the most part.  There are many Janey modes—very happy Janey, talkative Janey, sleepy Janey, crying Janey, quiet content Janey, no-sleep Janey, manic Janey—and there have been, right along, since the regression and start of her autism, when she turned three.  Days today, with the exception of her being older and bigger, could be days when she was 3, or 7, or 12, or 15.

I’m sure some who know Janey will say, and probably rightfully so to some extent, that that isn’t true, that she’s made progress. And who is to say what progress is?  But at a very basic level, she hasn’t.  I think we’ve learned about her more, we understand her more, we know so very well what makes her tick, how to best respond to her varying states, how to keep her happy more of the time than not.  But progress?  I’m really not sure there has been much of that.

Does it matter?  In some ways, no.  We aren’t holding Janey up to some standard that just doesn’t work for her.  We aren’t working toward a goal that will never happen.  She won’t hold a meaningful job, she won’t live on her own, she won’t get married or have children, she won’t drive a car or read books or go to college.  Much of progress is working toward goals.  The kids she started school with are going to college now, preparing for careers, maybe meeting their future spouses.  The progress they have made over the years has led them to this point.  I don’t think it was ever in the cards that progress Janey made would do the same—so does progress matter?

The last few days have been in the mode of one of Janey’s toughest personas.  She is not sleeping, she is crying half the time, she is pacing and volatile and demanding.  But we know it won’t last.  She will pass into another mode—maybe the sleeping all the time mode, or the cheerful but quiet mode, or the rare very talkative and happy mode.  That’s the flip side of cycling rather than progress.  Progress, if you think of it as permanent change, could mean that tough behaviors will never go away, and we have learned that with Janey, if you wait it out, they do, at least for a while.

I think why it’s hard for me to admit to myself, why a 18th birthday sum-up was something I couldn’t write, is because in some ways, we as autism parents are sold a false bill of goods.  I don’t think anyone is doing this on purpose.  It’s more how we are as a society, and so maybe it’s automatically the standard we apply to kids with autism.  We believe that with the right education, the right attitude, the right therapies, the right parenting, the right foods, the right medical care, the right everything, our kids will progress.  We tell that to new parents with autism. And for some kids, it happens, and they attach a causation.  They assume the progress is because they did the right things.  But I’m here to say—that might not be the case.  You can do everything right, and your child might still not be toilet trained at age 18.  They might not read.  They might not talk any more than they did as a toddler.  They might not be able to do basic tasks of adulthood like walk to a store by themselves and buy something.  On the other hand, you might do nothing that is supposedly the right thing to do.  You might be the most hands off autism parent in the world, and your child might undergo a total “cure”.  I honestly, truthfully have come to believe that’s the nature of the autism beast.  There’s a natural history of each person with autism, one we have very little control over.

So—what’s the deal here?  Today, because of lack of sleep and days of trying to keep Janey from crying, I feel pretty down.  But overall, I don’t think the message is totally a negative one.  I think it’s one of acceptance, acceptance that goes beyond the lip service sometimes given acceptance.  Janey is amazing.  She’s one of the coolest people in the world, one of the most interesting people, one of the most fun people.  She makes me proud every day.  And that isn’t because of progress.  It’s because of who she is and always has been.  That doesn’t mean life with her is easy, or that we don’t need a lot, lot more help that we usually can get.  It means we value her for being her, not for meeting goals or checking off milestone boxes.  

Happy birthday, Janey.  Welcome to adulthood.  It might not look like most people’s adulthood, but it’s just as valid, and valuable, and we celebrate the memory of your childhood and look forward to knowing you as an adult.

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