autism,  Education,  family,  high school,  IEP,  milestones,  motherhood,  siblings and autism,  teen years

The four year plan

W’s last year of preschool. It goes by so fast!

W is the second child in our family, so it’s really rare (as a parent) to experience something that I haven’t experienced with J. In grade 3, J’s whole class made gingerbread houses before winter break, so I knew that when W hit grade 3, she’d be doing gingerbread houses too. When J started touring with the elementary school choir at the mall and rest homes, I knew when W got to that age, she’d be doing it too. When J graduated from elementary school in a “classic” coming of age ceremony with a field trip to the zoo, followed by a graduation slideshow with cake and lemonade, I knew the same thing was coming for W.

Thursday we experienced something totally new with W that we never experienced with J. We were called into the counselor’s office to discuss W’s transition to high school. We talked about the assessment tests that help indicate what subjects/classes/careers she was interested in, and touched lightly on scholarship opportunities if she decided to go to a university in North Dakota. W is an excellent (straight A) student. This was an easy conversation to have. We talked about the possibility of AP classes (for the record, having taught at the university level, I am not a fan of AP classes) and talked about how she seems to be a “math and science” type of girl. As we sat there in that tiny office, considering the classes, routes, and possibilities, I realized, “if this girl keeps doing what she’s doing, she’ll be able to do anything she wants with her life.”

And then I started thinking about J’s high school transition meeting. There was no testing for “possible” careers. There’s not talk about university and scholarships. Because we’re just trying to make the current system work with him now. Trying to find the right “placement” for the next semester.

It’s the type of experiences that makes you realize–that reminds you–that the system was never made for your kid with disabilities in mind. Sure, the IEP (thank the Lord for the IEP) is that appendage piece that gets tacked onto the public school education that helps you finagle some sort of education track for your “atypical” kid, but in a lot of ways it’s (sometimes desperate) improvisation.  That’s why there is no four year plan for kids like J. Granted, even if there were “4 year plan” for kids with autism, it would almost be impossible to create. Each kid is super different. J changes so dramatically from year to year–from semester to semester. Still that realization (and total acceptance) doesn’t make the whole situation any easier.

This week was sort of the double whammy–that realization that your baby will be in high school next year, and that wave of grief that comes when you realize that the world isn’t really set up for kids like J. Talk about the emotional roller coaster.

I’ve had a few days to process this, and in reality, I’ve been processing the kids’ “future” in my mind on and off since they were little. J’s been the one I’ve always been concerned with. Ever since his diagnosis, I’ve been wondering what his future will look like. Will he have a job? Will he go to university? Will he live on his own? Will he live with us forever? Will he live in a group home? Depending on how bad or good J is doing at the time, I have a different answer for all of those questions.

W’s first year of middle school (at registration). It goes by so fast!

I also am starting to have concerns about W’s future too. Sure, on paper, her future looks spectacular. She is a smart, driven, hard-working person. That fits well with the traditional, current, system. But my gut tells me that the “traditional” system won’t look like the way it does now in the next 10-15 years. The university experience is already changing–the cost is astronomically high, campus life looks different (the increasing number of online classes, the increasing number of adjunct hires over tenured track hires to save the university money–I could also give you my two cents on that). The types of jobs available upon graduation are changing, sometimes even disappearing with automation–and yes, we really need to talk about automation and how that will affect the economy and workforce. Amazon just came out with an employee-free grocery store. No human workers. Driverless cars. Every few months a new list of potential “disappearing jobs” comes out (you can find a few here, here, and here–some of them will surprise you (it’s not all blue collar work–lawyers and surgeons are at the risk of losing their jobs through automation). It’s hard to imagine, but as someone who sits between the Gen X and Millennial generations, I’ve lived a life with and without computers. I signed up for University classes with a paper catalogue OVER THE PHONE my first year and by the time I graduated, doing the whole process online. I’ve seen the whole process change within a few short years.

It’s not often that I chalk “great things” up to autism, but being an autism parent does have its perks sometimes. It forces you to have to look at the current situation and really look at it to figure out what is going on. You’re always flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants to come up with alternatives. It helps you be okay with not experiencing “the norm.”Considering human history, our comfortable, middle-class track through college and hard work hasn’t been around for a very long time. In fact, the middle class didn’t really come into existence until after WW2. Retirement pensions didn’t really come along until the 50s and 60s. Social programs (including Medicaid/Medicare) didn’t really show up until then either. What we consider “normal” hasn’t been “normal” for very long. The traditional track to education and success looks great right now, but it hasn’t always been that way, and it won’t stay that way for ever either.

I’m not trying to preach gloom or doom, or even the apocalypse–I’m just saying that time is fluid and that nothing stays the same forever. Human history has always been dynamic.

As much as we plan for the future, we can’t control it–the only thing we can control are our intentions and choices right now. I can make sure we’re doing all the best we can for both J and W to help them be the smartest, most emotionally and mentally strong people they can in the capacities they can be. The rest will fall in place. If there are jobs for them, if they are smart, emotionally, and mentally strong people, they will find ways to work. If we ever move to a different country, they will have the tools to help them adjust and find their place there. If computers take over everyone’s jobs, then they will have the tools to handle the same transition that everyone else will be experiences. If North Korea bombs North America, well…you get my drift.

Yes, four year tracks are fun, and helpful for the present moment. They help us stay motivated to be the best people we can be today. They will hopefully be helpful for the future too, but they don’t guarantee anything. So now, W takes advantage of every class and extracurricular she can, and we keep finagling an education program that works for J. My job as a parent is to give them all the opportunities I can give them now. Who knows what the future holds, I guess we’ll figure that out when we get there 🙂





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