our story

 

When Belle was in second grade I went to a Tony Attwood (the #1 Asperger’s specialist) conference. I had a friend who worked in special ed. and thought that, although Belle wasn’t officially diagnosed, the information might be helpful. I listened and felt a mix of confusion, fear, and relief-

 

  • My daughter hadn’t been diagnosed-her pediatrician said her speech delay was benign, her teachers (didn’t even know how to pronounce Asperger’s, saying it with a soft g) said she had too many friends to be autistic, her other doctors said, “ODD, OCD, PDD-NOS, maybe even ADD.”
  • she didn’t fit the picture of Dr. Atwood’s Asperger’s student (highly intelligent, yet awkward and antisocial with splinter skills)-although we saw a “smart” little girl, she scored quite low on the portions of the IQ tests they could get her to sit through.
  • she was a cute, funny, creative, active child who adored her brothers, her large extended family,  and the kids in our playgroup that she grew up with.
Even though I didn’t think the child Dr. Atwood described was my daughter, I  never forgot something he said- that middle school can be so difficult for these kids that they often need to be home schooled to be protected from bullying, isolation, and failure. I created a picture in my mind- we would move to a farm if that happened to us, surround ourselves with animals, find purpose and pleasure in their care and affection, and rise above an unaccepting society with their narrow view of “normal”. But that was a long way off, I told myself, nothing to worry about now when our life is rich with friends, loved ones, and opportunities.

And then, at the beginning of 4th grade, when Belle was merely 91/2, puberty hit and it hit hard. It wasn’t long before her autism refused to be ignored, screaming at us through meltdowns, noncompliance, fears, and a mix of shocking, confusing, even aggressive behavior.

The next 3-4 years is a blurred mix of crises, depression, interventions, specialists, a diagnosis, and 3 different middle school placements in a desperate search for a program for students with high functioning autism (which didn’t exist).

All this time Tony Atwood’s words stayed with me- “middle school is a battle zone for these kids, traumatic stress disorder is not uncommon, lectures are like a foreign language, peers can and will be cruel”.  I considered pulling Belle out of school and I did several times for 2 months or so, but Belle begged to go to school and we both dreamed of a place that would include, teach and protect her.

As we worked through the school issues, we realized that the social issues were insurmountable- Belle didn’t fit in, she knew she didn’t fit in, she was sad and angry that she didn’t fit in and she pushed everyone away. “The gap between her and her peers has just gotten too large” “she perceives things differently” “she’s too sensitive, bossy, irrational” was the information and advice that I got from the school. Belle’s brother’s had moved on to college, careers and their own life. I became Belle’s best friend and companion- a very interesting role for a mother of a preteen (most kids are pushing their moms away at that time). Belle had given up sports and clubs, and was no longer invited to outings or parties. Something had to be done.

I went back to my original plan- animals, pets. Adding pets to her life added a purpose for living, responsibility, a reason to research breeds and characteristics, and a provided a socially acceptable topic of conversation between her and family and peers. We already had a dog who was always there for a cuddle and game of fetch. From there we added-
  • a bunny adopted from the humane society (she’s gone now, but we have 2 new ones)
  • a horse that we board at a barn ten minutes from home and see daily
  • a koi pond in the back yard which Belle takes great pride in
  • a saltwater tank with 2 Nemos and a Dory
  • a turtle tank with 2 Mississippi Maps and 2 Rio Grandes
  • a Chilian rose hair tarantula
  • and Magic, our service dog in training, who Belle has raised and trained for a year
So, animals have become our life, social network, technical training, career prep, medium of exchange, special interest, contribution to society, and source of acceptance and love along with a glimmer of hope. As long as we have our animals we’ll get through autism and adolescence- and whatever life brings our way.


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