Thursday, April 12, 2012

Autism and Deployment

Being a parent is a tough job, period.  It usually means that you have to firm when you'd like to bend, or you have to do things you don't want to (like clean up vomit, but I'm a sympathetic puker).  It also means sometime you have to let your children face challenges that you'd like for them to not face at all.
Deployment is no exception.  Now add deployment AND Autism into the mix and it makes for an interesting six months to a year.

The first time Chris deployed was nothing short of a nightmare.  He was not supposed to be put in a unit where he could deploy, he was going into the Reserves to be an 88 Mike Instructor.  But the day he went to the MEPS station the unit was closed and no one answered the phone.  So they placed him with the unit that he would call home until we moved to Washington.  It was a good unit, just not what we had signed up for and it wasn't what he had told me.  So imagine our shock when the unit wouldn't let him move to the unit he'd signed up to join.  He didn't get to deploy originally when they were going to because he had a few medical issues to take care, but the second time around the got him and kept him on the roster.  The one thing I had been hoping wouldn't happen suddenly was real.  He came home from Christmas in Iowa and had to report for duty shortly after.   I instantly became a single parent of a two year old little girl who was used to Daddy being her primary care giver Monday through Thursdays and he was gone. 

What we didn't know was that Elizabeth had Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified, an Autism Spectrum Disorder.  All I knew was she was small and cute and I was thrilled to have a daughter, even if she didn't speak very often.
Lizzie's 3rd birthday party August 2004.  Chris was deployed to Iraq at the time.

It never occurred to me that maybe something was wrong, no matter how much my mom nagged at me.  I couldn't see it at the time, to me she was perfect and beautiful and I loved her no matter what.  But as her third year grew closer and I was struggling to keep child care even more, I had to begin facing some tough things.  Something was wrong with my daughter.  She would play in the nursery and play alone while the other children would play with each other.  She didn't speak as clearly as the other children, and she didn't speak hardly at all, but when she did I understand about 1/2 of what she was trying to say.  She began banging her head when Chris left, to the point I was afraid to take her in public.  By the time she was three she had busted the top and lower lip, given me a black eye, almost broken my nose, and hurt me more times than I thought imaginable. She would run off and pretend she didn't hear anyone, especially if she was focused on something she wanted.    I had consequences and even swatted her bottom when needed, but people assumed I didn't have rules or structure and discipline.  People thought she would be a jabber box, since Chris and I are both fairly talkative, but she wasn't talking nearly as much.  Finally a friend of mine suggested I take her to Screen for Success to get my mom to leave me alone.  Watching her do so poorly was devastating.  I knew she was smart, that was never my concern.  I could see the wheels turning in her head, but I had to begin to face the truth.  Something was wrong.  I met with a social worker and a speech therapist at Irving Elementary School, who were very nice.  But I insisted we wait for Chris to get home.

Here is the thing about deployment, you are mom and dad, the only driver (if you only have small children or children too young to drive), you are the one who takes care of it all.  It can be extremely overwhelming.  I learned a lot during that deployment.  I learned even those who think they are supportive, and have good intentions can give you more grief than they mean too.  I learned that you have to take on what you can handle, no more or you get too overwhelmed.  I learned that it's best (at least for me) to avoid people, because most of them don't understand and even if they do, they aren't always what you need.  I learned when I am depressed I have no filter so I say anything and I have a tough time sitting still.  So when they began talking about testing and getting Elizabeth into an early intervention program, I was too overwhelmed.  I needed Chris to be home, I need support, correction I needed the support of my husband.  My mom tried to help, but she's my mom and God love her, she still sees me as a small girl, not a fully grown woman sometimes and it made it worse.  She would never have done it on purpose, she did it out of love, but it just made things worse. 

Finally, Chris came home February 28, 2005 - my birthday the best day ever.  It seemed like it was all over, but in truth it was only just beginning.   I had told Dr. Spade that she didn't pass Screen for Success and so between Irving and getting into see Dr. Kerschon I had unknowingly gotten the ball rolling towards a diagnosis that would change our lives forever. . . Autism. 

In the beginning it felt like the end of the world.  And in a way it was, it was an end to the world I had envisioned for Elizabeth, but this new world we live in while tough at times is not as horrid as I was afraid it would be.  We even faced another deployment, and because she had such an amazing special needs team, we were able to face it with little damage done to Elizabeth. And it meant that while I still worried about Elizabeth, she had the structure, routine and extra support that she needed to have to make it through the deployment and do better.  At least one of the two of us handled it better.  That is a small blessing in some part.   If you are friends with someone who is facing deployment and they have a special needs child, remember, nothing about their spouse being away is normal.  Yes, some single parents do okay, but there is something extremely  stressful about having your spouse away in a war zone and you aren't just a single parent, you are a single parent worried about if your spouse comes home alive or in a box or not at all.   Add a special needs child into the mix and it can be somewhat disasterous at times.   

I hope you all have a good week. 
In Christ,

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