Light at the end of the tunnel
or the last month, I’ve worked on this tunnel through a snowbank in our front yard. First I’d chisel away at one side, then switch to the other. Last night, digging away on the far side, where the truck is, I thought I saw the porch light glimmering through, from the other side.
I jabbed the shovel harder. The glimmer grew brighter. Jabbing it again, for the first time in a month I encountered no resistance as the last crust of snow crumbled and my shovel blade sliced into the void of the tunnel’s other side.
To say I was elated is an understatement. I hollered to my daughter, who was outside, to try it out. I went inside and fetched my husband and son. Gratifyingly, the latter abandoned his video game to come out and wiggle through. I chiseled a little more until I, too, could crawl through it. We were having such a good time I relaxed my usual rigid adherence to bedtime to stay out and play a half-hour longer. Even when we came in, for at least an hour, the grin was stuck on my face, just like on Owen’s truck.
What’s that all about? Why was I, a 44-year-old mother of two, with a job and a mortgage and a seat on a non-profit board, feeling triumphant that I managed to dig a six-foot tunnel through a snowbank?
To answer, I think back over the last year and a half. After two-plus years of making steady gains in coping with our son’s autism, we hit a plateau about 16 months ago. Especially in terms of his academic progress, that last crust of snow has refused to give way. No light has glimmered at the end of the tunnel, despite trying multiple different tools (ABA therapy for him, parental training for us, medication trials and dosage adjustments that wound up sending us back to baseline, resuming weekly occupational therapy, and more.)
Until, coincidentally, about a month ago. We tried a new ADHD medication. I have saved on my phone the e-mail from his teacher, less than two weeks after starting: “Today was the best day this year.” Anxiety is down, interaction is up and both his work habits and his academic performance are markedly improved.
We finally broke through the barrier, in other words. Just like my shovel did. Only it wasn’t until that metaphorical moment that I realized how frustrating and agonizing these last 16 months have been.
We were approved for formal ABA therapy a year ago. That’s the gold standard for autism treatment, the thing which all the insurance battles are fought for. The therapy we had paid out of pocket for previously, on a limited basis, until that therapist left. We got a new therapist lined up and prepared for an intensive summer.
But ABA didn’t work. For whatever cocktail of reasons, the gold standard was a clinker for us.
We tried to put that disappointment behind us last fall. After all, this school year was supposed to be the payoff year. In 2011 we chose a Montessori school –pushing back against conventional wisdom–for our son specifically because the multi-age classrooms would minimize transitions. He did well his kindergarten year in a primary classroom. Because he entered primary at the top of the age range, he moved to a new teacher for first grade in 2012. Bad fit. We floundered for a month before requesting a new teacher, his current teacher, where he thrived.
Unbeknownst to us then, however, that was the beginning of the plateau, the last truly positive step forward. Last fall, he returned to her room. But instead of a payoff, we found that substantial academic regression occurred over the summer. All this year has been spent trying to catch up. Which sets up the agonizing. Was the conventional wisdom correct? Did we make the wrong call, school-wise? Was ABA a mistake? Was it the medication? Should we have hung in there longer? Should we have cut our losses sooner?
As I learned yesterday, all you can do when the questions dog you is keep digging. They say when you’re in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.
Or, you can keep at it. Working both ends, with different tools. A shovel, a scrap two-by-four, two of your kids’ toy bats. Being patient. Waiting for it to warm up a little, then putting some energy into it.
And lo and behold, there is light. And it is beautiful.