fasd blog

Apr 172010

I was pulling weeds in my back yard one pleasant summer day when I heard a child screaming from the other side of the house. I dropped my tools and ran around the front side, following the screams towards the pig pen. One of the children was in the pen, trapped inside, with all three young pigs snorting and grunting up against the child’s legs. The child in the pen was frantic, terrified. The pigs weren’t hurting the child, but the fear the child felt was real. I could see it in the look in the eyes, flowing with tears. “Get me outta here,” the child was screaming, as shaking fingers fumbled with the gate chain.

As I jogged up to the pen I noticed another child standing just outside the gate, arms crossed, one foot tapping the ground impatiently.

“Not until you ask me nicely!”

If you’ve ever parented a Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) child this scenario likely sounds familiar….maybe not with pigs involved, but some similar situation has likely occurred in your house. Probably more than once.

Most people have never even heard of RAD. But foster or adoptive parents…we know the symptoms…and we pray we never see them in our kids.

The first three years of a child’s life are the most pivotal in their development. Think of the difference between an infant and a toddler. The growth that occurs is phenomenal.

When a baby cries, a caregiver generally picks it up. Maybe not right away, but eventually, their cries are answered. When they are hungry, we feed them. Wet, we change their diaper. When they are uncomfortable we comfort them. We rock, we swing, we cuddle, we coo. We make eye contact and touch their soft skin and press them against our chest lovingly. Well…most of us do.

Children with RAD missed that…or at least a stage of that…part in their early years of life. They may have been hungry often. They may have cried many, many times to no avail. Perhaps they lived with many different caregivers so they never developed an attachment to any of them. After all, why love something when it is going to go away? A child with RAD didn’t love, didn’t attach, didn’t learn to trust the world, or anyone in it, to care for them. They never felt the unconditional love of a parent…or if they did, it was not for very long or perhaps came too late. A RAD child was likely separated from their birth parent, or had a parent that was inexperienced, un-nurturing, or not physically attentive. A child who does not receive proper nurturing and care for a portion of time during those important first 36 months of life develops inconsistently and may simply not develop the ability to trust, to attach, to even love you back.

One of the biggest things I’ve noticed in a RAD child is the lack of ability to feel empathy. As in the case of the pig pen…that child who was trapped with the pigs was being traumatized…was terrified. But the child standing outside was unable to put themselves in the position of another. That child simply didn’t care what happened in the pigpen. As long as it was someone else, who cares?

The RAD child is very self-centered. After all, in those early years of life, who else was going to care about that child if not the child him/herself? They learn to fend for themselves, to rely on only their own consistency, as nothing else in their world is reliable. They can’t trust others…as has been proven to them time and time again, when they needed something and it was not offered…so why bother expecting the world to be a positive place? Experience has shown them they are on their own.

A RAD child is often extremely controlling. Their early years were out of their control. They were too young to do anything about meeting their own needs. They learned very early on that if they wanted something done, they would have to do it themselves. They learned that the reality of their situation was every man for himself.

When we, as a society, allow children to miss those early years of proper development either by shuffling them through numerous foster placements, never allowing them to settle into an attached relationship…or worse, by leaving them in a home where they suffer neglect, abuse or both, we create adults who through no fault of their own lack the ability to have compassion, empathy or to even truly love another.

We…as parents, caretakers, caseworkers and human beings…all must help to create a system that allows children stability in those formative early years if we ever hope to have an adult population that functions in an attached, loving way. If we fail that mission, the repercussions on our children…and the people they affect…are our own undoing.

Mar 222010

Destini was recently given an assignment to interview someone for career day. She asked her teacher, “Can I interview my mom?”

“Does she work?”

Hmmmm. Do I work?

For the better part of more than twenty years I’ve been at home with my kids. I don’t have a ‘job’. I don’t get a paycheck. I don’t get fifteen minute breaks, paid vacation or accrue overtime.

I am the cleaner-upper when a kid vomits all over her waste length hair at two a.m

I am a crawl inside the tub of icy water, hold the baby close because she’s burning up with fever…and know her screams are caused by my own hands…mom. That’s MY job.

I am the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and Santa. I am a stealth wrapper, stuffer, hider and under-pillow-slider, moving through the house like a silent breeze, leaving behind magic, wonder, faith and awe.

I am a calendar. I remember clarinets, swimsuits, science projects, lunches, homework, gym clothes, snow pants, boots and backpacks all in the ten seconds before walking out the door.

I am a detective. I know who brushed their teeth and who only ran the water. I know which one didn’t put on clean underwear. I know if that quarter belongs to that child. I know what pot smells like…and what ‘high’ acts like.

I am a lie detector.

I am a cookie maker, car-pooler, laundry-doer, rash-investigator, plate-scraper, booboo kisser, homework checker.

I am the bench-sitters biggest fan…at every…single…game. I’m the picture-taker, the memory-maker, the Facebook photo poster…so the moms who have to work…who pout and stomp their feet and still have to miss the game…can get a glimpse at their child’s best moment ever…and know I was there to love in their place.

I am the underpaid boss.

I am an advocate for special needs education. I am a lazy teacher’s worst nightmare. I am a good teacher’s biggest defender. I am the chaperone with the biggest rig…I am the Riley-Limo.

I am the ‘last-resort foster parent’…home to the ‘unadoptable’. I am family number ten…or fifteen. I am Mama-Riley…Miss Keri…I am Mom. I am hope for the ‘over-coming’ one.

I am a fixer of broken children.

I am a bedtime reader, snack-giver, milk pourer, ear cleaner. I’m a knock-knock joke ‘who’s there-er’, a home-made necklace wearer, and an “I-made-this-for-you” collector.

I am the one who is often jealous of those women who have a “job” or a “life” outside of their kids. I envy their self-worth, their active brain cells, their non-sweats-wardrobe. I’m glad they can do it all. I’m happy if they’ve found a balance…sad if they haven’t.

But I am also a thankful, husband-loving, kid-raising stay-at-home mom…grateful every single day that I was given the opportunity to CHOOSE this life.

I am a mom.

Do I work? Hell yes, I do.

Mar 072010

They land on my porch.

Crinkled paper bag clutched to their chests.

All their things hastily stuffed inside.

They have no coat, no socks, no toys.

No fond memories stuffed in that bag they carry.

They have only hope. Hope taken

From house to house—searching for a home.

The little ones, new to the system, cry.

The older ones have lived the system.

They blend in, slide into their new lives,

Past families forgotten.

Hope diminishes.

They are the “unadoptable”.

And they know it.

Mar 012010

He called me mommy on his second day in my home.  People said, “Oh, how sweet!”  Sweet?  Maybe.  Totally emotionally dysfunctional?  Definitely.

Imagine your own child, ripped from your home for whatever reason…any reason at all…and plopped into someone else’s living room, given a bed and told they live there now.  Now imagine your beloved child, the very next day, hugging that stranger and calling her mom as if you never existed at all.  Now is it sweet?

So when on the second day in my home he called us ‘mom and dad’ about thirty times, as if he loved the way it felt, I was, to say the least, concerned.  When I hear the word mom I get visuals of my own mother.  The smell of baking bread, the feel of soft hands, home of pure comfort.  When he says mom…what does he feel?  Nothing?

I wondered about his mom.  What did she do that he could totally alienate her so quickly?  Was there once a time when she held him close, felt his heart beat against hers, and longed to never let go?  I like to imagine he experienced that….at least once in his six years.  That he felt her love, pushed himself into her soft lap and snuggled.  I like to think ….if just for a moment…he knew he was special.  And then he tugs on my arm and says, “I love you!” for the eighth time that day…and I realize that moment, for him, is just now.

Feb 172010

Fact:  Only eight percent of children afflicted with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder have physical features portraying their disability.

Fact:  If they wore a sign that labeled them as such, those other ninety-two percent may be better off.

Brain damage, no matter how minor, is just that.  It is damage.  It isn’t fixable.  It isn’t overcome.  It can be compensated for, but it’s not going away.  Brain Damage from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a permanent, irreparable, lifelong disability that is invisible and perhaps because it is not obvious, can be more debilitating than someone who’s lost say, a limb, or their hearing.  Nobody expects a one legged man to run a marathon-but when he does, everyone cheers.  When a deaf person begins to sign, we realize they suffer a disability and we adjust our expectations.

When a child is plagued by the effects of a drug or alcohol addicted birth parents, they struggle in life, but many people don’t understand why. It is often thought of as an ‘excuse’ for bad behavior.  When the child can’t understand a school project, or they speak more slowly than other kids, or don’t pay attention, people don’t change their expectations…they just assume the child isn’t working hard enough, is a troublemaker, or isn’t very bright.  And these assumptions will follow with them their entire lives simply because they may look just like every other kid.

When a brain intakes information messengers take that information and send it to the appropriate receiver.  If you hit your knee on a table, a receptor sends the message to the part of the brain that tells you it hurts, and you react.  The same thing happens with all input sensors whether it is looking at ‘pink’ and knowing it’s not ‘blue’ or seeing a growling dog and knowing to run.  Our bodies and brains transport information that lets us know how to react. FASD inhibits those reactors and transmitters.

FASD can affect a large spectrum of functions.  Some of the most common are having a slow processing speed; working memory issues; impulse control; and the ability to understand repercussions…basically what the rest of us think of as ‘common sense’ is not common to many FASD children.  The combination of slow processing speed and poor working memory means that the connections in the brain work more slowly than others, or sometimes not at all. Basically, by the time they’ve finished processing what you are telling them, they’ve forgotten what you are telling them.

In a child with this type of brain damage, some of those sensors go haywire and either don’t get the information to the right place, or it just doesn’t go anywhere. Here is an example.  If you tell the FASD child to pick up their socks from the bathroom and put them in their bedroom, they may take several seconds to comprehend ‘pick up socks’…or they may not get it at all.  While their mind is thinking about that part, they didn’t even get to ‘put in room’ and perhaps by the time they get to the bathroom (if they make it there at all), they don’t remember what you told them to pick up.  An FASD child spends a lot of time trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle inside their mind.  The problem is, you can find this reaction in just about any child, brain damaged or not, at one time or another. We’ve all told our kids to do something and wondered afterwards if they speak the same language as we do.  But with a child with brain damage, the misfires of the brain are consistently happening in most every aspect of their lives.

Now, take that same child who can stare at those socks and not realize he/she is supposed to pick them up, and put them into a classroom full of typical children.  Throw in a busy room, full of distractions, a fast moving teacher and the pressures of socialization and you have a combination that makes that child’s potential failure inevitable. Now that child sits there, not understanding what’s happening around them because it’s all moving too fast for their understanding. Also, easily distractible, every time a movement catches their eye, or a perhaps a sound from behind them gets their attention, they lose focus on whatever it is they were trying to figure out. So if they happen to be doing long division, are three steps in when a student next to them says their name, they will mostly likely have no idea where they were when they finally get focused back on the problem, because their working memory is damaged.

At this point, the child, who’s completely lost in their math problem, can’t figure out what the teacher in front of them is saying because last time he/she looked up, the class was working on math and now they’ve moved on to something new. The child stares at the ceiling for a while trying to remember what they are supposed to be doing, the teacher calls on them to answer a question, which they don’t understand in the first place, let alone have the answer to and the child is left feeling stupid. So what does he/she do? Makes a funny remark, which infuriates the teacher but makes the other students laugh, which the child then thinks is great because after all, when the options are looking stupid or getting a laugh, the choice is obvious. The child is then labeled a troubled student…a behavior problem…and henceforth moves through school with a bad reputation unless some bright teacher understands FASD, steps up to the plate, and changes that kids life simply through understanding.

Because of the invisibility of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, the lifelong battle those children will face is inevitable. But if we can all exhibit a little understanding and keep in mind when dealing with those around us that there are less obvious factors in all of us that effect the way we function, the world will be a more tolerable place for the many who may struggle within.