When you teach students with special needs you develop a whole different view of school vacation breaks. Thanksgiving, winter break, spring break, summer. For most this is cause for real celebration. It means time to reset, to reenergize, to decompress.
And when you parent kids with special needs, these breaks are generally not something to look forward to. While this post may be a downer, I believe awareness is a good place to start if we want to make the world more inclusive, more compassionate, more empathic.
I have the fortunate life circumstance of being able to consider school breaks from two perspectives. Mom of kids with special needs and teacher of kids with special needs. I am surrounded by it. Living it 24/7.
For most teachers, school breaks are opportunity to spend time with our own families, to travel, even to clean our very neglected houses and yards, to craft, read for pleasure, spend time with friends, or just sit in a corner and drool. We feel the same giddy anticipation as adults that we did as kids. Oh the potential! We count the days until break. We count on our fingers, over and over, the days away from school. We plan little day trips and activities with our families. We schedule catching up over coffee or cocktail dates with friends. We anticipate staying in bed a little later each morning.
As parents of kids with special needs, school breaks are exhausting, depressing, frustrating. Many times they are full of running our kids to appointments we postponed until break. Teeth cleaning under anesthesia, medical evaluations, neurological assessments. School breaks mean no breaks for parents. They mean structuring every minute of the day in ways that are good for our kids, prevent melt downs, allow for stimulation. School breaks mean being a few steps ahead of every possible scenario, every minute of the day.
And yes, for some parents it is a mixed bag. There is a bit of relief because mornings will not include the battled frenzy of getting our kids psyched up and physically ready for the school day with special lunch in specific lunch bag, organized backpack, current communication to teacher, medication dispensed, breakfast eaten all before the short bus stops in front of the house. But with a more relaxed start to the day, the hours ahead ominously loom.
Don’t think this is how it goes only for the parents with more challenged kiddos.
From the perspective of many kids, special needs or not, these breaks from school mean hours of isolation. Hours of no social interaction. Hours of staying home while parents work. Hours of being passed around from baby sitter to baby sitter because your parents had to figure out supervision so they wouldn’t get fired for missing work to stay home with you. It might mean staying home with an alcoholic parent, a parent who works 3rd shift and has to sleep during the day. For way too many, it may mean having a lot less to eat.
For me, this spring break which starts at noon today, will bring hours of my 17 year old either lying around all day and evening watching drivel on TV or ranting tirelessly about doing things with “friends” who are not really friends but mean opportunists looking to take advantage of him or put him in harm’s way just for sport. It means being yelled at, sworn at, relentlessly attacked in hopes of wearing me down. Spring break means my 15 year old will happily wander from creative project to creative project, but in between will ask for reassurance that thugs won’t take over the world, that anime is not a dying trend. He will also go on and on and on and on and on about how it takes too long to be old enough to be on his own, how Japan is the ideal society and he will send me countless emails about Mario figures he sees on eBay and wants to buy.
Plan activities, you say? Aside from the fact that we are broke, my boys do not like the same things. My 15 year old loathes being in the same room with his big brother who listens to ‘thug’ music nonstop just to irritate him. My 17 year old will constantly want his younger brother to do something with him. Because he is lonely and craves social interaction but he repels his younger brother by being annoying. But of course, big bro doesn’t get the connection between his behaviors and how people react to him. It’s that Autism thing.
The kitchen will be open and messy from 7 Am to 11 PM. Any requests to get chores done will be met with unreasonable arguing, ranting, and avoiding. So I probably won’t ask the boys to do a thing. I am already too tired from being their mother for this many years.
I am friends with enough other mothers of kids with special needs to know I am not alone in my dread of spring break. We all lament about all the pictures we will see posted on FB of non special needs families enjoying their vacations, of the hourly report from a family on an 18 hour drive to their beach destination with 4 kids in the van, or how they all endured a 7 hour flight across an ocean. Snapshots of museums visited, new things tried, new places explored, long hikes and body surfing. You know the stuff. My friends and I know those trips are not possible for our families because of inflexible thinking, sensory overload, strange eating habits, intolerances to heat or long plane rides, or being in a car bound by a seatbelt for too long.
Yes, I do pity us a bit. But not that much. I just want others to be aware that breaks from school mean something entirely different to many of us. Just be aware.
And what makes this particular break even more unappealing is that we know summer break is just 45 school days away.