The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, When It’s Not the Halls I Want to Deck

If you live with someone on the autism spectrum, I am the preacher and you are the choir.  I wrote this more for those of you not living with autism and who will – out of affection or obligation – purchase a gift this holiday season for an autistic person. (But, tribal mates, please feel free to print this out and leave it on the kitchen counter, bedside table, desk or refrigerator of who someone who reeeeeeeeally needs to get this message.)


Ahhhhh, the season of joy and love is upon us.  I know this not so much because of holiday decorations adorning buildings and homes, or because I can get more or less anything I could ever want in pumpkin-spice flavor, or because the Hallowe’en candy is down to those gross Smarties and Whoppers.

It’s because everyone I know who parents a person on the spectrum is having the same conversation right now.  It goes like this:

Question:  What can I get [insert name] for [Christmas/Hanukkah/Festivus]?

Answer choice 1:  Nothing.  S/he does not understand/care about/have any interest in gifts/holidays.

Response 1:  WHAT!? I can’t get him/her nothing. S/he has to have something to open!


Question:  What can I get [insert name] for [Christmas/Hanukkah/Festivus]?

Answer choice 2:  S/he likes [insert very specific thing here].

Response 2:  WHAT!? That’s lame / for babies / what I got him/her last year / boring …

Response 1 and Response 2 both need to be included in those handy lists of things never to say to autism parents.  (Or to anyone. Ever. At all.)

Here are four reasons why:

Reason the First:  I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but gift-giving is not about you.  I know – crazy, right? True story, though. The point of a gift is, funny enough, to bestow upon the recipient something s/he actually wants. If your intended recipient does not like to receive gifts, does not like to unwrap gifts (because tearing paper is a sensory nightmare or seems just plain pointless to someone who thinks concretely and logically), or is not interested in celebrating a holiday the way you celebrate it, YOU ARE MISSING THE WHOLE POINT OF THE HOLIDAY.  When you insist on forcing everyone to do celebrate your way, that’s pretty much the exact opposite of comfort, joy, gratitude, peace and all those other fancy words we toss around this time of year.


Reason the Second:  You are insulting the person you just asked for advice.  Presumably, you asked the autistic person or his/her parent or caregiver about a gift because you thought that person would be the best source of information about what to give.  When you got the information you sought then rejected it or – worse – criticized it – you essentially said, “Your opinion is dumb.”  If you do this to an autistic person, it is insulting on TWO levels, because it rejects the presumption of the autistic person’s competence to declare her needs and wants AND because it puts your needs/wants ahead of hers.  (Please see Reason the First, above).  When you do this to a parent, we hear the gazillionth version of “you’re doing it wrong” or “you’re incompetent” when it comes to our parenting.  AIN’T NO ONE GOT TIME FOR THAT.


This is what is happening to you in my mind while you speak.

Reason the Third:  You are not helping. The holidays can be very challenging times for autism families. Lots of changes to routine, lots of social interaction, lots of expectations … We’ve oftentimes gone to great lengths to find the right blend of celebrating the traditions we know and love and creating a comfortable environment for our autistic loved one. Asking for advice, rejecting it, then compounding that insult by reacting poorly when the gift you chose is not appreciated the way you expect is not making any of this any easier.  If you want to help, take the advice you sought. (Or, reject it silently.)


Otherwise, you are adding to the weight of holiday pressure.  Trust me, the only weight I’m interested in adding to this season is the kind that comes with a cranberry bliss bar and some spiked egg nog.

Reason the Fourth:  There are BETTER OPTIONS, especially if you’re giving the gift more to fulfill your own sense of holiday / social obligation.  Here are some:

  • Make a donation in the autistic person’s name to a charity of your choice or one that focuses on improving the lives of autistic persons
  • Give an experience.  Not every gift must be wrapped – or even tangible – to be special and thoughtful.  Spend 30 minutes, a day, a weekend – whatever is reasonable – really honoring an autistic person and his/her interests.  Does she love Legos?  Build some together (even if that means you just sit and watch.)  Does he love only one storybook?  Read it to him (however many dozen times) to give Mom, Dad, Grandma or whomever a break.  Does she love astronomy?  Go to an observatory together or – perhaps better still – give the whole family the gift of going to the observatory together.
  • Ask an Expert.  Check out stores like Lakeshore, National Autism Resources or other vendors that specialize in educational toys, games, etc. and ask staff for suggestions. They won’t take it quite as personally if you reject their advice.
  • Give a gift card.  If you don’t want to suffer the “indignity” of giving a can of Pringles, yet another Thomas the Tank Engine video, or a Fisher Price toy made for babies to an adolescent, then give the recipient a gift card so s/he can choose on her own gift.  You get the satisfaction of giving something you find “appropriate,” and your recipient gets something her or she really wants or needs.
  • Use that Google Thingy.  One year, my brother went online and searched for “top gifts for kids with autism.”  He bought Helene the thing that was on top of the list – this cool, multi-colored, light-up ball that rotates on a stand.  He thought about her interests and her needs and chose a gift with those in mind.  Because, you know, spirit of giving and all that.

fa la la la la

Dear Santa, All I Want for Christmas Is a User’s Manual for My Kid

Dear Santa:

Ho ho ho

Yeah, I know. But drawing lessons are WAAAAYYY down the list.

Well, you’re probably surprised, right?  I mean – first off – I’m kinda old for this.  It must be at least, I don’t know, 30 years since my last letter?  And, we both know I’m a notorious procrastinator.  It’s practically breaking a law of nature for me to write you this letter before December 24.  But, I was in the grocery store the other day, staring at row-upon-row of Halloween candy and decorations (even though it was still summer … No, really, still summer), and I thought, I’ve been pretty good this year.  I think I should get something for that.  

Selfishly, I’d like a medal.  A great big, shiny gold medal that says “I’M A SUPER MOM.  SANTA SAID!”


But, selfish doesn’t get you on the “Nice” list.  So, here’s my one and only request:  I want a user’s manual for my kid.  I have a BIG question, and it would be marvelous if there was an actual resource for this one.  I tried asking a group of about 25 spectrum parents, and I got about 25 different answers.

(I’d give you their names so you could give them user’s manuals, too, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy on pain of never being allowed to eat bacon again.  Ever.  Seriously.  I know.  You can’t even wrap your mind around that, right?  It’s a tough crowd.)

You see, Santa, here’s my dilemma.  My daughter, Helene, is autistic.  She knows who you are — sort of.  You’ve appeared in quite a few animated videos, so she believes you are a cartoon character in some of her favorite shows, singing some of her favorite songs.  (Come to think of it, I’ve been better than “pretty good” this year.  Do you know how much patience it takes to sing Christmas carols in the middle of July when it’s 100° F and you’re sitting in traffic? GOLD. MEDAL. PATIENCE.)


… had a very SHINY NOSE!!!

But, Helene does not know everything about what you do.  She has no idea that you fly around the world in your sleigh to deliver presents anywhere outside of YouTube – particularly our living room.

I am torn.  Do I let her go on believing you are nothing but a cartoon character?  Or, do I encourage her to behave her best and send a hopeful letter to the North Pole, wishing for a magical delivery?  Because, Santa, my daughter (like many other children on the autism spectrum) has a very small circle of trust, and I am lucky enough to be in the circle.  Helene believes me when I tell her that her shoes are pink, that it’s warm outside, that I will pick her up after school, that I love her. Also, Helene’s mind is very literal – I have to be careful when I say things like “just a minute,” “hold your horses” or “keep an eye on it,” or I end up with a child who will wait only 60 seconds, ask “What horse?” or press her eye against whatever “it” might be.

Need an example?  I can do that.  One time, Helene was trying to walk around the left side of the dining room table to get something from me.  But, a chair blocked her way.  I said, “Helene, go the other way,” meaning walk around the right side of the table.  Instead, she turned around and tried to walk backward toward me.  Yep.  That was the other way.

Listen, one my life’s missions is never to break Helene’s trust, which is especially challenging when communicating with someone who doesn’t deal in shades of grey.  (No, not THAT grey, and I’ll have you know I doubly deserve a GOLD MEDAL for not reading that crap …)

Bad book.  No biscuit.

At the same time, I have to balance Helene’s need for literal clarity against my responsibility to give her as authentic a childhood as possible by not depriving her of experiences because of my own fears about what she can or can’t handle.

It is fear from which my need for advice springs, Santa.  What happens if I convince Helene to believe in you — the realness of you — and someday, she doesn’t anymore?  Will she think I lied to her?  Will the circle of trust be broken?  Or, will she simply take it in stride because she’s outgrown you?  Will she be able to look back at memories of you and recall the joyful anticipation of Christmas morning, the comfort of falling asleep enveloped in the sweet, warm scent of fresh-baked chocolate chip and sugar cookies, and the thrill of finding an overstuffed, red-velvet-and-white-fuzz-trimmed stocking full of goodies and toys next to her bed on Christmas morning?  Or will she feel only as if I played an elaborate trick on her and start doubting everything I say?

I truly don’t know what to do here.  On the one hand, I could tell her that you’re not real; that you’re just a cartoon character like the Wonder Pets or Mike the Knight.  But, she will inevitably hear about you from kids at school or family members, each of whom will try mightily to convince her of the magic that happens each year in the North Pole.  Or, Helene could end up breaking the heart of one of her friends or family members by staunchly insisting that you are not real, because her Mama said you aren’t real and Mama always tells the truth.


So, Santa, if you could please send me a user’s manual for my beautiful, sweet, complex, enigmatic daughter, I’d take that over pretty much anything else I could wish for this year.  The gold medal can wait.

Verb, Scalpel, Diction, Hammer: ProfMomEsq’s Rules of Grammar (And Other Stuff)

I’ve spent some time lately considering how I might distill some of the writing advice I give to legal writing students or new lawyers. I think this list represents the most important tips I can give, but I’d love you to add your thoughts/advice in the comments. I’d also like to add a disclaimer.

While I am writing this, I’m having a cocktail and exchanging Twitter haikus with my cyber-sister @jillsmo (who writes a really damn funny blog here), so if some of my sentences seem a little matchy-matchy or strangely rhythmic, it’s her fault.

Okay …

1. Wield Your Pen (or Keyboard) Like a Scalpel Not a Sledgehammer. If having surgery, would you prefer the doctor just cut you open willy-nilly or would you rather the surgeon made a single incision as precisely as possible? (If you’d like to be cut open willy-nilly, this metaphor will be totally lost on you, so just skip to #2.) Choose your words with the precision of a surgeon. Don’t leave your reader scarred by your random musings (unless you write a super-witty, extraordinarily useful, and crafty blog like I do). Get to the point, and make sure your words actually convey your intended meaning. Be a minimalist, and keep it simple.

2. Write As If Your Mother Will Read It (a/k/a Don’t Be An Asshole). We’ve all received a communication from someone who pissed us right the fuck off. You know you still smart at the one letter or email that was the equivalent of a red flag waving at your inner bull. Not long ago, I stopped speaking on the telephone to opposing counsel for one of my cases, because he insisted on screaming at me on the phone. So, he instead resorted to writing me emails IN ALL CAPS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (just like that). He was begging for a smack down of epic proportions, and I was itching to do it. Instead, I walked away from my computer and into my boss’s office, vented then collected myself, and responded simply and only to the issue that needed to be addressed. When opposing counsel and I later got into a discovery dispute that resulted in the attachment of his lovely emails as an exhibit to a motion, I wasn’t embarrassed, and I wasn’t dressed down by the judge. In open court. On the record. In front of a full courtroom.

When you write in response to something that starts feeling a little too personal, remember these two things:

Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves. — Confucius

Strong and bitter words indicate a weak cause. — Victor Hugo

You might succeed in making opposing counsel (or to whomever your missive is directed) as angry as you are by figuratively ripping his/her face off with your acerbic wit, but what you are not going to do is impress a third party (i.e., the judge). And, that kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? The best revenge is success, so stick to making your important point and save the Snarky McSnarkerson for Twitter. Or your blog. Don’t unleash her in your professional writing.

3. Since ≠ Because. I frequently see these words used interchangeably, even by writers I consider to be quite good at their craft. But, the words are not synonyms. Since refers to a temporal relationship between two events. For example, if I write, “John gained ten pounds since he quit smoking,” the words describe an event occurring during a period of time between the day John quit smoking and the day the sentence is written — those two points in time define when John gained some weight. However, the sentence does not convey the cause of John’s weight gain. If that’s what you take from the sentence, it is an assumption not an inference. (See Point 4, below.) However, because refers to a cause/effect or correlative relationship. If I write, “John gained ten pounds because he quit smoking,” the sentence expresses a connection between quitting smoking and stuffing your face full of Hostess chocolate mini-donuts. Not that I would know this from any kind of personal experience. At all. WHAT?!

4. Inference ≠ Assumption. This concept is best illustrated by example. My son and I are home. There is no one else in the house. I bake a cake. I leave the whole cake on the kitchen counter and exit the room. When I return, there is a piece of cake missing. I know these facts: (1) I am home; (2) my son is home, (3) no one else is in the house, (4) a piece of cake is gone, and (5) I did not eat it. From those facts and by a process of deductive reasoning, I infer that my son took the piece of missing cake. (I have no evidence he actually consumed it.) Now, let’s say that I am home, my son is home and my husband is home. I bake a cake. I leave the whole cake on the kitchen counter and exit the room. When I return, a single slice of cake is missing. I cannot infer that my son took the cake, because it is equally possible that my husband took it. If I conclude that my son took the cake, I am making an assumption, not drawing an inference. See? Inference, good. Assumption, bad. You know what your mom told you happens when you assume …

5. Your ≠ You’re. Your is a possessive pronoun describing something belonging to you. You’re is a contraction of you and are. As in: Please proofread your work if you’re going to post it, because there’s always some Reddy McRed-Pen down the comment thread.

3. Don’t Use Five Words When One Will Do. You’d think it would be challenging to clear your throat in writing, but I see this a lot in the form of cumbersome, unnecessary phrases that reduce simply to if or because: due to the fact that, in the event that, should it come to pass that. Quit writing this crap. It’s lawyer-like (or “professional”-sounding) only because (not “to the extent that”) it is a textbook example of lawyers’ bad writing habits. When you use phrases like this, the words have the same effect on your reader that a lot of ums, uhs and other verbal tics have on a speaker’s listeners. It reads like you’re tripping over yourself and are unsure about your point, which sucks if you want your writing to inspire a reader’s confidence in you.

4. Use Strong, Active Verbs. Nothing waters down your writing faster than weak verbs. First, learn how to form past-tense verbs to avoid past perfect and past perfect progressive verbs that aren’t as powerful as the past-tense conjugation of an irregular verb. For example:

Neither of the parties had knowledge that the gun was loaded.

Why use three words – “had knowledge that” to convey what is said with one – “knew”? The stronger sentence is:

Neither party knew the gun was loaded.

Second, use a verb that actually describes the action your subject is doing to your object. For example, consider the difference between these two sentences:

ProfMomEsq hurt her toe.

ProfMomEsq stubbed her toe.

Both sentences convey the idea that I was hurt, but the second one is far more descriptive of how I was hurt without adding any additional words. After reading the first sentence, you think, Bummer. I like that ProfMomEsq lady. Too bad she hurt her toe. But, after reading the second one, you think, Oh! Ouch! I hate it when I do that shit! Sucks! See? It’s like magic!

Third, avoid the passive voice. For example:

Paralegals may be employed by a law firm to perform tasks sometimes performed by lawyers.

No good my friends, because the subject and object of this sentence are backward. Who is doing the employing? The law firm. Who is employed? The paralegals. Hotel. Motel. Holiday Inn. If your friend is actin’ up … Switch!

A law firm may employ paralegals to perform tasks sometimes performed by lawyers.

Unless, you know, you want your writing to read like Yoda wrote it. Then, by all means, please put your objects at the beginning of your sentence. Irritate the shit out of your reader, you will. But, it’s your paper …

5. Proofread ≠ Spellcheck (or Vice Versa). You MUST do both. Period. End of discussion. Because I said so, that’s why. You will sit there until you clear your plate. Now, put a sweater on. It’s cold in here.

6. Quotation Marks – Learn Who’s in the Club and Who Isn’t. Period: in. Semi-colon: out. Question mark: in if it’s actually part of the quote, otherwise out. Comma: in. Yes, it is that simple.

7. The Abbreviation A.M. and the Words “In the Morning” Should Not Appear in the Same Sentence. It’s called redundancy, people. No likey. It’s bad bad.

8. Stop Capitalizing Words that Aren’t Capitalized. There is no better way to announce to a reader your uncertainty about the meaning of a word than to capitalize a noun that does not need capitalizing. This epidemic may afflict only the writing of new legal writers, but I see it enough that it makes my list. If you don’t know, look it up. If you have to guess, err on the side of using the lower case, unless the word is the first one in your sentence. (And, I really, really hope that last part went without saying. But, just in case.)

9. If You Have to Point Out How Clear or Important Something Is, It’s Not. Sentences that start like this — “Clearly, it is important to note that” — are usually followed by a point that is neither clear nor important. Make your words get a dollar out of 15 cents. Choose words that make the point both clear and important – not because you said so, but because the articulation of your reasoning makes it so.

10. Buy a Dictionary, then Use It as Something Other than a Doorstop. Please.

What If I Can’t? and Other Questions about #Autism and #Parenting that Wake Me at 4am

Yesterday, my husband and I managed to get Helene to school.  The process started at 7:30 am and didn’t end until about 9:45 am.  We went through various phases of resistance that culminated in Helene crying from the house, to the backseat of the car and all the way to school, “Mama, please!  I want home! I don’t like school!  Please, Mama, please!”  She had it on repeat with the volume on 10 for the whole 2 mile drive to school.  We hit every stoplight.  And, yes, there was a lawnmower running nearby just to make sure we got the cherry on top of the cupcake of our morning.

We got her into the office for the tardy sign-in routine.  Helene continued her protestations and tears.  We we told we weren’t allowed to walk Helene to class, so an aide came to get her.  Helene’s pleading to leave only escalated when the aide appeared, but somehow I didn’t burst into tears until after I was outside, and Helene couldn’t see me anymore.  I’m sure it took a good ten minutes to get Helene from the office to the classroom.

For the past few weeks, we’ve been going through some enormous changes, and I really do not know what to make of them.  As I wrote before, Helene’s teacher was out for a while, which caused a lot of classroom and staff changes.  Helene did not handle that well at all.  To be clear, I was not and am not faulting Helene’s teacher for the absence.  Obviously, that was beyond her control.  But it nonetheless impacted Helene; she suddenly became super-resistant to going to school, her sensitivity to noise spiked, and she started to vocalize more her protestations (“I don’t like ____ being one of her new, favorite expressions).  She also started demonstrating an unwillingness to leave the house — period.

So, the past two weeks, we kept Helene home from school more often than not.  We forced her to leave the house only for something “fun.”  We emailed her teacher and the principal, asking for advice.  Instead, we got a lecture about Helene’s attendance.  Well, you think?  That’s pretty much what we’re asking.  So, we met with Helene’s social worker.  She is a  lovely, intelligent woman whom I adore if only because she doesn’t talk to my husband and me like we are idiots.  She provided some great guidance, but she also reminded us that getting Helene’s IEP changed in any meaningful way before school finishes in June will be impossible.  Then, we visited Helene’s pediatrician.  I love her, too.  We got her by accident when Nate’s pediatrician retired.  She’s about my age, has two kids of her own and doesn’t bullshit me.  She listens, she responds, she follows up.  She referred us to a developmental pediatrician, but who knows when that appointment will be.  In the meantime,  I am researching websites and making phone calls, looking for information or guidance.  I’ve talked to a lot of voice mailboxes, but not a single, live human.

We held out hope that once Helene’s regular teacher returned to class and things got back to the typical routine, so would Helene.  Helene is not settling back in at all.  Her agitation about school starts at about 7:30 p.m. — the night before.  Last night, Helene was so upset about the prospect of school the next day, she climbed into my lap at 8:30 p.m. and didn’t leave it until she fell asleep.  This morning, she crawled into bed with me and said, “Good morning, Mama.  No school today.”  Sigh.  Happy Friday.

While Helene was home from school more than not, we noticed not only the concerning changes in her behavior but some really positive changes, too.  She uses more verbs:  “I hear an airplane!” or “Mama stirring it.”  She actually has conversations with us throughout the day.  Granted, these are two or three sentence conversations, but just getting from question-echolalia to question-answer is huge.  She’s stopped needing a nap in the afternoon, because we haven’t woken her in the morning for school before she’s naturally ready to rise.  That means she’s going to bed and falling asleep at a reasonable hour more often than not.  She sits on the potty at least once a day — and goes — without a huge meltdown or argument. She opened the lid on a bottle of water by herself for the first time.  She is starting to get the gist of pronouns, especially “me.”

I think about all this, how much Helene is obviously distressed about going to school, and I wonder why we make her.  Is her anxiety, which becomes my anxiety, worth whatever benefits she gets from school?  There are definitely benefits.  She can manipulate a pencil well enough to write her own name.  She will touch wet paint and not only tolerate it but enjoy it.  She recognizes the entire alphabet and numbers up to about 25.  She’s (sort of) learned to take turns.  She eats foods at school that I would never get her to eat at home.  (Although, the day she walked up to me and smashed my cheeks in her tiny hands, saying “Chew!” over and over again was a bit disconcerting.)  She has her schedule at school memorized and will gladly recite it to you.  Helene’s speech and occupational therapists appear quite smitten with Helene and to enjoy working with her.  Her teacher is very well-educated and experienced; I felt her only shortcoming was that she doesn’t have children of her own to enable a certain degree of empathy I wish she had.

But that was before the email.  About a half hour after school let out yesterday, Helene’s teacher finally responded to our request for help.  There are some suggestions in the email about talking to Helene in an “upbeat voice” and telling her to “take a breath” when she’s upset.  We were chastised again for Helene’s spotty attendance and told that was the reason for her regression.  Then she wrote this:  “By modeling calm demeanor, rather than mirroring her emotional state, we are nearly always able to redirect her.”

If you heard a huge, thunderous bang yesterday afternoon about 2:12 p.m., that was my head exploding.

For the love of Pete, Helene is my daughter.  I have a natural, reflexive instinct to take away what pains her.  If she is in distress, how can I not be?  I understand Helene will be less successful at calming herself during a fit of panic if I feed it.  The majority of the time, I think my husband and I do a very good job of keeping our cool around Helene, because we understand that helps.  But, I am human, and I am going to feel like a giant pile of shit when I haven’t had enough sleep, I’ve spent the past hour listening to my daughter beg me — using her limited vocabulary and a lot of tears — not only to let her stay home but to take her pretty much anywhere else on Earth she can think of, and I have to face the rest of the day knowing that this whole process will start again tonight.

Even then, though, I’m not nearly as offended by the subtext of Helene’s teacher’s email that we are causing Helene’s anxiety as I am about the implicit expectation that I can just turn on a dime and stop caring about how anxious Helene is.  Apparently, there is no need to be exhausted, anxious, sad, frustrated, confused and concerned about why — seemingly all of a sudden — Helene melts down about going to school.  I just need to tell her in an upbeat voice what I want her to do, then ignore the kicking, screaming, running-and-hiding, crying, begging, pleading, tearful meltdown that follows.  It worked so well for Helene’s teacher today that Helene threw up not once but twice in class.  This is something she’s never done at home unless sick with the flu.

What if I can’t?

What if alternative behavioral interventions don’t work?  What if they work only when the person employing them is emotionally disconnected from the person to whom they are applied?  Maybe it is physically or emotionally impossible for me to do this.  My instinct is to hold Helene; to rock her, to soothe her with words – and she lets me.  How do I “ignore” Helene’s “non-preferred behavior” of expressing a desire to avoid school when the whole object is to get her ready for school, out the door and onto campus?  There is a certain measure of this that seems downright idiotic to me, because how the holy hell do you do both at the same time?

What if I shouldn’t?

What if becoming a cold, sterile clinician toward my daughter instead of the loving, comforting, understanding parent I’ve been is not what’s best or what’s “right” for her?  My mommy-intuition buzzer is going off like a fire alarm, and it’s telling me that something in the classroom environment is not right.  After the monumental struggle of yesterday, I was dreading transitioning Helene from school to her social skills class.  But, when I picked her up (and we evaded the lawnmower out front and the leaf blower across the street — WTF???), she said, “Go see, Dr. __, ___, __?,” naming off the teacher, aide and student in social skills to whom she seems most to relate.  We got to campus, parked, and Helene walked with me from the car to the classroom – a considerable distance – without complaint or even encouragement.  When the aide opened the door, Helene walked right in without even saying goodbye or looking back.  I walked to the car wondering, Why so different?  The only explanation I can make sense of is that there is something in one classroom she really doesn’t like and nothing in the other classroom that bothers her that way.

What if it backfires?

After reading Helene’s teacher’s email again last night, when I was in a better frame of mind to process it, it occurred to me that the applied behavioral intervention techniques Helene’s teacher uses might be backfiring on her.  Apparently, the practice involves telling Helene, “I don’t like it when you ___” [insert whatever Helene is doing that is not “preferred”].  If, after a couple of attempts to redirect her the teacher is unsuccessful, Helene is deprived of attention.  Repetition is apparently a key to getting the student to replicate preferred behaviors.  Well, it’s working — Helene learned to imitate this perfectly.  When she doesn’t like something, she tells us.  If she doesn’t get what she wants after several attempts at expressing her displeasure, she tries to evade us (e.g., deprive us of her attention) by tuning out completely or running upstairs and hiding under her brother’s bed or in ours.  If this is the result her teacher is shooting for, she hit the target.  Somehow, though, I doubt it.

What the Hell Am I Doing?

What I’m left with – yet again – is more questions than answers.  I don’t know what the right thing is here.  Do I push Helene to continue at this school, under this IEP?  The message I took away from the teacher’s email was that either we do that or she and I are no longer partners but enemies.  How’s that gonna work?  So, do I look into other schooling options?  I don’t even know if there are other options short of homeschooling her.  And, is that what’s best for her?  Sure, no one will love her more or try harder than I will (or her dad would), but I’m not a special education teacher.  There are somethings I won’t push because I am her mom, because I do love her and, therefore, having feelings about the cause a conflict between what’s best for Helene and what’s manageable for me, and because I have her 24 hours a day, seven days a week (about which I am not complaining but which does affect how much energy, patience and time I can give her).

In the law, the only sure answer is “it depends.”  I know that same philosophy applies here — what would a reasonable person do under the totality of same circumstances?  But, that lack of certainty never bothered me in my office, because I knew where to go to find the answers.  I could find a needle in the haystack of never-ending judicial opinions, statutes, regulations, practice guides and treatises.  Now, though, I am experiencing the desperation and frustration that comes from uncertainty and a lack of boundaries.  Damn lemons.

So, I would love for adults on the spectrum or the moms, dads, caregivers or relatives of someone on the spectrum who traveled these roads before I to share what has worked for you.  Please don’t tell me I am an awful mom, or that I don’t understand my daughter or autism.  First, I beat myself up enough, okay?  Second, I swear to you I am trying.  Help me; don’t judge me.  And please accept my advance gratitude for whatever advice or experiences you are willing to share.

Lawyer as Witness: Turning Tables & the Art of Following Your Own Advice

Recently, I was deposed and later testified as a witness in an arbitration. Yes, that’s right – I was a witness, and someone else was the lawyer.  It was a role reversal that truly changed me as a trial lawyer.

I can’t talk about the specifics of the case for confidentiality reasons. But, generally speaking, the dispute was this:  my client asked someone else to pay the cost to settle a case. The someone else didn’t want to pay. The someone else didn’t want to pay, because they believed I gave my client the wrong analysis of the basis for payment. Dispute ensued, arbitration followed, lessons were learned.

Trust.  I am a serious control-freak. I am terrified to fly mostly because someone else is flying the plane. It does not matter that part of my brain comprehends the illogical premise of this fear; it’s still there. So, I was none too pleased to put my client’s fate – and to some degree my fate – in the hands of another lawyer.  I mean – I may not know how to fly a plane, but I know one or two things about the lawyer stuff.  Yet, I had to do it.  I wouldn’t storm the cockpit of the plane at the first sign of turbulence no matter how bad I might be hyperventilating.  So, I knew I had to surrender control of the case to my lawyer, or the case was going to crash.  Bear in mind, that doesn’t mean I wanted to do it.

This made me realize (or – more accurately – reminded me) that clients do not trust you just because you’re a lawyer.  I’m sure some of you are saying, “Duh. That’s not some brilliant insight.”  Except that it is.  If you are a lawyer, think seriously about your last few new client meetings.  How much consideration did you give to truly building your client’s confidence in your trustworthiness? No matter how well-educated you are, how successful you’ve been, or how well-known your law firm is, clients don’t trust you right out of the box no matter how confident they might be in your abilities.  The trust part of the attorney-client relationship is earned.  Your resume is the reason you (or your firm) got hired in the first place; it’s not the reason the client keeps you around.  Don’t walk into a new client meeting assuming you are smarter, know more or are better prepared than the client.  Free your mind of generalizations, stereotypes, gender roles and age or experience gaps and remember one hugely important thing:  you and your client are human beings with actual feelings.  If you think you’re nervous, it’s a sure thing that the person sitting in the client chair is scared to death no matter how brave a face she puts on.  What a client wants isn’t so much for you to impress her with how much law you know but for you to listen to and hear her.  Your client needs to know you’ve got her back.  That’s what builds trust.  Without it, the client will (consciously or not) withhold important information from the lawyer, and that will always leave the lawyer at a dangerous disadvantage in defending or prosecuting a case.  There’s a reason counselor is a synonym for lawyer, and it’s not coincidence.

Preparation.  I truly thought I knew how to prepare a witness for deposition or trial testimony before this experience.  I even thought I did a good job at it.  Now, I know I overestimated myself.

Until you sit in that witness chair for eight hours, having your work or actions questioned, misrepresented, twisted, maligned, skewed and then questioned again, you cannot possibly appreciate what a physically and mentally taxing experience it is for the witness. The best analogy I can give comes from golf.  When you walk up to the tee, you must consider so many things before swinging that club:  the fairway, the hazards, body alignment, grip strength, swing speed, wind direction, and optimal shot position.  You can’t stand in the tee box all day contemplating these variables — there are players waiting and only so many hours of daylight.

Being a witness is a lot like being a golfer — there are (too) many things going on at once:  listen to the question, process what’s asked, focus on answering the question accurately, avoid volunteering information or over-answering, anticipate the next question, wait for objections and try to interpret what guidance you might from them, keep your emotions in check, speak clearly, and do not talk over anyone else.  Now, do all of this with sufficient speed to avoid any awkward gaps or pauses in the testimony that might make a listener think you’re concocting an answer instead of stating facts.

It’s really damn hard.  First, the witness will be nervous, especially if never been deposed before.  It didn’t matter that I’ve taken more depositions than I can remember or that I was confident in the correctness of my position going into the deposition.  I still barely slept the night before, I choked down my coffee the morning of, and I was sweating by the time I sat down next to the court reporter.  Nervousness makes it very hard to remember and follow all the directions you’re given, no matter how many times you’ve heard them.  Second, at some point (if not immediately) the witness will feel defensive.  Who among us likes to have our competence or veracity questioned?  Defensiveness is a natural and hard-to-control reaction to someone expressing or implying that you’re lying or stupid, and that feeling is also bound to make following directions near impossible.  Third, testifying is tiring.  The average adult has an attention span of about 17 minutes.  The average deposition takes about four hours.  Witnesses who are nervous, defensive and exhausted are probably more dangerous than a drunken toddler wielding a kitchen knife near a light socket.

Allow me to make my (paraphrased) deposition testimony Exhibit A:

Q.  Is it possible you meant [to say the sky is green] when you wrote this?

A.  Counsel, I’ve told you five or six times now that I don’t remember writing these words.  I’m not going to guess at what it means.  I don’t remember.

Q.  But, I’m just asking you whether it’s possible that’s what you meant.

A.  I’m not going to guess.  You’re entitled to my best estimate, but I don’t have to guess.

Q.  But, I’m just asking whether it’s possible.  You know whether it’s possible, right?

A.  Sure.  I might win the lottery tomorrow, too.

It’s a stupid exchange that ended in me conceding what was ultimately an irrelevant point.  But, I still gave in.  My frustration and exhaustion allowed me to let my snark flag fly despite years of training to avoid exactly that.  Yet, I somehow expect a witness — whose job is not being a witness but doing whatever else that person does for a living — to magically follow the deposition rules perfectly the first time out of the gate.  That would be like asking my legal writing students to start the class by taking the final.  Every once in a while, someone might be a natural and knock one over the fence.  Most of them, though, will fail and miserably so.

There is only one sure way to help a witness overcome the unfortunate side-effects of exhaustion, defensiveness and nervousness (or its unhappy cousin — arrogance):  conditioning.

You must examine and cross-examine your witness over and over again ahead of time.  Don’t just sit together for hours pondering documents or speculating about what the witness might be asked.  Depose your witness. Cross-examine your witness.   Ask the difficult or even nasty questions that will be asked at the deposition or at trial.  Try to impeach the witness.  Make the witness actually experience what’s going to happen the day of testimony.  Have another lawyer or a paralegal who’s good with the rules of evidence sit in to make objections to your questions so that the witness experiences the interruption and learns how to respond to it.  Show the witness documents in the context of how he or she will be questioned about them.  Question the witness about prior deposition testimony. Engage this process for as many hours as you can so you and the witness feel the experience, too.

Preparing this way does double duty.  It enables the witness to appreciate the emotional, physical and mental experiences of testifying in a way that no amount of discussion can.  It also helps the lawyer identify the strengths and weaknesses in the client’s case and testimony.  Lawyers come from the same species as jurors.  (I swear, it’s true.)  If a witness’s practice testimony leaves you with a sense of accomplishment, that’s probably going to be the jury’s take-away, too.  Conversely, if the practice testimony fills you with dread, you have a chance to polish as much as possible to minimize damage.  But, you can’t possibly assess these things in the abstract, and you sure as hell don’t want to find this out during the real show.

Faith.   As a lawyer, I’ve been frustrated with the occasional vagaries of the legal system.  Despite a judicial error or wayward juror here or there, I believe the system works, because — more often than not — it does.  (And, I’m speaking here philosophically — we can talk about whether the actual mechanics of our underfunded and oddly organized state court systems “work” another time.)  There is, however, no substitute for putting your fate in the hands of that system to truly test the strength of your conviction in its functionality.  From my witness experience, I gained a profound appreciation for what it is we ask a client to do when the client submits its financial, business, mental, emotional, physical or familial future to the decisions of one or more people who can know only precious little about the experiences that led the client to that courtroom.

I am a better lawyer for this experience.  I will be more conscious of my role not just as a legal adviser but as a counselor, a cheerleader, a gatekeeper and a teacher.  I will assume less and listen more.  I will include patience and sympathy in my hourly rate.  I will earn trust, I will proactively practice preparation and I will build faith.  I will also forever wonder why being deposed or cross-examined wasn’t part of the “performance tests” on the Bar exam …

Autism, Perception, Reality and Glass Houses

I remember being in the doctor’s office.  My daughter was there, and so was my husband.  Our pediatrician was also in the room, which was uncomfortably small to begin with let alone with four people sardine-canned into it.  My daughter was on the examination table, and my husband was talking with the pediatrician.  I was half listening and fully trying to make sure my daughter stayed on the table, because the last person on earth in front of whom you want to fail the Parent Test is your kid’s doctor.  My daughter was upping the ante on me, because she was wicked pissed off at both the texture and sound coming off the paper protector topping the examination table, on which she was sitting more or less naked.  How’s that for foreshadowing?

Then, you know that moment in films — usually of the horror variety — when the victim looks down the hallway for an escape, but the walls suddenly slide in and the hallway narrows into an abyss with no clear exit?  That scene was not the product of some special effects master’s imagination.  That, my friends, really happens when you hear or see something that scares the sugar honey iced tea out of you.  I know, because that is precisely what happened when I heard the word “autism” come out of the pediatrician’s mouth right next to my daughter’s name.  Claustrophobic took on a whole new meaning.

I had this moment more than a year ago.  My daughter was not quite three when she was diagnosed.  In the interim, we’ve been to classes, workshops, counseling.  We’ve researched everything we could find, enduring the frustration of separating the good information from the bad — the evidenced-based information from the hysterical reaction pieces.  We read about other parents’ heartaches as we endured our own.  We’ve enrolled our daughter in school, and we are so very, very fortunate to have her in a terrific Autism-specific classroom near our home.

Despite all this forward progress, however, there is something with which I struggle and am continually amazed:  how everyone else reacts to a child with Autism.

There were people who disappeared from our lives soon after they heard about the diagnosis.  On one level, I understand this reaction.  They understood the diagnosis was not welcome news, didn’t know what to say, and didn’t want to put a foot in it, so they bolted.  Totally get it, especially from people we knew only casually.   But, it was unsettling when people we knew well were stampeding over the casual-acquaintances to get out of Dodge.  As much as it hurt in the beginning, I’m somewhat relieved about this now — better to know up front that you can’t rely on someone than to allow him or her to bring down the house of cards that is the daily life of a special needs parent.  Support system ain’t no joke in this town.

Then there are people who are aware of the diagnosis but approach my daughter as if she’s neurotypical (NT) anyway.  That sounds lovely, except it’s premised on this “logic”:  she looks “normal,” she’s cute, she smiles a lot and she lets her parents and brother touch her, so she should act the same toward everyone else.  To these folks I say: she can’t.  She can’t act toward you the same way she does toward someone else or even the same way she acted toward you the last time she saw you.  Yes, I know last time she was passing out high-fives and hugs like a politician at a town hall in an election year.  But, often (and there is no predicting it), she can’t look at you while you’re talking to her, because that interaction requires way more sensory input than she can handle. She can’t answer your question, because she simply lacks the verbal capacity to do so.  My daughter’s brain works so hard to translate “How old are you?” from sounds into words, it’s nothing short of a miracle when she also processes the meaning and says “four.”  And, no, I’m not a bad mom because she can’t sit nicely in that chair.  My daughter needs occupational therapy to help her sit still in a chair at school, which is a highly controlled environment, so it’s definitely not happening at [insert strange place full of unwanted stimuli].

There are also people who assume that Autism and cognitive intelligence are inextricably intertwined.  They realize my daughter has memorized the entire screenplays for A Bug’s Life and about 15 episodes of Wonder Pets, including pauses, intonations and gestures, and then refuse to believe she is physically unable to communicate or interact socially with others.  To these folks I say:  Autism is very real, she isn’t going through “a phase” and she isn’t “acting out.”  In fact, my daughter’s intelligence only makes your behavior toward her more painful, because someday (if not now) she will understand what you say about her, she will recognize the social inappropriateness of her behavior, and she will be wholly unable to change it.  Stop for a minute and ask yourself how you’d feel if this was your reality.

I have the hardest time with this response to my daughter.  My brain tells me I should seize these moments as learning opportunities for whomever is getting in my daughter’s dish, because that’s what’s best for my daughter in the long run.  But my heart cannot take too many more of these encounters before it acts faster than my brain.  So, to these people I also offer this advice:  open up that Google-thingy, do a little reading, and stop talking about my daughter like she’s a spoiled toddler who can’t understand what you’re saying to her.  She isn’t, she does, and I am a professionally trained verbal-dress-down ninja with laser-like aim and an itchy trigger finger guided by a mother’s instincts.

It’s amazing how living with a child on the spectrum changes your perspective.  I will never walk through a store or sit in a restaurant again, glaring at the parent whose kid seems out of control, full of judgment and such certainty that I would never allow such behavior.  Ha!  Now, I look at the expressionless parents of the child thrashing on the floor in full-on-fit mode in the middle of Target, I immediately recognize the sleep deprivation written all over them, and I send up a silent prayer that they make it from there to the car without enduring some self-righteous jerk’s insults advice.

I wish there were no Autism Spectrum Disorders.  But, until that’s possible, I wish that the lady glaring at me in the grocery line because my daughter still carries a blanket or wears pull-ups had to live a minute in my skin – or better yet, my daughter’s.  If I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s that you never know when that fortress you’ve built around your aura will turn into a glass house.  Life has a funny way of making that happen, and you probably don’t want to be caught standing there in your living room naked and holding a big ol’ rock when it does.