There’s just something about that flight.

Once again I sat on a Chicago-bound airplane, about 30,000 feet above the earth, when the tears started flowing. It’s nothing new. I have been crying on that hour-long flight from Kansas City to Chicago for years. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the airlines put me on some sort of ‘emotional wreck’ watch list.

I was pretty comfortable in seat 14-C. My two-and-a-half-year-old precocious daughter sat next to me in the window seat. And across the aisle was Will: my stunningly handsome preschooler. The airlines didn’t put anyone else in our row (again, evidence of ‘the list’). Will sat next to the window so he could lift and lower the shade. His seatbelt remained buckled. He finally gave up trying to push the overhead ‘call button’. Will knows his limits; even with the help of his plastic Iron Man, he was too short. He occasionally kicked the seat in front of him, but luckily the man in that seat was friendly and graciously accepted our (make that, ‘my’) apologies. As Will sat gazing out onto the Midwestern sky… probably over some hard working farmer’s crops… it hit me. He was sitting nicely. Quietly. He was working on some sort of imaginary play. Maybe it just was the fact that his toy raised its arms when he squeezed the legs– more ’cause-and-effect’ than ‘play’– but it kept him busy. It looked typical, ‘normal’. Sitting in 14-A he could be any kid. But he wasn’t. He was, is, my Will. And just like that farmer, he and I have toiled very, very hard to get to this point.

Three years earlier Will and I were on the same flight. Just the two of us. I was pregnant with my daughter, Francie. It was a warm spring afternoon. The airlines boarded the plane late. And then once we were onboard, there was an issue with the air conditioner. An issue that meant instead of cool, refreshing air, hot air was pouring out into cabin. Our plane was not moving. Stuck– for an eternally long moment– on a runway at O’Hare. It started to get hot. Will started to get antsy. Yelling, screaming, kicking. The professionals had not yet diagnosed him as being on the autism spectrum. I just thought that’s how two-year-olds react to being stuck on a runway (thanks to the internet, we know some adults act even worse). But now I know it was more. He was frustrated. Angry. Unable to communicate. Overloaded by an assault on his senses. I walked with him. And it got hotter. The flight attendants– apparently concerned I was going to dramatically give birth on board– kept handing me ice cold paper towels. Will screamed more. The temperature rose. Thankfully, our seats were surrounded by the University of Texas Women’s tennis team. These ladies were funny and easy going. I remember one suggesting that we get my little Will naked so he wouldn’t be so hot. It’s nice to be able to laugh when all you want to do is cry.
Eventually the heat stopped. The cool air started to fill the plane and we took off for Kansas City.

I’d be lying if I said that three years later we have arrived. There’s still more work to do. But I was struck by the sight of my little guy: All of a sudden he’s sitting nicely in his seat, drinking his Sierra Mist with two hands. For that, I raise my glass. A toast to all the professionals who have spent countless hours with him. A toast to my family who has not only adapted to Will and his behavior– but somewhat effortlessly learned how to engage him. A toast to my husband who never once expressed disappointment that his only son might never be able to sit and do typical father-son things stuff. A toast to Will who probably thinks we are all a little ‘off’, but has accepted his ‘neurotypical family’ the way we are. And finally, dammit, a toast to me! There have been times I want to pull the emergency exit and slide off this ride, but it’s my awesome little buddy that keeps me on board. Thanks for coming along on our journey, Leslie

Homework Help for Kids with Special Needs

By: Terri Mauro

It’s normal for a child to hate doing homework, but for children with special learning, motor or developmental needs, that hatred can blow up into tantrums, meltdowns, and endless nag-a-thons. It doesn’t have to be that way. There are ways to make the homework experience less painful for all involved. You may have to insert some of these things into your child’s IEP to get full cooperation from teachers, but it’s worth it. Done right, homework can provide good reinforcement both for facts learned in school and for parent-child relationships.

Find the right place. It’s good for your child to have a regular spot to do his or her homework — anything that adds a layer of routine to a disruptive task will be helpful. However, it doesn’t have to be a desk. Maybe the kitchen table works better, because it’s easy for Mom and Dad to keep the motivation up while they prepare dinner. Maybe lying down on the floor to do homework works best for kids who have a hard time sitting. Even a place in front of the TV can be a decent homework spot if it keeps the distractible part of your child’s brain occupied so the rest can concentrate on schoolwork. Adopt a “whatever works”approach to your child’s homework workspace. And be prepared to change when it stops working.

Organize your technology. There’s a host of items that can assist your child in completing homework with less stress, ranging from low-tech — a piece of paper with a hole cut out so your child sees only one math problem at a time — to high — calculators, computerized flashcards, apps that solve problems and facilitate communication. Check our list of cool school tools for special-needs kids, and visit these online stores for more good ideas. And don’t shut out those other technological marvels your kids are addicted to. Listening to music on an iPod while working can help tune out distractions, and a video game after working can be a motivating reward.

Stay involved. You want to avoid actually doing the work for your child, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be his or her biggest cheerleader. Some kids benefit from small rewards after very small amounts of work done — a cracker as a reward for finishing a row of problems, for example. Others may need constant prompting and refocusing to get through their work. Reading or rephrasing questions for your child can sometimes help the right answer to pop out. There may be times when you will have to walk away to avoid becoming a distraction yourself, but for the most part, it will be beneficial for your child to see that homework is something you value enough to invest your time in it as well.

Make adjustments. Being involved with your child’s homework has another benefit: You can see what’s easy and what’s hard, what’s quick and what’s too time-consuming. Then, work with your child’s teacher to better tailor nightly assignments to his or her particular abilities. Teachers may feel strongly about the benefits of homework, but they usually don’t want it to be a nightly family battleground. Ask your child’s teacher if you can cut assignments short if they’re causing a problem, or skip them on nights when your child is upset or unable to focus. You may also want to have the option of writing down answers for a fine-motor-impaired child if writing becomes too frustrating. Send a note with the homework detailing your input.

Get the straight story. If your child isn’t bringing home an accurate list of the homework he or she needs to do, work with the teacher to improve the situation. Perhaps your child can carry a homework pad and the teacher or aide can check it at the end of the class or the day. The teacher may have a website that lists homework, or be willing to give you an e-mail address so you can make contact after hours if necessary. If your child has a friend in class, get a phone number and introduce yourself to his or her parents so you’ll have someone to call to double-check assignment details. You may also be able to get a set of textbooks to keep at home so your child will always have the materials needed.

Ensure delivery. The best homework in the world doesn’t do your child any good if it doesn’t get into the teacher’s hands. Kids with special needs often seem to have a special talent for losing, misplacing or forgetting their assignments, and that can send a grade rolling downhill fast. Check for yourself that the homework is in the backpack each day before sending your child off to school. Then check with the teacher on a regular basis to make sure it’s reaching its destination. A chart on which the teacher can check off whether homework was done or not might be a useful option. Use the chart as part of your home behavior plan, giving points or a reward if it’s checked, withholding points or privileges if it’s not.