Sometimes we get our biggest and best lessons during unexpected times. What happens when parenting takes the unexpected? You embrace it the best you can.
Five years ago I was pregnant for the first time. I found out I was pregnant the week after I accomplished my lifetime goal of running a half marathon under two hours. So naturally, when I found out I was going to be a mother, I was sure I was going to raise a child that was going to make healthy choices and eat well.
Here’s how that turned into an unexpected lesson.
My son’s feeding issues began right off the bat. We struggled with the whole breastfeeding thing and he gagged on nearly every bottle nipple I tried. I kept trying. I really had no other option but to keep trying. We celebrated every time he made it onto the growth chart at his pediatrician visits. Although a struggle, we made it through that first year.
As we reached the middle of his second year, new subtle worries settled in. I began to notice how the other kids in our mommy and me classes began saying words and phrases. My son, on the other hand, didn’t say anything. He would make sounds like “wa-wa” for water or point to something that he wanted. That partly felt like enough to me, but it pulled at my heart and made me feel like deep down something wasn’t quite right. I shoved that nagging worry down deep, thinking that he would grow out of it and that he was on his developmental timeline. It wasn’t until we went in for our routine pediatrician’s well visit at about two years old that I found out something might be wrong.
My child’s doctor had me fill out one of those developmental milestone questionnaires and began asking me the typical questions about his development. Through my deep daze and realization that things weren’t right, I bursted into tears. I felt so alone. My answer was “no” and “none” to all of those questions. I felt like a failure.
We Have a Plan – Early Interventions
The pediatrician was great. She rolled up her chair and sat down with me, telling me that we have a plan. She was going to send us over to the children’s hospital for an evaluation and refer us to Tri-Counties Regional Center. This was the first time I even heard that Tri-Counties Regional Center existed.
If you haven’t heard about Tri-Counties, let me tell you. Tri-Counties Regional Center is one of twenty-one non-profit regional centers in California providing lifelong services and support for people with developmental disabilities residing in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. I called them up and they had my son scheduled for an evaluation within weeks for their Early Start Program.
For the first time during the evaluation, I felt heard. I felt cared for. I felt like all the worries I had about my son that had been nagging at me for so long were seen, justified and had a solution. To qualify for the Tri-Counties Early Start Program, the child must have a development delay of at least 33%. My son’s communication delay qualified him for services. After our initial evaluation with Tri-Counties, they sent us to the Child Development Center in Simi Valley. We had to do more evaluations with a speech therapist and they found him to qualify for weekly speech therapy sessions that were all covered for by Tri-Counties.
During the speech evaluations, they also asked us questions about my son’s eating patterns. I told the therapist how selective his diet was and how he gagged on fruits and vegetables. It turns out it wasn’t that he didn’t like the taste of them, it was a texture issue with those foods. They had help for that too! They signed my son up for weekly feeding groups with incredible occupational therapists where he would sit-down at tiny child-size chairs and tables with a group of 4-5 other toddlers and together they would play with food, sing songs about food and eventually eat the food. They had my child eating vegetables. Of course it was the crunchy freeze dried veggies, but he was eating veggies without gagging. I will take it.
Shark Leg Braces
One day as we were walking out of our therapy group, one of the occupational therapists pulled me aside and asked how often my son was walking on his toes. I told her about 90% of the time. His toe walking was always something that nagged at me too, but I didn’t want to bother my two year old about it. I thought it would eventually go away too. But I guess toe-walking is actually a problem and can cause lifelong deformities in the Achilles tendons and the structure of the lower extremities. The occupational therapist told us she could help us out. We easily got a referral to add more play therapy to our treatment plan that would help stretch his ankles and help with his toe walking. My son’s doctor also referred us to a pediatric orthopedic specialist who was able to put my son in leg braces for a few months that helped to stretch his Achilles tendons. Either the tight ligaments around his ankles was a cause or a result or of his toe walking. The braces did help while I was educated on the sensory component of it. He was really into great white sharks at the time, and he got to pick out super cool great white shark leg braces. I was worried about sending him to his preschool in the braces, but it turns out shark leg braces are pretty cool among preschoolers.
A New Plan
Unfortunately, about this time it was a new year and March 2020 was approaching. Not only was my son turning three and outgrowing the age eligibility for the Tri-Counties Early Start Program, but the global pandemic lockdown was upon us. It was all going so well until now. With new challenges to face, his speech and occupational therapies all moved online.
Since he was no longer eligible for services through Tri-Counties because of turning three, my son was transitioned to the Conejo Valley Unified School District for special education. Despite the pandemic shutdown the transition went seamlessly and he qualified for speech therapy through the school district. We had our Individual Education Plan (IEP) meeting the Friday before the district shut down. But the early education department didn’t stop. I received an email from an incredible speech therapist who worked with the early education program and she got us set up on Zoom for virtual speech therapy. Sure, speech therapy through zoom with a three year old who barely had screen time until now wasn’t ideal at first, but as a family, we did our best to adjust.
Tools To Keep Working
The feeding group had completely ended because of the pandemic, but we continued with all the tools that the Child Developmental Center had taught me. The play based therapy was family centered. They didn’t only work one on one with my son, but they included me. I remember one day the occupational therapist had me lay on my belly on a board with wheels and together her and my son pulled and swung me around. I wasn’t able to stop or slow myself down. My son thought it was hilarious to scare me on his wild ride, but I learned to understand what it was like to be my son in an overstimulated environment without any control. My son loved it while I learned how to better relate to him. Our occupational therapy experience at the Child Development Center helped strengthen our bond. When it ended, I had the tools to keep working hard during the pandemic and my son transitioned from the crunchy dried broccoli to steamed broccoli at dinner.
Fast forward two more years and the pandemic is now at its tail-end. I recently found myself sitting in on my son’s final special education IEP meeting with the school district. I thought the meeting was to discuss his transition into Kindergarten, to talk about the special education program for Elementary students and how much speech therapy he was going to need while he was in Kindergarten. That meeting took me by surprise! My son’s therapist who I had met right at the start of the pandemic announced that “he no longer qualifies for speech therapy and we are discharging him from his IEP.” Tears filled my eyes. The principal asked me if I was okay. I said, “yes, I’m just so unbelievably proud of my son.” He never skipped a beat. He has met countless therapists over these three years and he has brought fun and joy into the process.
As we move into the summer before I send my sweet little son off to Kindergarten at the same level of all the other five year olds out there I can’t stop reflecting on our experience with early interventions. Last night we were flipping through the book “Go Dog, Go” as he was reading it to me! At dinner he tried a tomato. He spit it out telling me it was too slimy for him. I told him, “that’s okay, I am so happy you were brave and gave it a try.” I am so teary eyed as I acknowledge all that he is now capable of.
I am forever grateful for Tri-Counties Regional Center, the unbelievable speech and occupational therapists that work at the Child Development Center in Simi Valley, and the amazing staff at the Conejo Valley Unified District School, especially our Speech Therapist, Heather P. She worked tirelessly during the pandemic to deliver support to my son. She was an unbelievable asset to our journey who would sing songs and act silly to keep my three year old engaged online. She had all these preschool songs stuck in my head all day. But it was fun. We still sing many of them and love when Pete the Cat’s shoes get alllllll muddy and wet, but it’s “allllll groovy for him”. However, most of all I am incredibly proud of my son.
My son, who never skipped a beat.
My son who brought joy through difficult times.
Who taught me how to never ever give up and how it is okay to get some help when you need it. I am so proud of his bravery, resilience and determination. I can not wait to see him accomplish Kindergarten and more!
If you find yourself with little worries inside your mom heart, never be afraid to ask your pediatrician for more resources. They do exist. You can find more information about the Early Start Program and Tri-Counties Regional Center at www.tri-counties.org/early-start-services. Or feel free to reach out to me.