I have a 4-year-son and an 84-year-old father. This is a conversation I recently had with one of them:

Me: What did you do yesterday?

Him: Oh, it was terrible.

Me: Why? What happened?

Him: Some people came into my room and took me to a forest. Then they left me there alone.

Me: Wow!

Him: I walked around for hours. I was scared and hungry.

Me: How’d you get back?

Him: Someone found me and took me back home.

If you think the “him” refers to my 4-year-old, you’d be wrong. The conversation was with my agitated 84-year-old father who actually believed this happened to him. I can assure you it did not. My widowed father is a fairly active man for his age. He lives in a nice senior living facility. My son is a healthy, precocious kid. He lives at home and goes to preschool. On the surface, these two people are far more different than similar. My father, for example, was an accomplished physician. My son pretends he’s a pilot. My dad has travelled the world and will eat almost anything. My son likes to play in his room and does not like green beans. My father, however, does have quickly advancing Alzheimer’s disease, and this has created stark similarities between the two of them.

My dad’s short-term memory has become nearly non-existent; his longterm memory is there but getting cloudier by the week, and his cognitive abilities and what was once an extraordinary talent to connect and interact with others has dwindled significantly. As my son has evolved out of toddlerhood, my father has devolved into a sort of “geriatric toddlerhood.” At 4 and 84, they’ve crossed developmental stages, and I’ve been put in the odd and most unexpected position of having to “parent” them simultaneously.

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The simplest explanation or instruction to my father is immediately forgotten. The same question will be asked two or three or 15 times. Rarely a tiny morsel of a conversation will be retained, but more often the slate is wiped clean. My “other child” seems to also suffer from a form of short-term memory loss. If I tell him not to jump on the couch, he will stop. Five minutes later, he will be leaping off the cushions again. My son will latch onto a topic, say, clouds, and ask the same question over and over again even after a thorough and illustrated explanation. “But whyyyyyyy does it rain?” In both cases, I find myself repeating the same response numerous times. With my father, the answers don’t sink in. My son just likes hearing me repeat myself.

One of my greatest joys as a parent is introducing my son to the wonders of the world. The simplest things can elicit the most sincere reactions of awe. I can hold his attention for 30 minutes straight just blowing bubblegum bubbles. My father is equally impressed with life’s innovations. One recent night in our kitchen, he picked up what was to him an odd instrument. He asked me what it was. I looked at him, trying to determine if he was joking and quickly realized he wasn’t. “Dad, that’s a corkscrew. You know, to open bottles,” I said. He marveled at it again, slowly turning and examining it before asking me if it was a new invention. Another time he went on and on about how he’d never tasted the delicious and “exotic” fruit I’d just given him. It was a normal peach.

When my son discovers something new, it’s wonderful to see his imagination blossoming with possibilities. To see a fully-grown, educated and well-travelled man do the same is one of the more heartbreaking things I’ve ever had to witness — even if it was a particularly good peach. I find myself spouting parental clichés a lot these days. Things like “Do you need to pee?” or “Leave that there; it doesn’t belong to you.” Sadly, I say these things to my father as often as I say them to my son. About the time my son figured out how to put on his own underpants, I witnessed my dad struggling to put on a t-shirt. “There are too many holes. I don’t know where to put what” was his matter-of-fact rationalization. On several occasions, I’ve found my dad trying to roll a sweater up his legs, at a loss as to why it wasn’t working. My son does this kind of thing too, but in his case, he’s in on the joke.

I consider one of my main parenting duties to be setting appropriate boundaries and guiding my child towards what’s right and safe. My son now mostly understands that he shouldn’t draw on the walls with markers and that he shouldn’t walk out of the house unaccompanied. Just as my son is gaining common sense, my dad is losing it. In trying to decorate his room with photos and personal artwork, my father glued them directly to the wall, making it impossible to remove them without ripping the drywall. Without supervision, my dad will literally walk away from home and not know how to get back. I’m never sure what disaster I will find after leaving my son or my father unattended. I don’t want to imagine what would happen if I left them alone together.

When our son turned 2 and a half, my wife and I started the hunt for a preschool. At the same time, I was looking for a place where my father could spend some productive daytime hours. We found a great school for my son and a wonderful senior daycare for my dad. Essentially, there was not much difference between the two places. Both were cheerful with excellent staff, and each offered a variety of activities such as crafts and music. Both also offered abundant opportunities to meet and socialize with others. The first day of “school” for each of them was bizarrely similar. I led each by the arm into class. Both were nervous. Both clung close to me, eyes darting around this unfamiliar new landscape as friendly staff approached and greeted us warmly. It took some coaxing, but eventually each let go of my arm and joined the group. Once they did, it was as if they’d been going there for years. Now I get the weekly influx of expressionist artwork from both of them. Both of their art hangs in my home. Every so often, I’m called in for a “Parent/Teacher” conference for my son and a “Your Parent/Teacher” conference for my dad. Both are doing well, enjoy their activities and seem to be quite popular with the other kids.

There are many other examples of this overlap between my dad and my son that nag and keep me on edge. There’s the constant fear that I will lose either of them in a crowd. There’s the effort and oversight it takes to get them dressed or to the bathroom. There are the frustrated outbursts they both have on occasion from their inability to express themselves effectively — my son because he just hasn’t learned enough words and my father because he’s forgotten too many. Lest we forget the anticipatory dread of going out into the world with two people who possess no “thought filter.” I’ve had to explain to my son and my father on more than one occasion why saying that someone is fat or smelly while also standing within earshot of said person is “not OK.” “But they are!” is their unabashed response.

Despite it all, I’ve discovered something valuable and meaningful. This experience with my dad, as stressful and difficult as it has been at times, has profoundly changed me. For a long time, I would find it difficult and annoying to handle my father’s repeated questions. I’d find myself angrily thinking, “Damn it, you were a doctor for %$&#* sake, how can you not know that?” It would make me resentful having to cue and correct my father’s behavior. “Really?! You think the refrigerator is a closet?” My dad’s worsening condition made me incredibly frustrated, angry and bitter. I’d have to resist the urge to yell at him or walk away in utter aggravation. He’d become a child, and I’d become his parent. I hated it. I resented what was happening and, as unfair as it sounds, was starting to resent him as well. Then it hit me. This odd role-reversal made me realize that life is, and forgive the Disney reference here, a circle — or maybe a bell curve, depending on how much of a geek you are. We start at zero, acquire the elements that make us who we are, and then, if we last long enough, it all starts to go away.

This fresh way of thinking about my dad’s condition altered my perception and has impressed upon me that his mental demise isn’t deserving of my anger or resistance. It’s worthy of my patience and understanding. My dad and my son are two sides of life’s coin. Since the onset of my dad’s disease, I’ve had to become increasingly more adept at thinking quickly on my feet to redirect his behavior or adjust his mood. I’ve had to choose patience and humor over frustration and anger in dealing with his missteps and repeated inquiries. I’ve come to understand that it doesn’t help to deal in facts because he has a different sense of reality. I’ve learned that what matters is to address his emotional state and work from there. It’s required constant assessment and an evolving strategy to recognize what actions will work best at any given moment. And therein lies the biggest realization of them all. This is parenting.

All of the techniques and skills I’ve had to develop to take care of my dad are exactly the ones I need to raise my son. Ultimately, becoming a better son to my father has made me a better father to my son. I’m currently at the top of the bell curve I mentioned earlier. From this vantage point, I’m able to see the side I just came up. And, if genetics have anything to say about it, I also see firsthand the side I’m about to head down.

I have two clear jobs. The first is to help my dad reach the end of his path with comfort and dignity. The second is to guide my son on his ascent with wisdom, acceptance and compassion. I want my son to appreciate and remember the kind of father I was to him just as I remember the wonderful father mine was to me. I want him to have the memory of a happy and rich childhood and appreciate the love he has in his life. Could there be a more important achievement for a parent? Providing all of this for my son does have one other selfish upside. I want him to think fondly of me and act with compassion when he’s at the top of his bell curve and I’m trying to hang my pants in the refrigerator for the fifth time.

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My daughter and I have been reading the book, “Miss Nelson Is Missing,” which features an infamously mischievous class. We read about students throwing paper planes in the air and how they were “the worst behaved class in the school.” My daughter noted that they behaved “like Lizzie,” who’s a child in one of her toddler classes.

“Oh,” I responded. “Does Lizzie sometimes have a hard time listening and following the rules?”

My daughter concurred.

“Yeah,” I continued. “Sometimes it’s hard to listen and follow the rules. That’s hard for you sometimes, too, right? Like the other day when you threw a block?”

My daughter agreed that following the rules could be hard for her, too.

“And you know what? “Some children need different things than others so they can learn and be happy and successful — do your teachers help Lizzie when she’s having a hard time following the rules so she can be happy and successful?”

“Sí!” she responded.

“What do they do?” I asked.

“Sit in the teacher’s lap.”

“Oh,” I replied. “Does that help her listen so she can learn and be successful in your class?”

“Sí!” my daughter acquiesced.

“Good. I’m glad she is getting what she needs so she can learn.”

At Community Roots, an incredible, diverse charter school where I had the privilege of working at over a four-year period, an inclusion model exists in every classroom. Each class has two teachers — one with certification in general education and the other with certification in special education — and at least 20 percent of the students in every classroom have IEPs (Individualized Education Program). The school’s philosophy is that every student will get what they need to learn. This philosophy serves not only to meet the learning needs of students with IEPs but also to build a classroom culture where every student in the class understands this maxim. In this way, giving students “what they need to be successful” is in no way seen as a deficit. Ultimately, this culture benefits all students.

I want my daughter to understand that everyone learns in different ways and has different learning needs —and I want her to know that structures can and should support the learning needs of all students. I don’t want her to ever consider any individual student through the lens of “less than.”

This post originally appeared on RaceConscious.org.

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If your life is everything you dreamed it would be or is giving you more than you could hope for, then congratulations. There’s no point in reading any further, although I might tell you to dream bigger.

However, I’d be willing to bet there’s at least one part of your life you’d like to change or improve, but you might not know how. Maybe you know what to do but don’t have the energy or motivation to even start. Or perhaps you say to yourself, “Well, it’s not really that bad so I can live with it. Others are worse off, so it’s OK.”

What’s preventing you from living the life you dream of living? For most people, it’s fear. Fear of changing, fear of giving up things, fear of failure. As a result, the first obstacle they encounter stops them in their tracks.

But the biggest reason so few of us are not “living the dream” is simply the result of how we see the world. That is the single biggest determinant of how we live our lives.

Think back to the birth of your child or of some family member. That little person comes into this world with a completely clean slate, having knowledge of nothing except, perhaps, their mother’s voice. When they become old enough to listen, you, their parents, and their teachers will encourage them to believe they can become just about anything they want to be. As they grow older and life gets more complicated, that conversation will change to include boundaries and rules and the need to ask for permission.

Don’t believe me? Then look back at how many times today your actions were based on perceived conditions or limits or because you needed someone’s approval. You can’t plan that trip because you don’t have enough money. You can’t take that training course because you didn’t get your boss’ approval. How did your life go from having no constraints at birth to a world governed by them?

Little by little, our language becomes filled with the things we can’t do or won’t be able to do or are not allowed to do. Our lives become dictated by what others believe we need to know or who we need to be. Little by little, the lens through which we see the world (let’s call this our life lens) limits what we actually see. Over time, this increases our awareness of what’s lacking in our lives, and that becomes all we see.

Let’s look at it another way, through a different lens (pardon the pun). With every action you performed today, did it take you closer to living the life you always dreamed of living? Do you even know what that life looks like?

None of us can pause or rewind our lives. They will continue without our permission. In other words, we don’t get a choice about living our lives. What we do get to choose is determining what matters most to each of us. If you’re going to put your energy into living a certain way, isn’t it better to be on what truly matters to you?


You will be thrown all kinds of ideas of how to live your life, what you should do and what you should learn. You can always default to living a life based on your current habits and patterns, but I can tell you that if you feel the least bit inhibited or restricted living this way, then this is a life you are not meant to be living.

When my son, Ben, came into the world, his so-called completely clean slate was instantly marred with phrases like, “never walk, talk or go to school” and “has no potential.” Seemingly impenetrable barriers were placed in his way from the outset with a singular focus on all the things he wouldn’t be able to do. At the time, we let these limiting views shape our life lens, which didn’t allow us to see a world beyond these constraints. Over the years, Ben’s ability to never give up helped us become aware that our habits and patterns were restricting his growth and ours.

We slowly began to alter our life lens to envision a different world:

     So, what if Ben could use a computer to speak instead of his lips?

     What if he could be physically supported enough to allow him to use his legs to move?

     What if schools truly included him and he was given the right environment to learn?

If we could envision all of these things happening, how would we be living our lives? Answer: A world of never walking, talking or going to school would be history.

I believe the physicists who tell us that subatomic particles like protons and electrons exist even though I can’t see them. Put another way, just because I can’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. But if I assume these things do exist, then my awareness of a world beyond what I can see is greatly heightened and improved.

So, what does particle physics have to do with living a life you always dreamed of living? Well, that’s precisely the first step – start believing that all you see (or are told to see) is not all there is. How you see the world determines how you will live your life.

If you’re a parent of a child with a disability (like me), taking this first step will allow you to shift your focus to the things your child can do.

If you’re a healthcare professional helping to heal your patients, taking this first step will start to show you a world that’s more than just pathology and deficits.

If you’re an educator, taking this first step will help you broaden your reach to include and support all students.

Change your world view and your life will change. I guarantee it.

This post originally appeared on Third Time Lucky.

For all of March, The Mighty is asking its readers the following: If you could write a letter to the disability or disease you (or a loved one) face, what would you say to it? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please  include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio.

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Does the heading above for my letter to autism sound odd to you? It’s my son’s birth right, if you will, but I accept it daily. What is this, you say? Me, accept it daily, how dare… Wait, let me explain.

It is his diagnosis, yes, not mine. It’s a part of him and not all of him — let me first say that so we’re clear. It’s a part of him that’s a daily challenge, and I wake to it each and every day. I greet it with my first cup of coffee, and it joins me in my first prayers of the day before I can even begin them. It follows him to school in our car and into the classroom inside his backpack. His challenges stay with him through the morning hours of learning and even through the lunchroom and bathroom after that. They don’t leave him as he attempts to make friends on the playground at recess late in the day either. His challenges hang on tightly up until I roll up in that pick-up line to get him and he greets me with an all too familiar sigh of relief.

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Yes, Autism, you cause many anxieties and uncertainties in my son’s life, and I know you will continue to attempt this therefore — you are my challenge. I take you on daily, and it’s personal. I could choose to sit back and let you work your destruction through his life and turn a blind eye to what might come of him, but Autism, that’s not going to happen; you’ve picked on the wrong family! I will question his diagnosis, I will question his therapies — current and future — I will question his education — each and every year — and I will question other obstacles down the road. So far, from questioning these things, this child of mine who once had no words is now a verbal second grader who made the honor roll this year. He’s tried his hand at horseback riding and even had the chance to play on our city league basketball team (a team sport… hmm… Hello, Autism. You normally say those with you just cannot play in team sports. Well take that shut up juice !). He not only learned to put one through a basket but also — and this is the best part (so listen up, Autism) — a bunch of 9- and 10-year-olds accepted him, more or less, for who he is — just a kid, like them.

Autism, you no doubt will continue to challenge us, and we will take you on daily. I for one am not worried; I have a lot of coffee and prayer awaiting you.  See you in the morning hours — as always!

Follow this journey on Oatmeal and Bakugans.

For all of March, The Mighty is asking its readers the following: If you could write a letter to the disability or disease you (or a loved one) face, what would you say to it? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please  include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio.

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A letter to my son’s autism:

Before I had you, I worked in public schools with all kinds of special needs children. I thought, “Thank God that is not me,” or “I could never do that.” Then you came into my life. Snuck into it, really.

I would “cure” my son of you in a heartbeat. While it’s hard, frustrating and exhausting at times, there’s a different side to it as well. First off, let me tell you a bit about my son. He’s going to be 9, he’s completely nonverbal (but does use a cool device to talk), is partial potty trained and at times elopes (a fancy word for him escaping the house and scaring us spit-less since he has no safety awareness whatsoever).

Yet I’ve learned to be patient in the most extreme of times. I’ve learned not to take anything for granted — not a hug, not a smile, not a word uttered, not my children’s friendships and not the kindness of others. And that includes my other children. It makes me appreciate what they go through and even better understand their issues. Through classes and other means I’ve learned tools to deal with things in a different, more caring manner, even though I’m not a patient person by nature.

It’s taught me extreme differences make a better world, a different world and can make people better.

I’m now an advocate for the disabled and anyone who needs it. I took a class called “Partners in Policymaking,” which is put on by the Minnesota Governors Council for Developmental Disabilities. It taught me how to be a more effective advocate. The class is in around 33 states and for those with disabilities and those with children or family members with disabilities. I highly recommend it. There, I made all kinds of friends and learned to be even more patient and to listen. Our group was able to see and celebrate with a cognitively delayed woman as she advocated for herself. She was able to move from a home she hated into a shared apartment with supports.

I now have friends I never would have had. And these are real friends. Not the ones who will stab you in the back or take offense at the slightest comment. Ones who actually love me, and I’m not easy to love. I have a strong personality, and I make no apologies for it.

It’s taught my children there’s another world out there and even more careers than I knew existed full of caring people. It’s taught them that people with disabilities have value. It’s made them stronger because at times I can’t attend to their needs right away when I’m helping their brother. That’s a hard one for me. I can’t walk my daughter to her bus in the morning — she’s now in first grade. I’m lucky her bus stop is around the corner from our home and I can see it from the window. Autism has helped make her strong and independent.


I have to say… I have a love/hate relationship with autism.

For all of March, The Mighty is asking its readers the following: If you could write a letter to the disability or disease you (or a loved one) face, what would you say to it? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please  include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio.

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unnamed (10) It was just a silly, innocent picture someone posted on social media.

They truly meant no harm by it. I know they just wanted to make people laugh, and they did. In the photo, one person posed with a walker, one with a cane, and someone else sat in a wheelchair. The caption of the photo read something along the lines of, “Disabled or not, we have each other.” 

Is there anything wrong with that? No. They were using these devices as part of a class assignment in their college course; I assume the point of it was to experience what living with a disability is really like, at least for a little while.

I’m a 20-year-old girl, and I rely on all three of those devices to move about the world. The comments people wrote about the photo simply surprised me, and I’d be lying if I said they didn’t make me at least a little bit sad. People wrote things like, “Crying laughing X 3” “Hilarious!” “I’m crying [laughing]” and “That’s a good look on you.”

I really do get it. We all laugh at silly things. However, I know what it’s like to not just pretend to have a disability. I’ll tell you a little secret: it really can be hilarious and fun living with those devices as a part of life. And I relate to the “crying laughing” feeling when one of my friends or family members says or does something so funny that actual tears start running down my face. 

I love to shop, and I’d like to try to think that this whole disability thing is a “good look” for me. Currently, I’m working hard to achieve the perfect “walker” look, and I think I’m getting the hang of it. It’s nerve wracking for me to try a new style, but it’s always good to test your self-confidence. I mean, I never knew having a disability was a “look,” but apparently I’ve been rockin’ it for 20 years… Try to keep up.

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