Remote Learning & Small Moments Help Ward Off the “Empty Days” of Quarantine

Last week, George, wrote about his experience co-parenting his 6 year old autistic son as the COVID-19 pandemic began.

So, it kinda goes like this: Good day. Bad day. Good day. Bad day.

Then: Empty day.

By week three of my new quarantine life, I’ve found a pattern. At first I’d cycle through only good and bad days, but now there’s a wild card: the empty day. This is the kind of day where I’m so fully on auto-pilot it feels like I’m not even there. I awake so hazy and numb that even a couple cups of coffee can’t sharpen things into focus. I attempt to scroll through the latest news updates on my phone, but I’m unable to process all of the words. I skip showering for the second day in a row, but who am I trying to impress.

When my son Kieran starts pulling at my shirt and asking me for some cereal it pulls me out of the fog and I eventually get down to the business of his school assignments. The mundaneness of quarantine life is quietly devastating and these empty days are the most difficult to navigate, but they’re also forcing me to embrace the little moments of joy that still sprout through the ground, like the sad daffodils Kieran and I saw the other day as we walked through Astoria Park. Didn’t the flowers hear Spring was cancelled this year?

Most of these moments of joy do happen to come from Kieran, like the other morning when we delayed the start of our remote learning routine to work on building a Lego laboratory together in our pajamas. Or when we went up to the roof at 7 p.m. the other night to watch the sunset and clap and cheer for our first responders. Or anytime he says one of those Kieranisms that I always get such a kick out of.

This week he had a lot of those, but my favorite was last Thursday, on Autism Awareness Day, when we discussed autism. I reminded him that his autism means he has a different way of thinking than other people and he responded,“doesn’t everyone have a different way of thinking? Not everyone thinks the same.”

“Hmm” I thought to myself, “he’s got a point.”

The aforementioned remote learning has been a great source of structure and consistency for Kieran, but it can also be a part time job for Kieran’s mom and myself, so I guess it’s a good thing we’re both unemployed now. Yeah, that’s some gallows humor, but the truth is I do feel for the parents who’ve been juggling working from home with the extra weight of teaching at home. It’s a lot, especially if your kid has trouble focusing.

Kieran is not a self starter when it comes to his schoolwork and, despite the fact that he can absorb information like a sponge, he is selective about what he can take in and when. I often picture what the inside of his head must be like as this big hive with bees buzzing all around, like all the random synapses in his little brain firing off in randomly obtuse directions, and him just trying to keep up with it all. When I remind myself of that, I understand why Kieran sitting still for a social studies lesson could be impossible.

A couple of years back, when we were trying to find a pre-K for Kieran that could support his needs, we toured one school that initially looked amazing. We popped into a classroom and a teacher gamely tried to get Kieran to do a few different tasks, which he quickly ignored. After a few minutes, she turned to us and said, “Hmm, he seems pretty self-directed. I’m not sure this is the right fit for him.”

Despite the rejection, I’ve grown to fancy that term: self-directed. It’s such a nice way to describe someone who won’t or can’t take direction.

Fortunately, Kieran’s IEP (“individual education plan,” designated by the school system) requires him to have a “para” — essentially an assistant teacher that solely works with Kieran to help keep him on task. Kieran has been lucky to have some great paras, most notably the one that he’s had from kindergarten to first grade… up until the pandemic that is. Kieran misses his para, and I know that she misses him because she cares like that.

In these quarantine days, we gently ramp up to his school work and hope for the best. After a couple of meltdown days last week for both Kieran and yours truly, I’ve tried to be more flexible about his assignments — a little more zen. Most of the work will get done, but maybe some won’t, and that’s okay. But when, after hours of patience and encouragement, none of the work gets done, it’s tough not to feel defeated. I look in the mirror after those days and I recognize the same weary exhaustion his para would have from time to time when I’d pick him up at school. “Yeah, today was a tough day”, she’d say, “but you know how it is.”

I think this would be an appropriate moment to pause and thank all the educators, teachers, and school administrators who do what they do. I’d like to believe most parents never take these people for granted, but if I’m to believe my Facebook feed, a lot of parents are just waking up to how challenging it can be to wrangle and educate a roomful of 15-30 kids from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., five days a week. Kieran’s mom and I know precisely how tough he can be and we truly cherish the teachers and paras that work with him. Not just because they work with him through his most defiant autistic moments, but because, despite those, they also love and advocate for him as strongly as we do. After this is all over, please let there be a silver lining wherein educators are no longer taken for granted or underpaid.

Good day. Bad day. Good day. Bad day.

Empty day.

I’m still hoping to have some back to back good days.

For now, though, I’ll take the beautiful little moments amidst the fog of uncertainty like Kieran telling an older man flying a drone in Astoria Park, “I want to touch your drone but because of coronavirus I have to stay over here.” Or laughing with friends as we goof around with our custom backgrounds on Zoom. Or making a meal for myself that I’ve never made before, which fortunately tastes pretty good. Or the slightly painful hugs Kieran gives right before going to bed, his arms becoming vice grips of love. These are the things that can fill up the empty days.