Raising a child with autism and being a Military Spouse is our honest conversation for Episode 2 of this unique Facebook Live series. You can see episode 1 here.
This time I’m joined by Sheena Arting, creator of The Dear MilFamily Podcast. Sheena talks about her son’s autism diagnosis, how they manage it while moving all over the country and having to constantly work with new doctors, and more.
She shares her journey and the struggles of navigating it all while also experiencing the demands of the military lifestyle.
Here’s the full Facebook Live, or you can read the full transcript below.
Pam Chavez: Hello and welcome to Military Spouse Spotlight: Honest Conversations. Today I have Sheena Arting, and we are going to talk about having a child with autism. I started this series because – and I was just chatting with Sheena before we got on and she’s much of the same – we really want to talk about the hard stuff and this lifestyle. It’s so easy to just sort of gloss things over and not really open up and discuss. There are so many challenges. This military lifestyle is very unique and then throw in the real world issues on top of it. And not long ago I opened up about my marriage struggles and I was flooded with private messages of people saying thank you for starting the conversation. And that really opened my eyes to, well, we need to do more of this, because it was so important for people to realize they weren’t alone in it. And if you’re not struggling yourself, chances are, you know, somebody or somebody very close to you is, and they’re just not talking about it. So I think when you can relate to other people, learn from other people and connect with others that are going through the tough times, I think there’s a lot of power in that. So thank you, Sheena, for being here today.
Sheena Arting: Thank you for asking me.
Pam: Yes. And she is the host of the Dear MilFamily podcast and that is super cool and I’m going to be on that soon coming up and I’m very excited about that. So tell me about your kiddos and a little bit of how this whole journey began because it’s fairly new for you, correct?
Sheena: Yes, it’s very recent, very fresh. So my husband and I, when we first got married, you know, of course, the natural progression is to want to start a family for most people, not everybody wants to. But we certainly did. And it took us a little bit of being married to kind of work out when we wanted to start having kids. And so we started in about six months after we got married, started trying. And you know, we had a really difficult time getting pregnant and went to my doctor who referred me to, at that time a reproductive endocrinologist. We were in San Antonio at Wilford Hall, at Lackland Air Force Base, and they have special military fertility treatment programs at different places all across the country. I want to say there’s probably about six different places.
But anyway, you know, so we went through, infertility treatments and tests and all that sort of thing to find out that, you know, we have a less than, was it 0.8% chance? I can’t, I can’t recall if it was 0.8, I think it was 0.8% chance of getting pregnant every month and everybody has about a 25% chance. If you don’t have any reproductive issues, you have a 20% chance. So we had about 0.8% chance of getting pregnant on our own. So we had to work really hard to get to have our children. We went through it a couple of IVF cycles, had a chemical pregnancy with one of them, but the second was successful and we had our first born son Collin, while my husband was actually going on his first appointment. So lots of things happening that year for us. Big, big things.
But yeah, so he was very much wanted and you know, we struggled and strived to have both of our kids. And when we accomplished that we were obviously happy, over the moon, excited and you know, just in love with both of them, you know, and both of them really kind of hit milestones because of course when you’re taking, when you have your baby you have to take them for their three day checkup, their three week checkup there, three month checkup, all of those, you know, checkups and they asked you if they’re doing this, if they’re doing that at each appointment. And he was hitting a lot of the milestones for a long time.
And I think when we moved back to Albuquerque and we were seeing a pediatrician there, I began to notice, you know, some things about him. He wasn’t keeping eye contact and he was just very high energy and a lot of toddlers are very high energy. But I guess I should say too that I’m an educator. I’m a teacher. I actually stopped teaching because my son was going through this, but as a teacher, I could recognize the signs of ADHD because I filled out lots of surveys for students about whether they have ADHD or not. So I could tell even from a young age that he was probably ADHD. So, you know, she asked, well, do you think that it’s a problem? Should we do want to get him evaluated? And you know, it’s hard because as a young mom, as a first-time mom, you don’t necessarily know what is normal. Which you also don’t want to be that mom that’s like, oh my gosh, he blinked. It means this.
Pam: What were sort of the red flags?
Sheena: The biggest issue for me was that he would make eye contact, but then he’d look away pretty quickly. And so he wouldn’t keep that eye contact that you’d normally have in a conversation with somebody. But he was still young and so the pediatrician was like, well, he’s still three, let’s see if he grows out of it. Because we did, of course, autism screenings there in the pediatrician office and nothing else was really coming up. And so she, she felt like, and we agreed that, you know, maybe he’ll just grow out of it. Let’s just keep an eye on it. And you know, so some of the other things we kind of notice as he was growing up and, and during this time too, we’re moving around a lot, like spent four years in Texas and then three years in Albuquerque. And then we moved to Florida for a year and then we moved up here to Virginia. And so he, he didn’t really have a consistent doctor too. And of course, on top of us moving, guess what, the doctors on the bases move to, we may have to start out with somebody and then switch to somebody else for four years.
Pam: And it’s so hard when you have to start the history and the story and what is going on every single time.
Sheena: And I didn’t have a good experience with the pediatric clinic in Florida. And so I actually asked the tri-care representative there at the base if I could take my son and have him be seen at a clinic off base. And it was kind of, you know, they don’t typically allow you to do that. But since there had been a hurricane that came through, and the clinic had been greatly damaged that they started allowing people to go and be seen off base by tri care providers off base. And so that was kind of my decision to take him out of that clinic. But I say that because again, you have to go through the history again and some providers you don’t necessarily click with, you know, you don’t like, and you’re either stuck with them, and that can obviously hinder the relationship.
Pam: If the chemistry is not there with you and the provider and then you’re dealing with such a, you know, you’re advocating for your child, it’s such a tough spot to be in. So were you treating him for ADHD then?
Sheena: No, we weren’t treating him for ADHD just because we were still kind of like, well, he’s still young. And typically, kids under seven, they don’t want to necessarily diagnose them too early, you know, and that’s kind of what I was hearing being a teacher, but also hearing from doctors was that, you know, we need to wait until he gets a little bit older to see if he grows out of some of those behaviors. So I was okay with that. And I think as a teacher I was naturally kind of working in support systems and coping skills for him to be able to function well and you know, go to preschool and things like that. And, yeah. So other things I was noticing was like, he would misuse pronouns a lot and maybe that doesn’t seem like a huge thing.
Pam: Give me an example.
Sheena: He would call me he, and use male pronouns for me, and we thought, oh, well he’s surrounded by boys. But then he would do that with other people too. And that was a little bit off. You know, I didn’t realize this until when he just got diagnosed, but he would put things in his mouth constantly. The thing that I’ve repeated with him since he was like two or three was what do we put in our mouth? Good food and medicine only. But he would pick up toys. He would pick up whatever and put it in his mouth too. And that’s just I’ve learned since he got diagnosed was that, you know, that’s just a sensory input. They need that, that stimulation that – what’s the word I’m looking for? They just need to have something to kind of bring the anxiety down.
So anyway, so we kind of noticed all these things and he had a lot of hearing auditory problems where he was, um, things were just too loud, you know, and he would cover his ears. He hated bathroom hand dryers, all of those things. And we thought that was due to him having a lot of ear infections and he had to get tubes put in his ears, you know. So we attributed it to that being the cause because ever since he got the tubes put in his ears, it seemed like that really became a problem for him. And that’s what the doctors say is that once when you put tubes in their ears, they can hear things a lot clearer. Sometimes kiddos get more sensitive to noises after that. And so a lot of these little things, you know, little things that we didn’t necessarily put together, I guess, little puzzle pieces. It wasn’t these huge obvious signs. They were just little puzzle pieces. He was verbal, he would talk, you know, and he would play with other kids.
Pam: What about affection? Because I hear that a lot. Lack of affection.
Sheena: He’s actually very affectionate. Loves to hug, he loves to kiss, he loves to. And again, that’s a sensory thing for him. He has to touch things. And so the biggest thing though is that it’s the social, you know, he likes to play with others, but at the same time, the majority of the time he likes to play on his own by himself. And you know, that can be a problem in school. The biggest struggle I’ve been having since he was diagnosed was how much of this is his personality? And much of this is like an actual problem that we need to really address. Because myself, I’m an introvert. I call myself an introvert. It’s not that I don’t like being around people. I love talking to people. I love hearing their stories. I love going out and doing things with other people. It’s just that I need alone time to kind of recharge, you know, and I do better with people when it’s just one on one rather than a group of people. And so for me, seeing him like that, I guess it wasn’t really a problem for me. So we don’t necessarily want to change that in him if that’s who he is. But the way that doctors and therapists have been explaining it to me is it’s not that we want to change that for him. We don’t want to make him an extrovert or anything. It’s more if he wants to make a friend, what are some friendship skills that he needs to have? What are some tools that he needs to have in order to approach other kids or work out with other kids? And so that kind of was like, okay, well that makes sense.
Pam: Yeah. So how long have you, how long has it been since you got the diagnosis?
Sheena: Since we got the official diagnosis, it’s been a little over a month now.
Pam: Okay. Yeah. So it is very fresh. And so when you get this sort of diagnosis, do they tell you where you’re at on the spectrum yet? I mean, where he’s at, or, how does that work? Because I know there’s such a wide spectrum.
Sheena: There is a wide spectrum and I feel conflicted, you know, like I don’t want to be like, oh my child’s high functioning. He has mild autism and like be like, almost like, not bragging, but like, right. Brushing it off or, you know, but then I also feel that, you know, I’m like making too much of it by saying he has autism when other people are like, that’s not autistic. He’s not autistic at all. Or he’s very high functioning and you, you know what I mean? Like, yeah. I feel like I feel conflicted about where he’s at on the spectrum. You know? I just think that I feel almost as if everybody’s on the spectrum.
Pam: Right? Yeah. Yeah. Some of the stuff you described, I’m like, oh, check, check, check for, you know, my kiddos at different areas and all that stuff.
Sheena: Yeah. And so it’s kind of like, I don’t want to diminish what other people are going through with their children having autism and I don’t want to overinflate what my son is going through. Right. Are huge issues? No, but apparently they’re hindering him at school. So there are issues that need to be addressed, I guess.
Pam: I had, uh, my middle child, Colton was recently diagnosed with ADHD and so they’re supposed to start implementing some of the, um, little special things that they can do at school, you know, maybe with testing and stuff like that, putting him in a quiet space so he’s not completely distracted with it all. I’m not exactly sure if that’s started yet. I should follow up with that. But, so since he has received the diagnosis, are they going to, you know, I guess, is it an IEP that he’s going to receive them?
Sheena: So every state, of course, is different with how they do these processes. I mean, they all have to follow the federal law, but yeah, you know, I’m finding things different about Virginia as opposed to when I was teaching in New Mexico. When I was teaching in other states, if a parent came to the school and said, I have a diagnosis of this from a doctor, an IEP would be implemented, you know, fairly quickly. And here in Virginia, you know, I’ve told the school and they want to do their own evaluations and, you know, I, I understand it from their point of view. They want to evaluate him and what they think his skills are, so we haven’t gotten an IEP from the school system yet, but we’re supposed to meet with them again at the end of April. You know, he’s still in kindergarten, so it’s not like we need to start implementing all these supports like right now. But I definitely want to see some more support for first grade because as you know, after kindergarten, they kind of just rip the band-aid right off. They’re like, okay, you’re in it now in first grade.
Pam: Well in the course load is so intense these days, you know, because with Colton, we ended up getting him in Sylvan when we left Korea and came stateside and I had been trying and trying and trying to find out if his attention issues that I had seen for years were coming out in the school, because I don’t know, unless the teacher communicates that with me and I never really got a grasp that it was really a problem until we got here. And then he was very behind in reading, was really struggling with some letter recognition and still, you know, flipping a lot. And, but it’s so tough because you can read all of these things that could mean ADHD that I was thinking, but it’s also a young kid still and everybody learns at a different pace and different style and yeah. So it just, it does, it’s tough when they’re younger and then they can’t also can’t communicate with you as well, you know, to sort of try to pinpoint some things. So you have opted to stop teaching. And is that to be around more because it was just too demanding on you?
Sheena: Yeah. You know, as a military family of course, what often happens is one person’s career gets put on the back burner in support of the service member’s career. So, of course, I feel conflicted about that all the time. It’s tough. It is really tough because I felt guilty leaving my students halfway through the year, but I would feel guilty not being able to support my son, you know, so I feel guilty either way, so I might as well do something that I think is for the best either way. But yeah. So, you know, of course, my husband, he has a more demanding job. He’s going to be transferring to the Pentagon this summer, so it’s going to be even more. He’s just not able to take – sometimes, with the military as you know, they have a lot of flexibility and they can just be like some days – or I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t say as you know, because this has been our experience. He has a lot, he’s had a lot of flexibility with his job where he’s been, like, able to say, I’m just going to work from home today if that’s all right. You know, and pretty much everybody’s like, yeah, that’s fine. Or you know, or I need a couple hours for my kid so I can take him to an appointment. And that’s not really an issue. You don’t have to take time off or anything like that.
Pam: What service is he in?
Sheena: Air Force.
Pam: Hmm, army isn’t so much like that.
Sheena: I need to remember not to say “as you know” because my military experience is way different than anybody else’s.
Pam: That’s good for you though.
Sheena: In the past, he’s been able to be very flexible, and been able to take kids to appointments and things and teaching is not, it’s flexible but it’s not as flexible as people think it is because you need to be there for students. They need consistency. I mean your Kiddo needs consistency. So the consistency at school too. So, you know, the higher up he goes, the more demanding his jobs get and the more he cannot take time off to do those things. Somebody has to do it. We don’t have a support system here. We have to pay somebody to be our support system.
Pam: Which happens a lot.
Sheena: Yeah. Yeah. So I decided that it’s probably good for at least a little while to do this.
Pam: Right. Yeah. I know that is tough though. That is one of the toughest aspects of being a military spouse is because of course, you know, you have this passion for being a teacher, I’m sure. You know. So that’s tough to sideline that. Of course, you want to be there for your son, but there is a driving force when you feel, you know, compelled towards a career. So that is hard.
Sheena: Yeah. Yeah. It’s just very frustrating as a military spouse in the first place to find employment, and then when you do, you hit your stride and finding a place where you want to be. It’s frustrating, but you know, it’s only for a short period of time. I have plenty of time to teach once my kids are able to cope and have more, um, what’s the word I’m looking for? You know, they’ve just been in a more structured, consistent environment for a while and there’ll be time for me later on.
Pam: Absolutely. And I’ll say that too. At least you know your career or your passion, your drive. It’s like, it’s at least, you know, sort of affirming to know that you’ve discovered that it hurts to put it off for a while. But I think there’s so many people in the military spouse lifestyle that just have no idea, you know, are so overwhelmed with all of the ins and outs of this lifestyle that they struggle to even find what their purpose is outside of their family. Really. So yeah, that’s tough to that stuff to have to sideline it though. Well, thank you so much for this, a candid conversation. It’s, I know it’s very fresh and can’t be easy to talk about it. You’re still definitely navigating the rough waters of the freshness of it all. Yeah. So I appreciate you opening up about it.
Sheena: For sure. I love having honest conversations with people.
Pam: So you can’t see it where you’re at, but I’m putting up the links to your website and your Facebook page and you have your podcast. Do you want to take a minute to explain your platform or your podcast or whatever you want to share?
Sheena: Yeah, so I started the Dear MilFamily podcast a couple of years ago in June of 2017. Right before we PCSed up here to Virginia, and crazy like that. But like you, I like having those honest conversations with people. I mean, I think it’s easy to be positive. Maybe not easy, but you know, I’m more of a realistic person, let me put it that way. I like to talk about things realistically. Not that I don’t like positivity, I love positivity, but I think it’s therapeutic to be realistic as well. And so I just wanted to have a place where people felt like they belonged. Because I think a lot of times people feel like they’re alone and there’s not just one way for any of us to live this military lifestyle. There’s lots of different ways. So I would like to highlight stories of military spouses, veterans, active duty members, kids and what they go through and what their perspective about military life is.
Pam: Yeah, yeah. No, I wish we lived closer to each other because I know we would totally hit it off. We have so much in the same perspective. I love it. Our missions are like the same, just to be real about it, you know, certainly don’t want to be Debbie Downer and you know, just complain about a bunch of stuff. But I think that that’s what some people call it when you’re speaking your truth really. And that’s, you know, that’s not the case at all. It’s really just being very real about it all.
So next Wednesday we are going to have another episode and my guest is Brittany Miltner. And so far I’ve had a bunch of podcast people. And she’s going to be discussing the worst year of her life, actually – 2017. But she’s on the other side of it now. So she’s able to look back and her husband had deployed, she had a young Kiddo, she was overweight, stayed holed up inside of her house and just felt like she had kind of been forgotten by everybody. So she really struggled and that is going to be, which I think is another happens to a lot of military spouses, you know, dealing with your deployment and young Kiddos and sort of in over your head in responsibilities. And I’m all alone away from everybody. So another not easy situation.
So thank you so much for being here and I look forward to being on your podcast soon too.
Sheena: Yes, thank you.