Autism coach, school psychologist, and mom Dr. April J. Lisbon
(19 minutes) Dr. Lisbon has over 18 years of experience as a school psychologist. She is an autism coach and strategist, as well as an empowerment speaker. She is the mother of a son with autism, and uses her experiences to help other parents navigate raising children on the spectrum. She is the author of 3 books: “Stretched Thin: Finding Balance Working and Parenting Children with Special Needs”, “Unmasking the Trauma: School Bullying & Children with Special Needs” and “Autism in April: A Mother’s Journey During the Tween Years.” Dr. Lisbon discusses raising her son with autism, the challenges of dealing with schools and specialists, and offers advice for other parents.
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Meeting Dr. April J. Lisbon
HACKIE REITMAN, M.D. (HR): Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman. Welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains. Today, we are lucky to have with us coming all the way from Baltimore, Maryland, the wonderful the one and only Dr. April Lisbon. April, thank you for being with us!
APRIL LISBON, Ed.D. (AL): Thank you so much for having me, Dr. Hackie! It’s a pleasure!
HR: Now introduce yourself properly. I didn’t want to start because you have so many things, and I’m going to mess it up. I wanted you to do it good.
AL: Absolutely! So as Dr. Hackie has said, my name is Dr. April J. Lisbon. By profession, I am a 20-year veteran public education K through 12 school psychologist. But I’m also an autism coach and strategist. I am the mother of three beautiful children and my oldest son is actually on the autism spectrum. So a lot of the work that I do is geared towards supporting the needs of families, especially moms raising children on the autism spectrum. I’m also a three-time published author. One of my books– my second book is an international award-winning book. So for me this is my life, this is my journey and my goal is to provide more advocacy for families raising children on the autism spectrum as well as other neurodiverse disorders.
Being an Autism Mom
HR: Well thank you so much for looking out for all of us who have different brains. But let’s talk first about your most important job as a mom to someone on the autism spectrum.
AL: Yes, so you know what, I will be honest with you since our first time really connecting. The first time that I heard the word autism from my son was when he was 2 years old. And I will tell you the person who told me that he was autistic, I didn’t want to believe that person. Because of my professional background, I feel like I knew more than the person who was doing the assessments. So I really wasn’t ready to hear it. It was not until– and I’m looking up in the air because I’m trying to think through the days. It really wasn’t until my son was four years old that I really started to embrace the idea that he was autistic. And that came about because this was the second time within a two-year span that my son, my preschooler, was actually going to be expelled from a preschool program. Private program, but he was going to be expelled because of behaviors that were out of his control. And so for me, you know the word autism came about. There’s a lot of guilt, there was a lot of Shame, there was a lot of condemnation that came with the process.
And I got to a point in life when I realized that you know my son’s autism doesn’t define him. It’s his superpower. And when I started to look less at what theory taught me as the school psychologist and look at my son for who he was, then I began to not only embrace the idea of having an autistic child, but really learning how to see life through his eyes. And I will tell you, Dr. Hackie, I don’t know how he survives this world. I don’t know how he creates all of the gifts and talents from drawing, to building Legos, to just thinking through life. I don’t know how he does it and in a place that’s very peaceful if that makes sense. So you know where I would have come to a place where I think things and everything is like on high-octane and chaotic, he will always tell me, “Mom, trust the process. It’s is going to be okay.” And here I am thinking this is a–now he’s 14 years old–my 12-13 yr old kid is telling me “Mom just trust process, it will be okay.” but I think that’s because he just sees life through different lenses and he has learned how to put the pieces together. So for me, that has been the greatest part of our journey, our oxygen journey as a mom, or as a parent with an autistic child.
HR: Well that’s very well put. And, you know special needs parents, you can’t feel like The Lone Ranger out there. and what you just said about your son telling you it’s going to be okay. I remember when I was thinking how to end movie I’ve wrote, produced and directed the Square Root of 2. and at the very end, I remembered something my daughter Rebecca had told me. she’s walking with the father and he’s like nervous and everything and she says “have a little faith.”
HR: And it really, really is. and the mothers especially. in my Aspertools book, I called mothers like you angels with a pitbull mentality because you’re in the trenches all the time. You’re doing everything and you have a unique perspective because you’re a school psychologist. And yet, here you are upfront saying, “Well I went through denial for two years. I’ve went through it.” And for some parents, it never ends. It’s a constant, constant denial. What was the single biggest hurdle you faced in bringing up your child with autism?
AL: I will tell you, the single biggest hurdle we had gone through in this journey was the last year. and it was related to school bullying. Now I will tell you that my son is a very even-keeled kind of kid. You know, he has great opportunities to socialize with the other kids. The kids like him, you know he has friends. Selective friends, but he does have friends. and his seventh grade year, which was about 2 years ago, he had experienced school bullying. And as an educator in the field, and my child’s School District, I follow policy, I follow procedure. Because once again, I’m trained on bullying. I train parents on bullying, I train educators on bullying. And I also would do bullying groups with either my school social worker or school counselor. So I am on bullying overload. And when he was in the seventh grade, we went through this process where we did everything right by the book. Yet the school did not believe him. And it created a wedge between my son and I where he got to the point where he became highly suicidal as well as homicidal. There was a part on that journey where he happened to do harm to me with knives. And I knew it wasn’t him because that wasn’t my child, if that makes sense. But because of the emotional turmoil, as I call it the emotional warzone of his seventh grade year, it just finally took its toll on him and he couldn’t handle it anymore. We had a lot of calls to the police.
One of the things I had never heard about in education, never heard of any my parents talked about, I was literally calling the police to come to my home to basically protect my children and myself for my son. Because he had become so aggressive that he was harming people. And it finally got to a point where he had to become hospitalized. He had to be committed. And I will tell you even before the hospitalization, the one thing that crushed me as a parent was that when the police officer ask my son, “Do you want to ride in the car with your mom, or do you want to ride in the squad car?” He chose to ride with the police. And for me, that just took the wind out of my sail. Because my son and I, we have always had a beautiful relationship. Like I said he is a very even-keeled kind of a child. and so when he didn’t talk about bullying, it was like “what is it really bullying, was it not bullying?” Because once again, people always said people with autism, they misread social cues. And that’s what that’s what really sent my son over the edge, was when we actually went to the school, we talked to the administration and that was a fiasco. Even as a school psychologist, ranking in education I still received the same treatment as parents saying “Oh, well the school never got back to me, that’s correct.” But we did everything right. And unfortunately the school sided with the bully because as the officer told me, there were two things I learned the next day. The first thing was that because this child was a teen, when it comes to like the exchange of money or a child asking for money from another child, in our particular county and in our particular state, that’s considered to be strong armed robbery.
So as a mom, I’m thinking to myself, “Oh my goodness, I don’t want a 6 or 7th grade student to be charged with strong arm robbery. That will destroy this child’s entire life. But we did what was supposed to be done when it came to school bullying. And the results from their investigation with my son, their investigation with the other students, was that because that one student had tears in his eyes, they felt that my son misunderstood what was happening. AKA, because he’s autistic he didn’t pick up on the social cues, so that’s why he misread what was happening to him. And then a couple of days later, guess who was telling the truth? My son. Why? Because he got punched on the school bus from a different child. But he go to school bus. But the only reason why the school district, that particular school believed my son was because it was caught on video. And I’m like, “It literally took a video for the school to finally believe that my son was telling the truth,” but by that point in time it was already too late. My son had a five-day hospitalization. And that was hard as a mom, because he only received ten minutes of conversation time every single day during his stay. And he was actually two and a half hours away from home. A like I said, it really took its toll not only on myself and my children, but also on him being away. And the mental anguish of just going through the psychiatric stay, and all those things, it really build a wedge. And so when my son was finally returned home–and I tell people, he’s highly intelligent–but he felt like at that moment in time, that I had a long time by basically having him be hospitalized.
So when he finally got back home, I will tell you the behaviors heightened even more to the point where I was going to take him to the orthodontist and he tried to choke me in the hallway. Because he was still upset that I had done this to him. I had made him tell the school administrators what happened to him. I had hospitalized, I had him placed to the squad car. Because he was just that emotionally-charged from all of the school bullying that had happened to him, and eventually I had to remove him from the home. so he ended up going a couple of weeks with my dad in another state. And that seemed to help him, because when he came back, it was an adjustment for the family. we were all walking on eggshells not knowing what his response patterns were going to be. But I will tell you that he has grown so much. we haven’t had any any more issues. I finally was able to bring out the knives in May of this year after not having knives inside of our home since April 2018. So after about 13 months, we were able to bring the knives. And I will tell you, he has Blossomed so much from from what has happened to him. And we as a family have grown together to the point where we’re not hiding anything from each other, to the point where we realize that it is okay that if something doesn’t feel right that we have to talk about it even if people don’t believe us. We have to understand that we create the support system that we need. But yeah, that was the most challenging part of this autism training. and I’m sure there’ll be some more. But for me, that was the first time I’ve ever seen my son go from zero to a hundred in such an aggressive manner in his entire life.
HR: Now does he have any other comorbidity diagnosis?
AL: So for him, body dysmorphia. I don’t remember the correct terminology for that, but that was one of the most that they had for him. And they also diagnosed him with generalized anxiety disorder.
HR: Is he on any medications?
AL: He is actually not. So although he’s followed by a social worker and the psychiatrist, his psychiatrist has a more holistic approach to working with him. And so at this point, he has been okay without medication. so we have a follow-up next month, but so far, he has not been required to have any type of medication.
HR: Great, and how old is he?
AL: He just turned 14 last Friday.
HR: And how is he doing in school now?
AL: I’m telling you, Hackie, it’s phenomenal. So this year, the kid whose primarily been like a C every now and again, B student, this is the first time– excluding a couple of classes–that he actually has As in his classes. Something that I don’t think even he himself believed that he can do, no matter how much I would encourage him “you have what it takes to be a A-B-student,” this is the first time ever in his educational career that he sees that he has the ability to do. And I will tell you it goes back to having a supportive school environment. Last semester, what I did was rather than sending him back to his zoned school I requested to have a zone variance to have him at another school. And he already knew the principal, because our principal used to be the assistant principal at his prior school. And they looked out for him, they supported him. And last year, he felt like he was a part of a community, and so I wanted to replicate that same feeling. So I requested for him to go to a different high school, with the students that he went with you know last year. And he’s blossoming. And I’m thinking to myself, “whose kid is this?” I have dreamed about this. I know this is who you are, but to see it manifesting reality and for you yourself to see that you have it, it’s phenomenal. One of the things that I learned last year was that he was one of 20 students to be selected for JROTC. So there were only 120 available slots last school year and as an arriving freshman, he got picked. And JROTC has been phenomenal for him. When it comes to the organization, and providing him with discipline, but more importantly giving him that smaller sense of family and friends and community that he could be proud of. So he has done great job so far
Advice for the Autism Parent’s Journey
HR: That’s great. And you know, that it’s a great saga of a tough journey and looks like he’s doing pretty good right now. What is the biggest piece of advice you have for our parents out there who have a special needs child? What advice would you have for them?
AL: You know what? Just thinking through my journey with my son, for the last twelve years. Because like I said, age two is when I first heard about autism, it’s don’t give up. Even through the highs and lows, even when you feel like you’re about to runaway from home and never come back, don’t give up. Your children are hearing you, they support you. Even when they are pushing back, they know that you love them. They know that you care about them. They know that they could trust you. And that’s a big thing. Building that trust with your child and understanding that this all is apart of the journey, this is something that is out of your control, or whatever you do. Don’t give up on the journey. And a second thing is, don’t accept what people tell you is right about your child or based on a theory of practices. There is sometimes where you are going to have to push back. I had to learn that. Switching roles between being a school psychologist and being a parent. Pushing back is okay. It is your right as a parent of a child with any type of neurodiverse learning. Push back if you have to. But understand that you are the voice of your child. And finally, there aren’t any right or wrong ways to parent a child. This doesn’t come with a manual. But what you have to do is, you have to understand what is best for your child. You have to understand that just because something worked better for Jack, doesn’t mean that it’s going to work for your own child. Be gentle with yourself in his journey. Understand, once again, that nothing is perfect, we learn from our mistakes, we celebrate our successes, and we just keep moving.
HR: Very good advice. Please tell our audience how they can get in touch with you and how they can get your books and more about how they can interact with you.
AL: Absolutely! So you can get both of my books at Amazon as well as Barnes and Nobles. So they are on, like I said, Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, as well as if you go to WalMart bookstore. You can also get all three books there as well. To reach out to me on social media, both my Instagram and Facebook handles are AutismCoachStrategists–that’s one word. And then you can also reach out to me on LinkedIn. My LinkedIn handle is AskDocApril. That’s a-s-k-d-o-c-a-p-r-i-l.
HR: Dr. April Lisbon, it’s been such a pleasure to have you here on another episode!
AL: Thank you for having me Hackie! I appreciate it!
HR: Thank you, and keep up the great work! It’s been great to have you here on Exploring Different Brains. We look forward to having you back again. And keep up the great work!
AL: Thank you so much, Dr. Hackie, it’s been a pleasure!