Helping My Kids Cope with a Learning Difference

I was honored to be featured as a podcast guest with Child Life on Call. This is my second appearance and the focus was on supporting my children through their learning differences of ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, and coping with anxiety.

Like many, parenting through the pandemic and adapting to distance learning wasn’t easy. My youngest, Blake struggles with dyslexia and dysgraphia. He was doing really well in school and with outside support prior to the lockdown. As soon as he had to go online to finish his second-grade year, his confidence went down the tubes.

I also witnessed my oldest, Gavin who has dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD, and struggles with anxiety become overwhelmed with his middle school curriculum online.

As a parent, I have had to learn to navigate the special education road. Learning terms like Individual Educational Plan (IEP),  baseline assessments, and understanding my children’s legal educational rights. 

Take a listen to our story and share it with others who are coping with learning differences.

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Speaking for Two; A Loving Mother and Advocate

Tonya Autism

With the celebration of Child lIfe month, I asked a friend of mine to write her story of being a mom to her son Andrew, who has special needs. She is an amazing mother, friend and advocate. I have been able to provide support to her as both a friend and as a child life specialist, but I feel like I have learned more from her.

Here is her story:

My introduction to motherhood was an eerie example of what my life as a first time mom was going to be – completely unpredictable and nothing like I’d prepared for it to be.  I purposely use the term “mom” instead of “mommy”.  For many, the words have the same meaning. For me there was a difference. Subtle albeit, yet very significant.  Mommy is a noun.  Used by young children to call or describe their mother. Mom for me was an adjective. It’s how I’d gotten used to be being described in my world of doctors, specialists, therapists, teachers, evaluators and any other person that needed an easy way to make their reference to me anonymous. My child couldn’t speak so I was never mommy.

We welcomed Andrew Leopoldo Guandique on Christmas Eve 2008.  2.5 weeks early and weighing just 4 pounds 6 ounces.  Despite being underweight, he was otherwise deemed very healthy.  While I was over the moon about starting a life with him, I knew I wasn’t ready.  I just had no way of understanding the full magnitude of what that would mean for me.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something wrong.  My mommy instincts were on alert.

He had an extreme case of reflux so my husband and I had to watch him around the clock.  Exhausting but not quite the biggest ordeal – if this was the big “thing” that my senses were warning me about this wasn’t so bad.  But still, I couldn’t shake that uneasy feeling.

At about 6 weeks old, he was diagnosed with hernia in his groin and umbilical areas which required surgery as soon as possible.  He was still very underweight so we had to wait months praying the condition wouldn’t escalate to an emergency.  Ok, this was tough but if this was the big “thing” – not earth stopping.  The surgery came and went perfectly. It even almost eliminated his reflux.  Still, there was that feeling again.

surgery pic

Aside from his birth, this was our first introduction to hospitals. We learned something very special.  A young woman walked up to us after we arrived and checked in.  Her smiling face and calming demeanor was a comfort.  She instinctively began a game of peek-a-boo to comfort my fussy baby.  His gummy chuckle in reaction was infectious.  She introduced herself to us and informed us that she was a child life specialist. She explained the details of his surgery and what to expect afterwards.  In plain English, not confusing medical terms.  All while helping to keep Andrew laughing and happy.  During his recovery Andrew was hooked up to monitors, he couldn’t leave the room to take advantage of the activities in the hospital so she was sure to bring them to us.  I don’t know how we would have made it through such a stressful time without her.

1st halloween

We thought Andrew was 8 months old when he began having seizures.  Looking back at old home videos, we saw that he really started having them when he was just days old.  We just didn’t realize it.  Seizures are very scary however the actual seizures themselves are typically harmless.  Andrew’s were an exception because he would stop breathing.  Luckily he never stopped breathing long enough to sustain brain damage…that we are aware of as of yet.  It took a series of hospitalizations, tests and medication adjustment to get his seizures under control.  We were very happy to finally have him seizure free and could even start to envision him having a normal life.  But I still felt there was more.

In addition to the medical stuff, I noticed that Andrew wasn’t meeting his milestones at the same time as his peers.  At first they were simple things such as smiling late or rolling instead of crawling.  The bigger things quickly manifested – not walking until 17 months, speech and developmental delays.  This was an especially frustrating time for me because my concerns were often seen as new mom paranoia or brushed off as a side affect of his seizures.  His symptoms were treated with therapy through the Early Intervention program but no real effects were made to find out what was really going on with him.  His therapists all thought that eventually he would catch up.  I even had one suggest that his “issues” were behavioral and that I should be tougher on him.  Fortunately, I relied more on my instincts and continued to press on for answers.  He eventually was diagnosed with a form of Autism by his neurologist. While it was nice to have an answer and a plan for treatment, I still couldn’t shake that uneasy feeling.

Autism day

He started a preschool for children with special needs through my school district’s CPSE (Committee for Preschool of Special Education) program.  Although he had a diagnosis, this didn’t seem like the big “thing” either.  I was noticing that he seemed special needs among the special needs, so Autism couldn’t be the only answer.  Why was my son so globally delayed? Why wasn’t he moving forward and in some ways, backwards even?  There is definitely something else going on…


Andrew is now 4 years old and in his second year of preschool.  He’s very happy and loves his role as a big brother. He’s overall healthy and doing well.  While we still don’t have all the answers for what’s going on with him, we have reached another milestone, genetic testing. We’d been pressing for it for years but since he was always so underweight we needed to wait until his body could physically hold up to the testing process. Sounds frightening, doesn’t it?  He finally weighs enough to get it done.  Although my journey is still very scary at times and unpredictable, I’m much more comfortable with it. That uneasy feeling has been channeled into acceptance and determination.  He has made life wonderful in many ways and even though he’s non verbal he has shown me that I’m more than just his mom. The way his face lights up when he sees me, that cuddling with me is his favorite pass time, and that he brings me his boo-boos to fix are just small examples of how he’s made me his mommy!  I now focus my energy on enjoying my wonderful, sweet and special little boy!


Tonya Guandique

Andrew and Christian’s mommy

The “Big Meeting” CPSE

An icon illustrating a parent and child

Today I had the “big meeting” on deciding what, if any services my son would be able to receive through CPSE (Committee of Preschool Special Education).

I went in with a mindset that I would have to fight tooth and nail to make sure that he receives the proper services. I prepared myself to speak from a variety of roles; the parent, the advocate and the child life specialist. I was pleasantly surprised that it went incredibly smoothly and they determined that he would receive what was recommended.

The only thing that I had a difficult time with, was hearing the word, disability. The chairperson said a few times in an appropriate contexts but it rang in my head each time.  For a split second that is all I could focus on and then I would tell myself that it is just a word that they use to describe children who receive services from CPSE. That is all. I know my son is fine, I feel strongly that he will thrive in therapy and continue on with his happy life.  But I also felt what every other parent or caregiver felt when they heard that word or another label or diagnosis.

Being in the child life field, you are trained to help provide support to parents and caregivers in similar situations, but they are usually much more intense. You are empathetic, a good listener and resource to gather information and help translate it. I would never tell a parent, “I know how you feel”  because I didn’t. I would tell them “I can understand how you could have those feelings….”

Today, I can honestly say that I connected on a deeper level of understanding of what it feels like to hear that your child isn’t perfect. I mean in the sense that you never want to hear that there might be something wrong with your kid. Whether it is tiny or life changing, it is still difficult to hear.

I hope that fellow child life specialists, teachers and medical team members will continue to listen, provide support and be conscious of the way they talk about a child.