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Posted on Sun, Mar 28, 2010 : 1 p.m.

Invisible fences: Raising a child with special needs

By Annie Zirkel

Invisible fence.jpg

invisible fence

Raising a child with disabilities is like living in a yard with an invisible fence.

The trouble with an invisible fence is that you only learn where the perimeter is when you make the mistake of crossing the unseen barrier and get zapped — in this case by life telling you that you aren't allowed to go there.

Maybe it's a preschool that doesn't want your child. Maybe it's a friendship that fades away as your lives take different paths. Maybe it's an expectation, like how holidays will look or what activities your family will participate in.

Over time you are trained not to go too far in this direction or that. You choose certain activities over others so as to avoid the shock. And you balance learning to live inside the lines with taking risks to test the boundaries.

Of course we've pushed the limits many times. Though severely impaired, our son Alex was in inclusion at Ann Arbor Open for five years and did therapeutic horseback riding. We've been creative and adaptive, finding different ways of bike riding and bowling and vacationing - all to fit our funky family needs.

But perhaps the hardest lesson about this fence is that it can get smaller. You discover that something that was once inside the line isn't anymore. Like the first time my son was left out of a birthday party that in years past he had been invited to. Or when it no longer made sense to have him in a regular class. And while new solutions do materialize, like a awesome self-contained classes at Forsythe Middle and then Pioneer High School, after almost 19 years of parenting a child with severe disabilities, the challenges of these constraints have left some scars.

Of course, I know that many people have their own invisible fences. Divorce, adolescent troubles, aging parents, financial strife, diagnoses of cancer or other debilitating conditions, mental illness and even prejudice all bring their own confinements.

But I sometimes get jealous of others anyway.

Recently, during my kids' school break, I saw Facebook entries from friends with similarly aged children. Several families were traveling in Europe. One was on a cruise. One was in Hawaii. And more than one was enjoying the ski offerings of northern Michigan.

While for some people these trips are out of reach because of financial hurdles, we have added logistical challenges. Every 'vacation' we have had in the last 10 years involved 24/7 care of Alex. As he has gotten older, travel has only become harder.

Usually we can deal with this. We have a decent life with many advantages on this side of the fence. The trouble is that while Alex's world is small, my other two sons' lives should be expanding. And it's hard to grapple with the fact that they are getting shortchanged.

My 16- and 13-year-old sons are amazing. They have lived much of their lives not knowing if plans will materialize, if holidays can be counted on, if mom and dad will be available or even awake when we should.

Now old enough to be our back-up caregivers, they sometimes need to feed their older brother and unfortunately are sometimes the ones to deal with him spontaneously throwing up. And other than complaining about that last task, they never show resentment. That is why, though I do believe that their family circumstances have many invaluable life lessons to offer, I regret that we can't offer them a bigger yard.

With that in mind, I got it in my head that my able-bodied sons deserved to experience a ski weekend, even if it meant leaving Alex behind.

This is a hard thing to do, both emotionally for me (though Alex can't physically and cognitively comprehend skiing), and practically. At any moment that zap could come. The big worry is that he could get sick. But we also had to make sure that our one respite worker was available on the same weekend as my husband and kids. We had to have the money, which between the sport itself, the accommodations and the cost of respite care is pretty steep. Oh, and the weather had to be not too cold, not too warm, not too wet and there still had to be snow!

I have to admit that the effort to get around this fence threatened to outweigh the benefit for me. But I am happy to report that from Saturday afternoon until Sunday evening we were able to go away and enjoy a “typical” family ski weekend. Of course it wasn't the ideal, but in our life it was a success. We pushed the limits and found a way to add some adventure and a little well-deserved fun.

I imagine I will always struggle with the challenges of this invisible fence. But I do take care not to spend too much time envying other's grass because it doesn't make mine grow any better. The best I can do is try to make our yard nicer, keep the edges from closing in, and work to appreciate our rare opportunities — no matter how brief or imperfect — for a change of scenery.

Annie Zirkel, LPC is an Ann Arbor parenting consultant and past editor of “A Different Path,” a Washtenaw newsletter for families raising children with special needs. You can find her at or contact her at



Sun, Aug 8, 2010 : 1:06 p.m.

Yes, I can understand the analogy used that raising a child with disabilities is like living in a yard with an invisible fence but that happens to adult too. The trouble with an invisible fence is that you only learn where the perimeter is when you make the mistake of crossing the unseen barrier and you get zapped. In real life, we get a lot of being told. The sad thing is that over time you are trained not to go too far in this direction or that. You choose certain activities over others to avoid the shock. Constantly you have to balance learning to live inside the lines and with taking risks to test the boundaries too when you are new to a place. I prefer to say that we need to push the limits many times because our space is getting too limited. The funny thing is that people have their own fences and they do not want to acknowledge them. My debilitating condition is Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Don't I have enough with an invisible fence? Yes and society should understand.

Annie Zirkel

Mon, Mar 29, 2010 : noon

To all - thanks for your kind words. I am glad that this article touched you in some way. @Randy Hildebrandt - it's funny how analogies help isn't it? Thanks for sharing yours. @Ben Woodruff - Thanks for sharing your daughter's story too. It is often the people who are willing to make the trip over to our side of the fence that keep us going. It's so much less lonely when we have company.

Pam Stout

Mon, Mar 29, 2010 : 10:41 a.m.

Annie, what a beautiful post. Thanks for sharing your story, and kudos to you for making the extra effort for all three of your boys. You inspire me.


Sun, Mar 28, 2010 : 6:19 p.m.

Annie-I appreciate your article very much. As the parent of an intellectually disabled child, I see the invisible fence that surrounds our family frequently. Unfortunately, people with differences are not tolerated well in social circles. Especially, children without an obvious disability. I'm proud to say that despite the fences, my child has an extremely bright future ahead as graduation quickly approaches thanks to team of wonderful teachers and teacher consultants that have supported every aspect of her disability, socially and academically.


Sun, Mar 28, 2010 : 4:32 p.m.

this is beautifully written and moving. thank you for sharing your story.

Randy Hildebrandt

Sun, Mar 28, 2010 : 2:47 p.m.

This is a good story but I'd like to tweek the analogy a little. We have a beautiful 16 year-old daughter in a wheelchair (spina bifida). I share with the author's family their life challenges 100% -- it's tough. I've come to learn that everybody has an "invisible fence" around them... "normal" people and "special" people... or I'd like to think of it as a series of life's hurdles. The finish line is different for everyone and the hurdles are different too. The perspective that we have learned to embrace is the impact we can have on everyone we encounter while we are running our race... our daughter included... all the way through the finish line. No fences on this race course! I do see fences all around. But the fence builders are those that fail to understand the race; that we run together and that it's a race to be won. And the boundaries of these fences are the boundaries of those that build them. I appreciate your article, Annie! Randy Washington DC

Mona Shand

Sun, Mar 28, 2010 : 7:22 a.m.

Annie- thanks so much for sharing this and letting others see life from the other side of the fence. I'm so glad you were able to get away for a little bit.