Stories from our Alumnae Community
Lisa Dorio Ruch ’89 graduated from Douglass with a degree in English and Spanish. She earned a law degree at Columbia University School of Law and works as a mediator and hearing officer at State of New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission. She currently serves as the AADC Vice President for Administration for the second time and is also in her second stint as a member of the Board. She has also chaired the AADC’s Nominating Committee. Here is her story, shared by the AADC on December 15, 2020.
An Autism Mom’s Pandemic Life
Autism mom. Douglass mom. Government lawyer. Vice President for Administration for the Associate Alumnae of Douglass College. What a time it has been!
Pre-pandemic, managing these roles was a delicate dance in a china shop every day. Our son, Ben, is 18 and has severe autism. He does not speak, and he needs 24/7 care and supervision. Usually, that care and supervision comes from me, my husband, and his school. Then his school shut down for six months. The changes hit Ben hard, bringing us new behavioral challenges at home.
The supply of outside care for Ben has always been tight, but during the pandemic, it evaporated. So my husband and I take turns working at our paid jobs and caring for Ben, all day, every day. And we know we are lucky to have jobs that allow us to work from home, as so many special needs parents have had to sacrifice an income to care for their children when schools closed. A long time ago, before I had children, I used to think that being a professional might mean more luxuries in life. Now, I know that luxury is being able to hold onto a job while also being an autism mom during a pandemic.
Ben’s school went virtual, but he can’t look at a computer screen and do schoolwork independently. So we need to turn on the computer, coax him over to it, and prompt him through every second while his teachers watch from the other side. This looks and feels a lot like we are filming a reality television show in our home! And our little reality show travels all around the house, as much of Ben’s schoolwork consists of pre-vocational skills. We load the dishwasher and wipe the counters in the kitchen on camera. We bring the recycling and the garbage out to the garage on camera. We fold and hang shirts in the laundry room on camera. And we do speech, occupational, and behavioral therapy on camera as well. Like manna from heaven, in mid-September, Ben went back to school in person two days a week. Our virtual reality show continues the other three. Maybe we could get a Netflix deal?
And Ben turned 18 during the pandemic. Remember how, when we were at Douglass, first-year students looked to upperclasswomen to show them the ropes about how to eat in the dining hall, how to navigate the buses, and how to drop/add classes? The same dynamic plays out with special needs families. Families with kids turning 18 seek advice from families with older kids to show them the ropes about turning 18 and all of the changes that flow from reaching that milestone.
Hot topic number one: guardianship. Our baby boy is now an adult, but he still relies on us for all of his life decisions, so we had to go to court to be appointed as Ben’s legal guardians. Reams of paper ensue — reports from us, teachers, doctors, a court-appointed attorney for Ben, with copies to various government agencies at every step. Try doing that during a pandemic when the courts are shut down! A process which usually takes about two months took about four, but we persisted, and we are now Ben’s legal guardians, which is incredibly important during the pandemic. More changes lie ahead as we near the next milestone — age 21 — and we will be relying on our trusted special needs parent friends to guide us again, but hopefully the pandemic will have subsided by then.
I’m also a Douglass mom. Our daughter Julia is a junior at Douglass (which, in 2020, means she is a junior at Rutgers/School of Arts and Sciences/Douglass Residential College), and a member of the Rutgers Women’s Rowing Team. But the dorms in New Brunswick are currently shut down and classes are now virtual. Our very hesitant decision last fall to allow her to live in an off-campus house near College Avenue this year has turned out to be a good one. She gets to have some semblance of a “normal” junior year, with tightly controlled in-person practices. The team is tested for COVID twice a week, separated into small practice cohorts, get constant temperature checks and they have to report any symptoms daily. We know she is lucky — the team has a lot of resources, and the typical student is experiencing the “Douglass Difference” virtually from home this year. Keep them all in your thoughts — it is so different for young Douglass women now.
And I’m also a government lawyer and the AADC’s Vice President for Administration, spending lots of time on conference calls and virtual meetings, relying on “mute” and turning the camera off when Ben comes strolling through with his iPad on full blast. I am grateful for the power of this technology and the creativity of the AADC! It has been such an honor to witness the AADC and its unbelievably nimble staff and volunteers convert our alumnae sisterhood into a virtual powerhouse — not only maintaining alumnae connections, but actually expanding and deepening those connections through incredibly innovative and relevant virtual programming. Live in California? Not a problem! You can reconnect with the AADC on your computer just as easily as those of us still in New Jersey. And don’t we all really need some time to turn off our other roles and reconnect with Douglass sisters now? I sure do! Hope to “see” you at an AADC virtual event soon!