Dawn Mitten, 38, is a pretty typical mom at first blush. She and her husband, Bob Mitten, a lieutenant for Juvenile Justice Commission in Jameburg, to whom she has been married for 15 years, live in Hamilton. Dawn is a CCD teacher and part-time massage practitioner, and works her clients in around her two kids’ school and sports schedules. Her son, Bob, is 8 and attends Langtree Elementary. “He does very well in school and sports and is just an overall good kid,” says his mom.
But that’s where her “typical” suburban mom existence stops. Mitten’s daughter, Jessica, 11, has Turners Syndrome, high-functioning autism, and early onset bipolar disorder. She attends Mercer Elementary School at the Mercer County Special Services School District.
“Jessica has had 15 surgeries, the most significant ones include two kidney and one heart surgery to repair an aortic coarctation. She also has recently been diagnosed with a condition where she is developing tumors on the long bones of her body — so far two of them have had to be removed. There are cases that they have developed upwards of 50 tumors on the long bones of the body,” says Mitten.
“Jes also has bipolar disorder, and she responds pretty well to her medication. She still cycles but it is so much more manageable and not as difficult for her and the family to go through. We just have to adjust her levels depending on how difficult things are for her and the level of stress we are working with.”
Mitten, not surprisingly, is the president of the PTA for Mercer County Special Services and has been on the Board for the PTA for 10 years. She is also a volunteer for the Special Olympics.
Mitten has written about her experiences with her daughter — and the impact having a child with special needs has had on her family — in a new book, “The Elephant in the Playroom,” published by Penguin Group, a collection of essays by parents from across the country who tell of the joyful highs and lows of raising children who struggle with ADD, ADHD, sensory disorders, childhood depression, Asperger’s syndrome, and autism, as well as the many kids who fall between diagnoses.
Mitten and David McDonough, another contributor to the book, will have a book signing and reception on Friday, May 11, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., at Barnes & Noble in the Hamilton Marketplace.
McDonough, a freelance writer who is a contributor to U.S.1, lives in Hopewell Township with his wife, Andrea, who works in pharmaceutical marketing, and their son, James, a freshman in high school. James was diagnosed with Asperger’s, a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum, at age four and a half. McDonough, who has been freelancing for 18 years, has written for GQ, the New York Times, Men’s Health, Redbook, New Jersey Monthly, and Continental Airlines magazine. He can often be found in the press box at Waterfront Park, covering the Trenton Thunder for various publications.
“The Elephant in the Playroom: Ordinary Parents Write Intimately and Honestly About the Extraordinary Highs and Heartbreaking Lows of Raising Kids with Special Needs” is the brainchild of magazine editor Denise Brodey. Brodey’s son, Toby, was diagnosed with a combination of sensory integration dysfunction and childhood epression at age four. As she struggled to make sense of her new, often, chaotic, often lonely world, what Brodey found comforted her most was talking with other harried, hopeful, and insightful parents of kids with special needs, learning how they coped with the feelings they encountered throughout the day. The book includes essays by 41 authors from across the nation.
Mitten says she is eager for the book to be read by as wide an audience as possible. “It is going to be so incredible for teachers, nurses and doctors to read to see the families’ perspective, to understand first-hand the anxiety and stress as well as the joys and fun that go along with raising a special needs child.” As for her line of work, she says, “I am extremely lucky that I am able to do massage for a living since I also find it therapeutic considering the amount of stress we handle on a daily basis in our house.”
Her secret for getting through each day is lists. “I have such an extensive list of things to do, I put things in order — today/tomorrow/ within the week/within the month — I look at my list each night and see, for example, that I have seven phone calls to make tomorrow, between needing to order Jes’s growth hormone to getting the window repair guys to come out not to mention that I need to get to BJ’s to buy drinks and such for the teacher appreciation luncheons this week, and we are taking care of 600 teachers so I still have to figure out how much I should buy.
“I know that isn’t a profound answer, but I am so disorganized and distracted so easily that if it is not written down it doesn’t get done, or I feel overwhelmed. I don’t get to write down ‘wash dishes, kids to school, etc.,’ on the list — those are the automatic things, sort of like breathing. This way I can let myself get distracted with the kids and play basketball with Bobby for a few minutes or try out a new hairstyle with Jes and not worry that I am letting someone else down. As long as my kids go to bed at night feeling like I didn’t ignore their needs, I have had a successful day.
She says she and three other families are already at work on another book and hope to be ready to send partial manuscripts to publishers in the next month.
With so much attention naturally being paid to his older sister, one wonders how life is for Jes’s younger brother, Bob. Mitten says: “He ends up taking the back seat to Jessica’s ‘world’ sometimes so we always try to make things special for him too. We will have him sign some books too.”
“The Elephant in the Playroom,” booksigning, Friday, May 11, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m, Barnes & Noble, Hamilton Marketplace. The book is a compilation of essays written by parents describing the highs and lows and everyday challenges of raising children with special needs. Dawn Mitten of Hamilton and David McDonough of Hopewell Township, two contributors to the book, will be present for the booksigning. 609-581-2523.