Sensory differences are a common symptom of autism. Often kids on the spectrum can become overwhelmed by these differences. A1 tells me that a public toilet flushing sounds like a bomb going off and for several years he avoided public restrooms. A2 flaps his arms and locks out his knees whenever he is filled with anxiety….kind of his virtual rocking chair….or else he is just hoping to fly away from the dentist/barking dog/hand dryer. As autism-folk we try to build awareness by creating overwhelming scenarios to get NTs (neurotypicals…yes, we have a name for you) to sympathize the plight of the kid flicking his fingers in front of his face as a way to stop having his eyes taking a million pictures at once or the kid who is pacing because he can’t tell where his body is in space. But sometimes, I am fairly certain that some of those sensory integration differences are not experienced in a negative way and sometimes there are common things that just look, sound or feel like something not of this world…..if I could only take an x-ray of A2s little mind and see what he could for 10 seconds….. (…and feel free to smile at this picture….)
W is for What It’s Like
“There is grandeur in this view of life…..from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved”—On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin.
A few years ago I attended the funeral of a friend who suffered and died much too young. He was a scientist-a biologist, an activist, a researcher who was respected in his field and likely the smartest person I knew. He was also pedantic and opinionated with a biting but funny sense of humor. This combination engaged even the most simple of us but most of his friends were equally as interesting and I got to numbly stand in a room in Vermont in the dead of winter surrounded by them. “What’s it like?” a friend of his asked me…”having a child with Autism?” For a moment I just thought I was not in the mindset to answer that question but quickly realized I could NOT answer because in all the years I’d not only never been asked that but also never considered it either. It was the kindest thing anything had ever asked me about A2 and perhaps it was the somber tone of the day that rendered me without speech (which if you know me well does not happen often) or maybe I had always been so caught up in the action oriented nature of having a young child with autism that to contemplate that would stop me in my tracks and make me crumble….or perhaps in the moment I felt guilty for even thinking I would crumble and considered myself so lucky to still have those I loved around me regardless of circumstance while my best friend was grieving the loss of his partner……so I excused myself instead. What I have decided over the years is that it is a bit like A2 contemplating this fountain. It is weird and fascinating and wonderful and I have no idea how it really works or how it got there. I notice every single droplet from the ones that predictably slide down the posts to the ones that spit out to collectively leave me standing in a cold puddle over time that leave my toes numb without notice until its too late. There is no warning when the water will turn to an exciting spout of beauty creating a soft rain and visible rainbow or when it will create bursts of rainy arches that I cannot immediately escape leaving me far more drenched and colder than I want to be and on opposite sides of the fountain from whomever was standing near me. So Trevor…..that is what it is like……Thank you for asking
Because we are so immersed in this world of autism I have erroneously concluded that everyone who lives outside of this Village is already aware of autism. However, there is a secret sorority that exists…one equipped with a secret handshake and password. I am in that sorority yet have no recollection of agreeing to join. Autism is funny like that. The Village of Autism parents is a unique one. We are a motley crew of individuals whose path may have never crossed otherwise. We meet each other in waiting rooms and lobbies of doctors offices instead of in the PTO. We have closed blogs and Facebook pages instead of casual phone calls. We learn more about the newest treatments and resources from each other than we do from professionals. We talk about how well our child is pooping quicker than we will discuss how well they are doing in school. Though we are typically the least able to, we are often the first responders to others in the Village because we are more likely to reach out to one another than we would outside of the Village where no one speaks our language. And we find each other….everywhere and all the time. Today while sitting on the floor in the middle of the children’s shoe department feverishly tearing inserts out of shoes and hopelessly attemping to shove A2’s newest orthotics into them with no success I broke down and cried. Just sat there in the middle of the floor, surrounded by ridiculous shoes with flashing lights on the soles and sobbed like a toddler might who couldn’t find the shoes she liked. At that same time, I peered up to see a woman pushing a cart with one hand while calmly using her other to push her much-too-large child who was humming loudly down back into his seat. We made eye contact for a single moment and silently nodded–her nod seemingly said “Yes….I know those orthotics were made wrong twice before in 7 months and represents 6 visits to the clinic over that same time. Yes…..I realize this is the 3rd store you have been in today that absolutely does not carry shoes your 9 year old can wear with the braces he must wear on his feet. Yes….I realize that your tears are really about your kid and the pain and blisters he will probably have again that he can’t communicate or the weird, white 1960s Frankenbaby shoes the orthotics company will recommend that look nothing like what his school friends will be wearing. Yes….I see you….and I know you see me….” V is for my Village. The quiet, connected Village where my family lives.
U is for Ubiquinol
(originally posted 4/2015)
If you have heard this word before it is likely that you are either are a biologist or have a child with a mitochondrial disorder. In our case, to be sure….I am not a biologist. There is mounting evidence that autism and mitochondrial disorders at least co-exist in many cases. Mitochondria are organelles in almost every cell in the body and are considered the powerhouse of the cell. The mitochondria break down chemical compounds into energy and put it back into the cell for use. When there is a breakdown in the mitochondria factory, it cannot produce enough energy for the cell which can result in cell damage or death. This damage tends to affect larger organ systems such as the brain, heart, endocrine system, gastrointestinal system, kidneys and respiratory system. (As I mentioned….I am not a biologist..that’s about the best I can explain). The first time after 9th grade biology I heard about ATP or mitochondria was sitting in a neurologists office with A2 when she cocked her head and said “I need to send him to the Cleveland Clinic….I think he has mitochondrial disease…I am so sorry….”. I was confused–“Ok”, I said and left the office feeling optimistic that maybe we figured out why my baby completely stopped physically growing or gaining weight and developing. If we know what it is….we can treat it, why was she apologizing? But as it turns out, there is no cure and no real treatment for mitochondrial disorders. These disorders also tend to be progressive in nature so we must try to protect the mitochondria to the best of our ability using supplementation (thus the Ubiquinol CoQ-10) and body system balance. Under a microscope, A2’s mitochondria are oddly shaped..and there are a whole lot of them…and this hastened the question did some disease process or environmental assault cause this problem….or did he inherit it from me (mito are maternally inherited)? If something happened, what was it? Did I eat too many pesticides on my produce while nursing? Was his immune system down when he got a vaccination? Was the rated “F” water in Las Vegas where he was born full of toxins that damaged my baby? I am rational enough to know that there was nothing I could have done about my own mitochondria nor could I guess exactly what environmental assault would have caused such a huge problem…but it is here. And I now know why the neurologist apologized to me on that warm, blue skied summer day back in 2006…..
T is for Teachers and Therapists
112. A2 has had a total of 112 different teachers and therapists in his short 11 years. Some were hand- picked….some chosen by fate and luck of the draw. Some were published…lauded recognizable names….some were quiet presences of whom I cannot remember their names. Some have been with us for the majority of his life. Some have only jumped in for a blip of time in his almost 105,000 hours on this planet. Some were stellar….life alterers….some just showed up because they had to. Some interpreted my coolness or seeming indifference to them as being non-caring. Some recognized that I always had my child’s best interest in mind all the time and understood it was important for me not to be too attached for fear of losing perspective and not holding them accountable should his learning derail. All have had a permanent impact on my entire family’s lives and for all of them, I am grateful. When reading this post today–please help me help a few whose lives are difficult right now–Debbie Jo Pierce (pictured above) was one of the first paraprofessionals to work with A2. She has given most of her life to helping others and is ill with cancer leaving her unable to work and without income. Please consider today to donate to a Gofundme account started for her to help ease her burdens. Also, if you are of the praying sort, please like the FB page for Pray for Rachel. Lauren Sullivan, a favorite home team therapist of A2 15 year old sister Rachel is in Nationwide Children’s Hospital being treated for cancer. Rachel is her heart and soul –a child of strength and character. I am only one person–Christmas gifts and thank yous always seem so trite in the face of what we ask of the professionals who help us. Can you help make an impact for 2 of them today?
**This post has been updated since the original post in April 2015, Debbie Jo passed away..taken too early in this world, yet someone must have felt her job here was done….and what a job she did in a quiet world where her time impacted so many. Rachel Sullivan has made a full recovery and is enjoying school, family, sports and her community.
S is for Skeletons
(edited and reposted from 4/2015)
In a way we are luckier than many in that when you meet A2, it is clear he is generally sweet and happy. It is also clear that he is a 10 year old with limited language and an intense fascination with things like dangling light bulbs and garage doors. This combination is like a free pass since it would be weirder to not acknowledge it, I get to talk about it.
But just a little bit.
It’s not exactly like airing dirty laundry. It’s more like airing dry cleaning–the-sort-of-dirty-nicest-silk-dress-in-my-closet kind of laundry. Let’s face it, there are socks and skivvies in all of our hampers we wouldn’t dare let hang out on the line in the backyard. For us, in the best of our worst case scenario of autism, A2 can make autism seem almost ethereal. And he IS inspirational. Despite his challenges he plows through life with a joy and wonder as if even the slightest thing is something he has seen for the first time. When we hire aides to work in our home, I warn them in advance that their work space is located in the darker cubicle of my life. While it can be a place full of love and ideas and fun, it is also the space where anxiety, anger and compulsiveness roll up like dust bunnies in the corner. They are invited into that laundry room to watch me fold those things we can’t hang outside to dry. They get to see the worst of the best case scenario and of course are free to form opinions or quietly judge. These young women know more than my “inner circle” of friends and it is not a comfortable place to be, but I let it happen for the benefit of my child for whom alone I could not be successful.
Why would I focus on this today when I have shared more about what it’s like on social media than I ever intended? Because we are “out” and wholly connected with the special needs community. There are revolutionaries who have adult children and walked with a yoke of all the things autism brings around their shoulders before anyone knew what autism was and never got the help they needed, so they created it for us. There are families you may know who can’t take their children in public for fear they won’t be safe to themselves or others. There are those who walk among us invisible–who closely protect their tangled criss-cross of laundry lines for fear of being judged, or worse yet, for their child being judged over something beyond their control. These are the people who might need to be seen and understood the most because they are not likely connected to a community who will understand. This is also autism.
Awareness is not just about what we do see, it’s also about what we don’t. If you are a revolutionary or an invisible family, reach out to me…tell me you are here….and if you are feeling brave, let me tag you on this post.
“Are you sure he has Autism? He’s so friendly…”
While there are more nuanced aspects now to the criteria, failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level is one of the defining and most obvious diagnostic identification for children with autism.
Interest in people in general, desire for friendships and loving behavior can muddy the diagnostic waters and confuse people about what autism is and what autism isn’t.
Disconnectedness, aloofness and lack of desire to be touched does not always translate as a lack of desire for relationships. The desire is there, the understanding for how that happens is not. It can just be easier to be by yourself. A1 can tell you that.
Indiscriminate friendliness, hugs and kisses to those he loves and the compulsive desire to be around a lot of people doesn’t always coexist with developmentally appropriate social skills. A2 probably would tell you that part…if he could. He is just as likely to enthusiastically greet a stranger in a public bathroom as he would a child at school he knows well.
A2’s splintered play skills had to be taught like you would teach a typically developing child how to read. And he has missed many steps in this such as building with blocks and representational play. This spectrum of deficit in social interactions makes it much like I am raising 2 only children.
A2 wants nothing more than to play with A1, but has no idea how to engage in some of the more rigid independent activities he is playing.
A1 wants nothing more than to play by himself because he has no idea how to model the back and forth necessary for that interaction to work if it is not an activity of high interest.
I believe they love each other…but much of the time it is like they are drifting in separate rafts in a tumultuous sea of desire for one another’s companionship without oars the to paddle over to each other. Sometimes their boats coincidentally bump. It is those moments as a mom I see a glimmer of typical sibling antagonism, tattling and sometimes even a game of Connect 4 and hope that they both hold on to each other’s rafts and paddle to shore together one day.
P was hard because there are so many things P can be for us. Passion, Pediasure, potty training, poop, persistence (in a good way). But if this is about awareness, this is critical.
Early conversations over time had with doctors about both A1 and A2: Me: “He’s sitting up already but his hands are still in fists and he can’t grab anything-something doesn’t feel right. ”
Doc: “Wow. He’s just really uncoordinated.”
Me: “He can say way more than I think he understands-so I had a speech therapist look at him and she validated that, what is that?”
Doc: “That’s impossible. That therapist doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
Me: “Since our move I’ve noticed he doesn’t babble in his crib any more and he only smiles at the microwave and the lamp, but not me.”
Doc: “You just moved…he’s getting used to his environment don’t worry about it (at 8 mos. old).”
I wish I could say that we just had a doctor who was incompetent (and no, the picture is not of the ACTUAL doctor which would potentially explain how things would be missed), but I hear things just like this in my private practice all the time.
All. The Time.
If your gut feels off about something and you are dismissed by your pediatrician, get a second opinion. Seek out information online about early symptoms of autism. All the research points to early intervention as the key component to long term success with the symptoms of autism. There are programs that are now identifying autism in infants. Lack of eye contact, failure to meet developmental milestones (especially language), lack of responsiveness to their name, repetitive motions such as flicking hands in front of their face are just a few. Even outside of classic symptoms, there are some not so classic ones.
Both as a social worker, but also a mom, if you have a nagging gut feeling….”let’s wait and see if he grows out of it” may waste precious time.
O is for Obstinate
All kids can be defiant. All kids can be persistent. Most can be both at one time or another…..however the persistence of a person with Autism can sometimes be far outside typical willfulness of even the most obstinate of kiddos. Most of this stems from intense need for familiarity, order and sameness of routine. This rigidity is part of the diagnostic criteria of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Sometimes I have no idea what will trigger A2 into a 3 hour long battle of wills. What can be a 5 minute routine one day can take 2 hours the next even when he knows that routine ends in something he enjoys. A1…no matter how much punishment, berating or time outs he got, he would get right back up and do the same thing over again. One summer I decided to ‘put my foot down’ and send him to the time out step after every single infraction. No warnings. That should teach him! After about a week of this, there was a day that I had sent him 17 times all before my husband got home from work. And he went willingly. Every. Single. Time. Something was very wrong and thankfully I had a moment of clarity. I got a clear cup, drew some lines across it and found a bag of marbles. Every time I caught him doing the right thing, I would throw a marble in the cup with the caveat that he couldn’t point out to me how good he was being. Unless he hurt someone (which he never did), there was no more time out step. Every time we filled the cup to a line, he got to pick what we did next in our day. If we got to the top (by the end of the day), he could get a dessert after dinner.
Just. Like. That. Everything was different. He would listen the first time and look out of the corner of his eye to see if I was digging for a marble. He got double marbles if he initiated social interactions. Before long, we were engaged in pretend play in the basement.
I had someone close ask “Don’t you think it might not be autism? Don’t you think it is could be his personality?”.
“Well, ” I indulged “if everything we do serves a function, what function do you think his behavior served that week?” Without much hesitation, she drew her hand up as if she was grabbing something and said “To have a ‘gotcha’ moment!” I thought for a moment. “What 4 year-old would rather sit on a step over and over, day after day instead of playing just to get under his mother’s skin? Isn’t a week long enough to learn that without the behavior increasing?” A four-year-old. Clinically, that would be a much, much bigger issue than autism.
Before that, I used to joke about how even a dog can learn to salivate to the sound of a bell when paired with food over time, yet I could not get my child to understand how his behavior had anything to do with the consequence he would receive. It’s one of the most bewildering and frustrating parts of parenting because regular consequences do not work. Though A2 may connect consequence to behavior in the moment, the pathology outweighs all and it is likely that he may not learn from his behavior for the next time. A2’s Childhood Apraxia of Speech required us to do drill work with cards for sounds and words over and over. Did we create some of this rigidity with him because of this? Probably. Did I have any idea that would be possible then? No. But the trade off was that he learned to try to speak and can make some needs known so that people other than me and my husband understand. Was it worth it? As a parent with limited understanding and resources I would have to say “yes”, because he displayed rigidity before that. Even as I add to this blog post from the original version written two years ago, I realize how much I have learned to even question if this was possible. We have lots to continue to learn.
L is for Love
Because L is ALWAYS for love when it’s about your child.
As a parent, as do many special needs parents, I find it confusing and sometimes a little unsettling when people say to me “I don’t know how you do it” or “I don’t think I could do what you do” or elevate my parent-ness to the likes of a saint. People are well meaning-I know the awkward sentiment is often a compliment of sorts, but it’s hard to respond. What is the most difficult thing you would do for your own child? Push him out of the way of a bullet and take it yourself? That would be mine, because caring for my child and meeting his needs is not even a close comparison to taking a bullet. We love our children with parts of our souls that we did not know existed before they were here. And I promise, guarantee, pinky swear you absolutely 100% WOULD know how we do what we do and you would do it too because there is no other option in the surrendered obligation of the deep love for your own child. So…if you have said this before to an autism parent, do not fret I don’t speak for everyone–we get what you mean. Moving forward consider this sentiment and instead try, “what is it like to be ______’s dad?” Or “how is physical therapy going?” Or “what is the most useful thing I can do to help?”.