Sunday, November 12, 2017

Finding Our "Mojo"

So this year Ethan's school has a new behavioral incentive program called Dojo. I'm not exactly sure what "Dojo" means (Ethan says it has something to do with little monster characters) but the gist is that it's an online point tracking system in which kids either earn or lose points due to various behaviors throughout the day. Staying "on task," for example, might earn a child 10 points while not turning in homework might mean a 10-point loss. Kids can view their individual accounts online (including a circle chart that fills in with either green or red), and of course can earn prizes for reaching a certain number of points.

Ethan loves Dojo. I mean, LOVES. It's visual, it involves math, it's very cut and dry (do this - earn that) and VERY motivating. Aside from a meltdown in gym this year about someone cheating on a game, Ethan has been a model student. We get phone calls. Notes. Messages. I'm told Ethan is a "great role model," "a hard worker," and "wonderful at staying on-task." Sometimes I've reviewed these glowing messages while staring at Ethan, just home from school and screaming, rolling on the floor because I took his video games away, and wondered how one child could be so different in two different places. I know kids as a general rule act better for their teachers than parents but sometimes lately the contrast is just over the top.

Mornings, for example, had become especially challenging. The ultimate "on task" child at school has been rarely on task to get out the door. I've found him relaxing in bed, still in his pajamas with a Captain Underpants book, when it was time to leave in 15 minutes. Homework, getting off screens, leaving the house for sports practice -- these have often turned into me pleading, yelling, coaxing, threatening (sometimes nearly simultaneously). One day in frustrationI shouted out, "We need Dojo in this house!" and it was as if the proverbial lightbulb went off over my head. That was it. We DID need Dojo in our house.

The next day I announced to Ethan that we were going to launch Dojo at home.

"You can't do that, it's copywrited!" was his not surprising reply. "They'll sue you!"

"Ethan this is just for us. Nobody's going to sue me," I said. "And anyway, it's not Dojo. It's...Mojo."

"Mojo?"

"Yeah, Mojo. The M stands for 'mom.' And we need to get our mojo back around here."

And so Operation Mojo went into effect. It's really playing off a parenting technique I've heard others talk about but that we haven't employed so much. Some say that it's better to have your child earn rewards for good behavior rather than have desired items taken away due to bad behavior. It's less negative. I've shied away from this sometimes because honestly I get tired of feeling as if my child always has to feel as if they are being cheered on and rewarded. Sometimes, darn it, they have to have consequences and they will have to know what it's like to not get their way.

However, I'm also open to new things. Especially when some of the old tried and true ways just aren't working anymore.

Earning "mojo points" means that for each task Ethan knows he needs to accomplish, he earns 10 minutes towards his afternoon screen time. If he needs constant nagging to complete a task, he loses the 10 minutes (but can earn them back). So: eating breakfast and packing up his backpack, 10 minutes. Making his bed and picking up his dirty clothes, 10 more minutes for 20 total, and so on.

We've had Mojo in place for about a month now, and I have to say, our mornings are a lot more pleasant. At least with Ethan. (We've had some interesting battles of wills with Chloe lately, but that's another story...). If it's almost time for school and he's only earned 30 minutes of his screen time, he gets REALLY motivated to feed the kitty and take out the trash to earn more points, for example.

Of course, once he's had his screen time later in the day that motivation fades, but we're working on that. Sometimes the evening's behaviors also count towards the next day's mojo points. Sometimes this doesn't matter and we're still arguing about him practicing his clarinet or doing his reading. Of course we are. He's a kid. But the point is, it's better. It's much more bearable.

So I would like to thank our town's public school system for adopting this program. I'm not sure how effective it is with other kids, but for my literal, visual, rewards-motivated one, it's a godsend: for school and home.

And I'm reminded that sometimes as parents, we have to be flexible, we have to be creative, and there are times we have to throw our hands up in the air and pray for wisdom, because this parenting thing is often not for the faint of heart. I've been doing that a lot lately. And have the feeling I will be for a long, long time to come.

















Sunday, October 22, 2017

A Sideways View

"Some of the kids were bad in school today," Chloe reports as we drive home. This is a common theme. She's doing preschool in the mornings this year, in a mixed class of typical kids and those with special needs.

"What do you mean, bad?'" I ask her, knowing where this is going.

"Oh, they wouldn't stay in line, they kept rolling around on the floor during circle time, and one of them kept singing this song really quietly over and over," Chloe says. "She doesn't talk, she just sings."

"You remember what we talked about, right? And what your teacher says?" I remind her. "Some kids are working on learning different things. You're learning to trace your name. Some of them are learning to sit still in circle." We've had this conversation before. I'm sure it won't be the last time.

It's a little bit strange, having a child who is technically a "peer model" in a special ed. preschool classroom, after having a child who was in special ed. preschool for services.

When I remind Chloe the kids aren't "bad," they are just working on different things than she is and might need some extra help, I wonder what kids used to report about Ethan when he started preschool.

When she says she wants to go get "services" (OT, PT or speech) like some of the kids because that seems like it's really fun (and they appear to get special attention, I'm assuming), I remember how Anna couldn't understand why therapists spent so much time attending to Ethan (and he STILL didn't really enjoy playing some of their games).

When Chloe tells me the ones who don't talk are the "little kids" in the class (although they are all three and four-year-olds) I wonder the best way to delicately explain that's not really the case -- or should I?

One day Chloe walked by a little boy in the classroom when we first arrived.

"You could say hi to him..." I suggested.

"He doesn't talk," Chloe replied matter-of-factly.

"But you could still say hi," I protested.

I will ask her who she played with at recess. Ninety percent of the time, she names the typical kids only.

I can't help but remember the way Ethan avoided everyone at the beginning of preschool. Even compared to other kids on the spectrum, he seemed anti-social. In kindergarten he climbed the monkey bars again and again and again, alone. But he was perfectly happy.

Some days I watch Chloe come into the classroom trace her name pretty darned neatly. Occasionally I'll see parents of some of the special needs classmates who come in and scribble, or need the teacher to hold their hands, or fight with even sitting at the table, and I don't want them to see what Chloe is doing. I know it can feel discouraging. It's easier to have your child receive services at home, where it's safe; insulated. In school, with peers, suddenly the differences stand out much more starkly. It becomes hard sometimes to let your child develop on their own timeline rather than the standard one.

Some days when we're leaving at pick-up time we walk down the hall and Chloe is chattering constantly about her morning and pictures she painted and games she played, and there are times we walk near a mom and her daughter, from one of the other classes. This child rarely speaks but traces her fingers across the walls as she walks. Their silence feels heavy. It feels heavy to me because I know if I were her, I would be longing to have conversation with my child, like the one Chloe and I are having.

In these moments, I feel something like guilt.I want to tell this mom I'm not taking any of this for granted. And I know what it's like. I DO understand.

I was going to title this post something like "View from the Other Side," but I realized that wasn't true. I'm not on one side or the other. I've visited both. So now I stand sideways...always with the perspective of a typical child's mom, and a special need child's mom.

Interestingly, while I realize I now have more compassion for special needs families, I also need to not be guilty about my own child's abilities --  the same way I needed not to resent those typical kids who did (and sometimes do) surpass Ethan in their social abilities. They are who they are. It's not their fault. Why did I ever think any differently?

These differing perspectives have grown my empathy. They've also reminded me to not be so hard on myself.

So I stand here in the middle. And while sometimes the feeling is unsettling, I am grateful for the view.






Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Ethan vs....the Dryer?

Years ago Dan and I used to watch a show called "Obsessed" about people who struggled with obsessive compulsive disorder. The show fascinated me. Here were people whose lives had been literally taken over by what would seem almost nonsensical to an outside observer. There was the woman who had to check that the stove was off. All the time. The other woman who had to brush and floss her teeth countless times throughout the day or she literally started to break down. And most memorably - the man who HAD to continually rub his hands together to "wipe off the evil" if he happened to spot an El Camino (that old car/pick-up truck-looking hybrid) drive by. He was in tears, trembling, when the therapist wouldn't let him. He thought he'd be cursed.

The whole point of treating people with OCD on the show was to do something called "exposures" where they would gradually be exposed to the feeling of NOT being able to perform a compulsive act, and learn to cope with that anxiety spike for longer and longer periods of time, until they effectively defeated the compulsion. This wasn't the only answer of course (I'm sure medication and therapy were also major players) but this was the part that stuck in my mind.

We have a little bit of OCD going on in our house. I don't say that facetiously. It's fairly well accepted that there is some overlap between autism and obsessive compulsive disorder. At the same time, I'm learning unfortunately Dan and I most certainly are not psychiatrists.

I've written before about Ethan's fear of buzzers. He's conquered many of them. He no longer runs away from the game Simon or episodes of "Family Feud" on TV. He learned to cope with the buzzer his art teacher had in class for when kids started acting out. So he's made some great strides, but now we have a new nemesis: the dryer.

In some respects, I get this. Our dryer (like many) makes a loud buzz when it's done. One day it buzzed when I was right next to it and not expecting it, and I jumped a mile. So in theory I understand why he doesn't like the dryer. But Ethan has taken this to a whole new level -- and we may have accidentally made things worse.

The dryer fear started a few months ago. I noticed Ethan was often asking if the dryer was running or when a load was going to be done. He didn't want to go in certain rooms (above the basement) if the dryer was running. Then I caught him outside hiding when the dryer was about to buzz. He refused to go into the basement if the dryer was running. When we found out recently that Ethan was willing to go to the bathroom OUTSIDE rather than use the bathrooms while the dryer was running, we felt this had gone too far.

That's when I thought of that show, and of exposures. I had a thought: why not MAKE Ethan wait at the top of the stairs for the dyer to go off? We weren't going to surprise him or startle him on purpose. We weren't going to make him go right up to it. But why not gently force him to be exposed to that sound, where he would then realize it wasn't so bad after all?

And so we embarked on what would turn out to be a mighty struggle. I didn't realize how deep the fear had woven itself. Ethan was petrified and in tears. Chloe and Anna wondered what in the world we were doing. "No, not the dryer!" Ethan was yelling while I was yelling, "We're not hurting him, really!" to his sisters. After what seemed like an eternity the darned thing buzzed for literally 1.5 seconds and we were done. I thought for sure we might have diffused at least a little of the fear.

Umm, no.

If anything, we'd made things worse. Ethan starting asking more than ever about the state of the dryer. In retrospect, we moved too fast with the exposure. We should've let him cover his ears. Or allowed him to be even further away.

A few days later Ethan was sure he'd gotten his revenge, because lo and behold, the dryer BROKE for the first time in about 10 years. And when it broke, it buzzed for an extra long time. Thankfully, he wasn't home, but I told him about it when he got home from school, and his eyes got wide. He wanted to know how many seconds the dryer had buzzed, what it sounded like, and if I could hear it from every room. "This is because of what you tried to do the other night!" he laughed with glee, but it was all short-lived. Our friendly local handyman came and fixed the dryer two days later.

Ethan was resigned when he heard the news. But he perked up when I told him the way the guy had purposely made the dryer buzz to test things out, when we were both standing right next to it -- and I hated it. Ethan seemed to take great pleasure in knowing it had scared me.

Yes, I'm empathetic -- but I know Ethan can't live life controlled by the dryer. The other day I found him outside before school, stressed because he knew it was going to go off. I wondered what in the world we should do as a next step.

That evening the dryer was running, and Ethan really wanted to play Monopoly (it's hard to get people in our house to play Monopoly, the game that never ends). Maybe this is going to sound cruel, but I decided to use it as a bargaining chip.

"I'll play Monopoly with you, if you will stay right here at the dining room table when the dryer goes off," I told him.

He was good with that. Only as the time grew closer, Ethan became increasingly more agitated and trying to block his ears or run out of the house. I felt bad for him. He reminded me of the people on the show, like the man sweating bullets and pacing because he couldn't do his ritual after seeing the El Camino. I also felt angry, seeing him all torn up like this. We were NOT going to let the dryer win.

Dan found some videos of dryers buzzing on YouTube (yes, you truly CAN find almost anything on YouTube). He played one as we were waiting for our actual buzzer and Ethan was fascinated. I was, too - first, because this video had the world's longest dryer buzz (whoever designed this Kenmore model dryer, it was pure evil!). And also, I realized from the comments that there are a lot of people out there that have a fear of the dryer buzz.

Watching Ethan watch YouTube reminded us that it's not just the noise -- the problem with the dryer buzzing from the basement was the not knowing when it was going to happen. It was like the stress of playing that game Perfection, with all of the yellow, tiny, shape pieces, just waiting for the timer to be up and for the shapes to pop.

The question will remain: how to deal with not just annoying sounds, but the anticipation, the not knowing exactly when they will appear?

I think we're going to have to take it one sound at a time.

As for the dryer, it went off that night, and while I barely heard it, Ethan said his whole body jumped inside. He may have struggled, but he did it. Maybe next time, we'll make him use the bathroom while the dryer is running - but allow him to cover his ears.

Ethan thinks we need to throw in the towel and find a dryer that doesn't buzz when its cycle is done. And so the other night we were back on YouTube, watching videos of dryers that end by playing a song. He's holding out hope we'll get one someday. I told him he better not sabotage the dryer to speed up the process.

I'm confident -- we will win this dryer war. Then onto the next battle.































Sunday, September 17, 2017

Full Disclosure

Recently out in the social media world (for me, Facebook) I've posted a number of pictures of different places we've visited this summer (mainly day trips). This is primarily because I don't print photos anymore. Facebook is my photo album, which is probably not a great thing. But it's where I'm at right now. If I can click and my memories are saved in a few seconds, I'm good.

Every time I share photos, especially recently, I get lots of feedback about all of the fun and exciting things we do as a family. "You really get around!" or "You think of so many fun things to do!" people will say. And I've started to feel a little uncomfortable, as if somehow I've set my family up as if we're staring in a little show: "The Whittemores Take New England!"

Another post recently was about Ethan and school. It's true: Ethan's teacher DID call to say what a great job he's been doing. It's also true that I muttered something about "wishing he showed that kind of behavior at home." I included that in the post, because really I was posting about the irony of having the teacher gush over a child who looked nothing like the child we often see at home, particularly first thing in the morning. But I think that point got lost. A number of people were kind enough to say things about how awesome Ethan is and what a great mom I am. And I started to squirm.

I know this has been talked about A LOT lately. And I know people aren't stupid. Most of us are well aware that the world, the life people present on social media, is not the whole story. We paint the best picture of ourselves. We edit and enhance. But despite all of that, I still feel this need for full disclosure...for the story behind the story.

Here's one, for starters.




This is Ethan's first day of soccer. The sun is shining, birds are singing; he's fresh and ready to go. This is Ethan's fourth year playing soccer. And things have gotten better. But they're not always easy. I don't have an After picture of that day. If I did, it would show Ethan flailing around on the ground, crying after the game. I give him credit. He held himself together during the game. And he waited until most people were out of sight. Then he couldn't hold it in any more. It IS frustrating to lose 1-0 to a team after trying really, really hard. And for someone who has trouble regulating emotions, it's even harder. We were the last people to leave the field last week, and this week, too (another tough loss). But this week he pulled himself together a little more quickly. Progress.

This picture of Chloe walking on a trail in Maine does NOT bring back memories of one of our fond family walks in the tranquil, mysterious Maine woods. This "hike" was a joke! We drove miles with Anna crying in the back because she'd accidentally scalded herself with hot water (long story). Once we determined we could, indeed, go on a little hike rather than the ER, we ended up here. Only I was looking for a different place and didn't realize until we'd paid almost $20 to get into some kind of state park. The nature center was closed and the only other thing to do rather than swim in frigid waters was hike this trail. So we did, only to realize within three seconds that the woods were filled with a massive infestation of the blood-thirstiest mosquitos I have EVER encountered. This peaceful nature walk was pure torture. And of course -- we'd forgotten bug spray. Everyone was swatting at themselves, Chloe was developing almost an allergic reaction to all the bites, kids were whining, and by the time we neared the trail's end we were all almost running to ESCAPE the woods.


Speaking of Maine: this is another thing I hear from people a lot. They say how they would love to have a cabin in the woods on a lake and how incredible it must be. They are right. It is incredible. It's lovely. It's also something I've grown up with my entire life and it would not be everyone's cup of tea. Why? You must know: our amazing family cabin is also the oldest one on our lake (100+ years) and has no running water or indoor plumbing. And due to the lay of the land, it is very difficult to ever install plumbing. So, it is what it is. Views like this are absolutely true. So is the fact that we have to boil water to wash dishes. I still love it!


We went on this fun day trip up a mountain recently on a ski lift. We've also been blessed to go to an indoor water park earlier this year and will head to Maine for a weekend soon. These trips are special because Dan is coming with us. Some people don't know that many of the adventures I've taken have been just me and the kids...and sometimes my parents. Dan's work schedule with two jobs including his own business make it difficult to get away. We've not been away for a week's vacation for over a year, all together. We have to catch these times whenever we can.

Sometimes online, on a Sunday after I was scheduled to sing and had a wonderful time at church, I will post messages and thank people and gush about the church services that morning or people will write to me and we all have a wonderful time encouraging each other. There is nothing so wrong about this. I DO feel incredibly blessed to serve with such a great group of people. I love to sing and share my gift with God and others. But for every time I write and gush and thank others and say thanks in return, there are a hundred insecurities I've had to fight that day, that morning, that week. I know I'm not a professional, and my voice is not top-notch. It's not about performance but still the fight goes on to quell the voice that says you were too this or not enough that or will never be able to do this or that.

You can't be honest about insecurity, online. You risk sounding like a downer, or that you're fishing for compliments. But sometimes, for others' sake, we NEED to be.

And this picture -- Anna's first day of homeschooling. Doesn't her hair look cool? She is all smiles and I posted about how this was a first day home treat, and it was. It was also a I'm not sure what I'm doing and I don't want my teen to hate me treat. Three weeks in, she likes homeschooling -- kind of. There are things she misses and there are things I don't know how to change or improve for her. There are friends out there she hasn't found yet and I just keep praying they're found. In the picture, she is smiling, and in my posts, I am speaking of the bright side...but this was a hard, hard summer full of many tears. This has been a time of fighting regrets, praying for wisdom, choosing faith versus fear, and letting go of control.

I know this is how it is for everyone. There is the post; the tweet. There is the story that can't be summed up in a paragraph or captured by a picture. There is the hurt you share with those you love in real life, carefully concealed from this virtual world not unlike a magazine where everything is glossier and shinier and summed up succinctly.

Our lives are messy, and I'm not saying anything we don't already know. But sometimes, that's the side we need to show.












Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Finding the Best (Not Perfect) Option

The calendar has flipped to September, Halloween and (dare I say it?) Christmas items are stocked on store shelves, and last week we sent two kids off to school...and one to school at home.

Yes. It's almost shocking to admit it, but we are homeschooling Anna this year.

Why do I say shocking? I have nothing against homeschooling. I know many, many homeschooling parents. Many of them are natural born teachers...the type of people who seem infinitely curious and love thinking of projects and crafts and new way to explore subjects. That's not me. I do, however, still love the feeling of cracking open brand new school books. And, I'm willing. That's what we have to work with here.

But I need to back up. Way up. People homeschool for many reasons. The educational choices we make for our kids reflect our values. Sometimes, our fears. Our desires to meet their individual needs.

As a kid, I had an eclectic mix of schooling. My Christian upbringing played key a role in this. I had an on and off mix of Christian and public school education. There were pros and cons to each. I didn't know any homeschoolers back then. Even in Christian circles, homeschooling was kind of "out there;" sort of earthy-crunchy.

Looking back at my education, I've always known there were very real drawbacks and benefits to both public and Christian school. My Christian education was sometimes sorely lacking. Some curriculums were weak; extracurricular activities were nearly nonexistent. And one school's forms of punishment and approach to the Bible may have done more to harm kids' faith than help it. Likewise my public school experience had drawbacks. Classes were taught from a worldview that sometimes conflicted with my faith. There were times the atmosphere was close to scary. Kids were exceedingly cruel. Worst was the feeling I sometimes had that my teachers were lost, hopeless, and unable to help me through some bullying situations.

All of these things swirled in my mind when Anna was little and we had to make a decision about her schooling. Dan had grown up in public schools and didn't feel as strongly about the issue as I did. But after hearing horror stories from a friend who at the time taught at an elementary school in town, I felt fairly strongly -- we would start Anna in Christian school. It helped that we had a school just down the street. And so she began pre-K and continued there through elementary school.

Then Ethan came along, and things were very different. Having an autism diagnosis meant, at least at the beginning, Anna's school was not in the picture. Instead, the moment he turned three and graduated out of the Birth to 3 program, he fell under the auspices of the public school system and the special services he needed that they could provide.

So we started in the public school system, not by choice -- and in the process I discovered a really wonderful group of both teachers and parents. The schools weren't perfect. But we had many more good experiences than bad ones, and problems were always quickly addressed, and for the most part, rectified. Beyond that, one thing I loved about the public school was feeling like I was a part of the town. Anna's school had many out of towners and just wasn't the same. I would go to Ethan's school and see the same people I'd run into at the grocery store or the town green. Since Anna had never been involved in town sports, we'd lived in the area for 5 years, but I felt as if I knew no one. When Ethan started school, that changed.

Watching both of the kids go through school helped me see very clearly the different arguments that are out there in the Christian world and to better understand each side. Yes, our job is to raise our kids in our faith; to protect and nurture them. At the same time, Christians can't live inside a walled fortress. We have to be careful to not develop an "us vs. them" mentality; to think that if we just sanitize our kids from all corruption, everything will be fine. There must be room to be a part of a community, to shine God's light and love in our everyday encounters.

Ethan went on through public school, and Anna went to Christian school until we realized her school was closing for the upper grades and it would be best to start her in public school right at the beginning of middle school when everyone else was new, too. And so we did. And things went okay...for awhile.

I can't violate my 13-year-old's privacy by getting into details, but let's just say that by the end of this year for numbers of reasons we began to see that public school, at least at this time, was not working out well for Anna. And so we delved into our options, including homeschooling, and confronted all of the issues and assumptions that come with it.

In the process of research (and my connections with homeschooling families) I came to understand that the homeschooling world today is a far cry from what it might have been 30 years ago; that the internet is an amazing tool; and that there are so many resources and social opportunities out there for homeschooled kids. I also again realized that it isn't a perfect solution. That there will still be times when we may not be feeling as if Anna's needs are being met. And it is a juggle on my part, with the freelance work I do as well. But we've taken the plunge. So far, so good.

What does this mean for down the road? Will we continue to homeschool Anna? Will we find another private school or at some point return to public? What about Chloe and Ethan? I am not quite sure.

What I'm learning through all of this is something I've always believed, deep down, but have seen played out before my eyes. There is no perfect answer for the best way to help our kids. There's just the BEST option. And that can change -- from child to child, from year to year. We can't let ourselves get stuck in boxes. We also can't let ourselves become distracted by others' opinions and decisions. What works for one child or one family may not for another. We can't be ruled by fear but also can't bury our heads in the sand. We've got to entrust our kids to God but also take on responsibility for having them in the best environment for them in any given year.

We can plan, but we can also leave our options open. Never say "never"...and never say "always." We can learn to live with the truth that we can do everything we can as parents, and our kids will still make their own choices. But that doesn't mean we set them up to fail.

For those of us who like clear-cut paths and grand plans, this can be a little difficult. But this is life. So we jump in -- to this year. And learn to live in THIS moment: knowing that for any of our kids, it may look very different from the year after that one...or the next...or the next.

























Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Screens: An Epic Battle

Summer is wrapping up, and while I've enjoyed swimming, roller coaster riding, vacationing, and reading mysteries from the library when I get a spare moment, I am looking forward to fall. Yes, fall in New England is beautiful, and I can't wait for pumpkins and leaves and getting lost in corn mazes, but what I mean is that fall equals school and for Ethan, soccer. And that means we will get the smallest of breaks in this summer's Epic Battle for Screens.

Ethan is a great kid. And there isn't a moment that I don't realize our challenges could be much, more worse. That being said, his thirst for all things electronic only seems to grow stronger -- and we seem to always be walking a fine line between understanding and not discouraging this "hobby" while also encouraging him to at times disengage from fantasy and interact with the real world. I know there are many kids, typical or not so much, who have these same issues. With Ethan they just seem a little....exaggerated.

If left to his own devices, Ethan would most likely play on his WiiU, Kindle, or Nintendo DS at least eight hours a day. His games of choice right now are Minecraft, Zelda, and Metroid. When he plays, he loses all sense of time and anything else going around him. He usually forgets about eating or drinking. Time stops and several hours can feel like minutes. We use a timer but that's not enough. I have to warn him continually before the timer goes off because only one warning is not enough. He's so lost in the world he needs time to ease his way out.

Almost everything in our house seems to be structured around screens. Bad behavior means screens are taken away. Chores are usually done with the knowledge that if they're not, screens won't turn on. Our daily summer routine is somewhat fashioned around screen time. At first we were trying to break it up into morning and afternoon, but I found that as soon as Ethan starts on screens, he has trouble stopping only to go back later. It ends up setting a bad tone for the day. So now most of it has been contained to the afternoon.

But what if plans change? What if it's the weekend or we actually have some sort of special plans in the afternoon? This becomes a bone of contention. And to my non-autistic mind, this is what's most frustrating. We have been on excursions this summer to the beach, an amusement park, and a fair, for example, and if too much of the day gets eaten up, no matter how much fun we're having (or money mom and dad are spending!), Ethan will start to get depressed and anxious because he's afraid of missing out on the day's screen time. Autistic people like routine, I try to remind myself over and over. It's not always easy, when you've shelled out 100-plus bucks at an amusement park, and your child is crying because they want to go home and play a game they've played 100 times.

Of course we have talks about being grateful when we do special family outings and about learning to enjoy other activities.

We caution about learning to do other things now, because as he gets older and becomes a grown up he can't play screens all day. He will have actual responsibilities, and it's better if he learns early how to tear himself away for a little while.

We have tried to harness this love for electronics into something that might really be useful for him in the future, like learning coding, with minimal success. He doesn't really like to code or to do something "practical." He wants to play his favorite Metroid game over and over.

The most difficult issue this summer has been Ethan's sneaking of screens. The boy is smart and he's getting smarter. And while he's not a great liar, he has sadly learned to lie or to try to cover his tracks. There have been many, many days this summer when I've rounded up the electronics in the house and hid them. Sometimes I think I'd love to purchase a big treasure chest, like the kind you'd see in a pirate movie. I'd throw everything in there and lock it up with a big golden key. Then it would at least make this process more interesting (and dramatic). Instead right now I'm hiding the Nintendo Switch in a filing cabinet and the WiiU game pad on top of the fridge and the Kindle and DS behind picture frames in our bedroom. It IS kind of like treasure hunting, when it's time to track this stuff down.

But we had to. We've found Ethan up in the night now several times, playing games (sometimes for hours). We've discovered him in the bathroom actually playing Mario Kart on the DS. We've caught him outside with his friend on the swing set watching videos on my phone.

The line between compassion and understanding and frustration is sometimes very thin. I KNOW his developmental pediatrician said he might need more screen time than the average person. I also know he HAS to have other interests and to learn how to at least sometimes stand up to perseverative thoughts that tell him he needs to play a game and he needs to play it now, and nothing else.

"I can't help it!" he often claims, and I don't want to just blow that off. Along with autism does often come some obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I don't think he's JUST being willful.

"It's just my autism!" he says, but we have to be mindful of letting him play that card all of the time.

"Ethan, we all have our struggles," I will tell him often. "It's not just you. And it's not impossible to overcome." Or at least improve. And it's so true. Maybe it's not screens. Maybe it's food. alcohol. Or shopping. Or worrying. I think most of us have that weak area that compels us; that's so hard to resist. I try to remember my failings, rather than just pounding my fist. These are real struggles, for all of us. Self-control. Self-discipline. Removing the thrill of instant gratification. This is the world we live in. But I know we don't have to let the wave completely sweep over us. We can take baby steps to stand against the tide.






















Friday, August 4, 2017

Career Plans

Ethan has decided that he wants to become a nurse.

Like most kids, we've had a number of iterations when it comes to Ethan's future career path.

First he really wanted to be someone who works on power lines. This went on until quite recently, when he started learning more about the power of electricity and the things (while unlikely) that can go wrong while fixing power lines. "Mom, I just don't think I want to do that," he confided. "It's not really safe."

The drawbridge operator phase went on for quite some time as well. I'm not sure why that faded, except that maybe even Ethan's love for drawbridges couldn't override the fact that sitting all day and waiting to push a bridge up or down just didn't sound that interesting.

For a while we were pushing the idea of being a video game designer (why not take advantage of that screen addiction, right?) and he was on board. But then one day when I looked up what it took to be a game designer, and he learned most of the big companies are on the west coast, he soured on the idea. "That's too far away," he said earnestly. "I'd miss everyone."

So recently Ethan has jumped on board with the nurse idea. This evolved after several visits to the doctor's office for poison ivy that really wreaked havoc with him, and a nasty virus. Ethan specifically wants to be a pediatric nurse: the one that gives shots and tests for strep.

"Are you sure about that?" I asked him. "You HATE those things."

"I know, but I would be the one doing them," he announced smugly. I think this whole nurse thing may be sort of a revenge fantasy. Or at least a way of fantasizing about the day when HE has the authority to make kids do things rather than the other way around.

"I'll tell them about getting their blood checked, and I get to be the one to enter their symptoms into the computer, too," he announced. More screens. Bonus points!

The other day he asked me how much nurses make a year. We figured out for some nurses, it amounted to hundreds of dollars a day.

"That's a lot of money!" he exclaimed, dollar signs flashing in his eyes.

"Yes, but remember, you have bills, too...mortgage, car insurance, electricity, and so on." His face fell. "Why?? Why do we have to pay so much?" he complained. The indignation reminded me of the day I first found out about social security being deducted from my paycheck. Or about excise tax.

He was apparently still thinking about the prospect of bills the other day when we were outside. "So mamma," he said from the swing set. "Why don't you tell me about insurance?"

Anyway, the promise of thousands of dollars a year and administering shots to sullen children is still alluring.

"I can't wait," he said happily yesterday. "I can't wait to be a nurse and give shots and get my money." Then he got serious. "Mamma, what do I say when they interview me for my nurse job so they'll hire me?"

"Well, you just act very confident, and tell them you'll work hard and do your best. And Ethan?" I hated to do this. "I know it's hard, but you should try to remember to look them in the eye. Sometimes other people don't understand if you answer a question and don't look them in the eye. They think you're trying to hide something."

"BUT" -- I didn't want to stress him out. "You really don't need to think about all of this now. Right now you should just be focused on being a kid. Do you know what career plans I had when I was nine?"

"What?"

"None." I may have been a worrier and a planner, but even I wasn't trying to map out my life and plan job interviews at that age.

"Just have fun and learn," I told him. I'm not sure if he's going to listen. I'm not sure how long this nurse fixation is going to last. But I like that he's thinking about it. That's what kids should do -- maybe not worry about how to plot out their lives, but be allowed to dream.