Monday, October 26, 2015

The Case of the Missing Football

"Where's my football?" Ethan burst in the house one day last week after school, breathlessly. "Mama, I put it right here in the dining room, and now it's gone!"

"I don't know where your football is. I didn't see it in the dining room," I said, quite honestly.

"It was. I KNOW it was right here. Where is it?" Apparently Ethan had it in his head to go outside and pretend to be Tom Brady and the rest of the New England Patriots.

I told him to look for the football. He spent five minutes and told me it had disappeared. I figured that meant he was suffering from "Man Disease" and if I looked for a minute or two I'd come across it. Only I didn't.

"My football is lost forever!" Ethan wailed dramatically. But then I let him play Wii, and all was right with the world. I figured he'd forget about the darned thing, but no. He held on to this thing like a dog gnawing a bone.

The next morning: "You HAVE to find my football today."

That afternoon, first thing through the door after school: "Did you find my football?" (Alas, an outdoor search had turned up nothing.)

The following morning: "It's YOUR FAULT my football is gone. I put it in the dining room."

That afternoon: "Did you find my football yet?"

I was starting to hate the football. It wasn't even a real one, just a blue and white, hand-sized one we'd picked up somewhere (probably Target, since we live in Target). I had dug through five toy boxes and searched under furniture. I'd even pulled apart the couch, a scary endeavor that, while not revealing a football, did produce a number of goldfish crackers, pennies, popcorn kernels, and even a few pencils.

Worse than looking for the football and not finding it was eventually realizing that the football was a bigger issue because it was part of Ethan's loop of "Limited Things to Do When I Have Nothing Else to Do." We've talked about this before. In his mind, he wants unlimited screen time. When I tell him screen time is done, I attempt to give him options for other ways he might occupy his time (i.e. puzzles, building something, reading). He usually rejects most of them. Currently his go-to activities that don't involve screens are reading, going next door to our neighbor's house (where they feed him cookies and let him watch TV), or playing outside with his football. We were missing a big part of his equation, and he wasn't happy.

To make matters worse, we've told him he can't spend too much time over at the neighbors' house anymore. They are wonderful people, but they are growing older and Ethan can't barge over there at any time and treat them like an extra set of grandparents. We caught him last week walking straight into their kitchen (without knocking, because he said "the door was opened and he saw people in there") and asking for snacks 10 minutes before dinner.

But if we tell him no next door, then well, he wants his football. And so he asked for the football about 142 times. By Sunday afternoon, I was feeling worn down. We'd just watch the Patriots eek out a win past the Jets. He'd gotten to eat some of his very favorite food (Doritos!). Dan played a board game with him. Still, all was not right with the world, because, Ethan asked the moment the game was done, "Why is my football still missing??!"

I was THIS close to just driving to Target and getting another darned football. Ethan even had some extra money. The day before they'd gone to their cousins' soccer game with the grandparents only to learn their cousins' other grandparents reward them with dollars every time they score goals. Well, of course then my parents couldn't leave the kids empty-handed, so they each came home with five dollars.

I considered going to Target and getting the football. I wondered if there was anything else we could do to dig Ethan out of his ruts. I'd even tried paying him to try a new activity in the past, but would you believe that didn't even work?

In the end we ended up getting distracted by something and another night went by without the football. In the morning Ethan asked for it again and was off to school.

Three hours later I was in the kitchen when I heard scared shrieks coming from Anna's room. Chloe had somehow gotten herself stuck under Anna's bed. The crazy thing was, it took several minutes of finagling to get her out from under there. I was beginning to worry I would traumatize her as I pushed and pulled and shoved and wondered how she'd gotten under there in the first place. At some point I felt as if I was delivering an actual baby, gingerly tugging and trying to make sure I was simultaneously gentle and firm. At long last, out popped Chloe.

Clenched in her fingers, probably making it more difficult to extract her from under the bed, was the darned football.

Yeah, it was under Anna's bed. The bed she supposedly cleaned under on Saturday. Anna, who hates playing catch and would never touch a football if she could help it. Anna, who yelled, "I DON'T KNOW where your football is!!"

This story has played out a thousand different times in our home, in any home with young children. It's the: "How in the world did THAT get THERE?" Followed by no answers, but giddy relief, because you've found a way to plug up the whining. For just a little bit. Maybe. You hope.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Looking Does Not Always Help Listening

A few mornings ago Ethan and I were chatting about his upcoming day at school, and he excitedly mentioned he had "group" that day. Ethan is really enjoying his social skills group this year. I'm not sure why, but I'm glad. Usually each week he'll have two sessions -- one in a small group setting with a few other students who have autism, and the other in the cafeteria with a few kids from his class that he chooses. There's someone new doing his group this year (let's call her Ms. T.) and for the most part, Ethan likes her. Except for one thing.

"Mama," he said. "Ms. T. says that I HAVE to look at other people when I'm talking to them, that it will make me listen better."

"Do you think it helps you listen better?"


"But is it hard sometimes?"


I knew exactly what he was talking about. It had come up a few days earlier, when we had his annual IEP meeting. The reports from around the table were good ones and not too surprising. He's doing great in math and reading; needs to work on his penmanship; sometimes has trouble speaking up when something is upsetting him; and is generally well-liked and does fairly well with the other kids.

Ms. T. mentioned that when Ethan chooses a second grade classmate he doesn't know as well, especially, that he has a really hard time looking at him when he's talking -- and if he doesn't understand what the child is saying, will bypass the student and ask her, "What does he mean?"

"I've told him," Ms. T. shared to all of us at the meeting, "that good listening means looking, and that he has to turn himself toward the person and look at them. He has a lot of trouble coordinating all of that."

Warning bells were going off in my head. Suddenly several articles came to mind, interviews I'd read with high-functioning autistic people, in which they'd talked about the extreme difficulty many people on the spectrum have with both listening and looking at someone. It's as if the two senses can't work simultaneously. They either look and don't process what the other person is saying, or they listen without looking and can actually focus on the words.

"Actually," I spoke up. "I'm not sure that's always the case. I think looking into someone's eyes can be very overwhelming for Ethan sometimes, and he actually can listen better when he's NOT looking."

I had a vision in my head of this well-meaning woman trying to teach Ethan the "typical" way to interact, and him twisting and turning his body and his eyes towards someone in the same awkward way I'd act if someone was trying to teach me complicated dance steps.

Ms. T. nodded her head, as if she was going to politely agree but continue with her aforementioned teaching plan.

And this is the conundrum. It's true, Ethan probably CAN listen better without looking at someone. But he lives in a world full of "neurotypical" people. As he grows older we hope he will be able to recognize there are times he really needs to put aside his own preferences and look at someone (a job interview comes to mind). Those of us who know, love, and are close to him would never force him to stare at us while we're speaking. But out in the rest of the world, it's not so simple.

Which brings me back to my conversation with Ethan.

"I know it's really hard sometimes," I told him. "And I know you CAN hear people even when you're not looking at them. Ethan, I don't want you to stress out too much about this. Just do your best."


"I know YOU don't care if people aren't looking when you're talking, but do you know what happens when your friends are talking to you and you aren't looking at them at all?"


"They think  you don't care about them. And I know you really are a very kind and friendly person. Your teachers said that. So sometimes you look at them just to show you care."

I'm not sure if it's exactly the right answer. It seems as if autistic people are always the ones that have to make the social sacrifices. But it's the best I have, right now.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Lessons from Garfield

"Mom, guess what Garfield said to John!" Ethan had the paper spread across the kitchen table, reading and waiting for his breakfast.


"Well, he didn't really say it, because it was a thought bubble. But he told John to go make him a sandwich. How did John hear him if it was a thought bubble?"

Like most people these days, we'd had little use for reading the newspaper until the Hartford Courant offered us a ridiculous deal (something like $1 for a year's subscription). Now every Thursday and Sunday morning the paper magically appears in our driveway, and a fun byproduct has been that Anna and Ethan have become avid comic-readers.

I'm a sucker for the comics and so is Dan. As a kid I loved digging into a copy of the Worcester Telegram and finding the "Happy Pages," which included the comics and essays written by local school kids. Dan always goes straight for the comics and rarely reads the rest of the paper, especially these days, when we get our news from elsewhere. And now the kids fight over them. We all have our favorites. I've always liked For Better or for Worse (first I identified with the kids in the strip; now the parents). Dan likes FoxTrot thanks to the geeky central character. We all like to make fun of Prince Valiant, one of those we're-going-to-cover-one-story-line-for-a-year, badly, comic strips.

Ethan loves Garfield. And Dilbert. And The Family Circus, and really all of the comics except for this bizarre, some other state of consciousness strip called Zippy about this cantankerous, evil-looking clown who makes political and psychological observations about the world. We're quickly realizing that the comics are a great way to teach someone on the autism spectrum about humor (or the lack thereof), subtlety, and inference.

Some cartoons and more cut and dry and it's easy for anyone, Ethan included, to get them. The Family Circus and Peanuts come to mind, although sadly in Charles Shultz's later years the strip didn't make nearly as much sense. For Better or For Worse is another good one because it's usually about real-life situations that may have happened to any of us. Ethan's learned to avoid Doonesbury, as politics aren't exactly his thing, but he does love Dilbert, which he calls his "second-favorite comic."

"Really?" I asked him, wondering how much he understands about the corporate world and office politics.

"Yeah. I like the boss's crazy hair," he told me.

Above all, though, Ethan loves Garfield. I'm not sure why. Maybe because we're a family of cat lovers. Maybe he likes the way Garfield orders John around. I know he likes the thought bubbles, because they talk about those in school and he sometimes comes home with pictures of people with little thought bubbles above their heads.

And that's just it: the thought bubble really complicates Garfield, if one can call a Garfield comic strip complex. One character is speaking, and the other is thinking, but it's written in a way so that without paying careful attention you'd think that maybe John really can understand what he's thinking.

This is perfect, since part of what Ethan does in something like a social skills group is try to figure out what's going on inside someone else's head. Even just the concept that everyone else has an inner world like he does is a good one. People can be sitting silently, Garfield teaches us, while thinking all sorts of things. Sometimes they're snarky and sarcastic things.

Which brings us to point #2: sarcasm. Much of what Garfield thinks is dripping with sarcasm. We've worked a bit with Ethan on sarcasm. He's pretty good at spotting obvious sarcasm now (like "Oh, I just can't WAIT to go to the dentist and get my tooth drilled today"). He'll even call us out on it -- "That's sarcasm!" But when the sarcasm is on paper and spoken, or thought, by a cat, it's a little more tricky.

Even beyond sarcasm, in Garfield there's a lot of the cat saying one thing but meaning another. So in that strip when he ordered John to make him a sandwich, it happened at a moment when John was trying to give him love and affection.

"Why did he ask him to make him a sandwich?" Ethan asked.

"He probably got uncomfortable with John hugging him and he doesn't really know how to show his feelings, so he just ordered him around instead," I told him. This lead to a whole discussion on the point of the script, the theme running behind the themes, about the way people think cats are cool and aloof compared to dogs and like to order their owners around rather than running after them.

And you thought Garfield was just a cute little comic strip about a fat cat who likes lasagna.

Again I'm reminded that so much of what we see and read can't be taken at face value. That there are themes and motivations driving what people are communicating, and inferences and subtleties to be made and caught at every turn. We're helping Ethan learn how to catch at least some of them.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Homework Conunudrum

We are increasingly finding that homework is an issue in our house. Yeah, I know it is for almost all kids, and their parents. Anna grumbles about her assignments for sure. Ethan takes things to a whole new level.

I'm starting to hate homework, actually. I'm wondering if, until kids are in maybe fourth grade, they should be doing it at all.

I don't remember homework assignments until fourth or fifth grade, and then it was mostly working on science or social studies projects. Anna has maybe an hour of homework a night, which isn't so bad, and she is in sixth grade, after all. But Ethan is stuck on a bus for an hour after school. He then is expected to read for 20 minutes a night and write down what he's read (plus sometimes answer a question on the reading). Again, not horrible, because thankfully, he likes at least the reading part, and if we have to, he can read in the car on the way to school the next morning. The problem is when any other kind of assignment comes up, especially if it involves writing, thinking creatively, or drawing, cutting or pasting.

Every year around this time his school comes up with this "project" that I would've loved if I were back in school. I'm waiting to see if it rears its ugly head again. Basically it involves each child making a small "collage" of things that represent them, their family, their favorites, and so on. Each on is posted along the halls of the school after they're turned in.

Every year, the same thing happens:

"Ethan, it's time to work on your collage."


"What kind of things do you like?"

"I don't know!!"

"What about the Patriots? Red Sox? Pizza? What pictures could we find on the computer to put on here?"

"Mamma, I want to play Wii!"

"Ethan, I'm not doing this all by myself..."


This is followed by me printing out a bunch of pictures of things I think he likes, then cajoling him to cut them out, then conceding to cut half of them myself, then begging him to glue them to the paper. Then every year I walk the halls and see better looking collages and think, "Did all of the parents do these, or were there kids in this school actually motivated to DO this assignment?!"

Any additional homework Ethan brings home turns out the same way. This week Ethan's first non-reading homework was to write down his five favorite books and find pictures of them to make a collage on what kind of reader he is. Asking him to work on this was like walking on broken glass. There were tears, begging, threats, and bribery involved.

I'm starting to wonder how we're going to handle this as we move into the upper elementary grades, never mind middle school.

"Use a motivator!" people will say. True enough. In a perfect world, the afternoon would look like this: Ethan comes home from school and runs around outside to get some energy out. Then he sits down and does his homework, getting Wii or other screen time as a reward after all of his responsibilities have been completed.

I try to dangle Wii like the proverbial carrot, but this doesn't always work with a child who can be extremely single-minded. We like to call it "Rock Brain," after one of the characters in the SuperFlex social skills curriculum. Ethan himself will acknowledge when he is being "Rock-Brained." He'll get off the bus and I'll tell him to go outside. He will sit forlornly on the swing, barely moving, unable to think of anything but screen time. Sometimes he won't even eat a snack. "Mamma, sorry, I can only do Wii," he'll say. Even though three hours later he will claim he is starving and needs more to eat before bed.

If I sat down Ethan at the table to do homework immediately after school, well, first of all, that seems downright cruel after being in school for six hours and on the bus for an hour more. But even if I do, he will stare at the table, unable to focus. "Screen time!" I'll hear over and over.

And so we do Wii first. But when Wii is done, there is the struggle to transition away from the Wii, unless an Ethan-approved "Good Dinner" is waiting. THEN he'll play outside (but Daylight Savings is ending, uh-oh!), THEN maybe he'll sit down to do homework. Except: what if he loses motivation? While it sometimes works, threatening no Wii the next day is a hole I hate to dig us into. Then what in the world do I do about the next day's homework with nothing for him to look forward to?

And there's another issue. On school days Ethan seems to have a tolerance tank that runs dry very quickly. I can use what's there to convince him to do his homework...but what about other responsibilities? I'd like him to help out more with chores, but I'm working with a limited amount of motivation here. I can either beg him to clean his room, or beg him to do his homework, but trying to get him to do both leads into exhausting territory.

Someone will say, but that's how you win these battles. They're exhausting sometimes. I realize that. But some days, especially helping out two other children, my own tank is empty. And sometimes the stress that it's created, especially if I've started yelling, isn't worth it.

NOT making him do chores doesn't seem like a solution either. Then Anna wants to know why Ethan gets off so easily, and honestly, I don't want to always be tip-toeing around him and accommodating him. Yet I want to respect he may struggle with this more than the average person.

I'm starting to think the answer to this part of the problem may be that chores are for the weekend, before screen time, when homework is blessedly absent.

So this is where we stand. No, it's not the end of the world. We'll figure something out. I'm just praying the public schools realize that if you're going to push young kids all day, extend the school day by a little bit every year, push and push and push to meet whatever Common Core is requiring, and give them only 20 minutes of recess, you could go easy on the homework assignments, at least until they get to middle school.

My kid needs to be a kid, whether that means climbing a tree or playing Wii. He already barely get to be one at school. It'd be nice if he at least could be one at home.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Positvely Parental at the Chili Challenge

The morning had dawned gray, rainy, windy and downright miserable.

Ethan's soccer game had been cancelled, and the two older kids were acting like angry bears when I shared that despite the weather, I still wanted to go to the Chili Challenge on the town green. We try to go every year. Town businesses compete under their own (sometimes quite creatively decorated tent) for who has the best chili. Usually half the town is there. It's a fun fall thing to do, and the weather was supposed to improve.

They weren't having it. And I wasn't having their whining. After I lost an informal vote, I put my foot down and started acting downright parental.

"Sorry, a parent's vote overrules two kids' votes. Parents' prerogative," I said, then launched into a little Bobby Brown from 1989 ("I don't need permission make my own decisions, that's my prerogative...").

Yeah, I was feeling a little punchy. I just didn't get it. I knew, when I was Anna or Ethan's age, I wouldn't have dared to launch into the litany of whining, complaining, and back-talking that seems to well up every time they have to do something they don't want to do.

After much cajoling, we all made it into the car...and then Anna and I proceeded to get into an argument about an incident that shall remain nameless here, but resulted in lots of raised voices, huffing and puffing, tears, and unsolicited from comments from Ethan ("Is this even worse than when I bit Anna?").

"I just want to go home!" wailed Anna. So did I because honestly, this seemed like too much work. But no. We'd come this far.

"We are going," I said through gritted teeth. "We're going to take the next four minutes, and you're going to calm down, and then we're getting out of the car."

I knew we couldn't throw in the towel. They needed to learn a little self-control and a little about doing something they didn't want to do, about grinning and bearing it and learning to find something to enjoy about maybe a not so enjoyable experience.

Plus, I really wanted some chili.

We got out of the car and stepped into a huge puddle. The rain had stopped, but after a month of 80-degree September temperatures, 47 felt pretty darned cold. Anna calmed down, but Ethan started in.

"It's TOO COLD! The wind is freezing my face!!"

We pushed the stroller onto the town green. Chloe kept losing her shoes.

"Mama, two no votes should NOT get beaten by one parent vote! We voted no!" Ethan kept saying. I bought tickets and took a bite of my first steaming sample of chili.

Apparently the rest of the town was as crazy as I was. There was still a good crowd there. We saw some of Anna's friends (and Brandan C. -- or was it Brendon? -- Be still our hearts!). Ethan saw several teachers from school. Someone gave Chloe a balloon and Ethan a toy saxophone. At the Wizard of Oz-themed tent the Good Witch Glenda greeted everyone next to someone in a swirling tornado costume.

The chili warmed me. A promise of hot chocolate for the kids calmed them. Some snacks for Chloe kept her happy. On the steps of the town hall, two guys started playing 90s alternative hits from Oasis and Smashing Pumpkins. I looked over and saw they were my age. And they looked officially middle-aged. That depressed me for a moment and then I decided I really didn't care and started singing along to "Wonderwall."

As we walked and Anna ducked her head in embarrassment, I suddenly realized that there was no turning back. We had truly come full circle from my days of dragging my feet, walking behind my parents and glaring at their backs because they were so mean!

I am convinced now that becoming a parent happens in stages, and I think that's like anything in life. You have the title, but easing into the role takes time. You don't necessarily feel it. In fact, at first you feel immensely unqualified. Then you start to get the hang of things. Then everything changes again.

In little bits and pieces you start to understand a little better just what your parents may have been thinking on those days when you were convinced they were the most horrible, unfair people in the world. Over the years you suddenly realize that more and more, you're empathizing not with the child's, but the adult's, point of view.

And then there are those moments when you feel strangely, completely parental. It's not holding a newborn in your arms. For me the first was sitting at a desk in Anna's preschool while the teacher addressed me as "Mrs." That day I felt a bit like an imposter.

But that was eight years ago. As we walked on the green, my kids sniffling and whining and groaning as I sang along with Oasis, I realized after a decade I was getting this thing. I wasn't an ogre. My parents hadn't been, either. We're just imperfect people trying to do this thing, trying to teach our kids, loving our kids, and attempting to still take some moments for ourselves sometimes, too. Even in the form of some tiny cups of chili on a freezing, soggy day.