Sunday, March 27, 2016

Running Away

Ethan's entered a phase lately that I remember Anna having, and I realize it's almost a "rite of passage" -- threatening to run away.

This shouldn't be that big of a deal. How many eighties sitcoms (or any era, really) featured that episode where the disgruntled child decided to pack up his or her meager belongings in a too-big suitcase and set out into the world? And of course said child usually made it three steps past the front door before mom or dad swooped in and made everything right.

Anna one night at about Ethan's age packed a bag and tried to head out during a rainstorm. Another time she threatened to take off down our camp road in Maine. This is life, I know. This is them asserting their independence. But with Ethan, it's making me especially nervous. It doesn't help that I already lean towards anxiety and imagining worst-case scenarios. But then throw in the fact that your non-quite typical child is the one talking about taking off, and yeah, I'm a little jittery.

I'm trying to be better about not imagining there's an evil stranger lurking behind every tree, but when I think of Ethan and how literal and, while super smart, how gullible (at least initially) he can be, and I wonder what happen if he took off and somehow came across the wrong person. This is the child who insists whatever another kid at school said, it has to be true, because, well, he said it.

Ethan often comes off as a regular kid, but there are times when his emotional response to things is either exaggerated or different than you may expect. Lately, if he happens to be in a "mood," something that may sometimes just bug him instead seems to be driving him to be rather impulsive. SO, if he's a little "off," telling him Wii time is done is not just irritating to him but outrageous.

That was all it took, the other evening. He went outside to play after and I thought everything was fine, but when he came back in he told me that he had been out there thinking about how mean I was to him, and that he came very close to running away. Apparently he climbed the ladder at the fence in our backyard that borders woods and looked out towards the nearby schoolyard, pondering. This follows an incident a few weeks ago where he actually went outside, in the dark, and hid behind a tree for a few minutes.

I am never quite sure how to respond to these moments. Dan feels it's better to blow it all off and not make a big deal. He thinks Ethan isn't really going to go through with something like this, but I'm not so sure. He is a kid who does what he says he's going to do. And sometimes I wonder if NOT acting like it's a big deal will make him feel more slighted and determined to run off.

While Dan has said matter-of-factly, "Ethan, you're not running away," I've gone the opposite route. The fear factor. I hate to be doing this. Maybe I'm wrong to be doing this. But yes, I've tried to scare him out of running away. Yes, I mentioned he could get hurt and no one would help him or about bad strangers who like to grab little kids and trap them in their cars. I don't want to be doing this. Actually, if he showed a measure of fear or concern when I talk like this, I'd probably stop. But this talk seems to make him more determined (maybe that in itself is proof it's the wrong tactic). He keeps listing reasons why he'd fight off a bad guy, why he wouldn't get hurt or lost. I'm glad he has confidence. But cockiness has gotten one too many kids (especially boys) into trouble.

I'm pretty sure it'd be a disaster to go the "reverse psychology" route. I think I remember reading this in a Ramona Quimby book when I was a kid. Her mother actually volunteered to help her pack. This shocked Ramona, until she realized her mother had packed her suitcase too heavy for her to carry. If I volunteered to help Ethan leave, he'd probably start shouting about how he knew we didn't want him, and would hurry his way out the door even more quickly.

And then there's the guilt route. Yes, I've tried this, too. I told him how much we would miss him. How Chloe would call for him and there would be no answer. How we would no longer have a son. This worked too well, when he was in an overly emotional mood. Next thing we knew, he was crying. Then I felt awful.

Again, feeding him with worst-case scenarios can't be the best answer.

Of course we have asked him why he wants to run away. We tell him how much we love him, what an important part of the family he is. We give hugs. We listen to his concerns (which usually are vague and involve things being "unfair").

And I try to fill his mind with knowledge, that I hope and pray he'll retain if he ever goes ahead with this. I make sure he knows our address and phone number. I talk about the safest kinds of strangers and not going anywhere with anyone. About staying in one place if you're lost in the woods and calling out. Any tool I can give him, he has.

"Mama," he keeps telling me. "Don't worry. If I run away, I won't go far." This is not exactly comforting.

In some ways, this is out of our hands. I think that is what is most difficult. I can't predict his every reaction. It's impossible for me to keep an eye on him every moment, especially as he grows older. He wants to do things like run over and play with the kid next door. I'm thankful he wants to do that. I'm thankful that I can leave him for a while outside while he climbs a tree or plays with a soccer ball.

I just have to be a little extra vigilant, I guess, about his mood. And do whatever I can to calm the horrible news stories in my head. And say many, many prayers that he will have wisdom and self-control when he most needs it.

And if anyone else has any suggestions, I'd love to hear them.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Ability to Bend, and Bounce Back

As so often happens, I've found another area that started out being important for Ethan but has ended up being a vital tool for not only the other kids, but myself.

Today I'd like to talk about flexibility and resilience.

I was not the most flexible child. Having my plans changed, being disappointed and yet able to move on and maintain a cheery disposition was not a huge part of my inner make-up. I can recall every slight; every let-down. In kindergarten, for example, I remember the day our class was supposed to visit the hospital for my very first field trip ever, but was cancelled at the last minute. We never got to go the rest of the year, and I felt slighted. I missed out on the kindergarten field day that year because I had gotten stiches, and remember sitting at home, crying in my room. I think I felt disappointed until the next year's field day. When I was older if there was a restaurant I REALLY wanted to eat at and it ended up being closed or too crowded, I had a hard time getting past the huge flood of disappointment that would wash over me.

I could go on and on. The point is, I was fairly lacking in these areas that are well known to be some of the foundations of emotional intelligence -- i.e., the ability to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior. And I used to think this was something that maybe could improve with time and maturity. But now I've realized it also takes practice. Even better is practicing from a very early age.

Which brings us to autism. We've all heard it said that one of the hallmarks of people on the spectrum is their aversion to a change in routine. Autistic people tend to have trouble being flexible and bouncing back if their routine has been disrupted. I can think of no better way to address that than to begin challenging it, in baby steps, early on.

First, I can't emphasize this enough: every autism is different. We have to be respectful of each person's individual make-up and how much pushing is too much pushing. If your child throws an hour-long tantrum because you gave him a red cup rather than a blue one, maybe there's a way to start smaller. Have him take one drink out of the red cup and then have the blue one, for example. As I wrote in our mashed potato fiasco, we're not here to antagonize our kids, just to gently prod them so they are a little less trapped by inflexibility.

Thankfully, from an early age Ethan was not an excessive tantrum-mer, but he of course was prone to routine and still is. It's been pretty easy to identify when a "rut" is forming because if it's removed, there's trouble. For a while now Ethan has complained that he doesn't like dad making him breakfast, and in fact will try to skip breakfast if I'm not there. Why? Because I tend to give him his breakfast in the same way (down to the folded napkin and the vitamin on the plate). The shake-up really bugs him. Over time we have insisted he eats the breakfasts dad serves him, even if he forget the napkin or Ethan has to pour his own drink. You can see how it's like nails on a chalkboard for him. But slowly, he's learned to force himself to do it.

Our biggest struggle with Ethan right now is Wii time. Especially on Fridays. Ethan wants his Wii after school. He wants to play it uninterrupted, in bliss, without thoughts of homework or school. But sometimes Fridays go differently. Sometimes we might actually want to go out to eat as a family. If I give Ethan no warning about this, all hell breaks lose. A few weeks ago we dealt with the mother of all tantrums. I felt pretty frustrated, because after all, we were offering to go out to eat, not bring him to get a shot. But that wasn't the point. The order of things had been disrupted. The one thing he'd been so looking forward to had been taken away.

I mean this as no disrespect to autistic people, but this kind of "tunnel vision" is very similar to what happens to a toddler who doesn't get what she wants (I can think of one who is taking sleeping in this house at this very moment). For a toddler, life is very much: I want this. I want it now. I can't wait. I can't accept something else. What happens if we immediately cave to their demands? We all know.

If we head out to do something and our plans fall through, it's hard on all the kids. I remember a time specifically recently when I talked up going to the bakery in town with Chloe, only to arrive and find it closed and locked that day. I scrambled to think of something else we could do. Sometimes our own reaction is important -- our kids are watching us. How much of a big deal do WE make about these things? We ended up walking around the town for a little while. After a few tears, Chloe cheered up as we found a different activity and kept moving.

The same applies to us grown-ups. What happens if I constantly insist on doing only what I like to do, on not relenting and going to the restaurant Dan wants to visit because it's not at the top of my list? What happens if I don't shake myself out of my "mood" when my schedule or plans get changed? I grow more entrenched in my ways.

For some of us, being flexible, and being resilient, takes more practice and concerted effort. But the is hope. We might never be as spontaneous and happy-go-lucky as some people. That's okay. We can just become a little less rigid and a little more able to cope with change.

The benefits are obvious. That is, of course, why these are so important for all of us and for people on the spectrum in particular. Because life won't always go our way. On any given day, there are myriad opportunities for our routines to get disrupted and to do things we don't really want to do. HOW we respond is all we can control. I can't tell you how many times I've had to learn this lesson myself.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Losing the Battle, Winning the War

Thankfully, we don't have a lot of food issues in our house. Never mind Ethan, almost everyone in our family is somewhat picky about food, but not exceedingly so. We have a two-year-old who will eat some vegetables and many fruits, so I'm not complaining.

But we do sometimes run into challenges. And as I suspect happens with many families, it's hard to find the balance between becoming a short order cook since everyone wants something different to eat, and forcing our kids to shove things down that they absolutely hate.

We've come up with some pretty good systems, over the years. If the kids really don't like dinner and don't eat much (but did at least try to eat it), the one snack they can have before bed has to be something healthy like an apple or carrot. We used to have a great method for the longest time: if they really didn't want to eat something, they had to just try to number of bites equal to their age (three bites for three years old, four bites for four, and so on).

Lately I've put my foot down about options. I feel as if everyone in the family needs to have at least three options for what they'll eat at breakfast or lunch. Otherwise, both meals become endless as one child complains that there are no waffles or nuggets, and another laments that we don't have bagels or salsa. Sometimes I feel like a computer with all of the information I have to have stored. Anna likes cereal, waffles, bagels (not muffins) or eggs. Ethan likes muffins or bagels but will eat a few other things for breakfast, under protest. Chloe thankfully will eat almost any of it but tends to ask for whatever the others are eating and then not want it after all.

Ethan used to eat oatmeal until I told him he had to expand his repertoire. He knows now that it's not good for him to get "stuck" because it's harder for him to become "unstuck." I had gotten him to eat everything but eggs...but now suddenly he has an aversion to oatmeal. I guess eating it for five straight years will do that to you. The other morning when a shopping trip was in order we had nothing for breakfast but oatmeal or toast. He tried to tell me he wasn't going to eat and I told him I didn't think so. We worked things out (he ate toast, with no butter, go figure), but there always seems to be a new obstacle.

And there has been no greater obstacle than mashed potatoes.

Here's the thing: Dan and I LOVE mashed potatoes. There's nothing we like better than a meal that includes good old mashed potatoes as a side, preferably with garlic, and you better believe lots of butter. Anna and Ethan have ruined mashed potatoes for us. They've ruined every meal that includes mashed potatoes. The whining and complaining, grimaces and melodramatic teeny-tiny bites, the tears and yelling, have gotten to be too much. Thankfully Anna has decided to suck it up and shovel in a few bites as quickly as possible, like taking a bitter spoonful of medicine. Ethan, however, has upped the drama to a whole new level.

Last week was the last straw. Or maybe it was my epiphany. We had steak and mashed potatoes. Ethan insisted he couldn't eat the mashed potatoes. He insisted he would gag. He tried to hide some in the trash. He sat at the table procrastinating until all of his food was cold and we'd finished eating. He cried.

I started to get cranky, and to feel confused.

I wondered if he was really playing this up or if he really just could not get them down. Over the years it's become obvious to us that, while he doesn't have a lot of sensory issues, he does have an exaggerated sense of smell (hearing, too), as well as a gag reflex.

I thought about the slippery slope. If we let him get out of eating mashed potatoes, how could we force Anna to eat them? If we tried to blame it on Ethan's sensory issues, probably resentment was going to set in. Was I really going to start making them another side dish every time we ate them? I'd always told myself I wouldn't do that.

We finally told Ethan he had to eat one bite of mashed potato. I wanted to watch him closely. I observed as he forced the forkful into his mouth. I saw him noticeably recoil, to almost gag the way he does when they swab the back of your throat for a strep test. Tears were filling his eyes.

That's when I decided (and Dan agreed) that we were done. This mashed potato fight wasn't worth it. This felt not like discipline, but cruelty. Sometimes we can get so fixated on the small details that we lose sight of the big picture. My kids eat fairly well. Ethan has overcome an aversion to meat and isn't much pickier than your average kid. They will eat vegetables and fruit. They don't subsist on junk food. We, as parents, needed to loosen the rules a little bit.

So yes, from now on Anna and Ethan will have something else on mashed potato nights. Actually, we've discovered that both kiddos will eat baked potatoes (if they are smothered in butter). So maybe this really is about a texture that just is too hard to bear (although, how does it really differ from the oatmeal Ethan ate for so long?).

This is a very long story to communicate one simple point: sometimes it's okay to lose a battle if you're winning the war. We tell our kids on the spectrum not to be so rigid -- but maybe we need to take our own advice.

I can't wait to enjoy my mashed potatoes in peace!

Friday, March 4, 2016

A Smile and a Wave

Ethan takes the bus in the afternoons, but in the mornings I drive him to school. Now that Dan goes into work earlier, Chloe comes along with us, and getting ready to leave the house usually involves a mad dash to get out the door with everything, on time -- no matter how early we start getting ready.

At the intersection for Ethan's school there is a crossing guard who arrives at her post faithfully every morning. I'm sure she has no inkling that we often measure our mornings by her, that she is often the subject of car conversation.

Over time we have learned that she undoubtedly arrives at her post early but crosses the street to return to her car by about 8:37 (school starts at 8:40). From there she'll wait in her car for a few more minutes before pulling away.

At home we have a challenge -- we've got to get to school before she crosses the street. That means we're running on time and that Ethan has enough time to walk from the drop off point to the front door before being technically "late." If we get to the school and she's already gone, not good. Not good at all.

This crossing guard is a woman of many hats. Literally. I can't recall them all, but in these colder winter months I've seen her sporting ear muffs. An Angry Bird hat and a snowman hat as well. A crocheted hat made to look like an ice cream sundae with a cherry on top. On a rainy day she wore a rain jacket such a bright color of orange neon it woke me up completely. I'm guessing for Dr. Seuss's birthday (when we missed her, as we arrived at school early for a pancake breakfast) she had to have been wearing a Cat in the Hat hat.

The discussion as we approach the school is often, "What'll she be wearing today?" Ethan wants to know where she gets all of these hats. I tell him online -- you can get anything online! Or maybe it's become a sort of mission. Whenever she goes somewhere, and for birthdays and holidays, she collects another one.

She's punctual and creative, but best of all about the crossing guard (I wish I knew her name!) is that she has a smile and a wave for When they drive in. When they leave. She greets every bus. I'm sure she's wonderfully friendly for the few walkers who actually come her way.

The crossing guard gets me thinking once again about the importance of small gestures. It makes me remember that little things aren't so little. That seemingly insignificant moments -- like choosing to wake up in the morning and put on a silly hat and to small and wave -- are choices that can, amazingly, change others, even if just a little.

We can bring joy.

We can, by our punctuality and reliability, help our kids feel safe.

We can be the one smile someone might have seen that morning.

And yes, this all sounds a lot like Mr. Rogers, but you know what? Mr. Rogers was incredible. One day surfing YouTube we came across some old videos from his show, and I sat, mesmerized. So did the kids.

A kind word.


Love and even just good-natured affection towards those around you.

As we drove up to the school today and listened to news on the radio about yet another presidential debate that has descended to the gutter, that is little more than a farce; well, the crossing guard provided a dose of a sweeter reality.

I must be light, and life. I mustn't despise the little things.

All of that, from a woman with a collection of silly hats. All of that, from a smile and a wave.