Pushing through Scary

What everyday situation(s) scare you?

Getting a spider out of the house would be high on my list. For my boys it’s different. For my oldest it’s girls. It makes him so uncomfortable he just avoids, avoids, avoids. Doesn’t want to talk about. Doesn’t want to deal with it. My youngest it’s making friends. Or the knowledge it’s harder for him, as being on the spectrum makes it more challenging for him to pick up on social cues. He has friends, but hasn’t made new ones at his new school yet.

My husband and I feel like our kids listen to us as if we are Charlie Brown’s teacher sometimes – wah wah wah. It takes hearing advice or insight (even if it’s exactly what my husband or I shared) from another adult for the words to land. For my youngest, this truth occurred when he was at the doctor’s office for an annual check-up. He was sharing his struggles (our doctor also tries to assess their patients mental health along with their physical), and the doctor, who had some knowledge of the high school he goes to, encouraged him to join an after school club, or start one if the club he’d be interested in didn’t exist. My son nodded his head, but I could tell he wasn’t truly buying in (after all his father and I had encouraged him to do the same thing. Our son had been willing to do theatre but not pursue his other interests where he’d hoped to connect with others that share his passion for geography and transit.). Regardless, the doctor opened my son’s mind to revisit this.

During dinner we discussed the doctor’s visit including revisiting school clubs. My son resisted (it doesn’t exist), didn’t want to start a new club (no one else will want to join). He was digging in his heels regardless of what might husband or I said. We finished the conversation telling him that often in life, you have to take the lead, regardless how scary, to make things happen. If you don’t take action you’re just living in someone else’s world. That seemed to stick.

He went to his room. My husband and I went about our normal after dinner activities. We weren’t sure, if anything, our son would do in regards to what we had talked about. Lo and behold, within an hour he came out of his bedroom smiling a pretty big smile. “Mom,” he said, “I want to show you something.” I followed him into his room. He’d clearly been searching his school club site and found one that was for world (geography) enthusiasts. We read the description together. “You definitely can contribute here,” I said. He nodded (this time a confident you’re-right-mom kind of nod), and shared he’d reach out to the teacher advisor to join. His mood was lifted. Mine was lifted. He was proud he’d taken an action and saw the positive result that can come.

It can be scary to try new things including (perhaps especially?) meeting new people. Taking action, even if it isn’t always successful, allows you to grow, lessens the fear with practice, and more often than not, leads to success. I’m going to keep pushing my boys to take chances, and have more ownership in their life experience. Now, how to get my oldest to consider opening himself up to love??? 🥰

What scares your child? How are you arming them to break thru the fear?

Dress to Impress

At what age did you become conscientious at the clothes you wore?

For me, it was probably middle school. I cared about clothes — wanting to look nice — probably as early as kindergarten, but middle school it went to a whole new level. I became concerned about what my clothes said about me — did I come off as cool, lame, trying too hard, not trying hard enough, etc. Add that I wasn’t petite or small by any stretch just compounded the issue.

Thankfully, I have boys, and while all boys are different my sons haven’t had much interest in what others think of their outfits. My oldest can be found most days rain, shine, hot, cold, and anything in between in a hoodie and sports shorts. My youngest likes graphic tees, but only when they highlight his interests.

On the first day of school, my youngest put thought into his outfit. He wasn’t so concerned with his appearance as he was with letting people know he has an interest in transit. He was adorned head to toe in all things metro/subway. He knew it was overkill, but wanted to do it, in hopes others would engage with him on the topic. He came home disappointed. We asked if he got any feedback on his outfit and he said he didn’t. I asked him what he thought others were most concerned about the first day of school. He said, “themselves,” as he sighed and rolled his eyes knowing it was the truth. “Give it more time. You keep wearing it (as he has many pieces to choose from) and people will eventually notice.” He knew that, but was still disappointed. I can understand. You try to get affirmation or acknowledgement from others, and do not always get it. Especially when you are seeking it in a covert way. I reminded him to just be himself. People are getting adjusted to new classes, teachers, and peers, and he’ll find his group (be them transit enthusiasts or otherwise) before he knows it.

What does your child/teen do to connect with others?

Being Good Enough

Have you ever struggled with self-esteem?

I sure did (and still do, though no where as much as I did when I was younger thanks to the help of some very smart people (therapists) over the years). My oldest comes across as very confident in who he is, and what he’s about, which I admire, yet I see him struggle with his esteem in a repressed/painful way. He has high expectations of himself — always. If he doesn’t live up to those expectations regardless how unrealistic they are he gets frustrated and defeated. He does have resources to talk to, yet, I’m not sure how much he is sharing (working on/addressing), and how much he is holding back. I remind myself he is young, and he will continue to learn more about himself as he grows and allows himself to be more vulnerable/open.

My youngest has high emotional intelligence. He has great empathy and can quickly understand when others are feeling. He is my ‘happy’ guy, but even he gets unhappy sometimes. He starts high school this year and is starting to think about what that means — new building, new teachers, new people, new pressures, and more. He sighed while we were in our family room. I asked him what was up. He said, “I’m just thinking about high school, and what that means. I think it will be fine, but I guess I’m just worried I won’t make any friends.” As a kid on the spectrum, forming new friendships is something he struggles with, though, he has friends and people often approach him because of his sunny demeanor. He will have opportunities to make new friends, assuming he puts in the effort. The way he said his statement it made me feel like he was trying to tell me something more. I pried, “you have friends and most people like you, so what is your concern?” He thought and then said, “I don’t know. That I’m not…” he paused, looked down, then back as me and said, “good enough.” You could have knocked the wind out of me. It took me til my mid-thirties to have that epiphany about myself and here he was at only 14. I asked, “Good enough for who?” I thought he might say, “the other kids,” or something along those lines, but instead he said, “me.” Wow! I was in awe of my child. To understand something so profound about himself as his age just blew me away. I asked, “how are you not good enough for yourself?” He shared that he thought he might have to change who he is (autism mannerisms (flapping and humming) and all), and he hated the idea of not being true to himself in order to fit in at school. I loved my son so strongly in that moment. That he loved himself that much and knew he’d be letting himself down if he had to change inspired me. I need to be more like my son. He has got this loving yourself thing all figured out!

The start of high school will come and go. He will adjust, and God-willing, it will go much better than he anticipates. What I don’t think my son understands is that by loving himself and his uniqueness, he will inspire others to do the same. Wanting to fit in is normal, but oh how boring. Loving who you are is (but shouldn’t be) the exception. It inspires, and draws people in. I hope my son understands just being himself is not only good enough, but exactly (the role model) what others need.

How are you helping your child adjust to the new school year? How are you helping them embrace who they are?

I will be off taking some time off to enjoy the last weeks of summer and be back in September.

Report Card

How would you grade yourself as a parent?

Most of the time I’d tell you my husband and I are doing “okay” as parents — learning as we go, making mistakes, admitting to ourselves and our kids when we do, learning from them and correcting ourselves/doing better, working to impart wisdom, morals, values, and beliefs, and supporting our boys as they grow. Sometimes I feel like we’re doing well (A/B grading), but other times…

Our oldest doubled-down on not wanting to continue sports in the upcoming school year. He made some good points regarding why he wanted to step away, but his argument seemed to carry a thread of how hard it might be to continue and that was the biggest driver behind his decision. My husband and I knew that the life lessons he would gain by seeing it through were very valuable—you don’t quit when it gets hard, you find your way through. Yet how could we get him to understand and reconsider? We talked about what he would gain by staying, how it would help shape him and his confidence, and how we didn’t want him to look back and regret his decision later when there was nothing he could do about it (meaning he only has two years left in high school). He was standing firm. As much as I hoped he wouldn’t play tackle football due to potential head injury, I was now hoping beyond hope he’d change his mind. It felt like the downside of walking away outweighed the upside. I felt like I was failing my son.

Turn to my youngest. His class is going on an overnight camping trip done by a group called Journeymen. This groups helps develop skills amongst its campers around working together, and successfully completing tasks (such as building on outdoor structure to sleep under). The intention is for the campers to be pushed outside their comfort zone, but have success and grow as a result. My son’s class had participated in it when he was in the sixth grade and he was pushed almost too far (keep in mind he is on the spectrum and his brain isn’t wired to stand significant discomfort easily), that we ended up getting a call where my son pleaded with me to take him home. I told him I couldn’t and explained why it was important he stay (he needed to know that he could do it). He did stay, but was a bit traumatized by the whole experience and was good with never going back again, You can imagine his reaction when we told him his class would be returning. He broke down, got highly upset and stated repeatedly “I’m not going.” My husband and I jumped into trying to calm him. “It will be okay, you’ve grown since the last time and so have your classmates. It will be better.” He wasn’t buying it. After several minutes of being unsuccessful at talking-him-down, my husband offered a great suggestion—have our son talk to his teacher, express his concerns and share what would make him more comfortable going on the trip. Our son was still highly upset, but said he’d try.

That night my husband and I asked each other “are we doing this parent thing right?” Because we felt like we’d be given a F grade based on the recent interactions with our boys. What were we doing wrong? I didn’t sleep well that night wondering what I should be doing differently or better.

Fast forward to the next afternoon. Our youngest gets home from school all smiles. He’d talked to the teacher and the teacher was in agreement around what hadn’t been great the first time round and how it would be different this time. My son had gone from being fearful the prior day to excited about going on the trip. Our oldest got home a little later. Before my husband or I could get a “how was your day” out, our son announced he’d continue to play football and would reserve making any decisions until closer to the start of the season. He wasn’t committing long term, but giving himself more time to make a decision. My husband and I sighed in relief. Maybe my husband and I were doing better than we thought???

What made me feel immensely better was when we shared our failings with a group of friends, and they all shared times they felt like failures too on occasion regarding their kids. Each story was relatable, made us laugh, and while we are trying our best, and aren’t successful in every moment, we see growth in our kids and ourselves beyond.

How would you grade yourself as a parent on any given day? How are you getting through those times you feel like a failure or not living up to the example you are trying to set?

New Year New Choices

Is your child a healthy eater?

Our boys are opposites in many ways. Regarding eating, my oldest has been a pretty consistent eater throughout his life. Food hasn’t seemed to be something that dominates his thoughts, mood, etc. His teachers talked about healthy eating when he was in elementary school and it resonated with him. He started to be more conscientious of his choices and wanted to be healthy.

My youngest has had a different journey. He was a very picky eater when he was young. He’d go days at his daycare without eating if the food being served wasn’t to his liking due to taste or texture (a big thing for kids on the spectrum). We often worried about him putting on weight, but that changed around the second grade. He started expanding his food universe, but it gravitated towards processed foods. Mac and cheese, bread, bread and bread. 😊 We’d attempt to get him to eat healthier options and would get gagging (sometimes regurgitation – yuck!), or he would dig in and not eat. It was a struggle. My husband and I had set out to make one meal for the family and everyone eat the same thing, but we failed. Three of us would eat the same thing (for the most part), and my youngest wouldn’t. #parentfail

Over the years the divide has grown. Our oldest is uber healthy. My youngest is not, but he understands the importance of eating healthy and is working hard to make better good choices.

At the start of the New Year, my husband recommended we hold eat other accountable in make healthier choices starting with making sure we’re each incorporating a fruit or vegetable into eat meal. He created a chart that each of us have to fill out daily. There was resistance as first, but we’ve all grown to like the chart. Seeing what we’re eating, thinking about what else we can incorporate. And our youngest has really stepped up to the challenge — Expanding his food universe in the fruits and vegetables category. It’s a small step but feels like a bigger (more important one to my husband and I). #parentsuccess

How are you helping your child to develop a healthy lifestyle? What challenge(s) have you come up against and how have you solved for it?

A Walk to Remember

How are you dealing with the Coronavirus, social distancing, and events, public spaces, and businesses being shut down?

One way my family is adjusting is by doing what we normally do on nice days — we go for a walk. I see the walk through a different lens though nowadays. Inside the house the virus can consume me, but outside I’m reminded how much things are the same. It helps that trees are budding and flowers blooming. Birds chirping, and seeing the occasional squirrel or neighborhood cat calms me.

My younger son and I decided to take a walk. While we start our walks walking side-by-side it almost never fails that before long my son is walking in front of me. He never walks in a straight line but goes back and forth, I can never gauge when he’s going to change direction and often comment that he walks like a cat, in that I’m always wondering when he’ll be underfoot (and I’ll trip over him).

For whatever reason on this particular walk I decided to ask him why he changes directions when he walks. He answered, “I like to walk on the flat parts. It feels better on my feet.” That had never occurred to me. Being on the spectrum, certain senses are heightened for him, it had never occurred to me that he thought about how his feet felt while walking on the ground. It’s not a sensation I’m tuned into. Our neighborhood sideways have lots of ups and downs from tree roots that have grown over time. I’m more concerned with tripping or falling if I don’t watch my step, and now I know my son is more concerned with finding the flatter path.

Having this realization calmed me even more. I’m not sure I would have asked the question I had of my son, or learned the answer if I hadn’t been forced to start looking at things differently outside. It’s a walk I’ll remember.

What do you and your family do to get you through this? What are you discovering during this time together?

Imaginary Audience

Has your child said something that made you pause?

My youngest son participates in a theater group that is made up of kids with challenges: whether it’s being on the autism spectrum or someone with developmental limitations. It is wonderful to see the kids be in a safe space where they are more alike than different and no judging is going on.

A new member joined the group this season and is more vocal than most of the kids. While waiting for my son in the lobby I heard this young person start to say, “they are making fun of me. Everyone makes fun of me.” The teacher quickly intervened and clarified to the student that the others were laughing at what had happened in the scene not at him. I heard him one or two more times make similar comments. Each time the teacher worked to help him understand what was really going on differently.

I asked my son about it on the ride home. “I heard someone saying they were being made fun of. What was that about?” I asked. “He kept saying that, but no one was making fun of him,” my son said then continued, “I think he had an imaginary audience.” That gave me pause. “What do you mean by imaginary audience?” I asked. “He’s hearing things that aren’t there,” my son said. “From people that aren’t there?” I asked. “No, the imaginary audience is in his head,” he said. The conversation got me thinking. “We all have that voice in our head that tells us things — what to eat, comments about how you look and or should feel. Do you know what I’m taking about?” I asked. “Yea” my son said, “we all have those voices.” I was pretty impressed my son had this awareness. I know I didn’t at his age. “It makes me sad if that kid hears only negative things even if they aren’t happening. That would be a terrible way to live.” I said. “Yes,” my son agreed. “What if instead of letting that inner voice or ‘imaginary audience’ be negative, we only allowed it to be positive? That would be pretty amazing!” I said. “Yea, it would say things like ‘you’re amazing. You’re going to be great.” laughed my son. We came up with other positive and somewhat silly sayings for our inner voice. After we were done and I had a moment to reflect, I asked my son where he came up with the phrase imaginary audience. “The internet, Mom.” he said. Well, duh, I thought, of course he heard that on the internet. Maybe the internet isn’t the encapsulation of all that is bad after all. 😊

What insights has your child shared that gave you pause?

That’s What Friends Are For

What makes a good friend?

This question has gotten a lot more attention from me as I’ve navigated the struggles my son on the autism spectrum has with making friends. What does make a good friend? Someone who is kind in the moment? Someone who wants to engage with you in a kind and supportive way? There are varying levels of friendship. I think of the friends who have come in and out of my life. I was reminded what a good friend looks like when a woman I have known for years and who I have shared just about everything with asked me timidly, “When was your son diagnosed?” She asked it in a whispered voice, and did a quick glance to ensure no one around had heard the question. While I was reluctant to talk about my son being on the spectrum when I first found out, I have come a long way — I’m happy to talk about it openly, but I remember that feeling of being unsure and uncomfortable, I was picking up on the way she was asking that she was uncomfortable. I responded, “When he was around five,” I paused and lowered my voice, “What’s going on?” She leaned in and said, “I haven’t really talked about this, but my son has spoken a word yet, and he’s two and a half, and we’re not sure why.” I could almost feel her concern. As a parent, when your child seems to have any affliction — whether it is a disease that is tough to treat, or a condition that makes them different than others — it can feel like you are at a crossroads — the childhood you imagined you and your child having will likely not be how you envisioned it to be, and that can be scary. We decided to find a time we could talk more openly. I wanted her to feel comfortable sharing and asking whatever questions she had.

Prior to us meeting, I thought about how I could best show up for her for this conversation. The truth is we don’t know if her son is on the spectrum, he hasn’t been tested and officially diagnosed, but he does exhibit behaviors similar to my son. I could easily jump to conclusions and give her all the information I’ve gained since my son’s diagnosis, but figured that really wasn’t what she needed. She needed to know that everything was going to be okay. Yes, her parental journey would be altered, but it didn’t mean it couldn’t be joyous, it was just going to be different. She asked me to share my story. I shared and then asked her what she was most concerned about. She was very concerned they hadn’t figured out what was behind her son not talking despite seeing doctors and specialists and enlisting the help of therapists and others. The next step was doing a battery of tests to get her son properly diagnosed. “I’m concerned because I need to figure this out before he turns three,” she shared. “What is special about him turning three?” I asked, thinking about how we hadn’t really enlisted help for our son until five. “That’s when it says you have the best chance of early intervention, but we don’t know what he has.” She admitted to spending too much time on the internet and going into various rabbit holes of information that all seemed to lead to a future life of doom and gloom for her son and her family. As she spoke, I was reminded of my intention coming into this meeting, what would a good friend say? I borrowed a phrase we use with our older son, who is always jumping ahead in his life and concerned about his future. I was seeing the same thing in my friend.

“How long have you been a parent?” I asked. “Well, two years” she said, clearly taken aback by the question. “And how are you supposed to know everything, and have it all figured out in two years?” I said. “Well, I guess, you’re right, there’s no way you can figure it all out in two years.” I finished, “Think of your journey like a video game, each year of your child’s life is a level. Right now, you’re on level 2, stay there, don’t try to be on level 5 or 12 or 35. You’re on 2, you’re going to continue to learn and get smarter. You are going to figure this out.” She smiled. Her shoulders relaxed. “You’re right,” she said. “Thanks.” I did end up giving her a few resources that she could reach out to who could give her some sound advice — these resources had been a Godsend to me. As I left our meeting, I thought, I wish I had had a friend or support like this when my son was first diagnosed. There was support available, but I was just too scared to reach out, and I didn’t have any friends talking. I was glad my friend was brave enough to ask. I was glad I could be that support and encouragement. After all, that’s what friends are for.

Are you struggling with raising your child? What does a good friend do to help support you as a parent?

The Power of You

What makes you or your child unique?

My youngest son and I were discussing the power of self-awareness, advocacy and accepting (even embracing) who you are. Only allow others to treat you how you want to be treated. Don’t think because you have autism that you are any less valuable or that people should treat you any other way than kind and respectful. My son and I talked about the power everyone possesses when they know who they are, and share it with others.

In our world, us neurotypicals (NTs) — not on the autism spectrum — spend much of our life trying to ‘fit it’ in whatever form that takes. Part of what my son benefits from in being on the autism spectrum is that he is unaware of the social norms and pressures peers try to place on each other. He is who he is, and when a peer tries to place a pressure on him, he either ignores it or is confused by it (which typically leads to a discussion at home as to why something happened or why someone acted the way that they did). An example, my son was friends with a girl and liked her for who she was. He wasn’t concerned that she was overweight or that she was a bit ‘louder’ than her peers. He thought she was funny and kind and she seemed very much to like him for him. One of his classmates decided to ‘target’ my son and his friend making a heart shape with his hands and continuing to do so after they had asked him to stop. My son said, “I don’t understand why he was making the heart shape. He acted like I was supposed to be mad about it, but it just really annoyed me. He wouldn’t stop doing it.” I took a guess at what might be going on, “Relationships make many people, particularly us neurotypicals, uncomfortable, and when we see people showing an interest in each other easily, without effort, it can evoke emotions in us — discomfort — either we’re jealous because we like that person and are embarrassed we didn’t act sooner, or we feel pressure to be in a relationship and don’t know how to go about it, or we feel there’s something wrong with who you like and even though that’s that person’s issue they try to put their discomfort on us.” He thought about it for a minute and said, “Well, it still annoyed me.” To which I responded, “Next time, tell them it annoys you. Ask them why they are directing their discomfort at you? I bet anything it will stop them in their tracks, because they likely don’t even realize that’s what they are doing.” This seemed to satisfy my son for the time being.

Being yourself isn’t always easy. Especially when you are young and you get messages from TV, the Internet, movies and peers about how you are ‘supposed’ to act. If you don’t have someone telling you you’re better off just being yourself (and that oh, by the way, most people will find it refreshing and even attractive) you can easily form opinions about how you should act and not be yourself. I’d hate to have that happen to either of my sons, I’m glad my youngest is challenged in being anything other than himself. He’s an inspiration to his brother, my husband and I, his teachers and many of his peers.

How is your child unique? And how are you helping them embrace who they are?

I will be off the next few weeks with Easter and then Spring Break, but will return later in April.

You’re a Good Friend

How many good friends do you have?

My youngest son and I continue to read our new favorite book, The Asperkid’s Secret Book of Social Rules: The Handbook of Not-So-Obvious Social Guidelines for Tweens and Teens with Asperger Syndrome by Jennifer Cooke O’Toole. What I love about this book is how much of this information benefits people on the spectrum and those of us who aren’t.

My son and I are now in the part of the book that is about friendship — what makes a good friend and how to go about cultivating a friendship. As I read the chapter I was struck by how much I would have benefitted from someone telling me this information when I was my son’s age about what makes a good friend. When I was young, I didn’t think about friendships in layers per se, but did understand I had different friends — some were kind, some were kind when they felt like it, some could be trusted, others couldn’t, etc. In the book, it spells out characteristics a good friend has. Some of the basics: Smiles when they see you, likes some of the same things you do, shares some of the same opinions, invites you to hang out. And others that are more advanced and truly define a good friend: stands up for you (even if you’re not there), stops you if you put yourself down, listens, sees talents in you that you hadn’t noticed, likes you for exactly who you are. There are many more characteristics she names, but you get the picture, she is shining a light on what a true and worthwhile friend is.

After reading this I reflected on my own childhood friends. I had some friends that had some of these characteristics, but don’t think I had any ‘true’ friends until I was college-age. As I’ve grown older, I’ve sought out, cared for and worked to develop healthy and meaningful friendships vs. giving equal care and time across all friends regardless to what they bring to the relationship. I wondered how I might have invested my time differently with people earlier in life if I had had this information. I thought what the author said was so valuable I grabbed my older son and said, “I need to read this to you.” He has friends much like I did in middle school — some are nice, some are nice when they feel like, some can be trusted, and others cannot. After reading with both my boys I felt like I had given them a path to know how to spot a good friend and better spend their time with people who will value them and their friendship and reciprocate in kind.

Friendship can be a tricky thing to navigate, especially if you don’t understand what a good friend ‘looks’ like. I’m grateful I’ve had an opportunity to enlighten my kids (and remind myself) about what a good friend truly is.

How are you teaching your child to spot (and make) a good friend?