Monthly Archives: November 2015

Buddy, Age 5

Buddy turned five a bit over a week ago. Lately we’ve seen some incredible progress which is encouraging, while the developmental delays and autistic traits can remain frustrating.

The good news is I did talk to his doctor about getting a referral for genetic testing. My doctor had read about the study I had referenced and got me in contact with a doctor who could do it. I’m hoping we’ll get some useful information, but if not we’ll be contributing to the body of knowledge about autism, and hopefully it’ll help some other family down the line.

As for the good news, we’re able to understand more of what Buddy is saying. It’s very concrete, nothing abstract. For instance I was walking into his room and he asked, “Where are you going?” I said, “To your room.” “What are you doing?” “Getting your clothes.” This is as much conversation as I can get out of him.

As always, he’s saying a lot that we can’t understand, but he’s also repeating himself. Used to be if we said, “didn’t catch that, what did you say?” he’d become discouraged and stop talking. Now he’ll repeat himself over and over again, which I see as progress.

The frustrating thing is that there’s no pattern to how he is mispronouncing his words. His speech sounds like it is slowed down, but one day he could pronounce his t’s like a d and another day pronounce them like an m. There’s nothing consistent about it, so it makes figuring out his speech a constant challenge.

His receptive language seems to be improving. He’s following directions better. He’s also started singing songs with me again.

The most exciting development has been with drawing. Yesterday he had a pad of paper and a marker and started saying “circle,” “nose.” I looked at what he was drawing and saw it was a face. I asked who it was and he said it was “Buddy face.” I never hear him refer to himself by name! Never! If people ask him his name he just repeats, “name.” He’s also never taken an interest in his reflection in the mirror, though he does like looking at pics and videos of himself. Still, drawing a self-portrait seemed groundbreaking. Then he drew “daddy face.”

I asked him if he wanted to put his picture on the fridge and he did! Considering he doesn’t show off his accomplishments much, that was also something.

The aggression with his sister has stopped, and sometimes he plays well with her, other times he tries to pretend she doesn’t exist. When they ride in the wagon together he sings a song called “Stomping feet” with her that is way too cute.

Now the frustrations. Really, it’s the typical winter frustrations. It being dark so often is very problematic. For one thing, he’ll go around the house turning off all of the lights. This gets very annoying, as it’s hard to do much in a pitch black house and makes mornings even more challenging because I’m fighting with him over the lights being off as I’m getting everyone ready to go.

He does not do this during the day, and I honestly think he believes that because it’s dark outside of the house, it has to be dark inside of the house, and having the lights on when it’s dark outside really upsets him. Looking forward to spring and LIGHT!

The other side of this is he thinks it’s bedtime when it’s dark, but 5:00PM is WAY too early for bedtime, and convincing him to stay up till 8 has been a challenge. Lately he’s been getting up at 5AM, which is also way too early.

The more I think about it, the more his sleep problems seem tied to when it’s gets dark and light. The good news in all of this is typically his behavior starts to disintegrate at this time of the year because we don’t get outside as much, but this year he’s been keeping himself under control.

The other frustration is the fact that he vehemently refuses to potty. He will change his own diapers, which is fine when it’s a wet diaper, but when it’s a poopy diaper he makes a huge mess. He’s getting to this awkward point where he’s embarrassed by it and does not want me or Andy to change him, but doing the natural consequences of having him clean himself up is still not enough to motivate him to use the potty. I am so flummoxed by this, especially since his school is really putting a lot of pressure on me with this, but I am stumped as to what to do. NOTHING I have read addresses a situation like ours. Buddy knows how to potty, he’s done it at daycare, but at school and home he will not do it. And if one more so-called specialist tells me about another worthless picture chart I’m going to scream.

I figure we have to be near the breaking point on the potty training thing with Buddy. This is starting to inconvenience him as much as it is inconveniencing us and sooner rather than later, hopefully, he’ll realize it’s in his best interest to use the potty. I am hoping this is one of those situations where it gets worse before it gets better. Because  it is immensely frustrating.

The good news with Sissy is that she is already showing interest in potty training and has told us when she’s about to make a poopy, though her timing is off. I have a hunch we’re going to get them both out of diapers at the same time.

 

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Why I’m Not Putting a Christmas Tree Up This Year

Me and Christmas have a complicated history. I think if I didn’t have young children and family who celebrated it I would not observe it. But I have both, so I do, some years more enthusiastically than others.

Traditionally in my family the day after Thanksgiving was reserved for decorating the house for Christmas. My parents would give my sister and I an ornament every year and decorating the tree was a nice trip down nostalgia lane, something the whole family would do together. We’d see the ornaments from previous years and talk about the memories tied in with them. We’d play Christmas carols, bake cookies, etc. It was nice.

I figured my Catholic husband would enjoy decorating a tree. While we were dating we never bothered, but when we got married we got a tree. And I was the only one decorating it. Turns out Andy really doesn’t care about the tree. His lost his father and oldest brother around the holidays and it soured him on them. He just likes the good eating on Christmas Day but other than that doesn’t want to do much with them. After Buddy came around, I was still the only one decorating the tree while wrangling Buddy, and then eventually wrangling Sissy as well. All by myself. And wondering why I was putting in such effort for a holiday I merely tolerate. Especially as the thing that made decorating the tree enjoyable was sharing memories with someone who could speak. And neither of my kids have that kind of vocabulary yet.

But if I mentioned to people I was thinking of not decorating they would insist I had to. I have young children! It would be horrible if they didn’t have a Christmas tree! So I did. Resentfully.

Last year Buddy loved the tree, but in his excitement was not as careful with it as he should have been, and keeping the tree safe from him, our German Shepherd, and our cat was an exercise in frustration. We also lost some ornaments, some of which I was secretly glad were broken, others which had sentimental value to me.

And then of course after all this effort to decorate and keep the tree safe, there’s the extra effort in taking it down. Which is also a tremendous pain in the ass.

So after taking the tree down last year I decided that this year we aren’t doing a tree. Or decorating. And damn what anyone else thinks!

Considering my kids are so young and do get so excited about the tree, something about not decorating seems downright scandalous. But I’ve been working on creating other traditions instead. For instance I got some green felt and cut it out in the shape of a tree and had them decorate that with little pompoms, which they liked. They liked it so much I’m going to have to run out and get more pompoms as soon as I’m sure that the stores won’t be crowded (yeah, I have issues with agoraphobia). And they both enjoyed dancing to Christmas carols.

They’ll be cookies to decorate, shows to watch, and we take them to plenty of activities where they can meet Santa and see Christmas trees that they won’t be lacking in Christmas activities. But for now dealing with a tree is just more stress than I can handle, especially when the bulk of caring for it falls disproportionately on me.

And perhaps, once the kids get older and more mature, we can get the tree out again.

Disappointed in Humanity

Last Friday, my usually even tempered Sissy became irritable. She’d dissolve into tears at the slightest thing. She started running a fever and lost her appetite. Then she got a rash on her hands and feet. In short, she got hand, foot and mouth.

I’d never heard of hand, foot and mouth until Buddy caught it a few years ago. Buddy’s case was very mild. A mild rash, I don’t think he even ran a fever and it didn’t seem to bother him any. Sissy’s case was a lot worse. She was in so much pain she couldn’t sleep for more than thirty minutes at a stretch and woke Buddy up with her screaming. Andy and I took caring for them in 4 hour shifts through the weekend. By Sunday we got her sleeping mostly through the night again, though Buddy’s sleep schedule was so thrown it’s taken him till yesterday to sleep through the night (autism and sleep problems go hand in hand). Her fever broke over the weekend, but the rash has been persistent. Andy stayed home with her Monday, while I stayed with her Tuesday and Weds, and Andy again on Thursday. I think/hope the rash will be completely gone tomorrow.

Friday, of course, was when the attacks on Paris happened, and it was while comforting a distraught Sissy that I read about it. So many thoughts, so much to say, but mostly in addition to being physically weighed down, I was emotionally weighed down as I thought about the consequences of the attacks.

On Monday I went to work. Whether or not to tell my boss I was planning on leaving was something I grappled with, and eventually I had to come out and do it simply because to get on insurance panels I would going to need access to a database that they had my information on, and there was no way to get access without them knowing. I was scared to let them know, given my history of working for companies that react poorly when people give notice that they are leaving.

The good news was that I had originally told them I’d leave in February. I assumed that getting on insurance panels would be a tedious, drawn out process. Thankfully it hasn’t been, and I’ve got that part done. Now I just need to build a client base. The bad news is no one wants to start counseling around the holidays. So I told my boss I’d stay through December. I wasn’t exactly thrilled. I’m burnt out and ready to leave, and I was worried about emotionally balancing full time work, private practice AND family responsibilities, but I also wanted stable income during the holidays.

Well, on Monday they told me that starting in December I would have to work part time. Considering the cost of daycare, can’t. What I would bring home would barely cover the cost of it. So I turned in my two week notice.

In some ways I’m relieved that I won’t have to stay through December and, if I do manage to get some clients, I won’t have to balance seeing them with a full time job and taking care of my kids. In some ways I’m mad that my hand was forced. Predominately, I’m numb. I’m exhausted, both physically and emotionally and I’m just ready to be done with this job and to move forward.

Cut to today. It’s Buddy’s fifth birthday! I picked him up from daycare and took him to the store and told him we were getting a birthday cake. He got excited. “Cake! Birthday! Give you hug! Give you hug!” he exclaimed as he ran and hugged me. For him, this is very impressive communication and encouraging.

He happily chose some cupcakes from the bakery. When we got home, we found that Andy had gotten hand, foot and mouth from Sissy. Adults usually don’t get it, so I wasn’t worried about her giving it to us, but it looks like I should have been. For the record, Andy says it is very painful. And Andy can be a rather big baby about these things. Really, I’d rather be sick than him be sick!

So I loaded the kids in the wagon to take them for a quick trip to the playground before it got too dark. While there I got a phone call. Hoping it was from a prospective client I picked it up.

“Who is this?” a female voice of indeterminate age asks.

Stupidly I told them my name. I was still thinking/hoping it was a client. “Who is this?”

“Riaza.”

“What are you wanting?”

Silence. A giggle. Then a little boy says, “We’re going to blow up your daughter.”

“What?” I said, stunned.

More giggling, “We’re going to blow up your daughter.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing on the phone. They hung up. I stared at my kids on the playground in shock. The phone rang again, it was from the same number. I picked it up. Silence. Then I said, “I have caller ID and if you keep harassing me I will call the police.”

They hung up and did not call again. And yes, they were stupid enough to not block their number.

By then it was dark. I was a little bit unnerved. I gathered up my kids and went home. While I got Sissy ready for bed my husband and mom started a reverse number search on the number. It wasn’t anyone we knew, and the LinkedIn profile of the owner shows someone in a prestigious position at a big bank. We’re thinking his kids got a hold of his phone and played a really sick prank. My mom has messaged him on LinkedIn.

It’s sick enough making threats against someone’s daughter, even if you have no intention of acting out on them. But using an Islamic sounding name and making threats to blow her up takes it to an even worse level. Because it perpetuates ugly stereotypes against a group of people and fuels terrorism. I just cannot put into words how disgusted I am by their actions.

Sissy got off to bed. We gave Buddy his gifts and they were all hits. And then he went to bed. It’s been an exhausting week for him as well. And now I’m trying to process everything that has happened and remember that there have been encouraging things even though this week has been draining. I didn’t feel like I had a weekend last weekend because taking care of Sissy was so grueling so I went into this week drained and exhausted and running on fumes, and found I was in for a pummeling when I didn’t have a lot of emotional energy to spare. Now I’m even more drained, exhausted and, though I’m trying to cling to the speckles of hope I’ve found here and there, just disappointment in humanity.

That’s it. That’s how best to describe it. This week, I am disappointed in humanity. We can do so much better.

Being in the Evangelical’s Crosshairs

When I was 17 I was interviewed by the “Fort Worth Star Telegram” for an article on teenage atheists. In the article I made a plea for tolerance and acceptance. But rather than meeting like minded people or making new friends, I painted a target on myself for people on the prowl to convert me. The most persistent being a young woman I’ll refer to as Cedar Hill.

At the time I ran a newsletter for atheists, mail order. This was right before the internet helped atheists meet up locally though we did create some online sanctuaries. Cedar Hill initially posed as being interested in the newsletter, though she never subscribed. After she got my email from the person who headed the organization the newsletter was a part of she admitted she was a Christian and said she wanted to be my friend and would end her emails, obnoxiously, with notes such as “I like you!”

She would email incessantly, ten times per day. And about the most inane things. If I didn’t respond quickly enough, she would email me with something very “important” that she forgot to tell me, like people call her sister “white bread” and her “wheat bread.” I was really baffled by her.

Soon she moved from inane conversation to attempting to convert me. Nope, she wasn’t really interested in me. She was wanting to stoke my ego and get me to like her so I would be receptive to her message about Jesus. Let me take this moment to state how fake and offensive this felt. Does she really genuinely like me or is interested in me as a person, or is she lying to get closer to me so she can preach? Does this sound like someone you want to be friends with, talk to, or who has found a religions so fantastic that everyone will bow down in wonder of it?

She wanted to meet with me in person but I refused. She asked me to prove that God does not exist. I told her you can’t disprove a negative. She condescendingly emailed me back that I was doing such a good job of debating but I would have to prove to her that God does not exist.

I emailed her back asking her to prove that Allah, Zeus or the invisible pink unicorn in my backyard doesn’t exist. After that she asked what sort of evidence I would need.

A theme I’ll be hitting on again and again is that growing up as an atheist in the Bible Belt, you quickly learn every ridiculous argument people have for God’s existence and how to refute them. Take note Evangelicals, the argument that is so convincing to you I have rebutted so many times  could do it in my sleep.

She talked about Lady Jane Grey and asked if I had seen the movie with Helena Bonham Carter about her. I replied that I had and was very disappointed over the historical inaccuracies. Er, my mom and I are big fans of Tudor biographies and by the time I was 17 I had read extensively on Elizabeth I, Catherine Parr and the Lady Jane Grey. Cedar Hill dropped this, but after a few more emails made it clear where she was going: Christian martyrs.

I emailed her back with several examples of non-Christian martyrs, including my own personal favorite, Hypatia of Alexandria. Yes, we should all be Pagans because Hypatia died rather than convert to Christianity!

Cedar Hill told me about her cousin who was ill and they prayed for her and she got better. I asked about all the families who had ill children who prayed and their kids died. She talked about seeing her grandfather’s ghost outside her house before she even knew he was dead. I told her I could explain it, but only if she gave me permission. That was a treasured memory for her and I did not want to do anything to destroy it. She never mentioned it again and I respected that.

She stopped emailing me for awhile. I did not miss her. Every few months she would email me so new argument she had concocted only to disappear again when I shot it down. Several years after she first contacted me she emailed me out of the blue saying she was having a crisis of faith for some piddling reason. She didn’t get into the university she wanted to even though she had prayed very hard. Let me make it clear that I have never met an atheist list such a stupid reason for being an atheist.

Her email distressed me. Unlike her, I have never been on a mission to convert people to atheism. Contrarily, I have been on a mission to get and give respect for differing opinions. If her faith was important I did not want to take it from her. I emailed her a list of links on different religions, told her to explore and find the path that was best for her and wished her luck. I didn’t hear back for awhile until she emailed me saying she was a Christian again, she had read something about some prophecy that had come true. I told her I was glad she was on a path she felt good about and hoped to never hear from her again.

She then sent me some over the top proselytizing email. I wrote her back saying I did not wish to receive emails like that. She was offended. She was a Christian, how dare I tell her not to proselytize!

Um, yeah.

Here’s the thing. I was clear with her that atheism was not about bitterness over the world or not getting what I wanted, merely that there’s no proof that a supernatural being exists. She never understood that. All that time she was emailing me, she never read what I was writing with the purpose of understanding. All she cared about was conversion.

I showed respect for her differing beliefs, such as not giving a rational explanation for seeing her grandfather’s ghost or not taking advantage of her during a so-called crisis of faith. Speaking of which, I felt she was fabricating that crisis of faith. Just liked she lied about wanting to subscribe to my newsletter. And then, when I wasn’t won over by her little ploy, she got mad at me for asking to not be preached to.

This is why I do not like dealing with people who want to convert me. This is also why I have a hard time believing that they really care about me.

  1. The lies and manipulation. I never know what is true or not true with people on a mission to convert.
  2. They don’t listen. If she had been listening to me, she would have known that the reasons for my atheism are not so frivolous as not getting what I want from life.
  3. They only contact you when they figure out a new scheme to convert you. Admittedly, Cedar Hill and I did not have much in common. Seeing as she would only email me when she had a new idea or scheme to try out, though, it’s hard to believe that she really cared about me as a person. You know that person who only calls when they need money? Yeah.
  4. They don’t show you the same respect you show them. I had several opportunities to really lay it down with Cedar Hill and did not. She did not show the same respect for my beliefs.
  5. When you aren’t swayed by their arguments, they get mad at you. So if I don’t argue then they think they’ve won because I don’t have good arguments, but if I do argue I’m a horrible person for pointing out the flaws in their logic.

Eventually someone pointed out a solution I should have used long ago but just did not occur to me: not email her back. Being a polite person is something I value and it seemed rude to not respond to an email. But the simple act of someone, a Christian at that, from an outside position telling me it would be proper to just ignore her gave me the freedom to do just that.

Ultimately, though, if people want to know why I feel so drained just by being an atheist in such a predominately Christian area, people like Cedar Hill are the reason. I’ve had some people argue that at least people like Cedar Hill are loving in their approach, thing is at least with people who are openly hostile I know where I stand and I don’t have to deal with the mind games and manipulation and wondering whether or not someone genuinely likes me. If someone doesn’t like me or is not going to respect my differing beliefs, then I want to know so I can put my energies to people who are going to be respectful.

As for Cedar Hill? I changed my email address sometime after I stopped emailing her. Don’t know what happened to her, don’t particularly care to.

The Decision to Homeschool

I recently came to the conclusion that it is in Buddy’s best interests to homeschool him. Schools in Texas are simply not kid friendly, and I am very worried about some things happening in his pre-school and that are happening in the districts. I am excited about being able to take this path with him, but I’m also mad. I’m mad that the public schools are so toxic to learning that I feel my only two options are to pay a lot of money I don’t have for private school or to homeschool.

Some background. Pretty much everyone in my family has been a teacher at some point in their careers. Three of my four grandparents have taught in the schools (the fourth gave flying lessons). My mom has worked as a kindergarten teacher for a private school, and I’ve studied child development, worked with children who are differently abled, and taught children and adults in several different settings.

Growing up, my parents were very anti-homeschool. They had a lot of valid complaints about it. It’s largely unregulated. Concerns about Evangelically Christian curriculums and socialization. However, I also have many different learning disabilities, and I really struggled in school in elementary school. My parents advocated for me, and often it was like hitting a brick wall. I know people look at me and say I have a Master’s degree so it can’t have been that bad, but I often feel like I made my accomplishments in spite of school and not because of it.

People who know me now also don’t realize that in elementary school, I hated it so much I never planned on going to college. It wasn’t until things got easier for me in junior high that I changed my plans. But what I found in elementary school made me hate learning.

My parents had been disillusioned by their experiences with me, and for my mom I will say not pulling me out and homeschooling me is one of her biggest regrets. Right now I have the means to generate income in the evenings so I can stay home with them during the day, and though it will be a tremendous amount of effort on my part I feel it is the best route to go down.

That said, I am angry. I am angry that the schools in my area are so not kid friendly. I’m also angry that I have yet to meet a parent in this area who is happy with what is happening in the schools, and I wonder why these policies are being pushed through even though they are so unpopular.

What am I talking about when I say schools are not kid friendly?

  1. No talking at lunch. One of the school districts in my area has a policy that kids eat in silence and then lay their heads down when they are finished. If they talk they are sent to detention. Um, isn’t one of the selling points of school socialization?
  2. Standardized tests. Texas started this trend. It is deeply entrenched here. No one particularly likes it but the general attitude is, “I survived standardized testing and I turned out OK, so I’m not going to protest it.” When I worked as a substitute, one classroom in particular stands out in mind. The lesson plan for math was to have the kids go through the testing manual, just like they were taking the test. This teacher had her lesson planning book out and I looked at it. It was not just something she had assigned for the sub, EVERY DAY all she did for math was having them answer questions in the testing manual. I had several kids ask me about a question that tested their knowledge on the mean, median and mode, and I had to stop class and give an impromptu lecture on it. None of them had heard about these concepts. In short, I do not want my kids to go to school where the textbook is a test manual.
  3. No playgrounds. I have subbed at elementary schools with no playgrounds and no recess. Kids need to move, and they need to play. They both learn better and behave better when they have time for unstructured play. But these days people see unstructured play as worthless…
  4. Homework. My son is in pre-k. He gets a packet of handwriting homework to complete throughout the week. This is not age appropriate work, it also doesn’t teach handwriting that well, and if anything seems like torture for the parents. It also advantages kids who have parents who have the time/means to do this with them over children with parents who do not.
  5. Labeling kids instead of behaviors. When I took an educational psychology class in college, we were told about a study where they gave a group of students a test, randomly selected several students and told those teachers that those students were gifted and they would be the next Einstein. Let me make this clear, these kids were actually average, no different than their peers. The only difference was in how they were labeled to their teachers. At the end of the year, those students who in actuality did no better or worse than their peers, surpassed their peers on a test given to them at the end of the year. The reason was because of the attention that their teachers gave to them. Cameras in the classroom showed that the teachers subconsciously set those kids up for success in a way they did not set up other students, and those students benefited. Sadly, we also know the reverse occurs. A kid gets saddled with the label of being “dumb” or a “troublemaker”, and teachers look for behaviors that confirms those labels while they discard behaviors that don’t as flukes, if they notice it at all. So I was very angry when I started getting notes home that my four year old with autism was being “defiant” for not staying in his assigned area. For one thing, I’m not even sure he understands the concept of staying in an assigned area, for another, teachers should know better than to label him as defiant! They should describe his behavior, not saddle him with a dangerous label that could follow him as he progresses in school! (Further, they have the behavior color codes, and every day he gets the perfect color code, which tells me his behavior is not disruptive and giving him such a negative label for not following instructions or staying in his seat when he has documented issues showing he does not always understand what is expected of him troubles me).

As someone who knows so much about child development, it is frustrating to see so little of the fruits of what we have found works best to help children learn in the schools. Kids learn best through play. Kids learn a heckuva lot more playing with blocks than they do with flashcards. Kids often want to please, but sometimes can’t figure out what we want because their brains and senses are still developing, which is why we describe the problematic behavior rather than labeling them as troublemakers! Or rather, this is what we should be doing, but aren’t.

I want to send my children to a school environment that is based on play, that gives them lots of time outdoors to move, that has someone help them as they learn to interact with others. We know so much about what works when it comes to educating children. And I am mad as hell that we do not see this in our schools.

I’m mad that my tax dollars are going to support a school system that I see as being so kid unfriendly that I am worried about continuing to send my son there. And the general consensus among my fellow counselors and specialists in autism when I tell them about my decision has been, “that’s the best thing you can do. The earlier the better.” The fact that people know and accept that the schools are not kid friendly, especially for kids who are differently abled, and movements to change it in my area are practically non-existent (I’ve checked) is maddening.

It also concerns me that in Texas, there’s pretty much a two tier educational system. A quality one for those who can afford private school and/or have the means and education to homeschool effectively, and then the lesser public school options. Yes, I could put my efforts to trying to starting a movement for reform, but my parents were never very successful, and I figure any change would happen too late for my children to benefit. The better option seems to be to put my efforts into giving them a quality homeschooling education.

I found a secular curriculum where the lessons plans are done out with modifications for children with autism. My child’s progress will be tracked by a computer, which will make things easier on me as I still will have to see clients in private practice to stay afloat financially. I also plan to keep Buddy in private therapy and to find a music group and swimming classes for socialization. He also loves his Sunday School class at the UU and will be exposed to different points of views there. I really dislike the idea of homeschooling to indoctrinate.

A final thing I think is imperative is to read the critiques from adults who were homeschooled. And reading and listening with the intent to understand and learn from them. What did they like about it? What would they change about it? What can I do to avoid the mistakes their parents made and build on what successes their parents had?

I’m making a big decision that will impact my kids tremendously. I owe it to them to make sure I give them an education that will prepare them for life in the real world.