Monthly Archives: December 2015

Buddy the Problem Solver

While there are things about having a child with autism that are challenging, there are also strengths he has that I believe are the result of having autism that I think will help him through life. In fact, I’d say that one of Buddy’s biggest strengths is that he is a problem solver. Further, he’s also a non-linear thinker. He thinks way outside the box.

When he was five months old he was on the verge of crawling, but not quite there yet. I had put him on a blanket with a ball that was just out of his reach to coax him into crawling. Well, it wasn’t long before he found that he could pull the blanket towards him and get the ball that way.

This has also been why baby proofing the house has been so challenging with him, he keeps finding ways around the baby proofing. Truly, if we kept score if would go something like Baby Proofing 2, Buddy 508.

For instance, we have locks on the pantry to keep him from dumping the flour. The lock requires a small, lever key, putting it in a hole in the handle and finding the locking mechanism and turning it. We keep the keys in a place that it is impossible for him to climb up to (so far).

One day I was hanging up pictures around the house. Later that day I noticed Buddy had some nails and that he was putting them in the door hole and trying to open it. I grabbed the nails from him and wondered where he had gotten them. Then I saw that the pictures I had hung up were on the floor and the nails were removed from the wall and an upside down laundry basket was beside the wall.

Buddy had seen me hammer in the nails, and while I was occupied elsewhere, took the laundry basket, climbed up on it, took the pictures off the wall and grabbed the nails and used them to try to pick the lock to the pantry. Buddy was 3 when this happened.

The nonlinear thinking? Definitely the autism. So too is the independence. When Buddy encounters a problem he tries to figure it out on his own. This has really been striking while raising Sissy. Take the challenge of climbing up the playground stairs. Buddy would find ways to do it on his own. Sissy could find ways to do it on her own, but she screams for me and insists that I hold her hand the whole way and help her with things that she can do herself. And I caulk up this fierce independence to the autism and difficulties he has asking for help.

Now, he will ask for help. But he’ll try to do it on his own first, and after giving it a few tries if he can’t he’ll say, “need some help!” Sissy doesn’t really try, she just goes straight to the asking for help.

 

It can be so easy to focus only on what Buddy is not doing and ignore the things that he is very good at. Autism is a double edged sword, as I believe that a lot of his strengths are tied to having autism. He’s amazing at doing puzzles. The daycare workers would comment on how good he was at getting them and would show the other kids how to do them. And he’s been able to count to 50 since he was 4, and was correctly identifying shapes such as ovals, hexagons and polygons, which stunned me when he started doing it.

Ultimately Buddy is an excellent problem solver. And that’s a trait that will help him in the future.

 

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What We Look for in Fiction

I’m one of those people that doesn’t have a preference for “Star Trek” or “Star Wars.” While I’ve seen people get into epic fights over which is better, I’ve always been comfortable with seeing that they are both good for different reasons.

Andy is more of a “Star Trek” fan. Interestingly, as we were leaving “The Force Awakens,” he was talking about why. He said he didn’t like all of the mysticism on Star Wars, and that he had the same issue with Narnia. He liked “Star Trek” with it’s basis in science and humanity solving it’s own problems. He said he had enough mysticism in his life from Catholicism and didn’t need any in his fiction.

I found this interesting for a number of reasons, one because I kind of think of religion as fandom that people believe in and take way too seriously. But I also found it interesting because it speaks to what people look for in entertainment. Andy looks at world building, and prefers shows like Star Trek, Red Dwarf and Babylon 5 that doesn’t deal heavily with mystical themes.

I’m not so interested in world building, I care about the characters. Are the characters interesting, real and relatable? This, too me, is why it’s hard to say whether or not one world is better than the other. Now I could rank characters according to favorites, but not worlds so much. Other than to say there are worlds I definitely would not want to live in (like Panam).

And while I did get into Star Wars fandom in a way I never did with Star Trek fandom, the reason was because throughout high school a Star Trek series was airing on tv. I was five when Next Gen came out, and when that ended there was Deep Space Nine and I managed to hang in through Voyager (I got pissed off four episodes into Enterprise and threw in the towel, that was when I was in college and had moved on to anime. Both Star Trek and Star Wars disappointment me with their portrayal of female characters). While I was in high school, aside from the novels, Star Wars was not on tv or in the theaters. And I tend to become attracted to fandoms when I want to see the characters I love get into new adventures.

Star Trek vs Star Wars just seems so pointless to me. They both contain characters that I love. They have also both bitterly disappointed me and let me down and then worked hard to get me excited about them again despite myself. I look forward to sharing both of them with my children. Because, regardless of whether one is better than the other, it looks as if both are here to stay for awhile.

It’s About Damn Time, Star Wars

Today Andy and I saw “The Force Awakens.” Below are some non-spoilery thoughts on Episode VII. When I was a teenager I was a huge “Star Wars” fan. “Empire Strikes Back” was my favorite. I adored Princess Leia. I read the novels by Timothy Zahn, Kevin J. Anderson, A.C. Crispin and many others. I loved the X-Wing series. I even read the comic books, and I’m not terribly big on comics.

My room was plastered with “Star Wars” posters, and it was my first fandom. The internet was just becoming a thing when I was 13, and my sister and I found a “Star Wars” chat room called Irresistible Force that we spent a lot of time on, chatting with other geeks.

And, I want to add, other female geeks. In fact, the person who introduced me to the Star Wars novels was a female friend from junior high. My sister’s best friend was also a “Star Wars” fan and we would role play together. The problem being that there really weren’t a lot of female characters in the “Star Wars” universe to chose from. I was the oldest, so I had dibs on Leia. My sister would often role play as Jaina, Leia’s daughter in the expanded universe or Mara Jade. And then we had a host of female characters that we made up.

My sister and I even decided we were going to write our own stories that would be similar to “Star Wars,” but with more female characters.

And we weren’t alone in wanting this. The other girls I talked to in the chatroom, our friends at school, my mom who is a geek in her own right, and the women who wrote novels set in the expanded universe, all wanted to see more female characters. We were given one amazing female character. And we wanted more. We wanted to see female x-wing pilots and Jedi Knights and mentors and villains. And we were vocal about it.

When we heard that the prequels were being made, we were convinced we would have that. I had assumed that the reason there weren’t more female characters in the original series was because of the sexism at the time. It was even known that originally Luke was supposed to have been a woman, but George Lucas changed Luke’s gender when he realized the movie wouldn’t get made with a female protagonist. So I was expecting to see female Jedi Knights and pilots and teachers, etc.

“The Phantom Menace” came out when I was 18. And we had Amidala and Anakin’s mother and a brief shot of a female x-wing pilot. Yeah. Disappointed. But surely in the next two films we would get more female pilots and Jedi Knights. I was stupidly optimistic.

I went to college and got into anime, where I finally found shows that included more than one female character in the cast. When Episode II came out I somehow didn’t get to see it in the theaters. I think it came out when I was out of state for a class and didn’t have transportation and a group of friends to take me, and when I got back, as everyone else had already seen it and I just never got around to it until it came out on video.

And I was horrified by Anakin and Padmae’s relationship. I lost any sort of respect for Padmae I might have had. Sure, she could use a blaster, but she was also a victim of domestic violence. I saw Episode III in the theaters with my parents and future husband, and let’s just say my mom and I could not stop venting about how sexist Padmae losing the will to live was, or how long we’d waited to see one female Jedi knight in action and she was killed in two minutes, or how we STILL did not have the female characters we desperately wanted, while Andy and my dad wisely stayed quiet.

Yes, I was ranting about this with my mom, who was at a “Star Trek” convention when she saw her first “Star Wars” preview and how she and her female friends were so excited about Leia. Finally, a woman who could take care of herself! Like me, she also had high hopes for the prequels. Hopes that were cruelly dashed.

I fell out of love with “Star Wars.”

When I heard they were doing episode VII I wasn’t overly optimistic. Not even with J.J. Abrams handling it. While I do love the “Star Trek” reboots, I’m not overly wowed with the female characters in them.

But Abrams did an amazing job promoting them, and I started to get excited about them despite myself. Especially as the list of women joining the cast grew. I could feel comfortable knowing that, if my sister and I decided to role play with episode VII characters, we would have plenty of women to chose from!

When the interview with J.J. Abrams came out stating that he wanted women to see this with their daughters, I felt both encouraged AND frustrated.

Women have enjoyed “Star Wars” since there’s been a “Star Wars!” And I first watched the movies with my mom and dad. Women have already been watching these movies with their daughters! The female fan base for “Star Wars” has been present, large and vocal, we’ve just been ignored!

Having seen “The Force Awakens,” I was satisfied to finally see lots of women on the screen. There was even a female stormtrooper. Pretty much every shot with extras in it had women in flight suits, in armor or other uniforms. Finally, women are present en masse in the “Star Wars” universe.

And we finally get a female character leading the films in Rei. On my first watch I have no criticisms on the way that women are portrayed in the movie. Plotwise, it was “A New Hope” redressed and extremely formulaic. Nothing really surprised me. It was enjoyable, funny, and it did it’s job of passing the torch on to the next generation while keeping us abreast on what Han, Luke and Leia have been up to in the past 30 years. It was good, but not stellar. And I’m hoping Episode VIII shakes things up a bit.

But I will finally have a “Star Wars” movie that I can look forward to watching with my daughter in a few years. One that shows her many different ways to be strong and female. And it’s about damn time.

 

Parenting without Rewards and Punishments

Before I had Buddy I was a firm behaviorist. My dad liked the works of B.F.Skinner, and while in college I did therapy with children with autism based on behaviorist principals. In a nutshell, desired behavior was rewarded, undesired behavior was ignored. This worked well for me in college. And it worked well for me in a children’s hospital.

I even used these principals to train my dog, a German Shepherd named Amelia who had spent years in a shelter and was not well socialized when I adopted her. One of the things she used to do was bark if more than two people were in the room or if we were watching tv, making conversation or listening to the tv impossible. We broke the habit by immediately leaving the room if she did it and giving her attention if she was in the room with us and quiet.

Buddy came into the scene, and with him I’ve had to throw behaviorism out of the window and embrace more cognitive theories. I also had a challenge. Buddy may have autism, but he is also incredibly smart. He doesn’t like being manipulating into doing things for rewards, and punishments don’t deter him, if anything he retaliates. This didn’t just have implications for his behavior, but for things like speaking. Speech therapy has been challenging for us, largely because he’s aware he’s being manipulated into speaking and would refuse to speak just because he was being manipulated.

For instance, one time I found I could get him to say “again” if he wanted me to read a book again if I sang “again.” He’d sing it with me. This worked for two nights. Then if I sang “again” expecting him to join in he’d just get off my lap and move on to a different book. This flies in the face of behaviorism.

Rewards do not motivate, punishment does not deter. Considering my behaviorist approach to my clients and dog, this was quite the curveball. He has a high need for control of his environment and getting into power struggles with him is something I constantly have to be on guard for (on the plus side, I do not worry at all about peer pressure when he’s a teenager. If he doesn’t want to do something, he will not do it!) And what works very well one time might not a second time if he feels he was manipulated, so I’m constantly being creative with him.

Even with these challenges, I’m making progress raising him with respect and helping him to learn how to control his emotions and reflect on his behavior and figure out the best decision on his own. Here’s what it boils down to.

  1. Environmental modification. All parents do this to some extent. Baby proofing. Buddy is sensory seeking and craves stimulation. One way he does this is by dumping all of his toys on the floor and rolling on them. And then there was the time he was fascinated with the flour. He would keep going into the pantry and dump it on the floor and play in it. He’s also a climber. We got a lock for the pantry to keep him out. The other problem we had was him trashing his room. I’d bought a lovely organizer for all his toys, and he kept dumping everything on the floor and rolling on it. Eventually I moved his toys to a separate locked room and I only get out certain boxes each day.
  2. Routines. Like a lot of kids with autism, Buddy thrives on routines. Things like wearing a seat belt or helmet aren’t an issue with him because he knows it’s the routine.
  3. Lots of outdoor time. Exposure to natural light. Running, hiking. All of the textures he’s exposed to. When we can’t get outdoors much because of the weather or being too busy I notice he acts out more. And time outdoors helps with the impulsivity.
  4. Teaching him to manage overwhelming emotions. This has been difficult because he does not imitate and does not like being manipulated. When people get mad, we often forget to exhale fully, which causes carbon dioxide to build up in our system and increases the feelings of anger. This is why breathing techniques are taught as part of anger management. One time when Buddy was melting down I saw some bubbles on the window sill and grabbed them, held out the wand and asked if he wanted to blow bubbles. He started blowing bubbles. AND he calmed down. Finally I’d found a way to get him to do breathing technique when he was angry! When he’s angry or hyper I would run for the bubbles. Now I’m at the point where I can prompt him to blow bubbles and he will exhale even if he doesn’t have a wand.
  5. Asking reflective questions. He’s less likely to respond if I give orders. For instance, while taking a walk when we get to the street if I ask, “What do we do when we get the the street?” He’s more likely to stop, and as he’s lately started saying, “wait,” if I say, “stop when we get to the street.” he’s more likely to run into the street. Most of the time he knows what he’s supposed to do, he just doesn’t want to be told what to do. The other day he took Sissy’s special toy monkey, which resulted in lots of tears from Sissy. I asked, “What that a nice or not nice thing you did?” He thought about it. Then I asked, “What would be a nice thing to do?” Amazingly, he handed it back to her.
  6. Always have an activity on standby for him to do. Having too much unstructured time leads to him destroying the house or acting out. If he starts getting antsy I grab an art project or sensory activity. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. I currently have him drawing pictures in colored salt (just add food coloring) on a cookie sheet. And as he is sensory seeking, he loves this stuff. Another standby is cornstarch and water. It makes this gooey substance that he loves playing with.

I still can’t have conversations with Buddy, but he’s shown that if I asked him to think about his behavior he does. And ultimately that’s what I want. I’ve noticed that some people approach parenting believing they can control their kids and have to force morality on them, while others respect that kids are going to make their own choices and our job is to teach kids how to make good choices. I obviously belong to the latter group. I’m not always going to be there to police Buddy’s behavior, so he is going to need to know how to behave appropriately when I’m not around.

Cleansing Time

Three weeks ago I left my job. The month started off rocky as I had my first UTI and then my kids got a stomach bug. But things have since settled down. We’ve gotten into a good routine, but more importantly I’m starting to recover emotionally from burn out.

I’d worried that I would go insane at home with the kids, but I’m actually enjoying it. I had been working four tens, getting up at five and waking my husband (and he is not someone who is easy to wake up and get moving, truthfully, it is easier to get my autistic five year old up and moving than it is my 34 year old husband) and kids up,. And since Andy does not do mornings, I was the one getting the kids ready and in the car and dropped off at daycare. And I am not a morning person myself. The pressure of doing all of this was getting so bad that I would wake up at 2AM and stare at the ceiling for three hours, unable to sleep due to the worries about oversleeping and failing to get everyone out of bed and out the door on time.

Now I sleep through the night AND I get to sleep in till 7, have a leisurely breakfast with my kiddos and then take them for a walk.

Buddy got a bike for his birthday, and he loves riding it. Every morning he talks excitedly about riding his bike, and I love watching him ride it. He’s very good at stopping when he gets a certain distance away from me and Sissy and waiting for us to catch up. Sissy insists on walking the 10 minute walk to and from the park like a big girl, though I carry her on my shoulders if need be. She’s becoming quite the naturalist and loves chasing birds and looking at plants and trees and collecting what she finds. And considering I don’t have a lot of mental energy in the mornings and tend to become more productive as the day passes, I like being able to take an hour or two (yes, we stay there that long, and usually I’m dragging the kids home because they don’t want to leave) in the mornings to just enjoy being outdoors without doing anything emotionally taxing.

One thing I worried about when I started to accept that Buddy had autism was his ability to bond with his sister. And I can happily say they are bonding. They both love being outdoors, eating popcorn, reading, dancing, listening to music and they’ve even started singing together. And at night during their bedtime routine they’ve started cuddling with each other when I sing. Yes, they also tease and torment each other and if one of them dares touch the other’s toy it’s WWIII, but that’s part of having a sibling. Overall they seem to like each other, which is good, because they’re stuck with each other!

Monday, after a fun two hour visit to the park in which Buddy and Sissy threw a tons of rocks into the creek, I got an email from my business partner talking shop, and I remembered that heck, I’ve got to get back to work in January! It was a bit of a shock just how much I was enjoying my breather, but it’s more than that, it’s been healing.

One thing I’ve found is that most counselors experience a lot of anxiety. I’m no exception. Strangely our clients tend to think we’re perfect beings who don’t understand the anguish of anxiety, but trust me, odds are if you’ve ever seen a counselor, that counselor has struggled with anxiety.

I was starting to reach record levels this year. For the last four years I’ve been working with clients who are essentially compelled to go into treatment to get their children back from the state or for probation/parole. Naturally, these people are not exactly excited about treatment, and have serious mental health issues that warrant state involvement and tend to be a difficult bunch.

When I was fresh and excited about my work, one thing I loved was seeing a pissed off, difficult client start group and transform into someone motivated and pleasant. In fact, some of my favorite clients started off as my more difficult ones. The group process is amazing, and by and large once people realized I wasn’t going to preach morality at them for 3 hours a day they tended to come around and were eager to work on their issues.

However, while a lot of the times there were good outcomes, sometimes there weren’t, and strangely, dealing with someone who was a reluctant newby didn’t become easier with time, it became harder and more and more emotionally taxing. There was a sense of, “well, I got X number of people motivated, and still more come in.” I just didn’t have it in me to continue dealing with the anger and resentment people have when they start treatment. And knowing that someone is only coming to see you because they fear the consequences of not doing so isn’t exactly good for the self-esteem.

Worse, seeing the new people was causing clinical levels of anxiety for me. When I would see a difficult or reluctant client it would get so bad that my chest would feel tight and I would have difficultly breathing enough to speak. It was hard for me to not think about all the bad ways a session could go or wonder if I would finally have someone go off the rails and do something horrible. I even had one that I worried was going to come into the office with an AK-47 and start shooting.

Combine this with caregiver fatigue. At work I took care of people. People who by and large have experience trauma. And then at home I took care of people.

To handle it I started detaching emotionally at work. I was pretty much doing what doctors do. I went to work for 10 hours and didn’t feel and walked around detached. It didn’t matter what anyone said or did to me because I’d turned myself off. It’s not a good way to live or practice counseling.

I have a lot of thoughts about CPS, probation, substance use and treatment, but I still can’t get those down yet. I’ve tried several times to get something together but keep hitting a dead end.

Overall I really needed this change. At the time I realized I was detached but I didn’t see how bad it was. Now I’m moving onto a career where I will be seeing clients who aren’t being forced to attend treatment, and my friends who have gone down that path before me assure me it is easier on the ego, more satisfying and less soul crushing. In some ways I’m kicking myself for not getting out sooner, but I think the important thing is that I got to this point.

Because it means beautiful mornings walking in the park with two little people who want to be with me more than anyone else in this world, as opposed to a cheerless room with a group of people who are compelled by the state to be with me. I’ll take the former, any day.

On Parenting an Internally Motivated Child and an Unmotivated One

This morning our dog, who is getting old and I believe is starting to become senile, had an accident. I sprayed some cleaner on it and when I went to put it up, I looked into the living room and found that Sissy had grabbed the rag I had out and was already scrubbing the carpet with it. While I was proud of her for wanting to help clean up a mess, it’s not a task I want my 21 month old doing, but it didn’t surprise me that Sissy tried to help. It’s what she does.

She “helps” me unload the dishwasher. She helps me pick up. She is always asking for napkins when we eat so she can wipe her face and hands. When she realizes I’m getting ready to leave, she starts gathering everyone’s shoes and socks and brings them to me. I could go on and on, but the point is that Sissy helps out. Well, as much as she is able to considering her age and small size.

I’m glad she’s a little helper. Trust me, I need it. But there are things I worry about.

Namely, Buddy. Who has the nickname Wreck-It. Essentially we put all of the toys, books, DVDs, etc, in a room and lock him out of it. If he gets into it it is trashed in under 10 minutes. And he won’t clean up after himself. Rewards do not motivate him, punishment does not deter him, and going hand over hand results in hours of frustrating manual labor for Andy and I to essentially force him to clean up after him that just leaves all three of us cross and angry. So at night I take out toys, books and videos for them to watch for the upcoming day and keep him away from the room at all costs.

And so it goes with Buddy. Some days he will put his plate in the sink. Other days he won’t. Sometimes he will help. Other times he won’t. And there’s no way I’ve found that I can entice him to helping with chores consistently.

Thus far Sissy has been developing typically. I have no concerns about autism with her. So she’s likely going to grow up as the typical child who has a sibling with disabilities and have those burdens. This is also one of the many reasons I wish I’d had Sissy first, because she does have such an intrinsic desire to help. But I worry about burdening her with all of the chores and responsibilities. And I especially don’t want to send the message that Buddy doesn’t have to do housework because he’s a boy while Sissy has to do it because she’s a girl and it’s expected.

I’ve thought about rewarding Sissy for her household contributions, but social psychology 101, if you reward a child for doing something they like, they tend to stop liking it so much. Ever heard of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation? When we do something because we want to, that’s intrinsic motivation. When we do something because we are compelled to, that’s extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is pretty much always better than extrinsic motivation, because even if no one is motivating you, you’ll still do it. For instance, people who love to read will read regardless of whether or not there’s a test on the book, whereas someone else will read a book only if there’s going to be a test on it and they care about their grade.

Since Sissy already seems intrinsically motivated to help, I want to nurture that. But therein lies the problem. I thought about having a rewards chart and letting Buddy and Sissy put a sticker on it if they helped pick up their toys at the end of the day, but while that might help Buddy clean up, it would also likely destroy Sissy’s internal motivation, quite simply because rewarding a child for doing something they find intrinsically rewarding gives them an externally motivating factor to do it.

For instance, if you give a child who loves to read pizza for reading a lot of books, they’ll stop enjoying reading as much. However, if you give a child who doesn’t like to read pizza when they read a certain number of books, they’ll start to like it and read more.

So I feel kinda stuck. Do I do the rewards chart and entice Buddy to help around the house and sacrifice Sissy’s internal motivation? Or do I just try to get them into a clean up routine in the evening and hope Buddy will eventually start to pull his weight? For the moment at least Sissy doesn’t seem put out at all by the fact that Buddy doesn’t help out, but if he doesn’t start I have a feeling that will change as they get older.

Faith of a Humanist

One way to get me to hate a movie, tv show, or book is to incorporate the aliens helped build the pyramids nonsense into the story. This is the reason I hated “Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.” I was reminded of this while reading an article in Scientific American about the process of building the pyramids. Turns out, Egyptologists know a lot about how this was done because we have primary written records about the pyramids being built. Humans built the pyramids without alien intervention. Period, case closed.

Why does the idea that aliens helped build the pyramids bother me so? Because essentially when you’re saying aliens built this or that, you’re discrediting human ingenuity. You’re saying humans aren’t smart or resourceful enough to have accomplished the amazing things we have accomplished. This isn’t mere pride on my part, because it has implications for our modern problems.

One of the factors in building the pyramids that the Scientific American article touched on was the power of human social networks in building the pyramids. Communication, cooperation, sharing ideas and discoveries. These were all vital to the pyramids construction.

And these are all things that we are going to need now to solve the problems facing humanity. Global warming. Terrorism. Mass shootings. Cancer.

These things scare me. But this is where the faith of a Humanist comes in. I firmly believe that if our ancient ancestors, who with the primitive technology they had could build things as wondrous and incredible as the pyramids, then we can confront the challenges that we are currently facing successfully.

Aliens, gods, and prayers aren’t going to save us. We are going to have to save ourselves.