It was a typical dinner Monday night when everyone was talking over each other and no one was eating.

There was bickering. Potty talk.  Anything and everything except actual eating.

Since this happens quite frequently, I have a mental list of “conversation” topics that usually redirect everyone long enough to get some food into them in between sentences.

When I say “conversation”, I mean mostly monologues of non-related topics, but each kid is taking a turn with it, allowing the others to eat.

And when I say “topics”, I mean I ask them about Minecraft.  So just one topic.  Singular.

Tonight was no exception.

I entered the cook time into the microwave and turned towards the boys at the table. “So, guys, if you could create your own Minecraft Mod, what would you do?”

(ed note: a mod is a modification made to the Minecraft code.  Gamers write code to create these mods to add additional things to the original game.  My friend Bec at Minemum can explain it all.  I know nothing about it except that my kids are obsessed with watching videos about them and begging me to download them.)

“I would create a space world where things could explode!” replied Howie.

“I would create a place where animals could go and there would be explosions!” said Lewis.

I took my dinner out of the microwave and sat down at the table.

“Well,” I said, “if I was creating a mod, I would make a sensory gym mod.”

I gave Tim a little smile. I was completely kidding.  I half expected them to come out with a “What?! That’s ridiculous!” and go back to discussing how to explode creepers and zombies.

Howie looked right at me.  “A sensory gym mod?”

“Sure,” I said. “It could have stuff in it like at SenseAbility Gym.”

Both Howie and Lewis were quiet for a moment.

“We would call it The SenseAbility Craft Mod!” said Howie.  “We could craft a trampoline out of leather and and blocks.  And it would be bouncy like slime. You’d make it on the crafting table!”

“And you could make a bolster swing too, ” said Lewis.  “You would need string.  And something to sit on.”

I sat in stunned silence.

Howie’s eyes got huge and bright.

“And the villagers – they would be autistic villagers!  They would be the ones who could be in the SenseAbility mod.”

Tim and I made eye contact. I gave him the “wow” look with my face.

“It would spawn autistic villagers and they would be the only ones in the village.  And they would go up to each other and would make the villager sounds and understand each other.” Howie was on a roll and was not stopping.  “And they would go on the trampoline and the swing.”

“Could you craft a weighted blanket?” asked Tim.

“Oh yes, you could do that.” Howie replied.

We were all giggling a little at the ideas, throwing them out one by one.

“You could make a square ball pit with blocks and craft something to put in it!” Lewis exclaimed.

“Could you make a wooden slide?” Tim asked

“YES!” Howie yelled. “You could make a slide.”

“You would need some fidgets too in your inventory,” I said to Howie, “just in case the villagers needed them.”

“Yes,” he said. “And the autistic villagers could trade emeralds for fidgets so they could feel better.”

He looked at me. “Spawning an autistic villager is rare but special, you know.”

I smiled at him.  “Yeah buddy, I know.”

Howie got up from the table. “Let’s play ‘SenseAbility Craft’ right now!”

“Wait, what?  Right now?  You didn’t eat anything!”

But Howie was already gone and Lewis followed right behind.  They went into the other room and pretended to be the autistic villagers, happily trading for fidgets.

I cleaned up their full plates of food and turned to Tim.

“You better start those Java and coding lessons with Howie.  I think he’s on to something.”

**********

It was December 2009 when I was listening to the developmental pediatrician list off the “red flags” for autism that she saw in Howie.  No pretend play, no ability to think of objects as anything other than their literal use.  Focused on the spinning wheels of the car and not the car itself.  Can’t do a pretend birthday party.

It was August of 2011 when I heard the same thing for Lewis.

“You’ll need lots of work and therapy to develop those skills.  I’m not saying he won’t ever have them, but they won’t come naturally.”

I left the office each time with my view of the world and my boys tipped on its side. I was crushed – mostly by the guilt of what I didn’t see. What could I do to help him?  Could I help him?

Turns out my autistic villagers just needed to figure it out in their own time and their own way, through a game that has no boundaries except the limits of their imagination and creativity.

Which, despite what we were told, seems to be endless.

I’m looking forward to the day when they create this SenseAbility Craft Mod.  I hope they let me play and be a part of  their incredible, creative and imaginative world.

Howie on the bolster swing.

Howie on the bolster swing.

lb_squeeze

Lewis in the squeeze machine. Crafting this one could be tricky…

Red sun rising in the sky
Sleeping village, cockerels cry
Soft breeze blowing in the trees
peace of mind, feel at ease.” – Sleeping Village by Black Sabbath

It’s May, 2014.

We are sitting in Lewis’ kindergarten transition IEP meeting.  As a team we are reviewing every service and service delivery to make sure it fits right for Lewis as he leaves preschool.  It’s not my first rodeo and I have plenty of anxiety over the whole transition process based on past experience.  Lewis’ incredible preschool teacher and team know this – and know Lewis – and we discuss every detail to make sure we are all on board and understand how kindergarten will look for him for the new school year.

We discuss his social skills programming, his need for visual and written cues when transitioning, his extended school year plan, and all the supports he will need for success.

“So now let’s talk transportation,” says his teacher.

I sit up straight in my chair, stiffening a little.

I know this is something that we’ve talked about in the past.  But we don’t really feel like he needs specialized transportation.  I really think he will be okay on the big bus.”  His teacher stops talking for a moment.  “Um, you don’t agree?”

Tim elbows me.

“You’re pulling on your sleeves,” he says. 

That’s my “tell”.  My sign that I’m having an anxiety attack.

It’s not that I don’t think he can’t be on the big bus.  It’s just that…” I take a breath.

It’s just that I don’t know how I’m going to manage all three kids getting to school at different times with different modes of transportation.”

************

This morning I sent a message to my friend Jess.

“I’ve officially lost my ability to write,” I texted.  “I’m trying to write about how Lewis taking the bus and me driving Howie is an example of not just our acceptance of what each kid needs but an understanding of those needs….None of the kids asked why one was going to school one way and one another…we’ve taught them that everyone is different with no stigmas attached.  But the words aren’t coming without sounding stupid…”

And she gave me brilliant advice like she always does: “Start in the middle.  Where the feelings are.  Don’t try to start at the beginning.”

Where the feelings are.

So here goes.

A long time ago, that meeting would have made me sad.

The big bus would have seemed like “The Holy Grail” of transportation.  Going to school the way most kids do.  Getting that big “first day of school” bus picture.  I would have looked at it as one of my kids can ride the bus and one of them…can’t. My anxiety in that meeting would have  focused on their disabilities in the negative, the kind of deficit model of looking at challenges and accommodations as a something bad and temporary with the hopes that maybe someday things will get better. I would have focused on the fact that I had one kid whose challenges kept him off the big bus, while both his big brother and little brother were able to ride it.

But here’s the thing.  I’m not that me anymore.

Last school year, we took Howie off of the mini bus. He had been riding the mini-bus since kindergarten to and from school and it’s written into his IEP that he needs specialized transportation. But for second grade,  I started driving him to school and he would taking the mini bus home.  He needed a “sensory overload free” way to enter school in order to start his day off right.  He didn’t want to talk to anyone or have anyone talk to him.  About halfway through the year, that need for a sensory overload free trip became evident for the ride home as well.  He would be able to use his calming tools to get through the school day, but have a very difficult time with that on the way home.

Once I began driving him both ways, his stress level leaving the house and coming home lessened greatly, spilling over to a better day at school and at home in the afternoon.

It wasn’t that he couldn’t take the mini bus.  Or even the big bus.

It was that both of those choices weren’t right for him.  For his success – academically and emotionally – he needed me to drive.  This accommodation was no different than any of the other supports listed in his IEP.

Two kids – two brothers – with the same autism diagnosis.  Needing two completely different accommodations.

Perhaps it’s semantics again.

But changing the question from “Can my kids do something”  to asking  “what is appropriate for them” – it made all the difference.

 

**********

May 2014

“So what do you think?  Do you think Lewis can take the bus to kindergarten?”

All eyes of the team are on me.

“I know that with a lot of prep he can.  I think we should give it a try,” I say.

Are you worried that Howie will be upset or jealous that Lewis is on the big bus?”

I smile. “No, actually, I’m more worried that Lewis will wonder why he doesn’t ride with Mom to school.” I say.  “But he will know that’s just how he gets to kindergarten.  And Howie will know that too.

I sigh.

It’s the logistics that make me nervous.  Gerry’s bus to the junior high comes at one time, the elementary school bus at another.  And somewhere in there I need to drive  Howie to the elementary school too.  But we will figure it out.  We always do.”

I shift in my seat, pulling at my sleeves.

Can we talk again about the fact that my last kid is leaving this amazing preschool for kindergarten?  I’m not so sure how I feel about that…”

**********9c28158d427833b7df2425147b2e6445

We talk a lot in our house about fair not meaning equal.  My kids have seen the cartoon of three characters of all different heights looking over a fence.  They each have different sized boxes to stand on so they can see over the fence line.  They aren’t equal sized boxes.  Each character needed something different to get them to the same place.

We’ve never said “I hope someday you can take the big bus to school.”

In our town, some kids walk.  Some arrive in cars.  Some take the big bus.  Some take the mini bus.

There’s no better or worse way to get to school.  For my boys, there’s no stigma attached to any mode of transportation.

My three kids need something different to get them to school.

For one, it’s mom’s car.

For the other two, it’s the wheels on the bus.

All through the town.

On the bus yesterday for kindergarten orientation.  He did just fine.

On the bus yesterday for kindergarten orientation. He did just fine.

 

 

 

Howie was on the floor of his room. He was wrapped up in a towel, drying off from the shower.

“Mom. Do I look in sorts?”

“I don’t know. Not really I guess. Maybe a little? Are you?”

“No,” he responded. “I’m a little out of sorts.”

“I could tell. You think it’s because you’re not feeling well?” He had been battling a mystery fever for the past two days. No other symptoms, just a low grade fever.

“No. Not that.” He was looking up – not at my face but just passed me.

I stood over him as he stayed cocooned up on the floor.

“Why do you think you’re out of sorts?”

“Sensory overload,” he replied. His eyes shifted and immediately connected with mine.

“Really. What overloaded you?”

He sighed.

“Life.”

Howie paused for a moment.

“Sometimes that just happens,” he said.  “I need a fidget. Like something rubber. Or a ball.”

He said it in a very quiet, almost nasally voice. It’s the voice I recognize when he’s uncomfortable.

I looked around quickly in his room.

“I found a small Minecraft Creeper figure. Will this do?”

“Yeah.”

He took it from me and smiled.

I took a quick picture of him on the floor with the creeper and showed him his happy face. He stayed on the floor for a few minutes, rubbing his hands over the figure and squeezing it.

I left the room to help Lewis into the shower. When I returned, he was dressed in his pajamas and in bed.

“Can I share the picture I took of you with the creeper to show people how you look when you’re back in sorts?”

He snuggled under the covers and grabbed his weighted stuffed animal.

“No,” he said. “Don’t share it. Can I have a Mom squish?”

I leaned over and squished him tight. Part of his self-advocacy has to be the right of refusal of what I share and what I don’t.

“I won’t share it. I promise. I love you.”

I took my position at the end of his bed. He slid his legs under mine and fell asleep.

**********

I could write about the sheer enormity of that conversation and what it means for him, for me, and for the people in his world. About how much hard work he has done with his teachers and therapists to get here – to not only understand his body but express it in a way that we could understand. I could write about all the signs I missed during the day today that could have told me what he so eloquently did tonight and even though I preach “behavior is communication”, I ignored it all.

I could write that.

But right now I am just listening to him sleep. Soft, even breaths.

The ones that I now recognize come when he’s back “in sorts”.

And I’m just going to stay here a while.

A photo from a different wrapped in a towel day. One that I had permission to share in the past.

A photo from a different wrapped in a towel day. One that I’ve had permission to share in the past.

 Walk with me the diamond road
Tell me every story told
Give me something of your soul
That I can hold onto
I want to wake up to the sound of waves
Crashing on a brand new day
Keep the memory of your face
But wipe the pain away” – 
Diamond Road by Sheryl Crow

“Can I help you find something?”

“Yes.  I’m looking for an end of the year present for my son’s teachers.”

“Can you tell me a little about them?”

“Well, sure.  I need something special.  I know we all say that, but I really mean it.”

I pause for a moment.

“My son calls himself Hero Howie at school.  But his special education teachers? Actually all of my kids’ teachers? They are heroes too.  His and mine.”

“I have just the thing.”

photo(49)

 

Because you help my kid out of the car in the school drop off circle with a hello every morning.

Because you watch him in the cafeteria before school starts to make sure he starts his day off on the right foot.

Because you welcome him in to the school and know him by name.

Because you believe in him when no one else does.

Because you understand how a slight muscle movement or seat squirm or change in town of voice means he’s overwhelmed and needs a break.

Because you modify the assignments to fit my kid.  Not because he can’t do the work but because you know when he’s reached his limit.

Because you read books and websites and attend seminars outside of school hours to understand my kid better.

Because you love to come to work every day knowing that it’s about my kid and his successes.

Because it’s not just a job to you.

Because you see autism not as a limit but as his strength and step out of the diagnosis box to see him as an individual.

Because you understand that the aggressions are not personal but part of the fight or flight overload of the day.

Because you wake up after those tough days ready to teach again.

Because you celebrate his successes and stay up at night figuring out how to help him the next day.

Because you believe in progress not perfection.

Because you do cartwheels in the halls and make collages of every single picture you’ve taken of him.

Because you request to be my child’s aide and teacher next year.

Because you love him.

Because you taught him to love himself.  And believe in himself.

To Mrs. M and Mrs. C and Mrs. S at the elementary school and Mrs. M at the preschool…

You.  You are the heroes.

And for that, I am forever grateful.

photo(18)

 

photo(16)

 

And then a hero comes along
With the strength to carry on
And you cast your fears aside
And you know you can survive
So when you feel like hope is gone
Look inside you and be strong
And you’ll finally see the truth
That a hero lies in you.” – Hero by Mariah Carey

 

 

"The things that make me different are the things that make me ME!" - Piglet quote on the wall of our sensory gym

“The things that make me different are the things that make me ME!” – Piglet quote on the wall of our sensory gym

Last week I got an email from one of Howie’s teachers.  She explained that they had been working on a math assessment test about money and coins.  The directions were to count the money and show your work.  The teacher said that Howie had refused to show his work. His explanation was that he didn’t have to “because I have autism.”

She wrote that they had worked through the refusal by reminding him that this was for his third grade teachers and while she knew he could do it in his head, he needed to show his new teachers that he understood the work.

Now Howie has never been a big fan of reviewing concepts.  “I already know how to do this!” is a frequent refrain when doing assessments or review work.  But this was a new wrinkle.  He had never refused to do work because of autism before.

I wrote back and said I was kind of stunned by all of this since we’ve never said anything like that to him or around him before.  We’ve always talked about autism – and specifically his autism – in a positive light.  Talking about the gifts it brings him.  Lately we had been discussing how there are times when different brains have a harder time with some activities, and that’s why sometimes he needed to leave the room to take a test, or use his headphones or have a sensory break.  But we’ve never said he couldn’t do…anything.

I expressed my surprise at his statement and said I would talk with him about it.

Later that afternoon, Howie and I were sitting across from each other on the floor of our living room.  His iPad was on his lap and he was creating his newest world on his Blocksworld app.

“Hey bud'” I said. ” I heard that you had some trouble working on your math assessment today?”

“Yeah.  But the fruit snacks helped me get through it.”

“What was hard?”

“I had to write it all out but I knew the answer.”

“Your teacher said you told her that you couldn’t do the test because you had autism?”

” I said I didn’t have to do the work because I had autism,” he said. He didn’t look up at all.

“Well, autism isn’t an excuse you know,” I said. ” You can do hard things. But you still need to do the work.”

“I didn’t say I couldn’t,” he said.  “I said I didn’t have to.  I didn’t have to show my work. I could see it and do it in my head.”

I sat there and just looked at him.  His eyes never left the iPad, fingers moving and swiping and tapping as he built a cityscape for his Blocksworld cars to drive through.

Not an excuse.

A reason.

Not a negative.  A positive.

Not can’t do. Don’t have to to understand.

Part of his gift.  He could see it in his head. So why do the extra work?

He wasn’t trying to get out of doing the test itself.  Just the showing his work.  And not because he didn’t want to.

Because I didn’t have to.

He was actually advocating for himself.

“I understand now,” I said.  “But you know there will be times when you have to show your work, even when you can do it in your head.  It’s important for other people to see what you see.”

“I know,” he said. ” And the fruit snacks were really good.”

***********

In our world, autism isn’t and won’t be an excuse.  We’re never going to teach him he can’t do something because of how his brain is wired.

But it can be a reason why things are hard. Or, in this case, easy.

Maybe it’s semantics.

This is why we felt it was important that Howie knows and understands his diagnosis. So he could say, “I see this differently because my brain is wired differently.”

A few weeks ago, M. Kelter of Invisible Strings posted this on his Facebook page:

photo(1)

Without the words to say “because of my autism”, how might this interaction have gone? Alternative scenarios might have involved a long, drawn out stand off, viewed as noncompliance, leaving everyone exhausted, frustrated and miserable.

Leaving my kid feeling like a bad kid.  A failure.  Different without explanation as to how or why. Removed for long periods of time from his general education classroom as things escalated, keeping him away from his peers.

He knows he leaves to take tests in a quiet space so he doesn’t get distracted.  We are working on helping him understand that his aide is there as a “coach” and “interpreter” when he needs help.

But he also needs to know that we will listen to what he is really saying and doing and go beyond the specific words that he is using  in order to make sure that we understand their meaning.  Because here he was, in his way, appropriately advocating for himself.

It’s our job to make sure we hear him when he does.

"The things that make me different are the things that make me ME!"

“The things that make me different are the things that make me ME!”

 

Although you see the world different than me
Sometimes I can touch upon the wonders that you see
All the new colors and pictures you’ve designed
Oh yes, sweet darling
So glad you are a child of mine.

Child of mine, child of mine
Oh yes, sweet darling
So glad you are a child of mine.” – Child of Mine by Carole King

A few years before I got married I worked in college admissions for a small women’s college in Vermont. The students that applied mostly came from the Northeast and for many of them they were first generation college students.

I remember a conversation I had with my friend, the assistant director of admissions. We were talking about a potential student who we knew would be a great fit for the school but hadn’t sent in her deposit yet. The assistant director had multiple conversations with the young woman. Finally, the applicant said “I want to come to your school. I just can’t put pen to paper to send in what I need to.”

It’s a sentence that stuck with me for some reason. Maybe it was the clever use of words to describe the difficulty in getting an idea out of her head and putting it out there for others to see. Maybe I just admired her honesty. Whatever it was it’s a phrase I’ve used often now as a parent when describing Howie’s difficulties in school.

**********

It was vacation week this week and Howie needed to catch up on some work from school. He had begun to check out about a week before vacation started and work wasn’t getting finished. Yesterday morning he came to work with me and with a lot of reinforcers, we got down to work. He was working really hard on a math sheet consisting of addition and subtraction of three digit numbers. He was concentrating really hard on watching the signs and borrowing or carrying when necessary. After every question he asked for a mom squish.

With about six questions to go, he put his pencil down.

“My brain is buzzing!”

I looked at him. His body was slumped in his chair. He was spent.

“Your brain is buzzing?” I asked. “What does that mean?”

“It means my brain is buzzing. Can I be done?”

I decided to push a little bit. “We can be done with this one. But let’s do a few more smaller problems and then we will be completely done.”  He had one sheet of single digit subtraction with a few problems left to complete.

“Okay.” He said quietly. He did the ones I asked. “Now can I be done?”

“Yup. Nice job!”

He took out his iPad and began to play his Blocksworld app.

“Hey – does your brain buzz like that a lot?”

“Sometimes,” he answered. He looked up briefly at the original three digit math sheet. “When I do work like that.”

deskwork

working hard

**********

It’s clear his frustration level comes from not being able to get the answer out of his brain. In school he uses phrases like “Mrs C! I have butterflies in my brain” when he’s asked reading comprehension questions and he starts to shut down. He can only complete three out of six rows of a subtraction math test in the allotted time.  When questions are modified or time restrictions are removed, he can get the answers correct. It just takes a teacher willing to sit and connect with him. Or help him get pen to paper.

He knows his stuff. He can read and answer questions about the book when it’s something he’s interested in. He can apply math concepts to real life situations and when given his time and his space he can do word problems and regular math problems. In his way.

**********

In the middle of vacation week on a particularly rainy morning, Howie was doing laps inside the house. He grabbed a kitchen timer and timed himself doing one lap in the house.

“I did that in 16 seconds!” He exclaimed. “Now let me do some homework. If I did two laps in the house, at the same speed, my time should be…32 seconds! Let’s try it!”

And for the next 10 minutes, he timed himself doing laps and predicting what his times would be.

IMG_20130718_175733

picture of Howie running…just not at home

**********

It makes me think a lot about the pen to paper issue going forward for Howie in school. The work is just going to get harder. The gap between what he knows and what he can get out of his head will grow when taught in a traditional school setting. He could start to fall behind academically – not for lack of ability but for an inability to do it in the manner required. His intelligence is his strength and it pulls him through the difficulties he has sitting, attending and well, putting pen to paper.

So what will happen to him emotionally when his grades may not reflect his true knowledge? How do we keep him from giving up trying to put pen to paper at all?  And how to we make sure he continues to have teachers who stop and listen to his “butterflies and buzzing” to help him through?

**********

I wish I could remember what happened with that applicant all those years ago. I can’t remember if she ended up matriculating or if she went somewhere else or didn’t go to college at all. I hope that wherever she ended up, she was happy with the decisions she made.

I’m forever grateful to her for teaching me a phrase that would help me understand Howie better than any other. And as we work through the butterflies and the buzzing in his head, I’ll make sure he knows that others have trouble putting pen to paper too.

“If you could read my mind, love
What a tale my thoughts could tell
Just like an old-time movie
‘Bout a ghost from a wishin’ well
In a castle dark or a fortress strong
With chains upon my feet
You know that ghost is me
And I will never be set free
As long as I’m a ghost that you can’t see ” – If You Could Read My Mind by Gordon Lightfoot

photo(22)

Just a boy and his dad, reading a book about boats and engines.

No big deal.

I took this picture last night right after dinner.  I hid around the corner so I didn’t disturb them (hence the really grainy photo and the everything out on the table and the lampshade in the way).

Monday was library day and Howie renewed his book about boats.

Tim picked it up last night and called Howie over to the table. “Show me the part in the book you like.”

Howie turned to the page with a cut away of a rowboat.  “I didn’t know you could sleep in a rowboat!” he exclaimed.

And what followed was THIRTY minutes of discussion at the table.  Of boats and cutaway drawings.  Of engines and pistons.  Of cars and trucks and things that go.

Questions were asked.  On both sides.

I took this picture and heading upstairs hearing “Could a really BIG crew fit on that boat?”

Now you know the autism parent in me wants to tell you all things autism that I see.

The joint attention.

The pragmatic language.

The shared interests.

The sitting and listening for 30 minutes (just hours after I filled out the Vineland saying he couldn’t do this).

The actual reading of a library book.

But not today.

Today I see a dad who found a common bond with his son.

I see a son who is soaking up every word from his dad.

And I see smiles from them both.

Just a boy and his dad, reading a book about boats and engines.

No big deal.

It’s not time to make a change,
Just relax, take it easy.
You’re still young, that’s your fault,
There’s so much you have to know.
Find a girl, settle down,
If you want you can marry.
Look at me, I am old, but I’m happy.

I was once like you are now, and I know that it’s not easy,
To be calm when you’ve found something going on.
But take your time, think a lot,
Why, think of everything you’ve got.
For you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not. ” – Father and Son by Cat Stevens

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