ed note: I’m departing from my usual song title today to share a poem written by my oldest.  He didn’t write it for Autism Acceptance Day.  But it’s a perfect poem for it. And I’m incredibly proud of him  – not just for writing it, but for believing it and believing in his brothers and the members of their autistic village.

 

The Tiger Cub by Gerry* Butler (age 12)

Long ago, a baby tiger was born,
And he could not speak
As smart as he was,
His future seemed bleak
He was as smart as can be,
And witty and kind
But all the other animals
Would not share their time
“You’re not as good as us!” they said,
“You never will be!”
But in his head the tiger thought,
“I believe in me”
One day at school,
When he finally learned to read and to write,
He wrote down his thoughts and his teacher exclaimed,
“My Goodness, this tiger is bright!”
And all through the kingdom,
And all through the land,
He was known as,
The Tiger Who Can

1507486_10203885966736186_2086107139512448138_o(1)

My Tiger Cubs

*his alias

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Connection

“Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .”” – C.S. Lewis

**********

Note in Howie’s log book last week from one of his 1:1 aides: “After social group Howie insisted on flapping his arms.  The group was not at all overly stimulating or excitable.  When I talked to (him) about this he said ‘sometimes autistic people have to do that thing.’ I said ‘stimming’? And he said ‘yes I need to stim and flap my arms’…he said sometimes he needs to flap if he’s excited.”

**********

Howie had his eighth birthday party two weeks ago.  We invited his whole class because, well, because.  I could give you some reason like making sure to include everyone but truthfully there wasn’t anyone he thought he couldn’t invite. He’s been with most of the kids for two years and he really wanted them all at his party. We did one of those indoor trampoline places parties because where else can you go with 28 2nd graders and contain them all?

I was nervous of course.  I don’t get to see how kids interact with Howie except for a few moments here and there.  I get the log book notes and information from teacher meetings, but I never see it with my own eyes.  I watched these kids interact with him – seek him out – not just because it was his birthday but because they care about him.  They told inside jokes on the bench as they waited for their jump turn.  They checked in on him when they were jumping. They jostled for position around him for cake.

When we got home and settled in, Howie opened his presents.  Some cards were on green construction paper (his favorite color).  Some cards had his special “Hero Howie” symbol on them.  All of the cards had special note, poem, story, or picture drawn just for him about him.  Every present was something he wanted that he didn’t already have.  I asked Howie how the kids knew.  “They asked me in school and I told them.” he said matter-of-factly.  Well of course.

That night I sent his teacher some pictures from the party with the note: “All those kids are quite incredible and so so good to Howie. They knew what he liked and how to interact with him.  That is all because of you. Thank you for creating a classroom and a space that allowed my kid to have his real big first friend party. You sure I can’t convince you to teach third grade? :)”

His fabulous teacher wrote back: “They absolutely adore him and are really cheering for him each and every day.  I’m so glad to hear that the party went well!”

**********

Note in Howie’s log book three weeks ago from his other 1:1 aide (paraphrasing): “Howie seemed to be having a hard time with his shirt.  It was making him uncomfortable all day and he couldn’t focus.  We sat and talked about the things that I am bothered by and he was able to work through it.  It really seems to help him when others connect with him about sensory issues.”

**********

From my blog post “Born This Way part two“:

I have spent the days since that moment we got Howie’s autism diagnosis in December 2009 wondering how I would talk to Howie about his autism.  I rehearsed it in my head many times.  Bought books.  Read blog posts.  Wanted to make sure I did it “right”.

We stopped at a light.

“So…” I said.  “That ability is a gift.”

“It is?”

“Yes.  You know what I mean by ‘gift’, right?  Not like a birthday party gift but more like a talent.  Something special you have.”

“I know! What is it? What’s it called?”

“It’s called autism.”

“So I have autism?”

“Yes.”

“Hmmmm.”

I decided to push it a little bit more.

“Hey, you know who else has a gift for seeing stuff like that?”

“Who?” he asked.

“Your friend Brooke.”

“Brooke has autism?”

AND THE BIGGEST SMILE FILLED UP MY REAR VIEW MIRROR.

**********

For some April is about Autism Awareness.  And that’s fine and good and it’s what works for them.

In our house, though, this month (and every month) is about autism connection.

According to the experts, that’s supposed to be something that my boys can’t do, right? Connect with others.

How wrong could they be?

I see connection every day with my kids – between teacher and student, between classmates and friends, brother to brother, and parent to child.

I see it in the children who come to our sensory gym. When families are given the safe space (physically and emotionally) for their kids to play, relationships and playdates and connections blossom.

For us- for my boys, for me as their parent, this month is about connecting  to find that piece – that tie that binds – to make one feel less alone.  To make one feel part of a community.

And for helping the world understand that community, one conversation at a time.

**********

From my personal Facebook status on March 31st:

When Howie is feeling “out of sorts”, he often asks for a “mom squish”. Probably because I am the squishiest of the bunch.

Tonight, I was complaining that my back hurt as I sat down crooked on the couch. He came over to me, looked me right in the eye, and said “do you need a Howie squish?”

It’s the eve of Autism Awareness Month and every day my kids smash and crash their way through every stereotype and every myth. But in our house it’s not about awareness. I want them to know that they are accepted, understood, and loved for who they are.

And those Howie squishes? They make all the aches and pains go away.”

IMG_3709Happy Autism Connection Month.

 

Why are there so many songs about rainbows
and what’s on the other side?
Rainbows are visions, but only illusions,
and rainbows have nothing to hide.
So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it.
I know they’re wrong, wait and see.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.

Who said that every wish would be heard
and answered when wished on the morning star?
Somebody thought of that and someone believed it.
Look what it’s done so far.
What’s so amazing that keeps us star gazing
and what do we think we might see?
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.

All of us under its spell. We know that it’s probably magic.

Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices?
I’ve heard them calling my name.
Is this the sweet sound that called the young sailors.
The voice might be one and the same.
I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it.
It’s something that I’m supposed to be.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me. ” – The Rainbow Connection by Kermit the Frog

A great way to be part of the conversation is to purchase one of these #wearthechange shirts created by my friend Jess.  Through the month of April, the net proceeds from these shirts will be split three ways with the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism, The Autistic Self Advocacy Network, and my nonprofit SenseAbility Gym.

Here is Gerry modeling his new shirt (he wanted to remain headless).  Click on the caption to go to the Zazzle Store.

So I almost said no.

I’m pretty gun shy when it comes to blogging events, especially ones for my kids. My social anxiety spikes and my nervousness about their behavior and their sensory needs and their everything else usually turns into a “thanks but no thanks” email back to the event planners.

But when I got the message about a PBS Kids event in Boston at WGBH, I knew I couldn’t turn it down.  It was about their new initiative called “It All Adds Up“, designed to bring math and literacy skills into homes all over the world through their online programming and apps.

This is an event made for my kids.

Still, I was nervous.  So nervous that I almost backed out.  The first half of the event had parents in one room hearing about the new programs while the kids were right next door doing activities, crafts, etc.  That can be just so unpredictable for Howie and Lewis.

So I sent this email:

Hi! It will just be two of my boys ages 7 and 4. I hope that is okay.
Just a heads up, my two boys are both on the autism spectrum.  They love math and science and all things PBS but they get nervous and a little overwhelmed in large groups and with characters in costume. As long as I can be nearby for them, they should be okay. But please let me know if you are uneasy about having them there.
Thank you!

Alysia

I hate sending that email.  Not because I am ashamed of my kids.  But I am always worried about the response back.

But being PBS, I guess I should have known it would be okay:

Thanks for the email Alysia. A Curious George character will be present at the event – greeting people at the door, and then coming out again at the end. You can definitely just walk past and I can let my colleague at the door know. There will be a time when the parents are in an adjoining room listening to a presentation while the kids are playing games and activities in the other room. Do you think that will be ok? We expect approx 30 kids and 20 adults.

We’d love for you to be there. I just want to be sure you have all the info about the event so you know what to expect. Let me know your thoughts and if there’s anything we can do to help.

That’s all I needed.  I could prep them for exactly what was going to happen.  And I had an exit strategy if needed.

So off we went.

We got on the highway around 10am, armed with munchkins and juice boxes. I usually turn on a movie or the radio for the boys but I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts.

So we talked.

We laughed at the leprechaun hat that is the symbol for the Mass Pike.  We discussed what “Mass Pike” actually meant.  We counted the Jersey barriers along the side of the road and made believe we were racing the big trucks.  We squealed with delight as we went under the “cool hotel that makes a bridge over the highway”.

We shouted and pointed at the large building with the Word Girl animation on it.  I told them that was where we were going.

Their excitement was growing.  My anxiety was almost gone.

We bounded our way into the WGBH building and were immediately greeted by Curious George.  Lewis stood behind me.

Howie went right up to him and gave him a big high-five.

In the elevator, he turned to me and in an exaggerated whisper he said “that was just a guy in a costume, you know.”

I knew we’d be okay.

We entered the room to check in.  The boys got name tags with their names written in their favorite colors.  The room was filled with coloring pages, games, activities and kids.  A giant TV on the wall was showing Curious George.

A lovely young lady motioned for them to sit with her and play.  And they did.

My fears about the event now gone, I found a seat in the presentation room.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting were doing so much for kids in the area of math, science and literacy.  But the approach they are taking is truly remarkable.  By creating content online that complements their TV programming, they are engaging kids in a whole new way.  We learned about a new show called “Peg + Cat” which is all about math skills but taught in a humorous and approachable way. And written on a level that both kids and their parents can find interesting.  Example : a reference to turning up an amplifier to the number 11 – a slight nod to Spinal Tap that had me and my friend Jessica giggling.

What really got me though were the online games and apps targeted exactly at my kids.  Apps for Martha Speaks, Wild Kratts, Dinosaur Train and Cyberchase and games for Curious George. My kids’ shows.

When we left the presentation, we got to see the games and apps in action.

Howie is very new game phobic.  He is afraid of trying a new game or app because he is hyper-competitive and worried about losing.  “No, thank you.” was the response I got when I asked if we should try the new Curious George Bubble Pop game.

But Lewis?  Drawn to games like…like a kid who loves iPads and computer games.

Playing Curious George Bubble Pop.  And yes, that's a breadstick in his hand.  We mutli-task.

Playing Curious George Bubble Pop. And yes, that’s a breadstick in his hand. We mutli-task.

The premise of the game is that when you see a bubble on the screen, you yell “Pop!”.  And it pops.  George gives a little squeal and counts the numbers of bubbles that have popped.

No mouse.  No keyboard.  And you don’t even need to say “pop”.  You can clap your hands or make any noise and the bubble pops on the screen.

It only took 10 bubbles popping before Howie joined in too.  For a few minutes, they were both yelling “POP!” at the tops of their lungs.  And each time Howie jumped up and down with delight.

Yelling POP!  Because it's okay to yell sometimes.

Yelling POP! Because it’s okay to yell sometimes.

Instantly I saw the beauty of this game for kids like mine.  No fine motor control needed.  No speech.  And online for free.

This game teaches cause and effect, counting, and math skills without having to say a word or navigate a mouse or keyboard. All accessible anywhere on any computer with a microphone.

As my kids were yelling “POP!”, I made my way over to the woman representing PBS.

“I can’t thank you enough for this,” I said.  “This game is really perfect.  My two kids are on the autism spectrum and for them to be able to navigate a game flawlessly without specific words or the mouse is just incredible.”

There’s a chance that I caught her a little off guard.  But as she looked over at my kids smiling and jumping, I could see that she got it.  “Thank you,” she said. “That means a lot to us.”

Next, we made our way over to the Wild Kratts app on the iPad.  Howie got to show off his math skills as he fed the animals in the forest.  Lewis honed in on the Dinosaur Train app.

I had to drag them out of there.

I tweeted:  Going right to http://pbskidslab.org  when we get home #pbskidsaddsup

And we did.

That night, Howie and I were sitting on his bed before bedtime.  We were playing the Martha Speaks “Word Spinner” app that we had learned about that morning.  I have never seen him so engaged in an educational app before – laughing, smiling, waiting for his turn…excited for his turn.  Yesterday, he played it with his home therapist, squealing the same squeal of delight that I heard at the event.

Every time the WGBH logo comes up on the screen Howie says “WGBH!  We went there!”

I am so thankful I didn’t say no.

Update from 3:15pm : I went outside to get the mail. I came in and Howie and Lewis were playing the Martha Speaks “Word Spinner” app.  Together.  Taking turns.  Nicely.  Smiling.  This NEVER happens. This is huge.

Disclaimer note: We were given free app codes for Cyberchase 3D, two Martha Speaks apps, two Dinosaur Train apps and the Wild Kratts app.  Considering how much my kids love them, I would have spent the money anyway.  We were also shown another Curious George online game called Monkey Jump – another game where no speech, keyboard or mouse is used.  You jump and Curious George jumps.  All you need is a webcam.  Perfect for my kids.

“Somebody come and play
Somebody come and play today
Somebody come and smile the smiles
And sing the songs
It won’t take long
Somebody come and play today

Somebody come and play
Somebody come and play my way
Somebody come and rhyme the rhymes
And laugh the laughs
It won’t take time
Somebody come and play today” – Somebody Come And Play from Sesame Street

I watch him carefully as he speeds by me.

His training wheels clank-clank as they hit the uneven pavement in our driveway.

He’s doing laps on a track he made out of chalk.  One big circle.

Around and around and around.

I’m sitting in my winter coat on a beach chair on our lawn.  It’s the first nice day of spring but there’s still a chill in the air. His brothers have gone in for the day but Howie refused.

“I’m not done”, he said.

So neither was I.

Understanding

Understanding

I think about Autism Awareness Month.  Or Autism Acceptance Month.  Or Autism Awareness/Acceptance Month.

I think about the posts I have written in the past.  What it mean to us to “Light It Up Blue“.  Why I share what I share.

I think about what the words awareness and acceptance really mean.  I mean really really mean. And whose awareness?  Whose acceptance?

Globally? Nationally? In my town?

Awareness

Awareness

Howie stops for a moment and gets off his bike.  He surveys the track.  I can see it in his eyes that something is missing.  Something about the track is not quite right.

I can’t see it.  To me, it is perfect.  The lines may not be straight, the arrows showing the right path are jagged.

But still…perfect.

His eyes see things I can’t.  His mind works differently than mine.  He can create elaborate pictures and structures in his head and put them together with Hot Wheels Tracks, Legos, blocks and chalk.  I can’t draw anything but a stick figure.  I can sit through a two hour lecture on the history of New York’s geography.  He can’t sit through a five minute lesson on contractions.

I am aware of this.  But is he?

Howie adds one more line to the track and colors it in.  He hops back on his bike and the circles begin again.

Acceptance

Acceptance

I know the statistics.  The 1 in 88 or 1 in 50.  Or in my house…the 2 out of 3.

The answer to the question of whose awareness and whose acceptance is easy for me this year.

It’s Howie.

We’ve started talking about how his brain works differently than others sometimes.  How some things are harder for him at school and somethings are easier.  We’ve talked about sensory overload and calming our engines and using his sensory toolbox to help his body feel better.

But…we’ve never given it a name.

Up to this point, we have been his advocate.  I have piles of papers and notes and spreadsheets and doctors’ reports that speak for him.

It’s time to teach him how to speak for himself.  How to advocate for what he needs and why.  Not to escape the hard work or to use as an excuse.  But to truly understand what makes him successful.  What makes things challenging.

So if a kid makes fun of him for flapping his arms up and down when he’s excited, he can say why he does it.  Or if an adult makes him look at them in the eye he can explain why that’s hard for him. Or when he creates the most incredible stories and drawings he can explain why his brain works the way it does.

Or when he just needs to ride his bike around in circles for an hour before dinner he knows why it makes him feel happy.

His older brother Gerry has accepted it.  Tim and I have too.  We can share our version of Autism Acceptance Month as parents and siblings.

But the understanding/awareness/acceptance needs to come from within too.  From Howie himself.

We will light our house up blue and wear our blue clothes tomorrow.

And slowly…in our way and in our time…Howie will understand that we’re doing it for him and with him and his younger brother.

Awareness and acceptance will begin at home.

And then Howie can be the one to share it with others.

Free

Free

He zips by me again for the 100th time.  The early spring wind is starting to kick up and I start to shiver.

I ask him to pause for a moment so I can take a picture of the first bike ride of 2013.

He stops, smiles, and poses.

“What are you thinking about?” I ask.

“I’m thinking about being me,” he replies.

And he speeds away.  The clank-clank of the training wheels follow behind.

Awareness.  Acceptance. Understanding.

Starting locally.  So he can share globally.

Moving me down the highway
Rolling me down the highway
Moving ahead so life won’t pass me by

And I’m gonna go there free

Like the fool I am and I’ll always be
I’ve got a dream, I’ve got a dream
They can change their minds but they can’t change me
I’ve got a dream, I’ve got a dream
Well, I know I can share it if you want me to
If you’re going my way, I’ll go with you

Moving me down the highway
Rolling me down the highway
Moving ahead so life won’t pass me by
Moving me down the highway
Rolling me down the highway
Moving ahead so life won’t pass me by.” I Got A Name by Jim Croce

An interview.

I’ll let him speak for himself.

A few months ago, he asked me “Do you wish you had my brain?”

Yes.  Yes I do.

mistreated, misplaced, misunderstood
miss “no way, it’s all good”, it didn’t slow me down
mistaken, always second guessin’
under estimated, look, i’m still around

pretty, pretty please
don’t you ever, ever feel
like your less than
less than perfect.
pretty, pretty please
if you ever, ever feel
like your nothing
you are perfect to me.” – Perfect by Pink (family show version)

Why do I have a blue light on my house this month?

I could light it up blue for the women in my support group, who have given me the gifts of laughter and strength.

I could light it up blue for the people I have met since my son’s autism diagnosis who are always there no matter what time zone they are in now.

I could light it up blue for my friends who have fought so hard for the appropriate educational placement for their child.

I could light it up blue for the children diagnosed this year and the thousands more to be diagnosed in the years to come.

I could light it up blue for the families who drive by my house so they know they aren’t alone.

But the most important reason I light it up blue?

I light it up blue for my family.

So I can show them that there are other families just like ours.

So they know that the stigma does not exist in our house.

So my boys know that what makes them different makes them special.

So their brother sees that we’re part of something global.

So he feels less alone.

So WE feel less alone.

On our first World Autism Awareness Day, we looked like this:

April 2, 2010

Then we looked like this:

boys in blue

April 2, 2011

And today we look like this:

April 2, 2012

I can see the progress in these pictures.  I can see the hard work and the tears and the love.

When we shine a blue light on our house, we are shining the light on those beautiful faces.

Light Up The World

I light it up blue for them.

Lay it all down
Got something to say
Lay it all down
Throw your doubt away
Do or die now
Step on to the plate
Blow the door wide open like up up and away

Let’s light up the world tonight
You gotta give up the bark and bite
I know that we got the love, alright
Come on and light it up

Light it up tonight” – Light Up The World from Glee (original song)

I’m departing from my usual song title here.

I have an article today on the MassMoms.com website titled “When You Meet The Parent of an Autistic Child”.  It’s five ways to help other parents understand me and kids like mine.

I’m so grateful to the Worcester Telegram for asking me to write this, especially as we approach April and Autism Awareness Month.

It’s my first article like this ever, so I’d love it if you’d click below and check it out.

Hopefully, the more clicks on the link they get, the more stories they’ll publish about our community.

And they told two friends…and they told two friends…

When You Meet The Parent of an Autistic Child

CLICK <HERE>