"Normal" Is A Dryer Setting

Parenting A Child On The Autism Spectrum


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The Two Tests

The starting point of all achievement is desire. ~Napoleon Hill

My son Tim and I each passed a test last week. Each of our tests required months of preparation, learning bit by bit, with a large amount of practicing over and over again. The consequences of either of us passing either of our tests and making a mistake are potentially life threatening, and I told Tim repeatedly that if he does not pass the first time there is a good reason behind it. His test administrator wants to make sure he is safe and knowledgeable about the subject matter.

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Tim passed his driving test on the first try and received his Minnesota Driver’s License this week. Rock on, Tim! Many of my friends who remember when he was three years old and I would bring him to lab could not believe that he is Almost All Grown Up. I breathed a sigh of relief because our area is scheduled out for months for licensing exams, and if Tim didn’t pass this time he would be taking his driving test during the winter. When I mentioned that to the staff at the counter who helped Tim fill out his paperwork her response was, “Oh, no worries. We’ve tested people during snowstorms before and they did fine.” One of my technicians, who openly admits to being a terrible driver, also mentioned to me that she did not pass her licensing exam the first time yet the State of Minnesota sent her a driver’s license anyway. Not passing, however, simply meant that Tim would retake the test another time.

My test was not as big a deal yet opened up an entirely new world for me.

 

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Neither my friend nor I passed our lead belay test the first time, but we did pass on the second try. My boyfriend, who has been lead certified for Idon’tknowhowlong, was there both times, fully supportive, a little bit nervous, and trying to stay out of the way. My friend was devastated when she failed the first time. Me, not so much. One of our administrative assistants for the lab I work in mentioned a number of years ago that 99% of the experiments we as scientists set up fail, which is actually true. She admitted that she could never live with that much failure, which probably is for the best that she never went into science, because the bulk of it is about failing, and adapting, and retesting, and failing again.

I told my friend who took her failure so hard that she will not pass her test until the staff are confident that she knows what she is doing and is safe. I also prefer to make the bulk of my mistakes before anything becomes serious, and I mentioned that the more mistakes we make while preparing for our test, the better we will be for it. I would rather make a mistake before or during our test rather than halfway up an 50 foot cliff, for example.

I was prepared to give Tim the same advice when I took him for his driving test. This is actually a difficult exam in Minnesota, and many people do not pass it the first time. I knew he was a good driver, but I did not want him to get his hopes up. Instead, I told him to do his best and reminded him that if he does not pass, it’s no problem – we will simply sign him up again and practice what he needs to work on. I was nervous for him while waiting, and the butterflies in my stomach made me realize how much I want him to succeed in everything he works toward. I was so happy for him when he passed, and he even let me give him a big hug in the middle of the hallway before we went in to fill out his paperwork.

Tim has been successful in so many small ways in his life. These are events that often go unnoticed, and for some people, are expected to happen as part of daily life. When Tim was smaller and went through weeks of not being able to control himself, a success was getting through an entire school day without the principal calling me at work. Last year Tim worked a part-time job in his school’s store, and we celebrated his first paycheck. Now that he has his driver’s license he will apply for another part-time job at the teeny tiny family-owned grocery store down the road from our house. The sign on their door reads “Stock boy wanted…no grouches!” which indicates that, if Tim gets the job, a cheerful and enthusiastic attitude will be a must-have. A month ago Tim took the ACT exam in preparation for college. As the nervous parent who waited in the chilly car for a full 15 minutes AFTER the exam starts Just In Case something happened and Tim needed to come back out, I was nearly in tears because I was so happy that the world of a college education is an attainable goal for my son.

The driver’s license was a publicly known success for Tim, which made me very happy for him. He was proud of himself, he knew he had worked hard for it, and he watched how his efforts paid off. For 16-year-old Tim, this privilege indicates independence, self-sufficiency, and now, finally, a fully justified need for a cell phone.

 

 

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The Competent Souls

I’m so used to being scolded and herded and managed and handled that I’m no longer sure how to react when someone treats me like a real person. ~ Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen

Check out 3M’s newly landscaped plaza, complete with picnic tables for eating lunch outdoors! This used to be a parking lot.

Last week I attended the AuSM’s Autism and Employment Forum, which was hosted by 3M at their world headquarters in Maplewood, Minnesota. AuSM, which is an abbreviation for the Autism Society of Minnesota, holds year-round forums, workshops, camps, and classes for people with autism, autism spectrum disorders, and their loved ones such as parents and caregivers. You can click here to find a brief summary of the Autism and Employment Forum on AuSM’s website. You can also continue reading and hear the low-down from me firsthand.

The first of two keynote speakers was Dr. Stephen Shore, who is an Assistant Professor at Adelphi University and also an adult with an autism diagnosis. Dr. Shore’s website is www.AutismAsperger.net, which provides information on autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. The courses Dr. Shore teaches at Adelphi University include an Introduction to Special Education and an Introduction to Autism Spectrum Disorders. His academic interests include the diagnosis and treatment of autism and different treatment approaches of children with autism.

Dr. Shore started his seminar by saying there are two models we need to move away from when viewing how people with autism fit into the world. Model #1 is a Deficit Model which is seen in the public school system. Instead of focusing on what the child is ABLE to do, educators focus on what the child is UNABLE to do. Model #2 is the a Charity Model which is seen in employers, where individuals with special needs are employed but not accommodated.

Dr. Shore proposed that employers need to move toward a Characteristic Model, where the employer takes the interests of the employee into consideration. In this model, the employee will be given tasks based on his or her ability to communicate, socialize, and the pattern of restricted interests common to autistic individuals. You can train your autistic child, or any child for that matter, for future employment at an early age by giving him or her chores to complete around the house. Examples include feeding the cat, making his or her bed, and walking the dog. The child needs to do the chores whether he or she wants to or not, and there is the element of customer service (was the chore done to Mum or Dad’s satisfaction?).

Dr. Shore has posted several videos on YouTube, ranging from public presentations about autism to interviews and short informational clips. Here are some examples:

The second keynote speaker was Randy Lewis, who is the Senior Vice President for Supply Chain and Logistics at Walgreens. Mr. Lewis started off with the quote “Nil Magnum Nisi Bonum”, which is from Yann Martel’s breathtaking novel with a twist at the end the Life of Pi. The quote translates to “No greatness without goodness”, and this set the tone for the rest of his presentation. As an aside, I vehemently prefer the Life of Pi with animals as opposed to without, and will probably drag Daniel along to Ang Lee’s movie version when it premieres in November.

Mr. Lewis has a personal investment in people with disabilities. He and his wife are the proud parents of three children, one of whom is 24 years old and has autism. He proceeded to state two very true facts: True Fact #1: Disabilities play no favorites. True Fact #2: Each parent hopes to live one day longer than their child because we know what is waiting for them once we are gone. These are true facts to me because each one of them is first on my mind when I wake up in the morning and last when I fall asleep at night. They are with me, as a parent of a child with special needs, every second of every day, and I expect they will be with me for the rest of my life.

Approximately ten years ago Mr. Lewis started to think about a new generation of Distribution Centers for Walgreens. He wanted to build a sustainable model. He did not want to carve out new jobs because when economic times turn rough those new jobs are the first ones to go. In 2007, Walgreens opened its 14th distribution center in Anderson, South Carolina to support the company’s expansion throughout the Southeast. This center  was the first facility of its kind to employ a significant number of people with disabilities, with more than 40% of its employees having a special needs diagnosis. In 2009, a second Distribution Center opened in Windsor, Connecticut, with the same vision in mind. In both Distribution Centers, ALL employees are held to the same standard and paid the same salaries.

To see Walgreens’ Distribution Center success stories for yourself, here are some links:

YouTube videos featuring the Walgreens Distribution Centers:

Currently, 1 in 88 children in the United States today has a diagnosis of Autism or an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The rate creeps higher every year, and the average age is currently 8 years old. Within the next ten years, these individuals will become adults and start entering the workforce. The question is: Will we be ready for them? Many of them are more competent than they are given credit for, and people will only perform up the level of what is expected of them. Preparing the way now is sure to pay off in the path ahead of us.


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The Winds Of Change

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving. ~ Albert Einstein

Anarchy has broken out at work. I have been dealing by consuming lots of chocolate and running on the treadmill until my legs feel like falling off. In case you are a new reader, and I do absolutely ADORE new readers, so please keep reading, here is a breakdown of the events from the past two weeks:

  • My lab partner dies. Again, if this is your first time reading, and please accept my apologies for the emotional wallace and gromit¹, here is the link to that entry. This past week her husband, who works upstairs from us, has been sorting through her filing cabinets, sobbing when he thinks no one can hear him. I finally left my office one afternoon to let him grieve in peace and because I was near to tears from hearing him. I went to the building next to mine, planted myself in the doorway of a friend’s office so she couldn’t escape, and told her why I was there and that she needs to talk to me for a few minutes.
  • Our manager moves to China for a two years to set up an R&D lab for our company in Shanghai. We are leaderless until mid-April. And…
  • Voila, like magic…Our cluster has been asked to put together a day-long session of seminars and posters from our group. I have been asked to pull in a coworker, any coworker, from one of the health care departments we work with, and I CANNOT FIND ANYONE to volunteer because 1) it is extremely short notice, 2) people don’t like to be bothered, and 3) several of them already have a day-long meeting the day of our poster session.
  • Already our R&D spending for 2012 is being restricted which means that I need to watch what I purchase for our project. However, no supplies = no experiments = no results. So I spend anyway until someone higher than I tells me not to. And experiments have been making for long work days, which is good but tiring and taking me away from my son Tim.

Tim switched schools as of Monday, and I have made every effort to be home as early as possible for him this week. People with Asperger’s Syndrome sometimes have trouble with transitions, and sometimes they are uncomfortable around people they meet for the first time. This week Tim has had to deal with new busing, a new building, a new teacher, a new schedule, new cafeteria food, new cafeteria rules, new school rules, and you know what? He’s doing great! So far! After one week! Which is better than Capitol View being a disaster from the start.

Tim says that the best part of his new school is that “it just suits him better”. I asked Tim what the worst part is, and he said nothing. I kept pestering him to find out what he wishes was different, and he couldn’t think of anything. Tim has spent the week being tested for placement in math. Today is science his class watched a PBS video on kangaroos. Apparently it is called “Kangaroo Mob” and it is about kangaroos who live in urban parts of Australia. You can pull up the video on PBS’s website by clicking here. In art, his class is working on making masks. Tim has started painting his. Gym class has consisted of playing tennis this week, and Tim decided that tennis is the worst part of school so far. He claims to have repressed that when I asked him earlier about the worst.

One part of Tim’s school day that is unique is the board game part. His class of four boys plays board games regularly to help build social and interpersonal skills. When I asked Tim what kind of games he has been playing, he said they were games for his brain. Then he finished petting Smokey The Cat, asked if he could go, and went back to watching his Netflix program. Another social aspect is lunchtime in the cafeteria. The cafeteria at Capitol View only has a few tables, which forces the students to sit together instead of separating out. While the students may choose not to talk to one another during lunch, they still share a meal at the same table.

An oldie but a goodie! Tim when he was six weeks old.

My first and foremost responsibility as a human being on this green planet of ours is to make sure that I raise my child the best I know how. The best I am capable of. Craziness at work takes away from my ability to raise my child. I have to work to earn money, and, similar to the equation above, no work = no cash = no provisions for my son. At times like these, I am thankful that Tim is an independent and self-sufficient young man. He has had a stressful last couple of weeks as well and is going through a time of transition right now. I actually think he is handling his transitions better than I am handling mine. Maybe it is because life to him is one gigantic behemoth of constant change. Or maybe he just really likes his new school.

¹Cockney slang which is quite fun once you get the hang of it. Daniel turns my James Brown upside down when he starts using it 😀 .


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Kasoro

Can’t cut it out…it will grow right back. ~ Rafiki, The Lion King

Friday evening our lab had a giant group date to see opening night of The Lion King musical in downtown Minneapolis. We started out with dinner and excellent beer at Kieran’s Irish Pub, and walked through the cold snowy night down Hennepin Avenue to the Orpheum Theatre where our seats were front and center in the balcony. Even if you aren’t a fan of the original Disney movie, the musical is a must-see event. My favorite animal was the giraffe, which was manned by an acrobat on stilts. The costumes were so believable that after a few minutes we forgot there were people inside of them.

The story of The Lion King has several rather complicated themes running throughout. The cartoon seems to be more of an adult’s film than a child’s, especially considering how the protagonist Simba is forced to question who he is and what his purpose is in life. I have always thought the most difficult part for Simba is learning to love himself and be comfortable in his own furry skin. Accepting yourself also involves forgiving yourself and allowing other people to see you as a flawed creature. It does not involve cutting pieces of yourself or your life out because they make you scared/embarrassed/frustrated/ashamed/angry/or whatever negative emotion bubbles to the surface.

I peruse Asperger’s websites from time to time. On a disproportionate number of them I read about how people with Asperger’s love themselves the way they are, and they don’t want to change a single thing about themselves. This is often in response to the option of medication, or of feeling like they don’t quite fit in with other people, or in terms of how they perform their job at work. These people don’t want to change a thing.

I think that’s great. I have a hard time with accepting myself the way I am. There are several parts of me that I would like to cut out, including my propensity to over-analyze everything, which drives Daniel batty, to be too generous to others, which also drives Daniel batty, and to be too naive, which drives me batty because I am often taken advantage of. I want to know how these people with Asperger’s have reached the level of completely embracing themselves for who they are. I want to know so I can do it with myself, and so I can teach it to Tim. It reminds me of the oxygen mask training we receive on airline flights, where in the event of the plane suddenly falling out of the sky you are supposed to put on your own mask before helping someone else.

Maybe people with Asperger’s accept themselves because they use their brains differently than I do. Tim’s brain is definitely different than mine, as in he is tons more intelligent but doesn’t make friends or maintain relationships as easily as I do. And here I am starting to over-analyze the issue instead of accepting it as is and figuring out where to go from here.

I decided to go straight to the source and called Tim over to my computer. The conversation went like this:

Me: Hey, Tim, do you want to change anything about yourself?

Tim: No, I like myself just the way I am.

Me: Well, there are several things I wish I could change about me. For example, I tend to over-analyze everything, which makes Daniel crazy from time to time. Do you have anything about yourself that you wish was different?

Tim, who took a moment to think before responding: No…nothing. I like myself the way I am. Well, there is one thing…I wish I didn’t mind the cats meowing so much.

Leave it to my child with the pure heart to feel guilty when the cats nag him. Lately our cat Amber has been following Tim around the house, meowing at him incessantly when he doesn’t give her the attention she feels she deserves. As far as personal flaws, however, Tim cannot think of anything he would want to excise. It makes me want to jump inside his head to see how his mind works. It also makes me feel fortunate beyond belief to have someone like him as part of my universe.


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The Clinical Study

I don’t wanna live that way. Reading into every word you say. ~ Somebody That I Used To Know, Gotye

The study site...our sunny table.

“You have a very good problem on your hands.” Or at least that is what I was told at the end of the first clinical study my son Timothy participated in the Friday before Christmas. The two of us were sitting at my dining room table, and Tim had just completed a two hour series of tests. The professor was showing me some of his initial scores. Her graduate student had been observing in the background the entire time, and both of them told me that the speed at which Tim flew through the questions was among the fastest they had seen so far.

The study is on Stimulus-Driven Attention Deficits in Autism and is funded by the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI). The hypothesis is that stimulus-driven attention, which results from learning which stimuli are potentially informative and hence priority targets for attention, is most affected in autism, whereas self-driven (top-down) attention is largely unchanged. Tim received a certificate of completion and $15 for his time. The professor and her student received another set of statistics to help them publish papers to advance their careers. It was a win-win situation. Tim and I plan to  do another series of tests with their group later in the spring.

Here are Tim’s results:

  1. Spatial attention: Tim had a very fast response time in this task. He showed implicit learning of the target’s spatial locations.
  2. Multitasking (both visual and auditory tasks): Tim performed very well in the multitasking. When an auditory target tone was detected, memory for concurrently presented visual stimuli was impaired. Memory accuracy for the objects was around 57%, which was similar to previous children tested, both typically developing kids and children with ASD.
  3.  Differential Ability Scales: Tim was administered the nonverbal core subtests of an IQ test. These received T-scores, where in the general population the mean is 50 with a standard deviation of 10. The subtests included
    • Recall of design (Tim’s T-score = 83)
    • Pattern construction (Tim’s T-score = 83)
    • Matrices (Tim’s T-score = 68)
    • Sequential reasoning (Tim’s T-score = 72)

The IQ tests show that Tim has a spatial ability IQ of 157 and a nonverbal reasoning ability of 142. Combined together the special nonverbal ability is 149. In the general population the mean ability score is 100 with a standard deviation of 15. By falling 3 standard deviations above the mean, Tim’s performance is better than 99.9% of children of his age.

While Tim was busy with his different tests, I filled out a Social Communication Questionnaire. Tim’s overall score was 26. A score of 11 is used as a cutoff between ASD and typically developing children. To read more about how scores are determined for this test, you can pull up the abstract to the 2007 publication by clicking here.

Our professor finished by telling me that Tim obviously has extraordinary intellectual abilities. And that he should be thinking about taking college courses now, at the age of 13. And to watch him carefully since he may be prone to depression.

What am I supposed to do with all of this information? The secret is…drumroll please…it’s actually stuff I already know. The relationship that Tim and I have with what I call the Outside World is a rough one. For the past decade, people have breezed in and out of our lives, and it is always, every single time, that Tim Is Super Duper Smart but Tim Also Needs To Learn How To Interact With Someone Other Than His Momma. And it happens over and over again where I meet an educator, a daycare provider, a doctor, all sorts and types of individuals who see Tim as a prodigy, as a gift to our dear green planet, but the minute he shows his other side, the stressed side, the socially awkward side, the side that people don’t expect, things change and suddenly there is a problem. Then people back off, things break up, and Tim is back to where he started, and he doesn’t understand why.

The good part is that the problem side, the socially awkward side, is becoming less and less of a stress the older Tim grows. When Tim does begin college, there are a ton of options for him as he starts his adult life. In addition to studying what interests him, he can commute from home, he can take courses online, he can live in an apartment instead of a dorm, and he can tailor his adult experience to his comfort level. No one is going to force him to sit in a crowded cafeteria for lunch, or play volleyball every day in gym class, or make friends.

I agree, though, that I do have a good problem on my hands. Life could be worse. It is a matter of finding the right support networks, the right programs, and maintaining the right perspective.


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The Field Trip

I like you just the way you are. ~ Timbaland

Last week I spent an afternoon on the other side of the Twin Cities visiting a health and rehabilitation center. My current project at work requires all of the members of our team to have a basic understanding of wound biology, and one by one we have been shadowing a wound nurse who visits the rehabilitation center once a week.

The afternoon I went our nurse had sixteen patients to visit in three hours. She mentioned that at her regular job, which is in a hospital, she usually has seven or eight patients that she attends to during her entire shift. All of the patients on our rounds were elderly, and most of them were healing well. One patient, however, had a large bedsore on his lower back, and when this nurse, who has worked with wounds for almost two decades, pulled the dressing off, she gasped.

The nurse’s patient asked her if the wound was bad. He could not feel it. As the nurse began to clean and dress her patient’s wound, she turned to his wife and said to her, “This is a very serious wound.” His wife, who had been taking notes in a journal she kept of all her husband’s physicians, attendants, clinics, and medications, didn’t seem to understand the situation since her husband felt no pain at the site. The entire time I, a shadow in by the nurse’s side, kept my best poker face on to prevent from adding to the situation.

After this patient, which was about midway through our afternoon, the nurse told me I could leave if I wanted to. She was running late, had several more patients to see, and knew that I had to drive through rush hour across town to get home. I told her that I wanted to finish rounds with her. When I finally did leave two hours later, I felt guilty. I got my coat from the reception desk, and I did what the patients we visited could not: I walked outside, got in my car, called my son on my cell phone to tell him I was heading out, and drove myself home. After I made it home, I took my son out for pizza like I had promised him, and we went to the family-owned restaurant down the road from our house where our usual friendly waitress told us how nice it was to see us again. I felt guilty for my freedom, for my health, and for the ability to still be young enough to eat junk food for a meal and not worry about heartburn/gaining weight/too much sodium/you name it.

Tulum, Mexico.

One word for “wound” in Greek is τραύμα, which gives us our English word “trauma”. Visuals that spring to mind when I think of trauma include loud sirens, people in scrubs dashing around every which way, and enormous amounts of action. One example using weather, not people, are the hurricanes that pounded Tulum, Mexico, in recent years. The photo I took four years ago shows rows of newly planted palm trees along the beach in an attempt to restore the area to its former state.

What I tend to forget is that trauma has a quiet side, too, and that this side may be a silent shadow lingering in the background. It could be physical, emotional, or both. This type of trauma can start out as not much, but if it is not attended to properly, it can bloom into a larger problem that becomes increasingly difficult to deal with over time. Sometimes we don’t even know it’s there. While hurricanes are enormous destructive acts of nature, there are often warning signs early on, which allow residents to make the necessary preparations for the impending storm.

My son’s therapist is convinced that he has suffered multiple traumas throughout his life, none of which we fully understand yet. These are emotional wounds that my son needs to work through. These events, which seem little in themselves, become overwhelming when piled up on top of one another. One example occurred when my son was in kindergarten and his best friend in school told him a lie. That may not be traumatic for some children, but for my son it was an initiating event that undermined his trust in people overall. His mind gets stuck in a loop, where he replays these instances over and over again, and the challenge is to help him break out of that loop so he can move forward in his life.

The hard part is being the bystander when a loved one suffers a traumatic event. That takes a lot of strength. You have to continually accept the other person as they are, not what you want them to become, which is a healthy individual. What impressed me most about the man with the bad wound is the way his wife accepted him as he was. She wants him to improve, but when the nurse who treated him told her the seriousness of her husband’s situation, she listened intently and absorbed the information. She asked about different treatments and options, and she took notes to discuss with her husband’s doctor. She was All In.

Am I All In? With my son? With my boyfriend? With my girlfriends? Or am I dangling one foot over the edge, giving myself the option to escape in case the person I am with takes a turn for the worse or turns out differently that what I expected him or her to be? It is hard to be committed, especially with people like my son when I cannot see the full extent of the damage, don’t know how or why it happened, and am unsure as to what my role is in cleaning things up. The easy answer is to say that love conquers all, but life doesn’t always work that way. That view, under these circumstances, has an aura of passiveness to it, contrasted to the overworked nurse and the devoted wife that I witnessed in the rehabilitation center.

Hope for the future is good, but it is also important to accept life the way it is now. To love and accept my son as he is, no matter what awaits him in the years to come.


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The Christmas Tree

This past weekend my son and I picked out our Christmas tree. This was a special occasion because it was the first time since I moved out of my parents’ home years ago that I bought a real tree. For the past decade I had been using an artificial tree I found at a local Goodwill. After last year’s Christmas, I decided to donate that tree to my company’s department to use in our annual Christmas party. Being treeless this season, our choices were to either purchase a nice, new, perfectly symmetrical fake tree or the real deal.

Look at the trees! I was jumping for joy.

It turns out the real deal is better for us. The entire trip and hunting and gathering of the tree was fun in and of itself. My son and I drove down the street to Axdahl’s Farm where dozens of pine trees awaited us. We walked around for a while, trying to decide what type of tree we wanted for this Christmas. There were tall trees, short trees, trees with long fine silky needles, trees with teeny spiky thick needles, and everything in between. We ended up choosing a balsam fir that was the perfect shade of green. Axdahl’s staff wrapped our tree and tied it to the roofrack of our car while we went inside to pay and enjoy a complimentary cup of hot cocoa.

All dressed up.

After returning home, my son and I unloaded our tree and set it up in our living room. We strung the lights, the ribbon, and got out our two boxes of Christmas ornaments. I have made a point of purchasing one new Christmas ornament each year, and I try to buy it from someplace memorable. One ornament is a wooden handmade Norwegian Christmas star from an artist in Grand Marais, while another is a painted clay mariachi guitarist from a vacation to Playa del Carmen. The list goes on and on…ornaments from cities such as Williamsburg, Orlando, Seattle, Montgomery, Valparaiso, New York City. Our two cats, Smokey and Amber, also got involved since they were under the impression that we had brought them back a gigantic kitty toy. Smokey plunked himself down under the tree while Amber sniffed the lower branches and rubbed her face up against the needles.

Complimentary cocoa and cider at Axdahl's.

For all of the beauty that comes with a real tree, there is also an ugly side. Each tree has one. When I was growing up and my parents took us shopping for a Christmas tree each year, I remembering them nitpicking their top tree choices, turning them around to determine which tree had the best (least) ugly side. My father wanted to get his money’s worth, and my mother wanted to make sure that the tree looked attractive from all angles. My son and I turned our tree’s bare, prickly, ugly side toward the wall. Even though we didn’t put many decorations on that side, and it isn’t visible unless you make a point to look at it, we know it is still there.

There are parts of us that we don’t want other people to see. We have been conditioned practically from birth to appear and act a certain way when we are out in public. If people said and did whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, we would have a highly unorganized, unpredictable, and chaotic society. I would feel extremely unsafe if I had to exist in that type of environment every day. Fortunately, due to my conditioning, I know what to expect from other people. I also know that if someone behaves in an unexpected way, it probably isn’t due to anything I have done, and I need to give that person their space for the time being. I also understand when I am in a potentially dangerous situation and when I am not, and 99% of the time everything is fine.

My son has a really difficult time telling the difference between what is an ugly side and what isn’t. For all I know to him everything in life is one gargantuan ugly side. Through his counseling, I am learning that he lives in a constant fight-or-flight response, and since he has been taught that fighting is not an acceptable response to feeling threatened, he does the flight option. This means that during the school day he leaves class quite frequently, and when he was younger he would often hide under a table or his teacher’s desk. At home, he likes being in small spaces, crawling under blankets, and at the age of 13 he still sleeps with stuffed animals in his bed to give him the feeling of being closed in.

The challenge for us, meaning the adults in his life, his parents, his teachers, counselors, physicians, and special ed staff, is to figure out how to help my son let go of his fear. If we can’t move him, at least we need to be able to spin the tree so he can see the beautiful side of people and of life.