"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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Upward Trajectories

If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat. You just get on. ~ Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google

My friends and I call this the "Yoga Wall". It's balancey.

My girlfriends and I call this the “Yoga Wall”. It’s balancey.

There is a meeting on my work calendar every Friday over lunch. The descriptor is “Upward Trajectories”, and it’s not so much a meeting as a code name. Once a week, when two of my girlfriends and I are able, we slip out for this hour to climb at Vertical Endeavors. The gym is usually almost empty, and we climb fast and hard since we have a limited amount of time.

The aspect I enjoy most about climbing is that the goal is to solve the problem in front of you: how do you get to the top of the route? Brute strength is rarely the answer. Usually the way up involves a combination of body positioning, balancing, and instinct. When I started climbing, one of my friends told me that it is simply a different way of walking. Instead of walking forward, however, you walk upward. If your foot is moving to a particular place, put it there because your subconscious mind is far ahead of the rest of your brain. After your feet go where they want to go, there should automatically be places for your hands. Sometimes the handholds are reaches or even small dynos for me since I am vertically challenged to begin with, but the route is clear.

With most routes, there is also more than one way to get to the top. Boundaries exist, such as specific holds, parts of the wall you can or cannot use, but everyone climbs the same route differently. Once I become used to a route, I will try to climb it differently each time to test the limits of my body and discover what works and what doesn’t. Trust me that a lot of the moves I try don’t work, but when they do, it’s wonderful.

Careers have more than one way to the top as well, the top being whatever you define it to be. For me, the top has always been Not Losing My Job. More specifically, not having the company I’ve been working at for the past several years decide they don’t need me anymore. My job has never been in jeopardy, not even during the recession of 2008, but business models change and companies evolve. The problem I have to solve for myself is: Am I able to evolve as well…and what is the best way to the top?

Last October I transitioned to a new position in my company. After several years in the R&D sector, I moved into product development. It’s exciting and a little bit frightening at the same time. The exciting part is I was invited by the hiring manager to apply for the position. The frightening part is that I had none of the technical experience that was in the job description. Since October, I have been learning all entirely new things, including fields of science, marketing, regulatory, and in general How Consumers Think, and I was expected to master them all very quickly.

This is comfortable for me, however. I see the opportunity rather than the risk. Here’s why. When I started working at my company, fresh out of graduate school, here is the lab I was given.

Lab

Lab

You may be thinking to yourself “Oh my, that looks like an empty room.” It was. The organic chemist who hired me had no idea how to set up a biochemistry lab, and neither did I since I am a systems biologist. At any rate I walked into an empty room my first day on the job and figured out what I would need to purchase.

It gets better. Here was my work assignment.

Work Assignment

Work Assignment

This may look like a blank piece of paper to you. It was. My organic chemist supervisor told me that he had no idea what I was supposed to do. He suggested that I take the first month of my newly minted industry career to explore the company, talk to the other scientists, and figure out what I was going to work on.

That is precisely what I did for the first part of my career. I started out as a technical employee in our R&D sector, which means I spent most of my time in lab running experiments. After being at my company for a few years, however, I was placed as technical lead on a project with a very specific end goal. When that project was successful, my manager put in charge of second project, except this time there was an extremely ambiguous end goal and an even more ambiguous measure of the path needed to constitute when the goal was achieved. At this point, I unintentionally evolved. This is important because, in order to survive a career in Big Business, flexibility is key.

What did I evolve into? Why, a Project Manager of course. This happened over a number of years, and it was in response to where I felt most comfortable on my team, and where my team felt most comfortable with me. I was no longer a technical person, but rather a planner, organizer, and communicator of information who had a technical background. The most rewarding part of this process was to develop parts of my personality and skill set that would have otherwise lain dormant if I had stayed exclusively in lab.

The tangibly rewarding part of going into Project Management was the array of opportunities that opened up for me at my company once I started looking. When I submitted my resumé for the job I have now, I spent days on it because I thought I had nothing. Remember the empty box and the blank sheet of paper? It takes a long time and great effort to fill those up, especially if you are working alongside people who were given labs filled with equipment and sure-fire projects the first day they started.

I knew I was wrong about myself after my job interview last fall. I submitted my resume to the hiring manager when I couldn’t look at it anymore. I didn’t know what else to put on it, so with a *sigh* I entered it into our internal job application system. Thirty minutes later I had an interview set up at 8am sharp the next morning with the department’s technical director. When I walked into her office, ready to convince her she should hire me, the first words out of her mouth after “Good morning” and “It’s Friday…you look very professional but didn’t have to dress up for me,” were “Your resumé is phenomenal.”

I think I managed to squeak out “Thank you” without making it sound like a question. Then my future technical director said, “Before I offer you the position, I want to let you know what you’re walking into.” The rest of my interview focused on learning about some of the interpersonal dynamics of the department and reassuring my interviewer that, yes, I have led teams through difficult situations before and, no, I have no reservations about walking into the middle of projects that may need some cleaning up.

Upon starting my new job last October, the Way Things Worked in my new department went like this: 1) Marketers run all the projects. 2) Even though marketers run all the projects, they usually have no technical background. 3) Even though marketers usually have no technical background, they have the final say on what the lab is or is not capable of developing. 4) Our marketers believe the lab is capable of developing anything and everything.

While I appreciated the vote of confidence from our in-charge marketers, there were definitely some miscommunications and overpromises that had been made on all sorts of projects. For the first six weeks, I worked alongside one of our marketers on one of two new product platforms. Unfortunately, this product platform had been neglected for several months due to lack of resources and was in sad shape. I identified technologies that would work as product solutions, and we started assembling a technical team. Then in November, six weeks into my new job, the floor fell out from under my feet when my marketer gave two weeks notice because her husband had accepted a job offer on the East Coast. That left me navigating a major project by myself in a department where I was new, inexperienced, and still learning.

So what’s a Project Manager to do? If you are a resourceful one, you start by working with what you have. My team, all new to this project, consisted of

  • Team Member #1: Me, new to the department and all that comes with it, including how to actually commercialize a product
  • Team Member #2: New employee to the company, fresh out of graduate school without any idea of how industry works
  • Team Member #3: New-ish employee from the R&D sector, knows nothing about commercialization
  • Team Member #4: Doesn’t even know if he’s on the team, has one foot in and one foot out of the game

For the next two months, I watched our group of four pull together AS A TEAM. We dug through previous presentations, marketing data, voice of consumer, and anything else we could get our hands on. The milestone we had to hit was a project review in January, where the decision from our operating committee would be either nay or yay, go / no go on the program. While our marketers usually put together and present the project reviews, we had no marketer which meant that I put our presentation together. I knew our team was ready when one of them looked around the table at one of our weekly meetings and said, “I think we have enough.” And we did. We had four product concepts to present, and we had prototypes of each concept to demonstrate technical feasibility. The morning of our review I stood in front of twenty stakeholders in a room with a closed door, and when I was told to begin I looked to my left and saw my team sitting up front, at attention, ready to jump in when needed.

Our project passed to the next phase without question. When I asked our stakeholders for advice at the end of our review, one of them started pumping his fist in the air and said “GO! GO! GO!” The unanimous consent was to just do it.

This new product platform project is one of three that I work on. As for the other two, I am Project Manager on one (Project X, where we have an amazing marketer) and an extra pair of hands in lab for the other (Project Y). I am also responsible for generating new projects every two to three years, which means keeping my ear low to the ground with regard to internal technologies and external competitors. This is a full plate for me, but we are a small department, and most of us perform more than one function in a given day. Fortunately, we filled our empty marketer position as quickly as possible, and within a few weeks I will have a fifth person, one with solid marketing experience, on my team for our new product platform.

In a one-on-one meeting with my manager last week, we were having a frank discussion on several topics, and at one point I asked him point blank, “Who is in charge of Project X? Is it me or the marketer?” He answered, “It’s you.” I said, “Oh. OK. When our new marketer starts for my main project and Project Y, who is in charge? The marketer or the Project Manager?” He answered, “The Project Manager. You will be in charge. Project Managers run all the programs now.” This resulted in me jumping up and down in my chair and saying, “We’ve caused a paradigm shift!” He didn’t hide his smile quickly enough and replied, “Programs and projects will be run by the person who is the most qualified.”

My friend's 12 year old is preparing to jump from one turtle dyno to the other. He is about the same height I am, which means this is a big jump.

My friend’s 12 year old is preparing to jump from one turtle dyno to the other. He is about the same height I am, which means this is a big jump.

When we finished talking I promptly hopped three doors down to Project Y’s Project Manager, stuck my head in her office, and said, “We caused a paradigm shift.” When I explained why she smiled, laughed, and gave me a hug.

The important part to remember in any big jump is that you don’t do it alone. You also don’t do it until you are ready. Some people take longer than others to prepare for it, and each person jumps in his or her own way. Some people also never make the jump at all. The rules are similar to climbing, where you don’t climb alone. You have a partner who belays you. This person lets you take a rest if you get tired, provides useful advice if you get stuck, and catches you if you fall. If you climb as part of a team, like I do, over time you discover your unique team dynamics. People climb better on some routes than others. One of our team members would rather spend the majority of his time in the bouldering cave than on the top ropes, and another team member wants more experience in lead climbing. My goal is to solve the problem in front of me, which is reaching the top of the wall, with the occasional big jump included.


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The Storm

Seize the moment…I got to thinking one day about all those women on the Titanic who passed up dessert at dinner that fateful night in an effort to cut back. ~ Erma Bombeck

Right now we have freezing rain. I can hear it pitter-pattering on the roof of our house. All sorts of Minnesota media, ranging from the local news, the radio stations, and the internet have been warning us of a winter storm for today and tomorrow. At first the forecast was eight inches, then down to six, now down to possibly five overnight with one or two more in the morning. While there is as of yet no snow, the rain was starting to harden into a layer of ice on the roads when I drove down the street to pick up Yo-J and cheese for Tim about an hour ago.

Yes, I dared exit my warm and comfy home to brave the winter storm for my child whom I love. Who has been asking me for Yo-J and cheese for over a week. Not meant to be consumed together, but two staples we usually keep in our refrigerator. Let me tell you, when our local news begins warning us about a few inches of snow you would swear it’s the Second Coming. There is a mad rush to the gas stations, the groceries, and the liquor stores, and then people bunker down in their homes as if they will be snowed in for the next month. You would think it was the first time Minnesotans have seen snow.

I prepared for our winter storm by going for an outdoor run yesterday afternoon. It was a perfectly beautiful blue sky afternoon, with a temperature of around 30°F, and I simply could not help myself. I had to get out in the crisp air, and the exercise helped me sleep soundly last night. Today our storm was supposed to start at noon, and I still had not prepared for it. Instead, Tim and I spent the afternoon running around St. Paul doing several fun but unnecessary things in light of the worst storm of the winter headed straight our way.

Our first event of the afternoon was meeting with a psychologist at Tim’s school. She had contacted me about providing Tim with on-site counseling services, and I hopped up to his school at the end of his day to help her with an intake interview. Tim started out the session answering her in a monosyllabic monotone, but by the end of the hour he had started to loosen up a bit. What really helped was when his new counselor asked him which class he would most like to skip once a week so he could meet with her. His answer was, of course, “Gym.” She promised to try to plan his weekly one-on-one with her during gym class, which earned her a hard won smile from Tim.

Tim on an auto-belay.

After we left Tim’s school, we headed down the street to Vertical Endeavors. We got there at a good time in the afternoon, when all of the families with small children had gone home and the adults weren’t off work yet, and we had the facility largely to ourselves. I brought my camera this time to get some updated photos of Tim climbing so he can see what he looks like on the wall. After belaying him for a little while, I told him to take a break, watch my stuff, and I climbed on some auto-belays. Then we headed up to the bouldering chamber which we actually like doing more than climbing. Bouldering gives us more time to talk and interact with each other, but it wears us out faster as well.

Me bouldering, or at least giving the appearance of.

If you haven’t climbed before, and I am surprised how many people have not, there are some rules you need to follow. These are in addition to the basic safety rules, such as have your harness on correctly, which are in place so climbing is fun and not super scary. The main rule when you climb is to pay attention to the colors on the climbing holds. The holds are marked with different colors of tape which correspond to different routes. This is also true in the bouldering chamber, where some of the routes go across the wall, some up, and some diagonally. Some even go upside down. If you don’t pay attention to the colored tape and climb every which way you please, that is called “rainbow climbing” and is considered cheating. Please do not confuse this slang with Rainbow Climbing D.C., which is an actual climbing group.

I have been trying to encourage Tim to pay attention to the marked routes. He likes to climb on whatever hold is easiest to grab. I tell him, being rule-bound as he is, that he is supposed to pick and stick to a color, and that the lower the number, the easier the route, even though this isn’t the case all the time. Tim’s response is to get frustrated when he doesn’t go very far up the wall and tell me he isn’t having fun anymore. Since climbing is supposed to be fun (not super scary or super stressful), I decided to back off and let him do what he wants. My role as his parent is to encourage him to do his best and worry about the details later.

This afternoon I noticed Tim paying attention to the colors. Most of the routes he only got halfway up before he was ready to come down. But he was doing them the right way, even though he wasn’t able to make it to the top like when he rainbow climbs. I didn’t point out that I saw him following the routes because I didn’t want to make a big deal of it. I figured it would be something that would come with time. Tim and I also figure that a lot of the routes are set by men, because sometimes I can see which hold I need to grab next, but there is no way I can reach it…I don’t stretch that far. Tim is still two inches shorter than I am, so we are rather evenly matched right now in the area of height.

When we were done climbing we picked up supper on the way home. We don’t eat out that often, and I usually make us supper every night when I get home from work. However, we had already decided that we were going to do a special treat for food tonight. It still hadn’t started snowing or raining yet by the time we got home, and it wasn’t until after we ate that I decided I should maybe hit the grocery. Just in case the roads were a bit hard to maneuver tomorrow. I headed out as the rain was just starting to freeze up on the roads, glad that, despite the incumbent storm, Tim and I still had our afternoon of fun.


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The Toddlers Cometh

A sense of humor… is needed armor. Joy in one’s heart and some laughter on one’s lips is a sign that the person down deep has a pretty good grasp of life. ~ Hugh Sidey

I talked to Tim’s teacher this morning for the low-down on how his first two weeks at Capitol View have gone. Her report was mostly positive, with the exception of Tim being tired in the morning and becoming frustrated with some of the other students. I told her I can solve the first issue easily by putting Tim to bed earlier at night. With the second issue, the frustration issue, that has been a problem in the past and is something Tim needs to work on. One example is when Tim is paired up with another student to do an in-class assignment. If the other student doesn’t immediately understand what to do or takes too long to think, Tim becomes irritated. I told Tim’s teacher that he did mention one student in the cafeteria who talks through the entire lunch period, and she said, “Ah, yes…I know which one it is, and he does tend to talk a lot.” Helping Tim with patience will be part school, part home, where we work together to teach him coping mechanisms.

Tim does maintain a sense of humor about his irritability. When he is at home, his sense of humor is out in the open. When Tim is at school, he is more guarded and tends to hide the parts of himself he considers vulnerable. One outlet for him has been graphic art. Tim actually has a website set up where he posts his cartoons on a regular basis. Last week he and I had an incident that proved particularly amusing.

Tim and I usually have a weekly date at Vertical Endeavors. The night varies, and when we go depends on our hunger levels when I get home from work (eat before climbing or climb before eating???), how stressful my work day was, whether I have already exercised that day, and whether we are both in a mood to venture out into the night after being in our warm, comfy home. Once we motivate ourselves to get in our car and go, Tim and I always have a fun time. We look at whether any of the climbing routes have been changed, we hook him up to my belay device, and he climbs himself to exhaustion.

In the past few months we have gone climbing, we have sometimes encountered large packs of children on the climbing floor. This isn’t a problem for Tim since I can belay him and he can climb anywhere, but it is a problem for me because Tim is not old enough to belay me. This leaves me with the auto-belays which are mostly taken up when small children arrive en masse. When I go climbing with some of my adult friends, they have also noticed the occasional swarms of children, but it doesn’t bother us as much because, like Tim, we can climb anywhere.

When Tim and I went climbing last week, as we drove out to St. Paul I made a joke about how the toddlers were going to materialize the minute we put our shoes and harnesses on. While I was shoe-ing up in the changing area, Tim was standing  next to me looking around. Suddenly he leaned over and whispered something I didn’t understand because HE WAS LAUGHING TOO FREAKING HARD. I gave him a confused stare and he said, “Mom, turn around.” As I glanced over my shoulder I saw a tiny shoe next to me, on a tiny foot, attached to a tiny leg, attached to a tiny toddler. I fully looked behind me and, yes, the changing area was full of small children, almost a dozen. They were EVERYWHERE, and fortunately they had just finished climbing and were taking off their shoes and putting on their coats to go home.

I looked at Tim and started laughing, really hard, but trying not to laugh out loud as to not frighten the hordes of small children in the immediate vicinity. When we got home that night, Tim jumped on the computer and cranked out a comic strip about our adventures.

Tim's comic strip of the toddlers.

Tim may become frustrated easily and often, but at least he is learning how to handle it. Some people are wired like that. When I was growing up, I could be very impatient. One time my mother, frustrated herself, told me that I needed to learn more patience. I took her seriously and worked on being patient. I always chuckle to myself when people tell me I am one of the most patient people they have ever met because I was so not as a child. I have been told this more than once and credit my mother for that part of my personality that makes me who I am today. Hopefully Tim will do the same…absorbing what his teachers and I tell him about how to not let the small things in life get to him. To save his frustration for the larger issues that matter. With the sense of humor he has, he is halfway there already.