"Normal" Is A Dryer Setting

Parenting A Child On The Autism Spectrum


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The Beautiful Surprise

She discovered with great delight that one does not love one’s children just because they are one’s children but because of the friendship formed while raising them. ~ Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera 

Parenting has no road map because it is a unique experience for everyone involved. No two relationships are the same, and what works for one child may not work for the other. As we go through life, each of us continually becomes reshaped and redefined based on our environment and our experiences. To have an end goal for raising a child often feels like a moving target to me. When all is said and done, this is what I want for my son Tim:

I want my son

To become a responsible adult

Who is capable of holding a job and living independently

And enjoys life to its fullest

Surrounding himself with people who love him.

As Tim’s mother, I by default am one of those people who love him, and I certainly hope he wants me to be around him. Tim and I have fun together, for example

Tim and me on the way to my youngest brother's wedding.

Tim and me on the way to my youngest brother’s wedding.

We were just getting started on that afternoon. What I love most about being with Tim is that he and I share a special connection. We understand each other’s jokes, moods, body language, and communicate both verbally and nonverbally. We are in sync. We get each other. One afternoon, when I walked through the front door after a long day at work, Tim took one look at me and said, “Mom, you need a hug.” Then this teenager who has a personal space bubble the width of the Grand Canyon proceeded to walk over, put his arms around me, and squeeze. I looked up at him, my son, who is now inches taller than I am, and said, “How did you know I needed that?” He just knew.

Tim and I no longer have a parent-child relationship the way we used to when he was younger. He is the most well behaved teenager I have ever met. When I was fifteen years old my parents probably thought my primary objective was giving them heads full of gray hair and worry lines across their brow. Not the case with Tim. As a result, the relationship he and I share is evolving into something quite unexpected. We are becoming friends.

Being my son’s friend is a strange concept to me. I have always approached our relationship as his parent, which means that I am his

“Friend” was never part of the relationship until recently. Many of the words that I used to define my role as Tim’s parent also overlap with synonyms for friend, such as

Supporter

Advocate

Confidante

Encourager

While I will always be Tim’s parent, the added dimension of friendship provides a depth and roundness to the love that already exists between us. Seeing the first buds of friendship in the relationship that Tim and I share is a most wonderful, delightful, delicious surprise. One of the best that life has offered so far.


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For My Dad On Father’s Day

Dear Dad,

Right now I am grilling chicken the way I learned from watching you. I know that the heat needs to be low, that it should take about an hour, and that you wait until the last 15 minutes before basting it. I just put the chicken on, so I have some time to tell you what I am most thankful for on Father’s Day this year.

Tim and my father in 2004.

Tim and my father in 2004.

Thank you for being a constant source of support and encouragement as you watched me raise my son Tim. You are an enormous part of the reason why he is as high functioning as he is today. When Tim was two years old, undiagnosed, and constantly screamed and bit, you reminded me that he was only a toddler and he didn’t know what he was doing. I still remember our conversation, almost thirteen years later, and your words always give me pause when I become frustrated with my child. When Tim was seven, recently diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and having an extraordinarily tough year in second grade, you reminded me that he was only a child trying to make his way in the world. Your words turned me into a warrior for him, and I have never had a second thought about taking on the teachers, staff, and educators in his life if something they said or did when working with him didn’t sit right with me. Now that Tim is nearly fifteen years old, a lot of the problems he had when he was younger have gone away. You rejoice with me about how Tim’s life and mine have become much better the last couple of years. You tell me that my son will never know how fortunate he is to me as his mother, and you tell me that I have faced challenges in raising him that no one should have to go through.

The good news is that I didn’t go through this alone. You were there with me, every step of the way. Thank you so much. I love you and Tim and I are looking forward to seeing you and Mom in July.

Love Always,

Tim’s Mom 🙂


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Howie and Ya-Ya

I meant what I said

And I said what I meant…

An elephant’s faithful

One hundred percent!

~ Horton Hatches The Egg, Dr. Seuss

Happy early Mother’s Day to the invisible mothers. The ones like my sister, who came into her boyfriend’s daughter’s life when she was a newly minted infant. The baby girl is now a toddler, testing her independence, unwilling to be potty-trained, hooked on Dora the Explorer, and still learning to speak. She calls herself Howie and my sister Ya-Ya.

I was at my parents’ house last weekend in Indiana for my sister’s graduation ceremony. Ya-Ya now holds a Master’s of Science in mental health counseling, maintained a pristine 4.0 GPA throughout graduate school, and is ready to start the next chapter of her life. She is glad to have graduated because between attending classes, working as an administrative assistant in the psychology department, hostessing at an Italian restaurant, and doing an internship in her field, she is exhausted. And then there is Howie.

My sister dated Howie’s father for a few years about a decade ago. Then they separated for a while. While they were separated, he dated and unexpectedly had a baby with another woman. When that relationship ended before Howie was born, he and my sister got back in touch. They started dating when Howie was eight weeks old. My sister wisely held off on coming into Howie’s life until she turned nine months, and then she jumped in headfirst to the wild world of parenting.

Howie and Ya-Ya

Howie and Ya-Ya

My mother, Ya-Ya, and I took Howie to the park the last night I was in town. Howie’s father was at work, and Ya-Ya had her for the afternoon and overnight. We watched Howie try to play on all of the playground equipment she was too tiny for and ignore the age appropriate toddler-sized ones. Ya-Ya finally convinced her to go down the toddler slide on one condition from Howie: that Ya-Ya go with her. And that was how it was the entire time…Ya-Ya and Howie, together on everything. Howie loved having a good girls’ night out.

When it was time to go Ya-Ya turned to Mom and me and said, “The park is a two person job. It’s exhausting!” Mom and I smiled at her and agreed that, yes, the park wears you out. Howie too. She had started to fuss and cry and claim eminent domain over her favorite swing, which meant bedtime was near. Ya-Ya cheered Howie up by telling her they needed to go home for supper, a warm bath, lotion time, and three books. Ya-Ya was filling up the remainder of the evening with activities she knew Howie enjoyed and would be responsive to, much like I did with Tim and then Peanut when they were small.

Ya-Ya does not receive recognition for the role she willingly plays in Howie’s life. It is expected from her, part of the package deal that comes with dating her boyfriend. She is an invisible person in Howie’s life to everyone but Howie. To Howie, however, my sister is an enormous stabilizing force in her tiny world. The body language between Howie and Ya-Ya in the photo above says more than I could write. See how they lean in toward each other? That is unconscious on both their parts. The invisible becomes visible when you look closely.

Do you remember what hatches in Dr. Seuss’ book Horton Hatches The Egg? It’s not a bird, and not an elephant, but a hybrid mix of the two. The egg came from the bird’s body, but Horton the elephant contributed to hatching the egg as much as the biological parent. Have you ever wondered what children would look like if they took on the physical appearance of the adults who are instrumental in their lives? Think about it.

To my beloved Ya-Ya: Happy Mother’s Day.


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The Escape Artists

I packed my things and ran. ~ Mountain Sound, Of Monsters And Men

On the first day of our vacation in Mexico I inform Daniel that every time I travel to this part of the world there is a chance I will decide to stay put. A vacation to the Riviera Maya will come, in the far-off or maybe not-too-distant future, where I simply don’t come back.

Daniel: That’s odd that you say that. Another one of our friends just mentioned doing exactly the same thing.
Me: Really?
Daniel: He was serious about it. He told me you can rent an apartment in Mexico for $4000 a year.
Me: Oh my. I had no idea. You probably shouldn’t have told me that.
Daniel: We have enough money between the two of us now. If we didn’t have our boys I’d seriously consider not going back.
Me: But we have our boys…

Caribbean Sea on the Riviera Maya, Mexico

Caribbean Sea on the Riviera Maya, Mexico

The reality of the fantasy is that it becomes more of a realistic option as I age. In our youth-obsessed society, I feel that people tend to overlook the advantages of growing older, which include knowing what you want, when, why, and how you want it, and having the means necessary to achieve your goals. Tim will be an adult in three years, and Daniel will start thinking about retirement sooner than later. One day I just may make a run for the border and tell the people in my life they are either welcome to come with me or visit any time.

For now a permanent escape is not an option. Vacationing once or maybe even twice a year is sufficient, where we can leave our lives behind for a week and enjoy something completely different. There’s also nothing wrong with planning ahead, even if the end goal is decades away. Life is a marathon, not a sprint, and running a marathon takes a lot of preparation before the big day.

It was upon returning home that I received the note from my girlfriend about her niece. Reality came crashing into my mind like a bull in a china shop. Having to recall a lot of the struggles and experiences Tim and I faced when he was little is mentally painful for me. Those were difficult years, and I needed to find a balance between telling my friend the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about raising a child with special needs while emphasizing that it will be one of the most fulfilling experiences of her life.

One coping mechanism I have when I am feeling emotions such as grief, anger, stress, and frustration is to move my pain around. This is why I run, to transfer feelings of discomfort from my mind to my body. Running has a pain component which makes it both mentally and physically challenging. The pain is the good kind, however, the kind that reminds you that you are alive. For me it’s usually the bottoms of my feet that eventually start to hurt. When I am outdoors, on my trail, in the fresh air, all it takes is the first mile and every negative, toxic emotion clears out of my head. Then I run until my legs tell me it’s time to go home. Then I run a little more to push myself.

The afternoon before I called my girlfriend I knew I needed to run. There were too many black things swirling around in my head. When I returned home 75 minutes later I was mentally ready to have the conversation I needed to have with her. I showered up because Tim won’t let me near him when I’m stinky, made supper for both him and myself, and then picked up the phone to call Chicagoland.

Here’s the situation: My friend’s younger brother is married with two children. His oldest is four, and she has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Her sibling is 11 months old. The mother stays at home with the two children, and the father is on a tour of duty in Afghanistan. The mother, functioning as a single parent with an infant and a child with special needs, has suffered a mental breakdown and has been institutionalized. The grandparents are caring for the two children until more permanent custody arrangements can be made, and this is where my friend comes into the picture. Her brother had called her from overseas to ask her if she and her husband would care for his two children until he returns to the United States.

My first response was to say of course the mother had a mental breakdown. Wouldn’t you? In situations such as this one, sometimes the only escape is into your own mind. There is no vacation in Mexico. There is no long run through the sunny countryside. What you do have are small beings who need more of you than you are able to give, and sometimes it becomes too much. People break. Your brain is an organ like your heart, lungs, stomach, and skin. The danger is that injuries to the mind can be difficult to detect until they reach the level of trauma. When your brain has had enough and packs its bags, the hope is that intervention and healing are still possible.

This mother has lost custody of her children, and her marriage is also most likely over. The main concern of the family is to place both children into a stable, loving environment. I told my friend that her home is the perfect place for them. Her boys are nine and three. She and her husband are financially secure. She stays at home, and he has a good job that provides him with the flexibility to come home for lunch most days. They always have a pet or two running around and are active mentors to high school youth in the community. I can already see the benefits of this type of home environment. One of the challenges for children with Asperger’s Syndrome is socialization. You can’t get much more social than this.

I told my friend that my main problem with raising Tim has been the never-ending struggle with his schools. I understand that time, money, and resources are limited in the school system, but as a parent of a child with special needs I need to say that any form of improvement would be most welcome. I am not an angry, peevish person by nature, but some of the challenges I have faced throughout Tim’s school years have brought out a side of myself I never knew existed. I have learned to accept this as an opportunity for personal growth, and harnessing and developing this part of myself in a positive way has actually benefited other areas of my life.

My friend asked me what I think of homeschooling. I told her I think she has an excellent idea. She has never done it, but it’s an option. And options in situations such as the one she is in are good. Again, it’s like the marathon where you need to plan ahead. The end goal for her two new bonus children, in addition to the two she already has, is to raise them to be independent adults who are able to accomplish their own goals and pursue their own dreams. The independence, goals, and dreams of someone with special needs may be very different than someone else, but what we as parents want for the children in our lives, biological or bonus, is for them to believe that they are living their best lives. There is not a single, correct way to reach that. The twists and turns are what make the journey so incredibly exciting.

Ahhhhhhhhhh.

Ahhhhhhhhhh.

This past weekend was the first meeting between the two little ones and their new caregivers. I told my friend to let me know how it goes, to keep asking me questions. What I can give her in return are honest answers and perspective. I can tell her what I think I did right as a parent and what I did wrong, or should have done differently, as we say in politically correct Minnesota…after living here for 15 years I’m still learning the terminology. Hopefully an update will be in the works soon.

For now, one last picture of the Caribbean Sea.


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The Communication Gap

Any problem, big or small, within a family, always seems to start with bad communication. Someone isn’t listening. ~ Emma Thompson

Jill The Hippo, selected especially for me by my offspring.

Tim had a really good week at Camp Discovery, despite his claim that it wasn’t any fun. He even brought me a souvenir. After we had packed up and were on the road, he told me that he had won two prizes at the camp’s Carnival Night, and one of them was for me. I couldn’t imagine what he had chosen, and when we arrived at home I, never being the patient type, told him I wanted my present NOW. He presented me with a stuffed hippo wrapped in a leaf and informed me that her name is Jill.

After telling Tim that I absolutely adore my present, which I do because Jill is extremely cute, her leaf unwraps, and I love how Tim was thinking of me during his week away. I asked him why he thought I would like a hippo. He said he didn’t know, he just saw it and thought it looked like me. For now, Jill The Hippo is sitting on our piano, but I plan to bring it into work and put her somewhere in my office as a daily reminder that there will always be one person in the world who loves me and thinks about me each and every day.

Tim’s opinion on camp was interesting. He enjoyed spending time with the adults. The other campers, not so much. I asked him if he talked to any of the boys in his cabin of four, and he said no, they didn’t talk to each other. One boy cried constantly, one boy was very quiet, and one boy’s entire vocabulary consisted of Yo’ Mamma jokes. The only time the Boy Who Cried Constantly wasn’t crying was one night when Jokester Boy was lying in bed with a steady of stream of Yo’ Mamma jokes. Then the crier was laughing uncontrollably and no one was getting any sleep until a cabin leader intervened.

Communication skills are extremely important, even more so since our world has become so digital over the past decade. The amount of face to face conversations I have each day at work have slowly but surely become replaced by email, instant messaging, and the occasional phone call. If I get up from my chair and walk to someone else’s office, there is the implication of importance. The main reason why I sent Tim to camp was to force him to communicate for a week. It was not to torture him like he thought. When I picked him up, his counselors told me that he had a good time, and that he is intelligent, amazing at math, and has a great sense of humor. It sounds to me like a certain someone started communicating just fine after he adjusted to his new environment.

In case you are wondering, in Tim’s absence there was an example of communication gone awry. Here is what happens when the lines get crossed:

Daniel’s parents have been visiting for the past month. Despite all of Daniel’s pleading, his mum, who is 76 years old and still full of energy, insists on doing his laundry. She not only washes and dries everything, but it all gets ironed, even the underwear, and neatly put away. Now about the underwear…this is where the problems began. Daniel noticed that his underwear wasn’t fitting right anymore. He thought his mum was using a new detergent that for some reason stretched everything out. I was on his porch innocently grilling supper one evening, walked into his living room where he was sitting with his parents, and was accosted with the following:

Daniel: There’s a problem with me underwear.

Me: ***What…***

Daniel: Me underwear doesn’t fit me anymore. I thought me mum was using a different detergent that stretched it out.

Me (looking over at his parents, who were eyeballing me): Um. OK.

Daniel: But she wasn’t. It turns out that she was putting me dad’s underwear in me drawer, and since they weren’t fitting I was throwing them away. Me dad wears a size larger than I do.

Me: Hmm…well maybe your father needs the extra space.

I glanced over at his parents and was greeted with smirks. These are the same people who a few years ago sent Daniel a pair of Union Jack boxer briefs from Next with “100% British Beef” stamped across the waistband, so there are no worries here about offending the senior citizens in the house.

When I went outside to check the grill Daniel’s neighbor M came over. She has been busy this summer landscaping around their condominiums, and I had recommended a tree trimming service for her. While M and I were talking Daniel popped out and said to her, “You’ll never believe the conversation we’re having inside.” After he brought her up to speed, I told her that my theory on it all is that Daniel’s father needs the extra space. When  Daniel replied, “Well I don’t need a 36-inch waistband,” I said, “That’s not the kind of space I’m talking about…it’s too bad not everything is hereditary.” Then I walked back inside to tend to some deviled eggs while M nearly collapsed on the deck from laughter.

Communication is key to not only building but also maintaining relationships. It can make or break a business relationship, a friendship, a marriage, or a home. It can become especially complicated when you need to communicate news the other person may not want to hear. I admire people who go into careers such as psychology and medicine because an important part of their job is knowing how to effectively communicate negative news to another person in a positive manner. This requires tact, knowledge of how to use body language, and an enormous amount of emotional stability.

Tim’s communication skills are improving over time. Placing him in District 916 last winter for school has helped him tremendously in a short amount of time. Tim communicates well with me, but up until about six months ago that has been it. Part of the issue has been  a lack of self-advocacy on his part. Tim has to learn how to make his needs known. I left him at camp for a week so he would have to start talking and interacting with other people. When we go shopping or out to a restaurant, I usually have him speak for himself, and he usually does a good job. When he is away from me, however, I have heard from his teachers that he can have a hard time getting the words out. Tim may be making small steps in communicating with others, but at least he is moving in the right direction.

He also thought the underwear fiasco was HILARIOUS.


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The Drive-In

When I was a kid, the only way I saw movies was from the back seat of my family’s car at the drive-in. ~ Forest Whitaker

Are you a movie buff who also loves the outdoors? What better way to spend an evening than at the drive-in? Tim and I went recently, and, as usual, we had a wonderful time. The state of Minnesota has six drive-in movie theaters total, two of which are in the Twin Cities metro area. The Cottage View Drive-In, owned by Mann Theatres, is located in Cottage Grove, and the Vali-Hi Drive In is located in Lake Elmo. You can find drive-ins in your home state by logging onto www.Drive-ins.com.

Fortunately for Tim and me, the Vali-Hi Drive-In is located about five miles from our home. This is where we usually go for summer movies. The Vali-Hi Drive-In plays three movies, the first of which begins at dusk. Families drive their largest vehicles possible to accommodate sleeping bags, portable grills, and lawn chairs. Before the movie it is a common sight to see people cooking dinner, playing football in the field under the bigscreen, and generally moseying around the parking lot. This drive-in still has the speaker sets that you can hook onto your car window, but you can also stream sound through your car radio.

Tim and I usually arrive about 30-45 minutes before the first movie starts. This is an estimated time since dusk changes daily, and living this far north means that at the summer solstice dusk doesn’t happen until after 9 pm. We pop some popcorn into a paper bag, bring something to drink, and hang out. This last time we went, Tim wanted money to buy some candy from the concession booth. I figured this would be a good way to help him work on his social skills, so I handed him $5 and told him to go ahead.

Tim was gone for a while, and when he came back he had two boxes of Milk Duds and some change. I asked him if he had walked around for a little bit, and he said no, there was a LONG line of kids at the candy counter, and he was at the end. Some of the children ahead of him also had a difficult time making up their minds about their purchases. Here is what Tim exhibited during his experience:

Patience

Manners

Budgeting

Successful communication

Awareness of his environment, even though the drive-in isn’t exactly a hotbed of criminal activity.

When I asked Tim why he bought two boxes of Milk Duds instead of two types of candy, he told me that one of the boxes was for me. That melted my heart into a little puddle because I rarely buy or eat candy, but somehow Tim remembered that I like Milk Duds. In addition to all of the other social skills he practiced that evening, he also thought of what I would like.

As Tim grows older, I sometimes wonder if we will have any shared interests. When children are small it is easy to engage them since you, as their parent, are their entire world. As that world starts to broaden and branch out, however, parents can feel like they are being lost in the shuffle. The key seems to be growing along with your child and rediscovering what your common interests are.

The nice part about a drive-in movie is that it harks back to an earlier time. Older people have memories of their parents taking them to the drive-in when they were children, and now they are bringing their children to build some of those same memories. With all of our modern technology, I didn’t see a lot of people on their cell phones, iPads, or other devices. Most of them were sitting outside talking, eating, playing with their children, or simply basking in the clear warm spring evening air. Funny how the simplest things pack the biggest punch in bringing a family together.


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For My Mom

Why don’t we break the rules already? Some Nights, fun.

Last week I was at a long overdue Ladies’ Lunch Out. We are all scientists at the same company, all women, and we all needed to hop out for a quick break.

As we were eating/inhaling/devouring our food, one of us came up for air and mentioned that she was going to attend her high school reunion at the weekend. My friend sitting across from me turned to Reunion Girl and asked, “What are you going to wear?” Simple question, right? Reunion Girl gazed down at her plate, sighed, and said, “I don’t know. I don’t have anything.”

The rest of us stopped chowing momentarily out of shock because in addition to being very intelligent, beautiful, and having a delightful personality, Reunion Girl is also extremely fashionable. Anyone who can work in a lab all day and still look have runway-ready hair, makeup, and lint-free black slacks has it going on. Reunion Girl was promptly commanded by the entire table to take the afternoon off and go shopping.

She couldn’t. She had too much to do.

Which resulted in a unanimous table-wide decision that well, why don’t we ALL go and help her buy some dressy dresses? I mentioned that the Bettie Page store at the Mall of America has some divinely outstanding dresses that fit amazingly well. I bought a curve-hugging one this past spring that actually intimidated Daniel, alpha-male extraordinaire, the first time I wore it. Reunion Girl sighed again and said no, that’s not her style. I looked at her and said, “You can go as whatever you want,” which was true, since most of her classmates had not seen her in years.

Then the ideas started to fly fast and furious. Should Reunion Girl dress as the stereotypical absent-minded scientist? Or something more sultry? Or wear a granny cardigan and reading glasses attached to a chain around her neck? We were all thinking of ideas until someone yelled out

LEATHER!!! ALL LEATHER!!!

We decided that if Reunion Girl wore a leather bodysuit to her reunion the local news would report that the event was so popular even Catwoman made an appearance. At this point I was laughing so hard I was crying, and we eventually moved on to the next subject, which was Who Is Our Friend Going To Be More Or Less Successful Than At Her Reunion. And that is a mystery we may never find out.

This is my favorite picture of my mother. My father has his eyes shut, probably blinded by her beauty.

My life is so different than my mother’s. I think every woman that I had lunch with that day would agree with me. I’m not saying it’s better, or worse, but just different. Most of my female friends had mothers who were homemakers, like mine. As a child, I did not realize how much my mother sacrificed for me. I did not realize that I should be grateful that her life revolved around her children’s lives and not much else. I don’t think my mother once had lunch with a girlfriend the entire time I was growing up. For me, and for my female friends, we start to complain if we don’t formally get together at least once a month. Forget that we all work together and could see each other every day if we wanted to.

When I was small, I thought my mother was beautiful. She still is, and she will always be. I wanted to be her when I grew up. I would walk around in her shoes, wear her clothes, smell her perfume, try on her jewelry, and beg to play with her makeup. I was in love with the essence of her. Other than Tim, I’m not sure I have ever felt that way about another person.

Me styling it up in my mom’s bathing suit.

One of the things I love most about my mother is what she says about her four children: She doesn’t care what we do as long as we are happy. She doesn’t care whether we marry, divorce, or stay single forever. She doesn’t care how many children we have. She doesn’t care where we live or what we do for work. What she wants is for us to be completely satiated on life. She wants us to feel like we have pursued our dreams and ambitions, even if it is by unconventional means.

My mother is the reason why I am where I am today.

My mom taught me that anything worth doing should be done with all your heart. There is a glass ceiling where I work, not because I am a woman, but for other reasons, and for the first time we have the opportunity to shatter it. I plan on bursting it wide open without minding the cuts and scratches along the way.

My mom is the reason why I have an advanced degree, with a stable job and a comfortable lifestyle. I do not need a partner to support me financially, and I probably never will. This allows me to choose my boyfriends for how they make me feel, not for what they can give me. If I don’t like the way a man is treating me, I can walk away at any time.

My mother taught me by example how to be a mom. This is why Tim is doing exceptionally well for someone with an Asperger’s diagnosis and why I am able to be a good helper for Daniel with Peanut. From her I learned that children need unconditional love, acceptance, and guidance with a firm but gentle hand.

My mother taught me to treasure my female relationships. As I grow older, I have begun to cherish the friendships I have with other women. Having a support network of female friends has proven critical for my emotional and physical well-being. Women should build each other up, not tear each other down.

Mom, I am so happy, even if my life has had its unexpected twists and turns. Thank you so much. I love you.