Sweet Signs of Empathy (Autism)

Facebook shares memories of our posts from the past. Today it reminded me of a post I made in 2013 when my autistic son was 4 years old. The post was made only a month after we moved 900 miles from our old home in Tennessee. My son was still adjusting to his new school, but most of his fears were carried over from the school he had just left. He was afraid of the sound of whistles at recess. He was afraid of an alphabet video his teacher played during snack. Every morning was a struggle to get him to go to school because these fears were all-encompassing. He couldn’t see past them to the fun he would have. His teachers knew of these fears and took measures to not blow the whistle or play the video, but my son was still afraid. So every morning I said the same reassuring words to calm him.

On the day of the Facebook post, I had had something bad happen. I don’t remember what it was, but it had to have been bad because I was crying. I seldom get pushed to that point these days. But there I was lying in bed, crying to the point of sobbing. My son climbed onto the bed with me and pulled the blankets up so he could get under. For a while, he just stayed very still and looked at me. I probably looked strange to him with my face and eyes all red and wet from crying.

He never was one to stare, so I let him for as long as he needed to. As it turns out, he was trying to think of a way to help me stop crying. He put his hands on my face and told me the exact words I told him every morning when he didn’t want to go to school. Then he asked me to tell it back to him. We took turns saying it until we both were giggling.

“They will NOT blow the whistle today. They will NOT play the video you don’t like. They just WILL NOT do it.”

It was an amazing moment in our journey. Never believe that autistic kids do not have empathy.

 

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Expertise

My son is 7 years old. He is autistic, but he has very little interest in understanding what that means. He has more important things to contemplate like Minecraft, board games, and planning skits with his plush toys. One night this week he got out of bed and came downstairs. I was on the couch watching tv in the dark.

“I’m scared,” he said.

“Of what?” I asked.

“I heard a very weird noise and it was coming from outside my window.”

I sighed, “No, that was your dad. He was making weird noises [meowing and squirrel calls] in the bathroom which is right under your bedroom. Come over here and sit with me and he will tuck you back in bed when he gets out.”

“Yay!” He climbed up and got under my blanket to snuggle. Then he spied something on the entertainment center. “Is that a battery charger?”

“Where?”

“There,” he pointed, “It looks like a battery charger beside the Xbox. What is that?”

I couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. “I don’t know, honey. You’ll have to ask your dad. That is his area of expertise, not mine.”

“What is expertise?”

“It’s when you know a lot about something and are really good at it, like Dad knows a lot about computers and technology. What do you think is my area of expertise?”

He thought for a second, “Hmm, I think it is taking care of me.”

“You are right! I am good at taking care of you because I love doing it so much.”

I could not have been happier to know he recognized this part of me as the most important one. Yes, I am an author and spend much of my day writing. But I hope I’m always best known for other things, at least in his eyes.

Teaching Autistic Kids about Consent

My autistic son wasn’t always affectionate. As a baby, he pulled away from embraces. Looking back, I am sure there were many times I stopped breastfeeding him because I thought his turning away or crying meant he didn’t want milk. There are many, many things I misinterpreted before his diagnosis. Because of that, even today when he is 7 years old, I try really hard not to prematurely assume things about his behavior.

As a toddler, my son became much more affectionate. He liked the deep pressure he felt from hugs. He liked to drape himself over my lap and roll around. I knew he wasn’t just doing it because he loved me, but also because it served a sensory purpose. But I valued it anyway.

Now, my son is still very affectionate, but expresses much more love for us while being that way. He crawls in bed with me in the morning and rolls up in the blanket as tight as he can get it, scoots really close, and then presses his feet against my thigh, or bends his knees and presses them on my hip.

His way of expressing affection looks something like this:

“Oh, Baby bird,” He’ll say in a high pitched voice, “You are so cuuute!” He will hug whatever body part is near him, my waist or my arm or my leg or my face, and squeeze tightly (sometimes suffocatingly). “Whee!” He will say and take my long strands of hair in his hands and cross them in front of my face so that if I speak to him I will immediately have my own hair shoved in my mouth. “You are sooooo cute, Baby bird. You are just a delicate flower!”

It’s kind of like torture love. Still, I am incredibly thankful for every single word and every single (excessive) embrace.

But I have recently become aware that it is time to set boundaries. I know my son is completely innocent in his motivation. I know my son is still years behind with his social skills. I know my son has a valid excuse for not acting as his peers in regard to displays of affection. I am in no way saying that his actions should not be viewed through the lens of autism.

But he can’t kiss people. He can’t go to school and embrace his peers and kiss them because he loves them. That might be okay at age 3. It’s not okay at age 7, autistic or not.

I happen to be quite firm in my belief that everyone should be taught to respect consent. You might have noticed from my other blog posts that I am very concerned about the effects of sexual abuse and assault. I incorporated this concern into my parenting by personally asking permission before kissing my kids and allowing them to request physical space, even in an argument, if they think we are standing too close. I have done this with my son especially.

“Can I kiss your cheek?” I’ll ask.

My son will nod or he may tell me no. I respect his answer.

But now the roles are reversed. My son has a new found joy in kissing. It is absolutely a sensory thing. It is absolutely fueled by his autism. I am not faulting him for this. But, I have to address it.

Personally, I don’t mind it so much because I know it *is* sensory. But will everyone know this? No, absolutely not. No one except his family will permit it. That is reason enough to take on the challenge of teaching him about personal space. But in addition to people not accepting that behavior, there are also people who will be triggered by it because they have been abused. Even scarier, this behavior makes children easier to victimize.

Here are the actions I have taken and the rules I’ve established. We will see in the coming weeks what effect this has:

  1. Define personal space and explain why it’s important to respect it with everyone. Let him hear me use the phrase “personal space” where it applies in other conversations, such as when disciplining his sisters for fighting or roughhousing.
  2. Rule: “Ask first before hugging or kissing.” As badly as I want his hugs and as much as I do *not* want to push him away, I do it anyway and make him ask first. I do not expect this to deter him from hugging or kissing. He is seeking that sensory input, so if the rule is he must ask first in order to get it, he will ask. (This is my hope, we shall see.)
  3. Rule: “Do not hug or kiss anyone, ever, at school.”. Perhaps I should make this rule more broad. But because school is the immediate concern, I am keeping it focused on that. Once he accepts this rule for school, I will broaden it to include other places he goes.
  4. Rule: Kisses can only go on cheeks, foreheads, or hands. Nowhere else.
  5. When he asks, “Can I kiss you?” I tell him where and how many times. I do not simply say “yes” or he will machine gun kiss wherever is closest. I say, “Yes. You can kiss my cheek two times.” He does, but will simultaneously grab some strands of my hair and cross it over my face when he’s done. So… we’re still working on that. (BTW, I plan to solve this hair issue by whacking most of mine off. It would be one less distraction.)
  6. Make a suitable consequence. I am not trying to teach him that kissing is equally bad as hitting. So the consequence is something like, “You will lose ten minutes of electronics time.” It’s not a big deal, but it does get his attention enough to make him think about his actions. Ideally, I want him to follow these rules because he understands the importance of personal space, not because he’s afraid of losing electronics time. But, you and I both know it’s not that easy with most kids. If I sense that he begins to do it just to cause a negative reaction, then bigger consequences will apply.

I write about a lot of things here, not always Autism. But this particular topic is for the parents of autistic kids who follow my blog. Despite writing about many topics, most of my readers find me through searches about autism, about which I am no expert. I simply share my own experiences and what little bit of knowledge I glean from raising my son and hope it helps others. If anyone else (parent, teacher, or autistic) has something to add about this topic, please feel free to post a comment. I’m curious to know if you have dealt with this, what has worked, or what did not. Your insights are just as valuable as mine. ❤

Call Me By My Name

Let’s talk about name calling and why people do it. We’ll start with something that happened this weekend.

A boy came to our Minecraft server and broke apart something my daughter built. (These kids are 11 & 12 years old.) He said he thought what my daughter built wasn’t very good and he could do it better. My daughter then banned him from our server. A few minutes later she logged onto a Skype call with this boy and some mutual friends. They were all playing Minecraft on this boy’s server. When he saw my daughter’s name pop up as being available on Skype, he said, “Oh, great! Here comes the Drama Queen.”

My daughter spent the next hour, and parts of the next few days, defending herself. She repeatedly told me all the ways she is not a Drama Queen.

But that is not the point, at all. Truth be told, the boy was already generating more drama by taking what was a personal interaction and broadcasting his accusations to a group of kids not previously involved.

I said to her, “In your lifetime, boys are going to call you much worse. Girls will do it, too. Why do you think they do it?”

She didn’t have an answer. But I do. This is basically what I told her:

Think of a photograph of a girl you don’t know very well. If, above the photo there is the word “Jane”, you will see her as just a girl like you. You might be curious to know more about her. But if instead of “Jane” there is the word “Drama Queen”, you will already judge her before knowing her.

Name calling is not about saying a word that hurts to hear. Name calling is about erasing the person and replacing her individuality with a stereotype. It’s easier to convince people not to like Drama Queens, Cheaters, or Sluts. If someone can manage to take away your name and replace it with a slur, whatever negative thing they say about you after that is more likely to be believed. Essentially, they are weakening your influence and limiting your power.

Is that 12 year old boy aware of this or is he mimicking society? I guess the answer could go either way. But the end results of the behavior are the same.

Without critical thinking skills, people believe the negative things they hear. Even if they don’t believe it, they may still laugh and go along with it. No one wants to say my daughter isn’t a Drama Queen because to argue about it might make them a Drama Queen, too. Even my own daughter is reluctant to object because objecting is exactly what Drama Queens do.

To relate to this as an adult woman, consider the last time someone called you a bitch just because something upset you, and then acted like the fact you didn’t like being called a bitch was proof the label fit.

A further example is the stereotype of “Angry Black Woman”. This label has been used to effectively discredit valid arguments from Black Women for years. It tries to erase power which in turn will erase passion and ultimately results in silence.

Name calling is NOT just a word hard to hear. We know this. That’s why name calling mostly occurs when talking to other people than the person being labeled. It is an extremely powerful and effective way of erasing individuality, erasing personhood, erasing the legitimacy of words yet spoken. By simply introducing someone as a label instead of their name, I can create a bias with which you will filter their words. You may refuse to listen to them at all. But then how will you know if I lied?

Only critical thinking will set us free.

I told my daughter that I have no friends with whom I have never disagreed with at some point, even after 42 years. Disagreements are not the problem and will not ruin friendships. I’ve even had many friends use the same tactics on me that this boy used on my daughter. Long ago, I probably did the same to them.

“That doesn’t make it’s right to do it. I’m just saying you probably can’t stop people from doing it to you. It’s going to happen again. Keep being you and realize WHY they are doing it and don’t be so quick to give up your power. Don’t name call in return.  If someone doesn’t care about you or how you feel, just let them go.”

I know it’s easier said than done. I look at social media and I’m well aware of how many people continue to name call strangers they’ve never met in exactly the same way a 12 year old would. Even worse, they often jump on the bandwagon to judge someone they’ve never met simply because of a label someone else gave.

I am not great at remembering names. Sometimes I have to ask for a reminder again and again. But I promise I’ll always see a person as an individual, even if I have nothing in common other than our humanness. I promise to let my kids see this about me and hope it spreads. I don’t know what else I can do.

What about you? Have you found any other ways of dealing with problems like this?

The Very Best Boy Goes Back to School

Today is the first day of the school year. My girls were happy about that. My son, not so much. He is going into second grade this year and has been dreading it since the last day of school last year (forever, actually). Last week we had a Meet-the-Teacher Night. He seemed eager to take in everything: the layout of the room, the names on the desks, the beanbag chairs in the corner, the lost and found area, the posters of space. I think, at that moment, he was looking forward to going to school. So it isn’t that he hates school. It’s that school is hard work and a place with endless possibilities for something to go wrong.

Last night when I tucked him into bed for the second time, I noticed (again) just how much he has grown. His big brown eyes looked up at me, unusually focused and searching. Normally at bedtime he talks to his toys and ignores me. But not last night. He needed me to calm his nerves.

Me: “Do you remember when I used to tell you all the time that you were the best boy? My favorite boy? You still are.”

Son: “The best one?”

Me: “The very best one in the whole universe.”

Son: “Why am I the best?”

Me: “Because you are witty, and smart, and you work so hard at everything you do.”

Son: “And I am creative?”

Me: “Yes. You are very creative. You come up with so many great ideas that I would never even thinking of.”

He nodded and his eyes widened: “I am the very top. The best little boy.”

Me: “Yes.”

Son, whispering: “Wow!”

He went to sleep fairly easily after that.

This school year, there will be many challenges for him. There will be a lot of things other kids seem to do easily which he will struggle to complete. But, there will also be things my son will do above and beyond what his classmates can do.

I don’t know if my son can see the big picture, that everyone struggles and that everyone has someone who thinks they are the very best. Right now, the big picture doesn’t matter. All that matters is that my son knows I believe in him.

Writing in Summer is like Swimming Upstream

In this blog post, I answer: What’s going on with you now? What are you working on?

I am doing research for my next novel. But I will not begin writing it until my kids go back to school. There are many weeks left between now and then. My days are filled with the actual sounds and mimicked sounds of Angry Birds video games. That would be my 7yo. And then every few hours, my 11yo walks into the room to say “Hi, Mom” in a way that means, look at me because I’m wanting you to notice my hair is different or my makeup is nice or I’m wearing a cool bracelet. My 10yo walks in, too, nonchalantly and wanders over to look over my shoulder to see what I’m doing.

When no one is around, I’ll sneak in some typing (usually for social media). As soon as the sound of my fingers tapping keys fills the rare moment of silence, it is inevitable that one or more of them will step into the kitchen and call out, “Mom, I’m hungry. When are we eating?”

I’m pretty sure that trying to write the complex story in my head at this time, with a house full of kids, would push me over the edge. It would make for a miserable summer for me and them. I’ve worked really hard to stop wanting more than I could reasonably obtain for the sake of my own peace and happiness. I know my limit, can feel it in the pit of my stomach when I’m nearing it.

Fighting through the chaos is good for parenting, cleaning up messes, teaching important lessons, or any other job which does not require entering a semi-dream state and accessing every emotion within oneself.

So, I’m not writing my novel. But I think about the characters every day like they’re family. The next novel will be about two boys, one on the autism spectrum. I think about the autistic character most, though he is not the main character. I ask him, daily, what it is he wants and what he doesn’t want. Most of the time he ignores me and goes about his day, which is just as helpful as literally answering me. I think of him in different scenarios and decide which ones he’s comfortable in and which ones he isn’t. It will probably take me the rest of the summer to know him well enough to begin this story.

In the meantime I am writing a few blog posts (hello), reading a lot of books by other indie-authors, and on rare occasions I’m writing short stories. I started a collection a few months ago and recently opened the file to read over what I had so far. I had forgotten just how important that project was to me when I began it, a series of tales focusing on the rich and poor. I thought, “I was on to something.” And then all these other ideas popped into my head. So, I’m writing a few of those when I have a moment (I wrote three paragraphs today before someone said, “hi, mom”). I don’t anticipate that particular work being ready to publish for a very long time, though. I’ll be lucky to write a handful of short stories (unedited) by summer’s end. But it might be something to expect sometime near the end of 2016.

And that’s it. My WIP is to survive summer, think a lot, and try to write just enough not to forget how it’s done.

What about you? Are your summers more or less productive?

Grocery Shopping with Autistic Kids

My son earns a $1 for pushing the shopping cart in the grocery store. This is part of his Occupational Therapy homework I came up with after watching him crash a shopping cart into five things in under two minutes. I made a deal with him. If he can navigate the cart at a slow pace without hitting anything, he earns one dollar. If it is a long store visit (over 30 minutes), I give him the choice of continuing and earning a second dollar.

Before we started doing this, he would stand on the lower bar of the shopping cart and lean his back against my chest while I pushed him around. He made zero effort to hold himself upright and was very much like a rag doll. He had no reason to pay attention to anything, not even his own safety. He left it up to me to keep him from falling. So, it was a real workout for me to shop with him. When I finally decided he’d have to walk on his own, because an almost-seven-year-old boy should be able to do that, he was still hungry for that pressure he got while standing on a bar and pressing against me or draping himself over my arms.

Pushing a shopping cart also gives him pressure, but there is focus and effort involved. It is not as easy as it looks. Both hands have to push with different pressure to steer, and the force used to push forward must be balanced with ones ability to turn left and right. My son really wanted the money, or he would have given up. And, today when we got a cart which constantly veered left, he did give up.

His behavior in the store is greatly improved when he is given this task. He is present, in the moment, and actually enjoys the challenge as long as he is having a certain level of success. Being successful is really important.

When we finish filling up the cart, I also ask him to help unload everything at the checkout. His willingness to help me is greater if he has been helping push the cart than if he has been riding on it.

I hope this idea is something that will work for you and your child. Every little bit helps. Is there anything you do while shopping with your child to serve a double purpose?