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From Inside the Puzzle: Raising a Child with Autism Blog

The Lego Movie
August 26, 2014 9:28 AM by Devon Alley
It hasn't always been easy to get A. to watch new movies. Even now, she still doesn't like going to the theater, and whenever anyone makes a suggestion of a movie for her to watch, she'll still watch several scenes from the film on YouTube before she will sit down and take in the whole movie in order to be better prepared. However, she is much more willing to watch movies I suggest. I guess we've had so much success with movies I've suggested in the past that she finally trusts my tastes. In addition to that, she has finally started suggesting her own choices for us to watch.

To be fair, I've done a lot over the years to encourage movie viewing. We've never been a big television family, so it's rare to see the TV on at all during the day and, in fact, when we go to other houses, A. requests that the TV be turned off, simply because she's not used to it. So, in order to get her to enjoy watching stuff together as a group, I've always made "movie night" a big deal we always order her favorite pizza (cheese) from her favorite delivery service (Domino's), and we always pile up together on the couch to watch the film. Sometimes, I may also add Coca-Cola and popcorn into the mix. It's a sort of a bribe, of course, but it's also just become part of the "movie night" routine over the years and I look forward to these treats just as much as A. does.

Recently, A. expressed interest in seeing the new Lego movie. This was interesting for a couple of reasons. Number one, it's a relatively new film, and A. doesn't usually show much interest in pieces of new cinema. Number two, it wasn't a suggestion that came from me. (I suspect it may have been a suggestion from one of her Internet friends, but I don't have data to confirm that suspicion.) At any rate, we watched The Lego Movie as a recent family movie night pick, and we all fell in love with the film.

I don't want to give anything away for anyone who may not have already seen the movie, but there are parts of the film that are very emotional. They aren't emotional in a very blunt or obvious way. The film uses subtlety to tug at your heartstrings in certain places and make you think about relationships between parents and children, and what a vital role imagination plays in that capacity. I looked over to my daughter during this part of the movie, and she was wiping away tears. It was amazing to me that she was showing such an appropriate emotional reaction. It was at the appropriate point in the film, it wasn't "over the top," and A. commented on how the film made her feel. A. has a tendency to gravitate to pure comedy because other emotional reactions have made her feel uncomfortable in the past. The fact that she was able to parse this information without issue was surprising and heartwarming.

After watching a movie, A. always asks us what our favorite parts are to a film. She wants us to let her know what our favorite scenes are, and often she'll try to steer us in the direction of a very specific response if we say we like a specific type of character development that's more dramatic, for example, she'll ask again, "but what was your favorite FUNNY part of the movie?" A. always has a series of comedic scenes that she considers her favorite, and the process of asking us about our favorite scenes is often a thinly veiled excuse to talk about her own.

After watching The Lego Movie, A. asked us about our favorite scenes. I rattled off one of the more comedic moments when Benny was obsessed with building a spaceship and Thomas chimed in with a more dramatic scene. Then, as always, we turned the question around to A.

"I don't know," she said. "I liked all of it."

Thomas and my mouths dropped open. This is the sort of response we'd often given A. in the past, but we'd finally abandoned that tactic once we realized that she wanted to talk about specific comedic scenes. A. impressed us with the level of maturity she was demonstrating, and my heart felt warmed by her reaction to the movie.

Of course, that didn't stop us from later talking about our favorite comedic scenes, and it didn't stop A. from quoting passages from the film over and over again. And it didn't stop any of us from singing "Everything is Awesome" all of the time for weeks afterwards.



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You'll Always Be My Little Girl
August 20, 2014 11:47 AM by Devon Alley
I know it sounds crazy, but before K. was born, I was actually a little worried about the love I would have for both of my daughters. When A. was first born, I was absolutely overwhelmed by just how much I loved her I could have never imagined I would love someone so fully, completely, and unconditionally. Before K. was born, I was a little nervous what if I didn't have that same overwhelming feeling of love? What if I loved my new daughter less, or what if I loved her differently somehow? What if my love and excitement for my new daughter affected the love I had for A.? I had this concept in my head that love was a nonrenewable resource that there was only so much that could go around, and the more individuals I needed to sustain with that love, the less love there would be to go around. When I confessed all of this to Thomas later, he was amused that such things were even a worry for me at all. Still, there was a nagging fear I could not completely shake until the situation materialized, until K. came into the world.

And, of course, the love didn't change. I still loved my eldest daughter as fiercely as ever. I still fell madly in love with my new daughter much the way I had with her sister fifteen years ago. But one thing I didn't expect was the fact that I would still think of my eldest as "my little girl." I thought this situation would cause a natural sort of graduation that I would stop babying my eldest daughter so much, that I would start to think of her more as a young adult. As it turns out, I still have plenty of room in my heart for two "little girls," and I still think of A. as the same wild-haired, wide-eyed child that stumbled over her faerie language with an otherworldly grace. Don't get me wrong I could not be more proud of the young woman A. is becoming. Every day, I delight in some new way she's growing up into an independent person. However, there's always going to be a small part of me that will forever see her as seven years old, giving some strange speech about cheese and love as a toast for a friend's wedding.

Even though my arms are often full with her two-month-old sibling, there are still times when it's just the two of us. Sometimes, when I wake A. up in the morning to get her ready for school, I just snuggle her for a long minute. Sometimes, I sneak into her room and sit on the end of her bed and ask her a million inane questions that only the mother of a teenage girl can ask, and she'll dutifully roll her eyes and respond with exasperated sighs.

Sometimes, when she's gone visiting her grandmother for two weeks, I decorate the house with balloons and ridiculous "Welcome Home" signs on the day she returns.

The point is, just because there's a new little girl in my life, that doesn't change the fact that A. was my first little girl, and that doesn't change the image I have of her in my heart at all. If anything, it's made the emotions even more pronounced. K. serves as a daily reminder of the baby A. used to be. At the same time I'm delighting in K.'s ongoing milestones and ultimate cuteness, I'm reminiscing about what A. was like at this same stage in life. I'm remembering the time when she was so tiny I could carry her around my mother's apartment in my arms, when I would obsessively watch her sleep, when I would read excerpts of the Odyssey to her as she sat in her bouncy seat. Fifteen years separates the two experiences, and they are both very different and unique babies, but they are still both my little girls A., who taught me the meaning of unconditional love, and K., who is teaching me that unconditional love is also infinite, and that there is no limit to the room I have in my heart for these two amazing people.

A. will be turning fifteen in a couple of days. We're having conversations about driving permits, about dating, about being a freshman in high school. In three more years, she'll be a legal adult, and I know just how quickly that time is going to fly by. But I also know that, as much as it may annoy her, there will always be some small part of me that will see her as seven years old. No matter how much she grows and how old she gets, she'll always be my little girl.



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Underwhelmed by Theatre Camp
August 14, 2014 1:52 PM by Devon Alley
Last summer, I enrolled A. in an acting class at a local community college, and she absolutely had a blast.

In fact, I would even hypothesize that the experience was part of the reason she became so interested in acting during the 8th grade, which of course led to her taking so much interest in the school's production of Wizard of Oz. Since she seemed to be honing her inner theatre geek, I thought I would continue the trend this summer. She had outgrown the age range for the acting class she took last year, but I found a local theatre group that was holding drama camps throughout the summer for different age ranges, and I thought it would be something that A. would enjoy.

Unfortunately, A. was incredibly underwhelmed by the entire experience.

The theatre itself was small and independent, so it lacked the grandiosity of the large community college stage she was allowed to play on last year. The theatre was also in a state of transition having recently changed locations, and I think that A. struggled somewhat with this. On her first day, she wanted desperately to tour the building, and was full of questions. Many of the doors had signs on them "The Studio," "The Green Room" and she wanted to know what these rooms were for. The teacher a very sweet and honest guy admitted that the rooms were mostly just for storage for the time being, and that they wouldn't be doing a tour because there wasn't much to see other than the stage area where they would be working. I think A. was disappointed from the very beginning.

The workshop itself seemed a lot more centered on polishing styles and preparing students for auditions as opposed to just having fun with drama and creating a production. A. struggled a great deal with some of the exercises she was asked to do since she didn't seem to see the point of them they were focused on long-term goals, and A. tends to stay focused on the immediate results of any action. Instead of working on a larger production (her last class broke up Aesop's Fables into smaller scenes and interlocked them together) the class focused on separate, small scenes. There was still a production at the end that I got to watch, but A. didn't really seem to have her heart in it, and while she did a very good job, she rated the experience overall as just being "okay."

At the end of the day, the workshop was focused on professionalism and refinement, and I imagine it just demanded a level of maturity and future-thought that A. hasn't quite developed yet, and as such it was difficult for her to understand the importance and usefulness of what she was learning.

To be fair, there may have been other factors influencing her experience, as well. Her baby sister was only a few weeks old at the time, and I was still in the middle of postpartum exhaustion. Needless to say, our household was a little more than chaotic (fortunately, I had the help & support of my mother-in-law which helped make things a little less crazy.) She was beginning to complain about being bored, and was getting anxious to visit her grandmother since they had plans to visit the beach and go on excursions to local amusement parks. She had also been spending almost all of her time chatting online with her friend in California an obsession which seems to have finally been tempered somewhat with the start of the school year. These things may have also worked to hinder her enjoyment of the class somewhat.

Still, I wish she'd better enjoyed her time at theatre camp. It was something she was greatly looking forward to attending, and it was one of the many activities I'd set up for her over the summer to remind her just how much I loved her and how important she was to me. Hopefully she'll be able to get involved with the drama department at her high school and find some enjoyment there. And, of course, there's always next summer!


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The Trouble with the Zombie Apocalypse
August 5, 2014 9:47 AM by Devon Alley
My mother made a very accurate observation about A. recently. She said, if we ever did have the misfortune of experiencing a zombie apocalypse, A. would have a very very difficult time. I'm certain it goes without saying that everyone would have a very difficult time during a zombie apocalypse, and also that a zombie apocalypse is extremely unlikely, but there have been a couple of recent "disaster" situations that have highlighted just how much more work we really need to do with A.'s coping skills.

We had some pretty intense storms pass through East Tennessee a little over a month ago, right before K. was born. One of these storms knocked a tree over into a power line right down the road from us, and because of this our power went out for an entire evening. No lights, no air conditioning and, of course, no computer, and no Internet. You would have thought the world was coming to an end. A. can deal with power outages that last maybe an hour tops, but once it goes beyond that, she begins to really panic. Part of it is simply not being able to prepare for what is going to happen next having no way to determine when the power will come back on is something close to torture for my eldest daughter. Most of it, however, is being cut off from the things she enjoys the most chatting on the Internet with friends, watching silly videos and also being cut off from her default coping activities listening to music and making digital art on the computer. She does have access to a lot of these items on her iPhone, but she also has an intense phobia of her iPhone running out of power which brings us to her next complication with a possible zombie apocalypse.

A. absolutely cannot stand the idea of her iPhone losing its charge. Now, this really should not be a problem her iPhone, like most models, is capable of holding a charge for hours, even under heavy usage. It's not like her phone runs out of juice at an alarming rate. Still, A. is absolutely terrified of her phone just stopping and "going dead" without her being able to control it. Once her phone dips down below 75% charge, if she isn't able to plug it up, she'll turn the phone off usually while loudly complaining that her iPhone "is about to go dead." Thomas and I have hypothesized that maybe it's the term "going dead" that distresses her so much that the visual image associated with the death of her iPhone causes her such intense anxiety that she can't deal with it. It may also be that she simply doesn't trust the indicators, and the idea that the machine may shut off at any moment is just too much for her to handle. Maybe she hates the fact that the indicator goes red and she gets a notification if she dips below 20%. Despite the fact we've tried to explain to her that she has hours of battery charge left in her iPhone at these times, she simply cannot deal with it unless her iPhone is plugged up to a power source. It's one of the more frustrating issues on long trips, as my mother found out when A.'s iPhone cable stopped working on their way to the beach a few weeks ago.

In addition to power outages and iPhone charges, A. apparently also struggles whenever water is no longer available. My mother has well water, and while A. was visiting her, a component in the well stopped working and they were without water for an evening. I was not there, but I understand that A. was a little freaked out about the situation. My guess is that it was interfering with her routine and the usual way of doing things, and that she was having trouble figuring out how to adapt to the situation. Thankfully, my mother is really good at adapting to strange situations, and she was able to show A. that they could melt ice for water to make macaroni and cheese, and she was able to get hand sanitizer so A. could use that to wash her hands. Still, it's a third strike that would cause incredible problems if we ever had to deal with a loss of utilities in the face of some sort of intense world event.

We are very fortunate, and very lucky, to live in the neighborhood we do, in the part of the world where we do, with the resources we have available. A. is fortunate to have to deal with these sorts of situations rarely if ever. That being said, and with all kidding aside, it's definitely an opportunity for us. A. really could use more coping skills in these areas, and could really benefit from learning to flex her creative problem solving abilities in the face of unforeseen circumstances. To a certain degree, this is absolutely related to A.'s autism especially with her tendency to "melt down" in the face of uncertainty. The panic she feels is real and is pronounced, and I am quick to do whatever I can to ease the issues for her when they come up.

But, to another degree, this is also generational. My grandparents knew how to "live off the land," from growing food to cleaning fish to canning vegetables, while I know very little about these skills, and my children will know even less. Certainly necessity is the mother of invention, and we are fortunate to not have had to deal with situations that forced us to learn such skills. That being said, I can't help but feel as if we're losing some valuable skill-sets. With the erosion of time and the commodity of convenience, it's possible we're becoming much less capable of navigating basic problems. As parents, perhaps we can think up some new ways to exercise these muscles and help challenge our children to think creatively and constructively. And, hopefully, we won't have to deal with a zombie apocalypse any time soon.


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Steampunk Explorations
July 29, 2014 2:35 PM by Devon Alley
A couple of weeks before her little sister was born, we decided to take A. to a Steampunk Carnivale that was in town. We'd never been to one before, but the event was organized to exhibit art, gadgets, and games related to Steampunk culture, and there were tons of people in costume. A. even dressed up a little with a pair of shoes her grandmother had given her as a Christmas present, and we headed to the event to see what all in entailed. Despite a few complications, A. seemed to have a very good time.

First of all, the event was outside, which means that it was fairly warm, and was also at the mercy of bugs and other flying critters. I was nervous that this would cause A. to not enjoy the activities, but she seemed to adjust okay. Fortunately, the event was taking place in a large parking lot under a bridge, so there wasn't very much "nature" to pester A. Secondly, the food vendors were a little exotic, serving Indian food and gyros, which of course were not appealing to A. in the slightest. Thankfully, one of the vendors was also serving hot dogs, so A. was able to chow down on a food item that is on her limited menu. Of course, there was her fabled "cola," so she was a happy clam as far as that was concerned. Thirdly, while there were many booths and vendors, there wasn't a whole lot of activity or "things to do." Also, the really interesting entertainment (fire dancers, etc.) wouldn't happen until later in the evening, and we hadn't planned on staying that long.

After about an hour of wandering around, looking at things, and eating, A. was ready to call it quits and go home. True to form, I was able to push her outside her comfort zone and have her stay an additional hour since there was some vaudeville-style entertainment I wanted to see, personally. Since we gave her a very clear limit, she had no problem staying the extra time. In fact, she took the opportunity to wander around the carnivale on her own, and she actually had a lot more fun exploring the booths and entertainment sans parental figures.

Any type of event is a sort of a balancing act when it comes to A. She will enjoy herself, but you almost have to "force" her to do things that you know she will enjoy. It's tricky, because you don't want to push her to the point of frustration, but you also want to push her enough so that she'll actually experience something, since her default mode is to avoid new experiences entirely. I have a few things that I tend to do that help out in situations like these:

1. Give her time to get adjusted to her surroundings. We probably walked the perimeter of the carnivale two or three times before I started encouraging A. to actively participate in some of the activities. She needed that time to decompress, to assess the environment, and to mentally prepare herself for the sensory input and the social interaction that would happen for the next few hours.

2. Give her a set time that things will end. A. has a tendency to almost immediately ask, "so, when are we going home?" whenever she's doing something new. It's easy to interpret this as she's bored, or that she isn't enjoying herself. And, in fact, if she isn't given a specific end time, she will often obsess over this to the point where she won't enjoy herself, and she'll keep asking every five minutes if it's time to go yet. However, if she knows specifically when the event will end, she will generally find something to do that she enjoys hence the whole point of the event in the first place.

3. Bribe her. On the whole, I do not resort to this nearly as much as I have in the past, but it's very easy to bribe A. especially with food, sweets, or "cola." If there's a behavior I want, or something I want her to participate in, I can usually promise her a trip to McDonald's or Pizza Inn to get her in check. It's almost a "last resort" in a sense, but it can be very effective. She's almost as motivated by her sweet tooth as her mother!

So how did this play out for the Steampunk Carnivale? A. really enjoyed an event that was WAY out of her comfort zone. She enjoyed seeing everyone in costume, and she appreciated the compliments she received for her own garb (strangers stopped to take pictures of her shoes.) She blew bubbles, walked a "tightrope," and played ball with robots created by the local STEM Academy (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.) She even found a person to quote Monty Python with for a few minutes. Even though we didn't stay at the event very long, she still had a very good time, and we learned a little more about how things were scheduled, what exactly she enjoys, and how we might best maximize that time next year.



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Big Sister
July 14, 2014 3:54 PM by Devon Alley
On the morning of June 20th, 2014, my amazing daughter A. became a big sister as we welcomed my new daughter, K., into the world. The past two weeks have been a pretty incredible journey, and I've been very proud of how well A. has handled all of the chaos, change, and transition. To be perfectly honest, there have been several things that have surprised and delighted me about watching A. come to terms with being a big sister.

Probably one of the most touching factors was how concerned A. was for my own wellbeing during and after the surgery. Before K. was born, I never got the sense that A. truly grasped the gravity of the situation. However, as usual, she obviously understood much more than I thought. The morning of the surgery, I climbed into her bed for a few minutes and just cuddled her, something that I don't normally do, but I wanted her to understand how much I loved her, and I wanted to be close to her for a little while since I was going to be in the hospital for several days. This was something she hadn't previously understood, and that may have been what caused her to start to worry. She waited with me in the Labor/Delivery/Recovery suite before the surgery on the recommendation of my mom, which I think was a very good move. She definitely needed some reassurance that everything was going to be okay. Whenever the nurses came in throughout my stay there, she seemed apprehensive and nervous, concerned about my own health as well as K.'s. If they said something she didn't understand, she'd ask what was wrong, or what was going on. She'd almost fly into a panic if it seemed like something wasn't absolutely perfect. I don't think I've ever seen her more visibly relieved as when we finally arrived back home safe and sound. I think she rested much better after we were all under the same roof again.

After K. was born, I had Thomas go get A. and bring her back to the LDR suite with us so she could spend a little bit of time just taking it all in and bonding. I didn't expect her to be that interested in her little sister she's just a boring baby at this point, after all but A. wanted to see her immediately, was very adamant about welcoming her to the world, and exclaimed to her upon first seeing her that she was a little bundle of adorableness, and that she should not ever change. We spent a few minutes in the recovery room, just the three of us, taking a minute to process that we'd just added another tiny member to our crazy and quirky family. Then we invited the rest of our relatives to meet K. before they took her off to the nursery to be cleaned, poked, prodded, and assessed.

A. joined the rest of the family to watch K. from outside the nursery window as she got her first bath and the doctors started their assessments. Obviously, I stayed behind in the recovery room, but my family sent me pictures of A. standing at the window to the nursery, interested and attentive, concerned with all the pokes and prods the doctors were giving her, and participating in the conversations with the other adults. When they brought her back from the nursery, A. came back to the room, patted her head, and cooed and awed over her a little before returning to her teenage headphones and deciding it was time to go home.

Throughout the next several days, A. did quite a few things that surprised me. She picked out a present to bring to K. in the hospital. It was a jack-in-the-box of the Guess How Much I Love You rabbit, and she seemed very interested in showing the present to K., and slightly disappointed that K. didn't seem more impressed. She wanted to hold K., and she did, even though the one time was enough for her and she has since been content with patting her on the head and grabbing her tiny hand with a finger to shake it. When we came home from the hospital, my mother decorated the house and also drew welcome signs on the driveway. A. decided she wanted to add her own message, so she came outside (which she never does, because she is so terrified of bees) and drew an additional message welcoming K. to the family. And one day, shortly after we arrived home, Thomas and I had K. in the crib and the baby monitor on, and A. went into the room where K. was lying down and she told her, "Welcome to the family," which we would not have heard at all if we hadn't been listening to the baby monitor. One day I said we were going to the doctor, and A. was concerned about who was going to look after K. while we were gone. I couldn't resist, and I said, "well, you are, of course." I quickly let her know I was kidding, and A. informed me that she would be perfectly okay with looking after K. once she's a little older in a couple of years or so maybe when she's 5 or 6. I told A. that I thought that was probably a very good plan.

On the whole, A. has definitely taken much more interest in her little sister than I thought she would, and is taking the role of Big Sister a lot more seriously than I expected. She's constantly concerned that she's going to disturb her somehow (thankfully, neither one of the girls seems to disturb the other; A. sleeps blissfully through K.'s late-night squalls, and K. doesn't even flinch at A.'s loud and enthusiastic singing, quoting, and chatting from across the hall.) At three weeks, the newness has worn off somewhat, and A. seems resigned to the fact that K. will not be very interactive for several months, but she's handling the inevitable changes in routine very well she just complains about being bored more than anything. She was initially weirded out by my breastfeeding, but it seems as if she's come to terms with that somewhat, as well. Considering that so much of my anxiety about K.'s arrival was wound up in how A. would react to the change, I could not have asked for a better outcome. I definitely wasn't expecting her to be this excited about a new baby sister.

She still has a pretty awesome summer ahead. Theater camp, visiting her grandmother in North Carolina, a trip to the beach, a trip to an amusement park she may be complaining about being bored now, but I don't think that's going to last. I'm looking forward to sharing more of her adventures soon and really looking forward to having the time to share the adventures!













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Conversations While Swimming
June 17, 2014 10:15 AM by Devon Alley
I know I've blogged about it before, but it's amazing how much my daughter will come out of her shell and be willing to connect with people when she's immersed in water. It's not even that she's simply receptive to interaction while submerged -- she actually goes out of her way to seek out the interaction. She craves it.

We recently became members of our local YMCA, which means we've been spending a lot of time at the pool lately. Our last pool visit was at the end of a week where I didn't have much one-on-one interaction with A. In fact, I was really missing spending time with her. I felt like I was spending a lot of time working, that she was spending a lot of time on the computer, and that, for whatever reason, we just weren't talking or communicating very much. We definitely hadn't been spending a whole lot of time together, so I took advantage of having a free evening, and we decided to go hit the pool together.

First of all, I have to give an aside here and say just how much of a relief it is to be completely submerged in water myself right now. I'm a week away from my due date at the moment, and there is nothing better than feeling weightless and cool while my big, whale-like body floats comfortably in water. So, I suppose I can understand a little how calming such an activity might be.

Our pool time usually transpires like so: at first, I stay on one side of the pool, and A. goes on her own, exploring. She spends a lot of time with her goggles looking underwater, swimming, going down slides or jumping off diving boards if they are available. Her first need is to get completely immersed by the pressure of the water, and she spends maybe twenty minutes or so just completely soaking it in, quite literally.

After that, however, she comes and seeks me out. At first, I thought it meant she was ready to leave, but that isn't the case. She likes to try to climb on me, to hold on to me, and to engage in physical contact. There must be something about the water that makes touch a lot more bearable and even desirable for her. The only problem we run into is that there are signs that say NOT to carry anyone on your back in the water, so I have to remind her of this quite often. Then, she wants to talk to me. She'll engage me in conversation about her interests first -- YouTube videos she's seen, soundtracks for her original characters, video games she's currently playing. When there's a lull in conversation, she'll invite me to pick a topic: "What else do you want to talk about?" So I will quiz her on different things -- friends at school, people she knows online. Obviously, when she invites me to change the subject, I try to push her outside her comfort zone somewhat -- I try to focus on things she may not usually want to talk about.

Last week, I was amazed at how much she opened up to me, how willing she was to discuss things that she usually keeps quiet about. Crushes on boys, the amount of time you should take before you confess your feelings, concerns about high school, possible career choices, anxiety about driving -- I felt very privileged to be let in on A.'s private world and musings on the situations that will be coming up for her very soon. During our conversation, she shared with me (as she often does) her frustration with the fact that I have to work during the summer. This always amuses me, because I know for a fact that if I was spending the summer at home with her, she would still spend all of her time on the computer or playing video games. However, once A.'s new little sister makes her appearance, I'll be taking 16 weeks of maternity leave, so I was able to share this news with her, which she was very happy to hear. I don't think she'd realized I'd be home quite so long. As she thought about it, however, she got a little concerned.

"Wait," she said. "Who's going to look after Kes after you go back to work?"

Sometimes, when you're a parent, you can't help but be a little evil, and my family has a long tradition of teasing our children. I've always tried to be a little more gentle with A., considering her tendency for literal thinking and her difficulty in understanding humor. There are moments I can't resist, however, especially as A. grows older, and this was one of those moments. Without missing a beat, I replied, "Well, you are, of course."

The look of shock and horror on A.'s face was priceless. I quickly laughed and assured her I was just kidding, and then let her know of our child care plans. It's funny, because when strangers learn there's such a big age difference between my daughters, the immediate response is always, "Well, you'll have a built-in babysitter!" and I always laugh politely, but that has definitely not ever been my plan. Even if A. wasn't special needs, I would not place that sort of expectation on an older child. It's going to be such a tough transition anyway, moving from being an only child for 15 years to suddenly having a much younger sibling. However, I also told her that if she wanted to, she was more than welcome to babysit, especially if she wanted to make that a sort of part-time job in a couple of years. This apparently set some wheels turning in A.'s mind.

"What if Kes wants to go get ice cream?" she asked.

I explained that, in a couple of years, A. would be driving, so if she wanted to take Kes to get ice cream, that would definitely be something she could do.

"What if she wants to go someplace else fun?" she asked. "Like a carnival?"

I explained again that the older A. grew, and the more Kes grew, the more opportunity A. would have to do stuff with just her and her sister. Out of everything that we've discussed so far, this seemed to be the thing that made A. most excited about having a baby sister -- the idea that, eventually, she'd be able to take her and do fun things on their own. It also seems to be a bit of an incentive to get A. interested in learning to drive, which makes me happy as I definitely want her to learn and to be able to have that independence. Until this point, she's not been very interested in the concept. We discussed driving a little, too -- A. explained that there was so much to pay attention to when  you're driving, that the concept just seemed overwhelming to her. She asked me, for example, what the heck "yield" meant, so I got to give her a few tips on driving while we were swimming, too.

In just a couple of months, my first baby girl will be fifteen years old. In just a couple of days, I'll have a brand new baby girl, too. I'm having to learn to change my language -- A. really isn't my "little girl" anymore, and she seems excited about finally losing that nickname. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out, to see how things change and transition over the next several months. It's an exciting adventure, and I get a little less worried every time I get the chance to have one of these conversations with A. And I feel a little closer to accepting my daughter as a young adult each time we get a chance to have these conversations. I am a very blessed mother indeed.

 


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Friends on the Other Side of the World
June 9, 2014 9:24 AM by Devon Alley
Rhe past couple of weeks, my daughter has been spending her evenings chatting with a boy who lives in California. They know each other from their respective artwork and shared interests, and they use headsets and microphones to watch YouTube videos together, to make ridiculous jokes, to share artwork, and to play video games. If I were to estimate, I would say they spend an average of two hours a day engaged in such activities, and A. seems to really enjoy her conversations and her time online with the kid. They are about the same age, and he's a year ahead of her in high school.

They talk about their shared interests, and they spend most of their time goofing off online, but they also talk about real things, too. His mom introduced herself to A. over the Internet one morning. They talk about the weather, about the crazy time difference, about pets. I find myself eavesdropping on their conversations, partially because I'm curious to know what they talk about for so long every single day, partially because A. tends to shout out in a loudly raised voice her side of any conversation, and partially because I'm a concerned parent, and my daughter is talking to a stranger who lives on the opposite coast from us and I want to make sure she's being safe.

And, of course, she is being safe. She's being safe, and there really isn't anything that makes me suspicious about this particular online friendship. Moreover, I remember back to when I was a teenager, and while the Internet was still a fairly new world that I could explore, the realm of pen-pals was a tried-and-true method of making friends in distant places, and that was something I thoroughly enjoyed. I had my own guy friend who lived in California, though he was much older than me I was in high school, and he was in his early twenties. I never thought there was anything weird about that, though. He'd send me letters about his adventures to Las Vegas, about concerts he'd seen, the playlists of songs. I don't remember what I wrote back, what could have possibly been interesting enough for him to continue to a little teenage girl, but I also know that there was never anything bizarre or creepy about the tone of his letters. When he went on trips, he'd send me postcards from places he visited, and he'd give me opinions on new albums that had been released. It was a great friendship to have, and it made me feel a little less alone in the world. I remember that, and I guess that A. may feel the same, too, about her own guy friend who lives in California.

Of course it's important to be safe. Creepy people do exist in the world. When I was in high school with my collection of pen pals, one of them ended up being an older adult man who was pretending to be a 16 year old girl writing me letters and sending me gifts. The Internet makes that kind of pretense even easier. That being said, the world is also full of amazing, awesome people who are looking for honest connections with others. Some of them may struggle with creating social connections with those around them, and others may just really enjoy communicating in the online medium. We have to use caution, especially as parents, but I also feel like we owe it to our kids to explore this medium, to let them find other kids they can relate with, and to let them find as many ways to communicate with others as possible. Of course, this seems even more important in regards to A., who seems to thrive with online social interaction while face-to-face can sometimes be a struggle.

 

So, I will watch this friendship grow and develop. I'll continue to help A. nurture her real-time friendships, too, by inviting friends over, or arranging for events for them to do together. But I will also honor and help A. make time for her online friendships, too, since I remember all too well how important those strangers on the other side of the world can be when you're a lonely teenager.


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Wrapping Up Middle School
May 30, 2014 10:22 AM by Devon Alley
As I mentioned in my last entry, I really can't imagine a better ending to A.'s Middle School career than her stellar performance in the annual talent show. It was like the frosting on a delicious if sometimes frustrating cake. A. finished the year with A's, B's, and C's in all of her classes I was probably most proud of her for pulling her math grade up to a solid C by the end of the year, partially because math is such a difficult subject for her, but mostly because she became so very responsible and proactive in working to bring the grade up. She signed up for tutoring, she went in early in the mornings, she'd stay late after school, and she really worked hard with her teachers trying to grasp the concepts, completing work, and practicing over and over again. I was impressed that I only had to nudge her a little in this area. She was very determined to move on to high school next year, and that motivation seemed to help drive her to get the extra help she needed to succeed.

A. was also recognized at the 8th Grade Awards Day at her school. She received recognition for Perfect Attendance- a new accomplishment for her. She stayed relatively healthy all year, and she also seemed more inclined to go to school and stay in class than she has in the past. Additionally, Thomas and I both stood our ground on forcing her to "tough it out" during days where she didn't feel so great. Even though I pulled her out of a class or two every now and then to come see an ultrasound with me, it wasn't enough to negatively impact her attendance, so that was a nice change. Additionally, she also got a pin for her theater work in the drama club this year. (A., of course, was disappointed that she didn't get a trophy for this accomplishment, but she was glad to be recognized all the same.)

All in all, not a bad way to end one's 8th grade year. She's excited and nervous about high school next year, and I can't blame her. I'm excited and nervous for her, too. Fortunately, the school isn't really any bigger than the one she's been used to for the past three years, and everyone I've talked to who has sent their kids there loves the place and thinks very highly of the teachers and administration. Still, it's a big change--more personal responsibility, more social situations to navigate, more crazy schedules to figure out. I worry how she'll cope in a new environment, and I hope it doesn't cause her to "shut down" or regress.

I comfort myself by remembering that, three years ago, I felt the same about the transition to middle school. She'd done so well during her 5th grade year, and she'd made so much progress. She had amazing teachers and an amazing support system, wonderful friends and a supportive peer group. I worried that she would lose all of this when she got to middle school, that she would flail and flounder and it would be a huge struggle for her. I worried that the teachers would not understand, that they might not have empathy, that they might try to fit A.'s square peg into a round hole that she simply wouldn't be suited for.

And I remember A. at the talent show last week. I remember watching her "stim," walking in this wide, pacing circle in front of the bleachers at the side of the stage. Instead of correcting her, or even redirecting her, the teachers simply arranged themselves in a very casual, barely noticeable circle around her. They positioned themselves so that they could provide a safe barrier for her, a space where she could express herself and "stim" freely. They would check in with her from time to time, but they were able to allow her to do what she needed, and it caused no distractions or problems at all. I also noticed that none of her peers seemed to take any notice of her stimming behavior at all. No one was staring at her, or pointing, or seeming to obviously talk about her. This was A., and they understood that this was what she did. They accepted it as part of their world, and no one seemed to find it odd at all. In fact, in the entire gigantic auditorium of kids and teachers, I was probably the only one stressing out over her stimming behavior, and once I noticed that no one else was bothered by it, I was able to relax and enjoy the rest of the show and I imagine that's how A. has felt throughout her time at this school.

And they all stood up and cheered for her. And her teachers hugged her. And I got so many messages that night telling me how proud they were of her, how impressed they were by her. She's had such incredible cheerleaders these past three years. And three years ago, I was nervous that no one would understand her or really "get" her.

So, I hope my nervousness about the year to come will be similarly diffused and debunked due to another community full of awesome, understanding teachers, and thoughtful friends and peers. I will keep my fingers crossed, and I will reach out like I always do let her teachers know what to expect, invite them to let me know if any issues come up. Mostly, however, I can't do much but wait and see. I just hope A. will be equally as blessed by her experiences the next four years as she has been these past three.



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Talent Show Performances
May 27, 2014 2:47 PM by Devon Alley
For the past three years, A. has desperately been trying to get a part in the annual year-end talent show. She was not able to do so in her 6th and 7th grade years, which made it pretty obvious that it must be a very difficult gig to land at her middle school. This year, she finally made the cut, and when I went to see the performance, I finally understood why it had been so difficult, which made me all the more proud of her accomplishment.

There was, perhaps, ten or fifteen acts that made up the entire talent show. When you're talking about a school whose population could easily fill a small city, one could only imagine what the selection process must be for such a showcase of talent. I'd initially suspected that there was preference given to 8th graders for the talent show, and I think that may have been part of it, but the individuals who were selected were really amazing and demonstrated a wide variety of talent from singing to dancing to playing instruments. Not only that, but the songs and performances themselves seemed to demand a heavier meaning and a creative edge that is normally not present in talent shows I had seen in the past. Even though there were no prizes given out, to have the privilege to perform at the event demanded a certain amount of competitive edge.

Considering that A.'s performance was her singing Avril Lavigne's "Keep Holding On," I was initially surprised that her act was selected to be a part of this end-of-year talent showcase. There were students who were performing piano solos, students who were performing interpretive dance, students who were putting together small brass ensembles to play AWOLNation's "Sail." They kept A.'s song until the very end of the show, as a sort of finale. I was interested in why they had chosen this placement for her.

Once my daughter walked onto the stage, however, I immediately understood how she had managed to make the cut, and why they'd decided to have her finish up the show with her performance.

I should take a minute to say that my daughter has absolutely no vocal training at all. She LOVES to sing. She was singing songs before her language had even completely developed, simply mouthing the sounds of the words to the tune of the music. Singing was really our first method of communication when she was a toddler, I composed different songs for every activity she would engage in to help guide her through daily routines, to help her understand what was happening next. She understood songs much more clearly than she understood words and spoken language, and it was our own little language. As she grew older, she kept this love for singing. Historically, A. has used singing as a form of self-stimulation a way to calm herself down in a different situation, a way to block out noise and chatter that distracts her. Singing in the car, singing in bathrooms, singing in her bedroom her voice has been a punctuation mark on our life together. That being said, we've never enrolled her in classes, or taken her to a vocal coach, or even got her involved in chorus at school. She never seemed interested, so we never explored those options.

That being said, my daughter has an amazing voice. Sometimes, she doesn't understand the complexities of range and cadence, but she can sing her little heart out and carry a tune better than most people in our family.

But when she stepped out on the stage at the talent show, it wasn't the voice that impressed me. Certainly, she had mastered volume, cadence, melody, pitch, and pacing but I had no doubt she would do amazingly well in those areas. What struck me was her stage presence. She held the microphone, she worked the stage, she commanded the audience. She worked both sides of the auditorium, opening her stance to the left, center, right, center if I didn't know better, I'd say she'd been coached on stage blocking. She had hand gestures, facial expressions, body movements that emphasized the lyrics. It wasn't just singing it was a complete performance. And it was amazing to see my daughter who is, admittedly, often rather clumsy and awkward in her daily movements and interactions with the world in such complete control, performing with such absolute power and grace. It was breathtaking.

And it would be easy for me to say to myself, "Well, I'm her mother. I'm obviously biased, and so I'm making this out to be a thousand times better than it actually was." But the entire audience was involved. Swaying back and forth, singing along an entire middle school gymnasium with full bleachers on both sides, 6th and 7th and 8th graders alike all transfixed and engaged in her performance. Afterwards, I heard stories from her teachers about how they like me were moved to tears by A.'s performance.

Nothing could have prepared me, however, for the end of her song. When she finished her performance, the ENTIRE SCHOOL STOOD UP. All of the students 6th, 7th, 8th graders. They cheered and screamed and gave her a standing ovation. These kids who share bus rides, cafeteria time, hallway exchanges, classroom antics these kids who have surely seen A. on her bad days, who have watched her melt down, who have seen her stimming they were all cheering for her, offering her such an incredible amount of support. They enjoyed her performance, but it felt like it went even deeper than that they were showing their support of A. in general, as a person, as their peer, as a part of their community.

Thankfully, I don't think any of them noticed the small, pregnant lady in the front row who basically collapsed over herself sobbing due to the absolute gravity of their applause, of their support. Because there probably isn't anything more embarrassing to a middle school student than having your mom crying over your talent show performance in front of the entire school.

A. made me promise not to take video of the performance, or to post it on YouTube. I think she wanted something personal and private something that belonged just to her. So, I will let her keep that memory, and curb my tendency to over-share, despite the fact that I wish I could show you, that I wish I could share just how amazing this performance was, and what a tremendous young woman my daughter has become. There could not have been a better finale to her middle school career.


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Adventures with Monty Python
May 20, 2014 9:36 AM by Devon Alley
A couple of weeks ago, I thought it would be fun to take A. to see the musical Spamalot! This musical is very loosely based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail -- which, as I have mentioned before, is one of A.'s all-time favorite movies -- so I thought it may be something that would interest her. Additionally, considering her interest in theater in general, I thought it would be a great way to introduce her to more extensive stage productions. It was a local company performing the musical -- the theater group at our local university to be exact -- but they did a tremendous job, and the performance was very high quality considering.

It probably goes without saying that A. had an absolute blast. She was already sold on the idea before the lights went down and the curtain went up. Just being in a theater seemed to completely energize her, despite the fact that she wasn't allowed to get snacks and bring them inside. She poured over the program with actual interest, telling me what she knew about the writer, and stopping to ask me questions about pictures of other stage productions that were listed in the pamphlet. (She seemed especially interested in Sweeney Todd.)

That being said, the show itself went a long way in impressing her. She was expecting the Holy Grail references, but there were a lot of random Monty Python references in general which she also enjoyed. For example, they sang "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," which made her incredibly happy. There were also just a lot of random Monty Python silliness interjected in general. Having never seen the production myself, I wasn't sure what to expect, but A> seemed to enjoy every minute of it.

One of the things that was especially interesting was the fact that A. could not help but laugh loudly and enthusiastically at everything. We went on a Thursday evening, so many of the patrons were older individuals, possibly looking to avoid the crowds of the weekend. (A. actually turned to me and whispered at one point, "There are a lot of old people here!" and I gave her kudos for being thoughtful enough to whisper such an exclamation instead of announcing it loudly, which would have been something she might have done just a year or so ago.) A. and I got a lot of looks from the crowd -- nothing nasty or unfriendly (thankfully), but a lot of people looking at us with curiosity. A. was obviously not behaving in the most neurotypical fashion, to say the least. Also, here's a young teenager who can quote every single lyric of every single song that came from any Monty Python skit that A. had been familiar with. Maybe they were just impressed with her considerable knowledge on the subject. More than likely, they were trying to figure out what was causing her to be so vehement in her amusement. Or they just thought we were crazy, which is fine, too. Whatever the cause, I would just smile at anyone if I caught their eye, because -- personally -- I was enjoying and delighting too much in my daughter's enthusiasm about the play to really care what anyone else thought.

A.'s favorite part of the play, of course, was where the actors broke the fourth wall, and found the grail through audience participation. After the chosen "victim" sat down, A. clapped, and laughingly said, "lucky guy!"

At the end of the production, A. cheered and screamed heartily at everyone who took the stage for curtain call. The actors encouraged the audience to sing along with another rendition of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," and A. gave it her all. She danced in place, she laughed some more -- I honestly can't remember a time I've seen her quite that happy. Watching her level of joy, I couldn't help but break out into tears. I was simply so very happy to see my daughter so very happy. There was just something about seeing her taking so much pleasure in something so simple that completely overwhelmed me in the best of ways.

After the production was over, A. confessed, "I enjoyed that a lot more than I thought I would!" She also insisted that we start going to the theater more often. I remember getting similarly excited about musical concerts when I was her age -- just jumping down, screaming, singing along, and reaching a place close to ecstasy just by watching people on the stage. Now she's doing the same with theater. I agree -- we definitely need to do this more often.

 

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A Geek’s First Convention
May 1, 2014 2:27 PM by Devon Alley
 his past Saturday, A. attended her first geeky convention. The convention she attended was the Knoxville Comic and Anime Con which was held at a nearby expo center this past weekend.

To be honest, I didn't have very high hopes of the convention. My first geeky convention was Dragon*Con when I was in my twenties, which was a massive event that spanned four hotels and featured a costume parade down the Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia. A small, local convention that could fit inside a small shopping center seemed pretty pale in comparison for me. I was worried that, considering the small size of our town, there would be very few attendees, that no one would be dressed up in costume, and that A. would find it boring and disappointing.

I could not have been more wrong.

To be fair, I didn't actually take her to this convention. I'd made plans with out-of-town friends long before I knew this convention was happening, so I'd asked my mother-in-law if she wouldn't mind taking A. to attend this convention. I couldn't have been more happy about that decision considering the way it turned out. A. got to attend the convention with a cousin who has an equal appreciation of art and animation, and she also got to hook up with one of her friends from school (who, I should mention, decided to dress as a fallen-from-the-roof, bloodied Sherlock.) The three of them apparently wandered about, posing and taking pictures with people in costumes, and gathering autographs.

They got to meet a few "famous" people (I think A. was most excited about meeting Steven Butler because of his work with Sonic the Hedgehog) and they got to see a lot of neat things for sale by vendors. A., in her excitement at discovering "people who love the same things I do" started gathering autographs from anyone who was cosplaying in character so she now has a sheet of paper that has autographs from people like C. Martin Croker (the voice of Zorak on Space Ghost Coast to Coast) and the aforementioned Steven Butler alongside scribbles from cosplayers: "Harley Quinn," "Spy," and "Apple Jack." According to my mother-in-law, many of the cosplayers were taken aback by this request. Some of the younger kids in costume were not even sure what A. was asking for, so she would have to explain that they just needed to sign their name as the character they had dressed up as.

Which is another reason it was probably a good idea that I did not accompany A. to her first convention. I have such a great amount of social anxiety and awkwardness that I would have felt a little embarrassed at A. going around asking people in costume for their autographs. I would have probably felt a need to explain to her that this simply wasn't done, or at the very least I would have been stressed out and worried that A. might overstep some sort of unspoken geek etiquette when interacting with people in costume. Of course, she was fine. It doesn't really matter if the people she spoke to found it weird or strange or endearing they signed her book, and A. had a blast, and that was really all in the world that was important.

From the dozens of pictures that were taken of the adventures, it seems as if all of the girls had a blast. Specifically, my daughter who normally hates cameras, and who normally doesn't get too enthusiastic or excited about anything was grinning ear to ear, absolutely ecstatic about the convention. She even took pictures & videos on her camera phone something she normally doesn't do. She really seemed as if she was completely in her element as if she'd found the magical place where she finally fit in, where she understood the rules of the games, and where everything seemed fun and awesome.

Needless to say, this will be the first in many future convention adventures.

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Maybe It’s Not So Bad After All
April 24, 2014 9:44 AM by Devon Alley
I worry a lot about how A. is going to react to a new sibling. I worry so much that I'm pretty sure I've gone overboard filling the next few months with awesome mother-daughter activities, such as shopping for clothes, going to see Monty Python's Spamalot together, finding time to explore this whole JumpJam craze in our city, and getting A. enrolled in a summer theatre camp. Between all of the things I have planned for her, in addition to all of the things she'll get to do when she goes to visit her grandmother for a few weeks, I'd be surprised if she complains about being bored at all.

I don't know why I worry so much about A.'s reaction to the newest member of the family. She's been pretty mellow about the entire ordeal. She's definitely not excited the fact that she can feel Kes move inside my belly almost freaks her out, and she's not jumping up and down at the idea of being a big sister. That being said, she'll check in with me from time to time. "How's Kes doing?" she'll ask. Or she'll be extremely adamant about the fact that Kes really needs a swing set in the back yard. Or, at the very least, a sandbox. It's definitely a very interesting adventure we're having these past few months.

Part of it, of course, is just watching A. mature. She'll be in high school next year, and she's beginning to act a little more like a high schooler every day. When she was struggling in math, she took it upon herself to start staying after school to get help on certain things, and even went as far as enrolling herself in the dreaded Saturday School when she needed to complete the work. She's wanting to audition for the talent show again, and she's taking it upon herself to figure out when the audition times are, sign up for those, and let me know when they are. She's been willing to try different sorts of foods on the weekends. Scrambled eggs have become a staple, in addition to low-carb pancakes two things that she didn't have much use for just a few months ago. And, she's continuing to expand her circle of friends, while her social interactions seem to be a lot more mature and rooted in real life.

On a personal level, I've found myself most touched by the interest and care she has been showing me lately. I've been really exhausted this past week when I come home from work, and A. has been very intuitive and empathetic to that. On Tuesday before I left for work, she even told me, "Don't get too tired today," because she's obviously concerned for me. On Monday, I curled up on the couch and watched her play Portal for a while, which was probably the most low-key way I could think of to spend time together. She seemed to enjoy it, however I don't know if it's the audience that makes her happy, or the fact that I provide ridiculous commentary.

Either way, I'm feeling good about life right now. I feel like this upcoming transition won't be so hard on A., after all, and I see her growing and changing, too getting prepared for a lot of things to happen in the next few months. One of the benefits of being home for a few months on maternity leave will be the fact that I'll be accessible for A. I'll get to spend the summer with her, too, and hopefully that means I'll get her out doing some things that might be a little outside her comfort zone. It will definitely be an adventure.

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More Communication Surprises
April 15, 2014 11:12 AM by Devon Alley
A little over a week ago, I could hear A. talking in her room. She was sitting in front of the computer, but it seemed like she was having a conversation with someone.

Being the nosy mother that I am, I poked my head into her bedroom to investigate.

"Who are you chatting with?" I asked her.

"Hold on a sec," she said, and then pushed her microphone up above her mouth. "A friend from Deviant Art," she elaborated. She showed me her friend's profile, and some of the art she'd created. I said okay, and told her to carry on, as I retreated back to my office space.

"Sorry, that was my mom. She just wanted to check in on me," she said.

Sometimes, it amazes me just how well my daughter knows me.

As I mentioned, I am a very nosy mother, so while I was sitting in the office, I eavesdropped on the side of the conversation I could hear. I listened to my daughter tell this girl about her day at school, listened to her ask about this girl's pets, listened to her claim our dog Pippin as a part of our family, listened to her explain to her friend that Pippin is part Corgi and part Terrier (a fact that I didn't even realized A. had retained). It was such a smoothly flowing conversation that I was a little taken aback. A. has a tendency to fixate on her specialized interests, and want to steer conversation where they center on games, YouTube videos, and silly quotes. However, here she was, having an actual conversation about real-life things.

A. has been chatting with this friend at least once a day over Skype ever since.

If that wasn't enough of a social milestone, A. started texting friends from school the same week. A. has had a cell phone for many years, and a smart phone for a few of those years, but she generally uses the phone solely to listen to Spotify and to check her Deviant Art account. Occasionally, she'll make a phone call to a friend from school, but even that is a rare exercise. I've sent her one or two text messages over the years, but she rarely responds. However, one day last week, I noticed her typing out little messages in iMessage. I asked her what she was doing.

"Oh, I'm just texting my friend E," she said.

"Is E. a friend from school?" I asked.

"Yep," A. answered, as the little keystroke noises continued.

Because I am a nosy mother (I mentioned this, right?) I asked her if I could read the messages over her shoulder.

"No," A. said, and explained that doing such a thing was rude a lesson that Thomas and I have been trying to teach her since she has a tendency to read what we are writing and typing over our shoulders much of the time. Obviously, a fair boundary. I asked her what she was talking about, and she explained that, mostly, she was role-playing with the characters she had created with her friend. Considering when I was the same age, I traded notebooks back and forth with my own friend, role-playing the "original characters" we created in our own little universes, this seemed pretty normal to me.

So, I've watched A. move from chatting out loud with her friend over Skype, to texting with her friend over her iPhone, and back again several times over the past two weeks. And I've been really proud of her, because it feels like she's making real social progress that she's opening up more lines of communication, and that she's expanding the time and energy she's spending on different peers. Definitely a welcome milestone to celebrate.

When this first started happening, I mentioned on Facebook that I was probably the only mother in the world excited that their teenager was finally learning how to text. Almost immediately, several of my friends who are parents of kids on the spectrum replied with a complete understanding of the excitement, either relating their own similar experiences, or expressing a desire to see more of that activity out of their own children. It's moments like that when I realize how not alone I am with these experiences, when I understand just how many other parents are out there mapping these same trajectories, sharing in similar triumphs. There is a definite comfort and joy in that shared understanding, in that larger network. And I'm so very grateful that I've found such a network.

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Teenagers Need Their Sleep
April 8, 2014 8:06 AM by Devon Alley
A.'s sleeping patterns have really changed over the past year. For as long as I could remember, A. has always been an early bird. Even when she would have the opportunity to stay up really late (especially when visiting relatives) she would still generally wake up around 7 or 8 in the morning. She's always liked waking up early I think it gives her some quiet time to orient herself to her day. And of course, when she wakes up early, it gives her a lot of time to play video games, or draw things on the computer, or chat with her friends on Deviant Art.

The thing is, she still really enjoys waking up early. If I ask her to give me a time to wake her up in the mornings, she'll ask for some ungodly hour like, four in the morning and then we have to negotiate for a more reasonable wake-up call. (She's always been such a heavy sleeper that she sleeps right through all of her alarms. She's also difficult to pull up out of a sound sleep, and often involves me having to physically put her into a sitting position before she can transition into wakefulness.)

However, over the past year or so, she's slowly been sleeping later and later into the mornings when she doesn't have the responsibility of school or anything else. Casual conversation with other parents of young teenagers have revealed the same phenomenon our used-to-be early birds are now sleeping much later in the mornings, and are often very difficult to wake up early for simple tasks like, you know, getting ready to go to school in the morning.

There's been a lot of research to suggest that a teenage brain really is wired completely differently. When specifically related to sleep, it seems as if the internal clock of a teenager is geared to keep them awake later in the evening and sleepy later each morning. When A. first started showing signs of sleepiness in the morning, I considered having her go to bed a little earlier in the evenings, since sleep is just a vital part of cognitive development and learning. However, because her internal clock has essentially shifted position, an earlier bedtime doesn't necessarily lead to an earlier sleep-time, so we have to do the best with the time-frame that we have.

Our current routine goes something like this on school days, A. wakes up around 5:15am - 5:30am with much pulling and prodding from her dear mother, and generally a helpful loyal cat to help out by climbing over her and licking her face. She has to wake up so early because she wants to shower in the mornings before school, and since everyone in the household needs morning showers, we have to stagger them out so that there's enough hot water to go around. In the evenings, she starts to get ready for bed at 9pm each night, which means no live screen-time (YouTube videos, etc., even though she is allowed to keep using the computer for music, art, and creative projects), and also means she has to get into her pajamas, brush her teeth, and say her goodnights to everyone. Her lights-out time is 10pm, and she is permitted to listen to music if that helps calm her down and get her to sleep. Most nights, I think she's asleep by 10:30pm or 11pm, so while that is definitely not the greatest amount of sleep she could be getting by a longshot, it seems to work for her. As long as her sleep is uninterrupted, she's generally alert and awake during the day, and in an overall good mood.

To try to compensate for the tight schedule she has for sleep, I allow her to take naps when she comes home from school if she needs them, and I also allow her to pretty much sleep as late as she wants to on the weekends and when school is not in session. (If she's not out of bed by 11am, I do generally go in to check on her. At which point she generally wakes up, checks the clock, and proclaims, "Argh! I overslept AGAIN!")

I'm pretty sure A. is a lot like me, and if she had her way, she'd prefer to just NOT sleep entirely.

It's interesting to watch her progression into young adulthood, and it's good for me to keep in mind that these years are just as vital and important to her overall cognitive development as her childhood years were. Her brain is still developing, and there is a lot I still need to do to support, assist, and nurture that development. Even though she's turning fifteen in August, and will be starting high school next year, we still have a LOT left to work on.

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