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From Inside the Puzzle: Raising a Child with Autism Blog

Parenting Lessons from A’s Diagnosis Day
November 18, 2014 9:35 AM by Devon Alley
I'm not sure why I've been thinking back on the visit to Dr. William Allen that resulted in a diagnosis of high-functioning autism for my eldest daughter. Maybe because I've recently referred his services to friends who have questions about their own children's developmental delays. Maybe because I recently discovered he's on the Board for a local organization called Artistic Spectrum that I just discovered and have fallen in love with. Maybe it's because A. has an intake appointment with the same behavioral health center he's involved with in order to join a high school social therapy group. Whatever the reason, I've been thinking back to that morning so many years ago, to the battery of tests, to the questions and observations, and realizing just how much I learned in such a short amount of time, and how it has shaped my parenting style ever since.

I know I've written about that particular visit before - about how she spun around in circles in the waiting room for almost an hour before we were called back, about how Dr. Allen started making notes on his clipboard before we even left the waiting room - but I've recently been thinking about how much I learned while they were testing her for this diagnosis, and how much I still put those basic principles to work in my parenting style, even to this very day.

Dr. Allen was an advocate of Discrete Trial Training, and that was the way he ran his evaluation session. To break this down for anyone not familiar with Discrete Trials, you present a task for a child, get the child to respond, reward completion of the task, and then provide a break. For Dr. Allen's sessions with A., this involved explaining the problem simply ("Touch the picture of the dog"), waiting for her to respond (she would either touch the picture, or Dr. Allen would use hand-over-hand to get her to succeed), praise ("Good job"), and then a "sensory break" (she could get up from the table and engage in one of a number of sensory stations that were set up around the office). It was incredible to me, because Dr. Allen was able to keep A. on task and get her to demonstrate her skill and ability level so much more effectively than anyone else had managed to do up to that point.

I don't know if this was built into the Discrete Trial method, or if this was just Dr. Allen's individual style, but he did a couple of things that have always stuck with me. One of those was the fact that he would start with something relatively simple and work his way up to more complex tasks. He would "back up" if the task was initially too difficult or confusing. For example, if it was just rewarding A. for sitting in  the chair for a minute, he'd "back up" the instruction to "sit in the chair," and then immediately reward her to get her to understand the cause and effect paradigm that he was putting into place during their session. The other thing was that he would continue to push her to do things and add to their complexity until she started to get uncomfortable, and he would always push just *one more time* to really challenge her comfort zone. He was really adept at this - he would never push her to the point of really getting upset or going into a meltdown, but he would continue to push her to focus on the task until she just began to get squirmy, fussy, or aggravated - and then he would make sure she had a success, even if he had to do hand-over-hand to get her to complete a task - so she would get the reward for the effort and could have a sensory break.

I've used similar trials in various ways throughout A.'s life, and I notice that I continue to follow that methodology to a lesser degree even now. When she has struggles at school or tasks at home, I always try to set her up for success so I can praise her efforts and give her a break. I also try my best to push her as far as I can without causing her to completely melt down.

Sometimes it's a simple of understanding what sort of consequence is truly relative to a situation. For example, if we've told her that a consequence will happen due to a specific behavior, I either need to establish ahead of time what that consequence will be, or give her a consequence I know she can stomach without going into full meltdown mode. For example, taking away a promised dessert or computer time without establishing those parameters ahead of time would result in a meltdown, while having her do additional chores as a consequence might make her grumpy and aggravated, but it would not cause her to completely "lose it." At the end of the day, pushing an autistic kid into full meltdown mode is simply not productive. Not only is it a traumatic experience for everyone involved, but a meltdown doesn't help a child learn new skills or establish socially appropriate routines. Sometimes meltdowns are unavoidable, of course, but I've definitely done my best to try to minimize them in A.'s life - but at the same time, I've always tried to push her as far as I could before that point, too.

It gets more complicated as she becomes a teenager, as she begins to learn how to lie, as I have to figure out what's typical teenage snarkiness and what's truly indicative that I'm pushing her too far. I'm also trying to encourage independence by reducing my amount of helicopter parenting when it comes to school, but that's also tricky because I don't want to be completely disengaged, either. Now that I'm back at work and I also have another child for which I'm responsible, I don't always feel like I'm on top of my game. I guess the important thing to remember is that nobody is perfect, and that all I can do is love her the best I can at any given moment.



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Talking About Empathy Again
November 5, 2014 12:06 PM by Devon Alley
Empathy is something I rant about a lot in this blog. There's a very good reason for that. Despite the fact that several scientific studies and scores of first-hand accounts of autistic adults suggest otherwise, a lack of empathy is still often listed on major websites as a common symptom of autism. As I've said time and again on this blog, it's a perception I've watched my own daughter challenge time and again.

I continue to bring it up because it's a very important conversation to have. It's important for the world to understand that autistic individuals often empathize extremely deeply with the world around them. In fact, it's sometimes the intensity of this empathy that can cause autistic individuals to close up, close off, and shut down. I've read essays and blog entries from autistic individuals who have done just this, and I have witnessed the same behavior from my own daughter from time to time. When her friends are hurting, she feels their pain so intensely. It often seems like it's impossible for her to detach from those situations when they happen, that she struggles with maintaining a distance from the situation. Instead, she feels the pain, anxiety, or sorrow just as intensely as if the situation were directly happening to her own self. It's no wonder such an intensity could be overwhelming at times.

I continue to bring it up because it isn't always obvious. My eldest can be incredibly blunt and painfully rude at times. Usually, she calls it like she sees it, and she doesn't dress her words or actions with social niceties or frill. When she's struggling, she'll sometimes verbally explode on those around her - sometimes this might involve yelling, or saying hurtful things to someone. This is usually a product of stress, frustration, or anger, and there's almost always a trigger, whether it's peers distracting her when she's struggling to focus in class to make a deadline, or whether it's a violent reaction to something she has taken incredibly literally. The other afternoon, for example, she was beginning to freak out, and I made the mistake of chiding her with the phrase, "What's wrong with you?" which I meant innocently enough, to inquire about her overall moodiness on that particular afternoon. This triggered a pretty intense meltdown because the phrase I used made her feel as if there must be something really "wrong" with her, and I spent nearly an hour backpedaling, apologizing, and generally assuring her that I didn't mean the phrase the way she interpreted it, and demonstrating that, apparently, parents can make some pretty crappy mistakes, too.

The subject of empathy is important to talk about because I see so many situations that come up where A. demonstrates amazing acts of empathy. She really doesn't like our dog, for example, but whenever the storms come and he starts trembling and shaking because he's scared, she'll get down in the floor with him and pet him all the same, because she can't help but feel empathy for him. She often struggles with younger members of the family, because - let's face it - when you're a fifteen-year-old girl, there's really nothing more annoying in the world than younger relatives who desperately want all of your attention whenever they're around you. Still, she'll volunteer to spend time with younger cousins when they're around, finding ways to play games with them or to relate with them. She always needs to do so on a limited scale, but I'm always impressed that she makes the effort without being asked to do so. Most recently, we went to an arcade with the family, and A. used the majority of the tickets she won to trade in for a specific present for one of her younger cousins - a small act of kindness that completely made his day.

The perception of empathy as it relates to autistic individuals is changing. When you do a Google search on autism and empathy, you find scientific papers, autistic individuals talking about their own perspective of empathy, and the idea that the "lack of empathy" symptom is really just a myth. Most websites will now talk about "problems with the demonstration of empathy," which is, I believe, a much more accurate method of describing this particular symptom. Still, the reason why these perceptions are changing is because so many people have been challenging the ideas for such a long time. Because of that, I'll continue to celebrate my eldest daughter's empathy, each and every time she fully masters yet another method of demonstrating that trait. Sometimes I'm convinced that her heart is as big as the world.



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Celebrate the Awesome
October 16, 2014 10:10 AM by Devon Alley
I've been really terrible about writing over the past couple of months. Mostly, it's because I haven't managed to sculpt out a new daily routine that allows for the time I need to devote to the art. Caring for an infant is time-consuming and often very unpredictable, and I just haven't managed to "get back into the groove" of doing much more than spending time with my family and getting basic chores accomplished. This past week, I finally returned to work after 16 weeks of maternity leave, so I am hoping that being forced to comply to a standard routine five days out of every week will help me get back into some of my older habits.

A. has been very quick to chastise me for my writing delays. Specifically, she's aggravated that it has been nearly two months and I still haven't written an entry about her birthday, which is something I habitually do every year. I often say that I plan to employ A. as my literary agent, specifically because she tends to give me such a ridiculously hard time about my writing. "Have you finished your book about Highway 11 yet?" she'll still ask me, or "Have you been working on your children's book?" When I sheepishly shuffle from side to side and confess that I haven't done any writing at all lately, she'll chide me, ask me "why not?" and tell me that I need to get writing. In some ways, she's simultaneously my biggest fan and my worst critic. But, by any standard, this entry is long overdue.

I was a little concerned about A.'s birthday this year, to be perfectly honest. I'd completely outdone myself with the elaborate Minecraft birthday party last year, partially because I knew there was the possibility I would have a small infant this year and such an elaborate celebration would simply not be possible. And, in fact, there was an infant in the mix this year, which did take a lot more of my time and energy than I even guessed it would. To make matters more complicated, I forgot about the fact that A. likes to do her weekend party before her actual birthday, and I'd been planning for her to invite friends over the weekend after. So, A. decided that she wanted to do a celebration on her actual birthday, complete with cake, a special dinner, people visiting, games, decorations, and presents, and considering that her birthday was on a Thursday, it was a little tricky to pull off.

It's always interesting to me that A. is very focused on making the actual day of her birth a special one. It makes a certain amount of sense - it is her birthday, after all. It's just funny to me. My birthday always falls near Memorial Day, so I grew up celebrating my birthday on that holiday weekend every year. It always gave me more time to celebrate, travel, visit with people, and of course a day off from school. As much as A. enjoys the weekend parties, it's the celebrations that happen on her actual birthday that mean the most to her. It's really sweet, actually, that marking the passage of another year is such an important ritual for her.

This year, I kept the entire celebration exceedingly simple. I made her a collage from some of her favorite art about one of her Original Characters that is her main avatar on Deviant Art. I decorated the house with balloons, streamers, and banners. I wrote a big sign in chalk on the driveway outside. I poured confetti all over her desk in her room. I guess most notably, I did all of this while she was at school, so when she came home from school in the afternoon, she came home to a house ready to celebrate the day she was born. I think she really appreciated that. There was an element of surprise to all of it, and it also helped her feel good about returning from school at the end of the day. We made her a special dinner of spaghetti (with no sauce for her, of course) and I got her an Oreo Blizzard ice cream cake from Dairy Queen (this has become a tradition). I decided to decorate her cake with trick candles that kept relighting themselves after she blew them out as a way to tease her. We invited local family members to come and celebrate with us, so it was a very small gathering. Still, there were video games to play and presents to open, and A. felt like she was the queen of the world for the evening. It all seemed to go over extremely well.

Her favorite present, of course, had been shipped from Amazon.com from her grandmother. It was a plush of her favorite Nintendo character Ludwig von Koopa. A. has become quite the "fangirl" of Ludwig in recent months, so when she opened up the present, she squealed and screamed in a manner I'm not sure I'd ever heard before. In fact, I'm fairly certain she was hyperventilating. Needless to say, she was pretty pleased with her haul.

Sometimes, simple is really all you need. She was just as happy with her birthday celebration as she has been in the past, and I think she felt very special and very loved. We also did a couple of other things - Thomas took her to Wild Bear Falls the following weekend since she loves that water park, she invited a friend over for a while, and several weeks later we took a trip to Dollywood. I'd also made an effort to do a small special thing for her each day of her birthday week, whether it was getting her ice cream, or going to Pizza Inn for dinner one night, or watching movies together. So, her birthday itself was very special, but I wanted to make sure the week surrounding the birthday was very well celebrated, too.

There have been a lot of changes in the household lately, and I know it can't be easy to suddenly be the teenage sibling of a baby who has a very piercing cry when she's upset. I just wanted A. to know that she's still just as important and just as loved as she was before Kes came into the picture, and that I recognize how awesome she is and want to do everything I can to celebrate that fact as often as possible. Birthdays just give me a convenient chance to do so.

(As a postscript, A. walked into the office while I was typing this entry. "Are you working on the entry about my birthday?" she asked me. I assured her that, yes, finally, I was writing about her birthday. She smiled real big, almost like I'd managed to give her another birthday present, and she gave me a hug. It's amazing how something so simple can be so important and special to her.)

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It's Easy Being a Mom
September 17, 2014 8:28 AM by Devon Alley
Now that I have a two month old at home, I've been thinking a lot about motherhood, lately. It's interesting, because I think when you are new to motherhood, you spend a lot of time thinking about what kind of mother you are going to be - what sort of parenting style you're going to use, how your identity will change because you are now the center of a child's universe. When your second child is born, your identity isn't shaken in quite the same way--after all, you've been doing this for a while now, and motherhood is now a very familiar role for you to play. However, every child is different-different personalities, different sets of needs. I think the way you respond to them as a mother can be quite different, as well, and those responses also change over time, throughout your children's development. So, instead of focusing on what kind of a mother I'm going to be, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about the kind of mother I already am.

One of the comments I've always cringed over whenever a stranger learns that I have an autistic child is the common response: "That must be so difficult for you," or "That must be a lot of hard work." My default response to this comment is always to laugh it off. I explain that while some things have been more challenging, A. has always been very self-contained, which makes a lot of things pretty easy. I say this because the individuals who make those comments when they talk to me about my daughter often have misconceptions about autism being a tragedy, about autism being a burden, and the last thing I want to do is to add fuel to that fire.

 I say this because I believe it is true. There have definitely been challenging times, but I've never felt like I had to "work really hard" at being a mother. And, in fact, I've watched many other parents of neurotypical kids stress over getting their kids to events, appointments, after-school activities, and the like, and I actually feel like I'm pretty lazy by comparison - I can't even get my butt in gear to help follow-up on A.'s daily chore list, and part of the reason A. eats such a limited number of foods is simply because I've never been able to make offering her different types of foods on consistent basis a big priority.

In other words, I honestly feel like a pretty lazy mother most of the time, and I definitely don't feel like A.'s autism has really caused me to have to work any harder as much as it's caused me to have to work differently.

But the thing is, I still have a tendency to sell myself short. It's easy to forget how difficult things used to be. When I first started this blog, A. was going through a very difficult time trying to adjust to school and to daycare. It seemed like every day included a struggle of some sort or a meltdown of some kind. It seemed like every day I feared a phone call with bad news. I rushed A. to therapist after therapist to do whatever I possibly could do to try and help her. I worked with her teachers and child care providers to try to come up with creative solutions for issues. She's improved so much over the years that I have unintentionally blocked those events from my memory.

But it isn't even about the difficult times. It's about how I would always go the extra mile to try to make life easier for A. It's about how I came up with the idea to create "study videos" where we would act out the study guides for her upcoming tests with Pokemon figures and have her watch those videos over and over again to study. It's about how I'd spend a ridiculous amount of time creating stuffed toys of her favorite Nintendo characters, despite the fact that I don't have a crafty bone in my body. It's about making fun visual schedules to help keep her on track with her chores and homework each day. It's about spending a whole lot of time researching and creating party props and decorations for a Minecraft themed birthday. It's about all the big things, but also all the little things I've done throughout the years, not expecting anything in return, and just because I love her.

That's what being a mom is all about.

But the thing is, despite the fact that I've obviously worked very hard at being a mother, it rarely ever feels like work. Oh, sure, there are times where I am a heartbroken, frustrated, exhausted ball of anxiety, but when I look back on the whole of my life, it always feels like it's been easy, even though I know, logically, that hasn't always been the case.

It's easy being a mom, because it's easy to love as a mom. In the end, that's really the only motivation and energy I need.


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High School is a Thing
September 9, 2014 9:05 AM by Devon Alley
This year, A. turns fifteen, and she begins her first year of 9th grade. Just like that, High School is a Thing that we do.

It's hard to believe that we're here already. It's hard to believe it's been ten years since we moved to this city, since A. started Kindergarten, since we began our journey into the public school system. And it's amazing how far we've come, even in just the last few years.

A. has become such a little adult in some respects. And, because of that, I've been trying to back off a bit. I still, of course, check in with her, ask her if she's keeping up with her homework, reach out to her teachers to let them know I'm here to support her anyway I can, but I'm trying to keep myself from checking up on her grades every day, from rifling through her notebooks to make sure she's doing her assignments, and from asking her teachers questions that she's perfectly capable of asking them herself. (The fact that the parent-teacher communication website is currently under construction helps me stay out of Helicopter Parent Mode.)

That being said, there's still so much work to do. She still struggles with her understanding of social protocols, and she absolutely hates the idea of doing homework at home. She's made arrangements with her teachers, however, to have time to work on her homework at school, and that seems to be working out for her so far. And when she does have to do work at home, she's able to get through it much more easily than in the past. I think she has a little more confidence in her academic ability - perhaps because she was able to pull up her grades so dramatically last year. In the past, she would essentially "shut down" whenever she was faced with something difficult to understand, and she would stop trying and get incredibly depressed and down on herself. Now, she is willing to keep trying to understand something, and even though it may still take a while, and even though it might be very frustrating for her, she seems to have a lot more patience to keep trying.

I am very proud of her.

Her overall progress has been especially dramatic for me recently because I've been looking at old tweets and social media updates through Timehop each day. Timehop is a service that basically takes this calendar day and delivers to you a digest of what you tweeted or posted to Facebook on this day each year in the past. Recently, I've been re-experiencing those first few weeks of school in the past, and I've been reading just how difficult it has been for her:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I'm so very grateful that we have come to a place where A. can better handle herself in a school setting. I'm so very grateful that, instead of "faking sick" and asking to come home over every little headache and sniffle, that she actually reached the point last year where she earned perfect attendance. And I'm so very grateful that I've only received one phone call from school so far this year, and it wasn't even a very big situation.

Please don't misunderstand me - A. still doesn't seem to get much enjoyment from school at all, and I still wish she shared my dorky enthusiasm for learning new things. But at least she doesn't seem to loathe it quite as much. And considering that she's attending her first year of high school, and that there are so many new and different situations to deal with, I'm very impressed that she's doing so well. She had so much anxiety about going to high school in the first place that I hope she can appreciate how awesome it is that she's doing so well, that it hasn't been the struggle that she was anticipating, and that I was fearing.

Of course, we are still only a month in to our new routine, which mean it could still be anybody's game. But I am hopeful for A.'s success, and I am excited about her future.


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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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