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.
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.
Last week was A.'s Spring Break. On the one hand, she was really excited and enjoyed having an entire week off where she didn't have to worry about going to school. On the other hand, she was a little disappointed that she really didn't get to do anything super fun or exciting. Thomas and I both had to work, and I've been working late nights myself for the past several weeks, so she had to deal with hanging around the house, playing on the computer, and otherwise trying to entertain herself about 75% of the time.
That being said, we tried to do one or two interesting things with her throughout the week, and they seemed to go over very well.
The first weekend of Spring Break, we went to go visit my grandmother in Greene County. This is not A.'s favorite thing in the world to do, but it's been a little easier for her ever since my grandmother installed the Internet in her house. She also got a little ice cream treat while we visiting, and that seemed to make her happy.
I had to work late both Monday and Tuesday, but it gave A. an opportunity to bond a little with Thomas, and she seemed to enjoy the time they got to spend together. Wednesday night we found ourselves with an unexpected free night, so I called A. in the middle of the day and asked her to think about what she would like to do. She had some gift cards for the store FYE that she'd received for Christmas, so she called me in the afternoon and told me she wanted to go to the mall to spend them. So we took a little impromptu shopping trip to the mall, which was really nice. It's fun to be able to let A. just relax and enjoy herself without stressing out over what happens next, where we need to go, or trying to rush her because we have too many things to do. On the way home, A. was singing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" by Monty Python, and it struck me that she hadn't seen the film Life of Brian yet, so I felt that might be a nice way to end the night. We got home, popped some popcorn, and watched the movie, which A. found hilarious. It was enjoyable, even though I kept falling asleep because I was so exhausted from work. Still, it was great to cuddle and spend time together doing something fun like that.
Thursday night, we took A. to Pizza Inn, which is by far her favorite place in the world to eat. This is partially due to the never-ending buffet, of which A. gets to choose from her three favorite food groups cheese pizza, chicken nuggets, and spaghetti with no sauce and she gets to eat as much as she wants. I managed to convince her to try a different dessert this particular evening (she usually goes for the chocolate chip pizza, but they had banana pudding pizza, too, and she was happy to try it.) It was almost disturbing how euphoric she was after eating the banana pudding pizza. She was hyper the rest of the night, which she claimed was because of the banana pudding, but I suspect it may have had more to do with the three cokes she consumed while we were there.
On Friday, A. got to go visit with her dad in Chattanooga, and she apparently had a great time. From what she tells me, her days consisted of eating more pizza, watching movies and video games, and spending time with her grandparents so I think that's a pretty good way to end a Spring Break. On Friday, after she returned, we went over to Thomas's parents' house to celebrate my father-in-law's birthday. A. seemed to enjoy that, too, even though she did hide out in the back bedroom from time to time.
It's interesting because we're both so very used to A. wanting her distance, hiding in her room, staying glued to her computer. However, on weeks like Spring Break when she doesn't get very much social interaction, she often greets us at the door when we come home, and she wants to chat, and spend time with us, and do things with us. It's a really nice feeling, and it reminds me that so much of A.'s obsession with electronics really goes back to a coping mechanism. At the end of the school day, she is socially exhausted, and she really needs that time to decompress, listen to music, and heal herself in isolation. When she doesn't have that overload, she really doesn't have a problem seeking it out. There was even one afternoon during Spring Break where she went outside and tried to find one of her friends to play with. It seems as if the older she gets, the more interested in social interaction she becomes.
Monday, of course, it was back to school, but I didn't hear as much complaining as I usually do. She seemed excited to see her friends again, and if her grades are any testament to how well she's coping in classes this year, then she's doing really well she brought home a report card with A's, B's, and C's this term. She'll probably never really like Wednesdays, and I don't think she's ever going to LOVE attending classes, but it seems like she's adjusted very well, and I could not ask for anything more.
Of course, now that she's finally comfortable with the life and routine of Middle School, we're going to change things around on her again and send her to High School next year. It must be really hard sometimes, to live in our crazy world.
So, A. had a pretty adventurous and rather momentous weekend.
On Friday evening, two of her friends stopped by for a small slumber party. She'd invited a few more girls, but they were not able to make it due to family obligations. The two who showed up for the sleepover were two girls who had never come over for a sleepover before, so it was an interesting change in dynamic. Many of A.'s friends have very dominant personalities they like to pick activities, and they tend to sort of "run the party" when they visit. A. doesn't mind she really enjoys them when they are here but she does tend to get a little overwhelmed after a while. She's generally the first girl to pass out at a slumber party, and she tends to withdraw a lot the day after. I've always felt that she must be "normalizing" or "de-stressing" after all, sleepovers can be pretty intense social situations.
This time, however, it was completely different. The girls who spent the night were much more laid-back and unassuming. They would all discuss things that they wanted to do and then get an almost informal vote on the items before they engaged in an activity. They were excited about any of the ideas A. had, even when those ideas were just taking turns decorating things on A.'s Minecraft server. They all seemed to be having a blast when I turned in to bed around 11:30pm. When I woke up at 4:30am, I could still hear them dancing, listening to music, and laughing in A.'s room. I went in to check on them, fully expecting A. to be sound asleep while the other two girls stayed awake. Much to my surprise, A. was still awake, too! I never can remember her staying up so late at a slumber party before. The next morning, she saw her friends off, and proceeded to tell me how much fun she had, and how this particular slumber party had been an absolute blast. Most noticeably, she didn't seem to fall into the usual withdrawn quasi-depressed state that often follows her after a sleepover.
Far from it, in fact.
You see, later that day, one of Thomas's cousins was getting married. I'd already assumed A. would not want to go to the wedding she wasn't particularly close to the cousin, and dressing up in dress clothes while engaging in nonstop social activity wasn't something I imagined she would really want to do. All the same, I figured I would ask and invite her, just in case. Much to my surprise, however, A. decided that she did, in fact, want to come to the wedding. Moreover, she wanted to dress in a pretty dress. So after scrambling and letting her borrow some of my pre-pregnancy clothes, we got her in a nice purple dress with a black cardigan and some new dress shoes. She even let me put a little frizz-control curl product in her hair and a little bit of makeup on her face. We headed to the church where, outside of getting slightly aggravated any time she had to wait for a little while, she did amazingly well. She even seemed to enjoy the service, and smiled at the cute little ring bearer and flower girls who meandered down the aisle.
After the wedding, we were trying to decide whether or not to go to the reception. Pretty much all of Thomas's family was in town, and we wanted to spend more time with them, but the reception was a bit of a drive, and I wasn't sure how much more A. would be up for. So, I let her call the shots. I asked her if she wanted to go to the reception. I warned her they might not play cool music, I didn't know whether there would be any dancing, and we had no idea what flavor the cake would be.
Much to my surprise, A. wanted to go to the reception. Specifically, she said that one of the reasons she wanted to go was to actually spend time with people. (Well, that, and eat cake, of course.) So, we decided to encourage this behavior since she seemed to be so open to trying new things and pushing her social comfort zone. The reception was a lot of fun, and A. had a blast. She got to eat delicious cake, she got to share funny Minecraft YouTube videos with her cousins on her iPhone, and she even got up and danced a bit. After the reception, we invited a whole bunch of family over to our house, and A. did very well for several hours among all the chaos and kids running up and down the stairs and in and out of her room. Finally, she did have enough, and because she'd been so good all day long, I gave her a rare treat I gave her permission not only to close, but also to lock her door. I let her have complete privacy for an hour or so, after which she happily came downstairs and said goodbye to everyone.
There seriously was a point in the day where I kept thinking to myself who is this young lady, and what has she done with my daughter?!
Still, I shouldn't have been too terribly surprised. A. has these sort of "growth spurts" every so often where she seems to exponentially progress from a social and developmental standpoint almost overnight. These phases are often followed by some "growing pains" almost a two steps forward, one step back sort of situation. Even if I can tell myself not to be surprised, I can't help but be extremely and amazingly proud of her. None of what she engaged in over the weekend was easy, by any stretch of the means, but I'm impressed that she managed all of it so well and with so much grace. It definitely was not your typical weekend, but that was far from a bad thing.
When I returned from my big conference in February, I was able to look forward to the middle school production of The Wizard of Oz, in which A. got to play the role of the Door Keeper.
What door keeper, you might ask? The one who was at the gate to Oz, of course, the one who lets you know, "Nobody can see the Wizard, not nobody, not nohow!" It wasn't a very large role, but A. had a few lines, and she delivered them awesomely. She projected very well her voice filled the entire gymnasium, and she wasn't even wearing a microphone. She had energy, enthusiasm, and was very true to character. Moreover, the part of the door keeper was the part she actually wanted. We'd discussed possible roles before she went to audition, and she decided that the door keeper was just zany enough to be her kind of character.
The performance itself was very well done. For a middle school production, the play put my own meager high school drama club trials to shame. There were several strong actors and actresses, and it was obvious that a lot of time and energy had gone into every detail of the show, from lighting cues to stage blocking to set design. Granted, it was still a middle school production, but I couldn't help but be very proud of this group of kids who'd devoted so much of their lives to this small play for the past several months.
What was most impressive to me, however, wasn't the way A. delivered her lines, or her own impressive acting abilities. What was most impressive was, at the end of the show, the way A. stood at curtain call to take her bow, and how much she clapped for everyone else involved how she watched the other actors and actresses join the cast line, and how she cheered them on, clapping her hands, laughing and looking at her peers with a face beaming with pride. It was the first time I think I'd seen A. actively take an interest in being a part of a collective, or part of a team she understood that the show was much, much bigger than her rather small part, and she still had so much pride to be contributing and connected to something that was so much bigger. It was the level of social awareness that impressed me, and it was the fact that she obviously took so much joy and excitement in the entire project that completely delighted me. Her level of commitment and camaraderie was outstanding. In short, I think I got to watch her engage in an activity that she truly had a great deal of passion for, and it gave me hope that this may be a wonderful outlet for her in years to come.
Granted, I'm the mother, and as the mother, you tend to be a little biased when it comes to your own child's talents and capabilities. Still, I felt a little validated in my thoughts when the drama teacher asked to meet me, and I spoke with her briefly about A.
"She really has a lot of talent," her teacher told me. "She really needs to get involved in theater."
"We've been talking about having her join the drama club when she goes to high school," I said.
"Sure," the teacher said, "but I'm talking maybe the Oak Ridge Playhouse, or some of the other local theaters."
So, I've been keeping an eye out for casting calls and auditions around the community, even though I honestly don't know the first place to look.
And it's not about finding a career path, or preparing for college, or any of the numerous reasons I guess parents are supposed to want their kids to get involved in extracurricular activities. It's because I saw a real confidence in A. on that stage, a real desire for her to be a part of something greater, to help create something amazing for others to view. I definitely want to do everything in my power to help encourage that, and to help foster that creative energy as long as she keeps the interest.
Besides, she comes by it honestly. I was a theater nerd who sought out other theater nerds when I was in high school. Her biological father got involved in some dramatic productions during high school, as well, if I'm remembering correctly. That being said, I'm pretty sure she's already putting the both of us to shame. But that could just be the Mommy Pride talking. :-)
This past Monday morning, my husband was involved in a pretty serious car wreck. Fortunately, he was not badly hurt just banged up a bit and a couple of gashes on his head but the car itself was totaled, and the event has made for a rather stressful week.
When I talked to A. on the phone after school let out, I went ahead and prepped her for the situation. I wanted to let her know that Thomas would be driving a rental car so she wouldn't be confused or upset when he wasn't driving his regular car home.
"OMG is he okay?!" she asked. When I assured her that he was, she said, "Oh, thank God, thank God!"
Then, later, we showed her the picture of the totaled vehicle, and Thomas also showed her the big gash on top of his head. It was interesting to watch her mind work, to see what she was concerned about.
"I'm glad you're okay," she told him. "I don't know what we'd do without you!"
Despite her dramatic leanings, A. is not necessarily one to express her emotions in detail very often at least not to her parental figures, in any case. When I get a sleepy or a quick "love ya" in response to me letting her know that I love her, I always feel warm and fuzzy inside, particularly because it is such a rare occurrence. Obviously, we know that she cares for us, and that we are important to her, but like any teenager, it's just not something she verbalizes very often. So, when A. was voicing her concern about Thomas's car wreck, it was a pretty heart-melting moment.
Then, of course, she went into more detail.
"I mean, who would fix everything for us? And if you weren't around, we wouldn't have as much money, so we wouldn't have this nice big house we'd have to move into a small house or an apartment."
I couldn't keep myself from laughing at this particular statement, and A. called me out on it, but I told her I was just overcome by how true it all was. And, that's the thing it's such an incredible amount of insight for someone her age. I've never sat down and explained to A. the fact that when we moved from a single-parent income to a dual-parent income, that changed our standard of living tremendously. A. has asked me about our life when I was still in graduate school, before. She remembers when we shared the tiny, run-down, one bedroom apartment, and she remembers going to the laundromat, and she remembers the little treats she used to get a glass bottle of cola, or a small snack at the gas station. We were talking about this stage in our life one day when she seemed to figure it out. "We were really poor, weren't we?" she asked. And it wasn't as if we were destitute, or going hungry, or unable to meet our basic needs. But it was a lot different than the life we live now, and I think that's made a big impression on A.
Still, that obviously wasn't all A. was concerned with that Thomas would still be around to fix things, or that he would make sure we wouldn't slip into poverty. She gave him a huge hug, and lingered around the kitchen for a while as we prepared dinner something she doesn't normally do.
"We should do something together," she told Thomas, out of the blue. "You and me."
That's not entirely a novel concept, either. A. has really reached out to Thomas a lot lately for one-on-one time, playing video games together, or going out to eat. She explains that it is "bonding" time, and she definitely craved a lot of it while I was out of town for work. The two of them even got to spend some quality time in the snow together. Thomas actually used FaceTime on his iPhone to let me watch the two of them play in the snow. It was awesome to be able to take a break on my way to a meeting to sit and watch and listen to them laugh and play and throw snowballs at each other. It's just one of the many reasons I love technology.
I also love technology because it keeps my loved ones safe. It deploys air bags, it crumples doors and hoods in the right manner to cause the least amount of impact to a driver, it allows texts to go through assuring me everything is fine, it allows us to research replacement car options. It make sure my husband returns home from work safe and sound. Because, as A. pointed out, we really don't know what we would do without him.
Life has been so incredibly busy and crazy these past few weeks that I've completely neglected to share the news we received back during the first week of February. Thomas and I will be bringing another girl into the family, and A. will have a little sister in just a few more months.
We scheduled the anatomy ultrasound for early in the morning for several reasons. First of all, it makes it easier to not miss quite as much work if you begin your day at the doctor and then head back to the office afterwards. Mostly, however, I'd promised A. that she would be in attendance when we found out if the new sibling was a boy or a girl, and an early morning ultrasound was a great way to make sure she missed the least amount of school while still being able to participate in the event.
A. was much more engaged and interested than I would have expected. She wanted to know what certain shadows were on the screen, why certain things turned certain colors, what part of the baby we were looking at each moment, and -- of course -- whether the ultrasound technician could tell if it was a boy or a girl. When the ultrasound tech finally revealed that the baby was a girl, A. yelled triumphantly, "I knew it!" and "I win!" As a little bit of backstory, pretty much EVERYONE -- myself and Thomas included -- had a gut feeling that the baby was going to be a boy. That probably just goes to show how completely off my intuition is at times. A., on the other hand, said it was going to be a girl -- even though, to be fair, she was saying it mostly because she wanted it to be true. A. was a little leery at the idea of having a little brother, but a little sister was something she felt she could be okay with. When A. was broadcasting how she was right all along and proclaiming that she was the winner, I couldn't help but wonder if she was more excited because she had "guessed" right, or simply excited that the baby ended up being a girl, after all.
The knowledge hasn't really changed any of our regular proceedings, however. We've still painted the nursery blue in preparation for our Doctor Who theme. We're still registering for a lot of gender-neutral items and accepting hand-me-downs from any gender option, because we are always grateful for any help we can get. Despite A.'s obvious gender profiling in the announcement picture she designed for us, she's maintained a very liberal attitude on such matters, as well -- perhaps because she sees herself as a sort of a tomboy, and she hopes to model that same behavior for her little sister. Still, it's exciting to know the sex, and it definitely seems to have helped ease A.'s mind about the baby a bit -- my guess being that it helps her feel a little more prepared for what is about to come.
A. has also agreed to have her picture made in relation to the "baby bump" that is her little sister, and she's also felt the baby kick -- a phenomenon she has decided is "just kinda weird," and I can't say I particularly disagree with that one. She wanted to know how exactly it was possible for a baby to kick in there. It is kind of mind-blowing when you stop to think about it -- just what all is entailed in creating a little person, and how strange it must be to view all of that from the outside. I am grateful that A. seems much more open to the idea of being a big sister in general, and that she seems to be engaging more about the subject of her own volition. Hopefully by the time June rolls around, she'll be very prepared and ready to welcome this new little stranger into our home, and she'll know a little bit better what exactly to expect. Or, at least, she'll know as much about what to expect as we will, which is really the best one can ever hope for.
I'm always amazed at just how empathetic my daughter can be sometimes. It's especially highlighted by the fact that "trouble with empathy" is always one of the things that is said to be indicative of autism, and it's just something I've never seen A. have a problem with if anything, she's often too empathetic.
Today was my first day home from my week-long work conference. My bosses gave me the day off, which I have happily been spending sleeping, meditating, walking, and in general recovery from working 10 days straight, and usually 10-15+ hours a day. Today is also the first day of A.'s play that she's so excited about, and since I wasn't sure how that would work as far as pick-up, drop-off, and rehearsal time was concerned, I asked A. to call me with the details later in the day.
A. called me early the afternoon, sounding very grown-up, mature, and excited. Their first performance for the 6th and 7th graders at school was today, so A. told me I could pick her up after school. She's generally a bus rider, so when she called me while I was on my way to pick her up, she told me I could pick her up directly outside the gym.
I should mention that this was the same place I picked her up yesterday after rehearsal, which in itself was awesome. A. hadn't seen me in a week, so I parked and waited for her outside on the sidewalk, and she said she wanted to do a "slow motion running at each other and hugging," which was awesome. I'm sure that, eventually, giving your mom big hugs in front of your friends will no longer be "cool," so I'm enjoying it while it lasts.
Apparently, however, parents are not supposed to pick up their children directly outside the gym, as this is the place where the buses pick up kids. I'd heard this before, but I'd thought since A. was in the play, and since it was after dismissal time, it would be the same as yesterday, and I would run into no problems fetching my daughter. In fact, there wasn't anyone else around, and no buses, so she climbed in, and we got ready to go.
A.'s principal, however, came rushing at me, yelling at me for picking up A. in the bus lane, that this was for buses only, that I was not to do it, etc. I apologized and said I would not do it again, but it rattled me a bit. Whenever anyone yells at A. or corrects her in a harsh manner, she has a tendency to come apart, and I've also really understood how that feels, because if someone does the same to me, I do the same thing, too.
A. apologized, too, since she'd been the one to tell me to pick her up outside the gym. I told her it was okay, and we went ahead and made plans for the next day, too. We went on about our conversation, and I did my best to recenter after having been so rattled. Thankfully, due to years of therapy and all of the mindfulness training I've gone through, I was able to recognize that I was upset, understand why I was upset, and then move on from in, instead of staying caught up in the panic, or crying, or otherwise reacting in the manner I would have in the past.
Despite that, however, A. could tell that it had bothered me.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
"Yes," I said. "I just get rattled when people yell at me. I don't like it, and it upsets me. Your principal was yelling, and I just thought it was a little mean."
"Oh, he just yells like that sometimes," she said, as if to explain that I shouldn't take it personally, because that was just the way he was. Which is precisely a sort of lesson I'd given her in the past.
"I know," I said.
"I understand, though," A. continued. "I have pain when people yell, too."
I smiled and said, "I know you do," impressed with that empathy not just that she understood where I was coming from, but also that she understood my facial expressions, demeanor, and general attitude enough to be "clued in" to when I was upset, even when it really wasn't that obvious.
It's just so crazy, sometimes. I have this little critter kicking around my belly right now, and it makes me remember when A. was the same sort of little critter, moving and stretching and poking and hiccuping in this same belly, fifteen years ago. It's been the most amazing journey in the world to watch her grow from a tiny baby to a toddler to a small child to this fantastic young woman she's become. I am so incredibly grateful that I had the privilege and honor of being her mother.
is the time of year when things get pretty crazy busy around the Alley
household. At my day job, I'm hard at work on helping organize a company
conference that will bring in over a thousand attendees from all over North
America which, unfortunately, takes time away that I would much rather be
spending with my family. That being said, we've had quite a few little
adventures over the past couple of weeks, so I'll do my best to give you a
weather has been the biggest news lately. Our little town of Knoxville,
Tennessee, rarely sees temperatures dip even into the teens, but we've had a
great deal of arctic weather leaving us hovering many mornings right around
zero degrees Fahrenheit. We've had a lot of snow, and a lot of ice, which has
often left the roads impassable, and has resulted in more snow days in a
one-month span than A. has probably had in total throughout her entire school
career. A. has spent a lot of that time pretending that she's fighting Doctor
Blowhole, who is obviously behind the Polar Vortex, and enjoying the winter
weather, sliding down hillsides on her belly like a penguin.
has been making great progress at school, at least from a homework standpoint.
I'm not sure how that's all translating into grades, yet, but I was amazingly
proud of her tackling her math homework without complaint for over an hour one
afternoon, and we've been diligently going over the Periodic Table of Elements
in preparation for a test that keeps getting delayed by the weather. I keep
making up ridiculous, nonsensical stories to try to tie the elements together
and jog her memory of what they are, which seems to be helping. At the very
least, she thought it was hilarious when I first started telling the stories,
so there was a small amusement factor from the whole process if nothing else.
is not entirely amused by my recent inspiration to try to expose her to the
television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I don't know what triggered it in
my mind, but it's such a great series with strong female characters and an
emphasis on the importance of supportive and loyal friends. A. will be going
into high school next year, so I figured this might be one way to help her get
prepared. As my friend Jill says, how better to help a teenager understand that
high school really can be hell? Still, A. is not convinced. I've managed to get
her to agree to watching 5 episodes before she completely gives up on it,
of teenagers, one of my friends has started a social group for teens on the
autism spectrum. It's targeted especially for Asperger teens, but A. seems to
fit in with the group quite comfortably. They had their first meeting Friday
night, where they got together at a parent's house, watched a movie, ate
popcorn and candy, and I'm pretty sure a nerf gun war commenced after the film
had ended, even though A. just hung out and showed off her drawings. She was
reluctant to go mostly because she hadn't seen the film yet and she has a lot
of anxiety about watching new movies but she ended up having a blast. She
enjoyed the movie, and she seemed to really enjoy meeting some new people,
talking with and making jokes with them. I can always tell she's having a good
time when she starts quoting videos from YouTube in tandem with her friends. I
think that's a good sign, right there.
I may be hard at work, but life is still continuing apace. I'm pretty sure A.
wishes it would stay winter for the rest of her life, but I'm secretly hoping
spring comes soon, or at least we finally escape the clutches of the Polar
Vortex. Maybe A. needs to track down Doctor Blowhole after all.
This morning, the phone number of my daughter's school flashed as an incoming call on my iPhone screen. There is only one time of day when this phone number doesn't immediately make me nervous. Every Friday afternoon, at 5 pm on the dot, we receive a "robocall" from the principal, letting us know what events are happening the next week, letting us know how to prepare our children for any tests or tasks ahead. I can safely let that call go to voicemail and then listen to it over my car stereo speakers on my way home, just to check and see if I need to follow-up with A. on anything.
When the call from school comes in the middle of the day, my stomach immediately sinks.
To be fair, it's not always bad news. Often, it's just that A. isn't feeling great. She may be calling me directly from the office, to let me know she has a headache, or her stomach hurts. Unless she has a fever, I tell her to tough it out, even though I will sometimes drop by with some medicine to help her feel better. These sorts of calls haven't been very common this year, though. It's one major indicator that A. is enjoying school a lot more in the 8th grade.
Sometimes, it's a teacher trying to get in touch with me about an upcoming IEP meeting that we need to schedule, or it's just the school counselor checking in because there was a pep rally or a school dance or some other activity that messed with her schedule and rattled her day somewhat. I've really been happy with A.'s school, with the awesome team she has looking out for her, and all of her staff and teachers who genuinely seem to care so much about her. I like having the connection and the support, so obviously the phone call is not always a bad thing.
Sometimes, though, the phone calls are not great. Sometimes, she's having a meltdown. Sometimes, she's failing a class. Sometimes, she's being suspended from the bus. Those are the phone calls I don't often blog about, because my daughter is a teenager, and the last thing in the world I want to do is embarrass her by going into vivid detail about when she's not at her best. Those are already extremely difficult times for her anyway, and I don't want to do anything to make them more difficult for her. All that being said -- sometimes, a phone call from school is *really* not good news. So maybe that explains the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I see the phone number flash on my screen.
Every once in a while, however, a phone call from school is the last thing you expect.
Today, it was her Drama Club teacher. Her happy, bubbly tone told me everything was fine, so I was able to relax immediately.
That still didn't prepare me for the news she had for me, however.
"Your daughter handed me a wad of cash for our fundraiser," she said. "It's about $60. I wanted to make sure it wasn't supposed to go somewhere else?"
I found myself searching my brain. Thomas and I don't carry around cash as a rule. I hadn't given her cash for anything at school.
But Christmas was less than a month ago. And she got a lot of cash from loving relatives who are often clueless as to what to give a geeky teenage girl with a narrow field of interests. She stuffed all the cash in her pockets and I don't think it ever made its way back to her piggy bank upstairs, and she hasn't voiced any interest in buying anything.
"I think that's actually her Christmas money," I said.
And, how incredible is that? I mean, who does that? What teenager on the planet decides that she wants to spend a large fraction of her Christmas gifts on funding activities she enjoys at school? She didn't even want anything or ask anything in return. And she was absolutely insistent that the teacher keep the money. And what parent gets a concerned phone call from school just because their teenager was giving too much? Don't get me wrong -- it makes perfect sense. This is the most enjoyment I've seen A. get out of a school activity in her entire career in the public education system, so I'm not surprised that she wants to donate to the Drama Club simply because it's so much fun for her and she loves it so much. But, still.
I told the teacher to hold onto the money and I would talk with A. just to make sure this was what she wanted to do. I'm definitely not going to try to talk her out of being such a generous person, but I do want to make sure she completely understands what she's doing. I also want her to understand how proud I am of her, what a really selfless thing this is for her to do, and try to reinforce the behavior without embarrassing her or making her feel weird.
Because, sometimes when the school calls, that's means it's a bad day. But other times, it just means your kid is being a superhero.
I recently enrolled my daughter in the OWL program at my church, much to her dismay. This is not a topic she is particularly keen to discuss or even think about. Not only would she much rather be engaged in her preferred activities, and not only does the program demand that she spend time in a social learning exchange with others, but it's also centered around a subject that she finds incredibly embarrassing. What's so embarrassing about OWL, you might be asking? Isn't that just the tests you have to pass in order to become a wizard in the Harry Potter universe? Nothing quite so glamorous, I am afraid. "OWL stands for Our Whole Lives," as in Our Whole Lives Lifespan Sexuality Education.
Now, perhaps, the embarrassment makes a little more sense.
I attended a thorough orientation and did a great deal of research before I decided to enroll my daughter in this program before I came to the conclusion that this program was best aligned with the values of our family. It provides the information that I feel she needs about sexual behavior and health, while also focusing on relationships, personal skills, responsibility, and how these issues are represented and discussed in society and culture.
Most importantly, I appreciated that the coursework focuses so much on helping the attendees evaluate their own values, beliefs, and feelings on the subject matter. It is education, which is absolutely important, but it also allows for a great deal of self-reflection, which is just as important. These are difficult, and often embarrassing topics to think about, discuss, or consider. I'm comforted that OWL is providing my daughter a safe environment to have these discussions especially considering that I imagine she's a lot more comfortable doing this when she's not around her mother.
That being said, Our Whole Lives curriculum may not be for everyone. Families are diverse in their beliefs, ideas, and attitudes about sexuality. Sex is approached differently in various cultures, faiths, religions, and even regions of the country, and parents obviously want to make sure that their children are receiving education about sexuality that aligns and affirms their family's traditions and beliefs. That is, in fact, part of the reason I personally chose the Our Whole Lives curriculum for my daughter it was provided by my church, and it focuses on inclusivity, acceptance of diversity, and the importance of justice, all which align with the values with which I was brought up, and the values that inform the parenting of my daughter. As parents, we get to make the choice about how we talk about sex with our kids.
What I will say is this: I believe that it is extremely, vitally important to make sure our children are educated about sex. Parents have the freedom to guide and drive those conversations, but I also feel as if they have the responsibility to actually have them. Especially when your child is on the spectrum.
Let's face it most parents dread this topic. Parents of kids with developmental disabilities often feel even more awkward. When Lindsey Nebeker asked parents about this subject, "the number one reason they give is that they are unable to tell the level of ability their child or teen will have in grasping such topics." We don't know if they're ready. What if we traumatize them? What if they don't understand?
Obviously, there are no hard-and-fast rules for knowing when your child is ready, or even how to begin having those conversations. Even when you try to have those conversations, you may meet resistance it may be difficult for them to understand, or they may be completely mortified to have a discussion about the subject at all. Still, it's important for them to understand what's happening to their bodies, to their emotions, to their peer relationships as they become even more complex and confusing in the teenage years. I could explain the importance of these issues at length, but Shannon Des Roches Rosa has already done so in this blog post.
Part of the reason I'm so grateful for the inclusive, self-reflective environment of the OWL program is because I feel it will allow students to really get a chance to consider their own ideas and orientations in a safe environment, free of judgement. Self-esteem is often a major casualty of the hormonally-charged environment of high school, and I feel like one of the best guards against such wounds is building a strong, confident sense of self. Imagine listening to your girlfriends talk about boys, feeling left out because you don't share those same feelings.
Maybe you want to have a romantic relationship, but the idea of sexual attraction is completely baffling to you. In Ettina's blog post "We're Not All Sexual," she talks about how confusing it was to grow up as an asexual teenager, as someone who did not have a sexual attraction to anyone. I feel as if programs like OWL can help teens in these situations understand that they are are not alone, and that they have the love and support they need.
I feel like these sorts of discussions also help dispel a lot of the myths about autism and sexuality, many of which are collected in a chapter by Lindsey A. Nebeker in Relationships & Sexuality: A Handbook for and by Autistic People --myths such as autistics never have relationships, that they never get married, or that they are incapable of empathy. These are discussions that our teens need to have with responsible, caring adults, because they are looking to us for guidance.
Because of this, for many Sunday evenings in the upcoming months, I will be dragging my daughter to attend OWL. Sadly, she won't be taking her Ordinary Wizarding Level exams at Hogwarts, but hopefully she'll be learning a little bit more about life, responsibility, respect, and herself.
The last week, we've been experiencing some unusual weather in East Tennessee. Generally, our winter weather dips into the 20s and 30s on cold days, and it might even plummet into the teens on really cold days. This week, we've been dealing with temperatures that dipped down to zero degrees fahrenheit one morning. It has been cold, icy, and snowy which has delayed the return to school from the holidays.
It's interesting, because usually A. revels in snow days off of school. She enjoys "slacking off" and having a day just to spend to herself. This time, however, she's beginning to get a little antsy. She's ready to get back to school. Specifically, she's ready to see her best friend again after the long winter break.
She's been talking a lot on the phone over winter break mostly with her best friend, so much so that we've had to add minutes to the phone plan twice in the past two weeks. It's a bit excessive, but A. generally never talks on the phone at all, and we don't want to do anything to hamper the social outlets that she has. She also spent a week with her grandmother celebrating the new year, having fun conversations, going swimming in the local indoor water parks they apparently had a very wonderful time. And, in the snow-covered neighborhood, she's been outside a lot enjoying the winter weather she loves so much, playing with friends from school, sledding down embankments. She's definitely been a social creature the last couple of weeks.
In part, I believe that's because she's not been suffering the social and sensory overload from school. It's made it a lot easier for her to reach out. She hasn't had to spend so much time in recovery, just trying to normalize from the chaos of each day. Additionally, I think because she hasn't been receiving the social interaction that a body so desperately needs. A. gets lonely, and I think she's been more inclined to reach out since she hasn't had the usual social outlets available.
By the same token, I think another reason why she's not happy about yet another snow day has to do with the fact that she was expecting to go back to school. She's been prepping herself each day for the return, getting herself emotionally and ready for that environment again. Each evening, when we get another phone call or text message letting us know that school is, once again, delayed, she has to completely change her plans, get prepared for an entirely different mindset the next day. Now that she's older, she does a much better job of dealing with change and transitions, but I can still watch the expression on her face, the look in her eyes, and I can tell when something is grating at her, when she's having to work hard to control and normalize her behavior. Sometimes, like tonight, she'll even sink to her knees, and gently bang her head into the wall not in a way that's truly self-harming, but in a way that does echo back to stimming behavior she engaged in when she was much younger. She'll do that, or she'll pick up old games, old cartoon, old characters that she finds comfort in. It's interesting to watch the way she soothes herself when things don't go the way she wants them to go. In a sense, she's learning the basics of coping skills, here. And that's very good news indeed.
So, one more snow day. Hopefully, the most bitter of the cold is behind us. Hopefully, A. will be able to return to school, return to her usual routine, return to seeing her friends again. Hopefully life will get back to normal soon.
Well, here were are at the beginning of another year. The holidays went extremely well, if I do say so myself. I think this was probably one year where A. felt the least overwhelmed. During the holiday season, it's easy for A. to reach a point of "too much" too many people, too many demands, too much stuff. Often, she spends the afternoon/evening of Christmas Day hiding in her bedroom, desperately trying to decompress from all of the chaos of the holiday. This year, however, she was in extremely good spirits, and managed to stay downstairs for the majority of the day, interacting with family, laughing, and having a great time. (Granted, she spent a lot of that time playing one of her new video games, but still!)
I think it helped that we didn't try to do too much, and that we spread everything out. In the past, I try to have everybody come visit and celebrate at my house at some point. I'll host a big family dinner, usually several days before Christmas so that I won't interfere with any other family plans. This year, I didn't trust my energy level to stay high enough to pull something like that off, so my mom and grandmother visited while we made cookies and gingerbread houses, instead. A. still had a great time, but she also had a lot of time to play video games and spend quality time with my mom and grandmother without being too overwhelmed by people, noise, bodies, and chaos. We went over to Thomas's parents' house on Christmas Eve to celebrate with that part of the family, which A. always enjoys. On Christmas morning, it was just Thomas, A., and I for a little while, which was actually pretty nice. We were able to go through the presents a little more slowly, take our time, and be a little less rushed. A. was a little disappointed that there weren't more people in the house, but I think it helped her regulate and prepare for the rest of the day. For brunch, we headed over to my brother's house, and celebrated with them and the rest of the family. A. had a place she could go to chill out, but she also spent a lot of time in the kitchen, too. We also gave her a very specific time we would leave to come home before we even arrived, so she knew exactly what to expect and exactly how long we would be there. That seemed to help A LOT. When she returned home, she got to play video games and spend time with the family for the rest of the day.
Overall, it was a very low-stress, laid-back, family-filled, fun holiday. A. seemed to have a great time, and she was still in good spirits about spending the rest of her winter break from school with her grandmother. Not a bad way to end the year and ring in the new one.
I feel like A. and I have really had a great year. We've had a lot of stuff to work on, but we've been working on them together, and I feel like we've grown a lot closer, that whatever typical teenage chasm that felt like it was wedged between us back in 2012 has healed over and we've had the chance to learn a lot from each other. A. is ending the year with all A's, B's, and C's on her report card for the first time in a very long time (she's worked really hard to bring up her math grade, and I couldn't be more proud of her), and she's ending the year with a lot of empathy and interest for individuals as people, with good questions, with understandable fears and anxieties, but also with a lot of love. I know this upcoming year will probably be very challenging. There will be a new sibling, of course, and that's going to be an adjustment. A. will begin high school this year, which will be a completely different sort of adjustment. Still, I remain hopeful. We've really come a long way. I can only imagine I will continue to be surprised and delighted at all our future adventures, too.
This entry isn't about A., exactly. This entry is more about me, and about how 14 years of experience at being A.'s mother has really influenced the way I see things, now, and the way I move forward with my decisions and the direction of my life.
For those of you who don't know, I'm 34 years old, and I will turn 35 before this new baby is born. I'm not usually one to dwell too much on my age. I mean, I get frustrated at the gray hair, and I still like to dress like I'm a teenager in a punk rock band most of the time, but I don't normally think of myself as "old." More "grown-up," "responsible," and "adult," maybe (at least when I'm not wearing the combat boots), but I normally don't think of myself as an aging woman.
Now, each time I visit the doctor for a check-up, I have to wince whenever the term "advanced maternal age" comes up in paperwork, or in conversation, or in battery of factors that determine whether or not certain testing should be done.
The truth is, because I'll be 35 when I give birth to this new baby, it does place the child at a higher risk for some sort of chromosomal defect. I have the option, of course, of choosing to undergo specific tests that could tell me with 99.9% certainty whether or not there actually is an issue with the child. However, I don't feel much of an inclination to go through with them.
My daughter was born autistic. As such, I've been the mother of a special needs child for over 14 years. I understand that my daughter is high-functioning, and I understand that the unique set of challenges we worked through would be completely different than the unique set of challenges I would need to work through if I had another special needs child, especially if the condition were something completely different.
I know that, as a parent, I have been very fortunate. My daughter is doing well in mainstream classrooms, my daughter has learned how to communicate her needs and desires, and my daughter has mastered items of self-care. I can, at this point, at least imagine the possibility of my daughter going off to college, holding down a job, and living independently. These are all blessings for which I am extremely grateful, and are a cause for celebration each and every day.
That being said, I also know that this road wasn't easy. There was a time when my daughter was nonverbal. There was a time when the basics of self-care were severely delayed. There was a time when she didn't form relationships with others. There was a time when she couldn't communicate her needs and could only scream in frustration. There are still times where I have to repeat instructions for an unfamiliar task three or four times before it makes sense to her, often having to employ visual and tactile methods of communication to help it click. There are still times when she becomes so overwhelmed by the noise and chaos of the world that she loses control and lashes out in socially unacceptable ways.
When my daughter was born, I had no reason to suspect she might be autistic. In fact, I didn't even know what the term "autism" meant. Years later, I would look back in retrospect and wonder if her resistance to cuddling and avoidance of eye contact in infancy were markers of this condition, but at the time, I just accepted it as part of my daughter's unique personality. And, even after she was given a diagnosis, even after we worked with speech therapists and occupational therapists and experts on child development, I still accepted it as a part of my daughter's unique personality. She has always, and remains to this day, thoroughly and uniquely everything that she is, and that was the child I loved from the minute I felt her kicking around in my womb, from the minute I saw the tiny speck on the ultrasound screen.
The new child who is now tumbling around in the same womb brings a whole new set of possibilities and challenges into the world. Whether this kid develops along a typical trajectory or whether it will also require intensive special needs, it is still thoroughly and uniquely everything that it is, too. If this child is born into the world with ten fingers, ten toes, and a completely neurotypical brain, there will still be the regular challenges of cognitive and emotional development that all parents have to learn to navigate as their child grows from baby to adulthood.
If this child is born with a condition like Down Syndrome, then I will voraciously educate myself on the condition just as I did with autism, find local support groups, and get a strong understanding of the myths & truths of the condition. If this child is born with Down Syndrome, I will take comfort in blogs such Noah's Dad, who wants to share the story that Down Syndrome is okay, and I will take comfort in the incredible amount of advocacy and positivity that exists on the Internet for this condition. When I first did an Internet search for "autism" twelve years ago, most of what I could find centered on fear, on "mourning your lost child," and on the hopelessness that the diagnosis would result in a happy and fulfilling life. By contrast, when I do a search for "Down Syndrome" today, I see websites celebrating diversity, rallying advocacy, and stressing the positive, life-affirming outcomes for adults with this condition.The point is, even in the "worst case scenario" of an "advanced maternal age" pregnancy, there is still so, so very much hope. It's the same hope that carried me through these fourteen amazing years with my daughter, and that hope will continue to carry me forward, whatever risks, concerns, and complications may come to light. There are no guarantees in life, and as such, we must move forward through each present moment, doing the best we can with what we have. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, we must sing the tune without the words, and never stop at all.
So, for those of you who were wondering, A. did actually get the part of Imogene Herdman in the Best Christmas Pageant Ever, the play that will be performed at our church the Sunday before Christmas. A. is beyond excited about the role, and I'm very proud of her. There's also a bit of nostalgia here for me on a personal level I was only a year or two older than A. when I played the role of Imogene Herdman at the same play with the Drama Club at my high school.
I explained to Thomas that there's something really touching about this role; there's something incredibly empowering when you're a misfit playing a misfit on stage, when the whole point of that play is to question people's ideas, stereotypes, and judgments of others. Second only to playing Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream, it was one of my favorite dramatic roles, and I am super amounts of excited to see how A. interprets the character, to see how she plays it. A. is very secretive about her roles she wants me to be surprised, which makes sense. She wants me to wait and see the entire play in its context. She was the same way about her play over the summer, as well she really enjoys the element of surprise, and seems to delight in making me wonder over it.
She's also become quite the drama critic of others in their roles. She complains to me when other students aren't reading with a whole lot of emotion, or are just reading lines straight from the script. We had to have a discussion about this, actually, to make sure she understood that she needed to keep such opinions to herself because they might be interpreted as rude. Still, I can't help but rejoice in the fact that she does recognize when a line is being read with emotion, since that's often a difficult concept for autistic people to grasp. I can't help but delight in her inner dramatic critic, that is beginning to develop of recognition of good acting.
Outside of her budding acting career, A. is doing well, preparing for the holidays, and as such being on her best behavior. She always delights in Christmas in the weeks leading up to it, in the preparations for the celebration. She is the kind of teenager who will sing Christmas carols loudly in the parking lot without thinking twice about it whenever we go shopping. I love this about her, her enthusiasm for the holiday, and her enjoyment of the entire season. I think part of the reason I love the winter holiday season as much as I do is because my daughter enjoys it so very much. It's contagious in the best sort of way.
This past weekend, A. enjoyed celebrating the birthday of one of her friends by attending a sleepover at her friend's house. She apparently had no issues and had a wonderful time. Apparently, all the kids did was play Minecraft and watch silly Internet videos all night, so it makes sense that she would really enjoy a party like that. I was struck by the fact that when A. left her friend's house, she wanted to say goodbye to their two cats, too. She'd memorized their names, sought them both out, and the mother told me that A. had made great friends with both of them, even though one of the cats didn't normally warm up to strangers very well. It just reminds me how deep of a bond A. has with animals specifically cats and how comforting that bond is for her.
With two weeks left before Christmas, I feel horribly unprepared, but I guess as long as A. is having a great time and is excited for the next few weeks, I can't really ask more happiness than that.