Autism Transitions: Parental Developmental Delay

IMG_0811

He sleeps on.

A boy comes home from a long day at Kindergarten, climbs into his mother’s lap and both fall asleep in the dwindling winter afternoon. That was today. Except the boy is 19 and he’s a Kindergarten teacher’s assistant. Still, his 5-foot-7 body folds into my lap as easily as a toddler’s, his head fits neatly in the nape of my neck and his sleep is as deep and blissful as an infant. When I close my eyes I literally cannot tell the difference in age, so complete is his ability to shift his weight and meld his body to mine. I have waited for this phase to end for roughly 18 years and miraculously, disconcertingly, it never does.

As we navigate the transition to adulthood, such moments become more poignant. He’s making it harder for me to let go by being such a perfect man-child.

Over the Christmas break I had to run to the Post Office one morning – I was gone for 20 minutes, tops. When I returned I was met by a flummoxed husband and my boy pronounced, very matter-of-factly: “Mom, Dad and I find life very difficult without you!” There was a medication question – I had forgotten to leave out the morning pills. If I had been out of town they no doubt would have figured it out easily, but my unplanned outing sent them into a tailspin and no one even thought to call me on my mobile. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I’ve become such a fabulous enabler. The rewards of caring for this family are so epic that even when things are horrifying and dysfunctional they still make a good story.

After waking, tea with Panda. What part of me would ever want to miss tea time?

After waking, tea with Panda. What part of me would ever want to miss tea time?

Consequently, I’m doing a lousy job at making myself obsolete. As other women my age with kids the same ages as mine plan their next act I find myself trying to perfect the at-home game – which, under normal circumstances I was never very good at. My husband is a far better housekeeper than I am but he works and travels a lot – after 21 years at home I think I’m finally picking up a few of his good habits, but it really has taken that long. The good news is I can cook and I’m well-suited to dealing with the monkey wrenches autism keeps hurling into our lives. I’m grateful that my husband’s work allows me to focus on our family. Sometimes I allow myself to wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t been able to stay home. My boy would have survived but probably not thrived and I would likely have succumbed to some rural suburban mother madness (which is still possible). Maybe I would have revived my old career instead of trying to carve a new one out of the Internet, but even as I try to create new opportunities I can’t really bring myself to take my eye off that autism ball. Like the shoe that periodically came flying from the back of the minivan in years past, it has a tendency to smack me in the back of the head if I turn away.

So, yes, I am having trouble outsourcing my job so that my man-boy can be more independent, partly because he keeps me warm but also because I’m avoiding thinking about what else I should be doing. Even as I try to write on other topics, I am emailing job coaches and setting up meetings to create community networks for adults with disabilities. I’m tracking legislation and figuring out SSDI. I know what I do is making his life better, but I’m just not sure I’m ready to make his life better without me. I want to have it both ways, and I’m going to figure out a way to accomplish that. Later, after tea time, maybe.

Schooled by Autism: Lessons From Charlie Brown and Lucy

blog_lucy_footballI heard the familiar, beloved sound of Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts music and then a voice from the study, “Poor Charlie Brown. He missed the football again.”

Dad asked, “What happened?”

“He tried to kick it and then he bonked his head.”

Dad insisted, “But why?”

“Lucy pulled it away.”

“Why do you think she did that?”

“I have absolutely no idea.” Then a long pause. He is a person for whom spite is literally impossible, I am pretty sure.

“Fear makes people do strange things.” And wisdom appears in the most wonderful moments.

The Telltale Desktop

IMG_0024_2

 

You can learn a lot by what someone keeps on their desk, and I’m developing a new appreciation for the tangible things that signify what’s important to our young man. We are designing a new, more professional workspace for him and so have been moving some things around. Here’s part of what I discovered:

  • a pencil sharpener, for when the electric one is too noisy
  • an eraser that does not make crumbs
  • a harmonica, for playing along to music on the computer ( with headphones on)
  • double stick tape, because we are out of regular and drawings must go up on the wall ASAP
  • two spare mouse batteries in a handy basket
  • the three little pigs and the big bad wolf, for inspiration
  • a battery charger for the camera we can’t find
  • a picture from the prom sent by a teacher
  • a ruler – probably because it fits nicely in that spot because he never uses it – except maybe to conduct a symphony now and then.

There were various pictures printed out from the internet taped to the table but I did not get to those in time for the photo – but one of them was of the chorus from Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, which is stuck in my memory in perpetuity.

I feel as though we are now truly seeing the emergence of an adult personality. Like all of us, there are parts of his childhood that he will never let go. Some patterns are set, but there is a self confidence about routine that seems less driven and more comfortable. He is taking charge of the things that matter to him and for now, he is trusting us to take care of the rest. We’re doing our best not to let him down.

In the meantime, maybe he can organize my desk for me.

Saturday Moment: Halloween Prep in Sodor Brings Some Surprises

IMG_0018He’s on a roll with drawings and decorating, and today the trains need Halloween prep. I never fail to marvel at the focus and precision he brings to these projects, which are totally his idea. Add to that he has positioned himself right in the middle of our own project of reorganizing part of the basement – we are working near and around him, going back and forth, calling to each other and generally making a racket. He is unperturbed. Add to this list of potential antecedents my request that he move part of his train set temporarily so that I can clean out and move a cabinet that holds various frames, craft supplies, toys and videos. I don’t really want him to see the things I intend to give away, but have already decided that I won’t give away anything he wants me to keep. We have finally learned to pick our battles.

IMG_0016I can tell he doesn’t want to move the train tracks out of my way, and I am prepared for him to declare that I am an Onion lady who is too full of organizing.  I wait a while to let the request sink in and focus on something else. Then he materializes in front of me, holding a box of videos: “I’m too old for these.” They are Richard Scarry ABC and counting videos. They are my favorites. But I take them and set them aside with the other “give away” things.

Then he appears with another box of videos, classic Disney this time. “We have all of these on DVD, which is more efficient.” Then I realize that, rather than move the tracks or allow me to navigate around them (which I couldn’t – I’m such a klutz I would definitely step on them) he is carefully removing everything from the cabinet himself.

IMG_0017So while he was constructing Halloween decorations for his trains, he was also making decisions about growing up, and managing change and doing it all beautifully, meticulously, and offering up explanations along the way. A task that would have been frought with emotion and behavior management (and that in younger years I would probably have attempted in the middle of the night or while he was somewhere else) had evolved so peacefully I almost didn’t notice – until I realized that he was having an easier time parting with things than I was (you don’t want that 12-foot train puzzle that you put together a thousand times, really?).

Not so long ago I wondered if he would ever grow out of some things and I concluded at the time that it didn’t hurt to wait. It’s not always true that all things come to those who wait, but on this day it is. As I was reminded by him more than once this week, “Patience is a virtue, Mom.” True, that.

Try This on For Size: April is Autism Understanding Month

IMG_7944

Hugs stave off the winter chill during a bittersweet goodbye. See you in springtime.

 

First they called April Autism Awareness Month (many still do). I knew I was all too aware. Now they called it Autism Acceptance Month. I know I accept it well enough. But I’m still trying to understand a lot of things about Autism: why it’s such a wide spectrum and whether all of it is autism or just a conglomeration of neurological diagnoses that need be to be sorted out. I also accept is that it will take forever to understand. So that’s the work I am doing this month: trying to develop a better understanding of the things about Autism that still need work, in contexts large and small. I want to think out loud about the issues and questions that society ought to know so that families living with autism are not pitied, ignored or marginalized while we figure out where the many types of people on the spectrum fit, what their gifts are, and how they need help.

IMG_7953April is a good month for developing understanding – and patience. For those of us in climates where winter has us in a death grip, April is the time that we long for the warmth of summer and totally overreact to the emergence of any sign of spring (watching the snow and ice recede, camera in hand, looking for crocuses). April brings Easter (usually) and other rites of spring that signal optimism about the future. April reminds us, gently, painstakingly, that we have more capacity for joy than we thought after a winter in which our capacity for everything joyful has been sorely tested. April is hope. Let’s start with that thought.

Shelter in Place, Emerging in a Better One

Once you've seen fire on ice, anything seems possible.

Once you’ve seen fire on ice, anything seems possible.

So, I’ve been away from my own blogosphere a while. Sometimes it just doesn’t feel like the right thing to do. The concept of “shelter in place,” made real during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, really appealed to me over the past several months. The idea of staying in where it is safe so that the world can take time to set itself right before we venture out again. It doesn’t have to be about danger, but sometimes it is about preservation of self. This is what I have been doing – sheltering in place.

But today it seems right to venture back here. Today there is news that is worth sharing, because I can say that investing in hope pays dividends.

In a post last summer, I wondered when it was okay to give aways things that most children outgrow during high school. We all have remnants from our childhood stashed away somewhere (don’t we?), but in the case of our boy we have, well, a lot of things we know that he is not ready to part with. So I kept most of  it. In that process, I took a very long look at the book shelf. The ABC and farm books are long since packed away, but many of the most beautifully illustrated books, picture encyclopedias and easy readers remain. I know he appreciates the images and that they inform both his understanding of a story and his artistic sensibilities.  Still, I very deliberately left the collection of biographies on the shelf next to the head of the bed. I bought them during the middle school years, when they were age appropriate, because they were fact-based, had lot of photos but contained some narrative stretches on highly reinforcing figures in history: Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Amelia Earhart. He always looks up facts on the internet about these people; I convinced myself the books were still useful, and they look nice (and not too incongruous) on the shelf, too.

IMG_7353I know he will never be in love with books the way I was. I know he will never delight in conjuring places, events and people from a page dense with type. I know that I am lucky that his visual learning style is tailor-made for 21st century digital information. I know all of that, but all of my knowingness didn’t prepare me for the moment when, upon peeking in to say good night, I saw him reach over and slip a book off the biography shelf, open it and begin reading. Reading for pleasure. Reading for information. Reading pages on which there were no pictures at all. Just type. I slipped away unnoticed, afraid that I would interrupt and ruin the moment by making too big a deal of it.

But it was a big deal. It reminded me (not for the first time) that I kid myself that I know more about him than I do, and that creating limited opportunities for him will yield limited results. I won’t be placing Ulysses on the shelf anytime soon, but I’ll be upping the ante on a lot of fronts based on this moment. It also reminded me that one of the reasons that I felt the need to shelter in place was that the conversations that swirl around the senior year of high school are all about competition and achievement. Conversations that lead to well-meaning questions that I don’t necessarily want to answer. That simple act of opening a book means more to me than an 800 SAT score, but there aren’t many who would understand that, and I am past the point of wanting to explain it (and yet here I am, explaining it).

I need to leave more books on the shelf, more doors ajar, more options on the table. We don’t have to have anyone’s life mapped out by May.

But I had to know something. The next morning at breakfast, I asked him what he read before bed last night.

“I was reading about Abraham Lincoln,” he said.

“Were you looking for something specific?”

“Yes, I wanted to know how he met his wife, Mary Todd.”

Relationships. He was reading to learn about relationships.

The Miracle of Enough Sleep

SONY DSC

It is a breathtakingly beautiful early summer morning – sunny, cool, dry – and for once I do not have mixed feelings about being awake to appreciate it. I am not a morning person. Never was, never will be. I am awake because I have to be but I can also say that I have had enough rest. This is new.

Last Friday night I slept for 12 hours. I don’t think I’ve done that in the 20 years since I had my first child. We had an early dinner and I fell asleep on the sofa, moved upstairs to bed at 1am and then woke up at 8am. I was aware of bedtime routines and kisses good night but everyone seemed to know what they were supposed to do and follow through. After a week of 5-6 hours a night, that sleep was not only needed, it was transformative. I faced a busy weekend not with fantasies of a nap but with energy and enthusiasm and a sense of emotional flexibility that often just isn’t possible.

SONY DSCI thought about the parents who have gone for years without even those 5-6 hour nights I’m whining about, and I am thinking about them again this morning. Sleep deprivation plagues many people for many reasons. For those who are awake because they have a sleepless child who requires constant supervision, the exhaustion is complete and relentless. Even on nights when the kids manage to sleep through the predawn hours, parental eyes pop open anyway, expectant of the footsteps that may or may not patter down the stairs. Knowing that the child is asleep doesn’t mean going back to sleep for another hour or two. Usually, worry fills in until they do wake up. It’s a hard pattern to break.

For those of us who face the day bleary eyed and worn out, I hold out for the promise and possibility of the restorative power of sleep. We don’t create sleep deficits on purpose – many children on the autism spectrum have intractable sleep issues and keep parents up until all hours, and we use the few hours while our kids do sleep to do things they can’t get done when the kids are awake. It’s just as important for our kids that we are rested as it is for us – people who’ve had enough sleep have more patience and make better decisions. If you can find a way to accomplish that magic 7 hours of rest, it is worth striving for.  Jane Brody wrote an informative essay on the health risks posed by sleep deprivation – it’s good tool for advocating with family and caregivers to let you cobble together a longer night or a decent nap.

SONY DSCI can’t blame autism for my sleep problem entirely. My boy is a better sleeper than most; it is the other obligations (obsessions?) and the worry that keep me awake.  I enjoy the quiet, peace and dark of late nights. I love being awake when everyone else is asleep. Books and movies are more fun in the dark. For years I sat in the dark on the floor of my boys’ room, waiting for them to go to sleep. As much as that process was driven by necessity, worry and confusion, I genuinely loved those moments sitting (sometimes writing) by the glowing night-light and waiting for the steady breathing and gentle snoring that arrived with their slumber. By the time I tiptoed out, no matter how crazy the day had been, we were all in love again. I wanted to savor that feeling and not go to sleep right away myself. I needed some time to wallow in the normalcy of sleeping children and talk to my husband uninterrupted. Still, there were times when I konked out on the floor before they did.

One gift of adolescence is that it brings kids who sleep in, when school allows it. This break in our summer program leaves my boy in bed at 9am still asleep. I never dared to hope there would be a time when he would master a self-directed bedtime routine at reasonable hour and sleep in on a sunny morning, even with sun streaming through the skylight directly on his bed. It might not sound like a miracle, but in its way it is. It gives me time to write this, time to think up some structure for this unstructured day, time to appreciate the breeze though the open windows after a week of hot and humid weather.

Peace of mind and enough sleep – I don’t think I can have one without the other, and having learned this lesson (again) I am going to try not to forget it.

PS: This is my 100th post. Woot.

SONY DSC