When Stuff Gets Real

When you’re dealing with the uncertainty of whether or not there is something different about your child, a security blanket exists when you’re the only one who knows. When you’re the only one who thinks it, the only one who sees anything wrong. It’s conflicting, really. I remember being frustrated that no one else saw what I saw in Caleb- that no one believed me when I first started saying “hey-something is wrong.” Simultaneously yet conflictingly, there was also security in that. That maybe my maternal hypersensitivity and eternally anxious nature, was simply worried over nothing.

But then there’s a moment when it all becomes real. Every family has that moment.

You’ve read my introduction post on everything that led up to us realizing Caleb had Autism. You’ve also read about how we redefined expectations and my husband’s perspective. Now, let me tell you about the moment when we hit the point of no return.

I’ve said before that I thought Caleb had difficulties hearing…was right….but knew that was simply one piece to about a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle. I knew he had Autism. I knew there was something more going on than a mild hearing delay that tubes would take care of but man did I leave that Audiology appointment some kind of UPSET.

I prefaced the whole appointment with, “I have developmental concerns but I think there’s something not quite 100% with his hearing also and he’s had chronic ear infections.” And Caleb sat there angelically playing blocks while the audiologist put the probe in his ears to do otoacoustic emissions testing. Completely and beautifully tolerant of it all. And then we tried sound field testing…..which was a disaster. He was young and unconditioned to what he was supposed to do so that’s not really a shocker. But it was….”off” still. He wasn’t responding to much, if any visual or auditory stimuli in the environment…..he started running around…..aimlessly. And when the appointment was over the audiologist told me she thought Caleb would benefit from tubes……and that she thought I was right to pursue developmental testing for him.

That’s all she said. It was simple, short, and casual. She never said Autism. I signed some forms and left with a pit in my stomach. Here I am, the pediatric speech pathologist, who’s been trying to convince everyone in Caleb’s life that he has Autism, who knew that he needed tubes but also another decade of intensive supports…..but when someone else who wasn’t me agreed that he needed a developmental assessment, everything suddenly became real. Someone else noticed that something was wrong and after months of thinking that I would feel so much better if someone else saw what I saw….when it actually happened, I suddenly felt sucker punched.

On that drive home I cried and used my defensive “you don’t know me or my child!” voice out loud to myself. My safety net had been pulled, and everything I was worried about was no longer a worry, but now my new reality.

I also resented her a little bit for giving me that moment. I shouldn’t have- she’s fantastic! If you need an Audiologist in the Greensboro area who’s great with children, she’s who you should 100% go see. But she was part of the moment that changed things for my family and I will openly confess, that I threw the first few brochures that came from her office immediately into the trash because it stung a little bit.

So, I understand if you get defensive the first time someone brings up developmental concerns to you abut your child. I also understand if you become annoyed when they bring them up again later. But I might also guess that it’s hitting you a little close to home because maybe you’ve felt those things too. It’s hard when stuff gets real but the acceptance of an unanticipated reality with our children is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.

Love and Autism,

Erin

One World: A Dad’s Point of View

In contrast to my dear wife, I am much more private about sharing on the internet. She really wanted to share my experience so we’ll give this a shot.

Coming to terms with your child having autism is difficult. First, there’s the standard bargaining and denial while trying to attribute the signs you are seeing as symptoms of anything else. He’s not as responsive because he couldn’t hear well, the tubes will fix this. His language is delayed because he’s been focusing on developing his off the chart motor skills. Upon hearing about all the words a friend’s child of the same age was saying, I countered that my still silent toddler can push the dining room table across the room, so take that!

Eventually, we run out of excuses and have to come to terms with our child having autism. It’s a sort of mourning process, where a parent loses the child they thought they had and the life they anticipated. We dream of a life of happiness for a child, of little things like playing catch, of getting a hug and hearing “I love you” from a safe, happy, and engaging son or daughter. That dream gets shattered like a dropped glass upon accepting the diagnosis.

Over time a new dream forms with different expectations and ultimately acceptance. I look at autism as Caleb partly lives in another world. While I’m trying my best to bring him into ours, I also am trying to understand and live in his. Autism is wide-spectrum and some children will live fully in their own world or, conversely, be even more in ours. For example, Caleb will occasionally reach out and rapidly scratch my chest or face. That’s his way of communicating “I’m happy and I love you” when he’s filled with feeling good but doesn’t know how to express it. That feels awesome and brings such a smile to my face now. We also work on language and I’ve been rewarded with an extremely rare spoken “I love you” maybe 3 times in 2 years.

As Caleb grows older, we face new challenges but also new reasons to rejoice. Caleb has inherited our love of animals and has shown such interest in dogs, fish, snakes, and lizards. Incredibly, he has demonstrated deep affection for newborn puppies, even going so far as to lie down next to the litter and gently stroke them. I’ll take it! Similarly, Caleb has started playing with action figures… flying a caped superman and batman around the house. No real engagement with me but he occasionally gestures for help such as in getting them to sit in toy vehicles. Riding on my lap and getting to “steer” a variety of vehicles also gives him such joy.

While it would be nice to be able to communicate more about the animals, action figures, or vehicles, these mutual interests have formed a bridge between our two worlds. My new dream is to build upon these bridges as Caleb grows. Every child is different though and my new expectations may be too great or too small for your situation. I think, at least, that every parent should be able to find some sort of common ground interaction with their child, and that is a good place to start building a new future.

Love and Autism,

Brian

My Why

“Erin, why are you doing this?”

That question would be better rephrased as: “How could I NOT do this?”

It’s been exactly one year since “Take That, Autism!” was an idea in my head. 12 months since I bought the domain. 6 months since I put the first idea on paper and 2 months since I was brave enough to make the first post. That 1 year mark of “Take That, Autism’s!” existence is significant not because it’s the night I asked my husband to buy me the things one buys when they want a website, but because the night I thought of “Take That, Autism!” and the night I got my husband to get out his credit card on a whim, is also the night I proclaimed to the world about my son having Autism.

Close friends and family had had a year to process and accept Caleb’s diagnosis but I never eluded to it on Facebook because….boundaries (if you can believe I have any). I had thought about making a post about it before but never quite found the way to say it how I wanted to say it. I wasn’t sure if my husband wanted it declared….I didn’t know if I wanted the questions- both the ones of genuine interest AND the ones driven purely by curiosity. But what happened was I reached a point where it wasn’t a matter of what I did or didn’t want to post, but instead, what I needed to post. This is how it came out on Facebook:

“I’m Caleb. I like Potato Head, Little People, puzzles, books, and coloring. My FAVORITE thing is to play piano. I enjoy eating french fries, shrimp, yogurt, pizza, and granola bars. Summer is my favorite because I get to go swimming and I’m pretty much a mer-man. I have a daddy I’m obsessed with, a mommy who’s obsessed with me, and a sister who mom and dad say we need but no one asked for my vote. I have an endless backyard, my own room, and lots of dogs too.

I also have Autism. I like the same toys as other kids but sometimes I play with them a little differently at first. I try to use my words but it takes me more time to get them. I could play all day long but I may not always want to play with someone else.

You can feel lots of different ways about that if you want. It’s cool- mom and dad have. Me too. Sometimes I’m sad when daddy leaves for the day cause he’s part of my routine and I LIKE my routine. Sometimes I’m mad when mom puts on the wrong episode of Backyardigans. (Why hasn’t she learned “Samurai Pie” IS functional vocabulary?!). Most times though, I’m happy. I’m the happiest, most confident, affectionate little boy you may ever meet.

One thing you should never feel is “sorry” for me. Or my daddy. Or my mommy. Maybe sissy when she takes my goldfish crackers though. I’m here, happy, and healthy and that’s more than a lot of other people. Plus my mom is a pediatric speech pathologist with unlimited connections to resources and professionals- we’ve kind of got this on lock.

So, if I pop into your head later, think of me as the sweet, silly kid who likes nachos, basketball, and Christmas carols. (Who also HAPPENS to have Autism). And if you ever feel like you need to talk to my mom, send her a message. She literally spends all day with someone with Autism whether it’s a patient or her son. She doesn’t have business hours- you can talk to her anytime. It’s not all the time that you can speak to a professional in the field who is 100% honest when they say “I understand.” My mom might throw a “sista’ friend” to the end of that cause she thinks she’s cool but don’t let that take away from her credibility.

Thanks for taking the time to read all the way through and I’ll be sure to check back in with you soon.”

Check out that last paragraph you guys- that’s my why. I remember this time last March I told my husband that I thought I could help people. That I found myself in this unique position of being a professional who works with children with Autism and in my personal life I was the parent of a child with Autism. The only difference between me and you is that I haphazardly picked a major in grad school while browsing through the course catalog that gave me a set of tools that happened to specifically match up with the specialized care my child was going to need. I could have just as easily decided to major in accounting or graphic design. No one runs around with a z-vibe and articulation worksheet when they’re 6 saying “I want to be a speech pathologist when I grow up!”. I chose it because it seemed practical, it was in demand, and the classes seemed interesting enough. How fateful did that turn out to be? And I just felt like maybe I was supposed to take this unique position I found myself in and go out and do something with it. Plus, if you’ve read my Intro Post then you know a few months before we realized Caleb had Autism I had overcome a brain hemorrhage, hemorrhagic stroke, high risk C-section, and brain surgery so yeah- I was feeling a little carpe diem.

That whole bit may have sounded self promoting but I don’t mean it that way. I’m the first to tell you I’m not a parenting expert and I’m not an Autism expert. But I do have a knowledge base that is valuable and I also have the ability to understand. I understand the hard days. I understand the uncomfortable feelings you sometimes have in public. I understand the worry about maybe never being invited to a birthday party. I understand that it’s not just sometimes the little things….it’s always the little things. They’re all we’ve got, really. And so when someone tells me that something they read here helped them cope, gave them something to relate to, gave them words to a feeling they couldn’t describe- that is unequivocally, absolutely my why. Because how in the world can anyone ever do this alone?

No, I don’t feel like I’m exploiting my son. I don’t worry one day he’ll be upset that his entire life- including the struggles- has been documented online for anyone to know about. I don’t have concerns that someone will read it one day and hold it against him. Because I hope that when the day comes when he understands what it means to be an individual living with Autism that we will already have instilled the confidence in him to be proud of everything about himself. That he will have the luxury of perspective because he will have had his story told, chapter by chapter- so when he ends up where he’s going to end up, he will appreciate the journey it took to get there. Also, he’s becoming more verbal by the day, and I’ll teach him the EXACT things to say to anyone who has anything unsavory to say about anything.

So, here I am- one year later. I know on paper I’ve just gotten going but in my head, we’re doing big things together one day, you guys. That’s right, all of us. Because maybe “it takes a village” to raise a typically developing child, but for a child with Autism, it takes the whole dang continent. So, let’s unite. Let’s do it up right. I know sometimes it feels like “the struggle is real”….but if we’re in it together, it really doesn’t have to be.

Love and Autism,

Erin

Tooth Brushing Tips

Sometimes, having Autism can make it more challenging than not to stay so fresh and so clean clean (I hope you sang that along to the tune of the pop hit of 2000 by Outkast as it was my intention for you to). There was a period of time when Caleb hated baths. Hated them. It was a sensory thing. I hadn’t put everything together about him and Autism yet and at that point that was really the only thing sensory-wise that stuck out about him and since he liked playing in the pool, I decided it was behavioral. As hindsight tends to be 20/20, I think that was Autism trying to tell me something then, not him being non-compliant about having hygiene forced on him. I don’t have good advice on that one because I’m not ashamed to admit that I probably didn’t help him with the most appropriate approach then because I didn’t realize what was going on. These days, bath time is his favorite time of day and he has no qualms about having water poured over his head to rinse shampoo, washrags exfoliating his behind the ear crust, etc. Tooth brushing though- now THAT was a different story.

But again…..not always. Caleb’s sensory difficulties and stims emerge almost randomly, are intense for a hot minute, but resolve fairly quickly. At least that’s how it’s played out so far. Example, he used to visual stim HARD off of tearing paper. So I lost a lot of kid’s books in his room. Now, he’s been carrying around a pack of “first words” flashcards for 3 weeks and they’re all in pristine condition. Brushing his teeth wasn’t always a “thing” for him but about 6 months ago he decided he HATED it. He also took on some oral defensiveness in general. Brushing his teeth, having his face wiped, getting medicine, etc. Now I know some of you may read this and say “Erin, toddlers don’t love these things, in general. What’s the big deal about your kid not liking it?” To which I would reply, “I’m going to assume you’ve never taken on the challenge of brushing the teeth of an orally defensive toddler with Autism who has a limited verbal vocabulary because it’s the equivalent of how you’d feel if Neptune rose from the sea and came at your mouth with his mighty trident.” Bless your heart.

Here are some quick tips on how we said “Take that!” to brushing our teeth!

1. Consistency

No, you don’t get to just not have your teeth brushed because you don’t like it. Honestly, this helps- once he realized that this was in fact going to be happening every day of his life, I think he realized his energy and efforts would be better utilized to take me to task on something else I’d be more likely to give in about.

2. Vocabulary

We talked about it. In single words or 2 word phrases that he could understand. We made sure we knew body part vocabulary- especially vocabulary involving the mouth and the vocabulary involved with brushing your teeth. Here are some body part vocabulary ideas for you. We didn’t do this, but I’ve since discovered some Pinterest play ideas that promotes more positive and fun connotations of tooth brushing to help get kids comfortable for it to happen to them. Check those out, as well as visual schedules for tooth brushing here. Remember how helpful visual aids are for kids with Autism!

3. Control

I think Caleb didn’t appreciate that I was the only one who got an opinion about what was going to happen to his mouth and when it was going to happen. So we started using 2 toothbrushes. They were both child friendly but I used one to actually brush his teeth and he used one to play/explore around in there at the same time. So, instead of me torturing him against his will while he stood there passively, he got to be an active participant. Now that’s he’s comfortable and confident around a toothbrush, I let him brush his teeth independently first and then follow up myself with a good scrub, which he compliantly lets me do without hesitation now.

4. Approach

If I were to simply drag him in there and show him a toothbrush when he was in the midst of his aversion to it, I guarantee it would have gone nothing but TRAGICALLY. I had to prepare him. I told him it was coming during his bath and while we were getting pj’s on. I used a calm, pleasant voice. I didn’t threaten him with the toothbrush. I made it playful. That’s how we got through baths at one point. Daddy used the shower poof to play tickle monster all over him which inevitably would crack him up and give him a little sensory input and he’d end up having a few seconds of fun, which gradually increased to an entire bath time of fun! The same worked for us for tooth brushing. And I never forced his jaw open. What better way to reinforce an aversion?

5. Toothbrush Selection

It really did matter. I tried manual toothbrushes that had ninja turtles, Jake and the Neverland pirates, all of the characters. No go. Then I tried an electric toothbrush to provide extra sensory input to his mouth- YES!!!! NOW we were onto something. He liked how it felt, I liked that it was easier to manipulate because it moved on it’s own better- we were getting closer. Then, while I was grocery shopping at Kroger one day, I found our game changer. Background on Caleb: OBSESSED with stickers. Like….I’ve spent a lot of time scrubbing them off my living room hardwood cause he loves them so. Back to the story: I found a child’s electric toothbrush that came with stickers for you to decorate your toothbrush with! What better way to make the dreaded toothbrush our new best friend!?!?!? It worked. For real, ya’ll. Between that and the calm, consistent approach with instructions given on his developmental level that I made sure to pre-teach him beforehand, we conquered tooth brushing.

While we enjoy brushing our teeth now, we’re by no means masters yet. We’re getting ready to upgrade to a new toothbrush that has the red and green lights on it to tell you to keep brushing versus when to stop so we can spend more time in there. We’ve also never been to the dentist but plan on going for the first time this summer (but I started planning this summer dentist trip back in the winter cause you know…….Autism).

Grab that Spiderman electric toothbrush, a tube of Tom’s toddler training paste, and prevent those cavities! I’ll let you know how we progress and promise to record all shenanigans that ensue when we’re brave enough to break out floss for the first time……………..

Was that “toddler” or was that “Autism”?

My son is 3.6 years old. He is our first born. He has Autism. Do you know how many times my husband has looked at some shenanigan Caleb was in the middle of and legit asked me “Is that toddler or is that Autism?”

He’s not being funny- he’s not being mean- he’s being straight up. Toddlers do some crazy nonsense. Autism has its own unique set of tendencies it likes to bring to the table. If you’re a first-time parent, if you’ve never been around a child with Autism- I totally see why you’d be perplexed.

Let’s go over some scenarios:

My toddler just ran 11 laps around the dining room table and is now trying to swing from the chandelier like a marmoset who just downed a 12 pack of Mountain Dew.

Let’s break this down.

Toddlers have an insane amount of energy. Toddlers are active and sometimes fearless when it comes to climbing, jumping, and swinging from chandeliers like caffeinated primates. These are in fact things that toddlers who would be considered typically developing might do. But let’s take a closer look. Is your child simply full of energy or is your child exhibiting sensory seeking behaviors? Kids who are just being active may like to run and jump but they’ll likely do other typical things as well such as make a social game out of it, seek out your eye contact to see if you’re noticing, talk about the ridiculous things they’re doing while they’re doing them, etc. Here are some things that I noticed that did NOT strike me as typical when Caleb used to run laps around the table. He was seemingly oblivious to whether we were there or not. That was a decreased awareness to his environment. When he ran in a circle, he would tilt his head to the side and try to look out his peripheral as he was moving. That was a visual stim. That climbing up and down, up and down, up and down from the floor to the table was him seeking out proprioceptive input (I’ve talked about heavy work here). So, my pretty brass chandelier was replaced with a globe light flush to the ceiling, and chairs just started living at my dining room table full-time last November. Caleb was active and that’s ok, but the stimming and the strong sensory seeking tendencies needed to be addressed. Literally, as I write this, he is spinning in a circle in the living room, stimming off of Batman and Superman’s capes flying around with him. You do you, man.

Oh my toddler’s language is great! He can name all the state capitals, knows all the moons to all the planets, and memorized pi to the 12th digit.

But can he tell you when he’s angry? Or what he did at school today without prompting? I think sometimes people get confused between a child having a certain quantity of language overriding the fact that the quality of language isn’t what it should be. Having a favorite topic is fine. Having a highly preferred topic is fine. Talking about a topic as a fixated interest, however, is not typical. If your preschooler can tell you about a historical event, a certain animal, a region of the world, but is unable to tell you what he and his friends did at nursery school or respond to a “wh-” question without going off topic, I strongly encourage you to bring it to your pediatrician’s attention. Or maybe, you have a child prodigy. I’m not judging, here. But I know Caleb can count to ten, but doesn’t have a word for “hungry” or “hurt.” He can label his colors but doesn’t have words for all the foods he eats. He knows the alphabet, but he’s never said his name. You can have all the language in the world, but if it can’t be used functionally, it is going to make all the difference.

I’m 6 inches from by toddler’s face, saying his name, but he won’t stop watching Clifford and his big red dog self to look at me.

Who hasn’t lost a battle to the tv with a toddler? Daily!? Toddlers also can have selective hearing and are motivated simply by what they want to be motivated by. But think back for me. When did your child start consistently responding to their name? It should have been by 7 months, definitely by 9 months. If it was after 12 months, I would consider that a red flag. It doesn’t have to necessarily mean anything by itself, but in conjunction with potential other concerns you may have, it could definitely by noteworthy. Also, note to see if your child is responding to environmental sounds even if they’re not responding to speech input. Maybe they were fixated on Clifford, but did they respond when their real life dogs barked at something outside or when they heard the front door open up? Always bring any concerns about hearing to your doctor’s attention.

My toddler just had a melt down because I gave him the blue cup instead of the red cup and told him he couldn’t play in the toilet. 

DUDE!!!! This is the hardest! There are entire sites dedicated to “Ridiculous Reasons Why My Child Cried Today.” Because phrases like “terrible twos” and “threenager” exist for a completely valid reason- because the attitudes of toddlers and the attitudes of teenagers can both be terrible. And there’s a lot of social-emotional development going on in a little person in a small amount of time- you betcha it’s overwhelming. We have a hard time with this here. Part of Autism is that you can have a hard time with impulses when things don’t go as anticipated or when you need something to be a certain way because of a compulsion. For instance, Caleb sometimes gets upset with how food is presented to him. The fries need to be on that side of the plate, the chicken on this side. He wants to make it into little pieces. 100%, I caught him eating the around the chocolate shell of an M&M to get to the peanut, putting the chocolate and peanut into different piles, and eating everything pile by pile. That is a compulsion. On another note, maybe he earned some tv time but after awhile went to play in another room so I turned the tv to Pandora. He might come back and have something to holler at me about for it. That is a toddler power play. And that’s a whole different beast.

Ultimately, I always tell people that before your child is a toddler with Autism, you child is simply a toddler. And some typical things that toddlers have been known to do without concern are also things that find themselves on the “red flags for Autism” lists. While there’s no steadfast rule for every child, if you have concerns that persist, if you have a gut that a behavior isn’t quite typical, or if you’re worried about your child’s language development- always bring it up to your child’s pediatrician. Also- disclaimer- try not to be too “if/then” with development. I remember about 5 years ago, a very popular parenting magazine came out with an article that was something to the effect of “Words Your 1-Year Old Needs to be Saying.” And literally, the last sentence of that article was “if your child isn’t saying one of the words on this list, please take them to the doctor to talk about the potential for Autism.” No joke, 2 weeks later, I got a referral in my office of a mother who was concerned her 14 month old had Autism because he wasn’t saying the word “juice.” No other reason- just the “juice” thing. I will say, good for her for being worried and taking action instead of being too scared to move. But, look at the whole picture- the whole child. Trust your gut, talk to your doctor, talk to another one if that one doesn’t listen, and remember- those toddler tantrums will fade but that means fun things like toddler snuggles will too. So, no matter how he makes you feel about him behind his back sometimes, don’t forget to cover that sweet face with kisses when he turns around.

Love and Autism, ya’ll. Have a good day.