The Denver Autism Wheel

Posts Tagged ‘family

I just read an article that states once again that parenting is a full-contact sport. Not only is it important to sign your kids’ report cards and drive them to soccer practice. It’s also important to look at their beautiful faces once in a while. Here are some of the benefits of eating meals with your kids.
1) You stand a better chance of being able to talk to them about what’s important…to them. The other night, I got to hear all about the advantages of playing Minecraft in “survival mode.” Who knew? It’s not that I’m going to go play the game or anything, but Luke wanted to tell me about what he’s up to, and paying attention to him means he understands he’s important to me.
2) You stand a better chance of putting something nutritious in their mouths. The article I mentioned at the beginning of this rant is in US News and World Report today. It explained that kids mimic their parents’ eating habits. OK, that makes sense, and it benefits two generations: parents, who eat better foods to set a good example for their kids, and kids, who base their eating habits on what they see their parents eating.
3) You get good food into everybody. I’ve written about this before, but the grownups eat the same thing the kids eat at our house. In one context, it sets the bar for me to make sure everybody gets their fruits and veggies and lean protein. In another, it keeps me away from processed, pre-packaged meals because, while they’re easy, Karl makes faces at them. Because they tend to be high in fat and preservatives, they aren’t healthy for his middle-aged adult body. If he doesn’t want it, I don’t feed it to any of us.
4) You get to look into their beautiful faces during the whole meal. I don’t know what your house looks like, but mine has people working, doing homework, playing musical instruments and sports, going to meetings, going to sleepovers…there’s not a lot of face time. Except at dinner (and most breakfasts). These moments are phone-free and distraction-free. We talk about our day, we talk about our meal, whatever. But we’re all there, face to face. I know the kids don’t see it this way, but as a mom, I cherish these times because Chris is 12, and I only get him for another…gulp!…6 years. So, another benefit is…
5) You know where they are during that meal. Not just physically, because, yes, we’re all sitting around the same table. But mentally, too. We get to hear about science projects, homework assignments, the gossip in the fourth grade classroom or the sixth grade hallway. That’s priceless intel when you want to get a picture of your child’s world when you’re not around. And: it sows the seeds that you’re approachable, in case they need to talk about something worrisome or bad. You’ve already established that their world is interesting.
6) You establish the expected behaviors for the kids when they are at the table. Social cues are not organic, particularly for Chris, but also for Luke. And manners count at the table. This is an important place for both the autistic and the typical kid to learn social skills together. And sure, they graze when they get home from school (a mouthful of cereal here, a handful of grapes there), but mealtimes are for sitting down, sitting still for the whole meal, eating with utensils, speaking clearly and quietly, and keeping your elbows near your body. That way, we are in better shape if we visit relatives for dinner or go to a restaurant. They already know how we expect them to behave when the food arrives.

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I had a really great conversation this week with Lorri Park at the Colorado Autism Society. We know that we must approach our auties with compassion and no small amount of patience. But she said that our compassion must extend in all directions. We have to include everyone in our capacity to be patient and understanding. This is going to be a bit of a rant, so bear with me.

We must be patient with our auties. We must understand that, just because they view the world through a different set of glasses, their view is no less valid, nor is their desire to connect with it. We must involve them in the world, provide opportunities for interaction, connection, contact. And, yes, compassion for them includes letting them fail sometimes. Chris still doesn’t have a fantastic facility for maintaining conversations. That doesn’t mean I hide him from them. On the contrary, I try to find honest (and sometimes “safe”) forums for him to practice.

We must be patient with ourselves. The families of autistics are often spectacles. That’s just a fact. Autism can make us want to give up human contact ourselves because it can be so darn difficult to enjoy a nice meal in a restaurant when you have to calm somebody who gets anxious and has outbursts in unfamiliar places. What’s the solution? Go out more…not less. Start in safe places, like Beau Jo’s pizza. The Autism Society of Colorado has a Beau Jo’s night the first Wednesday of every month. They expect families with autism. It’s safe, and it’s a way to start making connections (you included) with people in a safe environment. And we must realize that, just because we do what we have to do because this is our beloved child/sibling/spouse, we are not saints, perfect or robots. As much as we love them, we’re not specialists in intervention therapies. We’re parents, siblings, caregivers. We are human. We have a list of people and facilities in the sidebar to the right who can help provide a sanity check. Use them: the Autism Society, the ARC, Club 4 Kids. If you have others and want to share, leave a comment and let us know! It’s OK not to know everything, it’s OK to lose your patience, it’s OK to lose your marbles for a minute or two. No, seriously. Think about what you’re up against. It’s OK. Check out the Gimme a Break program at the Autism Society. Have a movie night while somebody trained in autism respite care watches the kids. I promise, the house will still be standing when you come back. Or bring them to Club 4 Kids (they’ve made it plain to me that they welcome kids on the Spectrum). Let them enjoy a safe evening with other kids while you recenter yourself. It’s OK. Nobody should expect to be able to hold back the floodwaters 24/7/365.

We must be patient with teachers and special ed staff. Think about what they’re up against: increasing class sizes, job insecurity, parents yelling on one side and the principal yelling on the other, low wages, long hours of teaching and planning and grading and conferences and field trips and meetings and ongoing training. Yet somehow, we all remember at least one teacher whose dedication sparked for us the love of a subject we never thought we’d love. They have a gift, a passion to reach out and touch the minds of their students. With shrinking education budgets, they often buy their own paper, chalk and tissues for the classroom (on a teacher’s salary, mind you). They work tremendously hard to make a difference in our kids’ lives.

We must be patient with strangers. We’ve all seen the air quotes around autism. We’ve seen the rolling eyes, heard the indignant humphs and the “why can’t you control your own child?” comments. Yes, it’s shortsighted, thoughtless and inconsiderate, but if you think about it for a minute, how much of their outbursts are just as socially inappropriate, reactionary and fearful as the stuff your child does? They don’t understand, either. There’s still a lot of misunderstanding about autism, what it looks like and what it means. Unfriendly strangers deserve the same patience and understanding we extend to other people. Remember, we must expose people to our kids with autism as much as we must expose our kids with autism to people. We have to get used to each other. The learning opportunities abound (she says, waving her arms). Change is scary, but that doesn’t mean it must be avoided. Everybody has to learn to live together. It’s a small planet.

I had an IM conversation with my mom last week. During the course of the conversation, I mentioned how many activities everybody in the family has, between Cub Scouts, sports, school and work. She said that was all fine because it seemed like we slowed down for Chris to let him catch up. That struck me as a very strange thing for her to say, first because slowing down is something I’ve never been very good at, second because, as my mom, she knows perfectly well I’ve been an overachiever since middle school, and third, if we slowed down to let Chris catch up, he’d never catch up, and nobody in the house would never get anything done. And anyway, Chris is just as busy or busier than everyone else in the house with the added rigor of an after school tutor twice a week.

We don’t “stop to let him catch up.” We came from a school experience where he came home with his para’s handwriting on his homework on a daily basis. We had no idea what they were having him do in the classroom, and honestly, the SpEd department didn’t seem to eager to let us in on the secret. He started second grade at a grievous deficit in reading and math comprehension. So we had to up the pace just to catch him up with the rest of his class. But because of that, at a new school and with staff and teachers who set reasonable expectations, he tested in the Proficient range last year when he took the CSAPs for the first time.

What happens when you stop? Well, have you ever run a race, and the frontrunner slows down? What does everybody else do? They keep pace and slow down, too. They don’t overtake the leader. And that’s what we found with Chris. More important than stopping everything to make sure he was OK was keeping it moving. If he saw us slow down, he’d slow down, too.

Now, we’re not robots or slavedrivers. Nobody can keep up a fever pitch of activity indefinitely. Believe me: I used to work myself sick when I was a teenager. My mom (who should remember these things) used to force me to take a day off…from school…once in a while because I would make myself physically ill with the pace I kept. Lesson learned. So: part of running the race is pacing yourself, setting reasonable expectations of what your brain and body can do. You have to be realistic about what you’re capable of. That’s why the limit on extracurricular activities…for the children AND the adults in the house. Part of our race includes Friday Movie Night and regular trips to the mountains for pie and ice cream. We eat most of our meals together, we read together before bed, we talk, we share.

And we’re honest with each other and ourselves. It’s a good habit to get into with your family anyway, but when autism is in the equation, it’s essential. We have to know what to expect, what’s coming next, when we get downtime, and what the long- and short-term goals are. We have to know when enough is enough, too. Each of us is only human, after all.

So, no. We don’t stop everything to make sure Chris is still running with us. It wouldn’t do anybody any good. The trick is to know when he needs a hand to catch up, when we all need a rest, and when we really need to push to top that next hill. And that’s all of us, autism or no autism, every day.


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