Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Stims 2

In my previous blog entry, “Stims,” I wrote about how children with autism often engage in calming behaviors to address sensory needs. Along with the various oral stims Alex had, he also developed various stims with his arms and hands to calm himself. One of Alex’s earliest stims was one I look back upon and realize was probably a red flag that he had autism before we ever suspected he was not typical. Nearly as soon as we brought him home from the hospital after he was born, he liked to sit in his infant chair and wave his arms back and forth. I recognized that movement because I had felt a similar motion within my abdomen when I was pregnant with him and suspected that he was doing his version of the wave. Watching him amuse himself by moving his arms back and forth in a fairly graceful motion for a newborn, we made jokes about this behavior. Someone in the family commented that perhaps Alex was Pentecostal, a reference to a religious group known for waving their arms in the air as they pray.

While we weren’t concerned about this movement, he later developed a stim more commonly associated with autism, hand-flapping. Instead of waving his arms, he would hold his arms fairly rigid but move his hands back and forth. We described this behavior as looking like a baby bird trying to take flight. Alex would often flap his hands when he was really happy and excited, as though he couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. Sometimes he would also jump up and down as he flapped his hands, and he would smile happily. For Alex, this movement seemed to have a calming effect on him as he processed whatever was stirring up his energy. As he grew older, Alex seemed to limit his need for tactile stimulation to movements with his fingers instead of his entire body. For instance, he went through a phase where he would tear up toilet paper as he sat on the commode, and then he would strew the bits of toilet paper throughout the house. While we were pleased that he was toilet trained, we weren’t thrilled to have the house look like a hamster cage, with bits of paper all over the floor. Fortunately, this stage didn’t last long. At times Alex will do a finger flicking motion, which is fairly common in autism, but his has some numerical association, as he counts while moving his fingers. We’ve wondered if he’s developed some sort of calculation method with his fingers, not unlike the Chisenbop method for calculating large numbers by assigning values to specific fingers. Since Alex has amazing natural ability in math, I wouldn’t be surprised if he has some method to this seeming madness of fingers moving up and down as he recites numbers aloud.

A more recent stim that seems to be fading lately is Alex’s tendency to twirl his hair as he’s thinking. While many typical children and adults, although usually female, twirl their hair, Alex’s hair twirling seems to be a replacement for earlier stims. I’m pleased that he’s developed one that is more socially acceptable than earlier ones, but I always have to remember to keep his hair longer on top as I cut it so that he has some hair left to twirl. In addition to leaving him enough hair for twirling, I also make sure he has squishy stress balls to calm his hands when he needs tactile stimulation. This summer I found some bags of small splash balls in the dollar section at Target that he likes to hold and squeeze. Made of nylon material and polyester filling, these balls intended for playing in the swimming pool seem to calm Alex when he’s agitated because they provide an outlet for his need for touch. As I think back on all the various stims Alex has outgrown, I’m thankful to realize how much progress he has made over time and reminded not to fret about any current issues, such as his recent phase of not talking much, because like the stims, they will eventually pass.

“Patient endurance is what you need now, so that you will continue to do God’s will. Then you will receive all that he has promised.” Hebrews 10:36

Sunday, August 28, 2011


A common trait found in children with autism is self-stimulatory behavior, often known as “stims,” and Alex has exhibited a variety of these stims over the years. Because many of these children have sensory integration dysfunction or sensory processing disorder--namely problems with their senses being either excessively or under sensitive to stimuli--they often develop coping skills to help them deal with the world around them. For example, children with highly acute hearing, including Alex when he was younger, will often cover their ears when they hear a noise that bothers them. If children crave sensory input, they may engage in movements to help them sense their bodies in space, such as rocking back and forth, a common behavior seen in children with autism, and one we observe in Alex at times. While these behaviors appear unusual, they are necessary to help calm the child by blocking unwanted input or coping with a need for movement or touch.

From the time he was born (and even before that, as we saw on his in-utero sonogram images), Alex sucked his thumb and continued to do so until he was about five years old. Although this oral stimulation behavior is common in many children (I also sucked my thumb until I was five years old.), he combined it with an unusual tactile stim we called “tagging.” While sucking his right thumb, he would reach around with his left hand and grab the tag at the back of the neck of his clothes and rub it. At first, we wondered if he was bothered by the feel of the clothing tags and that was the reason for pulling on them, but we noticed that he actually seemed to like the sensation of the slightly raised letters sewn on the tags. In fact, sometimes he would instead grab the clothing tag of whomever was holding him. I remember Ed’s brother came to visit when Alex was little and jokingly commented that he was leaving while all of his clothing tags were still intact. Now that so many clothes are made tagless, I’m not sure what Alex would have done without the additional sensory input of the tag to touch. After Alex was diagnosed with autism, I read about using a NUK baby gum stimulator brush on the roof of the child’s mouth to address the oral sensory needs. The brush is made of rubber with little raised nubs, and I was able to find one easily at Walmart as part of a baby oral care kit. Alex really liked having the NUK brush rubbed on the inside of his mouth and seemed to find this sensory integration exercise calming.

In addition to thumb sucking, Alex also had a habit of chewing on things. When he still sucked his thumb, he would often chew his shirt collars if he was using his hands and couldn’t suck his thumb. Also, after he stopped sucking his thumb, he chewed on his shirt regularly, apparently as a substitute for sucking his thumb. This necessitated changing his shirt numerous times throughout the day and often eventually resulted in chewing holes in his shirts. Eventually we were able to help Alex stop chewing his shirts by having him instead chew on rubber tubing his occupational therapist provided. However, if he couldn’t find his “chewie,” he would chew on anything handy—pens, toys, plastic ends of drapery and blind pull cords, and even removing his socks so that he could gnaw on them. This stim vastly improved once all of his permanent teeth erupted, so it may have been in response to teething pain. However, until his wisdom teeth completely came through the gums, he continued some chewing behaviors until his mid-teens. Fortunately, now we rarely see any oral motor issues with him, and he doesn’t seem to need any oral stims to calm himself. In my next blog entry on Wednesday, I’ll write about tactile stims Alex has had and overcome through the years.

“So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you have to endure many trials for a little while.” I Peter 1:6

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


I've mentioned in previous blog posts about how Alex finds joy in simple things. This week, he discovered some new things that made him especially happy. The first is a You Tube video Ed found called "Guy Walks Across America," which pretty much describes what the video entails. A guy starts at the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and walks in extremely fast forward motion across the United States until he reaches San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge in California. We're not sure if Alex likes the video visuals that feature Chicago's "Bean" in Millennium Park and the Presidential profiles at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, among others, or if he really enjoys the background song, "Home." Nonetheless, he continually flashes a huge smile as he watches it while bouncing around on the couch, except when he sees me watching him and acts embarrassed to be so enthusiastic. Then he calmly watches the video, waits for me to leave, and then starts swaying to the music again (as I furtively watch him from another room). Here's the video that has captured Alex's attention, even after watching it dozens of times.

The other night, I was able to get a similar response from Alex which surprised and pleased me. Listening to the '70s cable channel on Music Choice, I heard the old Climax Blues Band song, "Couldn't Get It Right," which I couldn't get out of my head. When Alex heard me singing [or more correctly, attempting to sing] the song, he smiled and swayed, as he had with the "Guy Walks Across America" video he'd been watching repeatedly. As I tried to imitate the deep voice of the lead singer, this tickled Alex even more, who seemed to enjoy my very amateur version of this song, whose video is posted here.

While many teenagers continually whine about being bored, Alex rarely complains and is easily entertained, so long as he has his computer and/or some music to listen to. Despite the challenges autism imposes on his life, Alex finds bliss in the world around him, making his life and ours truly blessed.

"The Lord is my strength and shield. I trust Him with all my heart. He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy. I burst out in songs of thanksgiving." Psalm 28:7

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Since this is the last day of my summer vacation, I’ve been reflecting about the past several weeks, thinking about the old standby essay topic: “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” Of course, with Alex, vacations are "staycations," but we enjoy our time off from work and the relaxed summer pace as we do things together. One of the main differences this summer—aside from Alex’s allergy issues and self-imposed silence—has been that he and Ed have been virtually inseparable. While Ed has always spent more time with Alex than most fathers do because of his job that allows him to be home quite a bit of the time and because of Alex’s special needs, this summer the two of them have had the opportunity to bond more than ever. Ed commented the other day that he wondered how Alex would react this week once he goes back to teaching. On one hand, Alex may wonder what to do when Ed’s not around, but, as Ed noted, he may be relieved to have a break from hanging out with his dad all the time.

The two of them have turned our family room into a “man cave” where they watch television together as they work on their computer laptops. Other times, they share a companionable silence as each enjoys summer reading—Ed with various novels and Alex with his stack of fact books. One of the differences I’ve noticed this summer is my own television viewing habits. Usually Alex and I watch his beloved Game Show Network during the day, and then he watches my favorite reality shows, such as Dancing with the Stars, Food Network Star, Project Runway, etc., with me in the evenings. Now that he’s watching tv with Ed, I can watch “chick” shows all day long in the other room, so I’ve seen just about all of the Little House on the Prairie and Sex and the City reruns this summer. Meanwhile, Ed and Alex have been watching baseball games, news programs, and the sitcoms The Big Bang Theory and Everybody Loves Raymond. Although Alex has to allow Ed full power of the remote control in some sort of alpha-male behavior (while I shared control of the remote with Alex out of a sense of fairness), he doesn’t seem to mind, happily watching whatever Ed chooses and patiently waiting as he flips through several channels searching for something to watch. I’m sure this is essential to Alex’s development as an adult male, and Ed is just modeling typical behavior for him. This guy time has become so sacred to Alex that he reacts to my entrance into the family room with two very different moods. Sometimes, he suspects that my joining them means that we’re getting ready to go someplace together, and he’ll immediately jump up and eagerly get ready to go. Other times, he seems to resent my intrusion into their man cave, especially if I sit down to watch television with them. In the equivalent of hanging a “NO GIRLS ALLOWED” sign, Alex will often look at me askance as though I don’t belong there, sometimes even giving me what Ed has deemed “the stink eye,” to let me know he’d rather I’d leave the room. Between the dirty looks and their choice of television shows, I haven’t spent a lot of time in that room this summer, but I’m happy that they enjoy each other’s company.

Besides watching tv, working on computers, and reading together, Ed and Alex have enjoyed going various places this summer. As in past years, Ed has taken Alex to the park to play basketball, but this year he took him to a new park. Unlike other city parks, this one has no playground, but is scenic and flower-filled. Teaching Alex some basics of photography, the two of them bring their digital cameras to take pictures, a new activity Alex seems to enjoy. In addition, Ed has taken Alex along on errands, such as going to the home improvement store, taking the cars to get gas or air in the tires, or going to his office to pick up the mail. Alex really likes going to these various places, and when the two of them go without me, he’s pleased to be able to sit in the front seat of the car where I usually sit. Around the house, Ed has engaged Alex in various chores they can do together, including taking out the garbage and watering the flowers in the garden. I like watching them do these tasks because Ed patiently teaches Alex, who is pleased to be doing something with Ed, and he has gained greater confidence over the summer by engaging in these tasks. Perhaps the most interesting bonding experience the two of them had this summer was one I could not observe. Prior to my birthday last week, Ed took Alex shopping for my gifts. In recent years, he has taken Alex to get cards and/or flowers for me, but he would shop alone for the rest of my presents. This year, he decided to shop with Alex at a few different stores, and they got along great, according to Ed. This amazed me because several of my gifts from them were clothing; in the past, Alex blatantly refused to go shopping with me if we were looking at “girls’ clothes.” I’m not sure what Ed had to do to convince him to go to the women’s department, but I would have loved to watch them selecting my gifts, and that thought makes me smile. Although Ed has missed out on many typical father-son bonding experiences since Alex hasn’t played organized sports, he has been rewarded for his devotion because Alex, unlike some teen boys, thinks his father walks on water. While Alex doesn’t show his love and affection in typical ways, the adoration he feels for Ed is evident and makes all the effort truly worthwhile.

“His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours.’” Luke 15:31

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Last week, we went back to the chiropractic internist who diagnosed Alex as having allergic shutdown earlier in the summer. At that time, he ran some blood tests and offered several suggestions for helping Alex cope with the apparent inflammation that was making him irritable and lethargic. He offered a detailed plan of various nutritional supplements; however, having monitored Alex’s interventions carefully throughout the years, I knew that we could only do one new thing at a time. In order to see what effects—both positive and negative—each new supplement provides, we always introduce them gradually and individually. For example, we have given Alex some supplements, especially fish oils, that have made him hyper, “bouncing off the walls” during the day and unable to sleep at night. Since we knew those supplements were the only thing different, we could feel certain that the new addition was the culprit, and we immediately removed the cause of his negative behavior changes. By contrast, if we saw improvements when we introduced a new supplement, we could feel hopeful that we had found something helpful to him.

After studying the comprehensive notebook the chiropractic internist provided in May, I determined what needed to be addressed first for Alex. Although food allergy testing revealed that Alex only had few sensitivities, we immediately removed those from his diet. Taking away those foods proved not difficult since they included less commonly eaten foods, such as chestnuts and lobster, but we had to take away olives and olive oil, which he did have in his diet regularly. After doing that, we put him back on crucial supplements he has been on for several years: Kirkman’s EveryDay multivitamin, calcium magnesium citramate, and probiotics. At the chiropractor’s suggestion, we had put him on a vitamin vacation, leaving Alex only on OTC lithium drops to regulate his mood, prescription Prozac for his OCD, and vitamin B-12 shots to detoxify his system and heal his nerves. By taking him off the other supplements, we realized that he no longer needed melatonin to sleep at night, nor did he need GABA to calm him during the day, which was a nice surprise. After re-introducing the old stand-by supplements, we added a new one on the recommendation list that contained bioflavonoids to address his allergies. Over several days, I very gradually increased the number of these tablets to the suggested dosage of four per day. We could tell that this supplement was helping Alex because he became more energetic and happier—more like his old self. The next suggested course of supplements was adding vitamin C to detoxify his system. Again, I added this over several days, increasing the dosage in gradual increments and monitoring any changes in Alex. Fortunately, he responded in a positive way to this addition, eating and sleeping well, and other than not talking, acting pretty much like himself. With these changes in place, we were ready to see the chiropractor again, pleased to report the improvements we’d seen, thanks to the supplements he’d recommended.

During the previous appointment with the doctor, Alex slumped in the chair, keeping his head down, and acting as though he could barely stay awake. This time, he happily skipped into the doctor’s office, smiled the entire time, and looked much healthier. Pleased by the changes, the doctor offered one suggestion to try to get Alex to start talking again: increase his multivitamin dosage while remaining at the same doses for all other supplements, which seemed to be helping, especially the combination of bioflavonoids and vitamin C that work together well. The next three days, we gave Alex an extra multivitamin and discovered this was not a good addition because he became agitated, easily angered at times, and silly at bedtime, giggling in his room about nothing. We took him off this extra vitamin, and he has stopped these negative behaviors. Sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone. Although we hope he’ll start talking again soon, I think it’s just a matter of time, especially considering the improvements we’ve seen the past few months. He can talk, but for some reason, he’s just choosing not to speak. However, on my birthday, I had a nice surprise. As I lit the candles on my cake, Alex suddenly started singing “Happy Birthday” on his own without any prompting. That was the best present I received, for it reminded me that he is getting well, which has been what we have been praying for all along.

“Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well.” James 5:15

Sunday, August 14, 2011


Today is my 49th birthday. The other day as I was visiting with a group of several of my friends, I realized that I have very few friends who are my age. Most of my friends are at least ten years older than I am, including my closest girlfriend, my mom, who is 21 years my senior; others are fifteen or more years younger than I am. One of my young colleagues even affectionately refers to me as “Mom,” which is fitting since I am older than her mother, and she is only a few years older than Alex. While I enjoy the energy and enthusiasm of my younger friends, I feel relief that I have gotten past some of the obstacles they face. My older friends have wisdom they have gained from experience, and while I look forward to acquiring insights, I’m in no hurry to get there. In other words, I’m content to be the age I am.

When Alex was born, I was 29 years old, and I was 33 when he was diagnosed with autism. Although at times I wish I were younger when he was born so that I would have had more energy to deal with his teen years, I know that the maturity I had gained in my late twenties and early thirties helped me deal with the uncertainties of raising a special needs child. I try to have faith that I’m right where I’m supposed to be.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote in my blog entry “Making Wishes” about how whenever I blow out my birthday candles, I wish for Alex to be better. After a summer where we have had some setbacks due to his allergies, along with some comebacks due to proper treatment of those allergies as well as some signs of healing that occurred over time, I will still wish for Alex to be better. Perhaps knowing that I’m only a year away from the half-century mark of age has made me bolder, but I think I’m going to try three wishes this year. Besides my annual wish for Alex’ improvements, I’m going to wish that I, too, continue to improve. As Ed and I get older and Alex moves into adulthood, I worry about what will happen to him. Even though God has always taken care of us, I still try to micromanage our future instead of just turning things over to God. I keep working on that childlike faith that Alex exhibits and need to trust completely that everything will be all right. So, I wish that I would be more faithful and less fearful with age. My third wish can be found on a t-shirt I recently ordered from the National Autism Association. On the front is a picture of a shooting star with the words, “If I had just one wish…” followed by the wording on the back, “I’d wish for a cure for autism.” As thousands of children and their families deal with the issues of autism, I know this wish is a wonderful one. If a cure for autism were found, I wouldn’t have to wish for Alex to be better, and I wouldn’t be fretting about his future. So, as I blow out my candles later today, I wish for a cure for autism—and soon. With that, I share my birthday blog entry from last year, “Making Wishes.”

This past weekend, we celebrated my birthday. Every year Ed specially orders my delicious bakery birthday cake with layers of banana, chocolate, and white cake alternating with strawberry and banana filling. Because of Alex’s restricted diet, I always bake him a very tasty gluten-free and casein-free cake for family birthdays as well as his own. In addition, we place candles on his cake for him to blow out and make a wish, even on other people’s birthdays. Until he was nine years old, Alex couldn’t blow out birthday candles because he couldn’t figure out how to pucker his lips and push air out of his mouth. This year, as he has done for the past several years, he was able to blow out his candles successfully. On my birthday he proclaimed his current wish—to be able to vote. We assured him that now that he has registered to vote, he will get his wish on Election Day in November. Surrounded by the four people I love best in the world—Alex, Ed, and my mom and dad, I listened as they sang a heartfelt, if not musically harmonious, version of “Happy Birthday” and waited to blow out the candles and make my wish.

For years, my birthday wish has remained the same: for Alex to get better. “Better” has meant different things at various points of his development. Early on, my wish was for him to improve his speech so that he could talk with us. Then, I wanted for him to be able to use the bathroom consistently and independently. After he had made progress in his speech skills and had finally mastered toilet training, my wishes focused on improving his behavior. Primarily, I hoped that his anxiety-driven meltdowns would disappear because watching Alex become so distraught was upsetting for us, too. While I liked to think that my wishes were unselfish in wanting for things to be easier for Alex; to be truthful, I also wanted life to be easier for me. In the past year, Alex has made significant progress in many ways, and, thankfully, my life has become much simpler. His contentment has brought us the happiness I had imagined and hoped for every time I blew out my birthday candles.

This year I had a dilemma because I really didn’t know what my birthday wish should be since Alex is so much better. Of course, I want him to continue to improve and make progress, to reach his full potential, and to be happy and healthy. I guess I still wish for him to get better. In the meantime, I try hard not to worry about his future, which is still a mystery. Perhaps someday he will become a meteorologist, or an astronomer, or a stock broker, as he has discussed. When he was younger, I couldn’t have predicted that he would become the congenial young man he is today; therefore, I don’t want to limit my vision of what life holds for him. Besides, I place more credence in my faith in God and His plans for Alex than in the superstition of birthday candle wishes, anyway. Right now, I savor the current blessings and look forward to the ones to come, reminded of a line from the title character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted…He lived happily ever after.” After years of working to overcome the obstacles autism created for Alex, I feel as though God has granted my wishes, allowing us finally to live our own version of that fairy-tale ending.

“You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.” Psalm 139:16

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Alex's Tunes

When Alex was about ten years old, he—like many boys that age—found profanity funny and tried to shock us by cursing. Knowing that making a big deal of his swearing would only make him want to do it more, we calmly explained why he shouldn’t use certain four-letter words and tried not to react much when he said them. Since he knew he wasn’t supposed to say the bad words, he decided instead to write some “songs” with PG-13 lyrics. He typed them neatly on his typewriter, and one day when I was stacking his various typed lists, I ran across two pages of the "lyrics" he’d composed. Even though I wasn’t thrilled with his topic of inspiration, I had to admit that he had some interesting ideas, so I saved his work and put it away in a drawer for safe keeping. Now I’m glad I’ve kept them all these years because they’re pretty amusing.

In all there are four songs, each of which he’s titled as “The _____ [word he’d been told not to say] Song,” and he added the time length in minutes and seconds, as he had seen on CD covers, such as 3:36. His songs vary in length from 3:06 to 4:06, according to what he’d written beside each song’s lyrics. A common theme in these tunes is that he knew he was not supposed to say the words. For example, he wrote, “Don’t type bad words on the Internet…not nice—don’t say or type or write or look up bad words. They’re not good; you don’t say bad words.” [The punctuation is my editing; it’s the English teacher in me that can’t stand run-ons, even if they’re free association from the mind of a ten-year-old with autism.] Moreover, he wanted to know what they meant because he kept writing about looking them up in a dictionary. For example, he wrote, “You [He referred to himself as “you” because he mixed up his pronouns.] don’t know what [Here he lists three curse words.] mean. Buy the word dictionary that includes [Here he lists the same three words.].” In another song, he showed his understanding of how censors edit curse words by bleeping them out: “You not spouse [sic] to say [four-letter word] on TV or radio; if you say it on TV, they make the noise, and you can’t hear what there [sic] saying.” Besides his references to media censorship, he took a religious perspective in the same tune, as he commented, “Even God doesn’t like it.” As I recall, I called in a higher authority figure on this behavior, thinking He might make a greater impression upon Alex and his potty mouth than Ed and I were making at the time.

The last tune of the four is entitled “The Shut Up Song,” in which Alex explained, “The only bad word you know what [it is] is shut up—means be quiet. Thats [sic] rude, not a dirty word.” He showed some frustration that he couldn’t figure out the meaning of the other three words about which he’d written songs: “You will never know what does [three profanities] mean.” However, he seemed to have some sense of right and wrong because he concluded those lyrics: “I don’t like that to talk; bad language is not good for Alex.” Although Alex has always struggled with I and you pronouns, referring to himself as “you” or “Alex,” he never uses “I” to refer to another person. However, when he feels strongly about something (such as “I hate popcorn!”), he correctly uses the pronoun I, which makes me think he knew he wasn’t supposed to use the words that inspired his original songs. I find it interesting that he chose to express his feelings as “songs” because Alex very rarely sings. Moreover, his lyrics, unlike most songs, have no particular rhythm or rhyme schemes; his form of poetry, like his father's, is written in free verse. Nonetheless, I’m glad that he decided to type his thoughts because they give us insight as to what he was thinking at the time. I have to admit, though, what pleases me most is that he outgrew his fascination with “bad words” to the point he never says anything that a TV censor would have to bleep. I think God would like that, too.

“Instead, glorify His mighty works, singing songs of praise.” Job 36:24

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Annoying Toys

A few days ago, I ran across a really funny blog entry on The Stir by Linda Sharps entitled “The Most Evil Baby Toys Ever Made.” As I read through her descriptions about what made these seemingly innocent toys, such as the Fisher Price corn popper, jack-in-the-boxes, and wooden puzzles, so humorously heinous, I remembered a few of Alex’s toys that drove me crazy. Often these toys were purchased as gifts with the best of intentions, hoping they would help his fine motor skills and/or his delayed language issues. Once Alex received them, however, we realized just how annoying these toys really were.

For example, we gave him the game Lucky Ducks, a motorized home version of the Duck Pond game he likes to play every year at the county fair. Little plastic ducks move along a conveyor, and the child matches the colors on the bottom of the ducks. Besides teaching colors and sorting skills, we hoped having to grab the moving ducks would be good for Alex’s fine motor skills. However, we did not know just how loud and irritating the realistic duck sounds that the game makes would be. Despite Alex’s sound sensitivities, he didn’t seem bothered by the constant quacking that made me feel we were living on “Old MacDonald’s Farm.” Perhaps my dislike of all poultry, other than in the form of baked, fried, or grilled chicken, made me overly annoyed by these little ducks. Even going to a different room while Alex played the game didn’t help matters; the insistent quacking carried throughout the house. I shared my frustration about Lucky Ducks with my autism mom friends online, and one of them had the perfect solution. Her e-mail response to me, entitled, “Shushing the Ducks,” suggested placing a piece of duct (or should that be “duck”?) tape over the speaker holes on the bottom of the game. Could something so simple work so well? Yes, those ducks were muffled by a piece of tape, allowing Alex to continue enjoying the realistic sounds while not subjecting anyone else to the duck’s squawking, so everyone was finally happy. I always wondered why, however, Lucky Ducks did not come with a mute button or a volume control; I suspect this may have been a conspiracy by the manufacturer Hasbro to entertain kids while annoying their parents at the same time.

Another toy we gave Alex was bought with good intentions but wound up being nearly as annoying as Lucky Ducks. Since Alex had hyperlexia, or precocious reading skills, I followed hyperlexia research carefully when he was little. On one of the sites where parents shared ideas, one parent had recommended the game Who Am I? [or maybe it was called What am I? The game is no longer available, and maybe my mind has tried to block all memories of this game.] as a way to improve language skills. This electronic game had a four by four grid of squares, with a picture of common items or animals on each of the sixteen squares. The game was similar to Twenty Questions in that the child tried to narrow down the objects, using clues to help categorize the intended object. For instance, for the first clue, this talking game might say, “I’m big.” The child might then touch the car square. If that were incorrect, the game might say, “I’m gray.” Then the child might choose the elephant square, and the game would tell the child that answer was correct. In theory, this was a terrific game for Alex, to teach him to point to objects, listen to directions, and learn to categorize items. However, for some reason, the manufacturer decided to hire someone with the most obnoxious voice on earth to record the verbal cues. When a button was pressed incorrectly, the voice would say in a snotty tone, “NO, I’m BIGGER than THAT!!” or “NO, I’m RED!!” Underneath that nasty response was the unspoken follow-up, “You big dummy!!” While I didn’t appreciate how incompetent that game made me feel, Alex never seemed to mind being corrected by the evil voice; in fact, he seemed to find the comments funny. Thankfully, he doesn’t seem traumatized by the game voice’s overly harsh criticism; his self-esteem remained intact. However, I wondered how many other kids might have felt as stupid as I did when they, too, played this game. I believe the nasty voice may have led to its demise on the toy market. I hope so.

Along with noisy and snide electronic toys, any toys that had numerous pieces held no affection for me. My younger sister, who didn’t have children until Alex was older, had a habit of giving Alex toys that had lots of parts to scatter/step on/lose. I vowed revenge on her, promising that when she had children, I would get them similar multi-piece toys. However, I didn’t follow through on that plan, knowing how all those pieces had driven me to distraction and not wanting to inflict similar pain upon her. To help Alex’s fine motor skills, he had various multi-piece building blocks: wooden, plastic, and the ever annoying Legos, which when stepped upon in bare feet cause shooting pains and involuntary adult verbal tirades. Interestingly enough, Alex had no interest in building anything with blocks. Maybe his lack of fine motor skills made him less likely to build using the toy blocks. I suspect he preferred demolition to construction because he found great pleasure in knocking over any of the buildings we made to model for him how to put the blocks together. Like a tornado, Alex’s hands rapidly destroyed our block handiwork, and he giggled as he did it. Of course, this meant all those blocks went flying around the room, and cleanup wasn’t one of his favorite tasks. Despite our best efforts, some blocks remained elusive, only to be found accidentally by my bare feet. As I think back on these remnants of our past, I’m thankful that Alex enjoyed these toys that annoyed me so much, but I’m more grateful that he’s outgrown them so that I don’t have to listen to them, or step on them, for that matter.

“So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. “ Ecclesiastes 3:12

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Challenges Faded

About the time Ed and I think that Alex will never get past some phase, his behavior changes, and whatever challenge we’ve been facing fades away. Earlier this summer, Alex suddenly developed an aversion to going places. To get him to go someplace, we’d have to encourage him to get in the car and assure him that he’d have fun. Maybe we were a little too enthusiastic in our promoting the rides in the car; he would look at us askance as we clapped, talked in overly cheerful voices, and motioned him toward the door, saying, “C’mon, let’s go!” Despite our best efforts, Alex wasn’t about to budge from his comfortable seat on the couch. Thankfully, he’s gotten past that phase and now will eagerly go anyplace anytime. He doesn’t even need to know where we’re going; he jumps up and heads for the door. A few days ago, I mentioned to Ed that I was going to make a quick run to the grocery store, and Alex immediately came running to go with me when he overheard us talking. Although I had planned to go alone, he was so happy to be going I wasn’t about to deny him the trip to the store.

While Alex had issues about going places this summer, a couple of summers ago, he had an obsession with going to the bathroom with ridiculous frequency. He would run to use the bathroom every commercial break, which meant that he was going several times an hour. Because he had been so difficult to toilet train, we weren’t about to stop him from going, but his frantic runs for the bathroom and subsequent toilet flushing throughout the day did become tiresome. Although we can’t always trace the source of Alex’s obsessions, I had a pretty good idea what had started this one. He had been playing a video game called Bosconian and had become amazingly good. Unfortunately, this game could not be paused, and Alex was skilled enough to play for more than an hour or so. One evening, he had his record high game, which took more than four hours to play. Once he was finished, he came running to use the bathroom, and we wondered how long he’d felt the urge to go but waited until his outstanding game was done. After that, we noticed his frequent trips to the bathroom, which I think was related to that instance of having to wait until he finished his record game. For nearly the entire summer, he went to the bathroom before he would do anything: go places, eat, play a game, watch a show, etc. Apparently, he didn’t want to interrupt any activity to stop and use the toilet. Fortunately, that phase, too, faded with time, and now he uses the bathroom only when necessary, which I’m sure, helped our water bill decrease significantly.

Another challenge Alex has overcome has been his fear of thunderstorms. When he was little, he was terrified of storms, and if he were awakened by thunder during the night, he would have a meltdown. Somehow, he gradually overcame this fear, which came as a great relief to us. A few nights ago, we had a very loud thunderstorm around three in the morning that awakened Ed and me. We listened for Alex, thinking surely that he had to be awake, as well. Ed decided to check on Alex to see if the storm had upset him, and we planned to take him down to the basement if needed, where he couldn’t hear the thunder or see the lightning. After creeping into Alex’s room, Ed discovered that Alex wasn’t a bit upset; in fact, he was sound asleep. Clearly, his sound sensitivity has lessened over the years. Even when Alex does hear thunder now during the daytime, he seems never to be fazed by it anymore. We can’t pinpoint when this change in his behavior occurred, but we’re pleased that his fear of storms seems to have faded away at some point. Whenever we fret about some current challenge Alex has, we try to remember the issues he’s overcome in the past and feel blessed to know that eventually every phase fades with time.

“For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.” Isaiah 43:19