Sunday, August 28, 2016

Keeping Score

This summer, one of Alex’s favorite pastimes has been watching baseball. Fortunately, his favorite team, the Chicago Cubs, has put together an amazingly successful season that has made them fun to watch. Every day, Alex checks to see what time the Cubs are playing and what television station is broadcasting their game. As much as he enjoys watching the games, he has also shown remarkable flexibility. For example, if he has someplace to go or something else to do, he doesn’t get upset about missing the game. If the game runs too late in the evening, he will go to bed contentedly, knowing that Ed will tell him the final score of the game the next day. Alex even handles losses (which are thankfully less common than usual this season) pragmatically, repeating a quote Ed has taught him: “Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose.” The only thing better than watching the Cubs win so many games this season has been watching Alex’s enthusiasm for baseball and his favorite team.

Earlier in the summer, we took him to a vintage baseball game at nearby county park. Wearing old-fashioned uniforms and playing by 1858 rules, the players entertained the spectators as they made barehanded catches on what was once an old farm field. Not only was the weather perfect, but Alex’s behavior was also perfect as he followed the game intently and enjoyed himself thoroughly. Once again, he showed the progress he has made by being able to sit calmly and focus on an activity with many people around him. While most people would take this kind of an outing for granted, we savor these family times, grateful for the opportunity to do something fun without worrying that Alex will become overwhelmed by the experience.

In fact, Alex had such a good time that we decided to take him to another vintage baseball game a few weeks ago. This game was played at another park in a neighboring county, the site of a former grist mill. As with the previous game, Alex was engaged in watching not only the baseball game but also casually observing the other people attending the game, listening to the variety of their voices. With the snacks I had brought along for him––an orange Gatorade in one hand and a bag of Fritos corn chips in the other––he was the picture of contentment. We didn’t think things could get any better than that.

After a couple of innings, we took him out to the old-fashioned scoreboard, where my dad, who has kept the scoreboard for a few years, was sitting. Of course, Alex was pleased to see Grandpa, but he was also fascinated by the big box of wooden blocks with numbers painted on them to keep score. Shortly after we arrived at the scoreboard, one of the players scored a run. Instead of putting up the new score himself, my dad handed Alex a wooden block with a number and asked him to place it on the scoreboard. Before I could give reasons why Alex couldn’t do that seemingly simple task, he had proven my unspoken doubts wrong and already put the new score on the board. Moreover, he was pretty pleased about being the interim scorekeeper.

As Alex’s mom, one of the mistakes I often make is enabling him and being too quick to do things for him, knowing his various limitations. Partly because I always want to help him and make his life easier and partly because I don’t want him to get too frustrated (and truthfully partly because it’s faster and easier to do things myself), I often jump in and take over when I should at least let him try to do things on his own. I would have never thought to let him put the number on the scoreboard, fearing that he might drop the number and get upset, thinking that his hand tremor would make lining up the hole of the wooden score block on the small peg impossible, and deciding that walking out on the narrow raised deck might make him nervous. Fortunately, fathers don’t overanalyze situations as much as mothers do, and grandfathers even less so. Without any worries, Grandpa gave Alex a chance, and his confidence gave Alex the courage to try and to be successful.

In an interesting twist, this game was one of the highest scoring games ever, which meant that Alex had to keep changing the score numbers. Following Grandpa’s directions, Alex took the old scores off the board, handed them to Grandpa and took the new score block and hung it on the scoreboard. Although he needed to be reminded which team earned the run so that he placed the number in the right spot, Alex never faltered as he lined up the wooden number blocks on the scoreboard pegs. While that simple task may seem nothing major to most people, because I know how much Alex has struggled with the simplest of fine motor tasks, I was amazed that he did so well.

Moreover, Alex was pleased to have a chance to participate in the game by keeping the scoreboard. After all, numbers are one of his favorite things in the world and combining them with baseball made it perfect for him. As the three of us praised him for what a good job he was doing, Alex beamed with pride. He had learned how to do something new, and I learned something, as well. Instead of thinking about his limitations so much, I need to be willing to allow him to try new things more often. Although he may not always succeed at first, he might surprise us and take to the new task as easily as he did with keeping the scoreboard. To deny him the chance to try is to deny him the chance for joy in knowing that he can do something himself.

Before the summer ends, we’re planning to take him to another vintage baseball game. I don’t know whether he’ll want to help Grandpa keep the scoreboard again or not, but at least I know that if he shows interest in trying, we will certainly encourage him. As Alex has learned, life is more than winning and losing or succeeding and failing; the important thing is being willing to try. Unless we allow him to attempt things that may be difficult for him, Alex will never know the satisfaction that comes with being able to succeed.

“You will succeed in whatever you do, and light will shine on the road ahead of you.” Job 22:28

Sunday, August 21, 2016

To Be Happy

This week, I felt a bit wistful about starting another school year. Although I really like working with my colleagues and students, I felt sad to see our best summer ever with Alex come to a close. Because he has made so much progress, we were able to enjoy many family activities, such as going to concerts in the park, playing games at our local family arcade, dining out at a variety of restaurants, and relaxing together at home. Knowing this transition of my going back to work would mean a time of adjustments for all of us, we tried to make this past week easier for Alex. By giving him a printed agenda of the various beginning of the year meetings I would be attending, I thought it would help him be less anxious about where I was and when I would be home. As he carried around my schedule all of last week, Alex appeared more relaxed than he usually is at the beginning of the school year, and checking off the activities at the end of each day was helpful for both of us. After a week of unusual busyness, we are looking forward to getting back to the usual routine, even as Ed begins his semester this week.

On Wednesday, the first day of classes, two emails appeared in my home inbox that I found interesting, especially since they seemed to be a sign of the positive attitude I’m trying to maintain, even at the end of a terrific summer. The first, which came from our health insurance’s monthly newsletter, is entitled “Happy people: 8 simple secrets they know.” [To read this article, please click here.] Based upon research, the article offers helpful tips about cultivating happiness. This list includes the following guidelines: connect with family and friends, be grateful for good things, help others, think positively, get exercise, have fun and be creative, get rest, and be optimistic. These suggestions seem to be good goals for me to pursue as I begin the school year in order not to become overwhelmed by thinking of all the things I need to do.

Along with this article, I also found some good ideas in an email from psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen. In his article “The Number One Habit to Develop in Order to Feel More Positive,” he discusses the problem of ANT––Automatic Negative Thoughts. [To read this article, please click here.] Dr. Amen explains that these automatic negative thoughts he sees in his patients “were robbing them of their joy and stealing their happiness.” He adds that these ANTs are responsible for depression, anxiety, and negativity.

In order to recognize these negative thoughts, Dr. Amen describes a few of the common ANTs. For people who have panic disorders, “Fortune Telling” is common; the person predicts bad outcomes, despite any evidence. In “Mind Reading,” the person believes they know what another person is thinking, and this assumption can harm relationships. Those who engage in “Guilt Beatings” focus on “should, must, ought, and have to” as they feel badly about what they are doing or are not doing. In the “Blame” type of thinking, the person becomes a helpless victim who cannot change a situation, blaming others and not taking responsibility. Finally in “Labeling” the person resorts to name calling, which diminishes the ability to analyze the circumstances clearly. After considering Dr. Amen’s negative thought categories, I realize that I find myself in fortune telling, mind reading, and guilt beating mode at times, and I know that I need to quit making assumptions about what will happen and what others think and to stop being so hard on myself.

Dr. Amen, a neuroscientist, explains how positive and negative thoughts have contrasting physical effects on the mind and the body. Negative thoughts cause the brain to release chemicals that make hands clammy, muscles tighten, breathing shallow, and the heart rate increase. In the brain, negative thoughts impair judgment, learning, and memory. By contrast, positive thoughts warm the hands, relax muscles, deepen breathing, and decrease pulse and blood pressure; in addition, the brain works more effectively. Dr. Amen emphasizes the need to recognize and identify negative thought patterns and to take control of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in order to “experience peace of mind and joy.” His assertion that self-awareness can change a person’s outlook on life is compelling. Clearly, focusing on the positive is essential to a happy life.

On Thursday evening, our school held its annual open house where parents are invited to meet the teachers. After I finished meeting with my students’ parents, I had the unexpected pleasure of running into a friend of mine whose child attends the school where I teach. In addition, we are both autism moms to sons who tower over us in height. As we happily compared notes about how well our boys are doing and what great summers they both had, we commented about how much we appreciate chatting with someone who “gets it,” who understands what life with autism is really like.

Instead of complaining about the obstacles autism presents in our daily lives, however, she and I began a dialogue about the positive aspects of our lives. We don’t worry about girls breaking our sons’ hearts right now. Unlike parents of typical young adults, we don’t have to worry about our sons driving because they currently don’t have the ability to do so. While some of our family and friends are dealing with the separation anxiety of having their children go away to college, ours are safely home with us. In fact, they will likely be with us for a while, and we’re fine with that, especially because they have become so pleasant, and we enjoy their company. Moreover, we’re delighted that our sons allow us to kiss and hug them without any fear of embarrassing them. For all the things in life that autism has made difficult, we are well aware of the good things that bless our lives and make us grateful to be their moms.

As I work toward eradicating negative thoughts and focusing on the positive, I have the additional blessing of a wonderful role model. Although Alex and I both deal with anxiety, we have learned coping skills that help us to fight our fears, and our faith is the most powerful tool in our arsenal. The vast majority of the time, Alex takes a positive outlook on life, savoring even the smallest of joys––decreasing gas prices, the sound of a pleasant voice, the taste of a favorite food––and realizes that life is to be enjoyed, not endured. Perhaps God knows that I need Alex’s optimistic outlook on a daily basis, so he’s home with me. While I think I have things to teach Alex before he’s ready for the world; he probably knows that he has much to teach me, as well. Until both of us are ready, we will enjoy our time together and know how blessed we truly are to have each other.

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

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Alex's Garden

Today is the last day of my summer vacation as I start my next school year of teaching tomorrow. Although I feel wistful about ending what has been our best summer ever as a family, we are delighted that Alex has shown so much promise these past few months. Last evening we went to a party at my brother’s house with more than two dozen people, and not only did Alex behave appropriately the entire time, but he also thoroughly enjoyed himself. Even when he came home, he seemed to be replaying the evening in his mind, smiling in amusement. After a summer filled with walks in the park, downtown concerts, old-time baseball games, evenings at the local arcade, meals at favorite restaurants, relaxing on our screen porch, following his beloved Chicago Cubs on television, and family gatherings like the one last night, Alex has enjoyed a rich and full summer. Watching him enjoy himself and knowing he has been content has blessed our lives immeasurably.

The summer began with some trepidation, however, as his psychiatric nurse practitioner recommended that we reduce one of his medications for anxiety because he was doing so well. With the coping skills he has learned in therapy, Alex has developed appropriate ways to calm himself when he feels overwhelmed. Although we feared that he might regress in his behavior with this medication reduction, the opposite has been true. Instead of being more anxious, he has been remarkably calm. Another benefit to this change has been that his mind is sharper, and we have seen his quick wit return along with improvements in his speech. Of course, we are thankful for this progress and for the wisdom of his nurse practitioner who knew what Alex needed to get better.

One of our summer projects has been the evolution of Alex’s garden. At the beginning of summer, I asked Ed if he had any plans for the patch of weeds that was taking over a section of our backyard along our back fence. Wisely, he realized that I probably already had a plan in mind and was willing to go along with what I wanted to do with that overgrown mess. Bless his heart, he spent days tearing out all those weeds so that we could start over with a rock garden. After hauling five tons of river rock and laying seventy paving bricks along the edges, Ed completed the hardest work of the task. Then the three of us worked together on the creative aspect––choosing what should go in Alex’s garden.

As we ran around to all the garden stores in our area, we talked about what would look good in our new rock garden and have meaning for our family. We enjoyed our outings, searching for those items that would complete the garden, and when we couldn’t find what we wanted, we searched on the Internet to find the items that seemed elusive. Along with the items we purchased ourselves, we added to the garden some decorations we bought with an Amazon gift card given to us by my parents as an anniversary gift. After thinking and planning and discussing and searching and a lot of hard work on Ed’s part, Alex’s garden came to fruition.

Because of Alex’s interest in weather, the garden has a windmill so that we can observe the speed and direction of the wind.

Knowing that red is Alex’s favorite color, we found this red flower that decorates the garden and also spins in the wind.

We also have a rain gauge to measure precipitation. The little red wheelbarrow is a reminder of all those rocks and bricks Ed hauled back there. The dozen solar lights along the edge make the garden look like a disco at night as they change from red to blue to green and back throughout the night.

Because Alex’s favorite animal is the turtle––perhaps because, like him, it takes its time yet steadily moves along––we found a turtle statue to sit upon the stump of a tree that was cut down a few years ago.

An even better find was the statue of a little boy who looks like Alex holding a turtle.

Since Alex loves keeping track of time, we searched and searched for an old-school timekeeper, a sundial. He picked this one out on Amazon, and the adage “Time flies” seems appropriate for a summer filled with fun where time, indeed, did fly.

This stepping stone seemed a perfect reminder of our time spent this summer working together on this garden and savoring the blessings and joy God has given us as a family.

In many ways, Alex’s garden is symbolic of our life as a family. From a chaotic and tangled mess of weeds––autism––we worked together as a family to create order and to accomplish our goals. We discussed and planned and searched for what we needed. We celebrated what makes Alex special. After steadily working and patiently waiting for what we needed to find, suddenly all the pieces seemed to fit together. And, as always, we looked around at our blessings and thanked God for His goodness. Alex’s garden will stand as a testimony of how God answered our prayers to make Alex better and will remind us of a summer filled with joy and even greater hope for our future.

“Things are going to happen so fast your head will swim, one thing fast on the heels of the other. You won’t be able to keep up. Everything will be happening at once––and everywhere you look, blessings!” Amos 9:13

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Looking Back, Looking Foward

This summer, one of my projects has been starting to convert our old home movies on video from VHS to DVD format. Last weekend, I made  a DVD copy of our wedding video from twenty-eight years ago, which Ed and I enjoyed watching, reminiscing about our special day and remembering little moments that we had forgotten over time. As I watched a younger version of myself walk confidently down the church aisle, I recalled that I felt more nervous than I appeared. However, I also know that at the time I felt certain about my faith in God, my love for Ed, and my hope for our future. What I did not know as that smiling bride is how all three of those would be tested by raising a child with autism and how those challenges would actually strengthen my faith, love, and hope.

Because Alex has been doing so well this summer, I have had more time to do projects that I have been postponing when he needed me to entertain and/or supervise him nearly constantly. Instead of just surface cleaning the house, I have had the time to do deep cleaning, which has led me to some discoveries that have taken my breath away for a moment. When Alex was extremely agitated four years ago, he would write seemingly random numbers in ballpoint ink on any surface he could find. Most of the time, I would see these numbers right away and scrub them off the walls, the toilet, the television, etc. What I was unable to erase, I found clever ways to cover with paint or wallpaper or strategically placed curtains, pictures, and tablecloths. For one thing, I didn’t want Alex to think this behavior was acceptable, and for another, I didn’t want any reminders of his temporary insanity.

As I wiped down woodwork and doors this summer, I discovered tiny reminders of that frightening and uncertain phase when Alex’s behavior spiraled out of control. Although I thought I had eliminated those scrawled numbers he had written in a state of agitation, I ran across numbers in plain sight that I shouldn’t have missed. I suspect I just thought they were nicks or spots on the woodwork. On three closet doors in three separate rooms, Alex had written numbers right at my eye level. Unlike many of the numbers he wrote all over the house, these showed control because they were small, even, and legible––a date, the year 2001.

To be honest, I’m not sure what the significance of that date was to Alex; perhaps it made an impression on him because the year after that we moved to this home from our old house. To be fair, he wrote all kinds of dates everywhere, and these just happened to be ones I somehow missed seeing. However, these numbers left behind, much like watching old videos, reminded me just how far we have come. Unlike the confident bride filled with faith, love, and hope, at that time I was a terrified mom whose faith, love, and hope were tested mightily because I didn’t know how to help Alex deal with whatever fears and frustrations were making him behave in such a bizarre way. However, I had to rely upon my faith in God, my love for Ed and Alex, and my hope for the future to get through an ordeal that made Alex, Ed, and I better and stronger.

As much as I’d like to erase completely those terrible times––just as I erased and hid the numbers Alex wrote––from my memory completely, I know that remembering them is just as important and perhaps even more important than remembering the good times that we preserve so carefully in photographs and videos as well as in our minds. Stumbling upon those dates written on the doors was necessary to remind never to take the blessings of God for granted. When we were desperate, we prayed for answers, and He gave us healing, hope, and help. Moreover, we were supported by family and friends who prayed for us during those difficult times.

Approaching the end of a summer that has been our best ever, thanks to how well Alex is doing, thereby allowing us to enjoy activities and everyday life as a family, we know how blessed we are because of what we have overcome. Ed and I often compare notes on how well Alex handled situations that would have upset him in the past, and we take great pride in all of his accomplishments, especially since autism has made his life more difficult. When I look back over old photographs or old blog entries, I see that we thought he was doing well at other times, and we were grateful for that progress. However, we did not know that he could be as happy and healthy as he is now. Not only are we grateful for these blessings, but we also have even stronger hope for our future, knowing that God has a greater plan for Alex’s life than we can envision. As we look back on where we have been, we can look forward confidently, knowing that God holds Alex’s future safely in His hands.

“The Lord will work out His plans for my life––for Your faithful love, O Lord, endures forever. Don’t abandon me, for You have made me.” Psalm 138:8