This Familiar Place

We’re almost two months into this school year. For the past week or so, I’ve noticed some regression in Little Man…..more tears, more outbursts, a couple of full-blown meltdowns. His anxiety level is up.  He’s pushing back more. Then we have that situation I wrote about last week. He’s not really interested in going back to that particular class. Friday and yesterday, he spent significant time in the nurse’s office complaining of a bad headache. Friday, I ended up bringing him home. Yesterday, I took him ibuprofen at 9:30, but then got another call two hours later to come get him.

He’s fine. No other physical complaints, just the headache that only appears at school.

Here’s what I think, having done this school thing with him a few times before. I think he’s maxed out. Does that make sense? He just reaches a certain capacity to tolerate it all, and then hits a wall. We typically see this happen six weeks or so into the school year. It doesn’t even take me a few days or weeks to catch on to what’s happening. I just  know, as soon as we see this regression start it’s because he’s tapped.

I can’t pull him out of school just because he’s reached a wall. I can’t let him skip doing his work just because he has little left in  his tolerance tank.  I can’t let him just escape. I do give him a little space where I can, but we can’t allow him to retreat completely.

It’s so painful to watch him struggle. It hurts my heart. The world isn’t always kind to everyone, much less those with different needs. Every time he goes sideways, I mentally go back to that night he told us this was too hard and he didn’t want to do life anymore. I’m terrified….that is my biggest fear for him, always. Once your child says those words to you, you will never get over it. It’s always there in the back of your mind. But then there’s a fine line between acknowledging that’s there, and pushing him through situations because that’s what he has to do.

We are where we are. We’ve been here before. It’s a familiar place. Even knowing it’s probably coming doesn’t make it any easier once you notice you’re there. But we dig in, we love him through it, we keep fighting. That’s just what we do.

Summer Camp

When the kids were little, we started putting them in summer day camps – typically at the Y, and mostly to keep them occupied, surrounded by other kids, learning to learn from other adults, and, to be quite honest, to give me a few hours of respite from three toddlers. As the years went on, summer camp became tied up in whatever sport they were involved in at the time….soccer, golf, dance……Last year, Big Man went away to Mammoth for a few days with the cross country team to train at altitude. Two years ago, the Princess spent two weeks in Orange County at a summer dance intensive.

We’ve had a much more difficult time with Little Man as far as summer camps go.  He did the Y one year I think.  Once he was diagnosed on the spectrum, I struggled with putting him anywhere. We had a disaster of a Lego robotics camp a few years back. I ended up pulling him out a couple days before the week was out. The instructors just didn’t have it in them to deal. I lost patience, and a bit of faith.

Last year, we found an amazing camp nearby. Well, one of my close friends found it online and sent me the link. Right away, it sounded perfect for our guy.  It’s was a coding camp…five days, six hours a day, of working with technology, generally through gaming. I won’t say he had a perfect experience – autism did still rear its ugly head a few times. But the director and instructors were willing to work with him. Not to mention, he wasn’t the sole high-functioning kiddo there. We were super impressed. Much more, he made one  very good friend he still keeps in touch with.

I started getting emails for this summer back in January. Originally, they weren’t going to have any sessions at the college nearby (a ten minute drive), but rather down in San Diego (45-60 minutes each way, depending upon traffic). I didn’t think we were going to be able to manage the logistics.  But then a few months ago, they did open sessions at the nearby campus and we signed him up right away.

This is the week of camp. He was anxious but excited yesterday morning.  He was talking about the programs he thought they might be using, really looking forward to learning.  But when I picked him up, the director said he’d had a bit of a rough afternoon. It is a LONG day – 8 hours to be exact. That’s a lot for him. Little Man wouldn’t even talk about what he’d done all day until a few hours after he got home. I do think he ran out of fuel, and lost the ability then to self-manage.  He was happy to go back today, waking at 6:30, and announcing, “Day 2!”.

I texted the director a bit ago, just giving him some hints and tips for dealing with Little Man. He responded right away, letting me know things were going well today, and that he was appreciative of the input.  Again, I’m sure our son isn’t the only spectrum kid they’re dealing with. He can’t be. But if you know one kid with autism, you know one kid with autism. They’re just as different from each other as anyone else.

I’m not picking him up today, as I have a work event, but I’m still anxious to hear how his day went. He is doing something he loves, so hopefully that keeps the issues to a minimum. And on Friday, we’ll get to meet his instructors and classmates, and see what he’s been doing all week.

Once Again

I’m once again faced with the situation of Little Man having  new friend – one who has invited him over to hang out, and to go to the zoo at some point this summer. He went to this friend’s house for a birthday party yesterday, and even over an extended afternoon, seemed fine. But I find myself faced with the dilemma/decision/choice of telling this friend’s mom about Little Man’s autism.

Maybe she knows, or at least senses something. She didn’t say anything yesterday when I picked him up, but she has to wonder why a 13 year old chooses to hang out with a 10 year old. She said my guy waits for her son by the gate at school each morning too, and I know they spend hours facetiming, talking all things video game.

I haven’t had to struggle with this issue in a few years. What do I tell the parent of a new friend, when do I tell that parent? What’s best? What’s right for all involved?

If you didn’t know he’s autistic, you may just guess he’s either a lot younger than his chronological age, or just very immature, unless you have the pure pleasure of seeing him in meltdown or tantrum mode. Then you know for sure something is different. I don’t even know if his friend realizes he’s autistic.

I think part of me just wants him to be able to engage with friends without having Autism hanging over his head, part of me wants his life experience to be “normal” and me not have to consider this decision. But then am I being fair to that parent by not giving them fair warning, especially when they are going to be in charge of my child for a few hours? Sigh…….

What would you want to know about your child’s new friend, and when would you want to know it?

Too Much

As I’ve said, Little Man has been struggling as of late. We have one more day of school. One. More. Day. He’s battling, but we’re seeing behaviors we haven’t seen in months. His toolbox is completely out the window. It sucks.

Yesterday, for Father’s Day, we went indoor cart racing. I was a little nervous about it, but didn’t really think it would be a big deal. It wasn’t ridiculously loud, and he would have a helmet on anyways. We watched four or five races. He seemed okay for the most part, although he was lashing out and had a bit of temper tantrum – more from being hungry and having to wait than anything else. We fed him, and waited for our turn.

When our race started, I hung back, not going too fast. I’m not much of a speed queen anyways – afraid of crashing or spinning out. I did pass him, and he seemed okay. But then people were passing  and bumping him, and he got stuck in a corner. He worked to get out, but couldn’t manage it. They had to stop the race and help him. He decided he was done, so they guided him off the course. Yes, we are that family that has to shut the place down. I was reminded of our ski trip last year when they had to stop the lift twice for us. He and I decided to ditch our second race.

We should have known. We should have seen it coming. We should have realized it would be too much for him – the speed of the people around him while trying to drive his own cart, his inexperience driving a cart, the noise, the anxiety of racing itself….too much sensory input, too much performance anxiety, too much stress. We should have seen it would happen. But he’s been doing so well, has come so very far.

I have to give him credit – he tried something new, something he wasn’t sure of. He did it, even if for just a brief period of time (I think he made it through three laps). We told him we were very proud of him for trying, because we are so proud of him.   While I felt defeated in a way, it also felt like a win, because he did try. Autism won for a moment, but it didn’t win the day. He may never drive a race cart again, but he did it.

Your Guess

It’s been pretty quiet on the autism front in the Herd household this year, thank the good Lord. I said it earlier this year, but it’s worth saying again….we desperately needed a quiet, drama-free year for our Little Man. Last year was dreadful, draining, overwhelming, awful. But you know in the wonderful world of autism, there are lots and lots of roadblocks, speed bumps, dips, turns, and storms. They’re not unexpected, but still disappointing when they happen.

Little Man has almost five weeks left of school. Good golly – that just sucks, especially as the bigs are out in two weeks. He knows the end is near. They’re in the middle of the standardized testing. He wants it over with quickly. Routine has been busted a bit at school because of the testing, but he’s also aware the end of the year is coming,  which means an even bigger routine bust. He does not do well with changes in, nor lack of, routine. I see his anxiety levels rising. I see some old behaviors returning. I see less tolerance and patience from him.

I’ve had a couple emails from his SAI at school letting me know he’s pushing back on work, he’s spending more time out of the classroom again, he’s pacing, his breathing is elevated. She wanted to know if I had any clue why this  might be happening. Uh, nope. Your guess is as good as mine. I could point to any number of things, but there doesn’t seem to be one thing we can say, “Yes, that’s what’s making him behave this way right now.”

We keep reminding him of his tools. We keep reminding him what he’s capable of. We keep reminding him the many successes he’s had this year. None of that changes whatever’s going on in his head, nor how he deals with life. So we do what we can at home. They do what they can at school. We pray this is just a blip and not a sign of long-term struggles.

I know better than to borrow trouble, but next year is his last year of middle school. There’s a new building with classrooms for the 8th graders. They will do things a bit differently for 8th grade than he has in sixth and seventh. He will have to participate in his IEP meetings. And the transition to high school will start. He knows it’s coming. I can’t help but think that may be hanging over him a bit, even though it’s in the distance. I know it’s hanging over me.

So we hang on for the ride the remainder of this school year, hoping this is just a temporary dip. But as for what the root cause is of this particular dip, your guess is as good as mine. And thus goes life on autism street.

Our Little Corner on Autism Street

I finally brought myself to watch the 60 Minutes segment on the new Sesame Street character, Julia.  Julia is an autistic girl. As seems to be par lately, I sat there watching, with tears rolling silently down my face. This is our world. I couldn’t help but wish Julia had been around ten years ago or more. It may have made his life a little easier if kids had had the chance to learn about autism before he spread his own version of awareness in his classrooms. I hope Julia helps kids, and even  adults, understand autism – that it isn’t something to be afraid of, to turn away from, or to bully.

Here’s the thing – his autism is real. It isn’t ever going away. It is a lifelong diagnosis. There’s no curing it. You don’t take antibiotics for ten days and recover from autism. It is him, it’s part of him.

What does our little corner on autism street look like? Well, take this morning for instance (which mornings aren’t his favorite anyways). Big Man accidentally made too much noise while getting ready for school in their shared bathroom, which woke Little Man up twenty minutes before his usual wakeup time. Anyone can be cranky in the morning, but for us it meant Little Man yelling at pretty much everyone, slamming doors, stomping around upstairs, and just generally letting everyone know he was not happy. In a word, he threw a tantrum. This is not the tantrum you think of with a spoiled or over-tired three year old. It’s something he can’t control. His emotions overwhelm him, and this is his reaction as he can’t process it out, or put words to his feelings. This happens any time something unexpected happens, there’s a change in his routine, we run out of his favorite food, or the battery runs out on his iPad when we’re at a game/event/dinner out. He’s improved ten thousand percent in the last few years. His tantrums are fewer and further between, but they are still part of life.

Meltdowns are also part of life, although, again, there are fewer, and his recovery is much quicker than when he was first diagnosed. Meltdowns usually happen when he gets hurt, or there’s a sudden and unexpected loud noise. Lord help us if a siren goes off he’s not expecting. It’s even in his IEP he have advanced notice, if at all possible, of fire/lockdown drills at school because he will lose it if that alarm goes off and he isn’t expecting it. When we take him to movies, he will use the excuse of needing to go to the bathroom when the sounds get to be too much, or there’s too much action. He’s been known to leave the theater five times during a 2 hour movie, although lately we’ve been able to get that down to two or three trips out. The odd thing about this is, if he chooses to listen to something, he has it turned up SO loud!

He still travels with his favorite stuffed animals. He will be thirteen in a few days. Yeah, that. You should see him watch them go through the security scanner in airports – his face anxiously watching from the other end to make sure they come out safely and don’t get stuck in the machine. We tend to pre-board airplanes because standing in line, and having to get into his seat quickly when there’s a line of people behind us, makes him very anxious and overwhelmed. And  you can bet I  make sure to have all his favorite snacks packed in his airplane bag.

Speaking of food – when  your kid is autistic, you can almost bet his food choices are going to be minimal, and you’d better make sure you don’t run out of more than one of those minimal choices at any given time. I have been known to, in a panic, rush to the grocery store before going to after-school pickup just so I have what I know he will eat. Our restaurant choices tend to be based around whether they have pasta, chicken strips, or burgers on the menu.

He has a weighted blanket, and a weighted hoodie my mom made for him. What a godsend! That blanket has really helped not only his sleep, but when he’s really in full meltdown mode, he gets under it and calms pretty quickly. I can’t even hold the blanket – it makes me claustrophobic, but it’s a comfort for him to be under it.

He does have his obsessions – currently YouTube videos of gamers playing his favorite games, Plants vs Zombies, paper crafting his favorite characters from his favorite video games, coding, and video game music.

He seems much younger than his siblings did at this same age. He seems much younger than many of his peers.While chronologically thirteen, he is emotionally and socially about the level of a 7 or 8 year old. He’s intellectually the equivalent of a high school senior, if not more. It’s an interesting, frustrating combination, particularly when he can’t articulate his thoughts and feelings.

He has very little tolerance of anyone talking down to how old they think he is. Quickest way to get him to be as rude as possible is to be condescending to him. He will light you up, or he will refuse to speak to you but will let you know with his glare exactly what he thinks.

We don’t go anywhere without some kind of screen and headphones for him. It’s that simple. Yes, we frequently get those judgemental looks in restaurants, etc when he pulls out his iPad or phone, puts his headphones on, and completely disengages. Trust me – you don’t want to deal with the alternative.

He does flap his arms a bit, get over-excited, sit in odd and contorted positions.  He has his tics, for sure. We’re used to them, and I don’t think about them much, unless we’re out or around someone new and I notice the glances and staring.

He does perseverate. He doesn’t like to try new things. He doesn’t want to do anything he thinks he can’t do successfully. He pushes back on things he thinks he can’t do. His anxiety causes sleep issues, especially when he’s out of routine.

So that’s our little corner on autism street. That’s not his entire story though. He’s utterly brilliant, witty, loves puns, incredibly creative. He’s amazing, he’s mine, he’s autistic.

I told myself not to get comfortable

If you have any experience with an autistic child, you know it comes with its ups and downs, backwards and forwards, twists and turns. I wrote a couple of weeks ago that we were in, and had been in for awhile, a good place. Well, yeah, I told myself not to get comfortable, and for good reason.

I’ve had two emails from his special ed teacher within the last week. I might be saying some bad words to autism right now. He’s pushing back on work. He doesn’t want to try when it’s hard, or if he thinks he can’t do  it. He’s giving up. Yesterday, he left the classroom for twenty  minutes (we’d had him down to less than five minutes, and usually staying inside the classroom, for months), couldn’t tell the teacher what was wrong nor what he needed. Gah!

Essentially, he’s not using any of the tools he’s been given, and he’s backsliding. It happens, but it’s frustrating and gut-wrenching every single time. I told his spec ed teacher I’m grasping at straws trying to figure out what may be going on. Who knows what’s triggered him this time. It could be he’s had too long without a break from routine (but then we know breaks from routine also set him off). It could be something as simple as his brother getting his driver’s license, thus setting off a change in his “normal”. It could be the cold he’s fighting. It could be the trip we have coming up. Or it could just be a normal autism blip.

I needed him to stay in a groove. I’m dealing with a ton with the other two, and his status quo was helping me stay sane. But such is the way of parenting life. Just when you think you have a handle on one thing, something else comes up. Every week seems to bring something new. difficult, agonizing.

We do have a trip in a few weeks, over Spring Break, and I can’t wait. We need a family huddle break – an insulated, away-from-it-all escape. It will be just the five of us. I’m bummed our friends can’t come with us, but at the same time, I’m looking forward to it just being us, creating new memories, enjoying new experiences, seeing new things, and reconnecting.

We’ll get Little Man back into his happy place. This too shall pass. The sunshine will return, and the rainy day will be a memory again – one more blip, one more hurdle overcome.