Shaken, Not Deterred

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See that picture? That’s my wife and my daughter (15) taking a walk. Oh, and our dog, Roxie. Do you know why I’m posting this picture? Not because I love these two (which, of course, I do), but because of how proud I am of my little girl. The fact that she is out on a walk shows how courageous she is.

You see, about four weeks ago, my daughter had a seizure. It was her first. Not a little tremor—a grand mal. You know, the kind where you’ve fallen to the floor convulsing, with your eyes wide open but seeing nothing. The kind where you can’t remember anything about it. The kind where you wake up as the paramedics are gently placing you on a stretcher and wheeling you into an ambulance. Terrifying stuff.

Then, ten days later, she had another one. The first one was in our house, but this one was out in public, at a food court. Again, it was a grand mal, and it lasted longer than the first one. Fortunately, I was there with her, so I knew to roll her onto her side, cradle her head, and wait it out. Again, she woke up, disoriented, to emergency personnel hovering around her.

So what does this have to do with the picture up there? Everything.

Overcoming “What If.”

Events like these would be traumatic for any adolescent girl; they can be positively paralyzing for a girl with ASD and anxiety disorder. The randomness of the seizures, the lack of memory, the waking up surrounded by strangers—it’s all so upsetting. The largest question that looms in her mind now is “What if?” What if I have another one? What if Mom and Dad aren’t around? What if it happens in front of my friends?

She’s on anticonvulsants now, and she hasn’t had a seizure in two weeks, but that doesn’t matter. The anxiety is so big, and the autistic tendency to perseverate is so strong, that the mere possibility of another event has kept her pretty much homebound ever since. She even missed an appointment with her counselor, whom she really likes.

Now do you see why this picture is so precious to me? Katie and I have convinced her that she needs to start getting out. We’re starting slowly, having her join us as we walk the dog in the mornings. And she’s doing it! She’s walking, she’s talking about everyday stuff, and she’s not perseverating over the seizures.

(The walking stick? That’s because she has mild scoliosis, and it helps her posture.)

Different Drums.

Now take a look at this picture.IMG_0120 Do you see that plush doll in the crook of her right arm? That’s Phantump, one of her favorite Pokémon characters. She is rarely separated from this creature, and when she is, she’s holding another one of the more than 100 she has collected over the years. They are her security blanket. They bring her comfort. They help her bridge the gap between the fantasy world she so enjoys and the real world, which is fraught with challenges and dangers.

So there’s my daughter, out in public with a walking stick and a plush Pokémon. While most girls her age are swooning over boys, preparing for their learner’s permit, and paying close attention to their appearance, here is my girl, walking to the beat of her own drum. She’s fighting her fears. She’s facing down her anxieties. She’s pushing through some things no fifteen-year-old should have to face. And she’s still standing.

There was a time when I’d object to the plush doll. “You’re a young woman now. For God’s sake, leave that thing behind!” There was a time when I’d try to force her to push through her fears more quickly than she was ready to do—usually to disastrous results. There was a time when I knew pretty much what I wanted her (and all my kids) to be, without paying too close attention to her unique personality. But if walking this autism path with my kids has taught me anything, it’s to throw away all of my expectations and to not care about how other people look at them. Those concerns were more about me than the kids, anyway.

So march on, girl! I don’t care if you need to take five Pokémon with you. I don’t care if you choose one of the most ornate, obvious, obnoxious walking sticks possible. Do whatever you need to do. Just keep moving forward. Today, it’s a walk with Mom, Dad, and Roxie. Next Sunday, it may be joining the whole family at Mass. Or maybe just part of Mass. Or maybe not yet. It doesn’t matter. Take it one step at a time, and we’ll be right there with you.

* These pictures, and this story, have been posted with the kind permission of my daughter (and, of course, my beautiful wife, Katie).

 

 

Lots of Snowflakes

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My next stop was the enchanting kingdom of Arendelle, where I visited Queen Elsa. Like the other people I spoke with, she was very happy to record a message to kids on the autism spectrum. She got it right away when I explained why I was asking her to do this. You see, Elsa has special, unique abilities that most people didn’t understand, and this made her feel like an outcast. She was even denounced as a “monster” by the Duke of Weselton. She hid away for years, staying in the shadows, because she was afraid of her powers, which she couldn’t control. She also stayed in hiding because of how guilty she felt for having accidentally hurt her sister, Anna.

As you can see, Elsa was living under a dark cloud of oppression—much of it undeserved. I told her that many kids on the autism spectrum can feel that way as well. They can stand out from the crowd. They can feel as if they are too different from the people around them. Even worse, those things that make them different can overwhelm them and make them say or do hurtful things. Like Elsa, they can be bound up in guilt and fear. Some even build a colorful, imaginative world of their own, a refuge from the world where they are free to be themselves. But like Elsa’s ice castle, this refuge can turn into a prison as they remain isolated from the people who love them.

Elsa thought that her castle would protect her. She thought that it would be the one place where she express everything unique and awesome about herself. But then the outside world came crashing in. She became a prisoner of people who didn’t understand, people who didn’t love, and that made her more miserable than before.

It took an act of true love to finally set Elsa free—her sister Anna’s complete acceptance of her and her willingness to sacrifice her own life to protect her. That was the key. Knowing how much she was loved helped her lose all the negative thoughts she had had about herself—all the fear and guilt and isolation that was swirling around inside of her.

The best part about Elsa’s story is that her freedom didn’t mean that she became “normal” like everyone else. She was still the same shy young woman with a unique talent. But because she was surrounded by love, she learned how to harness that talent and use it for good. She let go of the bad stuff and embraced the good. And because of that, she was no longer subject to her powers; now they were subject to her. In the end, Elsa was free to be the one-of-a-kind person she always was. And that’s what she wanted to share with everyone.

Words for the Warriors

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Sorry about the low resolution. The sun was setting.

After visiting Aladdin and Jasmine in Agrabah, I hopped over to China to spend some time with Mulan. Because of the time difference, it was evening already. When I asked her if she would record a video message for kids on the autism spectrum, she told me she was delighted to do it. “But why me?” she asked. So I explained.

After spending years preparing for, and dreading, the role that everyone expected of her—that of a demur, domestic housewife—Mulan felt like a failure. “Why is my reflection someone I don’t know?” she wondered. It frustrated her to feel that she couldn’t live up to people’s expectations. Looking at the world around her, she wasn’t sure where she fit in or if she would fit in at all. She wanted to be herself, but she was afraid how people would react. She was afraid, too, that she would have no future unless she became someone she wasn’t.

But then war came, and Mulan’s aged father was ashamed that he couldn’t help defend his homeland. Mulan saw her opportunity and, like Joan of Arc, she disguised herself as a soldier and took his place. After an awkward start, Mulan blossomed into a confident, self-possessed woman and led an army into battle against the Huns. Finally free to be the person she always had been, Mulan saved her kingdom and restored honor to her family’s name. Not bad at all!

I explained this to Mulan and told her how similar her story is to many people on the autism spectrum. Like her, many of them are frustrated or feel inferior because they don’t fit most people’s expectations. They may not talk. They may not be interested in sports. They may prefer to spend time cataloguing their bug collection instead of going to a birthday party. People might call them “awkward” or “quirky” or far worse. Feeling like they don’t fit in, they may be tempted to give up on their dreams. I told her they needed to think of themselves as warriors willing to fight negative stereotypes. They needed to become strong so that they could make a difference in the world. And they needed the inner strength to look at their reflection and see just how awesome they really are.

Hearing all of this, Mulan was more than happy to record the video. In fact, she was downright eager to tell talk about how it’s okay to be different—as long as you’re true to yourself. She told them . . . well, see for yourself.

Survey Opportunity

So a few days ago, I received a note on this blog alerting me to a study being done at Fordham University concerning the effects of spirituality on autism parents. It looks like a really good opportunity parents to help researchers understand one of the most  underreported aspect of many their lives. So I’m posting the note here, and encouraging everyone to participate. Note that it is concerned with how “spiritual variables may contribute to or detract from growth.” So this is meant to look at the topic objectively, and not ideologically.

So take a look at the note, and follow the link for the study. Let’s try to help the researchers get as full a picture as possible. Thanks!

Hello. My name is Elizabeth Tobin. I am a graduate assistant for Dr. Mary Beth Werdel, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Fordham University in New York. We are conducting an anonymous study to explore spirituality as a coping resource for parents raising a child with an autism spectrum disorder.

The goal of the study is to increase our understanding of the ways spiritual variables may contribute to or detract from growth following the potentially stressful life experiences of raising a child with an autism spectrum disorder. It will take approximately 20 minutes to complete the survey.

I wonder if you could help us find parents by posting a link to the research study on your blog? We would be very grateful for any help you could provide.
If you have any questions about the project you may contact Mary Beth Werdel at mwerdel@fordham.edu

Survey link:
https://fordhamgsas.co1.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_5sBcgemYr8orrmd

Welcome to Autism Blues

Hi there. I’m the father of six amazing kids. Of these six, four—and maybe five—are on the autism spectrum. (I know, right?)

I’ve called this blog Autism Blues not because we are a depressed family–we’re not. Rather, the title refers to the blue puzzle piece that is the logo for the advocacy group Autism Speaks. Mind you, there are days when blue would be an apt description of the mood around the house. But that’s not our default color.

I hope that through this blog I can shine a light on what it’s like both to live in a large family and to have autism as a major part of all of our lives. I hope that my stories, musings, and observations paint a picture of the fun we have together and the challenges we face.

Please note that this is a work in progress. If you don’t like what you see, stick around for a while. I promise it’ll get better as I learn what I’m doing!