Monday, April 30, 2007

On Friends....The Discrimination that Siblings Face (Journal #68)

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2007
I am very proud to participate in today's Blogging Against Disablism event.

On my mind and heavy on my heart is my neurotypical son and the ways he has been discriminated (unknowingly) by his own peers. Zach is a wonderful big brother to our Sam with Autism. Being a big brother often bears extra responsibility in any family, but having a little brother with special needs draws even more responsiblity and challenges at times. From very early on, Zach has been aware of how some people observe us in public. The times when Sam is on sensory overload, dysregulated, and maybe having a hard time getting us to understand his needs when in a store. Then the screams come from Sam, the falling flat on the floor, then the glares from others to control our child. Zach notices. He lets me know when people are staring, or even following us all over Target as an elderly gentleman literally did for 20 minutes a few months back.

But...what I believe is hardest for Zach, is the way his own peers have treated him in specific regards to his brother. Granted, these are children who are growing up with Zach. I don't expect 9 1/2 year olds to truly understand Autism. I don't expect them to understand when Sam is suddenly angry and charging them in our backyard because they came too close to his "special space". I don't expect them to understand why he sometimes screams more than he uses words. Why his emotions don't match the action that Sam is doing. Why he may repeat things over and over or why he will run circles in the yard over and over. Why he sometimes acts like he is 2 or 3 instead of a 5 year old. is what I do expect. I expect that the children who come to our house to play with Zach are respectful. I always make sure the parents of the children who come understand that Sam has Autism. I tell them that if their child comes home saying Sam was screaming the whole time, that there are some days we don't even know why, but to use it as a chance to teach compassion. I have leaflets and info always available for parents to understand. But I wonder if they really care to sometimes.

I have heard Zach's friends say on occasion, that they don't like to come over to Zach's house because of "his brother". There are many times they are very rude. But, I forgive them. They are children. It just feels so unfair to me when I saw that Zach's friends were choosing to come over less the last couple of years because of his brother. It didn't feel right.

So...last summer, our backyard took on a new formation. Brent built a treehouse for the boys and we added a trampoline for Sam's Occupational Therapy. It helps with his vestibular issues and balance and coordination issues. Suddenly, Zach's friends start coming around again. They have figured out how to play some creative games of football on the trampoline and other crazy stuff. Zach has been in heaven having his friends show up a little more. But, again, he too feels it is just for his "backyard".

I reached my limit a week ago. I was pushed to it, because prior to this incident, Zach and Sam had started communicating and connecting in ways we really hadn't dreamed. Sam is letting Zach into his world more, even though he still dictates what to do. Zach is increasing his patience with his brother, because he really wants to be a part of Sam's play and world.

Then, on a nice afternoon, along comes two of Zach's friends. I have made it a practice to always be in eye and ear shot of any gatherings of Zach's friends when Sam is in the vicinity. Sam was off in his corner of the yard working in his "store" and sandbox. Brother and friends were playing their football on the trampoline. I was on the upper deck that we have, that overlooks the whole yard. Things were fine, of course, and I decided to step in the kitchen to lay some meat out. Apparently when I went into the kitchen. Sam witnessed Zach's two friends tackling Zach.

As we have pieced the story together, we believe Sam thought they were hurting his brother. Sam often confuses laughter as being other things, even anger or fear. According to Zach, Sam came charging up into the trampoline screaming "OFF! OFF!" and then pushed one of the boys. Now, mind you...Zach and his friends are almost 5 years older than Sam. Sam is 40 pounds, the other boys 70-90 pounds. Sam pushing one of them off of Zach is not a huge amount of force.

I enter the scene. But, I have to run down a full flight of steps and over to the trampoline. At this point, Zach is still laying on the trampoline from the first tackle, and now the other boys have started screaming at Sam and are laying on top of him pinning him down, as they are mad at him. Of course I am freaked as I am running down, as any mother of an autistic child knows what that kind of contact does to one of our kids. Sam was screaming a sound I had never heard. Needless to say, Sam's face was left with the imprint of the trampoline mat on his whole left side of his face.

Meanwhile, on my way over, Zach is screaming at them to get off his brother and pulls one of his "friends" off. That "friend" is furious with Zach and starts screaming at Zach and pushing him around. Next thing I know, Zach bolts out of the trampoline meeting me, crying and telling me to have his "friends go home, because mom, they hurt Sam and were so mean to him!"

I asked the boys to come see me (they are completely calm, acting like everything is fine), that we need to talk about what happened. In my head at the time, I felt I needed to explain what Sam saw when he looked at the trampoline, and how he thought he was protecting his big brother. The boys tell me "no" and continue to walk through our basement patio doors to go into the house to leave out the front door. I am like, "no they did not just tell me no, and not only walk away from me, but into my house". I followed right behind them to stop them at the front door. They would not stop, even with my pleading. I finally said at the front door, "Boys, you won't be able to play at our house again until we talk about what happened today and how to handle it next time." Both boys ignored me. As they left, Zach was hysterical. Crying and saying, "mom, I can't lose them as friends, I have to go say I am sorry, let me go mom". My heart was dying, and the next thing I know, is that Zach is flying out the door chasing behind them. He came back even more sad. Saying they told him it's "his brother" who always causes problems.

These situations have plagued Zach. We have tried to prepare his friends that come over. Every kid loves having friends over to play. Zach is resilient though. Thank God. His teachers always report how happy he is at school and how well he gets along with others. But dang it, the true friends are the ones that stick by you at school and away from school.

We are never afraid to tell people that Sam has Autism and are very open to explaining to people how to understand it and how to help their children understand it. However, people sometimes treat it more like they used to treat Cancer in the old days. Where they avoid it and you, because they don't know what to say. They don't explain it to their children because they don't think they will understand or get it, or that they just want them to see Sam as any other child. not doing so not only effects the child with Autism, but also the siblings. And Sam is not just any other child. He has special needs that need modifications not just in IEP's, but in life, and his brother needs them too.

To deny that Sam has Autism, is to deny a piece of who he is. To deny that Zach is a brother of someone with Autism, is to deny a piece of who he is. Teaching how to accept others is not an adult concept. In fact, teaching acceptance has to start in childhood to truly attain an authentic appreciation of all individuals and who they are.

In my days as an elementary school counselor, I focussed a great deal on teaching children to appreciate differences on diversity of culture, ethnicity, socio-economic backgrounds, different abilities. In looking back...I don't think I ever encountered a curriculum or even thought about other family members and how the disability may effect them as well. Or perhaps how the siblings may encounter discrimination. Watching Zach grow in understanding his brother and how he explains it to others has made me very proud. He has learned so much from great resources like Sibshops sponsored by ARC. He is learning how to stick up for his brother. The fact that he was devastated at the way his friends treated his brother, and the fact that he is taking a stance with them in those situations will prove that even discrimination from some of his peers, will eventually lead him to people who are true and pure, and those real friends will last him a lifetime.

A Twist of Faith
2 Corinthians 4:16-18: "Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal."

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Autism Awareness Month celebrated in our Metrodome! (Journal #66)

A cool thing happened last night at the Twins game. In honor of Autism Awareness month, a 13 year old boy with Autism lead the crowd in "Take me out to the ball game" during the 7th inning stretch. Kind of reminded me of Sam, and how he has been humming and singing before speaking as well. Check it out!

WCCO, Channel 4 Story

A Twist of Faith
I will sing praises to my God while I have my
being. - Psalm 146:2

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Normal People Scare Me Too!!! (Journal #65)

I looked up the word "normal" on good ole' Webster today. It defined it as follows:

of, relating to, or characterized by average intelligence or development b : free from mental disorder : SANE

So I further investigated by looking up "sane", and found it defined as:

1 : proceeding from a sound mind : RATIONAL
2 : mentally sound; especially : able to anticipate and appraise the effect of one's actions
3 : healthy in body

So I thought I would look up "rational":

1 a : having reason or understanding b : relating to, based on, or agreeable to reason : REASONABLE rational explanation> <rational behavior>

Must I continue? Because as I continued trying to define normal, I thought, who is normal all the time anyway? There are many days that I, myself, am not "free of mental disorder", and I know darn well there are people around me whom I would agree are not normal all the time, or as those of us in the autism community would prefer....typical.

I say this because, on Saturday, my oldest neurotypical son and I, enjoyed a wonderful event. An event in which we were able to view a movie I heard about awhile back.
"Normal People Scare Me" is a film about autism, and created and documented by Taylor Cross, a brilliant 18 year old with autism. Taylor invited more than 65 individuals with autism or Asperger's Syndrome to describe their experiences on the film. Keri, his mother, helped him on the project that was produced by Joey Travolta, John Travolta's brother. Ironically, John Travolta has a 14 year old son, whom many believe is autistic, but because of their Scientology practice, are not allowed to call or treat it as such.

I am thankful for the efforts of our local Minneapolis group called Autism InfoGroup and Partner's in Excellence, and in collaboration with the Twin Cities ARC, who sought funding through local sponsors to make this event free. Keri and Taylor have been touring the United States and world this last year, and we were one of the first places to provide this free for families.

The day included break out sessions in the afternoon that allowed moms, dads and siblings to meet seperately and share their experiences with Taylor and his mother, who made the film, as well as Taylor's little brother, who is 11. Zach loved the experience of meeting someone else in the same situation as him. They became friends for the day, and even got to talk a little Nintendo DS chat. Zach thought it was "cool" meeting someone in a movie! Keri Bowers has dedicated her life to bringing awareness and acceptance into the community. She speaks volumes about getting our children ready through social and life skills training and has started camps in California for individuals with Autism to do so. She was very inspiring to me, and reassured me that Brent and I were doing things similar with Sam. She doesn't believe in sitting back with our kiddos with autism and letting the providers take care of the therapies that our kids do daily.

Keri has coined a term called "missions". That you create "missions" for our kids NO MATTER what level of the spectrum. They are going to be capable of doing whatever we believe. If we believe they can't handle certain situations in public or in life, and don't ever begin teaching them these things, then of course they never will conquer it. Even outings to the store need to be taught and practiced, and as Keri said, "do it 1,000's of times till they get it". Our kids need that to survive in society.

So a simple "mission" example is this....if your goal for your child is the best independence they can have in their adult life (which is ours), then you have to start "mission outings" NOW! Keri said that even for 3 year olds it is not too early, you just modify your short term goal. So, for us the last two years, we make daily outings into public with Sam. He has to learn to be able to go to a store as an adult, right? I think back to even a year ago. I dreaded Target with him. The flourescent lights, the sounds, and the smells were sometimes too much. But if you keep introducing them to the environment, they will eventually learn to cope. Yes, last week he still collapsed in middle of an aisle there, curling up in a little fetus position and wouldn't move because it was too much...but that is progress. I enjoy going to the store with him now. I am no longer afraid of what might happen. I love that he is going to point to every light that is burned out. I love that he is going to give them "free service as a stock person" as he lines up products that have fallen, or that are out of order when we walk by. I love all of that, and I can tell you that I would have NEVER said that a year ago. Our next "missions" with Sam at the store will be to make a list of some things that we need that relate to him (like shampoo or something). Give him his list. He has to look for it. Put it in the cart. Give it to the clerk and pay for it (with our money of course). Carry the bag out. Bring the shampoo in the house and put it in the shower. Sounds simple, but our kids need more of this, so that someday...they will do it on their own hopefully.

Below is a 10 minute clip from Taylor and his film. The full length is 90 minutes. This is an excellent resource to share with family and friends, who really don't understand what it is like for an autistic person. All of the interviews are with people on the spectrum, except for Joey Travolta, a therapist and some teachers and parents. This is also an excellent tool to use with your children's school and to offer to present as an inservice. Enjoy!

A Twist of Faith
After seeing the movie, I can see how normal people would scare me too! I scare myself sometimes too! :) God made us all so unique and special, and if he wouldn't have, we could never be the body of Christ He wanted us to be!
1 Corinthians 12:12-14 describe it like this: "The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body - whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free - and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many." This means each Christian is an equal part of the body of Christ!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Oprah's Show on Autism (Journal #64)

I wasn't sure if I was going to post my thoughts of Oprah, and her "Faces of Autism" show, as I needed some time to process it all. But, here I go anyway. The Autism Blogosphere has been full of chatters, ranging from the disappointment of Oprah not doing her homework, but relying on the stats and info from Autism Speaks, to some of the negative views of Autism that the "Speaks girls" can portray, to the whole vaccine topic being thrown out again by the daughter of Autism Speaks founders, (the Wrights).

Yes, I had a lot of mixed emotions while watching it, and was gritting my teeth, mostly through the first segment hoping for some positive discussion and not just negative portrayal. I was happy for Oprah's attempt though, in doing the show, in getting the word out, so that we can continue to strive for more autism acceptance. That was the biggest blessing. Also, I loved the father at the end who reminded us all of how much we get from our little ones with autism.

The part of the show that was the hardest for me (believe it or not was not the part when Katie went mad about vaccines causing autism***) was the sibling segment. What life is like for a sibling. Ask Zach. I did, as we watched that portion of the show together.

I struggle with all the time I spend with Sam compared to the time I spend with Zach. It really hit home with me a week ago. Zach, our oldest NT son was sick. He is rarely sick. He had a high fever for a couple days, could barely walk, and was extremely out of it. He needed a lot of my time. I also just wanted to spend time snuggling with him and rubbing his hot forehead. Mothers of 9 1/2 year old boys dream of times like this, because those opportunities fade fast at this age. I hardly had time to take care of Zach it seemed. I recall myself actually almost yelling at Sam that he needed to go play, as he paced the foot of the bed back and forth saying then screaming over and over "tome on mommy, tome on mommy, tome on mommy". I needed to be Zach's mom and show him that as well.

I have written before about how we divide time as a family a lot. I am thankful for a husband who has kept up with our plan since the beginning of this journey, and that plan was to never take time away from Zach. Even though Brent travels a lot, he makes sure to do lots of regular things with Zach. They weekly enjoy chess and checkers together at a favorite coffee shop on Saturday mornings. They go for special walks around the lake. Zach and I sneak in playing some PS2 after brother is asleep some nights. But it still seems like there isn't enough time to give him the time he always deserves.

So, I did it, after we watched Oprah's siblings of autism segment, I asked Zach if he felt like the boy on the show. The boy who said he never got attention, that in fact he had to create his own little world, kind of like his brother's sometimes, that his parents are always giving his brother attention and not him. My relief was Zach's expression (that typical duh look that 3rd graders are learning to do so well) followed by a quick "I don't ever feel like that. Actually, I get extra stuff with you and dad that he doesn't." He then went on to refer our silly nights watching our tivo shows after brother is in bed, his favorite being the nights his father, him and I are laughing hysterically at Dwight on The Office.

A Twist of Faith
I am thankful for the way Brent and I are working together for this family, for being on the same page, for keeping our family a family. We had a friend tell us, shortly after we received Sam's diagnosis, that families with autism have a divorce rate of 80 percent, top that off with a husband whose profession also boasts one of the highest divorce rates...we are both thankful and blessed that God leads us both on this journey. Thankful that we have supportive family, friends and faith.
"always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." ~Ephesians 5:20

(***Note~ for our family, our personal experience and belief is that vaccines are and were not a factor in Sam's diagnosis. I have the lot numbers from his vaccines to prove it.)

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Tomorrow on Oprah (Journal #63)

Heads up that Oprah's show on Thursday is devoted to Autism. I am sure it is in light of April being Autism Awareness month. Of course, it looks like Autism Speaks is getting more than their two cents worth let's just hope that they show our kiddos not being "so horrible" but beautiful! Dang!