I’m taking a break and writing at my desk while Adam plays. We’ve had a difficult weekend with anxiety so I’m taking a moment to permit myself to daydream a bit. Writing the book is a challenge with Adam’s needs. I haven’t showered since Thursday.
I have to admit I’m dreaming of a little white cottage on the beach by the sea. For some reason, I think I’ll just be pumping out the writing there. Isn’t that how we all dream it will “happen,” without the reality that it just takes daily effort and practice? But ah, the dream…. For now I settle for handwriting when traveling. I wrote a novella during my last trip Paris in the coffee shops where no real Parisian would dare to be seen writing. It’s what labels me a true foreigner there, apparently, alongside how I order my coffee and what kind of coffee I order at any particular point in the day. Yet I didn’t care. I loved every minute of it.
This study sent a little shiver through my body. Remember the story of the big bad “Refrigerater Mother?” She was the mother who was blamed for causing autism in her child in the 1960’s. Many mothers during that period were tormented for being pushed to believe they were the cause of their child’s autism. I wonder if the legend survives. From a peripheral read of the following study, this mom had a maternal “first response:”
I am not commenting on how the study was conducted nor the value of “resiliency.” I am commenting on the inference. I am a sensitive mother. Some say I’m pretty good at mothering. I’m extremely sensitive to my son, and he is non verbal. He can manage a word or phrase now and again, but at nearly eight years of age, it’s pretty difficult. I engaged Adam. I did everything (and still do everything) I can think of. He is a wonderful child who is anxious and has some sleep issues. I’m not sure I could have been even more sensitive than I was to make him more resilient. While he’s pretty good at moving around the community, going to school (with an aide), traveling, he does have extremely difficult days too and we are going through some of them RIGHT NOW during a major transition in our lives. Because of Adam I continue to grow and learn how to work with him, and there is always something new for me to learn.
With this study, I fail to see an acknowledgment (in the links I could find tonight, I have to qualify this) that for many autistic individuals the inability to speak fluently, or at all, is neurological, not just dependent on the sensitive mother. The term “re-wiring” is used a lot for individuals with brain injury and just as often by gurus selling therapies for curing autism. I will never argue that, as parents, we all want to try and help our children in a world that is often confusing and frustrating for them. Yet, I also wonder if teaching autistic children how to communicate is something very different than re-wiring, for that implies that we are fixing something to make it better. Adam communicates all the time. Like the two-year-old who may have warbled speech indecipherable to many but the parent, some of us close to Adam know what he is communicating — and quite boldly. Perhaps we might consider that working with autistic children is like figuring out the intricate wiring that already exists. Like the ill-suited American plug to the European outlet, maybe we aren’t meant to re-wire the autistic brain into a neurotypical one.
“In this study, maternal sensitivity (and primarily, sensitive structuring) was more predictive of language growth among toddlers developing autism than among children who did not go on to an autism diagnosis. One possible explanation is that children with autism may be more dependent on their environment to learn certain skills that seem to come more naturally to other children.”
I would agree that our children need our support, and this does take extra effort on our part.
“Parenting may matter even more for children with developmental problems such as autism because certain things that tend to develop easily in children with typical neurological development, like social communication, don’t come as naturally for kids with autism, so these skills need to be taught,” says Jason K. Baker, a postdoctoral fellow at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, who conducted the study with Messinger while at UM.”
I don’t disagree with the idea that autistic children require more support and accommodation in a confusing environment, and that “being sensitive” is especially important. Many of this know this. I tend to see this as part of the autism and NT (neurotypical) equation, for the key is that we as parents learn how our children learn and how they see the world. I don’t see it as a tugging into “our world,” but a sharing. It’s the manner in which we, as parents, figure out how to be with the child who is already with us, with challenges in a world that has such difficulty understanding autism, but also with many strengths and attributes. Acceptance is a daily exercise and the idea will challenge us day in and day out — some days (and nights) more than others. Every day Adam works so hard to accept me, to accept this world and the people around him, and I wonder if that’s all we seem to ask him to do. The least we can do is to accommodate him and what he needs and wants from this world.
This article ends with a shallow disclaimer: “We know that parenting doesn’t cause autism. The message here is that parents can make a difference in helping their children fight against autism.” Okay, it doesn’t cause autism, but the implication is that the sensitive mother can improve language acquisition and resiliency skills. The results may have been one hundred percent true according to the study design, but the key piece of accepting autism is missing.
While it is certainly advantageous to have a sensitive parent to ANY child, I would hate to think that one might judge me as being an insensitive one if my son is not able to speak. Further, the focus on mothers specifically has reminded me of times I thought had long gone by. Maybe the Refrigerator Mother still lurks in the dark recesses of some minds. To conclude from my peripheral read and no reading of scientific critique on how the study was conducted, I sniff not only an omission or two, but a little bias.
Tilikum is the “killer” whale confined at Seaworld with an apparently demanding entertainment schedule. Listening to Naomi Rose, head of the American Humane Society and a mammal scientist on CBC News at Noon today, she noted that Tilikum is not meant to “be a clown,” and that this puts a great deal of stress on the animal, explaining reasons for its aggressive behaviour. She spoke about Orca Whales as “individuals,” and discussed them and their families, as well as their social networks, and that when in their natural environment, do not attack humans.
In the media, the debate rages as to whether the whale should be put down, kept at Seaworld to remain an entertainer, or be sent to a Sea Tank in Iceland — a choice which Rose recommends. Transcribing her statements on CBC today, she noted that Tilikum has a history of this behaviour and should not be kept under the same conditions. In other words, get the message!
“He could be trained to adjust to going out into the open ocean to exercise and get more choices and then maybe his stress would be reduced,” she said, suggesting Tilikum may have simply been trying to play with his trainer.
“If they keep him in isolation the way they do, they keep him in that small tank that he’s in, this is going to happen again.”
There sure is a lot of attention for this beautiful creature. All the talk about how the animal is under stress and how that animal communicates that stress naturally got me thinking about Adam, autism and methods of communication and how many of us do the same things over and over again to no avail. Working against nature doesn’t work for very long. It has real consequences.
We are calmer on the home-front again and Adam seems to have found his place here in the house that has been understandably strange. I expect that while he is calm now, we will have a few more bouts of stress. Like Tilikum, we cannot demand that he perform like nothing has happened to him, or not react to this kind of change. Adam will communicate his true nature and it is up to me to listen.
Now if autism advocates would advocate for autism they way Naomi Rose does for Tilikum…
We are confronted with new challenges in our new home. Adam seemed to transition well at first, but now it is difficult again. As mentioned in the previous post, we do not know if Adam’s spasms are seizures or are spurned by tumultuous transition. On my end, all I want to do is get back on track with Adam. I for certain want my sleep as I function horribly without it. I want him to get over the hump as smoothly as possible until he can have his tests and/or become comfortable in his new home and situation.
But there’s another problem.
It could be me.
I need to re-learn my ABC’s. Remember those: Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence? We put an autistic child under our neurotypical microscope (as if that doesn’t cause distress), and evaluate the antecedent (or cause) of a behaviour so that we can seek to change (or eliminate) it. The Consequence in behavioural-speak is what happens after the behaviour. I’m not saying that these tools are not useful to us. They can be if we learn how to assist autistic children cope. I’m not a fan of eliminating behaviour. But there’s another side to this story.
When I worry I am studying Adam. I watch for every little sign. Then I realize that I’m not watching myself. How am I feeling? How has my anxiety triggered a course of events? Adam just wants to explore, and yes, he cannot sleep like most autistic people who, as they become adults, learn to cope on very little. In his new home, Adam is very “disorganized” in his body (for those unfamiliar with this language, it means that Adam is moving his body in unfamiliar ways or hyperactive ways and it can appear distressing), and I still do not know for sure if it’s medical.
Yet, I also am thinking he is learning about every nook and cranny of the house as he used to memorize routes on road trips from school to home or from his old house to the park. While he didn’t get upset if we changed the route, he certainly memorized it. I’m thinking of Dawn Prince Hughes, author (and new friend of mine since I met her in Toronto a couple of years ago — little did she know that I was a HUGE fan of her book beforehand) of Songs of A Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism and the excerpt on herself as a child running around in the same circle in her house. Experiencing this first hand, it’s exhausting for a parent who wants their child to “behave” or settle. Then I have to think again.
“The way I said ‘siiiilllverrr doooollllaaarrr’ was only the start of a profound pattern I had throughout childhood saying words and phrases in peculiar, experimental ways and having a complete fascination for words. When I was young, my parents and I often stayed at my mother’s new house, and my favorite uncle lived there also. A hallway ran around the perimeter of the house, past the dining room, the bedrooms, the bathroom, the front door, and through the living room back to the dining room, in a big circle. My favorite game (to the exclusion of all others) was to wait in the dining room for the adults to come up with a word — the more difficult the better — and then I would speed off down the hallway, in the same direction every time, either on my tricycle or on foot, repeating the word over and over.” (pp. 17-18).
Hughes describes then running to each of the rooms saying the word “where the word would absorb the comfort of my grandparent’s bed, their clothing, the beauty of the vanity table, and the smell of cedar drawers…” (p. 18)
Not only have I found Adam enclosed in drawers, but under the bed, and in the deep dark crawl space in our new basement. It takes a lot of effort for me to stay awake and keep an eye on him, as his safety always comes first. His body jerks, he lays on his back and holds his legs. He opens every cupboard, closet and drawer and is still absorbing them — and maybe he can do this better when he can enter them. Save for the things that he knows — books, his computer that still has the same “Alligator King” from Sesame Street on it, and a cupboard full of crackers and goodies he now knows is his own, he is still disorganized here but is working so hard himself on trying to get organized and calm. Indeed, my boy is making gargantuan efforts.
To this Hughes writes, “I also wanted to keep as many of my own accoutrements as possible the same. This meant that I did not want a new toothbrush, new clothes, new shoes…When I went shopping for clothes with my mother [Hughes describes being afraid of mannequins]…My strategy for survival was to hide inside the clothing racks…the lack of light would calm me down. Hiding was yet another thing that later connected me to my gorilla family — when they went behind the hills to sit or seek out the little caves in the underbrush or rock to be by themselves, I would understand.” (p.21). Similarly, Adam has gone to the books that were the same from his old house. He is not interested yet in new things.
Adam’s grandparents have been around a lot to support him. I believe his grandparents are two of his favorite people (and most consistent). Again this relates so closely to Hughes: “When I was young I stayed with my grandparents on the weekends, and those were among my favorite times. I did feel safe there.” (pp. 21-22). Ask my parents and they’ll likely say that their condo is his “turf.” They have been helpful to Adam and I during this time.
Adam craves lemons during this year of transition. To this, Hughes writes, “I craved salt and would eat it straight from the shaker. I craved burnt matchheads and would suck on them whenever I could find them. I craved Alka Seltzer for its taste and feel….A sound like the thrum of a tumbler full of milkshake when is was tapped [Adam does this all the time] by a spoon or the Westminster chime of the clock would fill me with rapture.”
So I give Adam his lemons. Right now, I’ll buy him a bucketfull, although other people will tell him to “stop eating lemons,” or, “stop doing that.” Sure, I worry about his teeth, or of Adam’s safety in potentially dangerous situations. I’m not saying that we have to allow our kids to do everything, but I have to let him do more than usual and I have to change my behaviour to accommodate it right now, for this is an exceptional situation. I’m always trying to stay one step ahead of Adam to figure out how he can explore safely.
“Most autistic people need order and ritual and will find ways to make order where they feel chaos. So much stimulation streams in, rushing into one’s body without ever being processed: the filters that other people have simply aren’t there. Swimming through the din of the fractured and the unexpected, one feels as if one were drowning in an ocean without predictability, without markers, without a shore. It is like being blinded in the brightness of a keener sight. Autistic people will instinctively reach for order and symmetry; they arrange the spoons on the table, they line up matchsticks, or they rock back and forth, cutting a deluge of stimulation into smaller bits with repetition of their bodies’ movements.” (p. 25).
This is quite an overwhelming statement for me on how Adam may be experiencing his new life situation. It is quite a disability and a sensory overload.
My point is, Adam is adapting as naturally as he can in a home that is entirely new to him. He will thrust his body upside down, will spin, will seek those dark tight spaces and not be able to sleep in his new bed precisely because he has not yet created his order. But he is doing what he needs to do. I, on the other hand, despite knowing this, am having difficulties of my own in managing it. Watching my son in distress distresses me. While this may be natural for Adam, it was re-reading some of Dawn’s excerpts this morning that helped me realize what I’ve learned in the past, but am now experiencing first-hand in a larger way.
I realize that I too am adjusting to my new surroundings as I listen to the house and figure out how I’m supposed to live in it. Things break down and I get frustrated because I am not yet calm and oriented, and this is difficult on both Adam and I. While I feel guilty much of the time that my own anxiety is not helping Adam, I know too that we are not in control of everything that happens to us. Life happens. We are dealing with it. Like Adam, I am human.
So I was thinking about going back to the ABC’s and I thought of using it as a pun on behavioural-speak because what most of us want to try and do is “fix” the situation or behaviour. Today, I am reminding myself that this needs exploration and time — we’ve only been in our new house for a week! Not only does the alphabet, which Adam loves, stay constant in a world that is always changing, but re-reading Dawn’s book has helped me realize what tumultuous change feels like to an autistic child. It may require more effort on my part now to help him adapt by creating safe ways for him to do so. Adam will reach for his ABC books that always stay the same and he’s doing his part, and I am having this feeling he will eventually make lemonade out of lemons.
We’ve had some encouraging messages lately, haven’t we? The HBO production of Temple Grandin played by Claire Danes shows that while (and many of us have read Temple’s books already) the world caused her anxiety, she could “see details other people are blind to,” she says. “I have a gift.”
Certainly the idea of giftedness, which happens in non autistic and autistic persons, can be yet another stereotype in assessing autistic people. Perception, on the other hand, is something to think about deeply.
When Adam was very young, we had these water blocks that were dyed different colours. Adam was mesmerized by these blocks watching the water swish and swoosh. Then all of a sudden, my wobbly toddler took them up to the window and peered through them. Ah, I thought. If only we could all stare at the world through coloured water blocks. How beautiful it would be. I know was also in part a cooing mother of a young autistic boy, so anything he did like this made me hyper-aware. But still.
When he got his “legs” and we began walking around the neighbourhood, Adam memorized his routes. To this day, if we take him to his old house and walk from there or the park nearby, he will remember how to get to that park or get back through the old “secret pathway” to the old house — which has even since been torn down and rebuilt! Remember, that was his two-three year old brain. In April, he will be eight-years-old.
Coming out soon will be a new version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton. Many people suspect that Carrol was himself autistic with his different perceptual abilities. He is often cited as a person who “suffered” from micropsia and macropsia, which is a neurological condition that changes the way the brain perceives the size of objects. When Alice falls down that rabbit hole, we get a look into Carroll’s mind.
Scientific American Mind published Extraordinary Perception by Wray Herbert this month. It discusses how psychologists at University College London “think that it might be a mistake to consider [autistic] distractability as simply a deficit. To the contrary, Anna Remington and John Swettenham and their colleagues speculate that people with ASD might have greater than normal capacity for perception, so that what appears as irrelevant distraction is really a cognitive bonus.” I added autistic to distractability as many therapies for autism as well as medications are geared at lessening it.
The test, the article shows, was for subjects to “rapidly determine if the letters N or X were present in the ring” on a computer screen. Participants had to then “hit the corresponding key on the keyboard. Some of the circles — those with more letters — were more difficult to process than others. There were also other letters floating outside the circle, but the subjects were specifically instructed to ignore those letters. Those floating letters were the laboratory equivalent of an irrelevant distraction in the real world.” In measuring perceptual capacity, researchers saw that “everyone was slower at the task when the ring contained more letters. The researchers were also measuring distractibility. When a letter outside the ring was one of the target letters (N or X), the subjects often took a longer time finding the N or X in the ring — indicating they were distracted by the presence of a target letter in the location that they were supposed to ignore.”
The researchers reasoned “that as long as the subjects’ total perceptual capacity was not exhausted, they would also process the irrelevant, distracting letters within their visual field. Once they had surpassed their perceptual capacity — once the ring of letters was sufficiently complex — irrelevant processing would stop [bold mine]. So if ASD subjects in fact have greater processing capacity, then they should process more distracting information even as the main task becomes increasingly complex.”
In conclusion, “although there was no difference among subjects in either reaction time or accuracy on the main task, those with ASD processed the irrelevant letters while solving much more complex problems...Put another way, they weren’t ignoring the main task, nor were they distracted away from it. Instead they were completing their work and moving on, using their untapped capacity” [bold mine].
As a parent of an autistic child who has difficulties with verbal communication, I have to ask the question: “whose problem is this anyway?” Certainly I have been dealing with issues, at least issues for me as Adam cannot comment here yet, so I am fully aware that I need to be fair. He has very real sensory and perceptual differences, so I set up a basement full of equipment for him to self-soothe. He has even learned to “self-regulate” by going to read his own books, and I never had to teach him that. His body will completely quiet as he flips through pages of encyclopedias, dictionaries, cookbooks, among many other subjects. He may even appear to layperson as not really paying attention and just flipping pages, but I know it’s more than that. His body-jerking almost always stops, which is how I conclude that he is soothed by his books. I am imagining him looking at those books over and over again, and what he may be gleaning from them. Still, when it comes to getting the responses WE need, he using a “special” reading program at school. Indeed it is really helping with his expressive reading ability, and maybe even with his vocabulary. So I need to let him do both. He needs to learn to respond in a world that doesn’t yet understand the way he learns. He also needs to flip through pages and pages on his own. I can sit beside him sometimes also and talk about the books he is reading. We can type about what he is reading, we can draw stories and make more conclusions or assumptions about what he is reading. When we do things together calmly, we are having lots of fun.
When we teach him a new communication device, it may appear to the person who is teaching that Adam is not focused enough — indeed he appears to be “highly distracted.” On an AAC device (we are still awaiting one from a service-provider here in Toronto) his finger will go to the right picture, letter, or answer, and then he will quickly go to another one to check out what it will do. A keyguard helps him direct his finger more quickly to the correct response. He may have trouble finishing sentences (when he types) and then be reminded to “stay on task.” This is in large part what Facilitated Communication attempts to assist with if done correctly — to remind and assist with the focus. To a person who cannot detect that Adam was about to give the “right” answer (or rather the answer that was requested of him), he would receive a failing grade. Adam is very young and I believe he is not given the benefit of the doubt enough, although his team members are good with this.
It is only fair to say that we do not KNOW everything he knows. We do not fully understand how he takes all this knowledge in and we are the ones that deem his versions of knowledge as irrelevant. We have not developed sufficient ways to measure his responses or his way of learning and seeing, except for the ways we measure responses and knowledge from people who are not autistic. This brings me back to the old ABA adage, “if we can measure it, we can deal with it.” Unfortunately, the way we have historically dealt with autism is by eliminating the behaviours and learning patterns that are essential to an autistic person’s existence. Perhaps continuing to fund this research more heavily is important because as we understand how autistic people learn, we can not only develop better learning tools, but come to better appreciate our children.
Trying to understand this is a first step. As Adam’s parent, I see many of the so-called “issues” being mine, and yes, I become just as frustrated as many other parents out there. It’s really hard to see Adam in distress and it’s even harder to always be guessing what may be causing anxiety or body-jerking (Lack of calcium? Trouble at school? New self-awareness of difference? Trouble with transitioning from task to task? Lack of sleep? Seizures? A very long winter? Lack of exercise? Another neurological issue?…The guess work list is too long). Since Adam appears to be in discomfort since late last fall, I am really working hard at figuring this out (wait-lists are long here in Toronto). Sleep issues, anxiety issues — I know when I have a level head, there is more that I can do for him to ease the situation. We need science now to figure out many of our questions.
Sometimes it feels that makeshift solutions only lead to more issues. Sure, we all want things to be a little easier, but Adam requires more consideration in order to achieve that balance between helping him through discomfort as well as accommodating his needs. As I have been through a difficult year, like many of you out there, I completely understand the reasoning, but I have to keep a level head and look at what Adam has also gone through with a “broken” family. I have needed my sleep, but if Adam cannot, I have to find safe ways of letting him stay up until his body will sleep naturally. I know what I’m saying isn’t easy and there are still days I will resort to the Melatonin, even though, because of the guesswork involved, it pains me to do so. Yet I also know it’s important to stop and slow down and think about how Adam feels and perceives. When I do, everything seems a little easier. As a parent, I can even become proud of myself (it’s important) that I’ve not only managed well, but have helped Adam out too. We are still on that path to finding out if we can help Adam, but I am always wondering excessively about how I perceive the “problem.”
I’m interested in what people in science think about this Perception study. I think we have to spend a lot more time imagining what it feels like to be in Wonderland.
“Extraordinary Perception” by Wray Herbert in March/April 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind, pp. 68-69.
Selective Attention and Perceptual Load in Autism Spectrum Disorder, Anna Remington, John Swettenham, Ruth Campbell and Mike Coleman in Psychological Science (in press). Published online October 14, 2009. www3.interscience.wiley.com
I’m not talking about relationships. I’m talking about Adam’s third night at his new home. After letting him explore, be tense, be happy and then settle, he spent his third night in his own bed.
The past two days when I’ve picked Adam up from school he has been running into my arms with a huge grin on his face. I have to admit that his hugs and grins are like Valium — the moment he does that my entire body relaxes. As his mother, I am happy when Adam is happy. Adam is happy when I am happy.
One thing is for sure as I watched his face searching mine this morning and on his way out the door to school is that for Adam, I am home. This is home because I am here. For all the worrying I’ve been doing, it dawns that I am the most important person in Adam’s life. I am the most constant, the most present, although, of course he has many people who also love and support him.
Below is a little snapshot of Adam when he came home from school as I let him relax. It doesn’t show the exuberance that came afterward — and the searching for mommy in order that he could snuggle in the crook of my arm for me to read him his favorite books (Little Ms. Shy and Mr. Quiet, no less). As I watch what Adam does and how he does it; as I pay attention to the books he brings me, he is telling me a whole lot. I say this as I am also skeptically reading about a cuddle drug for autism (Adam is the best cuddler and most affectionate child). It can be frustrating when I am worried about Adam and he cannot communicate everything that’s on his mind. Considering all the issues with autism and communication, it is those moments when I step back and pay attention that I can really appreciate Adam and the many things he has to say. Thank goodness for autistic behaviours for they are telling me so much! Adam is telling me how much he needs me and my support. He is telling me how much he loves me!
I’m filing. Yes, it sounds tedious but I’m trying to approach this with a new zeal. Moving into a new home is one thing. Moving into a new life after a separation where all of a sudden I have to learn things like personal finance among many other nitty gritty things once shared with a spouse can be a little overwhelming at first. There are no secretaries to do the filing for me. No one to make that call or file that paper. I am taking care, for the first time in my life (believe it or not) of everything. I mean, I am a capable human being, but what is it about suddenly being on one’s own to encourage this level of emotional stress? Ah, right. It was loving someone. It was remembering when someone used to make me a cup of tea and when I helped that someone with other tasks. It was sharing.
Now, it feels like all I have are to-do lists for Adam, the house, for me… for EVERYTHING that it resembles Santa’s Wish List from all children around the globe.
I have to admit I am getting cranky. I felt guilty about that until I read (in a Toronto service for divorced people) a check-list for stress. One of them is being irritable and easy to set-off. The stress is pretty heavy. I’m trying to transition Adam and forgot that I am also still transitioning myself. I’ve gained weight (I am the kind who puts on weight when stressed out). I haven’t been looking after me — something that most moms of special needs kids talk about a lot, never mind adding divorce stress on top of it. Maybe it’s a little feminist of me to suggest that maybe I let other people take care of me a little too much. I resemble the capable, intelligent woman who deferred many of these tasks to a man. Yet I also don’t believe that sharing the tasks is a bad thing at all. It’s not learning and not knowing how that can be dangerous. When confronted now with sorting new things out in life, it feels foreign and I need to map it out.
To my surprise, Adam was very happy last night exploring the new house and making quite a mess of it — opening doors, taking things out of cupboards and I figured that as long as he was safe this was important for him to do. Like discovering routes (yes, intended pun), my little Autie is making himself feel at home. Who am I to tell him to put everything away when I’m trying to make him as comfortable as possible? He needs to know what’s behind all those doors. He needs to sort out his new environment. Many an autistic person will attest, like Adam, that routes and familiarity are very important.
So the house was in shambles this morning. I tidied up after Adam left. Putting things away leaves me with a sense of order and peace that I’m looking for in my transition right now. I’m trying hard to slow down instead of rushing forward. I have decided today to take breaks which is something new for me — the kind of person who always always ate lunch at her desk. And yes, I’m filing. It is helping me think. Everything has a place and there’s a place for everything, as the saying goes.
My life is out of the boxes, but it’s going in files. It is helping me understand my new life as much as Adam needs to empty out all the closets.
I just want to report that little Adam came to his new home. He was quiet. Grandma, grandpa and mommy all gathered around him and ate dinner and he just looked and looked. He hadn’t been to the house in the evening before. The lights cast a gentle glow. Evening is a time when everything feels strange. The day is ending and dusk is uncertain.
“Raindrop,” he said of my lamp that hangs like that in the corner of our living room. “Bubble lamp -” we named our chandelier over the table. His eyes were focused on the light.
We all snuggled around him after dinner on the couch and watched a quiet video of photos of Adam’s family and this past year that grandpa had made with classical music. Adam enjoyed it and was also content to read the books and look at the toys I had placed in the room. We went gently upstairs and he climbed into the “snuggle chair” I bought so that the two of us can read together. With very little struggle, he then fell asleep.
He knows everything has changed. Yet I’ve done my absolute best to make all the time leading up to this transition as smooth and as positive as possible. As you readers know, I was quite worried about all this, and even though I’m somewhat relieved, we still have some days ahead of us that I cannot predict.
But now the first night is done. And it seems we’re off to a good start.
I am awaiting Adam’s arrival home from his midwinter break with his dad. If you’ve been following my blog, the short story is that today, Adam will sleep for the first time in his new home as his mom and dad have separated.
On Family Day, I eagerly await him. On Valentines Day, I felt his absence, but knowing that he would be away, I arranged my first dinner party with family and friends who have been like family to me. Today, Adam’s grandparents and I will welcome him in a way that I have ritualized home and family for myself.
The year of adjusting to single parenthood has been interesting. I find myself brooding sometimes over stigmas that I have inherited. Things like encoded beliefs that we are more valued if someone finds us valuable, or that perhaps I’m not giving everything Adam deserves by being a single parent — that by being single our children feel the empty hole in their existence and it’s somehow our fault. Of course the emotional sides of these questions can be torture (and I’m sorry to say that I think they are unavoidable at first). Yet since these and other questions have caused me a great amount of pain, I am decoding the stereotypes that society has embedded into me that somehow I am incomplete; that to be a “complete family” means a mother, a father and a brood of children. Religion can be cited as a root cause of such beliefs. In order to protect the “tribe,” the history of the Hebrews – as one example – thought it was important to have many children, and Monty Python , well, they had a comment or two about the Catholics and breeding — but this is not to finger point in any way shape or form. It’s just that religion once had much to do with the way people made families and thought about them. War and the costs of having children also contributed to the decline of birth-rates in addition to families without fathers and brothers. Many events have changed our views about the constitution of the family.
Yet in this “day and age,” there are many kinds of families. In fact about 16% of Canadian children are raised by their mothers alone. While the couple stat is still the largest according to Stats Canada, the numbers are rising for “differently configured” families:
Since 2001, there has been a large increase in one-person households.
During this time, the number of one-person households increased 11.8%, more than twice as fast as the 5.3% increase for the total population in private households. At the same time, the number of households consisting of couples without children aged 24 years and under increased 11.2% since 2001.
The households with the slowest growth between 2001 and 2006 were those comprised of couples and children aged 24 years and under; these households edged up only 0.4%.
Between 2001 and 2006, the number of private households increased 7.6%, while the population in private households rose 5.3%.
The census counted more than three times as many one-person households as households with five or more persons in 2006. Of the 12,437,470 private households, 26.8% were one-person households, while 8.7% were households of five or more persons.
I’m thinking about Family Day awaiting Adam to come home, but of also the many friends I have who are single parents now. I think of all the friends I have as well who are only-children (do we attract one another or is it really the sign of the times?). So I walk and I’m thinking about being an only-child, how my dad is an only, adopted child, and how Adam is more or less an only-child. Like my mother, Adam’s half-siblings are so much older than he that my mother can attest that her life was very much like that of an only child. As an only child and as a person who has had to adapt many times over the course of her life, I became more flexible about the people in my life and how I regard them as family. For me, the family is an act of daily creation and that of my own making.
I’m quite certain my yearning to belong made me gravitate to people bigger families, but I can also say it’s an alien experience being there. People in big families don’t always understand that people in small families have to work hard to fit in and we don’t necessarily want to, entirely. We need to be accepted for who we are. While we, in small families, may escape the drudge of the family-guilt trip, the feuds or the politics, I suspect people in larger families don’t understand loneliness (another word that is a taboo and way over-stigmatized, thank you very much) and the need to be alone, while also the special skill we have at creating very close friendships. And yes, we need to be social too. As a quick aside, research into loneliness and solitude notes that people who are only children want and need solitude, and are sometimes lonely. Solitude and loneliness are not the same. If you don’t come from a large family, you just don’t get it completely. Having had the experience, it’s sort of like Christmas and all the presents at the beginning, but there exists an overall lack of understanding by both parties — the big family and the lone ranger — on how to co-exist. The lone-ranger, understanding that nothing in life is forever and certain, doesn’t quite comprehend how the big family member can take it all for granted (and sometimes even envies that!). The lone ranger needs to get close and sometimes big families just don’t have that kind of time. It is only at the point where things fall apart can the lone ranger really use her skills and hold people afloat. The big family is created. The small one keeps creating. One is not better than the other. They just are.
I am very close to my parents and to some of my extended family members. My shape of family may not be traditional, but it exists. The act of creating families is an active experience not exclusive to a couple and procreation. Let’s just say that I don’t take my version of family for granted, and I highly appreciated the bigger one I once belonged to (and of course who are still there and who I still love in my lone-ranger kind of way).
I watch the other single people today as I go on my walk on this chilly February day in Toronto — some are eating alone at restaurant tables as I pass by. I imagine some of them are without children and others are older who perhaps have lost their families, and I think about how most of us are trying to do the best we can, and some of us can feel particularly lonely on a Family Day. Yet I bet that most of these people have friends (who are with their families) and are chit-chatting with the people who have to work today, or maybe with the person at the table next to them. Some other families might be taking great advantage of the holiday and may be spending it together, hopefully not pitying those who are without families (remember, pity stands perilously on the ledge of fear). Like Christmas, contrived holidays can make a lot of people who do not belong to a traditional family, feel like they are missing something. No one should have to feel as if they are missing something!
What I’m happy to see is that all kinds of families are beginning to become more accepted, but we need to discuss the nature of the family even more so that we can support all kinds of families — gay, single, common law, married, separated, extended, and the groups of friends that really, can be more like family than the families we’re born to. Because really, none of us are alone. We are one big family and an important member of mine is about to join me in his new home.
It is Valentines Day. Aside from the red commercial hearts and roses we will buy only because the storefront displays will beckon, I wonder if people will remember fragility. The red hearts may be plastic but the real human ones bear no resemblance.
Today is my official final day in my old home — the home I built with Adam’s father. I did move from it a few days ago — I don’t think leaving precisely on Valentine’s Day would have been easy because my mind tends to brood over such Hallmark things, despite my keen awareness of plasticity. As I said I would in a previous post, I ritualized in my own way. I said goodbye to the rooms, picked out a stone from the backyard. But I couldn’t stay long. It was just too painful once all of my things were gone. My memories are still too recent — Adam and I there snuggling just a few days earlier.
“Someone else lives in the house I thought I’d never leave. And the life I’ve lived in that house, I now speak of in the past tense….The keys now belong to someone else. I can’t open that door anymore, and the place beyond it is now as inaccessible to me as all the life I’ve lived there, retrievable only in photographs, story and memory. Still, while I lived in that house it seemed that my life would continue there forever, that it was as substantial as the sofa I settled into in my study with a cup of tea at the end of each day.” (Excerpted from Louise DeSalvo’s On Moving: a Writer’s Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts And Finding Home Again.)
I created The Autism Acceptance Project in that study. Now, I’ve created a new study where you see me sitting now. I am moving on. Aside from organizing a few things, I am trying to settle in my new home. I feel like maybe I can get back to deadlines, TAAProject and my writing. This evening, my friends and family will gather in my new dining room to help me toast a another new journey in another new home. Again, I believe rituals are so important.
I await Adam to return on Monday afternoon from his mid-winter break so I can help him adjust here. We saw the neurologist last week who believes his spasms have more to do with transitions than anything else. Yet, to be prudent, he must still have the EEG to ensure this isn’t something biological. My suspicion, however, is that Adam has been just as stressed as I have been. According to that infamous “top-life stresses” list, moving and divorce are right up there. Dash in a few other things over the past two years and the plate, as they say, has been pretty full. Being in the new house and taking it in for a few days on my own helps me calm with it, and I need to be calm for Adam. He feels and takes on every emotion I have. As his mother, it’s hard not to feel guilty, but I try to fend that off as it is such a waste of precious energy. I have to teach Adam many things two of which; 1) I am human and, 2) that the only reason we are here is to make the best of what we have. I believe these are good things to teach autistic children — the children we so often say need consistency and structure. While I believe that to be so true, it’s not always the way life goes.
Saying that, I’ve also learned an important lesson on the fragility of the heart and of the roots we think we build. In fact, I think the lesson I was meant to learn was that of impermanence. We all want our children to feel stable as it is an important factor in healthy growth, but I’m beginning to believe that an important gift we can give to our children is to also teach about how things change. “Paint peels, plaster cracks, and gardens, of course, are the most ephemeral constructions of all.” (Louse DeSalvo p. 149). I know we are supposed to keep structure in our children’s lives — particularly autistic children who are so prone to anxiety — but the fact of the matter is that all of life is outside of our control. We take what we are given and polish it. And it’s definitely okay to cherish it too.
“The gleam of a loved house lasts only as long as he who loves it can keep polishing.” (p.149) This goes for all the people we love too.
This post will be brief as I am living in the moment of moving homes. Adam came to our new home today before he goes on a mid-winter break with his dad. His body-jerks have returned and he cries in his new room. “Are you scared,” I ask.
“Are you scared?” he echoes back with then a slight delay. “Scared,” he says forcefully.
We have made numerous visits to the home, but because Adam can understand what he cannot express fluidly with words, he is reacting. It is strange. He knows the move is now imminent. He is experiencing the stress that other children experience. He has experienced so much.
It brings me back to the time when I was six years old and my parents moved homes. I remember when they looked at it, when they purchased it — my dad and I put the “sold” sign on the front yard. So new was the house, the lawn was not yet in and we perched the sign in the dirt. Dad made a big deal out of it, I remember that much. He was proud. It’s amazing what impressions we retain from out childhoods. It wasn’t much longer after that — I returned from a weekend with my grandparents to sleep (all of a sudden) in my new home. I believe there was even a stuffed animal waiting for me in a newly erected brass mailbox by the front door. It was summer. The “welcome committee” was ready to do its job and make me feel right at home. That committee was my parents.
I remember that arrival and how strange it was, but I’ve lost the memory of sleeping there my first night. I’m certain my extremely attentive and loving mother did everything she could to make me feel I was at home. Yet, it didn’t feel quite right. I couldn’t ride my bike around the house in my old neighbourhood where a garden was planted and grass was laid and my good pals were gone (I was particularly close to the boys I punched in the stomach — it wasn’t my idea… it was my father’s. He tried to make me into a tough girl and STILL relays that story proudly to anyone who will listen…kind of embarrassing at my age). Nope, they were all gone and all I had was the bike and the dirt for my early introduction. The plumbing still wasn’t working in the block so new, that we had to use the model home down the street to take a pee. Indeed, that was a strange feeling.
My parents are still around and are extremely loving grandparents to my son, not to mention incredibly supportive of their daughter who is now not only a single mother, but also their only-child having another life “adjustment.” Let’s just say that they mean the world to me and I’m certain to Adam. On Monday, when Adam returns home from his break with his dad, those same grandparents will be the welcoming committee to his new home that he will settle into with mom.
Adam is only a year or so older than I was when I made the major move. I try to appreciate how strange this all feels on top of parents who are no longer together. I think of how confusing that must be; how stressful sometimes, and because Adam is autistic, he manifests that stress in physical behaviour. It is the only outlet he has. Even though we are all doing our best to help him along, Adam has been expressing how he feels about the matter.
Expressing boldly without words.
I now play a video I made with Adam’s grand-dad a few years ago. I love the little guy more than words can say. This is a look backwards with gratitude while also hoping the future will bring us both peace.
It’s the final countdown. Adam and I will move in several days. I’ve written a lot about it. Tomorrow Adam sees the neurologist. Last Saturday Temple Grandin’s story was aired on HBO. It all reminds me of Adam’s anxiety and how I found him two nights ago in his underwear drawer (closed) in a fetal position at 5:30 in the morning. The change is very big for such a little guy.
It manifests in his senses. I think his body jerks and desire to be in tight dark places have a lot to do with change and his parent’s separation. I certainly believe my little boy is telling me how he feels without words.
I really believe it. It’s why it makes me a bit frustrated that people think that autistic behaviour is “abnormal.” What’s the difference between a neurotypuical child who tantrums versus an autistic child who can’t tell me that he’s confused but seeks a drawer to find security?
Without words, Adam speaks volumes.
All I can say is that I look forward to putting some security/regularity back into Adam’s life (and mine). By next week I shall be posting from our new home.
Please wish us luck.
Of course I heard this song on the radio today transporting stuff from one house to another in my car:
We are moving, Adam and I. Thirteen days and counting. Leaving the home I built with Adam’s father (literally — I’ve uncovered stacks of my working notes while building the house I am moving out of) and I ache. My back aches from moving boxes, my feet ache from running up and down stairs, and well, the heart is complicated.
Houses are more than what they contain. They are more than walls. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t drive back to the homes we grew up in, or show our boyfriends and girlfriends where we went to school. We wouldn’t go back to tree where we carved our names, or try to find the homes our grandparents lived in to imagine what history had happened to bring us to this very moment. We traverse back all of the time. We try hard to conjure up the memories, the conversations, Fred Flintstone and Campbells Tomato Soup, or maybe the sounds of children running in for lunch. Even though we can’t relive them in actual time, the moments live within us.
I remember when we started planning to build the house I will say goodbye to next week — the first day we ripped down the old structure that stood on this land before we built; Adam was a baby then and I had taken a walk from the other white home we lived in — the one I’ve written about in The Perfect Child, with black shutters and a huge maple tree, to witness the first dent the demolition crew made. We were building something and I was exhilarated.
It took us eighteen months to build this house we lived in since 2005. Every week, I’d walk Adam over in his stroller — getting him used to the new place; already worried about that thing I always talk about: “transitioning.” We walked by. Then we walked in. Then we could walk up a ladder that took the place of stairs. Then we could walk up stairs until finally, we played ball in the kitchen that was still being built. My mother accuses me (in the nicest possible way) of living in the future since I was a very young child. As Adam’s mother I imagined all the games we would play in this house, the guests we would have. I don’t knock imagination in the age of the Power of Now. We can breathe life into things!
When Adam was three, we moved in. Leaving Rosemary (the white house), was difficult too. It was the home Adam’s father and I began to build our family life and where I became a stepmother. It was the place where I brought Adam home two days after he was born — April 13, 2002. I will never forget how it began to rain and that strange feeling — that the house I left was not the same house to which I returned. Adam, of course, changed all of that. The moment I put him down in his car seat in that front hall and I was overcome with the new life that I now cannot imagine living without.
I returned to Rosemary with toddler-Adam asleep in the back of my van soon after we had moved into this home which I am about to leave. I had to run in to fetch the bassinet my mother had refurbished for him — the one I also slept in thirty-some years earlier. It was “heaven’s bed,” or a “Himmelbett,” as they say in German. My German grandmother made it by hand just for me. Adam also deserved to lie under the same protection of the heavens and the angels.
As I walked into Rosemary it was about to storm — still so quiet and dark. I stood lingering and silent in each room. I had to think about everything that had happened in those rooms and all of those conversations. Although it was empty, the walls seemed to be whispering among the dust balls — remember when, remember when….
When I was ready, I wrapped my arms around the bassinet and put it quietly in the back of my van, Adam still sleeping soundly, the thunder just beginning to gently roll towards us. I sat in the car and looked one last time. It was hard, but I had to say goodbye. I put the car in reverse and decided not to go back for awhile. A couple of years later, the new owners demolished that house and built a new one. I still drive by.
Saying goodbye to homes and a life I shared with someone is an important ritual. Just because some things don’t last does not mean we must abandon them in our hearts, our minds or with sour words. We must honour an ending as much as a beginning, for all our stories have them. I believe we have to approach such goodbyes with gentle regard for all of those days, nights, hours and years. All of those words spoken; all of those hopes and dreams. We build. We move. We demolish. We build again.
I have created a new home and it’s also lovely. Adam loves his new room, and I have created another piece of Himmel over his reading nook, where he has only visited but looks about curiously and tries to find his comfort.
Like everything else I do, I will get this done. I will say my prayers and my goodbyes as I stand in each room listening to what the walls say. Then I will take a rock from the backyard that Adam loves so dearly — where Adam’s father brought home his first big trampoline; where the grandfathers worked so hard to put it together. Our backyard was Adam’s haven and we spent many summer afternoons swimming and playing. At first, that rock will be difficult to look at, so I may put it away. I have a feeling, however, it will later become something I will need to look at. Something to cherish. I have to remember. For all those years were worth it. They are my story and, while it may come with some ache, I am proud of everything that was created over the past thirteen years. While my imagination is already working on my new home (and yes, my future as well as Adam’s), this is my way of saying goodbye.
I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (www.taaproject.com), and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.
because finding joy doesn't come without struggle;
because the point is to find it;
because if an autistic person calls autism their way of being, not an illness, then it is;
because every human has value and is a joy;
because despite inhumane acts, I believe in humanity;
but most of all, because of my son Adam.