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Category Archives: Mental Health

How Does Your Garden Grow

Hello there.  It’s again been about 2 weeks since I last wrote, what with Connor’s schedule, home remodeling, a million other distractions and delights.  I was going to write about any number of these, especially the things that have me pulling my hair out.  But instead, I felt like I could use a little positivity on my blog today.  So I’m going to write about my garden.

My garden is my happy place.  Or perhaps I should say it’s my therapy space.  (My happy place is and always will be in a book somewhere).  My garden allows me to work at something and see a “fruitful” result.

It gives me the time and opportunity to work through my stress.  Weeding, pruning, seeding, fertilizing, watering, harvesting, it’s all a lot of work and a lot of time.  And it is absolutely worth it.

We work at so many things in our lives which don’t produce results for years, if at all.  There’s no medal for potty training your child, no award for taking good care of your animals, and if you’re very lucky the prize for being a good parent will be having a healthy, successful adult.

Gardening allows you to work hard and see the fruit of your labor within months.  During the time from seed to salad, you are able to watch your garden grow, each day, getting a little bigger, a little brighter, a little more full.

Last year I began with two potted tomato plants and one jalapeno potted plant.  I got a few fruit off of each plant and then watched the winter cold kill them.  Not the most auspicious beginning to my gardening.

This past spring I decided to go a little bigger.  I began with one raised bed and two small potted tomato plants.  I also dedicated myself to gardening, giving it my time and attention every day.  My garden flourished.

So I expanded.

My garden

My garden

This was my garden on July 2nd.  Since then things have changed, as gardens do, as life does.  My pumpkin plant had to be trimmed back, my tomatoes have grown larger and bigger, and much of my work has been harvested.

 

Squash, beans, peas, strawberries, tomatoes

bounty2 bounty3

You can see by these pictures that my garden likes to grow things plentifully and extra-large.  The jewel of my garden this year was my giant zucchini.

Connor with Big Baby

Connor with Big Baby

We named him Big Baby.  He weighed 10.8 lbs and  was 25 inches long.  We took him to the fair.

safety first

safety first

We entered Big Baby into the biggest zucchini contest at the OC Fair.

zucchini3

And we won!

The life of a garden is never over.  It’s cyclical, so maybe I have a new gem growing in my garden right now.  Maybe I won’t have another giant prize winner for years.  Either way, I plant, I grow, I harvest, I feed my family and I feed my soul.

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Summertime Schedule

Ah, summer! A time for fun! A time for relaxing! A time for chaos!

When you are autistic, the unorganized, seemingly endless days of summer can appear as a nightmare!  Sure, the first few days of sleeping in are great.  Then the trips to the beach, the park, the theme parks all seem nice on the outside, but something deep inside starts to go a little haywire.  By the two-week mark, circuits are as fried as all the yummy summer food you’ve been eating!

Or at least that’s how life appears to be for my son.

Connor fights school.  He whines about the appointments.  He complains about having to do all the non-recreational stuff he has to do for his ASD diagnosis.  “No school today!” is a common refrain at our house in the mornings.  He usually follows it up with “maybe tomorrow”, as if he’ll be more prepared by then to buckle down.

What he may not consciously realize is that every time we have a prolonged break from school (and thus a break from routine), his world starts to spin out of control.

There are too many options, too many fun things to choose from that he eventually suffers from choice paralysis.  When his days are structured and ordered, we have a clear, limited number of choices because our “free choice” time is limited.

To a child this may sound like torture! Only having an hour or two of free time each day! During the summer!!! This woman is a fascist!  But for the child with autism, the structured day is the mental equivalent of eating your vegetables.  You may not always like them, and I can dress them up to taste better, but they will in the long run make you healthier and stronger.

Since school let out two weeks ago, I’ve watched my son’s behavior slowly devolve from happy, compliant and self-contained to needy, angry, and defiant!  Tantrums went from 1 or 2 every other day to 2 to 3 every day.  Time outs tripled.  Bad behavior, we had happily curtailed, reemerged.  Anger was always near the surface.  Hitting, kicking, throwing things, all behaviors we had worked on diligently for the past year and had successfully disappeared from his repertoire began to take shape again.  Perhaps worst of all, his language began to disappear.  Words were replaced by screams and grunts.

The de-evolution culminated on Saturday when we were driving home from my sister’s house.  Connor was in the back pretending to be The Amazing Mumford.  When I chimed in with his magic words “A la peanut butter sandwiches” something in Connor snapped.  He took his seatbelt off and lunged at me.  Thankfully we were close to home but for those few minutes in the car there was a violent struggle as I tried to fend of the little demon that had replaced my child and drive at the same time.

That night I cried, Connor cried.  I drank wine while Connor drank juice and was put to bed by my husband.

The next day my precious child had no recollection of the event, but I still felt scarred by it.  I avoided him all day, leaving the parenting to my husband.  I busied myself with groceries, cooking, gardening.  That night we left Connor with my parents so I could have time out of the house and away from my child.

By the time I returned I felt better, more centered and ready to face the daily struggles of parenting an autistic child.  When I picked up my son, he was so happy to see me, so happy to hug me and kiss me; I wondered at the seemingly dramatic change in him.

But when summer school began Monday morning, and we began our routine, my happy child reemerged.  Sure, he didn’t want to go to school that morning, but by the time I picked him up, he was happy, compliant, and eager to get on with his schedule.

While all children benefit from consistency, children with autism seem to need it to function.  And though Connor enjoyed his first few days of freedom, I have a feeling, he’s secretly happy to be back in school

If you’re interested, here is some more information on why consistent schedules are important for both typical developing children and for ASD children:

Autistic Children Need a Consistent Schedule

Norrin’s Story of Schedules

The Importance of Schedules

Ready, Set, Routine!

Hope

In the history of mankind there is only one emotion that I can think of that is both equally uplifting and equally cruel: hope.

Hope keeps you holding on to bad situations, wishing for things to improve.

Hope wakes you up in the morning, puts your feet on the ground, and makes your eyes stay open, when all you want is the sweet, obliterating, deep sleep of sadness.

Hope keeps you afloat when everything else tells you to give up and sink.

Hope teases a light at the end of the tunnel that may be escape, or it may be the train.

Hope puts one foot in front of the other, when all you want is to turn back.

For me hope can be an especially cruel companion. My vivid imagination allows me to see my dream played out, as if it was already happening.  My dream becomes so real, so tangible, that my hope is an after-thought, because the conclusion has already been reached.

I can envision the child in my arms. I can clearly see Connor in mainstream classroom.  I look around my home and I see what could be, not what is.  And it all fills me with joy.

I am a hopeful person.  I can’t help it.

So when life disappoints me, when it falls short of my visions, I feel betrayed by my own heart.  My hope pushes me to such heights of belief that when reality steps in I am shocked.

I don’t despair for long though, it’s truly not in my nature.

I see the good, I look for the bright side, and I always have hope.

Disappearing Depression

The fact that I disappeared from the blogosphere again shouldn’t really be surprising.  I tend to do that every once in a while.  I get overwhelmed with real life, events, crazy schedules.  Sometimes I’m fighting a different battle.

This time around I was fighting my old nemesis: depression.  We have a long history, depression and I.  Diagnosed at 16, I’ve struggled to maintain control of my mental health.  For the most part, this is a war I win, though depression occasionally wins a battle.

So why did depression raise its ugly head this time?  It was my own doing, unfortunately.  The good news is that the husband and I are trying to get pregnant.  Yay!!  The bad news is that means attempting to wean off my antidepressants.  There are far too many worrisome studies out there about the relationship between mothers on antidepressants and autism risks in their children.  Here and here.  Given that I already have a child on the spectrum and I was on an anti-depressant for a few months during my first pregnancy, you can imagine my worry and my guilt!  My doctors and I are all committed to getting my off the drugs for this pregnancy, just in case.

But this is where things get dicey.

I weaned off the drugs too quickly.  I went from 20 milligrams to 10 over night.  My body did not like that.  In fact, it stopped reacting to the drugs.  It took about 10 days for depression and anxiety symptoms to set in.

At first it wasn’t too bad.  Sure I was a little more tired, a little more irritable, and lot more hungry, but those aren’t symptoms that couldn’t be explained away by PMS, really really bad PMS.  Then I started losing my temper with Connor.  My normally patient parenting style disappeared.  I felt fed up with him every day.  I had not interest in engaging in play.  I just wanted to plop him in front of the TV and be done with it.  But hey, that could just be explained away by saying I was juggling the needs of a special need child and tired.  Then one day I just started crying.  Someone had something totally innocuous and I just started to sob.  Something was wrong.

Back on the full dose of medication, I had to fight my way back to feeling normal.  It takes a few weeks for medication to work your system back up to an even keel, so in the mean time you’re stuck knowing that something is wrong and not being able to do anything about it but wait.  Like the saying “fake it til you make it” I had to spend many many days trying to get back to a place where I felt like myself again.  I started using Dr. Low’s method of handling my anxiety and depression.  I was back to spotting anxious behaviors, endorsing myself for trying, reminding myself of my averageness, etc. And like always, after a lot of hard work and a lot of self-reflection, I was able to get back to a good place.

The only downside now is that I still need to wean off my medication.  We’re doing a baby step approach now: 20 mg to 15 mg.  Then if I’m ok in a few weeks, we’ll try going down to 10 again.

I need to be ok, whether I’m on the medication or not.  There have been several studies that show mothers suffering depression during their pregnancy experience many different types of disadvantages as well. 

It kind of seems like I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t.

There are other things I can do to help my mood while I’m weaning off the drugs: light therapy, exercise, nutritional adjustments, spending time outside, regular therapy, etc.

It’s still scary, though.  Part of me hopes we get pregnant right away and the added hormones help my mood, like they did last time.  And part of me hopes it takes a while so I can get this medication thing worked out.

Either way, all I can do is my best, and hope that’s good enough for our future baby.

Not taking no for an answer

I really don’t like being told no.  I mean nobody does, but I really really hate it.  It makes me want whatever I’m requesting even more!

Can I eat all my trick or treat candy? No.  Oh yeah?  Well I’m going to eat as much Halloween candy as possible before I even get home!

Can I go on that spring break trip to Mexico? No.  Well fine! I’m just going to Havasu instead!

Can I finish my finals and term papers for my masters while on bed-rest at 8 mos pregnant? No. Wanna bet? Just watch me! Done!

So when I spoke to someone today about moving Connor from his special education preschool into a mainstream preschool just two days a week next fall, I didn’t like hearing them say no.  It mad me mad.  I mean it mad me really really mad.  Like I wanted to pull all the research out of my pocket and show them how great mainstream education is for high functioning autistic children.  (I didn’t actually have it in my pocket so that’s kinda why I’m blogging at 11 pm on a Monday.  I’m writing, taking notes, and researching.  And I’m really good at research, like it’s kinda my superpower.  I now have enough sources to write an academic paper on the subject.  Booyah.)

Telling me that my son can’t do something, telling me that he is limited, that he may get lost in that setting, pushed all the wrong buttons.

Sure Connor isn’t ready at this very moment to be in a mainstream preschool class.  The biggest obstacle is his speech delay.  In the past six months we have seen Connor’s speech improve tremendously, breathtakingly! But he’s still not at a level of typical development for a three-year old.  And that’s ok.  It’s a process that may take years to fully catch him up.  I’m willing to wait.

What I’m not willing to do is sit on the sidelines to wait.  I’m going to push him.  I’m going to put Connor into environments that drive him to increase his communication.  Existing solely in a world of special education, Connor is never going to be pushed to exceed those around him.  He will not be asked to stretch beyond the goals set forth for him that year by adults.  And as much effect as adult interactions can have, kids want to interact with kids.  Playing and talking and having fun with another child can be the greatest motivator to grow.

A recent study in particular (in Norway) found that children with autism who interacted with their typical developing peers in a mainstream preschool setting saw a significant increase in their IQ over two years. A second study published by Autism in 2011 found that 31 % of the autistic students observed, who interacted with their typical developing peers, saw such a significant increase after just 8 months as to qualify them as typical developing.

These studies with these types of returns convince me even more that Connor needs to be pushed into a classroom with typical developing peers.  Maybe not now, maybe not tomorrow, but soon.  He may not see the same significant increases in IQ or developmental abilities, but I think any increase is worth the risk.

And I’m not taking no for an answer.

Overload

I have been running at level 6 on a scale of 5.  My brain seems to focus and my emotions feel fried.

There are too many balls in the air for even this practiced juggler to catch!

A wedding and a baby shower are in the works.  Each event alone requires seemingly hundreds of decisions.  And inevitably, as in my last post, when there are events, there are little dramas.

Some dramas are bigger than others, potentially life changing.  To deal with the fall out of my invitation decisions, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of friendship as an adult, particularly the nature of friendship for a stay-at-home mom to an autistic child.  Being the parent of special needs child means belonging to a very isolating world.  Our children keep us busy running from one therapy to the next, juggling meetings and reports and paperwork until there doesn’t seem much room for anything else.  For me and Connor, I keep trying to add to our already busy schedule.  I want to keep moving Connor forward towards our ultimate goal of mainstreaming.  I need to keep pushing him, keep trying new activities, new therapies, new ideas until we strike upon something that works for him.  And although this is best for Connor, it doesn’t really allow me to develop friendships with the other parents.

Most other parents of special needs children are dealing with the same issues, and the same potential social explosions from their own children.  Play dates have to be carefully coordinated and can be easily cancelled if a child’s behaviors are out of control that day.  Sure I have time to myself during the day, but who else does?  My Pilates classes are filled with retirees!

So time to seek out activities that will make me joyful!  I’ve signed up to volunteer with a few programs, as well as subscribe to a book club.  But not immediately since I’m in the midst of planning a shower and a wedding as well as parenting my autistic child!  And round and round we go until I feel just about to explode!

To top it all off my great-uncle passed away.  Nearly 90 and suffering excruciating pain due to cancer, he is much better off in the arms of our Lord than he was dwelling here on earth.  And though it’s hard to develop a close relationship with a man who devoted his life to serving the Lord, as well as his brothers and sisters, he was still a man I loved and respected.  He baptized me, he blessed me, he carried God’s love to me throughout my entire life.  And I miss him.  I will miss him.  I will miss him.  I will miss him until I join with him again one day in God’s presence.

So today while my flu infected son naps, I take a little time to just let myself feel everything and I don’t try to stop the tears.

Autism and Sandy Hook

Like many Americans in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, I’ve been looking for answers. Initially I was eager for any kind of explanation.  I wanted the shooter to have something wrong with him, something off, something I could point at and say “Ah ha! That explains it!”  But as time passed, the truth sunk in.  There is never going to be an explanation sufficient to explain away such a wanton loss of life.

In the days since the shooting many writers, reporters, and broadcasters have thrown around the idea that the shooter had some form of autism and that may be at least in part to blame for his actions.  Theories ranged from “Friends of the family said he suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism” to headlines that read “…shooter, may have had form of autism“, as if this explained everything or anything.  Thankfully, since similar theories were espoused in the aftermath of the Denver theater shooting, many parents, professionals, and even some writers themselves were ready to come out to say that these theories of autism have no relationship to the shooting at Sandy Hook.

From a Yahoo news article that explores the many topics Americans are placing the blame on:
“People want immediate or simple answers when an unimaginable tragedy like this occurs,” Bob and Suzanne Write of Autism Speaks said in a statement on Monday. “Autism did not cause this horror. The profound tragedy of these senseless murders will only be compounded if it results in unwarranted discrimination against people with autism.”

But where does that leave us?  Autism Speaks and parents like myself are forced to come out with statements like this every time something tragically violent occurs at the hands of a disturbed citizen.

The shooter was odd, friendless and awkward.  He may have had a form of autism.  His home was filled with weapons capable of mass murder.  He had trouble in school.  His parents were divorced.  He was very smart.

None of these facts alone will ever explain why this tragedy occurred.  I’m not convinced that these facts combined can explain the tragedy either.

One thing that does not explain this violence or violence like it in Oregon, Colorado, Virginia, California, or any of the other sites of tragic mass murders, is autism.  Autism is not the enemy.  And we need to do a better job of educating the public about this disorder.

Let me begin here, today.

Autism is a disorder that makes life more difficult for the child and their families.  Connor is three and a half years old.  My son lacks the ability to self-calm, to self-regulate, or differentiate between needs and wants.  His language development is at least one year delayed.  His emotional development is also at least one year delayed.  He can be violent.  He pushes or shoves when he is angry or frustrated.  He cannot be reasoned with when angry.

Connor is also capable of both intense joy and sadness.  If he hears our dogs whimper, he asks them if they are ok.  He engages with other children on the playground but cannot communicate.  He longs to play baseball.  He watches the same movies over and over again.  He loves trains, trucks, and playing in the dirt.  My son loves making art and snuggling on the couch.  He cries if we wait in line for more than five minutes.  He will throw a tantrum in the middle of the grocery store because I didn’t get the right kind of bread.  He helps me unload the washer and dryer.  He puts his clothes in the hamper when directed.  He plays too rough with the dogs.  He ends up in time out at least once a day.  He tries to convince me he should have ice cream for dinner and cookies for breakfast.  He wants to go to the beach every day.

Connor is all these things and many more.  He is autistic.  He also a typical little boy in many ways.

Autism is not the enemy.

Please visit Autism Speaks for more information about Autism Spectrum Disorder and how you can help.