Monday, December 31, 2007

A Site on the Basics of Autism

I found a site called Right Health that has an article which explains the basics of autism better than some of the government sites I explored. The basics are the who, what, where, when, why, and hows of the disorder. A good site covering the disorder should provide a description of symptoms and discussions of diagnosis, treatment options, and may touch on prognosis. This one goes a bit further and touches on the issues behind autism.

Unlike some of the U.S. government sites, this site has type large enough to read. The explanation offered is simple yet seems complete. It's also fairly gentle in terms of not shocking a parent researching the disorder for the first time.

One really doesn't want to read about the chances of mental retardation in a child with autism being seventy-five percent. I, personally, do not believe this statistic contains a lot of truth. I think that the current tests for intelligence quotients are not adequate for individuals with autism. So when I read this stat on a site with the basics I cringe. A quick scan of Right Health did not turn up such a stat, so I think it's safe.

Some people who have more in-depth knowledge of autism may not like this site because the writer(s) claim there is no connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. Hopefully, however, a parent who has a child without a diagnosis or a newly diagnosed child with autism will keep reading various websites, blogs and books before forming a personal opinion. I'm still exploring some of these issues and do not wish to state a strong opinion. At the moment my goal is to provide information from both sides so a person can decide for themselves. This topic can cause heated arguments amongst autism parents.

Final note: One also has to be aware of credibility of various websites. My friend who is a health librarian at the local university recommends Medline Plus when asked a research question on autism. Medline Plus is an excellent site and the Right Health article lists it as a source. I'm hoping that this is a good sign in terms of the Right Health article being credible.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Our Holiday Travels Come to an End

Whew. We're finally home after being on the road since Tuesday. Today's trip consisted of a three-and-a-half to four hour road trip. I made sure I took a nap because I have a lot of house cleaning and other stuff to do. I'll be back to cooking and cleaning, but am done with living out of a suitcase and not sleeping well in the three different locations we visited.

My sons both slept well (at night) everywhere they went, so that was a blessing. They also ride in the van pretty well, although they had one little scuffle on the way home which ended my nap because someone had to break it up and my husband was driving. At least my kids will be entertained for a while with their new toys, although we have to find storage homes for all of them.

I can also celebrate reaching my goal of being graceful during all our visits with family members. I told a couple of people ahead of time that I was under a lot of stress this year and not to take any snappiness personally. But I didn't snap or growl at anyone, so I am glad for that.

My son with autism still had his fingers in his ears this morning upstairs in my sister's house although it was quiet compared to yesterday afternoon/evening. Today the TV was off and the mood was subdued. We are guessing maybe it was the clicking and clacking on a Pergo floor from the paws of Elsa, the resident black lab. I'll have to remember this little problem the next time we plan to visit Sturgis, Michigan so we can get my nine year old to participate a little more socially.

My little one is happily playing with his toys while the older one with autism rotates between picking up his lap harp and wondering around. He and his brother will probably play his froggy game if my husband or I sits down with them. The man of the house will probably take a couple naps. He did some unpacking and all of the driving so his moments of rest are well deserved.

Note: It's funny how much whiter the ground became as we drove North. Supposedly Mt. Pleasant received five to six inches of snow while we were gone, but the areas we visited received very little snow. Luckily, we didn't encounter any storms while on the road.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Last Family Gathering of 2007

Today we had Christmas for my side of the family. We only had to drive two hours this time so that was nice. However, my son with autism spent most of the time in the basement. Everytime he came upstairs where everyone else was he would put his fingers in his ears. There was twelve other people in a nice-sized space and we were not that noisy.

I guess after four days on the road and lots of schedule differences, he was feeling more sensitive to sound than usual. He ate his meal downstairs by himself, but was delighted when the family decided to go downstairs to watch him open his presents. In the meantime, he'd watch the t.v. down there while bouncing around on a big exercise ball. My husband and I would check on him from time to time.

My little guy did o.k. He loved all the attention he received from being the youngest person there. He ate dinner with the rest of us, played with his new toys, and hung out with the rest of the family. My husband played and lost Monopoly while I just chatted with family members.

To his credit my nine year old showed a lot of patience. A few years ago he would have melted down and my husband and I would have had to take turns staying downstairs with him. I'm hoping that when he is a teenager he'll be able to stay with the crowd, using head phones or some other coping mechanism. But for now, finding peace in the basement is ok with us. He seemed to have stayed out of trouble.

At the moment, he's excited because my sister made up a bed for him and his brother down in the basement. She put a big air mattress on the floor. They are loving it. My husband and I will probably sleep in a nearby room.

I'll be glad to be home tomorrow, although I'll have to go back to cooking and cleaning again. Ugh. Maybe, though, I'll be able to have another pajama morning on Monday or Tuesday.

Friday, December 28, 2007

A trip to the 2007 Motor City Bowl and Getting Lost

We took our oldest son to the Motor City Bowl in Detroit, Michigan on December 26. He loved seeing the skyscrapers, going to Ford Field, seeing the marching bands (his favorite part) and cheering for Central Michigan University. This is the second time in a row my husband and I went, but the first for our son with autism.

What I'll always remember is getting to our hotel at the Renaissance Center at the same time as the Purdue Marching Band and sitting behind #19's (Josh Gordy, a defensive back) rather large cheering section. I'll also remember that our quarterback looked quite a bit older than the 2006 Motor City Bowl MVP did last year as a freshman.

What my husband will likely remember is our beloved Central Michigan University team falling way behind in the first half and then rallying in the second half to lose 48 to 51 to Purdue. He'll also remember taking our son to the restroom after the bands played at halftime only to become separated twice before returning to our seats. This scared my nine year old son, although the two made it back together without any intervention from security personnel.

"I'm going home," my son said in a determined voice when he first saw me after the restroom trip. His lips were pursed in his characteristic pout.

He jumped out of his seat and said this several times before he relaxed and started cheering again. I pointed at the clock and said we'd stay for the fifteen minute third quarter. Fortunately for us, he relaxed by the fourth quarter and the three of us were able to stay for the entire game. The game was lost in the last two seconds so we were fortunate our son settled down.

Overall it was a fun experience but ironic because I was the one overwhelmed for the whole first half. The noise, the crowds and the general largess of Ford Field got to me a little bit. However, unlike my son, I just sat in my seat and tried my best to focus on the game. When I finally relaxed around halftime, my son became tense. Go figure.

We still had a great time. Our memorable trip ended with breakfast at the Riverside Cafe and the ride back to my in laws' home in Ohio. I took a nice nap and my child sat quietly as my husband drove us to our destination. Our almost five year old gave us a big hug upon our return to grandma and grandpa's house and our trip came to an end.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas Morning 2007 Recap

The plan was to put up a cute Christmas post, but it turned out that when I had internet access, I didn't have the time and vice versa. I hope everyone had a very Merry Christmas. Ours was as good as it could be I guess. It's been a stressful season to say the least. Most of the stress occurred before the actual day.

At the moment, it's just about making sure we spend time with all of our closest relatives. This is easy compared to some of the preparations and events occuring before Christmas.

On the 25th, we drove some of the day, but was able to spend the morning at home doing our own thing. The boys liked their gifts from Santa Claus. Most importantly, they did not figure out that Santa looks quite a bit like mom. My nine year old was awake until midnight (in his room), so to be safe "Santa" waited to put the gifts under the tree. There was also last minute wrapping to do. "Santa" fell into bed at about 1 a.m. Luckily, the boys did not wake up until 8 a.m., so there was a nice bit of time to sleep.

The big hit with my little one was a Ty Beanie Babies calico kitten named Tabbles and a gray Ty puppy named Fizzer. At almost five years of age he is still pretty easy to please. He also liked his Pet Shop game. Anything animal is a good bet with him.

As for the older one, thanks to the summer arts program for kids with Asperger's Syndrome and high functioning autism, Santa discovered that my guy liked auto harps. Forunately "Santa" was able to find one for under twenty dollars at a local big box store. The auto harp was a hit too, as was an inexpensive video camera for kids. The little one, however, objected to being filmed so this caused some minor friction before we packed up and headed off for Ohio.

As for me, my loving hubby did take the hints I gave him about two certain books. (I may comment about those later.) My husband was happy with two t-shirts from two different alma matters and a few other small gifts. The biggest gift to the two of us, however, was being able to watch our boys on Christmas morning.

Monday, December 24, 2007

A Phone Conversation about Christmas Gifts

Aunt: I got you a present. Did you get me a present?

My son: Yes. It's a bread basket!

What aunt heard from the background: AGH!!!

What mom heard upon grabbing the phone: laughter from the other line.

Son: what did you grab the phone for?


Mom's thoughts: He might of spilled the beans about his aunt's Christmas present, but at least he's answering questions now. He had some really nice back and forth conversation about a white versus a green Christmas up until that point. He asked a lot of questions which is something he hadn't been able to do until recently. The dialogue I shared really demonstrates some progress within the last year or two. We won't forget this conversation for awhile.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Santa 2007 Post

Well, it looks like Santa Claus might have to wear ice skates in certain parts of the United States on Christmas Eve. The ice storm didn't hit Central Michigan but we did get plenty of rain and wind, with snow flurries coming in later.

We did have quite a bit of snow, but a lot of it melted away with the rain. It looks like we'll still have a white Christmas which has been unusual for the past several years. Normally we do not see a lot of snow here until mid-January. But alas, in terms of a snowy ground, this area is ready for Santa and his sleigh to arrive. We won't have to tell our boys Santa will put wheels on his sleigh this year.

I don't know if we'll regret the little white lies about Santa or not. My husband and I both went through the rites of passage--believing in St. Nicholas, only to find out at about the age of eight that he's actually an imaginary figure. My son with autism is nine. He might believe in the jolly old guy for another year or two. My youngest son will turn five in three weeks. He's a sharp little man who will discover the Santa Claus secret earlier than most. I'm guessing seven. When he finds out he will undoubtedly tell my older guy.

I'm wondering if one or both of the boys will be mad at us. I have heard a story of a teenager with Asperger's who still hasn't quite forgiven his mom for letting him believe in Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. He found out the truth five years ago. I do feel a little guilty about carrying on the myth. Then again, I do have a banner hanging in my living room. It has a Santa Claus and the word "Believe." I also appreciate the message behind the book/movie The Polar Express.

Little kids get excited about Christmas and it is evident that Santa is the one who helps put that sparkle of excitement in their eyes. Adults often lose that excitement. Maybe part of it is because they lost Santa and maybe even a little bit of the faith that originated the holiday. Maybe it's just the extraordinary amount of expectations put on the shoulders of adults during the holiday season--which at times seems like a season of endurance rather than enjoyment.

That said, the magic of Santa is kind of nice to have around. If we think about it Santa really does exist. The spirit of giving is around everywhere. Santa just looks a little different than most of us have pictured.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Bull/Frog: Artwork Inspired by My Son

I am lucky to have a great babysitter. "K" loves my boys and the boys love her. She's also a talented art student at the nearby university.

When assigned to create a sculpture depicting two animals "K" immediately thought of my son who can be happy and hoppy like a frog (his favorite animal), but who is also a child who can rage like a bull when upset. What can I say? He can be bull-headed. "K" knows my son well.

About my son: Has more froglike moments than bull-like moments.

About "K": An unflappable, yet relaxed and easygoing person who fits in wonderfully with our family.

My thoughts on the artwork: A wonderful, whimsical piece.

Notes from the artist:

the bull part is made of welded sheet steel, the arms and legs are made of round steel bar, and the back frog part is made of sheet copper that is sown together around the outside with wire.

Her grade: A well-deserved A.

Friday, December 21, 2007

ASA's Holiday Tips for Families Living with Autism

Autism Society of America has put some holiday tips for families living with autism in the family. I hope you find them helpful. ASA says that all of their tips are transferable and to pass them on, so I'm doing so now.

Note to regular readers: I'll be in maintenance post mode for a couple of days. I hope to be able to write decently again on Sunday, December 23.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Mrs. C's Cafe

Today my son, who has high functioning autism served dessert to a steady line of teachers and staff at Mrs. C’s Café. The café was located in Mrs. C’s mildly-impaired classroom at my son’s elementary school. The featured item on today’s menu was spaghetti. My little chef served the dessert (chocolate dipped pretzels with sprinkles, which he helped to make yesterday).

Salad and a drink also came with the meal that cost $5. Proceeds from the café will be used for a class field trip that the students get to choose. (Winter break begins this Friday, so the trip will have to wait.) The class used the funds from the October café to visit a local pumpkin patch. The trip included riding in a hay-filled wagon, picking a pumpkin and having donuts and cider.

I first learned about Mrs. C’s monthly (well almost monthly) café during Parent Night back in September when the school year first started. It sounded like an ingenious plan to meet several different Individualized Education Plan (IEP) goals all at once. For Mrs. C’s Café, students create and deliver invitations, wrap up dining utensils in napkins, prep food as needed, handle the money involved, set tables, greet and serve their guests. The café’s patrons are coached by Mrs. C and her three aides to make sure students make eye contact.

When I picked my son up from school today, Mrs. C. told me he did a great job making eye contact, which has been difficult in the past. She also said he loved his task of handing out dessert because it meant he was able to talk to everyone.

“Did you ever think a person with autism could be so social? ” I said smiling.

She responding with a laugh and said that she feels a special bond with my son. I’m not surprised because I thought the two would be a good match from the moment I met her. My guy responds really well to warm, friendly people like her. I also knew the café would be an asset to the student/teacher relationship between the two because cooking is near and dear to my son’s heart.

Just before my guys and I left her at the school door (a necessity because the boys were headed towards our van), I told Mrs. C that her charge now wants to have a Lorenzen Café for all of his friends (well just two, actually). It’s true. As I was writing this post, my son announced that he made the invitations already. Alas, the Lorenzen Café will have to be put on hold. Christmas stuff will have to come first.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"The Lorenzenmobile is missing!"

The snowstorm we had last weekend inspired my husband drive to work instead of making his usual 10 to 15 minute trek on foot. I don't blame him. We received about ten inches of snow and there are mountains piled up everywhere.

Usually we park our cranberry-colored mini-van in the driveway and keep the little blue car in our small garage. There are a few windows in our foyer which looks out into our drive. It's easy to see what's there and what's not in terms of vehicles.

Both boys were home from school yesterday. My little one is already on winter break from his preschool and my eldest had a snow day. The two were in our foyer putting on the necessary gear to go outside when the nine-year-old with high functioning autism looked outside.

"The Lorenzenmobile is missing!" He shouted.

I had panicked for a moment. The driveway was empty. Then I remembered my husband took the van.

"Oh daddy, drove to work today because he didn't want to walk through all the snow."

"Dad drove the Lorenzenmobile to work?"

Yes, dad drove to work.

"Oh," he replied, and that was the end of that scenario until this morning. It was a bit unusual because usually a few repetitions are necessary for thoughts to sink in.

This morning my husband decided to brave the snow so I could drive the nine-year-old to school (which is also a walkable distance). The three of us, including me and my almost five-year-old, went through our usual morning routine and one of us opened the door to venture outside.

"The Lorenzenmobile is back. Cool!"

Cool indeed.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Grace: the word to remember for the holidays

Grace is the word I try to live by, but it is not always easy to do during the holidays. Anyway, I created a poem to illustrate to you what I think grace means in terms of human behavior.

Exceptional (good) manners

Today I am writing this post as a reminder to myself to be Graceful. As a parent of two children (one on the autism spectrum, one not) who also needs to recognize about six birthdays as well as my own anniversary, I really need the reminder. Throw in the fact that my family needs to travel three to four hours to spend time with relatives and that my father remarried a nice lady (after my mom died) who happens to have had six children (fifty or more people want to spend the holiday with the couple), and you get one stressed out lady. Usually, once during each holiday season, I end up misbaving because of the stress. Last year, I managed not to say things I later regretted. But this year, I already became tearful and had words with someone. It's a situation I'm not going to elaborate on because I do not wish to reenact the interaction.

Sometimes, as us autism parents know, when one gets stressed, one melts down. My guy with autism loves the holidays and looks forward to them. He enjoys spending time with grandparents, cousins, etc. We are quite fortunate that his behavior during this time is really quite remarkable. (Note, although generally well-behaved during the holidays, he does get overwhelmed and we often have to remove him from a over stimulating environment). My behavior during the holidays is sometimes remarkable too, just in an unfortunate and different way. I forgive myself for what I already did, but am going to try to behave for the rest of the season.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Twelve years ago...

Twelve years ago today I married the love of my life--my college sweetheart. We met as commuter students at Bowling Green State University. I was a journalism major: he studied philosophy. We had the same break between classes one semester and met at the communter center.

Luckily, the sun shone and the winter storms stayed away the day we were married. Today, here in Michigan (and also Ohio) we are experiencing a huge snow storm which means eight to ten inches of snow.

Hopefully the storm will be over by this afternoon as predicted. We've scheduled a babysitter and are hoping to go out to dinner, a movie, and make sure that Santa comes with a few more things that he already plans to bring. I'm not sure how the roads will be. We might just have to cancel if our sitter doesn't want to come. Normally the drive between her place and ours is five minutes, but it may take longer--especially since she lives in an apartment complex just outside of town. She might not want to risk it.

However, at the moment I still have hope which may wane as time goes on. So that is why I was I was looking up movie times this morning. I still needed to email my sitter with the ideal time to come. My husband and I discussed it aloud, and my older son with high functioning autism said "Oh, "K" is coming today!.

"Yes it's our anniversary today and your dad and I hope to go on a date," I said.

"Oh, Happy anniversary mom and dad!"

"Happy anniversary," my little one echoed in his "me too" (not echolaiac) style.

Then we received his gift from us: a song to the tune of "Happy Birthday."

"Happy anniversary to you," he sang. He also did his little rocking thing he does while he sings.

It was great. From him, we couldn't have received a better gift.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Drawing Wisdom from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Lonfellow's poem about a young girl:

There Was a Little Girl

There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle ofher forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

My application of it regarding my son:

There Was a Little Boy

There was a little boy,
Who could bring a lot of joy,
To everyone in his neighborhood,
When he was good,
He was very, very good,
But when he was bad he was horrid.

An important note: It's not the child who's horrid, it's the behavior that can be difficult for a parent to handle that's horrid. It's important to view such behavior from a child with compassion. A compassionate caregiver will be much more effective than a stressed out one. I know, because I have learned the hard way. My guy usually reacts negatively to stress and can sense it quite easily.

The backstory for my version: When my son first meets a new babysitter or teacher, he is usually on his best behavior. If there is such a person with ASD who can exhibit charm and charisma, it's my son. I warn the babysitters and teachers that they will probably have a grace period (usually lasting about three weeks.) I use this poem as a way to illustrate what may come. It usually gets a smile.

I started using this poem at a time when I'd hold my breath while opening my son's notebook (agenda) to see how his day at school went. Days used to range from great days to ok days to rough days. I used to read about ok and rough days quite a bit. Now he has mostly good to great days. He's not had to ride the bus like he has the previous four or five years and I think that has made quite a difference. He also has a great special ed teacher with whom he has a wonderful relationship.

Maturity has also made a big difference in my son. My nine-year-old has learned to cope some with his disappointments. He still obsesses when he doesn't get what he wants, but he doesn't rage as much as he used to. My husband and I have also learned to spot the triggers and warning signs in order to head off meltdowns. It used to be that we would face a meltdown everyday around 5 p.m on school days. These meltdowns could last an hour or more. Talk about stressful. Now we see them fewer than once a week and the duration of the meltdowns are shorter. I don't know if we can expect to see the meltdowns disappear entirely, but I feel grateful that his behavior has improved a great deal.

The good behaviors have not disappeared. He still has the ability to make people smile and laugh. He truly is :

that little boy,
who can bring a lot of joy,
to everyone in his neighborhood.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Charlie Brown: A character for everyone

Last night, my son's art and music organization for people with Asperger's Syndrome and high functioning autism went to see You Are a Good Man Charlie Brown. It was a delightful musical and I think adults and children alike enjoyed the show. My boy, diagnosed with high functioning autism, loved the songs. After one song, I'm sure he pleased the cast with his very audible "Yeah!" His voice could be heard above all else. It's pretty cute now, but we hushed him because we know that it won't be quite as cute when his voice gets deeper. It's sad to squelch such joy. I know this, but it's really for his own good.

Anyway, I've always liked the late Charles Shultz's characters--especially Snoopy. (He's just so happy and imaginative.) I have read that every single character was inspired by some part of the cartoonist's personality. For example, the blue blanket toting Linus represents Shultz's philosophical side. Charlie Brown is the aspect of Shultz that suffers from either social anxiety or just plain old social exasperation.

Supposedly, Shultz as a youngster really did admire a red-headed girl and really did get rejected by her. There is a great scene in the musical where Charlie Brown is eating his lunch by himself while glancing at his crush who is in a group of girls. She looks back. What does Charlie Brown do? He puts his lunch bag over his head. She snickers and points. In the meantime, Lucy and Sally walk by discussing dresses. Lucy draws one where Charlie Brown's face would be. When Charlie Brown comes out of hiding he wonders why the little red-headed girl is not looking at him anymore. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

I don't think Charlie Brown has Asperger's syndrome although I can see people with Asperger's or high functioning autism going through similar motions with their crushes. Charlie Brown's dismay with social difficulty continues throughout the musical. In another scene Charlie Brown is the only one who doesn't get a Valentine. When giving one to Lucy, he says "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Valentines Day." In true Lucy fashion, she sort of snorts and then walks away without saying thank you for the card he gave her. He is further dismayed when he discovers that his dog, Snoopy, has received a handful of Valentines.

I think things turn out well in the end for Charlie Brown. The last song on the program was titled "Happiness." However, I missed the ending due to the fact we need to go back home to get our nine-year-old and almost five-year-old to bed. As it was, we tucked them in an hour later than usual and we, the parents were absolutely exhausted.

The musical was located in another city. It takes about a 40 to 50 minute drive to get to that city, which is to the east of Mt. Pleasant. We left at 6 p.m. to make sure we arrived with time to spare before the musical began at 7:30 p.m. It was 8:30 when it was time for the show's twenty-minute intermission. Glancing at that program, the parents from our organization realized there was probably it would be at least an hour before the show would to go yet.

Although our children all enjoyed the show, all of us parents in our group decided to leave at intermission because our children had school the next day. Why did I, the organizer, pick that time? I'm not really a blockhead. I knew the challenges involved with the timing, but there was rhyme to my reason. We ended up with that time and date in order to benefit from a rather extraordinary discount on all the tickets--a discount for which I'm am still very grateful.

The goal of the director (of my son's organization) and I (the field trip coordinator) is to keep field trips limited to under five dollars per individual so that families who are struggling financially can attend. A Saturday matinee time was my first choice, but I quickly realized via communication with my generous and helpful contact that I was asking for too much. The Thursday show was really the only option we had in order to maintain the goal. Oh well, an hours worth of Charlie Brown is better than no Charlie Brown at all.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

ANTM Cycle Nine Winner Revealed

And the winner is: Saleisha Stowers

Runner ups: Chantal Jones (second place); Jenah Doucette (third).

I wonder who the true winner is? The true winner is the contestant whose career in modeling actually takes off after this cycle is over. True winners don't necessarily have to become super models. Just signing with a major modeling agency and maintaining one's contract over a period that lasts more that two years is a sign of success. Another sign of success? Becoming a spokesperson for a cause. More than one model per cycle can be a true winner.

I wish all of the models well. Usually there is a live recap show the week after the finale. If this is the case, I'll write a post next week about the live show and then will stop writing about Heather Kuzmich and America's Next Top Model (ANTM ) for awhile. I'll probably not have a chance to blog about ANTM much in the future. I'll miss that, but I really must stick to posts about autism spectrum disorder.

For a brief but informative article on autism go to: Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder

To discover the success of previous ANTM models go to Wikipedia and click on respective names. There is a great chart for all of the cycles that lists the order of elimination and includes the winners. If the girl's name is in blue, then that means there is a separate entry for the model. Click on the highlighted name to read about a favorite. The entries for particular girls also include links to their personal sites if the model has one. There are two personal sites listed for Heather's entry.

For my previous posts about Heather Kuzmich go to:

Girl with Asperger's Syndrome Eliminated from America's Next Top Model

Another Cover Girl of the Week Win for Heather Kuzmich

Poll update: For a two-week poll that closed December 26, I asked readers if Heather Kuzmich was the true winner of cycle nine of America's Next Top Model. There were twenty four votes. Seventy percent (seventeen) said yes. Five voters said no and two voters were not sure.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Another Book on my Wish List: All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome

Yesterday, I wrote about John Elder Robison's book. While doing a little research on Look Me in the Eye on Amazon, another book , an October 2006 release, also caught my attention. I don't have an official wish list at Amazon, but if I did I would add All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome by Kathy Hoopmann to it. My reasons:

1. My son with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has been known to meow sometimes during silly moments.

2. We have two cats.

3. Our little guy who is not on the spectrum saw the cover of the book and loved it. He's an animal lover.

4. Although a couple reviewers on Amazon disliked this book, most liked it.

5. Many school counselors and or staff members (aka amazon reviewers) recommended this book as one to read with children. As I understand it, the book has photos of cats with commentary about Asperger's Syndrome.

P.S. J.E. Robison was kind enough to write a lengthy reply to yesterday's post. You may want to take a peek.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Look me in the Eye Looks Like a Must Read

It being the busiest time of the year, I don't have much time for reading books right now. However, I just came across one that will be on the top of my list of must reads once the holiday season ends. Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robison," caught my eye in an online review titled Seeing-yourself-in-autism by New York Times writer, Tara Parker Pope.

Hint to hubby who shops on Amazon: This hardcover book is only $15.57 on the site! Robison, who has been diagnosed with Asperger's, first intrigued book lovers as a character in Austen Burrough's best-selling memoir Running with Scissors. Robison is Burrough's brother.

I loved the cover of the book (a little boy with his eyes squeezed shut.) Yes, I'm quite familiar with the saying "Don't judge a book by it's cover." However, the last time I bought a book based its cover was ten years or so ago when a book about a certain young wizard first hit bookstore shelves. The cover of that book, the first of seven in the very well-known series, gave me the feeling that its contents were special.

It's unlikely that Robison's book will sell as well as the one I just mentioned. However, I have a feeling that it will become classic of Aspie or Aspergian literature. For an interview with Robison, please go to the blog, Loaded Questions with Kelly Hewitt. She interviewed the author in September of 2007 when the book was released.

Anyway, the New York Times reviewer hints at a potential downside to the visibility of well known people. When people learn about Robison, Heather Kuzmich (a model), and Tim Page (music critic), then it is possible everyone and his brother might start thinking that they have the disorder. Certainly, the popular description of Asperger's can be both appealing and intriguing: bright, talented, and functional in society, but with an inability to pick up social cues.

However, please note that this condition can have painful side effects. Social exclusion, social rejection, and severe bullying often occur. These side effects have the real possibility of damaging self esteem and might even be attributed to causing depression.

I'm not an expert, but I imagine even the most socially adept person on the planet has made a social mistake resulting in painful consequences. However, if your parents or guardians (if you had caring ones) never worried about your ability to function in social setting and if you had friends and were invited to parties, then chances are you don't have it.

Even if there were social difficulties in your past, it may have been due to social anxiety, or some other disorder. I am still learning about Asperger's Syndrome. As I have said before, I wondered about myself having the syndrome. As a result, I have been told by certain wise people to seek out a qualified professional if I think it will be beneficial. This is wiser than giving oneself a self-diagnosis.

Putting the slippery slope of people giving themselves self-diagnosis aside, I do appreciate the people on the spectrum that are visible, including Robison. As for the author's insights on books on autism, here is a revealing view taken from the interview:

"[...] I did my first public appearance, with several other authors. The other writers were novelists who'd made up Aspergian figures, or moms who wrote about their kids. There was a dramatic difference in how that writing was received, as compared to mine. Especially among the autistic people in the crowd. That showed me there was a real hunger for stories from the horse's mouth, as it were, instead of someone watching the horse from outside the pasture."

People appreciate hearing about what it is like to be on the spectrum. While I hope that the efforts of blogger moms like me are also appreciated, I realize that the most fascinating perspectives come straight from the people who have the Asperger's Syndrome or Autism. I look forward to reading Robison's book.

Monday, December 10, 2007

My Son with ASD: Quirky but Capable

Today I have two stories for you. One reveals how quirky my kid can be and the other reveals one of his many capabilities. Both stories occurred last Saturday, December 8.

A Quirky Moment

On Saturday night we visited a house famous in our small city for a fantastic Christmas light display and warm hospitality (our sons received candy canes.) My boys were excited and we spent at least thirty minutes walking around the yard on the well-packed down snow. A life-size manger scene balanced some of the more commercial designs which included white and colorful lights, modern-day inflatable designs (The Grinch, a trio of snowmen, cute dogs, etc.)and an artificial horse with a Santa carriage.

The outside temperature did not top 20 degrees that night. Despite being dressed warmly, we were still shivering when we returned home even though our van's heating system had efficiently warmed the vehicle. Much to my surprise, the shivers did not go away upon returning home. Our normally toasty house felt quite chilly.

I mentioned this to my husband and he had replied that he turned the thermostat up a little. I checked the one we have downstairs. The temperature was in the low 60s although the thermostat was set to 74 degrees.

'Uh, Oh,' I thought. We had had our boiler system replaced three years ago, so I was really hoping we weren't in for an expensive fix.

Then another thought occurred to me. This past summer when it was really hot, I discovered that our house was extra warm because both of our thermostats were set to 90 degrees. I am pretty sure my oldest boy (the one who likes to fuss with buttons, switches, etc. during silly moments) had been the culprit.

That memory inspired me to check the upstairs thermostat. Sixty degrees. Problem solved. My four-year-old plead complete innocence and I believed him because there was no way he could reach it. There really is only one suspect--the nine year old with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

I have no idea why he turns the thermostat up when it is hot and down when it is cold outside. Perhaps the outcomes are coincidental. But knowing my son, he probably knows exactly what is going to happen when the knob is turned a certain way. Whatever the case, his tendency to play weather controller in our home is definitely quirky.

The Capable Moment

Yesterday, I had to abandon cooking dinner for a few minutes to help my four-year-old. He was afraid to go to the bathroom by himself and this particular trip was going to take a little while if you know what I mean.

I had the tacos nearly finished. The meat had been cooked and seasoned. The lettuce and cheese were ready to go. The only thing I had to do is chop up the tomatoes. One tomato was left lying by itself on my counter.

I sat nearby in an room adjacent to the little half-bathroom we have and talked to my little guy so he knew I was there. My back was to the kitchen when I heard a somewhat alarming noise.

Clang. Clang. Clang. It was the sound of a bowl and some sort of utensil banging around.

"What on earth are you doing," I called out to my nine year old.

No reply. I had left out his name when addressing him, which is usually a necessity. Earlier, my older son had been claiming extreme hunger which had been my impetus to start cooking. I figured he was getting into the food I had prepared.

Giving up on conventional conversation,I decided to take a peak. The utensil in question turned out to be a knife. My son was cutting up the tomato! He had done this entirely on his own. The pieces were a bit big, but there were already quite a few in the bowl.

"Oh, you are helping me!"

"I am surprising you, aren't I mom?" came the reply.

"Yes you are," I said. I praised him a little and then we told his dad, who also provided positive feedback.

Our son's actions came as a surprise and a thrill. Yes, he had helped me in the kitchen before and has shown a lot of interest in cooking. He has also prepared peanut butter sandwiches by himself. However, this was the first time he had actually helped me without being asked or at least prompted.

Someday he may be a professional chef, or maybe he'll just impress his girlfriend/wife with his cooking abilities. Whatever the case, my son with ASD is quite capable in the kitchen.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Was Archimedes Autistic?

Note: I am taking a break today. My Husband (Michael Lorenzen) is writing this post. He is a librarian and works at a university. He often has strange ideas (often inspired by history and historical figures) and this may be one of them. :]

Was Archimedes Autistic?

Reading the news about how autism is growing (i.e. being diagnosed better), one may well imagine that autism is a new 20th and 21st century phenomena. However, the evidence shows that people throughout human history have shown strong evidence of autistic behavior. Autism is not new. However, people are becoming more aware of the condition. This has lead to an age where autistic children (and adults) can be better educated and treated to be productive members of society.

Archimedes was born in Syracuse, Greece around 287 B.C. He was renowned as a philosopher, engineer, mathematician, astronomer, and physicist. Carl Friedrich Gauss wrote that Archimedes was was one of the three epoch-making mathematicians. He noted the others as being Sir Isaac Newton and Ferdinand Eisenstein. (Yeah, that is a different Einstein than Albert!) He is even credited with creating a death ray which played havoc with a Roman fleet during the Second Punic War.

Archimedes was also considered odd. Although little is known of his personal life, he was reportedly very awkward socially. He was very focused on his scholastic endeavors and appeared to have trouble understanding many social situations. His death seems very autistic. Wikipedia notes, "Archimedes was contemplating a mathematical diagram when the city was captured. A Roman soldier commanded him to come and meet General Marcellus but he declined, saying that he had to finish working on the problem. The soldier was enraged by this, and killed Archimedes with his sword." The Roman siege had lasted two years. Despite this, Archimedes was enthralled with a math problem! Sounds like autistic behavior to me. It is interesting to note that the Roman General Marcellus had ordered that Archimedes be spared and brought to him.

Was Archimedes autistic? There is no way to tell for sure. We can only look at the primary sources and speculate. Miland Brown at the World History Blog wrote in his post Is There a Link Between Autism and Some Historical Figures, "However, I do find it hard to give anyone an autism diagnosis long after he is dead. Sure, they may have exhibited autism symptoms but so do people who do not have autism. Social awkwardness is fairly common. Contemporary critics of a person were more likely to ignore positive behaviors and focus on negative ones, which may make a person appear to be autistic retrospectively even if they were not. With even the recognition of autism being fairly recent, I think it makes the task even harder."

I also realize that some people believe that autism is environmental and caused by things such as televison or vaccines. Evidence of historical figures like Archimedes being autistic will be rejected as it does not support what they believe. As one commenter wrote, "Just where is your data that vaccines do not cause autism? Show us ONE study that was not biased by the CDC and drug pushers." In this case, evidence is irrelevant to the writer. Some, like him, believe that the scientific community is wrong when the scientific conclusions do not support their views. In their opinion, contrary views in peer-reviewed journals published by doctors or scientists are in error and part of the conspiracy if they say otherwise. Further, claiming that Archimedes was autistic may upset some people who believe autism is caused by environmental factors that did not exist during the said mathmatician's time.

However, if autism can be connected to great men like Archimedes, perhaps that suggests that our genetic code is favoring autism. Autistic people from the past show exactly why autism is a benefit to the human race. Autism may be a hindrance personally to those who have to cope with the condition, but their insights help everyone else.

The historical record indicates that Archimedes may have been autistic. His behavior is hard to explain otherwise. Who obliviously works on a math problem in the face of death? There is no way to know for sure. But it is fun to speculate.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

A Lazy Saturday Morning

This morning is one of my favorite kinds of mornings--a pajama morning. Pajama mornings are when there is no particular reason to get showered and dressed before 11 a.m. No child to take to school by 8:40 a.m., no appointments, no social obligations.

We have a free schedule today and it is kind of nice. What is even nicer is that my husband is home to help take care of our two boys. At the moment, he's helping a rather whiny 4-year-old get dressed. He'll probably also give both of our guys breakfast. The latter two jobs are usually mine because my husband is usually at work by 8 a.m. during the work week.

Don't get me wrong. There are still things to do today. Cleaning house, preparing Christmas cards, cooking and helping with the boys are just a few things on my to-do list. This morning, however, I get to pad around the house in my pajamas. I'm going to enjoy every minute.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Another Tip for Shopping for Children with Autism

Time is ticking for those shoppers hoping to do a lot of holiday shopping online--especially if you want to choose standard shipping rather than the pricier, but faster delivery options. I just made the deadline at one site the other day which suggested orders be made by December 8 for standard delivery. December 15 stands out in my mind as the last possible day to order online at most places although I could be wrong about that.

Anyway, I just learned about a site that sells items for people with autism from Autism Society of America. I haven't ordered anything from this site, but it's probably worth a look for most people wondering what to buy for the child with autism. I did take a quick peek at this site and realized that it's probably best to suggest this one to parents, caregivers, or grandparents. It looked as if they had just a few offerings, but according to ASA the sellers are offering a pretty good deal.

From ASA:

Natural Learning Concepts Offers Holiday Specials

Wednesday, December 5, 2007 By: Carin Yavorcik

Save on fun, educational gifts

Natural Learning Concepts, a company whose products are designed to build on the natural talents and unique communications of those with autism, has put together a few holiday specials.
"We get many calls from caring friends and relatives who are looking for the perfect gift for the autism spectrum child in their lives, and don’t know what to buy,” said company co-founder Jene Aviram. “So we decided to make it easy for them by creating a gift for every budget, with our Gift Bags.” The bags range in price from $25 to $75, and include a selection of NLC products as well as a few extra goodies. Purchases of $35 or more also include a free Conversation Starter kit.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Another Cover Girl of the Week Win for Heather Kuzmich

America's Next Top Model (ANTM) just wasn't the same without Heather Kuzmich (a young woman with Asperger's Syndrome) last night, Wednesday, December 5. Although most writers profiling Heather say she is one of the most popular models to be in the show, I'm willing to claim she is the most popular contestant ever to be on ANTM. After all she did win the Cover Girl of the Week contest again after winning it the last eight times.

I wonder whether the producers of the show are a bit surprised or if they kind of expected her to be popular? Heather certainly is surprised. She was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying “I had no idea it would be this big,” My mom is beside herself. She watched me when I was a kid not have any friends, and she saw me struggle. She’s glad people are starting to understand this.”

As an autism mom, I'm kind of proud of her. I'm sure others in the autism blogosphere and beyond are proud too, as is most of Valparaiso, Indiana, a city of 27,500 people that is part of the Chicago Metropolitan area. Even though Valparasio is metro, the area still has a relatively small population. Usually small town and cities burst with pride when one of their own becomes well known.

I should know. I'm originally from Wayne, Ohio, a small town of only about 1,000 people that can claim former major league catcher Chris Hoiles of the Baltimore Orioles. Mr. Hoiles has signed bats and other memorabilia to be auctioned off for charity. He is well known for giving back to his own community. It would be great if Heather could give back a little too.

There is a strong possibility that she will. Heather recently did an interview for Wrong Planet (a site for people with Asperger's Syndrome). During the interview, she revealed that she hopes to continue modeling. Also, during the New York Times interview she also revealed she'd like to be a spokeswoman for Asperger's Syndrome someday. That would be great. But first, I'd like to see her on ANTM again.

Since the show began I've noticed that people really relate to her. It reminds me of how people related to Rupert Boneham the most popular contestant to be on Survivor (another favorite reality show in my house.) Back in 2003, when he was on the Survivor: Pearl Islands, Rupert (whom I believe is not on the autism spectrum) revealed how he had been picked on during his youth. On the show he proved that he triumphed over that adversity. He became so popular that he was asked to return for the subsequent All-Star season.

Mr. Boneham's biggest claim to fame was that he became the only person on the show who was not the "sole survivor" to win a million dollars when America chose him as their favorite survivor four days after the All-Star finale. What is it about the underdog that we like so much? Is it because almost every single person can remember some kind of social hardship or another?

As has been revealed in various interviews, Heather Kuzmich has suffered on a social level. The great thing about her being on this show is that young girls with Asperger's Syndrome (who are currently enduring bullying and/or social isolation) have watched Heather earn fifth place on the show, which is not an easy for anyone. These girls now have someone who should inspire them.

Anyway, I've been thinking that it would it be nice if the producers of ANTM decided to have an All-Star Episode like Survivor did. Now is the time since they have a sure-fire reality star in Heather. She, along with a few other favorites have the capability of drawing big ratings. I wouldn't want to see the winners again, but there are a few (including Heather) who have placed 2nd to 7th that would make excellent contestants on an all-star show. (Chantal Jones had it just about right on the episode tonight when she said the top three contestants are memorable.)

I'd like to see many of the second place winners such as Joanie Dodds, Nic Pace, and even Melrose Bickerstaff (a-not-so-popular contestant that I feel was misunderstood) given a second chance. Also, another chance on the show would give Heather a chance to develop much-needed public speaking skills. What do you think?

P.S. For other comments about Heather on this Blog, please go my previous post about her.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

A Child with ASD Can Teach Other Children

Tip of the Day: Encourage your child or student with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to help teach another child. They might just be able to do it. To see tips for teaching children with autism please go to Eric Digest for a helpful article.

A Related Story:

On Monday my son's teacher had good news to tell me. My nine-year-old with a mild form of autism helped her with a math lesson. She has a multi-age (from K-2) special education classroom. Her helper of the day, my son, spends part of the time with her and part of the day in a regular second grade classroom (with an aide present.) He has science and social studies in regular education and reading and math with his special education teacher. The ages of the students in the special education room range from five to nine years, so my son is one of the oldest children.

The math lesson for the day was graphing with Lucky Charms Cereal. The children's' job was to sort out the charms from the rest and then graph the colorful pieces. The teacher then asked each student what charm they had the most of. The question confused some of the children. They weren't sure what the word "most" meant. My son realized that the one's having trouble did not understand the word 'most,' so he demonstrated by gesturing and explaining.

"This is the mostest," he said pointing to the largest pile in front of him. When one student continued to struggle, he showed her again. I could not get my son to talk about the math lesson much, but the teacher said that he was quite proud that he was able to help.

"He didn't get too bossy?," I asked, concerned.

"No, he did a good job," she said.

I made sure to tell my son that I was proud of him (as I do on occasion). The next day on the way to school, he said,
"I'm a good student, aren't I mom?"

"Yes you are," I said smiling.

Now the trick is to see if some of his older peers with ASD (that we know from his university-affiliated art/music program) can help him. Other mothers have volunteered their children's' help with teaching him how to play video games and tie his shoes. I've only made limited progress, so just maybe peer intervention will help.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Study Finds Fever may Lead to Improved Behavior in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Note from JML: Below are the basic details of the study which are followed by my comments.

Who: Kennedy Krieger Institute (KKI), "an internationally recognized facility dedicated to improving the lives of children and adolescents with pediatric developmental disabilities through patient care, special education, research, and professional training. "

What: The organization recently released research that suggests fever may actually lead to improvements of behavior amongst children with ASD. According to the study, "Over the past few decades, parents and clinicians have observed that the behaviors of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) tend to improve, sometimes rather dramatically, during a fever. Longer concentration spans, increased language production, improved eye contact and better overall relations with adults and peers have all been reported."

Where: The KKI is located in Baltimore, Maryland. The study appeared December 3, 2007 in Pediatrics, an official peer-reviewed journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The journal has been continuously published by the AAP since January 1948.

When: The press release was sent out online and elsewhere on December 3, 2007.

How: Research was funded by Cure Autism Now which merged with Autism Speaks in 2007. The study involved 30 children and apparently resulted from observations made by parents who noticed that the symptoms of autism seemed alleviated when their children with ASD had fevers.

Two Other Quotes from the Press Release:

1. “The results of this study are important because they show us that the autistic brain is plastic, or capable of altering current connections and forming new ones in response to different experiences or conditions,” said Andrew Zimmerman, a a pediatric neurologist at KKI.

2. "Researchers evaluated 30 children with ASD, ages two to 18 years, during and after an episode of fever (fever was defined as 100.4 degrees F/38.0 degrees C or greater). Parents were asked to observe their child’s actions and complete a standardized behavior questionnaire at three different points: during fever; when the fever subsided and the child was asymptomatic; and when the child was fever-free for seven days. These data were compared to data collected from parents of 30 afebrile children with ASD who made up the control group. Children in the control group were matched to children in the fever group in terms of age, sex and language skills."

My comments:

1. ASD can be a strange disorder and the brain as a whole is still pretty mysterious to scientists, so it should not come as a surprise if one of the main treatments of autism ends up to be a bit unorthodox. Hopefully, if there is some truth to this research, the approaches used to implement a treatment will be ethical. While I praise the KKI, Andrew Zimmerman, and the PPA for their work in the field of autism, I am concerned about the possible ramifications of this study and the ethical dilemma that may result.

2. I have not personally observed an improvement in my son's autism-related behavior when he has had a fever. The last time my son's temperature increased dramatically, he was so sick that we had to take him to the hospital where he stayed for two days. I can't say I noticed any improvement as the result of that fever. However, we were so stressed at that point of time, we might have not noticed any existing, but temporary changes.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Santa Express and Dickens Christmas Festival Experiences with an Autistic Twist, Part Two

This is the conclusion to a story started on the previous post. To see the first part of story go Part I.

Part II.

I was in a sticky spot. My husband had just left on a necessary trip to get groceries. A storm was looming and we had to fill our refrigerator again. This left me with our four-year-old son and our distraught nine-year-old boy with a mild form of autism. The older boy was still insisting on a satisfying visit with Santa Claus. We had just had an unfullfilling visit with him on a train a few hours earlier.

The good news was that our city's downtown district was hosting its annual Dickens Christmas Festival that weekend. I knew Santa would probably be in his little red house in the town square. My mission was to find out when. After failing to find out that information online, I limped down to the basement with a sore knee and was able to locate the weekly "What's On" Thursday insert in the recycling bin.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I read that Santa would be "home" from 4-9. We had plenty of time. Initially, I hadn't intended on going to the festival. It's always so cold (on a December evening in Michigan) and our boys tend to complain. But this time, the trip seemed necessary. My little boy was disappointed and it hadn't been his fault. It wasn't my fault either, but I could do something to make him happier.

"OK, my boy, we are going to see Santa in the town square," I told him.

"We are?"

"Yes, but we will have to eat dinner and wait until your dad comes home. I'll also have to put away groceries away and then we will be able to go."

I can't remember his response, but my son became his normally happy self again. He told his little brother about the intended visit with Santa. They had their dinner and waited patiently for the hour and a half it took their dad to get home. The boys bombarded my husband with the news the minute he walked in the door. He hardly had the chance to breathe.

"Don't worry," I said. "I know you are tired and I don't expect you to go with us."

The man of the house agreed with my plan, although he was concerned that the roads might get bad soon. I was more worried about the holiday lights parade that started at six. I was worried that I would have trouble finding parking close to Santa's house because I knew certain roads would be temporarily closed.

It was six fifteen by the time I had put groceries away and made sure the boys and I were dressed with hats, coats and gloves. We had been to downtown parades before, but usually my husband drove--and usually we arrived well before the parade began. This time we would arrive towards the middle or end depending on the parade's length.
My husband knew I was a bit stressed out and he gave the boys a stern lecture.

"You boys be good for your mommy," he told them. "I don't want mommy to come home and tell me you were bad."

"We'll be good," they promised, almost in unison.

It was dark when we left, but it wasn't snowing yet. I thought I figured out a better way to go than the route my husband usually took when going downtown. But I discovered I was wrong when I came up to a red-and-white striped road block. I doubled back and went the usual route.

My husband's way worked and we ended up a block and a half from Santa's House. We could see it from where we were parked. I grabbed both boys' hands and led them across the street. The line didn't seem long. There were maybe eight or ten families with at least two children each. I did notice that the line was moving slow. I saw this as a good sign as I figured that Santa was spending the appropriate amount of time with each family.

It was cold enough to see our breath, but the scene we saw was something reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell Picture. The setting was our downtown, which was built at the turn of the twentieth century. Charming businesses such as a children's clothing shop, a drug store, and restaurants (where a lot of cocoa was served that night) fill the buildings.

Christmas lights and people were everywhere. The lights were on the trees and even on a couple of trucks. The parade was over, but we saw three lit-up parade vehicles going back to where they came from. There was an antique fire truck, a float with a little white church lit up with stained "glass" windows and a dump truck covered with lights which was from the local sand and gravel company.

"Walking in a Winter Wonderland" and other holiday songs sounded out from nearby loudspeakers. A warm, sweet smell from a Kettle Corn stand filled the air. Just a few feet away a blond, pretty college student reporter with a microphone stood in front of a camera operated by a man dressed in black. They were from our local university. The camera was pointed toward the Santa Claus line and I think the three of us might of made it into some background shots.

We were at the end of the line when I decided pull out my own camera--a small disposable one (one with a working flash) that only records still shots. I backed up a little bit to try to get both boys with a few Christmas lights in the background. That is when I discovered we were no longer at the end of the line. I bumped into a well-dressed older woman who was with several other family members--a mom holding a baby, two little boys, a dad, and two grandmas made up most of the group.

"Someone is behind you," the woman said gruffly. I uttered an apology, smiled and then sheepishly finished taking my photos and guided the boys back into line.

The family ahead of us included a mom, dad, a boy, a girl and a teenager who had a navy blue letterman's jacket with o9 (he was a junior in high school) on the sleeve. His brother and sister looked to still be in elementary school. They had hats, but he didn't. His mom sent him and his brother to get a camera with a flash. They were back in plenty of time. We didn't talk to them, but I heard a lot of interesting conversation.

The letterman complained about being cold and that the snow was causing his hair (uncovered by a hat) to freeze to his head. Further, he did not seem too pleased when the mom teased the him about giving his girlfriend a picture of him on Santa's lap. I noted that he did pose with Santa, but stood beside him instead.

For the duration, every single on of us in line were cold. For awhile, we had a big fir tree blocking the wind. Even with the wind block, it did not take long for both of my sons' cheeks and noses to get rosy. People in line hopped around some to get warm.

A baby girl in the family behind us started to cry in her mother's arms. I didn't blame her. It was cold and dark and windy. Snow was starting to fall in sheets of small icy flakes. (Big fluffy flakes are the best kind).

"How old is she?" I asked her mother, a woman my age with brown eyes and a dark braid.

"Sixteen months," she responded as the child's grandmother took the baby from her arms.

I don't remember how he came in the conversation, but my nine-year-old started talking to her too.

"What do you want for Christmas?" she asked him.

He looked at her.

"What do you want Santa to bring you?" I prompted.

"Toys with Froggys," my son answered.

My little one whispered that he wanted toys with kittys on them, but no-one but I heard him. I acknowledged my little son and we all waited and froze awhile longer. The baby cried quite a bit, but my boys were as good as gold while in line. They didn't complain about the cold and they stayed with me.

All was well until that woman I had accidentally bumped into spoke. My son heard her and said the most embarrassing thing he has ever uttered in front of me.

"Why does that old lady sound like a man?" He asked. (Well, the woman did have a deeper voice than he was used to).

I looked into the group behind us, but not directly at the woman to whom my son was referring.

"I'm sorry, he has autism," I explained intending to leave it at that.

"No I don't. I don't have Aww-tis-em anymore. I'm not silly anymore," my son explained. This wasn't the first time he had made this claim.

"Well..." I said, thinking that this was an all too silly moment.

That seemed to satisfy the group (although that lady didn't speak anymore.) We continued to speak to the mom on and off and she mentioned that one of the boys (he was five) with her was from Grand Rapids.

"I go to Grand Rapids sometimes, to the kidney doctor," my son said and not all too clearly.

"Yes, we go to the kidney doctor. He has kidney issues. We go to Grand Rapids every couple of months," I clarified.

"To Spectrum Health?" the mom asked.

"Yes, to Devos Children's hospital."

"I had a surgery when I was young," she told my son.

"Well, I'm going to have an operation," he said.

"We thought you were going to, but not anymore thank goodness," I told him. The conversation then came to a close. Although my initial embarrassment was gone, I hoped the gruff-sounding lady heard us and felt a little sympathy for me and my young boy.

The family ahead of us went out the opposite door of the little house, which meant it was our turn. The boys rushed up too close to the door leaving very little room to actually get in once the door was open. I gently pulled my youngest son back and someone in that group behind us helped us out by opening the door a bit wider. Also, the group surprised me by wishing us all well in a chorus of voices. I knew then, that my guy had actually made an OK impression. Despite the inappropriate comment, I was proud of his behavior as well as the behavior of his brother during the hour or so we stood freezing in line.

Santa greeted us warmly when we entered his "house". He had a real beard. It was grayer than normal, but it was real.

"Who is going first?" He asked.

My littlest son scrambled on his lap. I snapped two pictures as the man gave him a small candy cane. I also tried to listen for clues.

"What do you want for Christmas?" Santa asked.

My four-year-old told him that he wanted games and toys. He slid off the big guy's lap when it was his brother's turn. This was the moment my older boy had been waiting for--the moment for which we spent one hour or so freezing. He finally had the chance to sit on Santa's lap. That is what he wanted all along. He didn't get the opportunity to do that on the train where that very reticent Santa stood for his visits with the children.

"What do you want for Christmas?" this much, much better Santa asked him.

"Toys with froggys," my son answered promptly.

Santa looked at me in the eye and smiled. He had understood what my son said. I don't even think he noticed any quirks.

"Yes, I think you will probably get froggys for Christmas," I reassured everyone, including Santa. I snapped two more pictures. My son received his candy cane and we exited out the other door and made our way back to the van. My fingers were numb by then, but the boys were happy and all was well. The roads were a bit slippery upon our return home, but we arrived safely and the boys promptly reported back to their dad that they were good for me. They took their bath, put on their pajamas and went to bed with thoughts of Santa in their heads (well most likely anyway).

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Santa Express and Dickens Christmas Festival Experiences Came with an Autistic Twist

Note: This is Part I of a two-part story. I will provide the second part tomorrow.

My favorite restaurant in town is the Mountain Town Station, a business that adds a lot of charm to an already charming town. Mountain Town Station is a renovated depot that serves wonderful food, home-brewed beer, and local wine. The old depot is very attractive and is an excellent dining facility. The owners also provide patrons with the opportunity to either participate in a fancy and very expensive dinner train experience or a more affordable family experience that does not include a meal. The latter trips are through a separate business called Lake Central Rail Tours.

We have wanted to go on such a family outing for about six months now. My husband and I bought train tickets for the Santa Express way back in September. We tried to get tickets for a June ride and were too late then. The train ride had sold out. So, we were determined to be successful on our second try. Our strategy of planning three months early meant we had no problems getting four tickets.

However we thought it wise to wait to tell our two young sons. Delaying the news was a must just in case horrible weather and/or illness struck. Luckily we stayed healthy and our first winter storm didn't start until about five hours after the 90 minute ride was to begin at 2 p.m. However, the day was to be a super busy one. I had to leave the boys with the husband so that I could deliver bake goods to one fundraising event and serve lunch at another (where I had left bake goods the day earlier.)

My husband was concerned I wouldn't make it back on time and also lamented that he'd miss the end of the MAC championship game, which started at 11 a.m. Our team, Central Michigan University (CMU) was vying for a back-to-back championship. He knew the game would not be over when the train left at two and that there would probably not be televisions or radios in the train cars. (Later we found out that CMU won. Yeah!) We would have been in Detroit at the game if we had not already bought our pricey tickets for the planned family outing.

One thing that perked my husband up was the opportunity to deliver the good news to his little boys. My youngest squealed with delight and my oldest bounced up and down with excitement.

The four year old could hardly wait when he heard the news. He thought we might miss the train if we didn't hurry. My oldest was excited too. At nine years of age he still believes in Santa Claus. He was more excited about Santa than the train ride.

Even though I'm not always good at keeping track of time, I performed my volunteer duties and returned home twenty minutes before my husband wanted us to leave our home in order to board the train on time. We arrived at the restaurant and found out we needed to line up outside in the very chilly air before boarding the train.

The conductor looked and acted like any conductor you would see in a book about trains. He wore the cap and the coat, had short gray hear and a mustache, and yelled "All Aboard" when it was time to get on the train. After the ride began, he yelled, "tickets, tickets!" Then he punched them all with a flourish.

My husband led us to a cluster of four seats in the back that had a table. Our two boys, with shining, happy faces, sat across from each other. My husband and I each sat across from each other. Soft Christmas music played in the background. We heard the oldest classics (and my favorites), like Frank Sinatra's "I'll Be Home for Christmas". The train was decorated on the inside with garland, golden bows, and lights.

I relished being with my family and looking out at the Michigan country side which was coated with a frosting of day-old snow. The train car wobbled gently back and forth as we viewed the winding Chippewa river, farm houses, barns, and rolling fields that included one that had unharvested corn, and plenty of hunting stands that hunters had put up in order to target deer that generally come out at dawn and dusk. My favorite scenes were a wood with a small creek and a stand of young Douglas Fir trees (that had probably had been planted) on each side of the tracks.

The destination was Clare, a town about fifteen miles north of Mt. Pleasant MI. On the trip there, I felt truly blessed to have the opportunity to go on this family field trip. The boys enjoyed the cocoa and packaged sugar cookie that a lady in a Santa hat served us. They looked out of the windows and were well behaved until just before we arrived in Clare. Like any set of brothers might do, they started to have a little foot battle under the table. Their battles ended when they were distracted by the slow down of the train. We were approaching our destination.

We didn't get off the train at Clare. We waited for about ten or fifteen minutes for the second half of the trip to begin. Unfortunately, while the first half of the trip was amazing, the second half did not go so well. In Clare the engine moved from what was then the front of the train to the back. That meant that instead of being furthest away from the train whistle, we were the closest since our car was now right behind the locomotive.

This new position was devastating to my oldest son. He has a mild form of autism and is extremely sensitive to sound. When the whistle first sounded (as it does at every road crossing) my son promptly put his fingers in his ears and kept them there. By the third whistle he was in tears.

That was about the time Santa came walking down the narrow aisle from the other end of the train to visit with the children. We were to be the second to last group visited. The lady who served the cocoa accompanied the man in the red suit with a small sack of mementos that the advertising had promised. Reminiscent of the movie and story book, The Polar Express, the memento was a small silver bell.

By the time Santa reaches us, the nine year old was too distressed to enjoy the moment. He wasn't in complete meltdown mode (with screaming, crying, thrashing, etc.) But tears were rolling down a sad little face that was marked with concerned anticipation of the next invasive sound.

Our experience wasn't improved by what was supposed to be the "jolly old man." Bad casting ruled the day. Santa spent about two seconds with most children and stayed a little longer with a few others. I had expected that as usual, Santa would ask our kids what they wanted, but he didn't. To be fair, these visits were the last of a set of three train trips and Santa was probably tired. I also suspect that the man who was very well-suited for his role as conductor (an A+ job), also put on the red suit for a role that I would give him a D-minus for playing.

We had the two second visit, which consisted of a hello to each boy. I did not try to take a picture, which might have extended the visit. For some reason the flash wasn't working and I thought it was pointless to try. The result was that my nine-year-old who had been looking forward to the visit, did not perk up after seeing Santa.

After Santa disappeared from our car, we fixed the whistle situation. The car was rather full, but my husband decided to accompany our distressed child to the other end of the car in search of new seats. Fortunately they found two seats together and the whistle did not bother him as much in the new location. I stayed behind with our four-year-old who then started to pretend that the whistle bothered him too.

The new location helped our older one, but did not completely fix the situation. After being reseated, our boy started talking about Santa. His comments alarmed my husband. It was clear that our child expected to see Santa again when we returned. He thought we would go into the restaurant and get an extended visit with the old guy. His dad knew we would not see Santa again.

After disembarking (and being amongst the first to do so), my husband and two boys rushed back to the car. Since we were outside, I decided to take a couple of pictures of the full length of the train to put in our boys' scrapbook. I snapped a shot and then still looking back at the train, I started walking.

Later, I learned my husband issued a warning to the boys so that they would be careful about the ice in the parking lot. Unfortunately, I did not hear it. My feet slid on the ice and went out behind me. I ended up hitting the pavement on all fours.

Did I mention we were the amongst the first to leave the train? This meant that a whole line of people saw "The Julie Show. " I heard loud gasps from the crowd as I fell. I scraped the pad on my hand and banged up one of my knees. However, it was my pride that hurt the most.

"Are you Ok?," a lady called out.

"Yes!," I managed. I didn't look to see who was concerned.

"Are you OK, mam?" I heard again.

I was winded when I first responded and apparently I wasn't heard.

"I'm OK!" I shouted while standing up and regaining composure.

I was still winded when replying the first time and apparently the lady had not heard me. I was louder the second time, but my voice sounded strained, almost nasty (not intentional). I knew the lady meant well, but she would have done me a greater service by pretending she did not see anything. If I wasn't OK, I would have remained on the ground and then she would have known the answer. But I was able to get up and return to our mini-van without limping--and without looking back.

I rubbed my knee as our boy kept talking about Santa on the ride home. He still wanted to see him. That much was clear. He cried some more. At home I went online to see if Santa was elsewhere in town. The boy grabbed a paper and drew a picture of Mr. Claus in another room. He returned to our office, not happy that I was still on the computer. He wanted to see more pictures of Santa.

I gave up my quest of finding information online and let him look at Santa pictures on Google images. (Beware, a semi-nude Santa pops up first.) I quickly scrolled down to kid-friendly pictures and then went down to the basement (with still aching knee) to retrieve the "What's On" section of our local paper. I knew there was a Christmas festival going on downtown and that Santa would be in a little red house in the town square. What I wanted to know was how long he would be there.

'Whew!' I thought as I read that the hours were from four to nine. I had a few hours to remedy my son's despair. However, we had an empty fridge as our grocery run is always on Saturday. My husband, who does the weekly shopping, was anxious to leave before the predicted snowstorm hit the area. He grabbed a quick bite to eat and the grocery list I had composed before leaving. He left around 4 p.m. for the hour-long errand.

I hadn't told the dad of my plan to help our son. I still needed to serve the boys and myself supper and then wait for my husband to return so I could do my job of putting groceries away. When my husband left, our older guy was still a bit distraught. I had not told him of my plan either...

To be continued.

A Gluten-Free Cookie Mix Suggestion

The reason I took a break from writing yesterday wasn't because I didn't want to write. It's because I had to bake, and bake and bake. There are two fundraising bake sales today. My youngest son's preschool is having a shop o' rama complete with fifteen vendors, a bake sale and a silent auction at the church where the school is located. I'm to serve lunch (not cook, thank goodness) to the vendors a little later today.

My other son's arts and music organization for kids with high functioning autism and Asperger's Sydrome is having a bake sale in front of a local grocery store. Add in last minutes jobs in conjunction with planning a December field for the arts organization and an unexpected snow (here in Michigan) that sparks a sudden need for snow boots and snow pants and you get a mom who is a little too busy to write.

I cheated a little with the baking. Usually I bake cookies from scratch. Yesterday I used box mixes. I made sugar cookies, chocolate chip cookies and chocolate cupcakes. I was tempted to break open my box mix of gluten-free chocolate chip cookies but ran out of time.

I have the mix because I dabbled some with the gluten free aspect of the gluten free, casein free (GFCF) diet that many parents who have children with ASD try. (More about the GFCF diet in a future post.) The said mix of gluten-free cookies is from a company called Cherrybrook Kitchen. It's a company that specializes in peanut free, dairy free, egg free and nut free products. They do have a notation that the chocolate chip cookie mix contains soy products.

The cookies are OK and I recommend them for people desperately searching for a gluten free mix. (The mixes can also be bought in bulk at Amazon. ) They taste a little bit grainy and also are a bit crumbly. If you plan to travel with these cookies pack them carefully. I tried taking these cookies on a trip and ended up with a bag of crumbs. But then again, I put them in a sealable storage bag and threw that bag in a plastic shopping bag with other stuff. Plastic containers would probably work much better.

Even with the baking done, it's still going to be a busy weekend. I have to do the volunteering, type up minutes from a meeting and fix a set of bylaws. There will be fun stuff too, however. A Christmas train ride today and an Irish music concert (if not cancelled due to an impending snowstorm) on Sunday is in my future. I'll do my best to write a decent post tomorrow. We shall see...