Shooting for the Moon with Ryan

Life in the World of Autism


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Summer is Definitely Hard

IMG_1788Summer is definitely hard, even though Ryan gets more pool time and play time. He usually regresses, and this year it’s in speech. He’s being a very quiet little boy. It’s hard to get a yes or no out of him. I know it’s just the summer time blues, a change in routine, anxiety about not knowing everything that’s coming up next. But it’s still difficult to watch.

Today, I looked back in my journal. I tend to write the old-fashioned way with pen and paper, then retype my journal entries into my blog. As I browsed some of my writing, I came across a journal entry I wrote in the spring that I never typed into the blog. Interestingly enough, it was about Ryan’s speech and a break through he was having. Below is the journal entry, dated March 12, 2015:

A few weeks ago, out of the blue, Ryan said to me “Principal Young got duck taped to the wall. It was so funny!” (Principal Young chose this stunt as a reward for the school raising money for a local charity.) That was the first of a series of small stories that Ryan started telling me about school. Ryan never talks about school unprompted. And if we do prompt him, he usually tells us that he had a good day in school, but no specific information.

I was floored when he gave me this information about the principal. I immediately e-mailed his teacher. She said that he was also telling her small stories about home. For example, he went strawberry picking, grandmom and granddad visited, he ate chili for dinner.

I used to mourn the fact that Ryan didn’t speak until he was three. When all my mommy friends were bragging that their child was saying big words and had an amazing vocabulary, I just wanted Ryan to say Mommy. I hated missing out on the joys of watching my child learn to speak. Then one day, close to Christmas break, Ryan had a break through in his three-year old special needs preschool class. His teacher put a microphone in front of him, and asked, “What does Santa say?” Ryan said “Ho! Ho! Ho!” The teacher found what motivated him to talk. A microphone. This was one of the first time Ryan spoke in class.

I was so proud of Ryan’s “Ho, ho, ho!” that I had to tell grandparents and friends right away. That is when I realized that I wasn’t missing out on the joy. I was experiencing the same joy and pride as the parent of the typical child, but just a little later. In fact, the pride and joy was probably even greater because I had been waiting for it for so long.

So now, I’m joyfully collecting all the little stories about school and writing them down as soon as I get them. They’re too great to forget. He said, “Trent wanted me to throw my applesauce at lunch, but I didn’t want to.”

“I looked at a really good book at school. It was Arthur’s Teacher Moves In.

“I read a poem about the moon.”

“Mrs. Perkins had two kids missing today.”

“I dropped my library books on the floor.”

“I didn’t check any books out because I ran out of time.” 

“We didn’t have PE because of a schedule change.”

After reading this journal entry, I realized Ryan is always going to struggle with his speech. He’s going to continue to take a step ahead and then two steps back. But I’ve learned that each step back never completely goes as far back as it was before. There is always progress being made.  It won’t be long before he takes two steps ahead again. I’ll probably be writing down little stories again in no time.

 


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Fireworks, Loud Booms, and No Sleep

IMG_1847Yesterday was the first day in a month that we did not hear fireworks at our house. I think the Fourth of July fireworks season is finally over. We survived another year, and that’s really saying something when you have a sound sensitive child on the spectrum.

Last year, on the Fourth of July, we thought we were very clever by booking a hotel room in a neighboring state where fireworks are illegal. We knew that the explosions in our neighborhood would be so loud and go on for so long that none of us would get any sleep. Ryan fell asleep easily at the hotel, and by the time we heard some distant booms from displays that were far away, Ryan was sound asleep and didn’t hear them.

But this year, Ryan became hyper vigilant to firework sounds. If he heard a boom while in bed, even if it was far away, he would get up, turn on the light, and refuse to go back to sleep. Usually, this would happen the minute I said good night, turned off the light and shut his bedroom door. “I don’t want to go to sleep,” he’d say. “I’m afraid they’re going to wake me up.” His little body would tense up. His eyes would be wide open. He couldn’t try to relax until there were no more booms to be heard, usually some time around 11:30 or midnight.

Some nights, I just couldn’t imagine who felt the need to set off these fireworks so late on a weeknight. I was exhausted, and so was my child who needed to get up early the next morning for camp. One time I approached my neighbor and politely asked if the fireworks display could end early. She looked incredulous that I would even ask such and question and said she has a two year old who is o.k. with loud booms and goes to bed at midnight. Why can’t my seven year old do the same?

Well, this year at the hotel it didn’t go quite as well. We decided to spend two nights in the hotel. The only problem is, the residential neighborhood behind the hotel decided to have their own fireworks display both nights and the loud booms went on past 11. We couldn’t believe our luck. Was there no place to go to get away from the noise?

So we are all exhausted right now. I feel like I’m up against a brick wall when it comes to fireworks. Somehow, they are very important to a lot of people and their attitude is everyone else needs to tolerate the noise. I was told by a neighbor that she has a special needs son and the he learned to tolerate fireworks. Maybe my son should, too.

My only plea is for people to remember that as fun as fireworks are, they are upsetting to many people. They not only upset some children with special needs, but also veterans with post traumatic stress disorder and pets. While we expect to hear fireworks on the fourth of July, people need to be considerate on other days. Don’t set off fireworks past 10 p.m., especially on week nights. Also, set all of you fireworks off one after another and get your display over with. Don’t set off two or three, then wait 25 minutes and set off another. That 25 minutes is enough time for me to think the fireworks are over, get my child back to bed, only to wake him back up with another unexpected “boom!”

We’re already trying to figure out where to go next year on the Fourth of July. Any suggestions? We’re not sure a fireworks free zone exists!

dk


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Baby Steps, Breakthroughs, and Steps Backwards

Most children on the autism spectrum suffer from a combination of anxiety and sensory integration disorder. Put the two together in various combinations and you often get a child who would rather stay home.

And that is what we have been dealing with in Ryan since he was born. It’s so much easier for him to stay home than to go out into the world and deal with the bright lights, loud sounds, and unexpected surprises of the world around him.

Just getting him out of the house and into the community has taken years of baby steps, breakthroughs, steps backwards, and leaps ahead. Mostly, we have been using what is known as exposure therapy without even knowing it. We have been slowly and steadily insisting that Ryan participate in the world around him.

Last Saturday, we took Ryan to a children’s museum for the first time. It’s the kind of museum that looks like a small town. There’s a supermarket where the children can shop for pretend food, a fire hall with a life-sized fire truck, and a doctor’s office with x-rays, scales and exam tables.

Of course, Ryan did not want to go to the museum. His anxiety is higher in the summer when the structure of school is gone. Knowing exactly what he’s doing everyday is calming for him. But we put him in the car anyway and drove to the museum, even though when we got there, his dad had to pull him out of the car and carry him into the museum.

Once inside, Ryan instantly put his hands on his ears and stood next to the wall near the exit. Now, this is actually an improvement for him. Two years ago, he would have bolted for the door and had a huge melt down. The visit to the museum would have been over in 5 minutes.But Ryan stood to the side and looked around him. As he got curious, he began walking around the museum, watching other children and looking at what was around him, with his hands still firmly planted on his ears.

I can’t pretend watching any of this was easy for me. I always hope that Ryan will walk right in and start to play. I was feeling frustrated and sad all at the same time, wanting my son to have fun and enjoy what all children get to enjoy. I second guessed myself and wondered if it was even a good idea to take Ryan to the museum in the first place. Why make him do something he doesn’t want to do?

And I wondered over and over if I was missing something. Could I be doing something to make this all easier for Ryan? Should I explore anti-anxiety medicine again? It does work for some children. Yet the FDA has not approved any of these medicines for children at this time. He’s not old enough for Cognitive Behavioral therapy, although it has proven to work really well for anxiety. And why won’t Ryan wear his ear plugs today? Sometimes he just refuses. I kept trying to interest Ryan in one of the play areas and he kept telling me to go away. So I stood back and watched him from afar.

Then, after 45 minutes of not playing, when Ryan thought I wasn’t looking, I saw him start to smile. He walked over to the pretend bank, got into the pretend car that was parked outside the pretend teller’s window, pushed a button, and made the capsule fly up through the pretend tube. I could not believe my eyes. I really thought we would end up leaving without Ryan playing at all.                                              .IMG_1795

Next, after taking his hands off of his ears, he went inside the bank and sat at the tellers desk. He even turned the handle on the safe.

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He followed some kids to the supermarket, got a cart, filled it with food, and checked out at the cash register.                                                  IMG_1812

He also spent time at the pretend cafe, cooking food in the microwave and filling a customer’s glass with a pitcher. But his favorite part was the pretend airport, maybe because his daddy travels on airplanes a lot. He kept running through the scan to make it beep and playing on the pretend airplane.

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About an hour into his play, they announced a dance party on the stage. They started playing loud music as the children danced to the rhythm. Ryan conveniently found that spot by the wall near the exit to take a time out. I never realized how loud things are until I had a son who was sensitive to it. But Ryan waited patiently until the dance party was over and then continued to play. In the past, he would have insisted on leaving.

Ryan’s ability to handle going out into the community varies from day-to-day. It depends on how familiar he is with a place. It depends on his mood and if he’s feeling more out of sorts or insecure due to changes in his life or a lack of structure. In general, Ryan’s ability to enjoy kid’s museums, malls, restaurants, is getting better. I think Ryan will always enjoy his alone time and will always be the keen observer. But for now, we’ll just keep plugging away and exposing him to everything in the outside world that we can.


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Ratatouille is His Latest Obsession

IMG_1594Ryan’s greatest movie obsession is the Disney movie “Ratatouille.” For a while, it was “Toy Story.” Then it was “The Polar Express.” Originially, it was “Cars.”

Ryan loves the cooking scenes in “Ratatouille.” He loves all of the little details of the kitchen. He notices things most people don’t even see, like a sign on the wall in the background.

The other day, Ryan said, “Mommy, when are you going to make ratatouille?” I was thrilled. First, it was great to hear Ryan call my name and speak to me directly. And second of all, it was wonderful that he was asking for something. Ryan doesn’t always make us aware of his wants and needs. So when he asks for something, I’m just ecstatic. And what mother can refuse a child who is asking for a dish that has lots of veggies in it?

Ryan isn’t a big veggie eater. It wasn’t that long ago when Ryan was on a food jag and would only eat a handful of foods that included hotdogs, strawberry yogurt, and grapes. So I wasn’t sure Ryan would eat the ratatouille. I found a recipe and read it to Ryan so he would know what was going to be in it. To my surprise, Ryan told me it wasn’t the right recipe. He said that the ratatouille in the movie was baked in the oven, not cooked in a frying pan.

So I did some research on the internet and found a recipe called Disney’s Ratatouille. This is what Ryan wanted. The veggies were baked in the oven. I made the recipe recently for dinner. Ryan was excited. He ate three giant helpings of the zucchini, green pepper, onion, and tomato sauce dish. Then he wiped up the sauce on his plate with a piece of bread, just like Ego, the restaurant critic, did in the movie. The next day, Ryan asked for leftovers for lunch.

Ryan doesn’t ask for much. I rememeber the first year that Ryan asked for something for Christmas. He just turned five and wanted a train that went around the bottom of the tree. How exciting to get him a gift that he actually asked for. And it must be exciting for Ryan to finally figure out how to ask for what he wants. It’s enjoyable to watch Ryan’s frustration slowly disappear.


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The Best Kept Secret for Surviving the Summer When Your Child has Autism

IMG_1769The long lazy days of summer. No structure. Nothing to do. No deadlines. Just freedom! Sounds like bliss? Not when you have a child on the autism spectrum. I have found that the worst thing I can do is have a long wide open day planned for Ryan. That’s why I developed a summer schedule. I know! Sometimes the last thing I want to do in the morning is try to come up with a schedule for the day. But I’ll let you in on little secret. When I do, it makes all the difference in the world for Ryan and me. In fact, for our entire family.

Ryan often doesn’t know what to do with his free time. He can’t be put into a room full and toys and be told to play with them, since he often doesn’t know how to play with his toys. Instead, he makes up his own activities, like drawing a map of the neighborhood on the wall with pen, putting huge gobs of my hand lotion all over his face and in his hair, or seeing what he can flush down the toilet. He also ends up having melt downs over insignificant things like losing something or hearing a car honk its horn, because he’s feeling anxious and out of control in his unstructured day..

So I came up with a summer schedule. It does not have to be fancy or large. It just needs to be easy to read and your child needs to be able to check off the activities as you go. Ryan can read, so I write his schedule. When he couldn’t read, I printed pictures from the clip art on Microsoft Word. You can also find a lot of pictures on-line if you google “picture schedule.” Sometimes I type his schedule on the computer and print it out. I also hand write it when I’m in a hurry.

Now comes the fun part. I place the schedule in a sheet protector. That way i can use the schedule over and over again. Ryan can cross off each completed activity with a dry erase marker. I like to buy the three markers for a dollar at the Dollar Tree that have little erasers attached to the cap. I can also add more details to the schedule with the marker like the date or a specific activity, then erase them and update it the next day.

Now Ryan wakes up in the morning and asks for his schedule. He likes to cross off his activities as he eats breakfast and gets dressed. This is also a good way to get Ryan to do some summer homework. Ryan usually resists doing homework, especially in the summer. But somehow, when it is written on the schedule, it becomes official.

IMG_1763 Something clicks in his brain that he sees the activity printed in front of him, therefore he knows he has to do it. He will sit down and complete his homework, almost like magic. Also, the melt downs soon stop, since he has other things to occupy his time and he feels less anxious because he knows what’s coming next.

IMG_1767It’s a win win solution, and a little secret that I’m glad to share with everyone. What summer survival skills do you use?


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Experiencing Your Child’s Unexpected Growth is a Unique Gift for all Special Needs Parents Everywhere

IMG_1752Everywhere I go, I hear children saying how excited they are that school is almost over for the summer. But that’s not the case for Ryan. He would go to school year round with no breaks if he could. This is the hardest time of the year for Ryan. Transitioning to the summer is hard. Losing what is familiar is hard. And losing the structure of an established routine is hard.

So all of his anxiety comes out with trouble sleeping. Ryan is the type of boy who never naps or just falls asleep in the car or on the sofa. It has been this way his whole life. The only time that happens is if he is sick. Otherwise, he needs to go through a structured bed time routine to fall asleep. And heaven forbid if my sound sensitive boy hears a dog barking, thunder, a lawn mower, or fireworks while trying to fall asleep. So he takes melatonin, a natural sleep supplement, to help him get to sleep, and guanfacine to help him stay asleep the whole night. But they don’t always work.

Sleep issues! They are so common in children on the spectrum. And they are one of the most difficult problems to deal with. If a child isn’t getting enough sleep, his parents are getting sleep either. Then everyone is walking around tired and grumpy. So sleep problems come back full force when Ryan is experiencing big changes in his life. But it will get better.

Right now, I’m grateful for all of the wonderful people in Ryan’s life, especially his teachers and therapists at school who have helped him learn and grow this year. Ryan loves school. That says a lot for the kind of nurturing he is getting there.

When Ryan started kindergarten two years ago, he didn’t talk at school, even though he was able. They’d give him the teacher’s walkie-talkie to encourage him to say something. When he finally did says something (He said “When will it stop?” about the alarm during a fire drill.) the whole class clapped. He started first grade talking up a storm. He began being more social with his peers and teachers. By the end of the year, he was asking for people’s names and talking about his likes, dislikes, wants and needs. He was playing with other kids on the playground. For the first time in his life, he had an answer if someone asked him who his best friend was.

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So, the end of the school year is an emotional time, as we think about what the school year brought and what new things will be ahead. And although it’s an emotional time for the parents of typically developing children, there’s nothing like the emotion and joy that comes with seeing the growth of a special needs child when you weren’t even sure if you’d see a lot of growth in the first place. That elevated joy is what makes parenting a special needs child a unique gift and special privilege, and one reason why I wouldn’t change my life for the world.


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Substituting in a Special Needs Class is Rewarding

IMG_0668Now that Ryan is in school for a full day, I can do some substitute teaching. Before Ryan was born, I was a second grade teacher for many years. I was starting to miss the classroom, so I signed up to be a substitute. It works well for me, because I can be home when Ryan gets home and still get him to his therapies on time after school.

Yesterday, I got a call for a substitute job for an instructional assistant. The call didn’t say what grade, which is unusual. But I assumed it was kindergarten, since it’s the only grade that I know of that has assistants. When I got to the office, the secretary gave me the badge and key to the classroom. I asked her if I would be working with kindergarten. But she didn’t answer. She just said, “You’re in room 115.”

I still didn’t know what grade I had been assigned to. When I got to the classroom, the teacher was standing at the door, and I said that I assumed I was working with kindergarten. She said, “No, this is a K-2 cross categorical special needs class.” (What a coincidence! This was the same type of special needs class my son is in, except he attends a different school.)

Immediately, I was confused about all the secrecy. But the teacher informed me that if they are open about what type of class it is, most substitutes will not take the job. In fact, many will walk out of the office as soon as they find out they signed up for a special needs class.

The mother in me instantly felt defensive. These substitutes are educated people, I thought. They should be familiar with special needs. Everyone has come in contact with a special needs person at some point in their lives. Do they think they will catch something? What is their problem?

Maybe they’re picturing a violent out of control child. But special needs does not automatically mean behavior problem. And behavior problems are epidemic in the typical classroom. I’m sure most substitutes with any amount of experience had their share of behavior problems while teaching.

But after I cooled down, I realized that many people probably don’t understand special needs kids. They’re afraid they need special training or have to acquire special knowledge in order to work with a special needs child. When in truth, all they need is love.

In many ways, special needs children are no different from typical children. They want attention. They want to learn and sometimes don’t want to learn. They love recess and don’t like doing a lot of work. What’s different, is that they need extra help in order to get through the school day. They learn differently, so they need specialized instruction.

I had a very memorable and rewarding day substituting in the special needs class. I watched the students participate in library and art. One of my students did a better job painting his project than the other typical children at the table. I taught math one on one. I monitored independent work time. I played a game with a student who earned it as a reward. I took the students to lunch. I came away with the knowledge that I probably just spent a day with the hardest working kids in the whole school.

Life isn’t easy for any of these children. Their days are filled with special challenges, difficult demands. and always striving to keep up with the other typically developing students around them. All students deserve a competent, enthusiastic substitute when their regular teacher is away. All substitutes should consider working in a special needs class at least once. I think they will find the rewards amazing.


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How to Make an Autism Awareness Bracelet

IMG_1598Do you need an easy autism awareness project to make with children? I made these bracelets with Ryan’s first grade class and it worked out really well. They were quick and easy to make. And most of all, the kids really liked them.

Here are the materials you will need.

1. yellow, dark blue, light blue, and red plastic pony beads  (One pack of 360 beads in each color will be enough for a class of about 23. You will have some left over. I found these beads at Wal-Mart.)

2. elastic cord (This cord is located next to the pony beads in Wal-Mart.)

3. old puzzle pieces for charms (I found a 100 piece puzzle with an ocean scene at the dollar store. Most of the pieces were blue, so it worked out perfectly. You can also spray paint the puzzle pieces blue.)

4. craft punch (You need a paper punch that makes a very small hole.)

5. small metal split rings (These are found in the jewelry section of the craft store. I like the oval rings best.)

6. masking tape

First, make the puzzle piece charm by punching a hole in a puzzle piece. Open the split ring using tweezers, slip the puzzle piece onto the ring, then close the ring back up. Next, cut about an 8 inch piece of elastic. Fold a small piece of tape on the end of the elastic so the beads won’t fall off the end when you are stringing them. Then string on 24 beads. You will need six of each color. Make whatever pattern you like best. Remember, this bracelet will fit a child’s wrist. You will need a longer elastic and more beads for an adult. Now add the charm. String the ring onto the elastic. Tie two or three knots and trim the ends. The bracelet is done.

I found it’s a lot easier to make bracelet kits for each child instead trying to pass out all of the materials one by one. Fill a ziplock bag with all the materials you need for one bracelet: one 8 inch elastic cord with tape on the end, 6 yellow beads, 6 red beads, 6 light blue beads, 6 dark blue beads, and one puzzle piece charm. Then give each child one bag to work with.

There are many different ways you can make this same bracelet. Craft stores have many different beautiful beads. If you decide to use heavier beads, you might want to put a drop of glue on the knot to keep it from opening up. You can even buy puzzle piece charms. I found some inexpensive metal charms at Oriental Trading. Have fun. If you try this, let me know how your bracelets turned out.


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How to Explain Autism to a Group of First Graders

waut_awareness_month[1]Since April is Autism Awareness month, I thought that this was the perfect time to talk about autism with Ryan’s first grade classmates. Ryan attends a cross categorical special education classroom for all of his academics, but is mainstreamed in a typical first grade classroom for morning circle, social studies, science, related arts, recess, and lunch.

I wanted Ryan’s classmates from both classes to better understand his differences. This year, Ryan has some good friends from his typical class. Ryan calls one of the little girls, Ali, his BEST friend. This is the first time in his life that he has called someone other than an ABA Therapist his best friend!

Ryan and Ali play together on the playground and eat together at lunch. Sometimes, they walk hand in hand down the hall on the way to music or art. It’s adorable to watch. But Ryan is also learning some important social skills through this friendship, even though Ali often plays a mother-like roll.

Even though I had good intentions, I was a little worried about how I was going to get my message across to 21 six and seven-year olds. After some thought, I decided reading a book would be helpful. All kids love to be read to. And I decided we could make a craft. Crafts are fun and memorable. Maybe we could make some type of an autism awareness bracelet. Bracelets are always a hit in first grade.

I researched the book first. I found the perfect book on the internet called “My Friend With Autism” by Beverly Bishop. What I like about it is that it is narrated by a peer who is friends with a boy who has autism. He explains some things that his friend is good at, but also what he’s not so good at. He talks about the fact that his friend has sensory sensitivities and may find lights too bright and sounds too loud.

He talks about his friend’s unique ways of playing and difficulties with communicating. He then explains how to react to those differences. For instance, if his friend isn’t talking a lot, just keep talking to him, because his friend is listening. The book includes a CD of coloring pages that you can print out for the class. It also has notes in the back of the book with more explanations for adults.

When I walked into the classroom on the day of my presentation, the teacher had already prepared the class to let them know I was coming. The first graders were sitting on the carpet waiting patiently for me to begin. But there was one child missing, Ryan. He was sitting at the back table with the teacher assistant. He had his head turned away from me and did not want to sit on the carpet. I knew he was uncomfortable seeing me at school. When I told him the night before that I was coming, Ryan said, “I don’t want Mommy to come to school.” This is another example of how difficult change in routine is for Ryan. It’s also difficult for him to see me out of context when I visit his classroom. I’m not supposed to be at school. I belong at home. That’s where he’s used to seeing me.

Even though I have years of experience teaching in the classroom, I was still nervous. I sat down and looked at all of those expectant faces hoping I could explain clearly enough what autism is. I wanted them to understand Ryan better and maybe even want to attempt to be friends with him. I was nervous about saying the right thing. I didn’t want to bore them and go on and on. At the same time, I wanted to say enough that first graders could come away with a better understanding of their classmate. So I wrote everything down on note cards and even practiced it. When I spoke, the room was very quiet. This is close to what I said:

“Good morning everyone. I’m Ryan’s mom and I wanted to come in today and talk to you about autism, since April is Autism Awareness Month. One of your classmates, Ryan, has autism. Ryan, and other people with autism, have very unique brains. And the way their brains work is a little bit different. The difference isn’t bad, it’s just different. People are born with autism. It’s not something you can catch like a cold or the flu.

Autism is the name for a way the brain works that makes some people think, act and feel a little differently from other people. For example, most brains are good at talking and communicating with people, making friends and playing. Ryan’s brain isn’t as good at those things. But, autism can give some people like Ryan special strengths that can make them think in really unique and creative ways. One of Ryan’s strengths is that he has an amazing memory and can remember everything he hears. Most people with autism are very smart. Ryan can read and do math just as well as all of you.

Many famous people have autism. Albert Einstein and Mozart, a famous composer, were thought to have autism. Other famous people with autism are James Durbin from American Idol, actors Jerry Seinfeld and Dan Akroyd, and the man who created Pokemon.” (They were very impressed with my Pokemon reference.)

I then read the book, “My Friend with Autism” to the class. There were many thoughtful comments afterwards like, “Ryan holds his ears sometimes!” and “Ryan doesn’t always like to talk.” I saw their eyes light up and could see that many of them were making connections. When I announced that we were all going to make an autism awareness bracelet, there was a lot of excitement in the room.

The bracelets turned out cute and the first graders immediately put them on and showed them off. They loved the fact that they were allowed to take them home. The bracelets were easy to make. In the next post, I’ll make a list of all the supplies needed and I’ll share with you exactly how to make them.

I think the presentation was a success and most of the first graders “got it.” I even caught Ryan smiling at the back table.


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Gift Buying Can be Easy if Your Child is on the Spectrum

IMG_1550Ryan finally opened his Easter gift yesterday, about a week after Easter. He devoured his skittles, M&M’s and lollipops, the only three candies Ryan likes. (Children on the spectrum are very particular about what they will eat.) But he would not touch his wrapped present. He has to be in the mood to open it. And I have to tell him what’s inside, because he doesn’t like mysteries. How does he know a snake won’t jump out at him?

In a way, buying presents is easy for many parents of children on the spectrum. We don’t have to buy them. Many children with autism just aren’t interested in toys. Presents never had a lot of meaning to Ryan. But I, like many other parents I’ve talked to, just can’t not put a present or two under the tree at Christmas or a present in the Easter basket.

Again, Ryan has to be in the mood for present opening. That happened yesterday. And, as he gets older, he’s finding that he actually likes the presents he’s unwrapping. He loved the basketball hoop that can be placed over his bedroom door. Ryan fell in love with basketball after participating in “All American Athletes,” a local non-profit program for special needs children that meets weekly and teaches kickball in the fall, basketball in the winter, and t-ball in the spring. I’m so thankful for that program and the volunteers that helped Ryan become interested in sports.

Easter is a little different when you have a child on the spectrum. We were careful not to mention the Easter Bunny, because Ryan would only worry about a large bunny entering his house in the middle of the night and making a lot of noise. But on Easter morning, we told Ryan that he had an Easter basket. He wasn’t the least bit interested and ate his breakfast and got dressed before he even glanced at it. He didn’t really look at it until after church.

By the way, Ryan LOVES church. We couldn’t be happier. Ryan loves the structure and the predictability of it. He now likes the music (the organ used to be too loud), the children’s sermon at the front of the sanctuary, and Kid’s church. Ryan is finally walking to the front of the church on his own when it is time for the kid’s sermon. In the past, I walked him up the aisle and showed him where to sit on the floor in the front. The first time, Ryan wanted to run up onto the stage and join the choir. But now Ryan is walking to the front all by himself and actually telling me not to come.

Church hasn’t always been this easy. We could attend church when Ryan was young enough to be in the nursery. But when he got too big, we faced a lot of opposition from our little boy who is sound sensitive and couldn’t handle the organ music, the singing choir, or the amplified voice of the minister. For awhile, we just didn’t attend church. Then, when we felt he was ready, we slowly introduced him to the church service. We walked through the sanctuary on a Saturday when it was empty. He sat in the lobby of the church several Sundays where it wasn’t as loud but he could hear the sermon and music. Ryan’s ABA therapist came to church a few times and helped Ryan get used to the service.

Now Ryan is a pro at going to church and loves it. Sean and I spent our Easter laughing about our silly little boy who loves going to church, but has no interest in his Easter basket or present. Life with Ryan and his unique, creative brain is not bad, just different. We wouldn’t change it for the world.