Saturday, August 23, 2014

Brotherly Love

Ever since Jake got his autism diagnosis, at the age of two and a half, we had always hoped that he would eventually be able to interact with his siblings and friends.  All we've seen along the way however, is parallel play, where kids play next to one another, but not together as in taking turns.  The parallel play is more common of younger children's behavior.  It's also a very prominent autistic behavior, where children are more comfortable playing on their own - not having to take part in a dialogue, or go out of their comfort zone.

Every once in a while, I would ask his teachers whether or not he's been interacting with his peers.  The answer has usually been that he's still parallel playing next to other kids.  I was of course thankful that he at least doesn't go off on his own in a corner and isolate himself completely.  Inside, there was always a part of me that hurt after hearing the term parallel play.  The parallel play continued over the months and through the precious early childhood years.  I subconsciously must have tried to not attach an emotion to that feeling of not yet-ness.  Over time,  it turned into an understanding that he's just not ready for it yet.  I had just lowered my expectation and became eventually completely okay with it.  I had accepted it and I felt that it was going to be okay no matter what because I love him. 

During his ABA therapy sessions I had requested our therapist to reserve some time to have Jake have some social time and play with his siblings, presenting a natural situation that would enable him to learn how to interact with other children.  His interactions would then be highly reinforced by praise, high fives, tickles and his preferred activities, if he had typical play-like of taking turns and interactions with his siblings.  He didn't seem to have much interaction with Max, but was slightly more interactive with Miriam.  Over the months and the couple of years that we had incorporated this into his therapy, not much had changed and not much progress was made.  He typically had a difficult time tolerating this part of the therapy.  It made sense, since interacting with others is not natural to kids living with autism.  Any new thing taught in therapy had to be tolerated and repeated for so long until it was eventually not so new anymore.

Last week, during our long ten hour road trip home from an autism family summer camp, something wonderful happened.  Our youngest, Max, was so bored that he started tickling and demanding attention from Jake.  Jake didn't actually mind it and played along with Max for a very long time.  Other than some DVDs that we had on and off throughout the trip, this was the main activity for the boys.  This was the very first time that we had ever seen the boys playing together, and we were delighted to be witnessing this very special first.  I had hoped that it would be the start of many many more such situations of the boys playing together.  Typically, the twins would play together and Jake would do his own thing.  This week, during several evenings, Max would instigate rough housing and tickling with Jake and they would bounce on the yoga ball together and giggle; simply, music to my ears.

It is interesting that once we accept everything about autism and special needs and we are fully okay with where our child is in his or her journey, that the unexpected can happen.  Sometimes, when we are so anxious, and we're working so hard to make it to every single therapy session, present the right kind of situations for our child for proper special needs learning to take place, set up hopeful play dates, and try to be the best possible parents that we can be, that there is almost too much pressure placed on our child, as well as ourselves.  After all, we are learning the ropes as we go half of the time.  We are not well rested most of the time, and we juggle a ton of things simultaneously.  What I'm trying to say here, is not to give up hope.  Don't feel defeated when a situation doesn't turn out like we planned or hoped.  Our children bloom and blossom at their individual pace.  Certain things, like the brotherly bonding that I had shared here, will happen in due time; it happened in a very natural non pressured way, when we had least anticipated it.  Here's a shout out of encouragement to anyone who's facing these type of scenarios and challenges.  Hang in there, and keep putting your loving heart out there.  Even if our kids don't seem to respond to it now, in an obvious way, they know that we love them deeply.  For them, that is the most important type of connection and learning.  As we plant our seeds in our family garden now, who knows the potential of what is still yet to bloom?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Things That Make A House A Home

After a military relocation to our new home at another base these past weeks, I found the chaos of the move had set my spirit into a tizzy.  Even with months of preparations: giving away old clothes and baby gear to Goodwill, getting rid of unnecessary papers in order to lighten our load, the move proved to be difficult, nonetheless.  With boxes of household items and books everywhere, the box that I had wanted most to find was my piano music scores.  After several days of searching, my husband, Alex, thought that it may be in a pro-gear (professional items) box in the garage - go figure.  Funny, but after several military moves, I didn't feel much like a pro at all.  If anything, I felt pretty overwhelmed. I just wanted to get into some sort of groove as soon as possible.  I was fully aware that this was going to take some time and that I need to drastically lower my expectations and face reality. 

As summers typically go, with our child living with autism, it's not my favorite time of year.  I know that many families can completely relate to the lack of structure and difficulty in finding activities that would suit our kids.  Forget about not wanting to be exhausted all day long; we don't have that luxury that is quickly forgotten about during the school year.  There is only so much time that an average non southern native adult can tolerate in the heat and especially in the heavy humidity.  Every summer seems to present the same dilemma for me.  In fact, it feels like I just wrote something similar about the same time last year.  A summer of relocating however, brings with it additional challenges (on top of which, poor Jake was very sick for over three weeks before the move and we were both cooped up and exhausted).  Some of these challenges involve: getting to know the new area and figuring out resources (while trying to provide some sort of daily structure), making new friends of my own (this should actually fall at the bottom of the list, but lets face it, it's a very real need), finding autism support, dealing with "the broken record" (repetitive words and phrases that autistic kids say) and its effect on my psyche, escalated screams and tantrums (which I affectionately refer to as "the angry peacock" - if you've ever heard a peacock, you know how loud its calls can be), and last but not least, excessive demands for Jake's favorite activity, the king of all kings: the iPad; my dreaded arch nemesis.

You may be thinking that well, what's so bad about the iPad?  It can be used as an educational activity, right? If so, then you are indeed correct.  With some kids living with autism however, if not closely supervised, this activity can quickly turn into an OCD-like, undesired behavior such as: hitting buttons over and over, watching the same thing repeatedly or doing the same program repeatedly.  Somehow, Jake figured out how to get into YouTube and find his favorite Baby Einstein episodes.  He'll watch parts of it repeatedly, just to see the face of the Einstein's head.  We think that he got attached to this image from his baby days, loved it so much, and that image just stuck with him.  Perhaps it was his first childhood friend. 

Even if we delete YouTube, because it's in our user history, Jake figured out how to re-access it.  In the past, we have used the iPad as an activity re-enforcer/motivator in his ABA sessions, and it was incredibly effective.  When he's lounging, and not in therapy, we've set a time limit on it's use and give him transitional updates of how much time he has left in five minute increments.  We break down the last five minutes and announce 5, 3 and 1 minutes, before announcing that time's up, in order to ease his anxiety about the ending of the activity.  This helps him transition out of it into the next one.  For a while, he was only doing educational activities on his I-pad and we were very pleased to see how well he was working with it.  Since this summer's move though, old repetitive behaviors have come back with a vengeance.  This was to be expected.  After all, it's not our first time at the rodeo.  However, it isn't easy to deal with by a couple of not well rested parents.

After several weeks of being in this transitional phase of moving, feeling unsettled and no social time, we went to a Shabbat dinner at the Chabad community center and met some very nice families, including two who were also coping with autism.  Several of the other families were also new in town, so it was nice to be somewhere where others were going through a similar experience.  The newness of our environment, juxtaposed with some very old traditions like lighting the Sabbath candles, good food and good company, was just the thing to make our transition more comfortable.  I have to make a mental note and remember to find things and traditions that are familiar and bring us comfort when faced with lots of new things. 

Part of wanting our family to have a military lifestyle, is that we didn't want our children to feel like they were ever living in a bubble or growing up with a sense of entitlement.  We wanted them to grow up moving around, meeting new friends, seeing how other people live in other cities and countries. Exposing them to different races and religions would help develop a sense of acceptance of all people.  We wanted them to be able to be well adjusted individuals because of their life experiences.  We wanted them to be able to empathize and be accepting of all sorts of differences. This, of course, they are already learning at home, by being siblings to an autistic older brother.  We are already seeing what we hoped for take place.  The twins have adjusted incredibly well to our new home and their summer camp.  I am so proud of our kids!  Putting things into perspective is, in a way, like stepping away from the small details seen through a kaleidoscope, and seeing the bigger picture more clearly.  We sometimes can get easily caught up in the smaller details, but if we take a step back, the reality is so much simpler.

Good news! - this afternoon Alex found the box of my piano music and I eagerly arranged my scores (yes, by composer, in alphabetical order) on the living room shelf that's across from the piano.  Looking around, I see that things are actually starting to come together nicely.  I look at the wall hangings and masks that we have up from places that Alex and I have traveled to together.  There are still stacks of family photos waiting there for me to put up and fill up more wall space.  You know, this is probably the thing that I most enjoy doing after moving - decorating.  I plan on taking my time putting up the rest of the photos.  With each one up, I bond with the new home a little more, letting it also get to know its inhabitants a little more as well.  The military owned property in this little beach town is starting to look like a home; our home. With all the moves we've already had, and with more future moves yet to come, Alex really puts it best: Wherever you and the kids are - that's what I call my home.  I couldn't agree more.  

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Sound of Quality Time

Looking at the bell here, at Montgomery Area Nontraditional Equestrians (MANE), got me thinking about the idea of the bells of time, signaling listeners to hear their calling.  Its what got me thinking about the idea of time and how we choose to spend it, with whom we choose to spend this precious time, and what quality time involves and means to a special needs family like ours.

A creative approach to life's daily in's and out's makes it a more bearable and interesting reality.  My creative approach stems from a musical background.  You see, certain musical theories have been ingrained into my mind over the years.  Since music is a language, like other languages, it encompasses structure, nuances, a rhythmic flow and meaning.  Whether or not I am actively engaged in my craft, it will always be integral to my overall outlook and experience.  

Music is the language that I fall back on.  It is the sounding board that I default to, when I look for quality in whatever my focus may be.  I don't have to actively be engaged in the music making process in order to feel the benefits of its effects.  Through years of study and making music, its lingering existence continues to spread its wings and hover over my life long-term; as if these wings cocoon me in a protective shield.  For instance, I'll catch myself walking around hearing music in my head as well as wake up in the middle of the night from a dream where I am composing or playing music.  
“Get your studies out of the way while you’re still young,” my father used to say, in an urgent tone.  That seems like years ago, and yet, the past twenty years have come and gone.  I am glad that I followed his wise words, because it was a challenge to complete my studies, just being a single person, living away from home.  I had always been very family minded, and the daily absence of my family during my college years was not an easy thing.  In fact, I often felt that there was a hole in my heart.  That missing piece of a future family of my own would eventually fill that void.

I don’t know how my parents did it – getting their advanced degrees while working full time and raising us three kids.  Perhaps it was their creative approach that cocooned us as youngsters from their coexisting reality of study, work and parenthood.  Pursuing it without dependents was hard enough for me.  

On a beautiful sunny day at MANE
My upbringing, in this sense, had directly influenced me.  I am glad that I completed my studies before getting married and having children, even if the process took me into my thirties.  I was able to close that chapter in my life and focus on the following pages in the next chapter.  I had no idea, as a student, what type of challenges lay ahead for me.  I am now able to devote most of my time and energy to our kids.  I don't feel like I am missing out on something as substantial as an education, and I don't have to worry about returning to my studies at some later point.

At the time, getting my doctorate was the most important thing for me.  With it, that phase presented its own trying challenges.  It is interesting though, that just a few short years later, my priorities had taken a drastically different turn.  As driven and as motivated as I was to pursue my life's passion, things quickly took an unexpected direction, and another new passion had evolved in my life.   

From the start, after Jake was born, my focus was on raising and nurturing this beautiful child; he had my heart from the very beginning.  The first couple of years were as typical as to be expected of these early years.  We were very happy first time parents and we took Jake everywhere with us.  Perhaps that is why he usually does pretty well with flights and trips.  Jake's development seemed to be meeting all of his developmental milestones.  However, during Alex's deployment in 2008, I started observing some signs that pointed to (what I didn't yet know) autism.  By the age of two and a half (he is now seven) he was diagnosed with autism shortly after our twins were born.  

I continued to be active in music since Jake came into our lives, but music quickly took a back seat to the demands of motherhood, special needs and a military lifestyle.  I put all of my energy into our three kids, and as I share in my second post: 1, 2, 3 and Nobody's Talking, , there were speech delay issues with the twins as well for a few years.  By the time that the twins were fifteen months old they were both in speech therapy every week, so between all of the kids' therapies and my part time music work, I was running around from place to place feeling like I was treading water much of the time.    

The thing that got me through it was the love that I had in my heart for each one of the kids.   I made a point of enjoying something about them every single day.   It didn't have to be anything big, it could just be a look, a smile, a laugh, or an interaction.  I love the relationship that I have with my mother, and I always wanted to have the same type of close relationship with my own kids.  I remember telling her that once and she said that it starts from the mother, and how a mother interacts with her kids from early on in life.

As life passions go, I had noticed that if I was not involved in something creative, that my spirit would suffer greatly.   It felt like part of me was starting to die, like leaves drying up on a plant, much too soon.  I would go in waves of creativity when I found the energy for it, or when I needed an escape from reality, but most of the time, I was running on fumes.  In the back of my head I always thought that this was the time to be devoted to the kids, and these were incredibly precious years that we would never get back.     

The twins playing in a toy house

Jake at an occupational therapy session 2014

Alex and I became very passionate about autism advocacy and special needs, as we lived and learned about this new world; experiencing autism first hand at home.  Teaching music at a university level took a back seat to quality time with my family.  Jake's diagnosis caused me to refocus my attentions.  It was my turn to provide that cocooning shelter for my fledgling family.  We didn't really know what we were doing back then, as first time parents dealing with special needs.  Everything was all of a sudden new for us, but we tried to make the best of a very unique situation.  We headed into it as a team, preparing to embrace this next chapter with open arms.

As we have learned along the way, through the daily ups and downs, quality time for ourselves is a precious gift.  This holds true with giving a similar gift to each of the kids as well.  With Jake, it is only natural to want to give him lots of special time.  He also needs quiet time with one of us parents, away from his siblings.  When his senses get overloaded he needs to remove himself from the family room and recollect himself.  It's easy to let Jake be the main focus for us, especially since living with and learning about autism is an on-going journey. Therefore, it is equally important to give the twins quality time of their own.  This way, they feel as meaningful and special, and not jealous of their older brother.  I write a lot about needing and achieving different types of balance in our lives.  This is one such scenario, where we wouldn't want there to be a sibling imbalance.  

As for the quantity of time that I had spent on my musical studies, and how that time affects my life today, I pace myself in shorter spurts of creativity and music making. These days, those shorter spurts go further.  The times when I teach, practice or dabble in artistic projects, hold a deeper meaning for me today, because they are framed by a different context.  It is not a context of learning anymore (although we constantly grow and evolve at every stage in our life) , but rather, it is a wider scope that embraces a new type of quality; a new time signature.  

I think more about maximizing little spurts of time and making the most out of that quality of time.  I refer to it as "smart practice" with my piano students as far as maximizing their own time at the instrument.  There are moments of action, and there are moments of reflection.  There are moments of expression, and there are moments of introspection and repose.   Each of these types of moments are like seasons in our lives that have their own purpose and timing, and are therefore equally meaningful and worthy of experiencing.  So even when we are not the most productive or thrilled with ourselves and our productivity, but where we may be in a moment of reflection or a moment of repose and rest, we are still doing what we need to be doing in that moment in time.  

Overlooking a serene pond at MANE at Jake's equine therapy

Looking back, I realize that music never stopped playing in my head along my personal journey.  My life-long friend had always been there with me, even when I wasn't aware so much of its presence.  It was still there with me while I focused on other things like children and family.  It kept me company, knowing I would return to it whenever I could.  As the kids get older, I am able to find more time to get back to playing the piano, either to pull out some of my old favorite repertoire, or savoring learning new pieces again while getting reacquainted with some old loves of my life: Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Schumann, are amongst some of my favorites.  

The sonata I've recently begun practicing - Op. 81
I feel very fortunate to have been able to find part time university work in music, that enables me to have enough time with the kids.  I have managed to balance that sort of work with teaching private piano lessons as well as performing in a few musicals over the past few years.  Along with the hurdles and challenges of special needs, speech delays, military deployment and growing into my forties, this past decade has been incredibly enriching and rewarding on so many levels. 

So there it is - for me it takes a creative approach to life's daily in's and out's in order to make it a more bearable and interesting reality.  Just as in music, it takes knowing the rules very well, so that we can then get to break them.  It is in those moments where rules are broken, that true beauty and creativity takes place.  The key is to break up the normalcy; to step out of the expectation.  Similarly, with autism and special needs, it takes thinking outside the box type of mentality, or approach, in order to thrive and move forward.  It is all about connecting the dots in a slightly different way then usual.  That's where the magic happens!  Isn't that the same exact thing as creativity?  

If you had something that you were passionate about at some earlier point in your life, and haven't spend time with it lately, see if you can reconnect once again.  It is what has worked for me and has helped me along some of the most meaningful times (good and bad) in my life.  Reconnecting to our passions is what helps us find and achieve balance in our individual journeys.  It is the best sort of gift that we could give ourselves.  Consequently, our reality becomes what we choose to believe is our truth, and what we choose to surround ourselves with as our personal truth, what is so dear and precious to us - for me it is my family, people that I treasure, and creativity, hold the highest quality of all.   

I can hear the bells of time ringing now, 
calling us to find our passions once again;
it is the sound of quality time.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Locked Gate – A Key to Freedom

In the grassy courtyard of our old synagogue, stands a large doorway gate.  Its eye-shaped intertwining metal wiring gave view to a beautifully soft cloudy blue sky that Sunday morning.  In a glimpse that seemed to last quite a while, I had stolen a moment to capture this gate in a photo.  Meanwhile, Jake was swinging up into his own clouds, just a few feet away from me.  He joyfully swung up in the air, clapping his feet together rhythmically in delight; as if his feet were cymbals crashing in percussive accents into the air.  It is what I imagine the ultimate sense of childhood freedom to be - conducting our very own symphony. 

It is intriguing that a predictable repetitive activity would invoke such a sense of freedom.  We often think of freedom as something that breaks through the mundane, the repetitive and the predictable.   We imagine freedom as a destination and maybe not so much an activity.   But maybe, freedom is a sense of comfort in being happily suspended in the air.  When we look down, we have the safety of knowing that we are not far from the ground and when we look up, there is the sense of anticipation of how high in the air we are going to get.  I remember how thrilling it was to swing up in the air as a child. 

When did we lose that sense of fun over simple childhood activities?  When did that sense of freedom and wonderment go?  I still think that it is really only the simple small things, and appreciating brief moments in time as we live in the present, that will ever give us that same sense of freedom.  It may even restore that childish naivete that leads children to ask about what is so intriguing to them.

Looking through the locked gate, I realized that the appeal of taking time to appreciate where I stood was about the contrast of hard and soft – the gate versus the clouds.  Similarly, the hard-wired structure in our lives provides safety and security for us all, just like that locked gate provides security to whoever stands within the confines of those grounds which the gate protects.  It does so all the more for a child living with autism.  This child craves and needs this daily security and a predictable schedule.  He needs the security of a structure with a repetitive rhythm so that he knows what to expect.  This helps to alleviate any anxiety about what is coming up and what he can look forward to.  That repetitive rhythm, just like the rhythmic swinging in the air, creates a comfort and pacing for him; It is his key to unlocking that gate.  It is the key to alleviate anxiety about the unknown.  We all want to loudly crash the cymbals to our own symphony.  Wouldn’t it be something if each one of us could hold such a key in our very hands?

Was the sky so captivating to me that morning only because I was looking at it from a locked gate, or would it have been as beautiful and mystical to me without the gate that was in the way of my view? I wondered.  Is it only those unattainable, those unreachable things that still intrigue us, as if we were still that inquisitive child in the playground? Do we ever really lose the mystique of magical childish thoughts like what it would feel like to touch the sky, or to touch a cloud?  

Oh I have much to learn from this child that is always true to himself.  He is so determined, curious, and unapologetic and genuinely himself.  These are things that most people aspire their entire lives to achieve.  We want to feel that true sense of self and acceptance of who we truly are and to be happy and at peace in that moment in time.  This beautiful child is not burdened by silly thoughts of what others may think of him or how his interests may appear to others.  No, such wasteful thoughts have no place in his young mind.  He knows exactly what he wants, he is strong minded, smart and willful.  Most importantly, he holds the key that unlocks that gate, and is therefore free to be truly himself.

It was only a brief moment in time, there in the courtyard.  But in that moment of looking through the eyes of that gate, I saw there a lifetime of meaning and symbolism.  The key to unlocking that gate as a collective society is acceptance.  We all want the same thing - to be loved and appreciated.  We want to feel accepted exactly as who we are.  Each one of us is a locked gate, and the key to unlocking it and reaching freedom, is acceptance of each individual in all of our true colors.   

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Moving Forward In The New Year

­Another year in our lives has come and gone.  It is a new month, a new week and another cold, but sunny, winter day.  One of the perks that I have come to cherish while living in the south is that I can almost always look forward to a sunny blue sky during this time of year.  Having recently visited the northwest, I found that I had really missed this element of the season. 

I sit here with my musical Soundscapes, the space heater hums away and my down-feathered slipper booties keep me warm and cozy.  I have tried to write recently, but I haven't been able to clear my mind and focus.  I have to be in a creative mode to write, compose, and to just create in general.  If I get in the right mood, things tend to reveal themselves.  The last half a year however, has been less about reflecting and more about action - putting thoughts and goals into motion.  It's hard to quiet your mind when you are in motion and your wheels are still spinning.  That's why I like to find a Zen place in my mind, so that creativity can begin to flow.  It is at these mind-freeing moments that I know that all of the rest will take care of itself.

Finding A Balance - Family Needs Versus Self Needs
Over the past few months I have been trying to find a state of balance in my life.  More specifically, I have been trying to find it in both larger and smaller scopes.  Doing so has enabled me to balance family life with time for myself.  This process started with an image; something that embodies the idea of what balance is for me.  I asked myself what I need and want, set some goals, came up with a realistic plan, and finally, I took action and followed through with that plan.  

The first image that came to my mind was a kaleidoscope.  When we look through a kaleidoscope, we see a vibrant image, but are drawn into the smaller details that produce that image.  The dual, large and small, shapes coexist and are therefore interconnected.  One cannot exist without the other.  Likewise, the family unit is that larger image.  What our role as parents is within our family unit, in contrast to who we are as individuals, affects and plays into the larger family dynamic.  The individual family members are the smaller (but important) details of what makes up the larger image of the family as a single entity.  All too often, we tend to put personal needs aside and focus on the larger image, and what's best for the family usually comes first.  If our individual needs are not met however, it means that the family unit can’t function at it's best.   

The imagery of the kaleidoscope reminded me of something else as well.  I had come across the terms macro and micro in a music theory class years ago, as being two distinct ways of looking at a composition. One way, is to look at the larger picture: the form, foundation, shape of the piece, the expression and how everything is held together structurally.  Then there are also the smaller details: the notes, rhythms, motives, themes and stylistic nuances.  What I didn't realize at the time was what a big role this concept would play in my personal journey and how it would shape my overall perception.   

Looking through the kaleidoscope while perceiving the micro/macro structure and details had made a lasting impression on me.  It is as if a seed had been planted into my mind, later sprouting branches and leaves that open up into that southern winter sky.  They seep in through the lacy intricacies of my life, as swiftly as a breeze blowing in through a soft lace-curtained window.  Consequently, it had become almost a theme, or a motive for me after starting a family.  Since both large structure and small details exist simultaneously, finding that balance in our lives, in a sense, is a multitasking activity.  However, even when we multitask, we still only really do one thing at a time.  How can we be at two places at once? 

A more literal image that comes to my mind when thinking about balance is a scale; like one of those old manually balancing ones.  Depending on which end of the scale things become overburdened, the scale ultimately ends up tipping over towards that one direction.   For example, if a spouse is out of town, and we single-parent for say, a week, the stress and irregularity of that week will end up causing us to use up much more of our own energy than what we are used to.  Typically, the job is split between two parents.  This type of situation, where a spouse pulls double duty, would cause that life-scale to tip to the overburdened side - the spouse in charge of the kids and the house.  These type of situations would cause us to feel like we had lost our balance.  When we lose our balance, it feels like the spiraling chain reaction signals our brain to think that we need to do a better job at keeping the momentum moving forward.  We crave for things to move forward at a comfortable steady pace, in order to keep that dauntingly large life-scale at just the right angle, so that it stays centered.  We do this all in order to achieve the all-too-desirable balance. 

This process leads me to revisit the question of why then should we bother to find or create a balance, when it takes so much darn energy?  Especially when as special needs parents, we don't have much of it to begin with.  I mean, is it truly worth all of the effort?  Well, if I search deep within and tap into a purely intuitive response, my answer is always: to be happy and to have peace of mind.  Part of having that peace of mind however, is to know that I did whatever I could to create that balance, so that later on I could in turn have that peace of mind.  The ultimate goal then becomes holding on to that peace (and also, that piece) for as long as possible.  But after all, it doesn't last long, unless I work on creating, recreating and achieving that sought-after balance on a regular basis.  I truly believe that when we have this precious balance in our lives, we are happy and at peace.

Don't Forget To Nurture (Yourself)
Military life with twins and a special needs child has been a very unique experience.  All of our kids have undergone speech therapy.  As I've discussed in other posts, for the twins it was a pure speech delay, and for Jake it was autism related.  There was a time period when all three kids were in diapers simultaneously and not talking yet.  I know that the stress of that time must have taken a toll on me.  At the time my focus was on moving forward, no matter how slowly.  That seems like ages ago, but it was only a few years ago. Life has definitely caught up to me now in my forties.  It is not only about taking care of the family and balancing it with part time music teaching anymore, it is doing so while managing the daily aches and pains that have caught up with my body.  This has made me realize that I can’t just keep going and going without taking time to regularly nurture myself.

There is almost an underlying pressure that as special needs parents we have to be a super mom and a super dad, to keep our family unit functional and healthy, as well as to nurture our marriage and relationship.  I can assure you that I am no hero.  It is a situation where special circumstances had dictated the course of our family path and I wouldn’t change a thing if I had to do it over again.  I truly believe that we were meant to walk this very specific path and learn what it is that we were supposed to learn on our family journey.  I try to do what I can for my family, just like everyone else out there who has similar joys and struggles (and there are so many more joys and moments that take my breath away that outweigh any given struggle). 

In the past I had fallen into the old motherhood trap, where I focus on mostly everyone else but me.  This is something I know many other moms have done and will continue to do.  Lets face it - it's in our nature to do so.  While this is admirable, it is not the best thing for our health.  Granted, certain family situations may be much tougher than others, but we can only experience our own family situation and make it functional for us.  When I am having a difficult time, I try to remind myself that there is always someone having a tougher time, as well as someone having an easier time.  Thinking about this puts things right back into perspective for me.  

The worst thing that we can end up doing to ourselves, in retrospect, is forgetting to nurture and to take care and ourselves too.  When we carry on this way for a long time it becomes ingrained into our muscle memory, affecting our daily life and routines.  Just like learning a piano piece with the wrong fingerings, or wrong rhythms, where you repeat the wrong motions over and over, it becomes ingrained into muscle memory.  This is where repetition of actions leads to an automatic response over time.  Subsequently, in order to correct this error, we have to slow down our practicing to the point that we could reconfigure our muscle memory, and relearn the correct motion.  Equally, in parenting and special needs, it would be correcting our thinking and behaviors of not making time to nurture ourselves.  At that point, it's very difficult to break out of this cycle.  Change, as I know all too well, does not happen on its own, out of sheer will.  Change initially starts mentally, by slowing ourselves down enough in order shift our attitude, change our habits, and ultimately, taking action in a different direction.

One quote comes to my mind here:
"Life begins at the end of your comfort zone."
Neale Donald Walsch

Does this resonate with you too?

Over time, many things for our family have become so much easier.  Just the kids getting a little older has made a huge difference.  With autism however, as certain things get easier, different life stages present new challenges.  These new challenges are unpredictable and are so different for every individual on the spectrum.   Ironically, with being in school for so many years and having so many wonderful and beloved teachers, my son Jake has been the best teacher yet.  Yes, this cute little guy has been the most amazing teacher for me.  He is the one who has taught me to think about things in a completely different way.   He has taught me to think outside the box and to see things from new angles.  He has taught me to be a better person and a better mother to his younger siblings.   He has taught me to embrace life’s challenges and to focus my energy on the most important things.  I am so very proud of him and how far he has come.  I love his beautiful gentle spirit and his smile that melts my heart.  And I am so proud of our family and the love that we have for one another.

Setting A Few Specific Goals
What has probably helped me the most in creating a balance between family life and me time, is setting only a few specific goals and a concrete plan to be successful at achieving them.  One of my personal goals was to be more active.  So basically, anything new that I was going to start doing would mean being more active.  Jokes aside, I have been going for walks more often, and riding my bike when the weather is nice.  This is something that I want to keep going for the rest of my life.  It was important for me to choose an activity that was not overly taxing, that would be something that I could realistically envision myself continuing long-term.  It has become one of my favorite unwinding as well as energizing activities because it gives me a chance to have silence and to clear my head.  Silence is golden! As I like to teach my music students: silences are just as important as sound.  If we have non-stop sound, our ears get washed out with stimuli.  We get tired of filtering information, and then the music becomes the background, and not the most important thing.  The same holds true in our lives.  We need silence in order to process things and clear our minds.  This makes room for new information to soon get processed by an attentive receiver - us.   On the other hand, if I happen to crave stimuli, I listen to music while I walk.

"The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between."
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

I prioritized plugging into activities that I enjoy for my down time.  Sometimes that means getting together with a friend over coffee, a dinner out, being creative, stretching (I like to do a mishmash of things I’ve picked up over the years: yoga, dance stretches, physical therapy stretches and Pilates).  It's easy, as moms, to feel guilty if we're not doing something constantly around the house.  After all, when we are at home, there is always something that demands our attention.  There is always something that needs to get done - the job is endless.  I therefore work on fighting the urge to get house stuff done when I'm exhausted, and I just let my mind and body rest without guilt.  I'm not always successful, because just the nature of being home begs to get something done, so I make a conscious effort to make downtime for myself.  It is the best gift that I can give myself.  This makes me so much more of a quality person for my family.

Moving forward in the new year has been about a journey to find my balance.  It is what strikes a chord in me, what motivates and moves me.  It sets my wheels in motion.  And sometimes, when I am parked in place a little too long and need some support, my husband Alex gives me a gentle loving push on the back and this momentum gets me propelling forward once again.  And sometimes, I just take a nap.

How do you like to create your balance?  I would love to know what strikes a chord in you.  Feel free to share here in the comments bellow.  I will part for now with a little old Irish saying, as you move forward in the new year:

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving - Reflections Over Bread Crumbs

It has been quite a few months since I had written my last post.  After a time of introspection and just living the day to day, I have been feeling the urge to start writing again.  To backtrack, my last post was about the beginning of the summer and my son Jake's difficulty with adjusting to his summer program.  After trying out the program for about a month, we had decided that although it was a program for special needs, it did not suit the needs for our kiddo.  It did not provide enough structure for him, which he really needs.  Even though at the time I was incredibly frustrated by the situation, we got to the point where we just chalked it off to: well, at least we tried.  That experience taught me that just because a place has a good reputation and may look good on paper, it may not be the right place for every child.  It felt like we were desperately trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, and it was time to move on.  So we did.  We got through the rest of the summer.  

Camp ASCCA at Lake Martin, AL - an evening boat ride

Although it wasn't the experience that we were hoping for, there were however a couple of highlights for our family that summer.  We went to two special needs camps: Camp ASCCA (Alabama Special Camp for Children and Adults) in June and Camp Yofi at Ramah Darom in August.  Camp ASCCA was our second summer and Yofi was our first time.  ASCCA includes all special needs children and young adults and Yofi is a Jewish camp that holds a week long program especially for autism families.  We loved both camps, as they each offered different types of services and activities as well as very special counselors who put their heart and soul into our kids.   

Art activity
Easter Seals provided a free special week for military families!

Through the journey of putting ourselves out there by stepping outside our daily comfort zones of predictable routine-filled structure, with trying out special needs camps and providing fun new family experiences, we knew that we had found a home away from home at Yofi.  We had a lot in common with other families there and made some new friends.  Because there was respite provided for the parents, we basically got date nights with other parents every night.  There were creative social activities planned for parents after kids went to sleep.  The camp also set up special precautions to help our families during that week, and we felt like it surpassed our expectations.  One such precaution (or baby proofing, as we lightheartedly call it) was at the evening of the bonfire, the counselors stood shoulder length apart at the edge of the lake, so that kids couldn't make a run for the water.  Given that autistic kids are very attracted to water, we were very much appreciative of that.  Each autistic child was partnered with a friend (a personal counselor who took the child on group activities without parents and siblings and attended to his/her every need).  The siblings had their own designated group activities that parents would drop them off at.  Parents had their choices of assorted activities, and they could also choose to rest if they'd like.  This aspect of the camp made it feel like we were (dare I say) on a vacation on a resort and pretty much appealed to every aspect of family life with special needs.  We had never experienced this before.  

One of Jake's favorite activities at Yofi

There were of course family activities scheduled for us to do together as well.  One of my personal highlights were the yoga sessions at a pretty little spot by the lake.  I had one private session on a rainy afternoon and the sound of the drops gently splashing on the water was incredibly serene and dreamy.  The other session I did with Jake, where we did lots of interactive posses and movements, and I was delighted to see him get involved and be in motion and relaxed altogether.  A new friend was there with her twin boys and we enjoyed experiencing that session together.  

Jake's counselor carried activity cards on a key chain for Jake

Another cool thing that the camp did was set up the cafeteria to have the main sitting/eating area in the middle and two play rooms, one on each side for younger and older kids.  Counselors sat outside the room with an attendance board for checking in and out, so that all kids were accounted for at all times.  This enabled parents to complete their meals and continue shmoozing with other parents and counselors in a relaxed atmosphere.  This was something which we thought was absolutely brilliant.  I could go on and on singing praises here, but I think you get the picture.  It was a wonderful experience for our family.  Subsequently, our twins repeatedly asked if we could return the following summer and kept talking about our camp adventures for weeks after we returned home.

Every child at Yofi got some sort of plate award

So that was the rest of our summer - it ended on a very positive note.  Alex and I felt very encouraged and proud of our little family for getting out there, taking charge and making memories with our children.  We felt fortunate to find such types of summer programs for special needs families and we want to encourage other families that may be gun shy to take such a step.  A lot of it is hands on and exhausting, especially in the heat of summer with outdoor activities, but staying at home all summer and finding daily activities, can be just as difficult at times.  It's also a great way to get kids more adjusted to being away from home in a fun and safe environment.  Basically, we got hooked and look forward to coming back in future summers.   

In closure, what I'm thankful for this year is that we had paved a new path with little bread crumbs (mind the turkey stuffing analogy) for us to come back to and find.  They lead the way for us, inviting us to return, with each step forward, getting closer and closer to warm familiar surroundings and friendly faces.  And as we look back over our shoulders, the crumbs slowly fade and disappear.  We then intuitively throw out fresh new crumbs, paving a fresh new path for us to return to for the following year.  I guess I am mostly appreciative of taking a leap of faith, putting our good energy out there, and seeing what happens.

Happy Thanksgiving, 
and may your bread crumbs pave the way to a lovely holiday and happy home!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Terrible Two's At Age 6 1/2?

I remember reading a few weeks ago about Autism Speaks having a live chat with Dr. Temple Grandin.  Someone had asked her a question about communication and she shared that when she was a young child, she knew what she wanted to say in her mind.  She even had the exact words that she wanted to say, but couldn't physically get them out of her mouth.  Imagine how incredibly frustrating that would be.  I know that I would become angry if I were in that situation - wouldn't you? I have to wonder whether Jake is experiencing the same thing and is physically acting out of frustration.  Perhaps he is acting out to get some sort of sense of control?

I also have read (I can't remember which autism related book it was now) that "whenever in doubt, presume intelligence."  This means to always give your child the benefit of the doubt that he/she understands what's going on and what we are saying.  This is also why it's so important to not speak about your child and autism issues within his presence, as if he is not there.  This is something that Alex and I are consciously working on and we'll catch one another if we do this.  This brings me to the point that I had found myself in yesterday afternoon, after picking Jake up from his new summer program:

I am frustrated.   I am frustrated and tired.   I am tired of being frustrated.  I am frustrated and tired of going through the autism roller coaster of cyclical behaviors.  Right now Jake is into hitting and kicking and that's been going on for several months now.  It's completely ironic that my mild-mannered, sweet loving and gentle son is expressing his frustrations through hitting and kicking - but nonetheless, here we are.

It feels like some sort of developmental milestone.  It's like going through the "terrible two's," but we are six and a half years old, and weigh about 60 pounds.  In fact, it's Alex's theory that since Jake is developmentally delayed, that he's actually going through his "terrible two's" now; close to the age of seven.  Could this actually be a plausible theory?  It does make total sense to me.  The frustration that he's exhibiting, probably due to his speech delay/lack of speech, and not being able to quickly express his needs and thoughts verbally, is causing him to act out physically.  It also feels like an impulsive response to anything displeasing to him.

It is not easy to watch for me, and it is also the kind of behavior that doesn't get defused overnight; we've been dealing with this for several months now.  At first, it was just mostly during ABA therapy, but now that he started a summer camp program, these behaviors manifested themselves right away. Once again, I am frustrated that I don't have the right answers and I don't know what to do.  So here I am, frustrated on many levels - including being frustrated for him, on his behalf, that he's not able to express himself in a socially acceptable way right now.

I am worried that this behavior is not getting defused quickly enough and may be becoming his new norm for the time being.  I worry that if this doesn't get defused soon, that he may get kicked out of his summer program.  This is stressful for me because it means that the program failed to address this correctly, and it also means that I have less time to get things done at home, and have some time to myself.

My plan of attack is to come and be there with him during his program, observe his behavior and also see if my presence brings him some comfort.  Maybe this would help him settle in more easily to his new environment.  We will also have our BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst - who works weekly with ABA therapy with Jake) come and discreetly observe him and see if he can give me and the teachers some feedback.

Now for some of the positive things that happened this week
1 - Jake started saying "Mommy" at the beginnings of his requests, and not just asking for things without calling me anything.
2 - When we were playing around he looked at me with a loving smile and said "I love you" all on his own.  This was non-prompted, which opened up the flood gates to at least ten more I love you's from him.
3 - He is now able to read 5-6 sight words in a row, when last week it was challenging for him.

Closing thoughts
There is definitely some growing that is taking place right now.  We tend to observe it with Jake in spurts and it's consistent with a pattern of two steps forward - one step back.  There are always back steps in his growing and learning process, but he keeps on consistently moving forward and developing in this type of progression.  While some things, like the undesired behaviors of kicking and hitting, are not pleasant and take a lot of persistence and work to defuse, other things, such as the positives that I reference above, are incredibly encouraging.  They bring me hope of what is still yet to come from this beautiful son of mine.  I am so thankful for those moments that take our breath away.  These moments are those times in our lives which inspire us to keep keeping on.  These moments inspire me to keep loving as much as humanly possible and to stay the course, one step at a time.