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10 Things That Shouldn’t Be Assumed About My Child With Autism

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1. Don’t assume that my child has low intelligence. Kids with autism are often capable of more than we give them credit for. Many of them have varying degrees of communication delays, which is why people don’t always realize the extent of their intelligence. As a result, they are often excluded from games and activities, when they should at least be given the option of participating.

2. Don’t assume that my child is a genius. When I tell people that my son is autistic, they immediately assume that he’s like Rain Man. Autistic savants do exist, but they are extremely rare. My son does have his strengths, and some of them could well turn out to be career material. But he’s unlikely to be the next Einstein, and people should not expect him to have some savant-like party-trick up his sleeve.

3. Don’t assume that my child doesn’t understand anything you say. Speech development in kids is divided roughly into two categories: expressive language (what a child says, or expresses) and receptive language (what a child understands, or receives). For many kids with autism, receptive language far outpaces expressive language, meaning a child who is non-verbal can understand and process a lot of what is said to him or her. It drives me crazy when people say things like, “Would your son like some juice?” when he is standing right beside me. Ask him if he’d like some juice. There’s a decent chance that he’ll answer, and the best way for him to develop his language skills is by practicing them.

4. Don’t assume that my child understands everything you say. Autism is an invisible disability. Apart from a very slight awkwardness in his gait, my son looks just like any other kid his age. You cannot tell just by looking at him that he has a disability. Therefore, one could be forgiven for assuming that he has the same language capabilities as other kids. If my son hesitates to answer you or act on what you’re saying, try breaking down your sentence into smaller, simpler chunks.

5. Don’t assume that my child “needs discipline”. Yes, I have on many occasions been “that mom”. You know, the one everyone is staring at because of her child melting down in the grocery store or making loud vocalizations in a restaurant. Most people, to their credit, are very understanding once they know that autism is in the picture, but there are always those who insist that a swift smack on the behind is all that is needed. I once had an elderly woman telling me, “In my day, no child was autistic because we were raised with discipline.” Here’s the truth: a meltdown can be awkward and uncomfortable for the parents and any onlookers, but it is a thousand times worse for the overwhelmed, anxiety-ridden child who is experiencing it.

6. Don’t assume that my child isn’t capable of misbehaviour. My son is twelve, and he has a twelve-year-old’s attitude. He is going through the same moodiness and unpredictability that other pubescent kids go through. It is easy to use autism as the default explanation for his behaviour, but as a doctor told me many years ago, “He is a boy with autism, but he is first and foremost a boy.” I have become quite adept at distinguishing my son’s “autistic” behaviour from his “typical bratty kid” behaviour, and I react accordingly.

7. Don’t assume that my child is incapable of emotion. Because he really isn’t. One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding autism is that autistics do not have the capacity for love and empathy. My son is one of sweetest, most loving people I have ever come across. He is full of hugs for the people he loves, and making people happy brings him joy. Here’s something he has done since he was little: when he wakes up in the middle of the night, he gets up to check on his younger brother and make sure he’s covered with a blanket.

8. Don’t assume that my child knows how to react to emotion. My son is undoubtedly an emotional being, but he does not always know how to respond to the emotions of others. And when he doesn’t know how to respond, his default reaction is hysterical laughter. This understandably appears to be incredibly insensitive to someone who is crying, but it’s a simple case of my son not knowing how to process something. He knows that crying is associated with sadness – he simply doesn’t know what to do with that.

9. Don’t assume that my child is not a social being. It is true that at times, social gatherings make my son uncomfortable. His tolerance for noise and crowds is definitely lower than that of most people, and for that reason we always choose to have events like Christmas and birthday parties at home. That way, he can retreat when he needs to. But in general, my son likes people. He likes being around them and interacting with them in his own way.

10. Don’t assume that my child is socially aware. To my knowledge, my son has never been around anyone who would deliberately want to do him harm. At his school, the general student body is tremendously respectful and protective toward the special needs kids. I have never had to worry about bullying or discrimination, but I know that this may not always be the case. My son is very trusting, as many people with autism are. He has limited sense of danger, as many people with autism do. He does not really have the capacity to understand that people can act nice but have not-so-nice motives.

This is an original post for Running for Autism by Kirsten Doyle.

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In Defense Of Ontario’s Sex Education Curriculum

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I was educated at a girls-only Catholic school run by nuns. Our sex education was fairly basic and had a singular message: we weren’t to have sex, or engage in any physical contact with boys. When we did start having sex – only after marriage, of course – the only form of contraception we could use was the rhythm method. Every sperm was sacred, and all of them had to be given a chance. Sex was there for procreation only. If we could manage to avoid enjoying it, so much the better.

The concept of “safe sex” was never taught – why would it be, when abstinence was the word of the decade? Our sex education did not comprehensively cover the area of consent, and if anyone had even mentioned respect for gay rights, the nuns would have had a heart attack.

The simple truth is that we were not told enough, and we suffered for it. I mean, we knew about the mechanics of sex. Most of us had mothers who did a good job of preparing us for menstruation, and we knew that if the sperm hit the egg, pregnancy would result. We had a good grasp on the biology of it all. But sex is so much more than biology, isn’t it?

No-one thought to tell us about body image and self-esteem – if anything, we were all encouraged to be skinny so that we could appeal to the boys we were forbidden from having physical contact with. We were given no information about how to reduce our risk of sexually transmitted diseases, or where to access birth control. Any discussion about rape was centred around two themes: how we had to make sure we didn’t “ask for it” (the clear implication being that rape victims were responsible for the crimes committed against them – an attitude that is frighteningly prevalent even today), and how abortion was not acceptable even if the pregnancy was a result of rape.

When I look back at the quote-unquote “sex education” that I received at school, I cannot help being utterly befuddled by the current spate of protests against Ontario’s sex education curriculum. If me and my peers had had access to the information being taught today, many of us might have been better equipped than we were to navigate the world of sex and relationships.

Those protesting the Ontario sex education curriculum are tossing around some statements that are either untrue or unreasonable. Here are some of the prizewinners and my responses:

They are teaching young children how to consent to sex. No, they are NOT. They are teaching young children that nobody has the right to hug them, touch them or have any kind of physical contact with them without their consent. They are teaching them how to tell what kind of touching is never OK, and what they should do if they find themselves in a difficult situation. They are teaching them that they, and they alone, are in charge of their bodies.

They are giving graphic information about sex to grade schoolers. Sorry, but teaching a child the proper terms for their genitals does not count as “graphic information about sex”.

Sex education is the job of parents, not the schools. Some kids are fortunate enough to have parents they can have completely frank discussions with. Others have parents who tell them nothing. Most kids fall somewhere in the middle. Their parents have the best intentions, but they – the kids – need to be able to talk to another trusted adult about some delicate issues. Having an organized sex education curriculum ensures that all kids have access to information that is really important. Besides, what would you rather have? Kids learning from people who are trained to teach them, or kids learning from each other and from Google?

They are teaching kids about masturbation. Look, it’s not like they’re giving illustrated how-to manuals to Kindergartners. They are merely teaching young adolescents that exploring their bodies is a normal part of life and that it’s not something to be ashamed of. Quite frankly, what they’re teaching about masturbation now is less graphic than what they taught four or five decades ago.

The sex education curriculum needs to be respectful of our religious freedoms, and we believe that homosexuality is a sin. Actually, no, the curriculum does not need to be respectful of “religious freedoms”. It needs to be consistent with the laws of Canada, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

But it’s wrong to teach that homosexuality is normal. Our kids are growing up in a society that has many versions of “normal”. There are traditional households with a man, a woman, two-point-four children and a dog named Rover. There are single moms and single dads, blended families, gay parents. We live in one of the most diverse societies in the world, and our education system has to reflect that.

I don’t see why I have to subject my child to this sex education curriculum. Ah, but you don’t. You have the choice to opt your children out of the sex education curriculum. You have the choice to make your child sit alone in the library while his or her peers are learning about the realities of life.

What are your views about sex education? If you live in Ontario, what do you think of the curriculum?

This is an original post for Running For Autism by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: QuotesEverlasting. This pictures has a creative commons attribution license.

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The Pitfalls Of Competitive Parenting

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When an article entitled “5 Things You Should Never Say To A Stay-At-Home Mom” appeared in my Facebook feed a couple of days ago, I knew there was going to be trouble. The article itself was innocuous – a little unintentionally judgy, perhaps – but the comments section was a virtual bloodbath. Work-outside-the-home moms were claiming to be busier than stay-at-home moms. Stay-at-home-moms were claiming to be there for their kids more than work-outside-the-home moms. Each side was claiming, without actually saying it directly, to be better than the other side.

As I was reading this, I was thinking about what a shame it is that there even are sides. What happened to the days when parents were just parents? At what point did moms and dads become so insecure that they started resorting to competitive parenting? There seems to be a constant game of one-upmanship in which people talk about the sacrifices they have made and the difficulties they have endured in order to be the Perfect Parents.

Here are some of the problems I see with today’s trend of competitive parenting:

It smacks of judgment, and that’s just not right. Unless you are beating, starving, neglecting or otherwise abusing your kids, you’re doing fine. Stay-at-home moms are not better than work-outside-the-home moms. Work-outside-the-home moms are not better than stay at home moms. You’re not a better or worse parent just because you give your kids boxed mac-and-cheese, or limit their screen time, or give up on arguing with them over a chore and just do it yourself. We are all parents, and we all do the best we can with the circumstances we find ourselves in.

It ignores the fact that everyone’s situation is unique. We humans love to categorize and compare things. Stay-at-home moms vs. work-outside-the-home moms. Breastfeeding moms vs. formula feeding moms. Free-range parents vs. helicopter parents. The trouble with classifying everything is that it leads to division, and it assumes that everyone in the same “group” is the same. Some stay-at-home moms love spending all of their time with their kids, and others yearn for the workplace. Some formula feeding moms would really love to breastfeed, and some breastfeeding moms really don’t enjoy it. Even within the same family, things can be different. I can free-range parent my younger son, but my older son, who has autism, requires a much more hands-on approach.

It places too much emphasis on the distinction between doing things out of choice and doing things out of necessity. Many work-outside-the-home moms really don’t have a choice. They need the income just to pay the mortgage and put food on the table. But some work-outside-the-home moms choose to work outside the home. And guess what? That’s OK. I don’t know why so many people have this notion that parents are not allowed to make a single decision in their own self-interest. I mean, sure, if you’re leaving your three-year-old at home alone for eight hours a day just so you can pursue a career, that’s a problem. But if you are taking care of your kids, protecting them from harm, and doing what you can to help them become mature, well-rounded individuals, nothing else really matters.

It takes the focus away from what we really need to be doing. When it comes down to it, these attempts at competitive parenting don’t accomplish a single thing. They are merely distractions that give parents something to argue about when there are so many other things for us to be devoting our energy to.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: Jason Bolonski. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.

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His Brother’s Keeper

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It is a cold snowy afternoon, and the boys have just finished doing their homework. George – eleven years old now and as tall as me – is sitting on the couch trying not to cry. I am on the floor with my back up against the couch, holding his foot in my lap. I start ministering to his sore toe as gently as I can, knowing that no matter how hard I try, it’s going to hurt.

For the last couple of weeks, George has been plagued by an ingrown toenail. He was at the doctor earlier in the week – a feat in itself for this boy with autism who finds doctors to be mysterious and scary – and I am carefully following the care-and-cleaning instructions that I have been given.

He tries so hard to be brave as I clean and bathe his toe, but he cannot help getting distressed. As he cries out in pain, James suddenly appears in front of us. James – nine years old and full of energy – is just in from throwing snow in the back yard. His gaze moves from his brother on the couch to me on the floor surrounded by First Aid supplies.

“I want to do it,” he says.

“You want to do what?” I ask, not understanding.

“George’s toe,” he says. “I want to do it. George is my brother. I’m the one who gets to take care of him.”

I regard my son, blown away yet again by how much love and compassion is within him. I think about the practicalities of him dressing George’s toe and how I have already been kicked several times during these First Aid sessions. I don’t want James to get hurt.

But my Spidey-sense is telling me to listen to James. I switch places with him, and following my instructions, he calmly takes care of George’s toe. George is still crying but he is visibly less distressed. Maybe James’s small, light fingers are gentler than mine. Or maybe George is responding to the love of his brother.

James uses a little bit too much of the antiseptic lotion, and the dressing and bandage are a little haphazardly applied. But none of that matters next to the waves of kindness that are radiating from James.

With the job done, James gently kisses the newly applied bandage and gets onto the couch.

“You’re my George,” he says, wrapping his arms around his brother.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit to the author.

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Parenting: Live And Let Live

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Early this morning, while I was sipping my first coffee of the day and browsing through my Facebook feed, I came across a thread that made me feel incredibly sad. It was a post about co-sleeping, and one of the first comments was from a woman saying that she believed co-sleeping was fine as long as it was done safely, that she had co-slept with her first child and that she would co-sleep with any future children.

The thing that made me sad was how other moms lambasted this woman, told her that she was uneducated, and said that if she lost a baby, it would be her own fault.

I have no interest in starting another debate about co-sleeping. Quite frankly, I don’t have a strong position about the subject one way or the other. One of my babies slept in a crib, the other co-slept with me. I did what I felt was best for each child, and in both cases, I made safety the paramount concern.

What I do have a strong position about is the idea that the vast majority of parents do what they think is best for their children, most of them research their choices, and most of them do everything they can to keep their kids safe. Unless a mother is being deliberately and blatantly abusive or negligent, she should be allowed to make those choices for her children without worrying about what other people think.

It always fascinates me that a species as diverse as the human race tends to think in such absolute terms, and parents are no exception to this. Many of them tend to believe that there is only one right way of doing things, and it’s their way, and anyone who does things differently is a <insert insulting adjective> parent.

Frankly, I’m tired of it. When will parents just accept that what’s right for them is – well, right for them? The fact that some moms breastfeed their kids until Kindergarten does not give them the right to criticize moms who are unable to breastfeed or who simply choose not to do so. Parents who limit their kids’ screen time should not be accused of being unreasonable, and those who do not should not be branded as lazy. If you let your baby “cry it out”, you are not heartless and mean, and if you pick up your baby whenever he cries, you are not spoiling your child.

Your own personal experience – no matter how tragic – does not entitle you to judge other people. Your child’s autism diagnosis may have come shortly after a vaccination, but you don’t get to accuse pro-vaxers of being uninformed and ignorant. Maybe your formula-fed child developed life-threatening food allergies, but that doesn’t give you the right to tell other formula-feeding moms that breastfeeding would be possible if only they would try harder. If your baby died while co-sleeping, I am truly sorry for your loss, but please don’t go around telling parents who choose to co-sleep that they are potential child-killers.

I’m not suggesting that we all shut up about our beliefs and opinions, or that we stop sharing our experiences. On the contrary – parents who speak out about what they go through can be valuable resources to other parents who are struggling with their choices or looking for information about their options. It’s even OK to be passionate about something that you have a strong opinion about.

Just be respectful about it, that’s all. No blame, no finger-pointing, no judging.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: mariana f. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.

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The Duck Pie Dance

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The nightly Duck Pie Dance starts at about 7:30 p.m., right after everyone has finished eating dinner.

“George, put on your pyjamas,” I say to my firstborn son, who at eleven, currently has the whole puberty-and-autism combination going on.

He stops whatever he is doing to look at me, and then he gets up and locates his pyjamas. He returns to the living room, and then standing directly in front of me, he puts them on. Without first removing his daytime clothes. He stands there looking bulky and rumpled, with an expectant look on his face as he waits for me to follow the script.

“George,” I say obligingly, “Take off your clothes, then put on your pyjamas.”

He takes off the pyjamas but keeps his clothes on. With a look of devilment in his eyes, he holds the pyjamas and slowly edges toward the door that separates the living room from my husband’s office. At a snail’s pace, he shuffles into the office, pulling the door as he goes. Right before the door is about to close, he flings it open, tosses the pyjamas onto the living room floor and dashes into the office, slamming the door behind him. Through the closed door, I hear him giggling hysterically.

“George,” I yell, pretending to sound stern. “Put your pyjamas on!”

He comes back into the living room and flops down in front his computer, pretending to ignore me. I get up and stand in front of him, wordlessly pointing at the pyjamas that are still lying on the floor where he threw them. He picks them up and puts them on, this time taking off his clothes first.

I sit back down, knowing that this is not over. George wanders around for a few minutes, playing on his computer, making words with his alphabetic magnets, playing a few notes on the keyboard. I turn my attention back to whatever I was doing.

Five minutes later, I hear his voice right beside me.

“What happened, George?” he says in an astonished tone, as if he’s reprimanding himself. I look up, and he’s standing there wearing nothing but his undies. I sigh and roll my eyes.

“What happened, George?” I ask, mimicking him. He giggles and runs away. No matter. He’ll be back thirty seconds from now. Or two minutes, or ten minutes – whenever he’s ready. You can’t rush these things.

When he does return, he has his pyjamas on upside down. Yes, you read that correctly. There is a way to put pyjamas on upside down, and my son has discovered it. He has put one leg of the pyjama pants over his head and the other down one arm. His legs are in the sleeves of the pyjama top, which he is holding at the waist.

“Duck pie!” he yells gleefully, with a gleam in his eye.

“Duck pie! Duck pie! Duck pie!” he chants as he prances around the house. He laughs as if it’s the funniest thing in the world, and we all laugh right along with him, not only because it is indeed the funniest thing in the world, but because he has the most delightfully infectious laugh.

Eventually, the Duck Pie Dance comes to an end and George puts on his pyjamas properly. He goes to bed and sings to himself for a while before drifting off to sleep, and I smile to myself, already looking forward to tomorrow’s performance.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit to the author.

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My Children Are Getting Tall, But…

When I was a child, my mother regularly marked my height and my brother’s on the door frame in the kitchen. Every Christmas morning, we would stand against the frame in our stockinged feet, and she would use a ball point pen to draw a line over the tops of our heads. An initial would be added – P for my brother, K for me – along with the date. By the time I was 15, there were over a dozen blue lines on the door frame, telling the story of how and when we had grown. For years, the kitchen door frame was the only part of the house that never got painted.

I started to follow the same tradition with my kids when they were little, but it became one of those non-essential things that I just didn’t have the energy for. Things were difficult for me back then. My dad had died, my older son had been diagnosed with autism, I was experiencing post-partum depression after the birth of my younger son, we were trying to recover from a financial crisis – drawing lines on a wall just didn’t feature anywhere on my list of priorities.

I may not have my boys’ growth recorded all in one place, but I do have photographic proof that they were once little. Like this picture, taken seven years ago:

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And now the kid who once needed a chair in order to reach the counter is big enough to ride a bike. With no training wheels.

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And the one who was barely peeking over the counter is almost as tall as the fridge. Taller, if you count the pineapple on his head.

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My firstborn son’s hands are bigger than mine now. I can comfortably slip my feet into his shoes, and he is less than three inches shorter than me. My younger son is catching up rapidly. He has outgrown his shoes four times in the last year, and when he falls asleep on the couch, I can no longer pick him up and carry him to his bed. He can sprint around a 300m track faster than I can.

And yet.

They are still my babies, and they always will be. When they come stumbling into the kitchen first thing in the morning, their faces puffy from sleep, I don’t see the teenagers they will one day be, I see the newborns they once were. When they are standing in front of me with tear-streaked faces or scraped knees, I still have the ability to comfort them with a gentle touch, with a kiss, with a Band-Aid sprinkled with magic dust. I can still make them laugh by acting like a goof.

When they greet me with a smile, throw their arms around me and hold on as if they are never going to let go, my heart still explodes with love.

And that is never going to change. Because even when they are taller than me, they will still be my babies.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. All photos accredited to the author.

 

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The Flea In The Bottle

George and his dad, enjoying the concert

George and his dad, enjoying the concert

A long time ago, I heard a story about a flea that was put into a bottle. Since fleas are capable of jumping something like 30 times their own body length, the lid had to be put onto the bottle in order to contain the flea. Whenever the flea jumped, it dinged itself on the bottom of the lid, and eventually it figured out how to jump to a level just below the lid. After a period of time, the lid was removed, and the flea was free to go. But by now, it could no longer jump high enough to escape from the bottle. The physical capability was there, but the flea had the expectation that if jumped any higher, it would get hurt.

The story is a metaphor, of course. It’s supposed to illustrate the idea that we perform not according to our abilities, but according to the expectations we have, that are put there by ourselves or by someone else.

When George was diagnosed with autism seven years ago, I promised myself that I would never put a lid on my expectations of him. I would ensure that he had whatever opportunities he needed to learn and grow, and to discover what he might be capable of.

This strategy has not always been easy to follow, but it appears to have been reasonably successful. Over the years, periods of rapid progress have alternated with disheartening plateaus. Lately we have been experiencing the latter, and my husband and I have been having some depressing conversations about George’s limitations.

In the midst of all of this, my other son James has been preparing for his school’s spring concert, which happened this evening. In the past, we have left George at home with his grandma on occasions like this. Sometimes crowds and excitement overwhelm him, and we don’t want to stress him out or wreck things for James. Tonight, however, Grandma was unable to watch George, so we had to bring him with us.

While we were standing outside the school waiting for the doors to open, George was already getting antsy. My husband and I spoke about which one of us would leave with him, and which one would stay behind to watch James. In the end, we decided to see how long George would last for, so we went in and took a seat.

The concert started with the 8th Grade band. As soon as the music started, a huge smile appeared on George’s face, and he started swaying in time to the beat. He briefly clapped his hands over his ears when the drumming started, but for the most part he stayed calm. He even started singing along when the band played We Will Rock You.

The folk-dancing act that James was participating in was quite late in the program, and throughout the whole concert, George was sitting calmly, listening to the music and clearly enjoying himself. From time to time he would bop up and down in time to the music.

When James and the rest of the folk dancers came out, I scooted to the other side of the auditorium to get a clear shot with my phone’s video camera. While the dancing was going on, I turned my head to see how George was doing. To my astonishment, he was standing beside his seat, trying to imitate the moves of the dancers. As his hat-bedecked head bopped and jived in time to the music, my husband caught my eye and gave me a thumbs-up. For a few moments, I swung the camera around to capture some of his dancing.

We left soon after James was done with his performance. George was brimming with happiness, but we could tell that he was ready to leave. We took the boys to McDonalds to reward both of them for a job well done.

Now, as they settle into bed for the night, I cannot help reflecting on the fact that if my mother-in-law hadn’t had a prior appointment, George would have stayed home and we would have missed the opportunity to see him having such a wonderful time. This has renewed my resolve to keep testing his limits and pushing him beyond his boundaries. I don’t want to put a lid on my expectations of him, or his expectations of himself. I don’t want him to be that flea that is conditioned into lowering its potential.

I want George to dream big, and to fly as high and as far as he dares to go.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit to the author.

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9 Rules Of Parenting That I Don’t Follow

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1. Don’t let your child have more than 30 minutes of TV or computer time a day

My kids probably get 30 minutes of screen time just before they leave for school in the mornings. Contrary to what we keep hearing, their brains are not turning to mush and they don’t live in a catatonic zombie-like state. They are bright and energetic, there is nothing wrong with their motor skills or my neurotypical child’s social skills, and the games that my autism boy plays have a noticeable positive impact on his speech.

2. Don’t feed your kids processed food

Whoever made this rule probably didn’t have picky eaters. Like most parents, I try to feed my kids a healthy balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables and all of the right nutrients. Some of the food they eat regularly is processed, and I am unapologetic. If I were to eliminate all processed foods, my younger son would start to look like a starving refugee. The kids will grow out of the processed food and into “real” food – I am already seeing this with my older son, who used to eat nothing but grilled cheese sandwiches with processed cheese.

3. Don’t ever yell at your kids

According to The Experts, yelling at your kids is ineffective and psychologically harmful. Apparently, talking to them softly will cause them to stop what they are doing and listen to you. That has got to be the biggest joke of the century. There are times when yelling is the only effective way of getting them to stop whatever chaos they’re causing. Do I constantly yell at them all day, every day? No, and if I did I would deserve a slap upside the head. But the occasional bout of yelling in frustration is not leading my kids to a lifetime of therapy. They know I love them, because I tell them all the time.

4. Don’t expose your kids to germs

I’m not stupid about germs. I’m not going to dump my kids into the middle of a crowd of tuberculosis patients. I make them wash their hands before meals and after using the washroom. They are expected to maintain acceptable standards of hygiene. But I believe that there is such a thing as too much cleanliness. If my kids touch an unsterilized surface like the handle of a shopping cart, I’m not going to go to war using a bottle of hand sanitizer. I don’t keep them away from places “just in case” someone has a cold. They are strong, healthy kids who rarely get sick.

5. Sit down at the table and have your dinner as a family

I’ve read the statistics: families that eat dinner together at a dining room table are less dysfunctional and more connected. The first problem with that is that we don’t actually have a dining room table. The second problem is that getting the autism boy to sit down for an entire meal is a bit of a challenge. Even in restaurants, he has to get up and wander around from time to time. Our family is admittedly a little bit dysfunctional (show me a family that isn’t), but we are highly connected with one another.

6. Send your kids to bed at the same time every night, even on weekends

I have nights when I’m absolutely exhausted, and I have other nights when I’m too wired up to even think of sleep. My kids are the same. They don’t get tired at the same time every night, so they don’t go to bed at the same time every night. Generally, I try to make sure they’re in bed by 8:30 during the week, but if it turns out to be 9:00 from time to time, it’s not end of the world. Not only that – they are allowed to stay up later on weekends.

7. Treat both of your children equally

I have one son, aged 10, who has autism. He doesn’t talk much and he struggles with social interactions. I have another son, aged 8, who is neurotypical. He is outgoing and talkative. The boys are very, very different from one another. They have different capabilities, different levels of cognitive functioning, and different needs. I love them both with all of my heart, but they have to be treated differently, because they are different people.

8. Always put your kids’ needs ahead of your own

If one of my kids is cold, I will give him my jacket. I make sure my boys are fed before I eat anything myself. If they are sick or scared in the middle of the night, I gladly sacrifice my own sleep so I can comfort them. My heart bursts with love for them, and I live to make them happy and take care of them. Sometimes, though, I have to think of myself first. I have to tune them out to do my own thing, or I have to go for a run before I take them to a park. Because sometimes, if I don’t take care of myself, I am too burned out to take care of anyone else.

9. Don’t let your kids do dangerous things

Look, I’m not going to buy my 8-year-old a Harley Davidson or encourage him to go bungee jumping. But if he’s doing something daring on the playground or riding his bike too fast around our cul-de-sac, I’m not going to stop him. If he falls, he falls. He might get a grazed knee or a bump on the head. If that happens, he’ll get First Aid and the appropriate amount of sympathy, and he will have learned something about what he is physically able to do. I’d rather let my boys test their limits while I’m around to watch, instead of restricting them and forcing them to experiment without proper supervision.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit to the author.

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Merry Christmas And Happy Birthday

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Once upon a time, on Christmas Day, a child was born.

No, this is not a story about Jesus. Apparently, historians haven’t been able to determine exactly when Jesus was born. We just celebrate his birth on Christmas Day because it was a popular day for pagan celebrations.

The baby in my story, who was actually born on Christmas Day, is none other than my younger son James. After keeping me waiting for more than a week past his due date, he came flying out like a cannonball eight Christmases ago, and he hasn’t stopped since. Maybe he can’t walk on water or turn water into wine, but he has definitely added a special kind of energy and excitement to my life.

He has also made birthday celebrations a little challenging, simply because of the day on which he chose to make his very loud arrival. On the one hand, we feel that we need to separate his birthday from Christmas, so that his birthday can get the attention it deserves. On the other hand, we want to celebrate his birthday on the actual day of his birthday.

Over the years, we’ve gotten better and better at this birthday-on-Christmas thing. We divide Christmas Day in half and do Christmas stuff in the morning. Then we have lunch, and from that point the rest of the day is devoted to James’s birthday. We give him birthday presents and have cake, just the four of us.

The full-on birthday parties that include James’s friends have, until now, happened in early December. This year, I decided to change the formula and have the party in January, after the actual birthday. And that is how, three days ago, I had a house full of energetic boys.

The party was a resounding success. For most things, I took the easy way out: pizza and chips for lunch, and disposable dishes so I wouldn’t have to spend all night washing up. I invited the kids’ respite worker – a 17-year-old boy who the kids absolutely adore – to come and run the activities. I got a pinata and some prizes, and goodie bags for all of the guests.

As I do every year, I worked very hard on the cake. For both of the boys, I do theme cakes based on whatever they are into. George has had Bob the Builder, Mr. Potato Head and Spongebob Squarepants. James has had Thomas the Train, Lightning McQueen and Ben Ten. This time round, it was a Beyblade cake. I was up until midnight the night before the party, mixing icing of different colours and meticulously drawing out the design on the cake. I looked like a mad scientist, with my hair all wild and bowls of red and blue and grey icing surrounding me.

The end result was pretty much what you would expect from someone who knows squat about decorating cakes, but I was pleased with it. More important, James’s face lit up in delight when he saw it, and his friends were saying Oooooooooh! and Cool! The cake was clearly and instantly recognisable as a Beyblade cake, and that was really all that mattered to me.

That and the fact that the kids had an amazing time. We had just the right number of kids, and the activities flowed at just the right pace. Even George, whose autism frequently makes him retreat from things like this, was happy to be among all of the kids, even if he didn’t actively participate in a lot of the proceedings.

The birthday boy was happy, and he felt that he got the birthday he deserved.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit to the author.