9 Memorable Moments Of A Lifelong Friendship



It has been said that people come into our lives for a reason, a season or a lifetime. Sometimes they are there for a specific purpose, and once that purpose has been fulfilled, they move on. Other people are there for a phase of our lives before the friendship drifts apart for whatever reason. Then there are those who are there for the long haul, no matter what life throws at either one of you.

Jenny came into my life when we were both 10. She is still there now, and we have made a pact that when we’re old, we’re going to sit on a porch on rocking chairs doing our knitting. Well, Jenny will knit and I will probably be doing some writing on an old-person tablet with extra-large font. I cannot knit.

When you’ve been friends with someone for 33 years, you collect a lot of memories with them. Today, in honour of Jenny’s birthday, I want to share some of those moments.

1. We were new kids together at school. We stood there side by side as the teacher introduced us to the rest of the class. We pretty much stayed side by side until we graduated high school.

2. When we were about 13, Jenny caught a bad cold that did some very weird things to her speech. This was during her phase of calling me “Spazzhead”. Try to imagine what the word “Spazzhead” would sound like when spoken by someone whose head has been stuffed full of bubble wrap. During recess one day, Jenny kept saying “Spazzhead” over and over, just because it sounded so funny. We were laughing so hard we couldn’t even sit up straight.

3. One Monday, Jenny came to school with her eyes red from crying all night. The previous day, her family had seen the immediate aftermath of a serious car crash on the highway. Jenny described the scene to me, and I was horrified just listening to it. For her to have actually seen it must have been absolutely traumatic. As she told me about it, she broke down in tears again. I could not think of any words to say, so I just held her.

4. When we were 12 or 13, we went on a school field trip to the zoo, and we were admitted right into an enclosure with blue cranes. For reasons known only to God and to it, one of the birds was instantly fascinated by me. The damned thing had me dancing in circles around the enclosure, never making contact with me but getting close enough to make me very nervous. Jenny’s attempts to help me were thwarted by the tears that were running down her face as a result of her laughing so much.

5. During my university years, I got myself into big trouble, but I didn’t tell anyone about it. While I was trying to pick up the pieces of my life afterward, I did something that hurt Jenny badly. It took a couple of years, but she forgave me and I had my friend back.

6. On a beautiful sunny day, Jenny said “I do” to the love of her life. She was, without any doubt, the most beautiful woman in the world as she walked down the garden aisle with her father. The wedding was small and simple, and the air was filled with love. When you looked at Jenny and her new husband, you just knew they were going to be together forever.

7. In my late 20’s, I used a sizeable bonus from work to fund a holiday to Greece and Wales. Jenny, who was heavily pregnant, did not follow my instructions to hold off on having the baby until I got back. As I was sitting down to breakfast in my B&B near Cardiff Castle, Jenny’s husband called me with news of the birth. It was quite a birth story with many anxious moments, but Jenny and her new baby boy were doing OK. When she asked me to be the godmother, I cried with joy.

8. When my dad died, I forced myself to hold it together. I had to go through the logistics of traveling alone from Canada to South Africa, and when I got there, I needed to be strong enough to help my mom deal with the aftermath of losing a loved one. As I stood outside the church before the funeral, Jenny arrived with her mom and came right over to give me a hug. It was only then that I allowed myself to cry.

9. Last year, I took another unexpected trip to South Africa following the death of a beloved aunt. In spite of the circumstances, there were some rays of sunshine during my time there. One of these was a day with Jenny. We had a marvelous time getting rained on during a bird show and then having a leisurely lunch together. That perfect day was capped off by a phone chat with my now-almost-teenage godson.

Jenny and I live on opposite sides of the world, but that does not get in the way of a friendship like this one. Today, this amazing person celebrates a birthday, and even though she is thousands of miles away, I am celebrating with her.

Happy birthday, my dear friend. Thank you for putting up with me all these years.

(Photo credit: Jixar. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)


Confessions Of A Pro-Vaccine Autism Mom


Today I took George to the doctor to get his shots. I was very nervous about this prospect: George used to have a terrible fear of doctors, and would always sit in the waiting room literally quivering with anxiety until it was his turn. Fortunately he’s a healthy child and hasn’t needed the services of a doctor for a couple of years, so I curious to see what his reaction would be like today.

When we walked into the waiting room, he sat down and calmly started playing with a toy. He didn’t flinch at the sights and smells typical of a doctor’s waiting room. We didn’t wait for long before we were called into the doctor’s inner sanctum. There, too, George was remarkably laid back as the doctor looked him over.

His composure fell apart somewhat when it was time for the needles, but as soon as they were done and the Band-Aids applied, all he needed was a couple of minutes of hugging, and then he was fine.

Ah, yes. The needles.

As an autism parent who keeps her kids vaccines up to date, I sometimes feel like a minority voice. Or perhaps it’s just that the anti-vaccine people tend to be more vocal than those on my side of the fence. But this is not intended to be a post about who’s right and who’s wrong. Everyone has their own journey, and their own reasons for the choices they make.

My position – speaking only for myself – is that vaccines cannot be blamed for the autism epidemic. You can show me a thousand statistics proving that I’m wrong, and I can show you a thousand statistics proving that I’m right. I do not dispute that some people have bad experiences with vaccines. But I do not believe that anyone has made a convincing enough case to generalize those incidents to the population as a whole.

I know with absolute certainty that George came out of the womb with autism. When I look back over his babyhood, I remember many thoughts of doubt going through my mind.

He should be swatting at toys by now, but he stares right through them.

Shouldn’t he be interested in the texture of these fabric books?

At what age are babies supposed to sit? Crawl? Walk?

Why is he ignoring me when I call his name?

I knew early on that something was going on. Vaccines had nothing to do with it.

Still, there are people who are critical of my choice to vaccinate. Deciding to vaccinate my younger son was like walking through a minefield.

“You are vaccinating your younger child, even though your older child has autism? Really?

From the way some folks talked, you would have thought I was ripping out my child’s fingernails one by one.

My kids’ vaccinations have always gone without incident. There are generally a few tears that are forgotten by the time we are getting back into the car, and there may be an evening of crankiness. Someone might sleep badly. By the following day, everyone is pretty much back to the way they were.

My name is Kirsten, and I willingly vaccinate my child with autism.

(Photo credit:Daniel Paquet.This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)


Creating Stories Out Of Life


Out of all the concerns I have about my son’s autism, the biggest is his communication impairment. He has the physical ability to talk, and he has a perfectly good vocabulary. He routinely states needs and desires using full sentences, and he even makes the occasional little joke, but the kid does not have conversations.

The reason this is such a big worry for me is that he cannot talk to me about things that happen to him during the day. If I ask him what he did at school today, he cannot tell me. If something was going on that shouldn’t be, such as bullying or inappropriate touching, he wouldn’t be able to express it. It’s not a problem now, while he’s young and under the supervision of trusted adults at all times, but he’s not always going to have that protection.

For a long time, I have been practicing the art of conversation with George. I ask him a series of questions and then reward him for giving appropriate answers. Perhaps more importantly, I expose him to conversations as much as possible so that he can learn by osmosis, the way he’s learned many of the life skills that he has acquired.

So far, I’ve had limited success with this, but I never lose hope that some day he will get it. This is a child who took nine months to learn how to point. The length of time it took was not nearly as significant as the new skill. So I don’t give up, ever.

A very recent development is that George is learning to communicate his experiences in his own way, by turning them into little stories. I first noticed this over the weekend, when we were driving home from a fun afternoon at the water park. George, who almost never utters a full sentence that is not a request, suddenly came out with a bunch of them, one after the other.

“Dad drove to the water park. George got wet. James got wet. The children got wet. Everyone got wet. Oh nooooo!”

While I thought this was absolutely phenomenal, the full significance of it went over my head at first. It was not until an incident yesterday that I realized what this could mean for George’s communication.

George has a fascination with water running out of taps, and he turns taps on as far as they will go, and then just lets them run. Usually we’re able to keep this in check, but occasionally he gets out of sight, the way kids do. He turned on a tap in the upstairs bathroom that just happened to be temporarily disconnected from the plumbing. A pile of water went into the space beneath the floor, which is also the space above the ceiling of the living room downstairs.

We didn’t know that George was turning taps on and off, but when water suddenly started gushing from the living room’s light fixture onto the carpet, we had a clue that something might be wrong.

A flurry of activity followed, like laying towels down on the living room carpet, and drilling holes in the ceiling to allow the water to drain out. While this was going on, George was hovering nearby, simultaneously nervous and excited. There was no doubt that he knew he was responsible for the chaos, and he seemed to be anxious yet oddly proud of his accomplishment.

All of a sudden, he produced another group of sentences.

“George turned on the tap. The carpet got wet. Dad stood on the ladder. Dad got cross.”

That is when it hit me that George was starting to use simple little stories to communicate events from his day, and that this could be the key to conversation that I have been searching for. I feel that I now have something to latch onto, something that I can encourage and expand on.

I am beyond excited about this. I have a feeling that we are on the cusp of some fantastic developments, and I will be listening out for more of George’s little stories.

(Photo credit: Bludgeoner86. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)


The Gift Of Summertime Chaos

The kids enjoying summer fun

The kids enjoying summer fun

Since entering the ranks of the unemployed two weeks ago, my daily routine has changed dramatically. The idea of abandoning routine altogether is tempting but dangerous. I am forcing myself to wake up at the same time, get dressed in respectable clothes, and do productive stuff. I am keeping more or less the same working hours that I did before, only without the long commute. Being unemployed is surprisingly hard work.

That being said, I am enjoying some flexibility that I didn’t have before. I can go running without getting up at an ungodly hour of the morning. I can wear sweats every day. They’re nice sweats that I’m perfectly comfortable being seen in public in, but they’re clothes that wouldn’t be allowed at my previous place of work. I can turn on the TV when I want to take a break.

Above all, I am making the most of getting time to myself, without coworkers, kids and the husband. Don’t get me wrong, I liked my coworkers, and I love my kids and my husband. But I kind of like myself too, and I’m finally getting to spend more time with myself.

That will be changing very soon, of course. The kids only have two and a half weeks before school lets out for the summer, and at that point, my period of blissful solitude is going to come to an end. I will still keep my working hours as best I can, but I anticipate frequent breaks – both voluntary and involuntary.

The kids generally never have a problem with the transition from school to summer. I try to keep the semblance of a routine in place for them. They get up at more or less the same time each day, they are expected to get dressed instead of lounging around in their PJ’s, and things like mealtimes, snacks and bedtimes remain unchanged. We do plan some activities for them over the summer, but for the most part, their time is their own.

The bigger challenge comes when it’s time to go back to school in the fall. At least, it’s a challenge for George. James takes to the new school year just fine. He is excited about seeing friends who have been away for the summer, and he likes the thrill of being in a new grade.

For George, though, it is very difficult. He doesn’t mind school too much, and going from this school year to the next, he will be in the same room with the same teacher and for the most part, the same kids. But the summer break is long, and by the time it’s over, George has to be reacquainted with the whole school routine. It’s hard for a child with autism who likes to have things just so.

One of our most important summer activities is therefore the back-to-school social story: a personalized book that tells the story of George getting onto a bus and going to school. We read the book with George over and over during the last weeks of the summer break, with the hope that the new school routine won’t come as a complete surprise to him.

And what does the summer mean to me, now that I will have to spend time focusing on the next steps in my professional life? It means additional chaos, for sure. It means that I will have to repeatedly stop what I’m doing to wipe up a spill, mediate a dispute or set up a game in the back yard.

It means that I will be here, with my children. It will be the best summer ever, and I cannot wait.



10 Things I’ve Learned As An Autism Parent

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My son George was diagnosed with autism six years ago, almost to the day. Most of what I’ve learned about autism since then has come not from books and websites, but from my own day-to-day life as a special needs parent. Here are some of the more surprising things I have learned over the last six years.

1. I do, in fact, have the patience to be a good special needs mom. No-one would ever have thought so when I was a child. Just ask any of the dolls that I used to have guardianship of.

2. Kids with autism often develop unique problem-solving skills, and I think this is borne from sheer perverse bloody-mindedness. If my kid with autism wants something, my kid with autism will figure out how to get it, in the face of all possible obstacles. Eventually, it becomes more about the principle than about the object. Things like locked doors and passwords are seen by my son as temporary roadblocks, not as actual barriers.

3. Corollary to #2: In my house, there is no such thing as a “safe place to keep stuff.”

4. Hell hath no fury like a child with autism who loses his hat. None of the six identical hats in your closet will do. You’ll just have to turn your house upside down and inside out until you find that hat.

5. If a child with autism gets a urinary tract infection that requires him to provide a urine sample, he will think that he now has to pee in a cup every time. You will have to watch him closely to make sure he doesn’t take any of your coffee mugs or measuring jugs into the bathroom with him.

6. Mr. Potato Head rules forever. We have just started our third jumbo-sized Rubbermaid tub of Mr. Potato Head stuff. When George is 45, he will be in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the biggest collection of Mr. Potato Heads. If he continues with his current trend, he will have about 6000 of them by then.

7. A child with autism can become the household’s unofficial tech support person from the time he or she is three. That was the age at which George literally elbowed me out of the way with an impatient click of his tongue, in order to effortlessly fix the DVD player that I had been struggling with for forty minutes.

8. Having a child with autism is like having a living, breathing GPS that knows the location of every single Tim Hortons coffee shop in a 75-mile radius.

9. Boys with autism are, above and beyond all else, boys. A couple of weeks ago, my almost non-verbal child said to me, “I spy with my little eye something that’s a white bra.” He then lifted up my shirt to peek at my bra and ran away giggling.

10. It is possible for a nine-year-old boy to sit on a can of apple juice.

(Photo credit: Kirsten Doyle)


Brotherly Love

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Last week, George lost his footing while trying to climb a tree, and he had a nasty fall. There was no lasting damage, but there were some scary-looking cuts and scrapes. That night, George had a hard time sleeping, probably because he was aching all over and couldn’t find a comfortable position to lie in.

We decided to keep him home from school the next day. He was a little shaken and we felt that he needed time to recover, and a cut on his back was looking kind of angry. While James was puttering around getting ready for school, George was lying on the couch looking a little the worse for wear.

James, who had been present when George had fallen, was deeply concerned. He fussed around his brother, covering him with a blanket, making sure the TV was tuned to George’s favourite channel, and bringing him some of his Mr. Potato Heads to play with.

It was really very sweet, watching James take care of his brother with such obvious love and care. Being the sibling of a child with autism must be so hard at times, and I know that George sometimes drives James around the bend. But James’ compassion for George never wavers.

When we went to the grocery store yesterday, George started melting down. Although grocery store meltdowns are far less common than they used to be, they are harder to control. George is a tall-for-his-age nine-year old, and it’s not as easy to physically contain him as it was when he was, say, five. My husband and I were debating whether one of us would have to take him out of the store, but then James saved the day by letting George play with his Leap Pad.

This was just the distraction that George needed, and from that point he quite happily walked around the store with us while we got what we needed to get.

All James had to say about this was, “The only thing that makes me happy is if George is happy.”

And that, it would seem, is what brotherhood is all about.

(Photo credit: Kirsten Doyle)


133 Days To Go


In 133 days, 10 hours and 20 minutes (give or take a few), I will be starting my fifth annual run for autism. I run several races each year, and all of them mean something to me. Each race has its own story of struggle and triumph. Every race – even the ones that I don’t do particularly well in – is a victory.

There is no race that brings a tear to my eye in the same way as the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Half-Marathon. This is the race that I dedicate to my son George, my amazing child who is so brave and determined in the face of his disability. As I cross the start line of this race, it is with the thought that while I will be done with the run in a little over two hours, George has to live with the challenges of autism every single day for the rest of his life. For him, there is no finish line. He does not get to stop and rest.

He has plenty of triumphs, though. Some of them would go unnoticed in “typical” households, but for us, they represent growth and a step towards independence. There is no such thing as a “small victory” in my family. That is one great thing about having a child with autism. You develop the ability to truly appreciate what others might regard as “the little things”.

I believe that the more help George gets now, the brighter his future will look. So my husband and I do everything we can to provide him with opportunities for living and learning. For me, that includes doing my part for the autism community, in an effort to make the world a better place not only for George, but for other people with autism.

And so I run, and I raise pledges. All funds that I raise go to the Geneva Centre for Autism, where they are used to provide much-needed services for children and youth with autism. Examples of things purchased with the money include musical instruments, art supplies, sports equipment, iPads, summer camps, job training and much more.

Today, I am excited to announce that pledges are open for my 2013 run for autism. At the moment, my fundraising goal is a cool thousand dollars, but I am really hoping that I can surpass that and up my target.

If you have any dollars to spare, please consider sponsoring me for this run.

Together, we can make a real difference to the lives of kids with autism.

To donate, please visit my fundraising page.



Where I Stand On The Spanking Debate


When I was a child, my mother had a wooden spoon named Belinda. There was a happy face drawn on one side of Belinda, and a sad face on the other side. If my mother could tell that my behaviour was about to go downhill, she would produce Belinda like a magician, and show me the two faces.

“Do you want the happy face or the sad face?” she would ask.

The happy face meant a reward. The sad face meant a spanking. Belinda was an absolutely marvellous tool for teaching me about things like decision-making and consequences.

Sometimes I got the sad face, and therefore a spanking.  The spankings didn’t happen often, and they were never severe – just a couple of open-handed swats on the bum – but they did serve their intended purpose of discipline. Usually I was not a repeat offender of the transgressions that I was spanked for.

I turned out OK, bear absolutely no ill will towards my parents for spanking me, and I did not grow up with the belief that the only way to solve a problem is by striking out physically. I freely admit to having my fair share of issues, but for the most part I am a well-balanced individual who can problem-solve in a balanced, rational and non-violent way.

In other words, my experiences of being spanked as a child did not turn me into a raging psychopath.

The world is a very different place today. If you admit to spanking your kids, people look at you as if you’re a child abuser who should be locked up for life. Many countries have legislated strict guidelines surrounding spanking. Some places have banned it altogether.

And I cannot help wondering if governments are going too far in telling parents how to do their jobs.

There is no question that there are people who cross the line from spanking to abuse. That was the case when I was a child, and it is still the case today. Guidelines and laws that either limit or ban spanking will not change that. If someone has that kind of disposition, or if they are in a state of anger that would drive them to extremes, they’re not going to stop and say, “Damn, this is against the law, I’d better stop.”

The point I’m making is that if someone is going to be abusive, they are going to be abusive.

Don’t get me wrong. I do think there should be guidelines. If a newborn baby is being spanked, that’s a problem. If a kid is black and blue from being “spanked”, that’s a problem. If the neighbours are hearing screams or if a child is afraid of his or her parents, that’s a problem. There needs to be some definition of exactly what it is that constitutes “spanking”.

At the same time, though, parents need to be allowed to parent. The vast majority of parents are quite capable of parenting their children without wrecking them, and there are abuse laws to deal with the ones who aren’t. If the laws aren’t good enough, the solution is to change the laws to ensure that the kids are safe from abusers. The solution is not to take power away from parents who are doing a perfectly good job.

I don’t spank my own kids, but that’s not because of a moral problem with it. It’s simply because spanking is not an effective means of discipline for them. If other parents choose to spank their kids in a responsible manner, I have absolutely no issues with that.

What are your views on spanking? Were you spanked as a child, and if so, did it have any lasting impact on you?

(Photo credit: richard_north. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)


On Running

With Running Room founder John Stanton, right after one of my autism runs

With Running Room founder John Stanton, right after one of my autism runs

My friend Phaedra posted some running reflections on her blog today. She ended her post with the question: “What has running brought to your life?”

I started to draft a reply on her blog, but it started to get kind of wordy, so I decided to just make a blog post of my own on the topic.

The first time I start running seriously, I was a 26-year-old couch potato with a 30-a-day smoking habit. I didn’t really care for the idea of exercise very much, but I wanted to quit smoking, and instinct told me that in order to accomplish that, I would have to fix other aspects of my lifestyle.

So I cut back on the caffeine, traded junk food for healthy home-cooked meals, and started to run shuffle along at a snail’s pace. A few months later, I smoked my last cigarette and my shuffling started to look like actual running. To my surprise, I discovered that I actually liked it. My dad, a former elite athlete who had long suspected that there was a runner lurking somewhere within me, merely said, “Told you so.”

During that time in my life, running was much more than just a means to quit smoking. I badly needed some self-affirmation back then. I had no self-esteem to speak of. I felt completely worthless, and when I started running, I realized that I had found something I could actually do. I didn’t claim to be particularly good at it, but I wasn’t looking for something to be good at. I was merely looking for something that I could do without failing.

The combination of stopping smoking and starting running allowed me to start feeling as if there was some validity to my existence.

The second time I started to run, I was a 39-year-old mother of two and I hadn’t touched a pair of running shoes in over six years. Some aspects of my life were very similar to the way they had been the first time round. Although I was no longer a smoker, my lifestyle had become sedentary, and once again, I was grappling with severe depression.

This time round, it was the idea of running for a cause that gave me the kick in the pants that I needed. The Geneva Centre for Autism had decided to enter a team in the charity challenge of a major Toronto running event, and they were looking for parents to participate. And somewhere deep inside me, underneath all of the layers of depression that were crippling me, a flame was lit. I registered for the half-marathon there and then, without giving myself time to think about it.

Six months later, I stood at the half-marathon finish line with a finisher’s medal around my neck. I had gone the distance, all 21.1km of it, and every inch of it had been for my son. It was an intensely emotional experience and the tears flowed unchecked.

Since then, I have run six more half-marathons and a number of races of other distances. One half-marathon each year is dedicated to my son and other children with autism, as I fund-raise and strive to make my small contribution to the autism community.

Once again, running has been a salvation for me, a form of self-affirmation, and a way for me to feel truly alive. When my running is going well, I feel as if I have it in me to get through any challenge and achieve any goal I want.

And when it’s going badly, all I have to do is think of my son. If he can live his entire life, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with the challenges of autism, then I can run for a couple of hours to make the world a better place for him.




Job Loss: Crisis Or Gift?


Eight days.

It’s been eight days since I joined the ranks of the not-working, and a surprising amount of things have happened since then, like a weekend away, a half-marathon, and a plethora of admin relating to my new economic status.

Today, I made a concrete step towards my new future – whatever that might be – by meeting with the career coach arranged for me by my former employers. It was one of most exhausting meetings I have ever been in, because of the abundance of information I received, and possibly also because this whole process is so emotionally draining.

My first impression, having had this meeting, is that being unemployed is going to be very hard work. I have forms to fill in, assessments to complete, workshops to attend. The month will be an intense period of time as I prepare myself for the job market.

Maybe, in some weird way, this whole experience is a gift. I have a unique opportunity to change the direction of my career with the help of a professional. Although I will be busy, I will have more time to focus on my school work and my writing.

Best of all – the most precious gift of all – is that I have more time for my kids. I am loving the fact that I can be the one to get them ready for school in the mornings, that I can dedicate myself to helping them with homework in the evenings, and that, frankly, I can be a nicer person because I have the time to get more sleep than I was before.

Job loss sucks. It really does. It leads to feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, and it turns the future into a giant landscape of fuzzy uncertainty.

But it has its benefits, and I am trying to make the most of them.

(Photo credit: Sean MacEntee. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)