For Noah, On your 11th Birthday Eve

My precious Noah,

Tonight as I watch you sleep (a favorite pastime of mine…  I do love watching my boys sleep….), I find myself remembering the afternoon you were born, 11 years ago tomorrow.

It was one of the best afternoons of my life, followed by one of (if not THE) scariest nights of my life.

Before we knew about your peanut allergy, or your Autism, there was almost something else – a complication that could have resulted in you having a major surgery just days after you were born.

Here’s your story.

Your birth was to be a planned C-section (because you were going to be a BIG baby, already weighing 9 lbs @ 38 weeks!), so Daddy & I were able to have a relaxing morning before heading to the hospital that day.  We dropped your big brother off at his preschool (he was only 4 years old then!) and then strolled over to Al Noor Hospital in Abu Dhabi.  We even had time to snap a quick, last pic of you inside my tummy!

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Everything went well, and you were born at 3:40 PM (which is the EXACT same minute that Gabriel was born, by the way….) and I remember hearing you cry for the first time.  I was so happy to hear your voice that I started crying, to the point where I was shaking, and I remember the Anesthesiologist looking at me shocked & wide-eyed for a second (like he thought I was convulsing), until he realized I was just being super emotional.

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They brought you to my hospital room not long after, and I finally got to hold you and snuggle for awhile.  Daddy and Gabriel came to see you, we took some new family pictures, and then your brother and Daddy went home and the nurses took you away to the nursery.

A few hours went by, and I missed you, so I rang the nurses and asked them to bring you to me – and they said they would, but then they didn’t.

I tried to be patient, but you still didn’t come.  I started ringing the nurses almost every 10 minutes to ask where you were, and each time they would come in and say you were on your way, and then they would disappear and nothing would happen.

After a couple of hours of this, I was extremely (and visibly) angry and upset with them, and one of them finally said, “The doctor is coming back to the hospital and he will talk to you.”

By this time, it was about 2:00 AM, and for the doctor to be coming BACK to the hospital?  Meaning he was coming back because of, you?

What the HELL was happening?!?!  (er, or, What the heck?!?  –You won’t read this until you’re older anyways… )

I started ringing the nurses more and asking them what was wrong, and they wouldn’t tell me anything, but things weren’t adding up.  When I was holding you earlier, you were sleeping, breathing just fine (as far as I could tell), your color was good, and I didn’t detect that anything at ALL was wrong with you.

And now, I was all alone in this hospital room and I desperately wanted to call your Daddy, but – I didn’t want to wake him up in the middle of the night and scare him until I had something to tell him other than the feeling that all nurses at this hospital were mean, and incompetent, and were definitely hiding something from me…..

So I waited, and waited.  I’m pretty sure I started crying, and the saddest feeling of dread was washing over me.  And I was getting SO angry and frustrated.

WHY wouldn’t anyone tell me what was going on?!?!

After what truly seemed like an eternity, the doctor walked in.  He was wearing normal clothes, like he had just come from home, and he looked tired like he had just woken up.  He told me that you had a very swollen stomach (which I didn’t see because you were wrapped up in a blanket when I was holding you), but also that you had been throwing up bile all evening and you weren’t passing your meconium (your first baby poop).

So they did an x-ray on you, and when he showed me the screen, it showed your sweet, tiny little frame, and maybe 40-50 little air bubbles stacked on top of each other in your stomach.  Basically, you were blocked up and nothing (no milk) was getting through your little body.

The doctor was afraid that you might have a condition called Hirschsprung’s Disease; meaning, a part of your colon would’ve been diseased, and that might be what was preventing things from moving smoothly through your body.  It wasn’t life threatening, yet, but it could turn so very quickly if you weren’t able to, well, poop.  If you would poop, this would finally let all the air bubbles out of your stomach, and then you could drink some milk without throwing it up.

It was like a bad dream.  You may have some disease I’d never heard of before, and you might have to have surgery?!  I was so very sad, but I remember thinking that at least there was something we could do, and that it truly could’ve been worse.  The doctor also said that he wasn’t ready to call the surgeon just yet, because “all surgeons usually want to cut right away,” and he wanted to give you a little more time.

Over the next two days, you stayed in the NICU, in a little incubator, with IVs in your hand and tubes draped over your precious little body.  I came to see you and held you, and admired how beautiful you were.  I wanted nothing more on Earth than for you to be OK and to take you home with us.

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And then came the time for me to leave the hospital, but we couldn’t take you home with us.  You had to stay, and we had to go home, and that wasn’t right.  You were supposed to come home with us…  We had your crib ready.  We had plastered your room with Winnie the Pooh decorations.  We even had a mile-high stack of diapers awaiting you….  There was nothing but love, comfort, cuddles and kisses waiting for you at home – but we couldn’t take you with us.  Your little tummy was still bloated and filled with bubbles, and so you had to stay at the hospital until you were able to pass everything through.

I cried when we left the hospital, and I cried when we got home.  It was one of the saddest experiences of my life.  But some good news was that the doctor said you appeared to be doing better, but they still wanted to monitor you, and he would call us if you threw up again.  That night, I prayed so hard for the phone to remain silent – for it NOT to ring, and God answered my prayer.  It didn’t ring.

The next morning, your Daddy and I went to see you at the hospital, not knowing if we were going to be able to bring you home – but when we saw your doctor and he saw us, he started smiling.  He happily told us that you had your first “poop,” and the bubbles in your tummy were gone, and that we could take you home.   I was so happy I started crying and asked the doctor if I could give him a hug and he said, “Yes,” so I practically jumped on him and gave him a HUGE hug and then skipped through the maternity ward to where they were keeping you.  We gently wrapped you up in your brand new blue baby blanket (the one with the baseballs and footballs that your Grandma Karen sent you) and we brought you home.

I spent that afternoon feeding you, kissing you, snuggling with you, taking endless amounts of pictures of you, and watching you sleep (just as I am right now).

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And here you are, 11 years later.  You have grown into such a sweet little boy with the purest heart.  Daddy and I call you our family’s “Border Collie,” which means that you are always checking on everyone to make sure they are OK.  You are the first one to let us know if someone isn’t OK – like if someone is hurt, or sad, and you’re always asking if everything is all right.  You love Doritos and Chocolate Milk.  You love your iPad. And you are really GOOD at math! 🙂

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You have blessed our lives in countless ways, my love.  Thank you for being you.  Daddy and I are so lucky to have you as our son.

Happy 11th Birthday, Noah Christian.

“Can Surgery Remove my Autism?”

Damn, kid.

Gabriel never fails to ask the really tough questions.

To provide context, he had a sore throat not too long ago, and as it didn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, we went to the doctor.

It was a new doctor, so when we went in, they asked him the standard “new patient” questions, like “Do you have any allergies, what medications are you on, etc.”

So we went through all that, and then they asked if there was any further medical information they needed to know.

I whispered to Gabriel, “Do you want to tell them about the Autism?”

This seemed to irritate him a little, but he replied to them (in a slightly exasperated tone), “YES, I have Autism.

To this, the nurse didn’t bat an eye but just smiled and said, “OK, thank you for telling us.”

(I was so grateful to her for that – the professionalism and automaticity with which she responded to him).

Then he and I went back out to the waiting room and he went quiet.  I asked him if he was OK and he quietly said, “Yes,” but I could tell he wasn’t.  I started to second-guess myself and think that maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned the Autism – but in hindsight, I’m glad I did. Medically speaking, it’s necessary for them to know; even though he’s 14, he still has a considerable speech delay that could potentially impair his ability to express himself in the future – say if he’s hurt, or on medication, but can’t tell them exactly what or why.  At least they would know.

I also think I wanted to try and normalize the Autism…  although I’m not sure what I mean by this.  I guess really normalizing it would’ve been to NOT mention it, but I do feel very strongly that the Autism is something he needs to own.  I’ve seen enough student/parent denial in my time as an educator to know that denying and/or ignoring a disability does NO good.  Trying to pretend it doesn’t exist is SO harmful and counterproductive.  Much better to hit it head on, own it, figure out how best to deal with it, and move on.

Anyways, we sat there a few minutes quiet, and then he asked, “Mom, can I have a surgery to remove the Autism from my brain?”

My heart dropped into my stomach and I immediately started praying for the right things to say.

No, honey, the Autism isn’t something that can be removed.  It’s part of you and your personality.  It’s part of what makes you the wonderful person that you are.”

He replied, “But I want to be intelligent.  And I don’t want to be different.”

And here’s where I was immediately grateful for my Special Education background, because I’ve had this conversation countless times with students in Learning Support – as for our students, it’s VERY important that we constantly convey the message that there are MANY kinds of intelligent.

Sweetheart, do you know what “intelligent” means?  It means that you are capable of doing SO many different things!”

And I rattled for at least two straight minutes…

“You can take care of yourself and help take care of our family, like always doing the dishes for our family, or boiling chicken for yourself, or fixing your little brothers a bowl of cereal!  You can keep yourself safe like remembering the house keys and always making sure our doors are locked; you can read music and play the trumpet, you can remember things that happened when you were three years old and tell stories about all places you’ve been, you can find absolutely anything you want to on the Internet faster than Daddy or I can (and that is 100% true!). LOOK at everything you can do!”

I actually said a lot more than this, but you get the point…

He seemed to ease up and acted like he felt better after my rant (or, maybe he just wanted me to shut up… 😉

But then, he gave me a shy smile and said, “Yes, but I can’t drive yet…

Oh Dear God.  So it begins…..👀

Anyways, that particular conversation ended, and I can’t necessarily claim success, but he hasn’t mentioned this again, or asked me anything remotely like this since (this happened a few weeks ago), and I do feel like he would keep asking if it were bugging him, so I’m hoping that what I said made him feel better about himself.

But the comments still come.

Random comments every so often about how he doesn’t like to be “different.”  He’s also starting to talk about girlfriends. “Mom, when will I have a girlfriend?”

And this one breaks my heart – as I’ve seen / heard this comment from some of my older students with Autism as well.

I tell him the only thing I know to say, “Gabriel, you’re so young, please don’t worry about this.  It’ll happen someday; you’ll meet someone, just like Daddy and I met each other.”

I pray I’m right; I hope he will find someone, with or without Autism, who will love him and accept him for who he is.

—His growing up is honestly tough to handle, and it’s not getting any easier.

Daniel & I have a dear friend who is a Pediatrician in Wisconsin, and he was the one who detected Gabriel’s Autism before anyone else.  He told us, way back when Gabriel was three, that the Autism would really rear its “ugly head” when Gabriel hit his teenage years.

Well, we’re here, and I’m honestly scared..  He’s so sensitive and self-conscious.  I hope we can keep finding the “right” or “semi-right” things to say or do when Gabriel hits us with these tough questions…

And to end on a lighter note (but still along the same lines), Gabriel and I were recently looking a picture of me when I was pregnant with him, and he asked me, “Mom, how did I get IN there?”

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Me screaming inside: !@#$%!”

**BIG BREATH**

“Um, well, (imagine me stuttering and stumbling over my words….) I had an egg inside of me, and, um… you grew from the egg.”

Gabriel: “So, HOW did the egg get inside of you?  Did you EAT the egg?

…….

OMG…  I can’t imagine how many shades of red my face turned while I was trying not to scream with laughter…!

My mind sort of went blank at this point, but I think I said something to the effect of, “No, sweetheart, I already had the egg inside of me.”  And I stopped right there and immediately changed the subject before he could ask me about Daddy’s role in the egg fertilizing process.

Um, yeah.  He’s at the age of questions. Tough questions.  Some questions that I would never EVER anticipate (although, to be fair, I should’ve anticipated the pregnancy question at some point….).

Such is the parenting life in general, I guess, but throw Autism into the mix and it literally turns into a Forrest Gump situation: “It’s like a box of chocolates, you never know WHAT you’re going to get.”

So please pray for me to be able to think on my feet quickly, restrain my laughter when necessary, and no matter how much a question throws me, enable me to find the words to help him realize that he is exactly the way God intended him to be, Autism and all.

Six Years Away…

2023.

This year may seem a long time away, but it’s not – not if you are a parent of a child with Autism who is going to graduate from High School in this year.

It’s ONLY six years away.

At AISJ, students have their graduation year as part of their e-mail address, so I’ve been looking at Gabriel’s e-mail (Dotterweich.G.23@aisj.edu.sa) ever since he was in 1st grade.

Usually when I would see it, I would smile and shake my head and think,

2023 is soooo far away.”

But it’s not. And it never really hit me until this year.

I think what’s different now is the fact that two of my students (who I’ve worked with in Learning Support since I arrived in Jeddah in 2011) are graduating this June.

I call them “my babies,” because they were just entering 6th grade when I met them; and they were both so short, and so tiny, and fresh out of Elementary School, and sooooo very precious and innocent.

(They are STILL precious and innocent, don’t get me wrong! 😉

But, NOW they both tower over me in height, and are wearing Senior jackets, and…. yeah.  They’re full-on men now, not the “babies” I inherited when I arrived.  I’ve told them both that I am going to lose it at their graduation this year (lose it meaning “cry, hard, probably uncontrollably”), because I’ve never known AISJ without them, and I truly consider them family.

Anyways, this year, THE main topic of conversation with them has been what they are going to do next year when they leave.

And I can never have this conversation without ending up thinking about my own boys – especially Gabriel – since he is the oldest and closest to graduation.

What will Gabriel DO when he graduates?

  • Where is he going to live?
  • HOW is going to live?
  • Will he even be independent enough to live on his own?

A four-year university will probably not be an option, at least not at first.

This is pretty much a “given,” since he is on a modified curriculum – meaning he attends 7th grade classes but we simplify the content and allow him to access it on his reading/writing/comprehension level, which is around 4th/5th grade.

It would take several more years of high school beyond his Senior year for him to be able to access Freshman university level content – but I highly doubt he would be too excited about extending high school for a few more years.

I have to say though, that I am deeply encouraged by how many US and European universities are creating programs for students with Autism, so who knows…?!

But, even he if was to enroll in some type of university program, would he be able to survive on his own?

  • Drive?
  • Pay bills?
  • Cook food (or even buy food?)
  • Use an ATM?
  • Not burn the house down?

My optimistic prediction: Yes, in six years, he will be able to live independently.

The thing about Gabriel is, he can be incredibly responsible and independent when he wants to be (meaning, if there’s something in it for him), meaning, a reward.

It’s a-MAZing how quickly he will move, or how hard he will work on a non-preferred task – IF he knows he’s going to get something he wants in return.

So, I created a behavior system for him (which I call a “Responsibility Chart, see below”) that gives him points for doing things he should do, and when he collects enough points, he can “spend” them on things like Xbox games, renting or buying movies on iTunes, etc.  This is essentially an allowance system, without handing over actual money.

It is Gabriel’s responsibility to log on every day and document his points for the tasks he has completed.

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Many of these tasks are super simple and deal with hygiene, and I have to say that for the most part, he is pretty good about taking care of his hygiene needs.

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BUT, then he also has tasks such as homework, chores, trumpet practice, etc., – not as preferred…

So, to incentivize the more important things (or the tasks which take longer or take more effort (such as reading for 20 minutes every night), he receives more points.

And, as all parents know, it’s necessary for children to pay consequences for poor choices in behavior, so it is also possible for him to become grounded and/or to lose points.

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AND, I realize there are people/parents who don’t believe in giving kids rewards.

Some people view rewards as “bribes,” and think that kids should be intrinsically motivated to do such things as brush their teeth, use deodorant, do their homework, etc…

  • You want to have clean teeth?  Brush ’em!
  • Want to smell nice?  Shower & deodorant, please….
  • Want to learn?  Do your own research!

Common sense?  Of course. To a 40-year-old, yes, but not necessarily to a 13-year-old (with or without Autism...)

13-year-olds would much rather play their XBox for 8 straight hours and smell like a locker room than waste 15 minutes of that precious time taking a shower.

To those who don’t believe in giving rewards, I say, if you think about it, there are very few things in life where people do not expect to be extrinsically rewarded in some sort of way, no matter their age.

I teach because I love it.  I am highly, intrinsically motivated to go to school every day and collaborate with my colleagues, in order to help improve the lives of our students.  HOWEVER, you better believe that I expect to be paid for what I do (as does every other teacher I’ve ever known).  Payment is my extrinsic reward.

So, of course, Gabriel’s points won’t last forever, and after awhile, I intend to make him work harder or longer for the points, until he becomes mostly intrinsically motivated to take a shower or do his homework (or at least, that’s the plan...).

And, beyond the points, I’m proud to say that Gabriel can already do many responsible and independent tasks on his own!

He can cook!  He boils his own chicken, washes his own grapes, blends his own chocolate milkshakes, washes dishes, helps his little brothers pour their bowls of cereal, rides the bus home alone with Noah on our early-release school days, has his own phone, carries house keys and lets himself into our house, etc., etc.

He’s scared, though.

Any time we talk about the future, you can see the fear in his eyes.  He’s even said some really insightful things like:

  • “I don’t know how to make money.”
  • “I don’t know how to pay for things.”
  • “I don’t know how to travel on airplanes by myself.”

And I appreciate his honesty, and admire him for it.

I always reassure him that we will teach him (and we ARE teaching him; more about that in a future blog post); but we make sure he knows that he will never be alone if he doesn’t want to be.  He will always be welcomed to stay and live with us, but I really don’t think he wants that.

His current obsession is to live in London, and we visited several Hard Rock Cafe restaurants this past summer in Asia (which he LOVED), so his current dream is to go be a waiter at the Hard Rock Cafe in London.

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*I can’t lie; I have slightly higher aspirations for him than a waiter – and I don’t think he understands how SOCIAL a waiter has to be in dealing with the general public… (this is coming from someone who waited on thousands of tables all throughout her HS and university career….)

I’m grateful I have six years to help him understand that.

But I’ll tell you what – I believe the very definition of happiness is being independent.

Free and able to do what you want; live where you want, live how you want.

So, my love, if you want to be a waiter in 2023, we have six years to make it happen.

Your Daddy and I will do everything in our power to help you gain the skills and knowledge you will need to succeed on your own, and to become the best damn waiter in London.

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How Autism Could Save our Sons’ Lives

In November 2004, Gabriel was nine months old, and we were still more than two years away from learning about his Autism diagnosis.  But we learned something else about our little boy’s health that was equally as concerning (sometimes more so) and, quite frankly, terrifies me every day.

I was sitting on the floor at my mother-in-law’s house in Wisconsin, eating a bagel topped with honey-roasted peanut butter, and watching Gabriel perfect his crawling skills.  He saw that I was eating, so he crawled over to me and gave me a precious, “I want some, Mommy” look.  Without a second thought in my mind, I dipped the tip of my finger in the peanut butter and let him taste it.  He acted like he wanted more, so I repeated this one more time.  Then he crawled away and I continued eating.

I can’t remember who saw it first; I think it was Daniel. But what I do remember is he had turned a very bright red in about 30 seconds, and he had made fists with his hands and was repeatedly and quickly rubbing them up and down on his face. I took his top off and his entire torso had turned red, as if he has suffered a brutal sunburn. He wasn’t crying but quietly whimpering, and while I was very scared and beyond confused at what was happening, Daniel was the one to put two and two together first. He said, “Maybe he’s allergic to peanuts.”

I was in shock, but deducted that Daniel might be right. Gabriel wasn’t having trouble breathing (thank GOD), but beyond the discoloration, he had suddenly become extremely lethargic and wanted to lie down. We put him in bed, and called our pediatrician, who couldn’t see him until 2:00 PM that day (it was around 10 AM) so he told us to come in then. (I have SO much to say about this incompetent doctor’s reaction, but more on that later….)

So not knowing any better, we obeyed, gave Gabriel a lukewarm bath, and put him to bed for a nap.

We took him into the doctor at 2:00 PM and he took a quick look at Gabriel, checked vitals, and calmly announced, “Yes, he appears to be allergic to peanuts. Just make sure he doesn’t eat them.” -A quick $200 for him to tell us that.

Well, for the next few months, we did just that, until we spoke with a friend of Daniel’s from college who was also a doctor, and upon hearing our story, our friend nearly lost it.

Doc: “Didn’t that doctor order any blood tests on Gabriel to determine the severity of the allergy?”

Us: “Um, no. Should he have?”

Doc: “Do you have an Epi-pen??!!”

Us: “Um, what’s an Epi-pen?”

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Thanks to our doctor friend (who, BTW, was also the doctor friend who eventually told us that Gabriel had Autism – this guy is our family’s Angel, truly….) but he referred us to a different pediatrician (one who knew his head from his… yeah, you know) and we were quickly referred to an allergist, who conducted the appropriate tests and told us that Gabriel was not just allergic to peanuts, he was deathly allergic to them.

He said the only reason Gabriel didn’t go into anaphylactic shock (when your windpipe closes and you can’t breathe) when I gave him the peanut butter was because I gave him such a little amount.

He said his RAST levels (blood test levels) were “through the roof,” and he would need to have an Epipen near him at all times for now, and more than likely for the rest of his life.

Luckily, he also told us that the allergy was ONLY for peanuts (which is not actually a nut but a legume) so Gabriel was cleared for all other nuts. Some good news….

But very quickly, back to that despicable pediatrician.

ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!

Keep him away from peanuts.”

No tests ordered, no other advice, no other cause for concern, etc. THAT was his advice. He didn’t even bother to tell us that allergies can increase in severity over time, and that Gabriel’s life could potentially be more in danger as he grew older (which has indeed turned out to be the case).

Knowing what I know now, I wish we would have turned this guy in, sued him, exposed his incompetence in a very public way, etc.  I’d gladly do it now but we have no proof, and there’s probably some sort of statute of limitations clause against bringing legal grievances against doctors.

But, 13 years later and I am STILL on fire at this guy.  Let me just say, if you are in Janesville, Wisconsin and you are looking for a pediatrician, do your homework and thoroughly shop around – because this guy is still practicing.

Ok, soapbox over.

Reflecting, Daniel and I were as ignorant about food allergies as we were about Autism. Neither of us had prior food allergies in our families, so we knew nothing and suspected nothing, until this slapped us in the face.

So WHERE did these allergies come from?!

Same place Autism came from, I suppose. Who knows….?

However, studies have been conducted which compared the prevalence of health conditions associated with children with ASD and found that allergies, particularly food allergies, were more prevalent in children with ASD than those without (Gurney, McPheeters & Davis, 2006).

When Noah was born, not only were we on the lookout for Autism but also for the peanut allergy. It was very easy to keep peanuts out of the house and Gabriel’s daycare was on alert, so we weren’t too worried – except for one thing: we could not buy Epipens in Abu Dhabi…!  They literally did not sell them there. The incidence of food allergies was so scarce there that there wasn’t enough of a demand for them.

(Quick jump to present day: This is an issue we are still dealing with. We can’t get them in Jeddah either…). Our Wisconsin allergist told us that eastern-Asian countries such as China boil their peanuts, while western countries such as the US roast them.  When we roast them, certain proteins are brought out, and somehow, the fact that we ingest those proteins contributes to the increased incidence of peanut allergies.

Living abroad doesn’t help our case either.  Peanut allergies are not widely recognized and are largely not taken seriously, and especially here in SE Asia (where we are currently vacationing), peanuts are in EVERYTHING.  Scary..  😦

Anyways, we kept Noah away from peanuts until we could get him tested (usually done at two years old), and sadly, yes, he followed in his big brother’s footsteps as with the Autism diagnosis. Noah’s allergy levels are also dangerously high, and he too must have an Epipen near him – but his levels aren’t as high as Gabriel’s.

Thank goodness (and I’m fiercely knocking on wood as I type this) but we have thus far been successful in keeping Noah peanut-free (except for some peanut-infested birdseed we found him playing with when he was two; a quick bath and some Benadryl solved that without incident.

And just last year, we had Samuel tested – and while we were fully expecting him to follow in both of his big brothers’ footsteps, as with the Autism, God decided Samuel would be spared any food allergies.

I’ve never had happy tears flow as quickly and forcefully as they did when I learned that news.

And here is where Autism comes in, as a potentially positive thing.

Yes, Samuel has Autism, the same as his brothers, but he is NOWHERE NEAR as picky an eater as his brothers.  He’ll try anything, which makes the prospect of Samuel having a peanut allergy downright horrifying.

If a random child were to offer Samuel a peanut butter cookie, he would try it.

Same thing with Gabriel or Noah? – There’s no way would they touch it.

There are not many instances when I am thankful my sons have Autism, but if one of the symptoms of Autism is food aversions – causing kids to be picky eaters – then in this case, I am thankful for Autism.

Because here’s the paradox: although it’s probably because of the Autism that Gabriel and Noah have the peanut allergies, it might just be the Autism that ultimately helps them avoid peanuts and thus, saves their lives.

 

References

Gurney JG, McPheeters ML, Davis MM., (2006). Parental report of health conditions and health care use among children with and without autism: national survey of children’s health. Archive of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine. 160(8):825-830. doi:10.1001/archpedi.160.8.825. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16894082

 

 

Accepting Differences

Check out Samuel.  Yep, the one on the right – striking the yoga pose – while he’s supposed to be in position with his classmates for a song, during his recent spring PK3 concert.

Geez.  Such a perfectly symbolic picture for my life as a mom with Autistic children.

And I think that 10 years ago, sitting front row at my child’s concert and watching my child do this?  It probably would’ve mortified me.  

(Oh wait, it did.  Gabriel did things just like this.  So did Noah.)

And even 5 years ago, I think I would’ve still been pretty embarrassed.

(Yes, I was...)

I used to be very shallow and insecure (probably still am, but I hope not….) but I grew up caring very deeply about what others thought, and had an overwhelming desire to conform to what I thought society expected of me.

I’ve been working on shedding this mentality for a very long time, and I’m ecstatic to say – that on the day of Samuel’s concert – maybe I’ve finally grown out of it.

I walked into Samuel’s classroom that day knowing full well that he’d stick out.  I knew that he’d be bouncing off the walls, and not doing the same moves as the other kids.  

And he performed (or rather, didn’t perform) exactly as I expected.

He was all over the place.  Jumping when they were standing.  Standing when they were jumping.  Silent when they were singing.  Singing when they were silent.  It was like he was intentionally doing everything the opposite of what he was supposed to do.

And for the first time ever, this happened:

I laughed, and laughed, and laughed some more.  I gave him a thumbs up.  I shook my head, took a deep breath, shrugged it off when his shadow teacher shot me an “I’m so sorry!” look, and then took pictures and videos of everything so I could remember it forever.

I wholeheartedly embraced his cute, crazy differences!

It was an a-MAZing, liberating feeling.  

And it came out of the blue.  It surprised me.  I couldn’t believe how OK I was with what was happening.

And I walked out of there happy, and grateful, and honestly, more peaceful than I’ve felt in a long time.

So afterwards, I really reflected.  What made this experience so different from all of my prior experiences with the boys’ very public displays of their differences?  

Experiences such as when Gabriel was expected to walk across a stage for his KG graduation and instead threw himself to the floor in a screaming tantrum?  

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Experiences such as when Noah just stood there like an obvious statue when the entire 1st grade class was smiling, singing, and waving their arms in song around him?

Or, when Noah and I are supposed to be decorating cupcakes with his classmates and parents, and he decides to dump an entire container of sprinkles on top and then proceeds to try and inhale them with a straw?

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OR, when Samuel is perfectly fine, but the second he sets foot on the PK playground, he decides to throw his toys, then when I sternly tell him to pick them up, instead he throws himself to the ground and just lies there while kids are stepping over him, trying to play?

I’ve had m-a-n-y such experiences – and most of which, in the presence of parents and teachers (most of whom are my colleagues) – who sometimes shoot me judgmental looks of pity, disapproval (or both), or embarrassed smiles, OR, who are so embarrassed for me that they look away or politely flee the scene.

And yep, this used to really bother me.  

Not only the awkwardness of this happening in front of other people, but just the repetitiveness of experiencing difference.

I would think, “They are SO different than other kids!  EVERYTHING they do is different.

I’M SO !@#$%! TIRED OF THEM BEING SO DIFFERENT!!!!!!!!!

And I don’t know – maybe it’s age, maturity, tired of caring, and/or accepting the inevitable – but I think I’m finally in a place where I can let it roll off.

There is no cure for Autism.  They will always have it.  They will ALWAYS be different.

Might as well soak it up.

It’s not that I’ve lowered my expectations for what I’m expecting from my children.  I don’t want to say that.  I think I’ve just altered my expectations.

I’ve stopped expecting them – all three of them – to be the same as other kids.  

And, I’ve started anticipating and expecting the differences.  In some cases, even looking forward to them.

And as I said, it has given me peace.  A certain peace that I don’t think I’ve felt since before we noticed that Gabriel wasn’t talking.

I’m not on the verge of tears anymore when I see Gabriel or Noah wandering by themselves at lunch, as was the case for the last few years, or when I see how Samuel is the only student in an entire sea of children who is wearing big goofy red earphones during an assembly because of his sensitivity to sound.

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And it’s not that I don’t still feel a small amount of emptiness when I see them being ostracised or somehow singled out.  

I don’t think this feeling will ever go away completely.

Autism is still not a very welcomed guest in our family, but it’s not the mean, hateful intruder that I once perceived it to be.

And I know that if I can’t accept the fact that they will act or behave differently in many of life’s situations – then I’ve got a whole lot of emotional pain ahead of me – pain that might not be necessary – if I can just channel that same mentality as I experienced during Samuel’s concert.

And in the grand scheme, I should never forget how blessed I am to have these precious, little differences in my life.  I’m honestly ashamed for ever having felt embarrassed by them, or sorry for them (or for myself) that they can’t completely conform to society’s standards.

Seriously, shame on me.  😦

But I’m human and flawed, so I’ll keep praying and trying, and will never give up on them, or myself, or our family.

So, OK Autism.  Bring on your differences.  I think I’m finally ready for you.

 

Travel and Autism

Gabriel turned 13 years old a couple of weeks ago, and we took him and his brothers on a “bucket list trip” to Cairo, Egypt to see the Pyramids and Sphinx – to mark his official entrance into manhood!

This trip necessitated a very short, two-hour flight between Jeddah & Cairo – and three days away from home.

And, our sweet little Noah was terrified.

In spite of our international lifestyle, including Noah being born in Abu Dhabi and our literally flying all over the world with him from birth on, Noah has been nervous on airplanes as early as he was old enough to know what was going on.

And truth be told, I share this fear.

I make it a point to sit next to Noah during our flights, because I know that during every take off, any turbulence, and every landing, his hand will be squeezing the fire out of mine, and his head will be firmly buried in my chest, with my arm tightly fastened securely around his body.

And I have to admit, this comforts me. Not only in the “I’m being the best Mommy EVER! sense,” but, in the fact that I need this physical comfort too.

And, personal note here: I’m mentally working on this fear of flying issue; it’s not fun and I want to be over it… But in the meantime, valium and wine (not necessarily in that order..) help tremendously.  😉

But back to Noah: what also hits him hard is the fact that he is an UBER picky eater, and he shuts down on flights. Won’t eat, won’t drink, etc.

He’s gotten better though; in past years, on 15-30 hour trans-Atlantic marathons (i.e. Tampa-Atlanta-Dubai-Jeddah), after we finally reached Jeddah, Noah was so sick and dehydrated that we had to take him to the ER and get him on a saline drip for a few hours.

PS – We don’t do this anymore; we definitely learned our lesson. Any time we take massive trips, we break them up and take daylong layovers to give the boys (and us) time to recoup.

Anyways, fear of flying is certainly not always synonymous with Autism, but I’ve no doubt his Autism contributes to his anxiety – along with the plane ride itself, the lack of familiar food, and especially the bigger, overall concept of the unknown.

Travelling, by definition, is an all-encompassing series of NEW experiences, and Autism doesn’t sit well with “NEW.”

Consequently, as Noah has gotten older, he has become a serious homebody.

Case in point: We arrived in Cairo, and the very next morning, he started crying and saying, “I want to go home.”

**BTW, this is new for us; Gabriel is perfectly fine on planes, loves going to new places, and when we’re gone, NEVER asks to come home…**

It’s also new in the fact that this is the first time Noah has displayed this heightened level of anxiety – probably because he is now old enough to know and understand what is coming; he knows if we say, “Noah, we’re leaving on an airplane in three days,” he comprehends it, internalizes it, and then obsesses on it.

So in the week leading up to the trip, Noah started vomiting in the mornings. Not because he was “ill” with a virus or infection, but because of anxiety.

And he vomited multiple times the morning of the flight, on the flight, and even the morning we went to the pyramids. We were literally standing at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, and I had Daniel, Gabriel and our kind tour guide making a human shield around us while Noah threw up into a plastic bag I was holding.

But then once he got it out of his system, he was fine.  We rode camels about 30 minutes afterwards, and a camel ride is NOT a smooth ride – were all thrown around, shaken up, etc. – and he was stellar.

He is such a little rockstar.  🙂

He even posed for this pic right after the finishing the camel ride, and while he was posing, said in the cutest voice, “I am STRONG!”

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Indeed you are, my little love.

So it’s the mornings, the uncertainty of what’s coming next, and the obsessive desire to be back in familiar surroundings.

We still saw what we wanted to see, but cut the morning short – and once we got back to the hotel and he had his iPad, he was fine. Except, still asking every hour or so, “Mommy, can we go home?”

What was very interesting was the night before we left, he actually became excited for the airplane.

Noah: “Mommy! Tomorrow, sleep, wake up, go to airplane, and go HOME!!!!” with a big, beautiful smile.

Me: “Yes, baby, tomorrow we go home.”

Noah: “Oh, THANK YOU MOMMY, thank you so much!!” followed by a kiss for Mommy, which Mommy always loves, of course.

What Mommy does NOT love is the fact that in one month, we are leaving again on another short trip (Oh wait, definitely, Mommy loves that fact! 🙂 but it’s the attached fact that Mommy doesn’t love – that Noah is probably going to go through this again, and this time it will be worse (i.e. 7-day, spring break trip to Greece and Cyprus: more flights, longer flights, and longer overall duration of trip).

However, this is where I am grateful for my Special Education training, as I will be more prepared this time with a picture-filled social story, detailing every step of the trip for Noah so that he knows, within reason, exactly what is coming:

And, thank God Noah has a hands-down, aMAZing Learning Support team who is going to work with us on getting him ready.  Collectively, we will be:

  • teaching him breathing / relaxation strategies
  • soliciting help from some of his little friends to make him videos of encouragement that he can watch while he’s away
  • tasking him with taking pictures and making a little picture book (or video blog, not sure which yet) to show his friends when we get back
  • role playing going on a trip with him; packing a bag, going to the airport, taking pictures of new sights, etc. to try and get him used to the idea of seeing new things, while still feeling safe and secure in a familiar environment
  • any other ideas are welcomed…!

And, because he pretty much refuses to eat anything but very familiar foods, Daniel and I are going to prepare and take a massive “familiar food” care package with us.

So…… This is the plan.  No idea if it will work, but I’m hopeful.  If you’re failing to plan, you’re planning to fail, right?

We will give it our best go to try and help him decrease his anxiety, while trying to heighten his enjoyment of the trip, and hopefully expanding his confidence if/when he overcomes this fear.

I just deeply hope that in time, same as with Gabriel, Noah will learn to look forward to and appreciate new experiences: including heading out there into the unknown to see the world.

One last thought.

(Classic soapbox moment ahead….)

There may be people reading this who don’t value travel the way Daniel and I do.  You may believe that we should move home to the US and cater to Noah’s wishes because of his Autism.

With all due respect, we completely disagree.

First of all, we can’t shelter Noah from change (even in the US), and it would be highly unhealthy to even attempt to do so.

Second, Noah is very stable here in Jeddah; we’ve been here six years, with no immediate plans to leave, and he has (I believe I mentioned this before) an absolutely amazing (over the top, freaking AMAZING) team of Learning Support professionals who love him as their own and take care of him at school. Personalized care I’m certain we would never get in the states.

Third, Daniel and I live where we do and the way we do because we believe there is too much beauty and diversity in the world to not go out and experience it to the greatest extent possible.

And we want our boys to see this world.  We want to give them the world.

We ask others to open their minds and include our boys in their lives, in spite of their disabilities, but it’s equally important for our boys to have open minds and be open to others’ differences, cultures, etc.

And for us, this ex-pat lifestyle is the most authentic way to show them how different, and beautiful, we all are.

Noah knows he’s loved.  No question there.  And if we truly believed we were hurting him or his brothers, we would adopt a different lifestyle.

But in our heart of hearts, as parents, we believe he will be just fine.  Even more than fine, hopefully.

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Mommy, Why did Jesus make me Autism?

Hardest question I’ve ever been asked….

About two months ago, during school, I happened to see Gabriel during one of his breaks.

He was sitting outside on some bleachers, deep in the middle of a group of boys.

This both shocked and excited me, because this was different!  He usually spends his breaks either sitting by himself on the bleachers, or just kind of wanders around by himself, killing time until the next class.   

So, as I looked closer, not only was he sitting amongst a group of boys, he was talking!  Like, in a highly animated way, as if he was telling a story.

This was A-MAZ-ing!  

I came even closer as I wanted to see exactly who he was talking to, so I could make mental notes of who the boys were who were being so nice to him and listening to whatever he had to say.

And then, my heart dropped from out of the clouds.

No one was looking at him or paying attention to him.  He was having a full-on, highly animated conversation – with himself.

This was new; I’d never seen him do this before.

And not only had I never seen him talk to himself before, I most certainly never saw him do this while sitting in the middle of a group of boys.

–Oh my sweet angel, WHAT are you doing?  Are you SO longing for a friend that you’ve created an imaginary friend?  Or, have you become so desperate for others’ attention that you’re now behaving in a manner which you believe will give you attention?  AND, you must no longer care if that attention is negative?–

I fought back tears, felt my stomach sink, and just sat there awhile and watched him.  He couldn’t see me (and I was very thankful for this) as I didn’t want him to catch me watching him while I was undoubtedly looking so heartbroken.  (I was watching from inside our Middle School teachers’ lounge – which has dark tinted windows that prevents students from seeing in.)

I carefully studied the boys sitting around him, waiting for a side look from one of them, or a comment, or any minuscule hint of bullying – which would have automatically launched me off that couch and outside to deal with it in a second – but, they all seemed to be so engrossed in their own conversations that they either didn’t notice him, OR, they were all doing an excellent job of ignoring him.

I watched for a few more painful minutes, and he finally seemed to settle down a little, and then thankfully, the bell rang and they all got up and dispersed to their classes.

I knew he had dodged a massive bullet, and I started to plan out what I was going to say to him that evening about it.

So that night, I sat him down and gently said,

Me: “Gabriel, I saw you today during one of your breaks, when you were sitting with a group of boys.  Do you remember that break?”

Gabriel: “Yes.”

Me: “It looked like you were talking to someone.  Who were you talking to?”

Gabriel: Silence

Me: “Can you tell me?”

Gabriel: Confused and afraid glance

Me: “Gabriel, were you talking to yourself?”

Gabriel: “Yes.”

Me: “Do you know why?”

Gabriel: “No.”

Me: “Gabriel, it’s OK to talk to yourself.  People do it all the time – but they do it when they’re by themselves, in private.  Like when you’re at home in your room.  But, when we’re around other people, like at school, if we have thoughts in our heads, we need to try and keep them in our heads and not let them come out of our mouths – unless we are talking to another person. “

Gabriel: Nods head, “Ok.”

*Long Pause*

Gabriel: “Mommy, maybe my Autism made me do it?”

Me: “You might be right, Gabriel, and that’s OK.  Remember we said that Autism is a brain difference?  This might be one of those differences, and again, that’s OK.  You can control this.  When you’re at home or by yourself, you can definitely talk aloud to yourself if it makes you feel better.  OK?

Gabriel: Silence, thinking.

Gabriel: “Mommy, why did Jesus make me Autism?”

Oh my God.

–I catch my breath and pray a three-second prayer for the right words–

Me: “Gabriel, Jesus loves you, and He made you in a very special way.  There’s no one in the entire world the same as you.  Jesus created you just the way you are, and He wants you to do wonderful things.

Your autism is what makes you, you.  Please remember it’s not a bad thing; it’s a difference.  And there are many ways that your Autism helps you.  You know how you can remember so many things?  So many details of all the places we’ve been and the things we’ve seen?  You know how you can remember so many of the world’s different currencies and how you know all of the different “Wonders of the World” structures and where they are?  How you can remember so many of the different flight times between all the places we’ve been?  

Your autism helps you remember all of these wonderful things, and it’s going to continue to help you learn as you get older.  What we have to do is use your autism for the good things, and control it when it wants you to do things that might actually be a little too different – like what happened today with talking to yourself.”

Long Pause

Me: “Do you understand what I’ve said?”

Gabriel: “Yes.”

Me: “Can you tell me what I just said?”  (which I have to do because any time I ask him if he understands something I’ve said, his default answer is always “Yes.”)

Gabriel: gives me a pretty good, abbreviated version, hitting the important points of how he’s special and he can remember  a lot of things, and how Jesus loves him.

I was relieved with his answer, but he still didn’t seem completely convinced.  At this point, he kept trying to leave the room, so we took a break from the conversation.

And I believe it worked, because I haven’t seen him talk to himself since.

But, in true autism fashion, Gabriel still tends to repeat questions – so I’ve had to re-answer the question, “Why did Jesus make me Autism?” probably 8-10 more times.

And every time, I try to remind him of the fact that Jesus loves him, he was created exactly the way Jesus intended, and that he can use his autism for good.

But the problem is (and I’ll never tell Gabriel/ Noah/Samuel this) that I’ve asked Jesus the same thing a million times.

Jesus, WHY did you make my children autism?

Because I hate autism.  With every fiber of my being.

I don’t want it around.  I want it out of our lives.  I don’t want to figure out how to use it for good – I just want it to disappear and stop clouding my children’s (and my students’) minds.  

And believe me, I want to believe everything I’ve said to Gabriel – that Jesus made him exactly how He intended.  But this is where I don’t understand Jesus’ reasoning.  

The negative effects resulting from autism have, by and large, outweighed the positive effects.  

So again, why????  Why our children?  And why us?

Anyways, this is my daily struggle – asking questions to which I’ll probably never know the answers.

So honestly, it’s here to stay, so why fight it, I guess?  

Just turn that fight into a fight for inclusion and acceptance, constantly try to help those with special needs improve their lives, and continuously search for new ways to use autism for the good.  

About all I can do.