Ripple Effect

I woke up today and Nico was staring at me. I’m not sure how long he had been laying there waiting for me to open my eyes, but as soon as our eyes were locked in on each other he said, “Good morning, Mom! Time to get up and face the day!” I swear to you I almost burst into tears, but held it together and just squeezed him tightly and praised him for using his words and starting my morning off on such a high note. The fact that those words came so naturally meant two things: 1. he’s getting better with his verbal communication and 2. he likes when I wake him up with that same exact greeting which is where he got it from…me.

I have really been pinching myself lately because every time I turn around Nico is saying something new and it’s being communicated so naturally. He told me the other day, “I want you to read me this book and then I want goldfish, please.” I swear, I thought I hallucinated. I could not believe my son, the one who I have prayed for daily and feared might never use full sentences, spoke to me like a typical child and without any prompting or coaching from me. He literally just came up to me on the couch with his book and spoke to me like he had been doing this sort of thing all along.

That time I did cry and I grabbed him and hugged him for what felt like, for him at least, an awkwardly long time, but I just could not let that moment pass without letting him know how proud I was of him. However, because Nico is such a literal person he did not like that I cried. It made him anxious, thinking something was wrong with me or that maybe he did something wrong and my Nico is a pleaser so I had to quickly get a grip and lighten the mood otherwise this milestone could’ve turned into a meltdown.

Nico is very in tune with others’ emotions and feelings and wants to make sure that everything is copacetic at all times. It’s one of the many areas of growth I have seen in him, especially since Max has come into our lives and since the pandemic turned his/my world upside down. He sees me on a daily basis manage his little brother, Max’s little tantrums which are totally typical of a thriving toddler, but for Nico it does not seem typical. He doesn’t like to see or hear Max get worked up so he will normally either start competing in raising his volume when Max gets loud (which is so not pleasant and helpful in any way) or he will try to calm Max down by repeating the same phrase over and over, “it’s ok, it’s ok.” Neither have had a high success rate at all so I’m sure he is thrilled when I put on a little episode of Cocomelon—yep, there is no shame in my game—on my phone and distract him with it so I can finish changing his diaper.

So, it came as no surprise, but I was, again, utterly amazed when I learned that while out for date night with my husband Nico came to his grandpa’s rescue. Max was starting to give his grandpa a bit of a hard time and wouldn’t stop fussing and crying. Nico could obviously see that his grandpa was struggling to get Max content so he grabbed his iPad, found a Cocomelon episode and put it on the couch. As soon as Max heard the theme song he immediately stopped crying and it drew his attention to the iPad. Nico didn’t say a word. He just went back to reading his books and doing his own thing.

Nico, being the amazing problem-solver that he is and always observing what is happening around him, knew exactly how to get Max to settle down because he had seen his parents do the same thing before. When my father told me this, I looked over at Nico and praised him for his valiant efforts. He didn’t say a word, but the smile and the quick flapping of his hands let me know he understood that I was proud of him.

This school year has been hard for Nico. I know he is behind academically and will need a lot of work to get caught up come next year. It keeps me up at night just thinking about all the intervention he will continue to need on top of therapy, but then I think to moments like these where he is showing such growth, understanding, and maturity and I feel a bit less anxious.

He’s using more complete sentences daily like, “I want to go to sleep” or “I would like you to sit on the couch, please” and no one is prompting him to say any of it. He’s interacting with Max more and more everyday and he watches how we handle him which I know is helping him better understand how to manage Max too.

It is absolutely true that children learn from what they see and hear. That intrigues me, but also concerns me because with Nico I know he observes and internalizes everything around him. And because he is such a literal child, he doesn’t pick up on sarcasm or the nuances of a situation and that, in turn, can have a ripple effect. Learned behaviors are like ripple effects.

I’ve become more and more aware that Nico has been learning from what he sees and hears for awhile now even if it’s only now just starting to materialize into something WE can see and hear. He has felt my stress and anxiety from all that we experienced in these last 9 months with our house flood just like he feels my joy and elation when I wake him up in the morning and give him a big morning kiss.

I want to know that at the end of the day if this year was a crapshoot academically for him that at least he has learned some other amazing life and social skills from being home with his family. I want to know that each day is filled with teachable moments for him that will create a positive ripple effect in his life just like the ones I’ve seen as of late.

Nico is brilliant in so many facets of his life and I need to believe that all of these moments and experiences he is having, both positive and challenging, are going to help inform his life on several levels—socially, emotionally, and academically. As Nico has grown I have become less fearful of autism and more fascinated by its ambiguity. And although it still seems to carry this polarizing perception, I am feeling more and more compelled to focus on all the wondrous aspects of my Nico’s autistic brain.

At the height of the pandemic last year, I was having such a difficult time seeing Nico regress so I started clambering for anything I could find online that was providing support for autism parents living through the pandemic. I came across an article that truly turned my abysmal outlook on Nico’s autism on its head. I keep this article with its list of positive traits in my phone, my purse, on my computer, and I think I may even print it out and place it on my fridge to continue to remind myself that Nico is a terrific, awe-inspiring kiddo and as his mother, I have an immense responsibility in shaping who he will become. I want his ripple effect to be one that positively impacts the lives of everyone he touches. Thankfully, Nico has a little brother who will allow him to shine as the child who follows the rules and fulfills expectations since Max is busy creating his own ripple effect in our home which is filled with destruction and exhaustion.

For All the Firsts

I have been very antsy as of late. Christmas is less than a week away and although I have been done with my shopping for awhile now, I am still unsettled. Normally, in the past, it was because I knew that Christmas Day wouldn’t be as magical for Nico as it was for other children, or even for my husband and me for that matter. Nico never truly understood that Santa brought these amazing gifts for him and laid them under the tree, pristinely wrapped with such care, and so waking up on this day lost a bit of its luster once Nico began his journey through the world of Autism.

He didn’t pay attention to the presents under the tree just waiting for him, nor would he rush to open all of his other gifts when everyone was doling them out at our family gatherings. He was content to just play in a corner somewhere with his little knickknacks in his own world. Meanwhile, his father and I were holding back tears and silently envying every other family whose children were ever present in these special Christmas moments with each other. It was these early Christmases after Nico’s diagnosis that made me miss my mom so deeply….all over again. I clung to this idea for so long that if maybe she was still here with us that she would have the magic touch and could transform Nico’s interest for Christmas into something magical like she always was able to do for her own children.

But, fast forward to today and Nico has grown tremendously. He understands who Santa is and that he is a special man that helps bring joy during Christmas. He also has begun to understand that the gifts under the tree have something to do with him. In these last two years, Nico has been more present with us during Christmas. He has opened gifts with eager anticipation and cheered when he or anyone around him has received a gift that was really wanted. Choosing the right gifts for Nico is a totally different story, but when it happens it’s like your life has been made because his eyes just explode with excitement and he tends to use so much appropriate language in those moments.

So, I know that the gifts he will receive this year from Santa will surely evoke the same giddy exhilaration, but I am now dealing with all new feelings of angst and discontent. And, I have been wracking my brain to determine why I can’t shake these feelings other than for the obvious reason…this awful pandemic has stripped so much of the typical joy and festivity from the holiday season. I have come to terms with the fact that there will be no large family gatherings and we won’t be opening gifts together with our family. I won’t be making a lavish Christmas dinner in my own home since we are still residing in a rental while ours is on the mend. I have reconciled with all of this, but I think what is truly affecting me this year are overwhelming feelings of sympathy, empathy and heartache.

This year has put my family through the ringer and has definitely had me longing for my mother in a way I haven’t felt in awhile, that’s for sure. But, it has also opened my eyes and heart to the thousands upon thousands of others who will be having their first Christmases without loved ones. Loved ones stolen away by this merciless virus. My newsfeed is taken over by countless stories of unimaginable loss everyday and it isn’t letting up. The deep heartache these poor, grieving families must be feeling coupled with knowing that they may not even be able to gather with their other family members for fear of compounding this loss with even more senseless loss.

The first Christmas, the first New Year’s Day, the first everything. I know these feelings of loss and longing all too well so I am here to let you know that if you are experiencing the first of many “firsts” without a parent, grandparent, child, spouse, aunt, uncle, cousin, friend, or significant other…your loss is not in vain.

Your loss is reverberating across this country through every doctor and nurse who couldn’t save their patients or allow for family to say their goodbyes face-to-face.

Your loss is being felt every time someone turns on the television and is faced with the growing number of cases and increasing mortality rate.

Your loss is being felt every time someone with pure ignorance in their heart decides to walk around carelessly without a mask.

Your loss is being felt by anyone and everyone who has lost loved ones this year or in years past and longs for their presence, touch, or voice just one more time, especially around the holidays.

Everything about 2020 has brought about so much angst, frustration, anger, disappointment, and heartache, but if there is one thing I would ask you to cling to it’s this: You are NOT alone.

You truly are not alone in what you are experiencing and I don’t think there have been more than a few times in our history where, as a nation…hell, as a world, we could say just that and really mean it. So, if you can find it in yourself to pull any kind of silver lining out of your grief this Christmas let it be this universal sense of sympathy and empathy that is absolutely rippling across the world right now.

My mom has been gone for 23 years and, although I miss her everyday, time does help with mending broken hearts and finding a sense of normalcy again. It doesn’t come without a lot of tears, a need for constant embrace, an ear to listen, and words of encouragement though.

And, since this year has been so unconventional and is causing me to think of how much I wish my mother was here, I have even thought about doing something radical like jumping in my car with my boys, big and little, and just traveling to a place where we can forget all about the sorrows and struggles we’ve faced this year. We can enjoy a complete change of scenery—since nothing about this Christmas fits the norm anyway—and just recharge our mental and emotional batteries, make new, fun memories, and ring in the new year on a high note.

I encourage you to consider doing the same thing! Be bold, be brave, and create a journey of healing for yourself that will allow you to grieve, but also allow you to reflect, remember, and make new memories that can be used to help these “firsts” sting a little less.

Remember…grief has no expiration date. Feel all your feelings, but don’t feel afraid or guilty to laugh or smile or seek a bit of merriment right now. Don’t let this pandemic steal everything from you.

So, please accept this post as a call to action, a shoulder to cry on, a warm embrace, a listening ear, or the encouraging words you may need right now to get you through the next minute, hour, day, week, or month as you grieve these “firsts.”

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and have a very Happy New Year as we kick 2020 the hell out of here and ring in 2021 with renewed hope! And, may your loved ones Rest In Peace.

When Family Shows Up

This last month has been filled with some really amazing highs and some incredible lows. Such is life, I suppose, but when you’re trying to wade through the tumultuousness of a nationwide pandemic–while raising a child with Autism in the midst of it–the highs just don’t ring as high and the lows leave a more somber, stifling effect. That’s when it’s so absolutely invaluable when family shows up.

I knew celebrating Max’s 1st birthday was not going to be as grand as I always envisioned it to be thanks to COVID, but I was still going to find a way to create memories with him to help document this milestone birthday. I was also struggling a bit with the fact that we were going to have to celebrate it in our temporary house since our beautiful home was in the midst of a lengthy journey of restoration from a summer water damage disaster which upended our lives in more ways than one, especially Nico’s.

And if that wasn’t enough, we were also still reeling from the recent loss of my husband’s grandma/the boys’ sweet Abuelita so we were now prepared for Max’s birthday to be filled with bittersweet emotions. Needless to say, the lows were definitely outpacing the highs. Max’s 1st Birthday had to be the high of all highs so October could avoid being another month to succumb to a case of the “2020s.”

As a result of us being out of our own home for over four months now, Nico has had to adjust to so many new environments and that is such a huge feat for him. Plus, he has really struggled in this new virtual first grade school year as he has traversed through remote learning. There is no sugar coating that. It has been less than ideal and there have been days where I have just cried at the lack of progress I feel he is making because he is not having a typical school year like he did last year. After having such a tremendously successful Kinder year in an inclusion classroom (up until March) we were so hopeful for what elementary school would be like for him. But, COVID has robbed so much from Nico and I have no idea what to expect anymore.

I miss the social interactions Nico had with his classmates. He is already limited to who he actually interacts with typically due to his social-emotional challenges and lack of communication so going to basically zero social interactions with kids his own age (outside of the few children he interacts with at his therapy center) really makes me nervous. His classmates this year truly can’t get to know who Nico is and how engaging he can be. They only get glimpses of him through a sterile Zoom meeting environment. And, since most of those interactions show him stimming, scripting, or having a parent assist him with answering, his classmates are only seeing ONE side of Nico. This has now lead to the curious looks and the lack of “Hi, Nico” from his classmates while other kids in his class exchange pleasantries each morning with each other.

I know Nico may not notice or be aware of it (thankfully), but it resonates loudly and clearly with me and breaks my heart a little more each day. I can’t help but feel like the lows have been taking the lead in our home. However, I try to keep things upbeat in our house with lots of song and dance and hugs and kisses. There is never a lack of affection and although many people believe that children and adults with Autism do not like to be touched and do not display affection or empathy, this is a huge myth! My Nico is extremely loving and affectionate.

So, when our family showed up for Max’s birthday week it lifted our spirits and transformed our house into one of celebration and positivity on almost an existential level!

Our family drove countless hours, despite going through their own journey of grief, to make sure we could ring in Max’s 1st Birthday with a bit more pomp and circumstance like we’re used to when it comes to milestone birthdays. They know how important family is to us, especially Nico, and they showed up! It was probably the best decision for all of us because laughter and joy through tears makes everything so much better.

In those two weeks they were here with us, there was more normalcy in our lives. Nico had friends to exchange morning greetings with because his cousins are his best friends and include him in all they do. They never look at him strangely or exclude him from anything because they don’t understand him. Nor do they assume that because he doesn’t know how to initiate playful interactions with them that he doesn’t want to play with them. His cousins have always found ways to make my son feel included because they learn what Nico values and enjoys and engage him around those things. They go beyond just saying “Hi, Nico” which is what I was settling for just so that he had some sense of social interaction with others.

Inclusion like this is what I miss so much about Nico’s experiences last year in school. And, I know it is what fuels growth in all those with Autism. Nico experienced such progress and had so many positive moments because of the inclusivity that was cultivated in his classroom last year. It was nice to have some of that same inclusivity for Nico in our own home for awhile.

Having family with us made virtual learning feel a bit less tedious, our temporary home feel a bit more like our own home, and gave Nico the boost he needed to get him through a month that had us all craving some good ol’ TLC.

And, as October came to a close and Día de Los Muertos was upon us–that special day of the year where we welcome back the spirits of our lost loved ones into our home–I decided to finally take the time to display an altar. This altar would honor our family and friends who we had lost over the years. I would commit to doing it every year and then something always kept me from bringing it to fruition.

But, this year I needed to do it for my own spiritual healing. I needed to do it for my own emotional well-being too. I also felt my Nico needed a bit more family enveloping him with as much love as possible this year; this year has been a doozy for us.

It was the best way to keep family around us right now when we need them the most. With the holidays approaching, its hard to think about having to socially distance from those we need, especially when COVID is spiking again, flu season is upon us, and Election Day is just around the corner (and all that that day could incite).

Family, for me, has always been my top priority and I have a husband who mirrors those same values. And, when raising a child with special needs, you really do need family to lean on because it is HARD. To manage the pitfalls of life while staying controlled for a child who could meltdown at any moment when all you want to do is meltdown yourself…that’s HARD. This is when family shows up and takes on the meltdown, your child’s or yours, and it is life-(saving)changing.

You can be vulnerable with family and know that just like they are there on the best days, they are also there on your worst. We, special needs parents, must take care of ourselves because there are not many others who can care for our children. These are tough times and it is easy to become worn out and we don’t have the luxury of getting sick because no one can take care of our children better than we can….except maybe our family.

Make time for family right now. Especially now.

All I know is that you make time for the people that matter in your life. Despite everything, you show up. Family does this. And, I have to trust and believe that they keep showing up even if it is only in the stillness of our hearts or with a passing flutter of a butterfly’s wing. With every memory they evoke in us, family is forever.