Teachable Moments

Nico was not able to sit and do any of his schoolwork today. I had a feeling it was going to be a tough day as soon as the first meltdown started ten minutes after he woke up. First the whining began for no reason. Then, he started making weird noises that got louder and louder. He does this for attention because he knows I do not feed into his behaviors if they are petulant. Lastly, the screaming, throwing himself all over the couch and floor, and hitting began.

He was in the thick of a meltdown (probably just a tantrum since nothing had happened yet to trigger him) and it was only 9am. Today was going to be a long day. I said this to myself and immediately wanted to crawl back into bed, lock my door and shut the world out.

Instead, I gave Nico the “evil eye.”

I have become a whiz at giving the “evil eye.” This particular eye was something that scared the living hell out of me in my childhood whenever my mother aimed it my way. It scared the hell out of me when she aimed it at anyone in our house actually. The eye meant she had had enough, you had worn down her patience, and she was about to blow. Nico has become the recipient of the evil eye now, when he decides he is going to be difficult for no apparent reason, and he hates it. He will do basically everything in his power to get me to smile and stop giving him the eye because he does not like it when I get upset with him. From literally trying to push my lips into a smile with his hands to saying “no thanks..no thanks” over and over again, Nico knows when he has pushed me to my limit because it takes a lot. I have to laugh because my husband doesn’t quite have the same effect on Nico so even he is convinced of the power behind this ominous optical gesture of mine. Sometimes I want to burst out laughing because the effort that Nico goes to in trying to reverse my grim demeanor is ingenious as well as endearing.

I also chuckle in knowing, with 100% certainty, that I have turned into my mother and I have to say…I’m liking this maternal power I have cultivated. Ha! The evil eye is mine!

However, this meltdown/tantrum has proven to me that even though Nico has Autism, he is still a typical little boy who knows how to instigate, antagonize, push my buttons, and manipulate a situation. He is very smart. We knew that early on despite his lack of language, social skills, and age-appropriate behavioral skill sets. Nico knew how to problem solve very early in life, due to not being able to communicate with us, and I marveled at how hard he worked to help us understand what his needs and wants were. Nico is also very intrigued by cause and effect relationships; therefore, telling him “no” only fuels his interest more in wanting to do the unacceptable action.

So, I have begun to take these skill sets that Nico excels in and put them to good use now that we are having to learn outside of the classroom with me as his primary teacher. I am realizing more and more that Nico’s academic path for the rest of his Kindergarten year cannot be solely focused on literacy, mathematics, writing, and science because it is just too overwhelming for and unfamiliar to him. And, I’m ok with that.

My goal for my Nico, moving forward, is to teach him how to survive in a world that does not always lend itself to an atypical brain like his. I am going to teach him how to use his incredible problem solving skills, his intrigue with cause and effect relationships, and his masterful art of persuasion and manipulation to his advantage.

I have been reading article after article about the concerns parents, teachers, schools, and universities are having over the fact that students are not in school. Concerns that students are being forced to engage in environments that are unfamiliar and not effectively conducive for learning. It’s a constant topic circulating on social media platforms. This idea that parents are being expected to home school their children while also fulfilling their own work obligations virtually is all just so unrealistic and counterproductive. I feel for my fellow parental comrades, especially my Autism and special needs parents, who are feeling so defeated and overwhelmed with the current state of their child’s school year. But, I promise you…it’s going to be ok. Our kids are still going to become teachers, doctors, lawyers, and scientists.

And you wanna know why?

Because this is the time to make a concerted effort to teach our children life skills. It’s time to build their capacity in skill sets that, coupled with academics (which they will receive again sooner or later), will best prepare them for adulthood and foster a greater sense of independence. Independence is something that my Nico must painstakingly work towards everyday because my husband and I will not always be here to advocate for him and there is no guarantee that anyone else will.

Think about this…there are thousands of wonderful people out their sewing masks to help stop the spread of COVID-19. If those same people also take the time now to teach their children how to sew imagine the ripple effect it will have if we are ever faced with something like this again. I was never taught how to sew by my mom. She always told me that knowing how to sew was not going to be nearly as essential for me as it was for her because times had changed. Just like my dad never taught me how to change a tire because he said all I would have to do is call AAA and they would come out and do it for me. Hence why, to this day, I anxiously await my membership renewal in the mail and feel so comforted when I take road trips with my husband.

These two life skills alone are essential now more than ever. We are being expected to wear face masks whenever we go out in public so unless you can snag some off of Amazon for an insanely inflated price or know someone who did learn how to sew and can make you some, you best learn how to sew. And don’t even think about asking someone to come change your tire in an expeditious manner during a pandemic. Car repair and emergency maintenance companies are running on skeleton crews, if they are even still up and running at all. These life skill sets can easily be turned into “teachable moments” for our children during these times of school absence.

I have been taking the time each day to find “teachable moments” in whatever I am working on in the house. When Nico wants to read a book, I am teaching him how to read with intonation so he can bring every book he reads to life. When I’m washing the dishes, I am explaining to Nico which dishes belong in the dishwasher and which ones should be hand washed. When I’m cooking dinner, I explain to Nico that he cannot touch raw chicken or a hot stove. I show him what a well-balanced meal looks like (in the hopes that one day he will sit and actually eat one with us)–a protein, a starch, and a vegetable–and have him label each of the items with me.

Nico understands now that when you leave a room, you turn the light off in that room to save electricity (a lesson that has become invaluable as of late). He also knows that when he feels crumbs under his feet it’s time to get the vacuum and will point to its location in the laundry room. My husband is showing Nico how to skim our pool and explains to him the importance of keeping debris out of the skimmer. Nico has also learned where to find bandaids and ointment for when any of us gets a cut or abrasion. He may not be able to fully pronounce Neosporin or know how to apply a bandaid, but his problem solving skills will always ensure we are taken care of in these situations.

All of these teachable moments have layers of learning built right in. Nico is learning new vocabulary, he is learning more cause and effect relationships, and he is figuring out various solutions to problems that may arise. The point is, Nico is still learning daily. I may not be able to get him to sit down in front of the computer and do his sight word search or addition and subtraction math problems, but our days are not forgone when it comes to learning new skills.

Now is the time to teach your kids first aid, how to use a knife safely, the best way to mow the lawn, and how to make their bed each morning. This is the time to show them how they can add value to their lives and the lives of others. Do not be hard on yourself and think you are failing just because you’re struggling to manage home schooling while still working full time from a location that can be anything but conducive for productivity. Do not be beat yourself up because you are spending more time on trying to keep everyone in your home healthy and mentally sane in the midst of a global pandemic as opposed to completing every online assignment.

In my opinion, we’re doing pretty darn well amidst this chaos, but if you’re feeling like you’re doing less than ok right now do not, for one minute, think you are alone. We’re all trying to wade through this storm together.

And know this…we are all ROCKSTARS whose children are going to come out of this perfectly fine.

So, close up your kid’s Google Classroom for the day, kick your feet up, open a bottle of wine, and make a list of all the teachable moments you are about to bestow upon your children because they are going to learn infinitely more from those moments than anything else right now.

How do I know this? Because they are coming from YOU!

Reality Check

Today I was shaken by Autism. Nothing extraordinary happened with Nico. He didn’t have too rough of a day, but it was enough to ground me back in reality. I think I had been living a bit in my idealistic universe, which I try to live in more and more everyday, but when a day like today shows up I have to check myself.

I know Nico has Autism. It is part of who he is. But, over these last few months I have really seen major growth. Maybe it’s because he is in Kindergarten and that is a HUGE milestone for us or maybe it’s because he seems to be communicating better. Whatever it is though, I have seen him grow a bit more.

But then he interacts with neurotypical children his age and I see the stark contrast. I see how he is lagging and it rocks me to my core. For all of his amazing attributes and intelligence, to the naked eye, it may go unseen because it is not quite typical and typical is what makes sense to the majority.

He can’t find words to tell someone he isn’t ready to play something else or that he would really love for his friends and family to all just stay seated on the couch together because that is what brings him such joy. He can’t quite communicate that he would love someone to follow his lead or play with what he finds enjoyable. And because he can’t find the words….he hits. I hate that he hits although I know why he does it. He can’t communicate his frustration, disappointment, or sadness.

Just saying aloud that he hits makes me already feel judged. Makes me feel embarrassed. Kids are not supposed to hit.

It breaks my heart and that is when I slither away to the bathroom and silently cry for my son.

How unbelievably frustrating it must be to know that you want to say something and literally cannot get it out. To feel trapped within yourself. Hitting becomes his only means of communication. I don’t condone it, but I can empathize so deeply. I try not to make excuses, but I feel myself getting overprotective of Nico when it happens and I don’t always want to discipline him as much as just hug him tightly.

I look at his peers, his cousins, his friends (the few he has…thank goodness for his cousins) and I catch myself feeling envious because they are living typical lives, behaving age-appropriately, enjoying all sorts of wonderful experiences. I want that so badly for Nico.

Yes, Nico does find enjoyment in activities that others engage in. I don’t hold back on going out and trying new things with Nico, but it is a major risk each time we do it. It just takes one person to strike up a conversation which Nico cannot contribute to, one shift in activities without a slow transition, or one moment that strikes a nerve with him and a meltdown ensues. Others begin to stare. Children back away. Hitting may follow. And, I am left to grab Nico and usher him away before it becomes too much for either of us to bear.

I panicked today. Lost my breath for a second when I envisioned Nico never fully communicating. Struggling to connect to others. And then the questions came flooding in: Will he go to college? Will he be able to find and keep a job? Will he have friends ( outside of his cousins who are friends by default thank goodness)? Will he find someone to love and who will love him back? Will others avoid inviting us out because they don’t want to deal with a child with Autism? Will we ever just be able to go somewhere with me not having a pit in my stomach over the fact that it could end badly in a heartbeat?

I struggled today to hold in my tears. I became anxious and irritable. I was oversensitive if anyone wanted to correct him. I just wanted to grab him, pull him into my bedroom, close the door, and hold him forever. My isolation reflex kicks in. I want to just stay in my house and protect Nico from the outside world.

Autism got the best of me today. I grieved today over the childhood I envisioned my son having as opposed to the one he has.

I know tomorrow is a new day and I will quickly rebound, but today, amidst all of the little breakdowns and struggles, I wished Nico didn’t have Autism. I was tired of Autism today.

I wanted a different reality today.

Choosing Your Battles

I remember my Mother “choosing her battles” a lot when I was growing up. Whether it was with my brother, my father, or me, one of us got off the hook with something so she could keep her sanity. She was the quintessential SUPER MOM that always seemed to have it together and made parenting appear easy, but I truly believe now it’s because she picked her battles in life. She tried to always find silver linings in every hardship and tried to stay as positive as possible.

I am so thankful that she instilled that in me, especially with the challenges I have faced over the years in her absence. Like, right now…I have chosen to find ways to stay positive in this last month of pregnancy by focusing on how scrumptious this little munchkin in my belly is going to be instead of literally allowing myself to dwell on the fact that his insane growth is about to shatter my hips and is causing me night after night of sleeplessness. Not to mention, I am becoming more and more worried about what his arrival is going to do to my Nico. I’m trying so hard to not be a miserable cow balled up with anxiety, but it’s becoming darn near impossible.

I have also realized more and more that I pick and choose my battles with my son. Nico is a tremendous kiddo and truly…we are blessed because he is a manageable child despite his struggles with Autism; however, I wonder if it’s also because I don’t and won’t focus on all the difficult aspects of his Autism. Like, for example, Nico will sometimes get really upset and combative if he is not ready or willing to take a bath or brush his teeth. He will negotiate another “five minutes” as his way of getting out of it and when pushed to finally take the bath or brush his teeth he can then become obstinate and physical. Our therapists have taught us how to handle him when he gets physical (ignore and redirect him), but honestly….all I wanna do sometimes is spank his little hand or butt because who the heck does he think he is hitting his mother; however, that does not work. So, I sometimes just say the hell with it and he gets a pass on bath time/brushing his teeth. Another instance is when Nico is being loud and being very echolalic. It can rattle nerves, but I don’t want to just quiet him down or tell him to relax because I feel like he is working so hard at that moment to possibly communicate or use his language to the best of his ability so, much to my husband’s chagrin, I allow it and get frustrated if my husband wants it to stop. This then brings up the issue of, “are we on the same page with parenting?” and “we can’t cancel each other out because Nico will pick up on that.”

Now, I know this sounds typical for many children and so it may seem as if our circumstances aren’t much different than those of a parent raising a neurotypical child, but believe me they are. Every bit of parenting we do with our son can make or break a moment, a day, a positive trend of progression. Plus, when you’re exhausted already from a day of battles that you did choose to fight because Nico must be taught how to function appropriately in the world, while also managing how I handle the battle and how my husband handles the battle (which can be two totally different approaches), all I want to do is just throw in the towel. I don’t want to be that mother that harps on everything, says “no” or “don’t do that” more than I embrace all that Nico is doing well, but it’s tough when then it seems like I’m giving in to Nico.

I’ve been thinking about all of this a lot as I count down to Baby Boy #2. Will I become even more accommodating to Nico because of this second baby? Become even more overprotective of him so as to not cause any setbacks in Nico’s progress. I remember my Mom being fiercely overprotective of me. Not allowing my father to gripe or yell or get inpatient with me (only she could…ha), especially once my brother came along. I wonder if it was because she had the same concerns; she didn’t want me to feel less loved or cared for now that there was another child in her life. She really wanted us to get positive reinforcement and not be knit-picked for everything we did and I see myself being like that with Nico.

And, I keep thinking…is it because I don’t want Nico’s life to be harder than it already is? Or, am I just babying him because he is my “baby boy?” I certainly do not want my son to grow up to be incapable of handling struggles or hardships or criticism, but maybe it’s just the power of perspective taking hold of me and what others may see as areas in Nico that need to be corrected, I see a little boy just being a little boy….with Autism. And my little boy works too damn hard everyday, from the moment he wakes up until he practically goes to bed, to not get a break.

Autism displays itself in all sorts of ways with Nico and it really changes day by day. Sometimes he is more overactive and loud, other days he’s stimming a ton and appears to be in his own world. I never know what behaviors he is going to display and when. Some days he is moody and combative and other days I look at him and think, “wow….he is really evolving! I don’t even see the Autism today!”

But, when he is overactive or more combative and it’s difficult to plan our day or get him to focus and listen, I find myself choosing the path of least resistance. Canceling plans, staying at home, letting him just be in his comfort zone and I’m just not sure if I’m making the best choice anymore considering it just makes our life seem a bit boring and secluded. We don’t want to have to leave an event abruptly because of Nico so instead we choose to just not even go.

And now I am worried because I don’t know what we have in store with this next child. I have willed myself away from thinking that this next baby boy will have Autism or any other conditions because I just want to live in the land of optimism, but what if I am up against an even bigger battle? We won’t ever leave the house and that will certainly not be fair or realistic for any of us. Despite all of its wonderment and beauty, Autism has controlled so much of our life already. Motivated us to avoid certain situations that could cause Nico to struggle or open him up to stares and mistreatment from other children who don’t understand him, and, at times, interfered in my husband’s and my ability to co-parent when I want to handle it one way and he wants to handle it another. The struggle between “babying,” disciplining, and just knit-picking is real!

Now, we have chosen to bring another child into our lives which means we have ultimately chosen a path that may lead to more battles we will have to pick and choose to fight or not. We know this, but I am hoping that unconsciously I decided to move forward with this second child because I am not going to “baby” Nico and give in to him for the sake of not making things more difficult for him. How will bringing a second child into my son’s life not be difficult in some way? Here is a little boy who has had free reign of most everything and everyone he loves for the last 6 years. He is someone who thrives on routine and is very rigid in his expectations of how things should go. Well, good luck with that when a new baby is about to take up a ton of your mom’s attention and time and take over your comfort zone in more ways than one.

I seriously wish I could be one of those people who takes life in stride. A person who doesn’t over analyze or try to control so much. Maybe that’s why I am more empathetic towards Nico’s needs; I put myself in his shoes and envision how I would handle the same situation. I think many of us parents do that though, right? Either way, I’m in a place right now where I am about to turn Nico’s world upside down and maybe I’m feeling guilty about that. I just hope that he knows how much I love him, advocate for him, care for him, and will always protect him.

Whatever happens once we welcome this second child into our world, I just want Nico to know that he will always be my first baby boy and I am his staunchest advocate in life. And, I will probably want to choose the path of least resistance for him for the rest of his life because I’m his mom, his protector. Period. However, I know my kiddo will be able to hold his own in the end because I definitely haven’t forgone every battle with him. Let’s just hope that the benefits of growing our family, which have grounded my husband and me in this decision, allow for amazing growth in our Nico. And, hell, if nothing else…my husband gets full parenting reign of one and I get full parenting reign of the other…ha!