One Year Can Make A World of Difference

Today was Nico’s last day of school. He is officially a 2nd grader and we can finally close the door on this challenging, yet thriving school year. It seems surreal to think that Nico literally spent a whole academic year in a virtual learning environment and there were times where I didn’t think any of us were going to survive it, but here we are.

I get to sleep in a little longer tomorrow. Hallelujah!

Now, I know Nico did not learn nearly as much as he needed to because of this virtual landscape and I know he will head into 2nd grade a bit behind. But, today, as I heard Nico shout “I love you” to his classmates over Zoom who were all saying goodbye to him—classmates who have only met my son through a computer screen—I realized that Nico felt so accepted and included in his class that he knew to connect those feelings with love.

Nico always has a way of opening my eyes to things that I would have otherwise missed if I allowed myself to constantly worry about all of his struggles and the experiences he is missing out on. It’s not that I am pessimistic when it comes to Nico; I’m quite the optimist, but I feel that as an Autism mom my natural inclination is to want to eliminate as much struggle from my child’s life as possible. It’s a visceral feeling that can become all-consuming if I let it. And, in doing that, I sometimes overestimate how much of a struggle things really will be for my son.

Autism is just so unpredictable. One minute Nico can be flying high and life can be so smooth and then BAM! out of nowhere a meltdown rushes in and knocks the wind out of all of us and I am right back at the beginning of this journey with Nico, fearing the very worst and not wanting to expose him to anything or anyone else.

We did see a lot more meltdowns this school year, as I predicted we would, because of quarantine, virtual learning, and a lack social interaction, but as I watched Nico sleep this evening I thought about all he achieved and the ripple effect he had on me and so many others.

Here is my Top Ten List in honor of my Nico:

1. Nico learned the Pledge of Allegiance within a few days and recited it perfectly each morning with his class, remotely of course, with such prosody and cadence.

2. Nico can independently write every letter of the alphabet with control and more precision than I have ever seen from him before.

3. Nico was a top reader in his class and answered questions when he was called on by his teacher even though he never stepped foot in her classroom. All of his interactions were via Zoom and yet he sat and participated which was not easy for him to do day in and day out.

4. Nico began to demonstrate feelings of embarrassment and the desire for privacy. This was huge for me because it indicated to me that my son was growing up. He’s not a “baby” anymore.

5. Nico conquered his fear of using the bathroom to take care of all of his business. This one right here was a show-stopper because I really felt it may never come, but it came as a result, I believe, of #4 above. I don’t think he could bare the idea of his parents having to manage his bathroom needs like we do for his baby brother. This one also taught me that Nico truly does everything on his own time. I need to just trust in him to know when it’s time.

6. Nico started interacting and communicating more regularly with his little brother, Max and, in turn, learned how to more effectively communicate what he does not like. I think Nico picked up this new level of communication pretty quickly since his little brother definitely doesn’t know boundaries and could care less that “No, Max, no!” actually means NO! Stop! I’m done playing with you! Cracks me up just thinking about it.

7. Nico made friends with his classmates without ever meeting them in person or stepping foot into the classroom. Somehow these children just knew Nico was someone they wanted to know and be friends with and it made his year…and mine. They would cheer him on and ask where he was when he wasn’t on Zoom, which just melts my heart. I want to thank their teacher for building a culture of acceptance, hug each and every one of them and their parents.

8. Nico encouraged me (and he probably doesn’t even realize it) to make a huge change in my career so that I could continue to be present for his daily milestones, but also show him that his mom will continue to do whatever she needs to in order to give him the best quality of life.

9. Nico grew his skill sets in all of the areas that interest him the most: technology, swimming, dance, reading, and theater (mostly crying on-demand, but he is darn good). I know this child is meant to do great things in this world and I have to nurture these skill sets moving forward so that he can feel comfortable exploring them as he gets older without anxiety and restraint.

10. And, lastly, my sweet boy grew up on me. I don’t know when it happened, but I looked at him this week and I didn’t see a small child anymore. I see a grown boy who is thriving and maturing. Just thinking about it makes me choke up. He’s come so far.

I think sometimes I forget that because he doesn’t always talk to me like a typical 8 year old or interact with me like a typical 8 year old that he is stuck at an age where I need to take constant care of him. This may be true for all parents of their “babies,” but today when I looked at Nico I saw him through new eyes.

He is my sweet, endearing, funny, pensive, acutely aware first born child and he is one year smarter, stronger, cuter, braver, kinder, taller, and…

closer to the point where hopefully he’ll be able to share with me, in his own words, what a difference a year made in his life…through his eyes.

I truly can’t believe what a difference one year makes though. It can feel so sublime and significant and, yet, simultaneously represent just a notch on the timeline of your life. Some years will be stellar and some will just be survived. This year ended up being a mix of both. I’m just so relieved I/he made it through.

So to my cool, new 2nd grader…

You did it, Nico! Your dad and I are so proud of you. We love you beyond measure.

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.

Music Can Move Mountains

2020 has truly thrown me some curve balls and the year isn’t even over yet. I feel like once the summer came the days blurred together and I haven’t been able to catch my breath or tell one day from the next. I’m sure I’m not alone. This year seems like it will go down in infamy as the most treacherous year for all people, places, things, and animals…yep, basically every noun you can think of.

And speaking of nouns, I can’t believe we are into our fourth week of Nico’s school year and we’re all still in one piece. Nico is now a first grader and is also a 100% remote learner due to this God-awful pandemic we are living through. This is not the ideal setting for him and all summer long I was a ball of nerves thinking about how hard this was going to be for him and me. He hates talking to anyone on FaceTime so I couldn’t even imagine how he would manage working with his teachers on the daily through a computer screen. The only thing he looks forward to and understands clearly is the “Leave Meeting” button so you can see what a joy it is to work through five live Zoom lessons with him a day when he is just not into interacting with others virtually.

And if that wasn’t enough to keep me up at night, our first floor flooded, due to a water pipe bursting in our home, when we were hundreds of miles away visiting family so we ushered in Nico’s first day of the virtual school year from a hotel room and have since moved into a temporary home while ours begins the looooooong process of being rebuilt. Needless to say, Nico has been less than pleased with all of these changes and who can blame him? I’m barely hanging on myself.

I don’t think either of us has been in the best of moods for weeks. I can always tell with Nico because he gets over-emotional and weepy at the drop of a hat and will cry off and on all day. Or, he can get really frustrated and just want to throw things or become a bit aggressive with me. I feel like even I have been a roller coaster of emotions as I come to terms with being displaced from my home for several months in the middle of a pandemic during an unprecedented school year with a special needs child and 10 month old who would literally crawl back inside me if I let him.

I have been working tirelessly to stay optimistic and upbeat, but it has been extremely trying for me and I know Nico can sense my dismay and distress. Individuals with Autism are actually quite empathetic and feel emotions very deeply and Nico always knows when I am struggling or stressed or sad. And because he has picked up on my stress and discontent, I have noticed that he is struggling more.

Now, music has always been an incredible outlet for me to relieve my stress. I would often play my favorite songs on repeat growing up to help me regain my composure or release my stress and anxiety. Singing is also a favorite pastime of mine so, whenever I can, I will sing to help elevate my mood. Nico has always enjoyed music as well. From a very young age, he came alive with music. He loved when I would sing to him; it would actually help regulate him when he was getting over-stimulated so I would try and incorporate song into many of our daily activities.

As he has grown, he has become more selective with the music that keeps his attention and lightens his mood. He won’t let me sing the same songs I would sing to him when he was small anymore so I have to constantly find new ones to introduce him to. And, he has quite the eclectic musical palette too, which is kind of cool because he chooses music based on movies he loves or songs he hears that make him want to dance. He will then request these songs by telling me the name of the movie or by choosing a word or phrase from the song and repeating it over and over until I pick up on what he is saying.

He is quite my little problem-solver. He knows he has limited language so he always chooses his words strategically.

Well, today we started our fourth week of virtual learning and it was a marvelous Monday as we got in the car to head to the center, although I know neither of us was feeling quite marvelous. It’s just so hard to shake off a funk once you’re in it. But, as I drove Nico to his therapy center where he gets both his therapy and support with his virtual school day, I felt we needed something to boost our spirits so I put on the radio.

That’s when something really cool…and maybe even serendipitous happened! My car’s Bluetooth connected to my phone and the first song to play was a track from the movie, The Peanuts Movie which is a fave of Nico’s. And the song could not have had a better message for both Nico and me! It was a song by Meghan Trainor titled, “Good to Be Alive” and it always gets Nico moving and smiling. He must’ve really been needing to hear this song too because he was actually singing along with some of the lyrics. I could hardly contain my excitement when I heard him! My son, who uses very little language unless to request something or if prompted, was singing along to a song!

This was enough to catapult me out of my current funk for sure! But then, as musical fate would have it, my own anthem literally came on next without any prompting from me. Neither of these songs are in a playlist together nor did I intentionally connect my Bluetooth to play this specific song, but now we were listening to a song that I had to believe was sending me a message as well. It’s a song by Jess Glynne titled, “Hold My Hand” and it’s one I listened to nonstop the year it came out. The year was 2015 and it was the same year Nico was diagnosed with Autism. I remember playing this song over and over again and feeling so alone because I needed my Mother more than anything to just be there to “hold my hand.”

Well, here it was again, saving the day and lifting my spirits. I felt like there was almost a little bit of divine intervention happening in the car this morning as the song played, but what made it absolutely outstanding was to look in my rear view mirror and see Nico bopping his head and moving his hands to the beat so succinctly. I couldn’t help, but belt it out for him and then play it again before we got to the center so we could have just a bit more musical magic help bring us back to life.

This year has not been the best for us. It started in March with COVID and slowly inched it’s way to awful with my furlough in April and then became downright abysmal by July with our house flooding so I am just thankful we are standing upright in Week 4 of the school year. And because this year has sucked the life out of me, there were no First Day of School pics taken, no official posts to ring in this school year. I am behind on doctors’ appointments and first day of school haircuts. And, I have little over a month to put something resembling a 1st birthday party together for my precious Maximo while still keeping it COVID-friendly (talk about a contradiction in terms), but I’m giving myself a pass on having it all together this year. After all, my motto this year has been: “Welcome to the Sh$& Show! Compliments of 2020!” But, after having such an uplifting start to the day today, I feel like hopefully things will start looking up for us.

So, today was the START of our NEW school year! It may still be a bumpy one. Nico may struggle and resist, and regression may still occur to some degree, but my sweet boy will always have his music and our car rides to the center where we can “center” ourselves around the music that has become our mantra. Words are so important for both Nico and me. I love to write and Nico loves to read. And the lyrics we listened to today had a message that spoke to both of us, and that is…everything is going to be ok.

We got this!

We have each other and it’s good to be alive!

Truer words have never been spoken. I have Nico’s hand and he has mine and we are so lucky to be healthy and happy and able to wake up to another day together as a family! Here’s to this new school year for my sweet boy!