Unexpected Flight

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The drive to my kids’ middle school can be absolutely magical. The road hugs the side of a meandering creek, and depending on the time of year, we see some spectacular wildlife. In spring and summer, we’ve looked down the creek to see five startlingly white Snowy Egrets gathered to fish. We see Great Blue Herons camouflaged in the shallows hunting their breakfast. Perhaps most striking to me are the plain old mallard ducks, still floating in the icy waters all winter long. I see them as I drive by, in my layers of clothes, still shivering though my seat heater is blazing, and I marvel at their ability to float all winter with a soggy bottom.

Right now, late fall, is miraculous for the variety of birds we see as they pass through on their way south. I can’t name any of them, but I enjoy their variety nonetheless. Large geese walking the bank. Tiny black and white bodies bobbing on the water’s surface in impressive numbers.

Last week, I was driving to the school at what was, for me, an unusual time. It was late morning, and I was returning my son, Richie, to classes after Continue reading

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What I Love About You

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My Dear Son,
The weeks of summer are flying by, and you continue to change and grow at a staggering pace. In an effort to remember some of your/our finer moments, I started a list…

What I love: That you have finally gathered the bravery to swat flies yourself. I know their buzzing both irritates and terrifies you; you seem to hear it at a volume far beyond what the rest of us do. And yet, you face your fear and attempt to get rid of them under your own power.

What I don’t love: That the glass slider in our kitchen is covered with so many splotches of blood, guts, and broken wings that I’ve begun referring to it as “Death’s Door.” (Note to self: introduce Windex.)

What I love: How much you enjoyed Continue reading

Pinball Wizard

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I took my 11-year-old son to the brewery the other night. I know what you’re thinking: Mother of the Year. But I was on carpool duty for his sister’s dance class, and I didn’t want to drive the whole way home just to turn around and return to the studio for pickup. There’s a brewery/pizza place in between, so Richie and I planned to eat dinner there to kill time. Richie was very excited to go.

Why would an 11-year-old child who neither drinks beer nor eats gluten be excited to visit a brewery/pizza place? It’s all about the arcade.

Okay, “arcade” is a stretch…there are actually just a few video machines along the back wall. But my children have fully embraced the low entertainment standards I’ve been modeling for years,  so this “arcade” is good enough for Richie. He loves pinball…even brewery pinball, which isn’t a real machine, just a console that allows the user to choose between several games. It’s digital pinball; there’s a picture of a pinball machine layout, and you push buttons to activate the flippers and keep the ball in play. No flashing lights or clanging bells when the ball hits the bumpers, but again…our standards are not especially high.

My boy has loved video games since he was old enough to hold a joystick. (Not that his generation ever had joysticks.) As a kid with physical problems who really couldn’t play sports in real life, he adored playing baseball or bowling on the Wii, and he was terribly, terribly good at it. And the really cool thing was that once he got really good at playing baseball on the Wii, he improved dramatically at playing baseball in real life. My husband and I theorized that the video game enabled him to practice batting with way fewer variables and a lightweight controller instead of a heavy bat. (Just our theory; we have no actual data to back this up. You want science, go read Bill Nye’s blog. I’m busy raising kids & taking naps over here.)

Richie became really, really good at every video game he played. He mastered Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort, became an ace marksman in a target shooting game his Auntie Tanya sent him, and then moved on to master the Xbox. My husband, Rich, and I wondered if there was something about Richie’s Autistic brain that predisposed him to video game greatness. Did the same hyperawareness of his surroundings that distracted him so terribly at school enable him to perceive minute clues as to what was coming up in a game? Was it his steel trap memory? (This kid can tell me what I ordered for breakfast on vacation 3 years ago; it’s not an endearing ability.) Was he simply memorizing the games?

I can’t answer any of those questions with certainty, but I can tell you that Richie was naturally gifted with a lot of…screen time. That is, he has parents who know they should limit how much time he spends playing video games, but who are lousy at enforcing the idea. It started innocently enough: imagine you have a child who could not sit up independently until he was almost two, who didn’t take his first steps until almost three. A child for whom everything was more difficult than it should have been. Whether it was walking or learning to write, Richie always had to work harder and try harder, usually with less success. But watching him play video games was an absolute joy. Even before he got really good at them, he just enjoyed himself so much that it was a pleasure to watch him. And then to see him master something…that was a treat for us, even if the mastered subject was Donkey Kong.

The nail in the coffin was the release of Wii Fit, a video game that involved physical movement and encouraged Richie to move his whole body, get his heart rate up, and practice yoga and balance. It truly helped him improve his body awareness. For hours and hours at a time.

The year Richie was in Kindergarten, I invited one of his classmates over for a playdate. We sent the boys outside while the other mom and I had coffee at my kitchen table. Before long, they came in and asked if they could go downstairs and play Xbox. I said, “of course” simultaneously with the other mom, but then she continued and reminded her son that this would count as his 30 minutes of screen time for the day. 30 minutes? It was all I could do not to stand up on my chair, throw some gang signs, and ask Richie, “Am I the coolest mom in the world or WHAT?!?!?”

My son eats 30 minutes of screen time for breakfast.

The boys disappeared into the basement, and the other mom and I had half an hour of blissful, uninterrupted, adult conversation. Right at the 31-minute mark, her son came tearing up the steps, ran breathlessly up to the kitchen table, and said enthusiastically, “Mom! Richie is SO GOOD at Lego Star Wars!”

Practice makes perfect, my friend. Lots and Lots of practice.

Five years later, Richie is still SO GOOD at Lego Star Wars, and Minecraft, and even Asteroids, which his dad introduced him to recently. But I tend to forget just how good.

So the other night at the brewery, when it was almost time to head back to the dance studio and pick up the girls,  I walked up behind him at the “pinball machine” and gave him the five minute warning.

I sat back down to let him finish playing, started looking at email on my phone, and before I knew it, the five minutes were up. Richie was still bent over the machine. I walked back over and said, “Richie, we have to go.”

“I know, Mom,” he replied, “but I have to use up all my credits.”

I looked at the time; we didn’t really have to leave quite yet (I’m way early for everything). So I told him it was ok to keep playing. I sat back down to wait and went back to reading email. Another 5-10 minutes went by, and I went back over to tell him to wrap it up.

“I know, Mom,” he replied patiently, “but I have to use up all my credits.”

I checked the time again and sat back down. Five minutes later, I walked back to Richie and said, “Hey, Dude, we really have to go.”

“Ok, Mom,” he replied, “I just have to finish putting in my initials.”

“Your what?” I thought I had misheard him, so I walked closer to see what he was doing. I looked over his shoulder to see him entering his initials as THE TOP SCORER OF ALL TIME!

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He also has the #3 slot locked up. And that might be him at #2 as well. Probably not all from this one night.

 

 

Shoe Shopping

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I took Richie shoe shopping yesterday.  This is always a guilt-laden activity for me, because it’s always precipitated by me suddenly remembering, weeks or months too late, that he has feet. And that they grow. And that shoes don’t.

(Confession: I can get so caught up in the “keeping my children alive” thing that I forget they have needs beyond food, shelter, and Minecraft.)

Yesterday Richie walked through the kitchen, and it occurred to me that it had been a long time since he’d  had new sneakers. I bent over to feel the front of his shoe, to feel how much “room to grow” he still had.  But I never even touched his shoe, because as soon as I looked, I could see that the front of his shoes were deformed.  As in, the child had been wearing too-small sneakers for so long that his big toes had built some nice little condos out the front.  I straightened up and muttered the four words most appropriate for moments like this: Mother of the Year.

Part of Richie’s Autism is that he can’t feel his own body the way the rest of us do. He rarely tells us that he is hungry or thirsty; it’s like he just doesn’t recognize what these feel like. He eats regular meals – big ones – but I can only remember one time in his almost 12 years when he came to me and asked for food. Feeling cold is difficult for him, too; the school he used to attend let him go outside to recess once in 30-degree, wet weather without his coat. I happened to be in the classroom when he came inside, and although he was tremendously pale with a red nose and ears and could barely move his fingers, it never occurred to him that he was extremely cold.

Looking back at his infancy, I realize that the earliest indication of Richie’s lack of body awareness happened before he was even a year old. His twin sister, Jillian, was extremely fussy and was touching her right ear repeatedly. We made a Saturday morning emergency appointment with our pediatrician and walked in with both babies in their car seats. The doctor examined Jillian and determined that she did not have an ear infection. Seeing Richie sitting peacefully in his car seat, the doctor decided to check his ears as well (I have no idea why).  Turned out it was the quiet baby giving no indication of pain who had a raging ear infection.

You might think that the mother of a child like this would be able to keep such information in the front of her mind.  Not me. Mother of the Year.

Off to the shoe store we went. A salesgirl measured Richie’s feet and brought us a few pairs of sneakers in his size.  As she sat down to open the boxes, she casually mentioned that now that his feet were a size 4, he no longer had the option of shoes with Velcro closures.

She might as well have told us that he’d have to wear his underpants on his head. He sucked in his breath and put his hands over his ears. I stayed outwardly calm but was just as panicked on the inside.

My dear, one-in-a-million son, the one who charms me daily and touches my soul with the things he says, takes FOREVER to get his shoes on.  His shoes with the quick Velcro closures! 

Fine motor tasks are difficult for him. I’ve heard Autism advocates say that to empathize, I should try putting my shoes on while wearing oven mitts. And when I imagine doing that, it makes me want to slow down and be the most patient mother in the universe each time we leave the house. However…I am me, Type A and impatient, and we need to be at baseball practice in 20 minutes!

Richie and I both took a deep breath and resigned ourselves to lace-up sneakers. He tried on two pairs (tied by the sales girl), running around the store in each one.  He is really into The Flash right now, so each time he stopped, he would turn, flatten his hands & fingers, bend his elbows to 90-degree angles, cock one arm behind him, and then flash forward across the store. Except that his running is not exceptionally graceful.  Still, cutest Flash ever.

He chose the black sneakers, and the salesgirl took them to the counter to ring us up. I looked at Richie’s face and saw immediately that he was still thinking about the whole “no Velcro” crisis.

“Richie,” I asked, “are you worried about learning to tie your shoes?”

“Yes….it’s going to take me a long time.” He looked thoughtful for a minute, and I could see the wheels turning in his head.  I realize now that he was imagining an ideal world where they make Velcro-closure shoes in every size, so no man, woman, or child needs to feel stress. Where even his Mom could wear the Velcro shoes he loves so much.

“I know you can do it, Richie,” I said.  “You’ll practice and you’ll learn to tie your shoes.  It’s part of growing up. You’re getting bigger, they don’t make shoes with Velcro in your size, and it’s time to get sneakers with laces.”

He glanced down at my tidily-laced sneakers, then back up at my face. “Is that what happened to you?”

 

P.S. I later found some “hook and loop” (Velcro) closure shoes in Richie’s size on Zappos.com.  But I’m holding off for now.  I really do believe he can do this. And it’s time.