Why Dogs are Better Than Kids

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It’s been a rough week at our house. For one thing, the schedule is nuts. The end of the school year is approaching, with all its attendant final projects, concerts, field trips, and parties.  It’s also baseball season; the Little League schedulers clearly delight in making it impossible to give your kid a decent meal at a reasonable time. Meanwhile, the daily grind continues; my children still expect to be fed three times a day and have clean underwear available on a moment’s notice.

To top it all off, 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.

 

 

Cooking the Books

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Picture this: it’s Saturday morning, and our family of four (six if you include the dogs waiting for something to fall) is gathered around the breakfast table. I’m making “breakfast skillets” for everyone, which means that I’m putting breakfast on the table one person at a time. First is Richie: fried potatoes, pancetta bits, baby spinach, and mushrooms, all scrambled together with two eggs. It makes a huge plate of food. Even though he’s only 11 and small for his size, he’ll eat the whole thing. Like Scooter, Richie is big on the inside.

Jillian is next. Spinach and mushrooms are her favorites, so I sauté them with some potatoes and then scramble in an egg and some Monterey jack cheese.

While waiting for his breakfast, my husband has fired up his laptop and is doing the family books. He’s downloaded a week of transactions from our bank’s website, and is categorizing them one by one: groceries, car expense, pet expense, etc. He likes to do it when I’m around because if there’s something he doesn’t recognize, he can just say, “Hey Amy, what’s AmaranthBakery.com?” and I can tell him that’s where I order the gluten-free flatbreads for Richie’s school lunches. Easy.

As I’m leaning over to put his plate on the table, Rich asks me, “What did you buy at Nordstrom this month?”

“Pajamas for the kids,” I answer.

Richie startles and raises his head from his breakfast. “What kids?!?”

 

Dressing Up

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We’re headed to the high school tonight to watch their spring musical, “The Little Mermaid.” Richie walked in the door after school, and even before setting his backpack down or taking off his coat, he sought me out to talk through the evening’s agenda. Are we going out to dinner before the play?  Where? What time are we leaving? Is Gram coming along? What time will we get to the high school? What time will the play be over?

People with Autism like routine and predictability (full disclosure…so do I). I understand that since tonight’s activity is out of the ordinary, he wants to talk about our plans so he knows what to expect. The older Richie gets, the better he does with unexpected situations. In fact, he sometimes thrives with new experiences. He truly enjoys travel, he loves visiting people’s homes, and he was over the moon when my husband took him to a new town to visit an arcade filled with classic video games. But ask him to do his afternoon chores in the morning, and his incredulous protests reach frequencies only Scooter and Millie can hear.

Richie asked me a few more questions about tonight’s plans, then headed to the mud room to hang up his coat and backpack. He came back to me, looked down at the clothes he had worn to school, and asked, “Do I have to change my clothes for tonight?”

“Well, yes,” I said, “I think you should wear something nicer than a sweatshirt.”

“Ugh!” Richie answered, “Do I have to wear a tuxedo?!?”

 

 

A Bump in the Night

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My twins have been opposites their whole lives. She likes soup; he likes sandwiches. She likes hot showers; he prefers lukewarm. And even though their sleep habits are also opposite (Richie’s an early riser who falls asleep within minutes of getting into bed; Jillian’s a night owl who would read until the wee hours), they insisted on sharing a bedroom until they were ten years old.

Part of what made the room sharing so fun was the bunk beds: Jillian up top, Richie down below. And the arrangement worked for my husband and I, too, because if Jillian kept her reading light on too late, Richie would tell her to turn it off. And of course, if she didn’t, he would come tell us. The rules must be followed!

At age five, the kids’ bedtime was 8:15, but it was a pretty common occurrence for Jillian to wander back out of their bedroom after 9:00 PM. She would ask to use the bathroom, describe a scary noise she heard, or insist that she ABSOLUTELY HAD BEEN asleep, but the television/dogs barking/changing barometric pressure woke her up.

One night around 9:30, she made her second post-bedtime appearance in the living room (her first trip out had been for a drink of water). Seeing her reappear, I kept my nose in my book and gave her only about 10% of my attention; refusing to engage in conversation was my way of not rewarding her for getting out of bed.

“Mom, I really was asleep this time, but I heard kind of a bamming noise,” she said.

“Um-hmm.”

“Mom, it was kind of loud and it scared me.”

“Well, Jillian, it was probably just a car door slamming outside, or one of your books falling off the bed. Please go back to bed.” (Note how beautifully my No Talking plan is working here.)

“Well, I really was asleep but then I heard that noise and I thought I was dreaming,” she continued. “But I wasn’t dreaming; it was a real noise. Then I thought it might be a monster, but you always say there are no monsters. So I was scared but I kept trying to figure out what that noise was.”

“Ok, Jillian,” I told her in my most bored-sounding monotone, “go back to bed now.”

“Well, I counted all my animals and they were all still up in the bed with me. So it wasn’t them. Plus, they are too light to make much noise if they fall down. And it was a LOUD NOISE, Mom! And all my library books were still with me, too. So it wasn’t them.”

She paused, so I told her again, “Go back to bed, Jillian.”

“Well, then I looked down and Richie wasn’t in his bed.”

“WHAT?!? Richie fell out of bed?!?”

“Yes, that’s what I told you! He made kind of a bamming noise.”

How Not To: Start a Conversation

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“I would like to watch someone in our family fall off a tall building.”

“Excuse me?”

“I would like to watch someone in our family fall off a tall building. And then when they got really close to the ground, I would swoop in and save them.”

“Like Superman?”

“Yes, like Superman.”

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.

Vacation by Numbers

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As we wrap up our spring break in St. Pete Beach, Florida & head for the airport, a summary:

  1. New #1 favorite airport code of the Berry family: St. Pete-Clearwater International: it’s PIE!
  2. Hours we were in Florida before Richie declared that he would be moving here when he’s an adult: 0.
  3. Local restaurants recommended to us by our dear friends who used to live in the area: 3.
  4. Of those restaurants, the number we visited: 3.
  5. Of those visits, the number of times we tormented those friends by texting/posting while dining al fresco at their favorite warm-weather eateries while they were stuck up north in the cold: 3.
  6. On a scale of 1-10, 1 being very sure and 10 being not sure at all, how confident we are that we still have those friends: 5.
  7. On a scale of 1-10, 1 being smart and 10 being not smart at all, how Richie judges our friends’ intelligence based on their decision to move from Florida to Pennsylvania: 10.
  8. Sunburns: 0.  Yippee!!
  9. Times I mocked Rich and Jillian while they discussed the pain from their Pina Colada brain-freezes so virulently you’d have thought they were two baby bunnies being waterboarded: 1.
  10. Virgin Pina Coladas consumed by Jillian: 5.
  11. Virgin Pina Coladas consumed by Rich: 0.
  12. Times Richie asked us, while on the beach, what time it was: 742,851.
  13. Number of family members in agreement that we didn’t need to know the time while on vacation, so we would always answer “1:30” when someone asked for the time: 3.
  14. On a scale of 1-10, 1 being not bothered at all and 10 being incredibly pissed off, how annoyed Richie was by this policy: 7.
  15. Dolphin sightings from the beach: 3.
  16. Squeals of delight at seeing dolphins: 3. (From Rich or Richie: 0.)
  17. Times I offered to take another family’s picture so even the mom could be in it: 3.
  18. Moms who took me up on that offer: 3.
  19. Number of U.S. families now able to boast that their Christmas card picture was taken by the palest middle-aged Pennsylvania mom on St. Pete Beach: 1.
  20. Times I ordered a vodka tonic with 2 limes: 3.
  21. Received a vodka tonic with 2 limes: 0.
  22. Received a vodka tonic with 1  lime: 3.
  23. Added the lime from my first vodka tonic to my second vodka tonic in order to pretend that someone thought I deserved 2 limes: 1.
  24. On a scale of 1-10, 1 being a little and 10 being a lot, how much our family needed this vacation: 10.
  25. On the same scale, how grateful I am to my brother & his family for staying at our house and caring for our dogs: 10.
  26.  Loads of laundry I’ll be doing tomorrow: at least 6.
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In training for Spring Break 2026.  Don’t tell Gram.

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This kid is consistent.  The chaise lounge has always been his favorite outdoor play toy.

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Herbie the sea chicken.  He liked us so much that he would find us every time we walked on the beach.

Stimming at the Beach

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There are few sights more joyous, few things more all-encompassingly buoyant, than watching my son Richie at the beach.  This child, who works so hard everyday to “act normal” so he can fit in with his classmates, lets himself relax – and we let him relax – and the result is a display of wonder and elation like no other.

One of the things Autistic people like Richie battle daily is sensory overstimulation. When we eat out, I hear the shrieks of the baby at the next table as annoying; to Richie they are frighteningly shrill.  Fluorescent lights are, to the neurotypical (non-Autistic) person, well…lights.  But for Richie and others like him, the same lights flicker, distract, and annoy incessantly.  The list goes on and on, and I won’t pretend to know them all.

For many Autistic people, one way to cope with these overwhelming feelings and sensations is to engage in self-stimulatory behavior, or stimming.  For my Richie, this includes flapping his hands, spinning his body, contracting his muscles, and doing what our family calls “chattering:” releasing a verbal burst of words & sounds. In our everyday life, we discourage these behaviors.  If Richie wants to chatter or flap or spin, has to wait until he is at home in his room.  We have this rule because we believe it is in Richie’s best interest, both now and as an adult.  He has a lot to offer the world, but some people won’t be able to see past the flapping.  These behaviors also make him vulnerable to being mocked or bullied by classmates.  So the rule exists.  Some behaviors (like nose picking and others I’d rather not name) just belong in private.

And my hat is off to him; Richie works hard every day to keep these behaviors under control.  So if he comes home after a day of “holding it together” at school and needs to go in his room to flap and spin to decompress, more power to him.

There is something about the beach that brings out his stimming behaviors in spades.  And the difference is striking: whereas at home, the stimming seems to be a coping mechanism, at the beach, it seems to be a joy-filled celebration of all the stimulation that in other circumstances would be difficult to process: the pull of the waves, the push of the wind, the suck of the sand, the chill of the water.  He takes it all in, and his face is luminous.  His eyes twinkle.  His smile grows to bursting.  If Autism makes life harder for Richie 99% of the time, then this is the 1% to treasure.

So the rule is suspended.  Here under the big blue sky, we smile at each other and enjoy Richie enjoying himself.  He flaps, he chatters, he jumps, he paces.  On and on for hours.  And it is beautiful.

Adult Supervision Required

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We’re in Florida this week for Spring Break.  We spent yesterday on the beach, so today we’re setting up camp by the pool.  My kids love hotel pools, mostly because they are so often paired with the holy grail of relaxation for the elementary-school set: a hot tub.

My kids have both had a passion for hot tubs since an early age.  A few years ago, when my parents moved to a retirement community, Richie thought the most impressive thing about the whole place (other than the fact that there’s an elevator and a restaurant where you can get French fries any time you want) was the huge hot tub that sits right beside the indoor pool.

Twice a week, the pool hosts a family swim, and if our schedule allows AND Gram’s beyond-hectic-social-calendar-and-doctor-appointment-schedule does too, we go.  But much to Richie’s horror, the first time we walked in, he read the rules posted on the wall and learned that children under the age of 12 are not allowed in the hot tub.

Now you might ask, “What 8-year-old boy walks into a pool and reads the rules first thing?”  Only my Richie (and lots of other Autistic kids who find comfort and safety in rules and routines).  His love of rules is both endearing and maddening, depending on the day.

We hadn’t been to a family swim in over a year when one day, out of the blue, Richie said to me, “Four more months and I can get in the hot tub!”  This was such a non sequitur  that I had to ask him what he was talking about.  He reminded me of the rules at Gram’s hot tub, and the fact that he’d turn 12 in just four months.  The kid does not forget anything.

Back to today, in Florida, at the hotel pool.  We chose lounge chairs a few rows back from the pool but right beside the hot tub.  After I sunscreened both Richie and Jillian to within an inch of their lives, the kids walked towards the hot tub and I got comfortable in my chair.  I’d barely taken two breaths when Richie was back at my side, beckoning to me with his hand.  Once again, he’d read the rules.  “Come on, Mom,” he said, “I need some adult supervision.”

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Happy at last (while supervised)