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Kristen is a home­maker, home­schooler, and a home­keeper. Her experience includes nineteen years of practice, raising three kids, a husband, and a dog. Writing about her life helps her stay sane. She believes that sharing stories helps others by providing opportunities to share advice (and helpful hints) about homeschooling, and raising kids on the autism spectrum, while supporting marriages and families that are striving to thrive.

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We're All a Little Mad Here

a peek inside an autism family

Finishing up with a month of April autism awareness posts, I figured I’d mention all the wonderful, positive, right things that are the stuff of life when living in an autistic family (because, truthfully, after a while we all feel a little spectrum-y).

 

family

 

First of all, we have all acquired a habit of taking on some of the physical and verbal tics of our kids’ autism traits. We will all join in flapping with Tommy and/or Katie if the situation warrants that sharing of emotion. Yep, sometimes we just need to get stimmy with each other. When one person communicates and processes dialogue with flapping, it’s just natural to pick up on that, and join in. Clearing the throat is another trait that we all pay attention to; throat clearing accompanies explanations (sometimes very long ones, so we either settle in and get prepared to listen, or we tell (ususally) Tommy to wait, we need to address this later). So, sometimes accepting means mirroring, and we get that in our house. It doesn’t always work, now... all of us flapping and clearing our throats together in Target might set off some red flags, but at home, it works well to communicate, “I get you.”

 

katieupsidedown

 

We all laugh and cry a lot. The emotions flow freely at our house, with not a lot of filters. This is both good and bad. We, and I mean all of us humans that make up this family, know when each other are happy, sad, mad, annoyed, upset, etc. We’ve named what angry eyebrows mean, what mashed lips convey, and what tears communicate. Every facial expression has gotten a name and an emotion attached to it. 

 

tompippi

 

We love fierce! These kids, especially, keep me on my toes. I can witness fighting for thirty eight hours straight, but the moment one child thinks another has been slighted, judged, or mistreated, protective-sibling-mode is on full and glorious display (again, without a lot of filters) for everyone to witness. More often than not I am feeling proud and thinking, “wow... these kids have that love and protect thing down pat.” Sometimes, though, I’m like, “can you keep that in your thought bubble, please?” Teaching social awareness and situational respect is tough stuff. I’m constantly learning, myself, actually. No one can claim, though, that love is absent at our house.

 

kateflap

 

This crew has learned to be very (very) specific with our words. The first time I told Tommy to “go hop in the tub,” and he literally hopped into the tub and nearly cracked his head, I took note that I couldn’t assume that phrases wouldn’t be interpreted literally. “Hop to it,” involved hopping. Amelia Bedelia was extremely helpful to us early on. I had to be careful with imaginary play, too. When Tommy was five, he decided to try flying out his window, complete with cape and mask on. I caught him right before he had pushed the screen all the way out. After freaking out completely (“What are you doing?!?!” --”Trying to fly!!!”), I had to explain the difference between real and pretend people... which didn’t go so well, actually, and needed to be revisited frequently. Also, all aspects of home safety had to be reevaluated and updated, and explained. I have to admit we had to reevaluate and explain again with our third child, who is also on the spectrum. She wasn’t diagnosed until later, but there it was, around age five, she wanted to fly, and she was in a tree, not a bedroom window, but still -- I can’t lock a tree and put a safety latch on it. Specific words. Often repeated.

 

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Finally, acceptance. Learning to accept each other, even when we are all different, is huge. I may not agree or like what you say to me, but I accept you. We all need a little grace with this one, too. It doesn’t necessarily feel accepting sometimes, say, when my child is telling me he would save an animal’s life over mine. However, I can accept (after I’ve had a few minutes to sit back and think about it) that said child feels very strongly about how vulnerable an animal is, versus how resourceful a human is. Plus, I’m allegedly older and wiser, and should be able to give the kids a little space to think and formulate opinions, and voice said opinions. This, quite obviously, doesn’t always work, especially when respect becomes an issue. All children need to learn to respect their parents, even if it means they don’t accept an explanation (Why isn’t Superman real?!?! Why are dinosaurs extinct?!?!”). So, accepting and respecting are two things that require continuous training and learning on all of our parts. Regardless, the accepting of each other is the beauty of a neuro-diverse family.

So, keep calm, love, laugh, accept, and respect, and parent on!

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but, no support groups!

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I last wrote about the awesome month of April being the awesome month of autism awareness. Furthermore, I challenged the readers (y’all!!) to help move the collective thinking and discussions surrounding autism into more of an autism acceptance stance.

I wrote last week about how my kids are proud of who they are, and how understanding that autism means their brains are wired differently and work differently than most of their friends’ brains do. On the surface, it’s a pretty easy explanation. I don’t want to diminish though, that we have had many tears, many gut wrenching conversations about how being different is not so easy. Trying to explain why they don’t get many birthday invitations or sleep over invites is a difficult conversation to have. “Because your brain works differently than most other kids,” is not always an acceptable answer, either. I’ve often commented that it would have been nice to get an instruction manual with these kids, because I’m so sure I’m messing things up everyday because I’m missing the manual! All we can do is muddle through sometimes, and pray, like all the time, I guess. I am no expert, but I’m proud that my kids are proud, of even the hardest stuff.

So, we (the oldest and the youngest- the two on the spectrum) were in the car for a road trip on Monday. Tommy had been home for Easter, and his birthday, and I was returning him back to Woodrow Wilson. We got on the subject of April and autism and awareness.

“I hate that phrase!” Tommy exclaimed, “Aware... of what?!”

“Autism,” Katie answered, “yeah, I think it’s weird, too.”

“Huh,” I chimed in, “one of my friends said she was wary of any day or month with the word ‘awareness’ attached to it.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Tommy answered.

“Yeah,” Katie added, “So you’re aware... now what? Do you want a prize or something?”

“Huh.”

 

tsword

 

When I can’t think of an intelligent response, “huh” usually suffices. It works well when I’m surprised or flabbergasted, too. Which, of course, I was-- both surprised and flabbergasted. I thought they were both “good” with autism awareness stuff. I thought they understood that the awareness campaign was to help more people understand and be aware of the differences and challenges that arise with autistic family members and friends. I, therefore, started to espouse all the things good about the autism awareness campaign and I even told them that I had a post going up that very day about all that stuff.

“Mooooommmm,” from Tommy, flapping, in the back seat.

“Mom!” from Katie, bouncing in the front seat. “It’s ok!”

“It’s just that I think it’s not a bad thing, you know, being aware and even accepting of people that see the world differently, and all that.”

At this point in our trip we were on the mountainous portion of the highway, so I couldn’t really look into my kids’ faces and try to ascertain exactly what they were feeling and trying to convey. Tommy tends to be very wordy, which is interesting because he was so not wordy until he was four. Katie is more physical, though. Their faces truly help me understand them better. I felt a little blinded, at the moment, on a curvy mountain road.

“Alright, well, awareness is fine, mom, but then what do you do with that? So, that is what I mean.” Tommy answered quite plainly, not upset; Katie, I noticed out of the corner of my eye,nodded in agreement. Then, Tommy continued.

“Furthermore, I think autism is what makes great people great. You can’t argue that some of the most brilliant people have autism, and a lot of them are my heros. This is what I love about the idea of a multiverse. The multiverse is full of different people, warriors, heroes, artists, that all probably have autism... so why do I need a support group?”

Wait... what? Support group? Katie rolled her eyes, and sighed, “Here we go.”

I guess they had already been talking about this, and I missed it.

“Yes, yes, in school the guidance counselor wanted me to go to one, and in highschool I had to go to one, and they even have one at Woodrow Wilson. I’m not an addict or on drugs, or addicted to anything bad... so why would I need a support group? It’s stupid!”

“Huh,” I answered. “Well, I have an easy answer, actually.”

“Go on,” he prompted.

“Well, support groups don’t have to be bad. They’re good, actually, even if you’re in one for a not-so-good reason. MOPS (Mothers of PreSchoolers) is a support group. Prayer group is a support group. Small group is a support group. I’ve been to several autism support groups, and I have even been to a breastfeeding support group.”

Eeewwwwww- from Katie. Flapping from Tommy.

“So, see? Sometimes people just want and need support in things that set them apart, or make them different, or are challenging. It helps to make you feel like you aren’t always messing things up, and that you aren’t alone.”

Without missing a beat, “Well, I don’t mind being alone.”

I know. I know. I know. It is kind of crazy that the majority of people with autism that I know would much rather be alone, or in a very small, like only one other person, group situation. Maybe the groups are made by the neuro-typical people that want the neurodiverse people to feel more like the neuro-typical person would want to feel... In other words, a support group sounds like a great idea to me (neuro-typical), but it would be to make me (neuro-typical) feel better. And here is the epiphany: autism awareness should be about acceptance. We all see things a little differently, and in the autism community every person with autism is different. Hopefully, the awareness part of the autism awareness campaign will lead to more acceptance of those very things that make each person with autism unique. So, after a pregnant pause, I answered:

“Well, then, I guess you don’t need a support group, then... but, isn’t autism awareness ok?”

“Yeah, just leave out the support groups.”

 

kids

 

Copy. Got it. Keep Calm. Accept autism. Support groups optional. And Parent ON!

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Autism Awesome Awareness

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So, April is the month for all sorts of awareness and appreciations. Aside from it being autism awareness month, it is also child abuse prevention month, jazz appreciation month, math awareness month, volunteer appreciation month, something with kite flying appreciation month, deaf history month and poetry month. There are more, but I don’t want to overwhelm anyone. There are a lot of reasons to be engaged, to be aware and to be appreciative.

Having a couple of kids on the spectrum (as in autism), I have always appreciated April. I’ve put up blue lights for the “light it up blue” campaign that is an Autism Speaks gig. I appreciate TJ Maxx donating money to the cause. I love seeing puzzle pieces and signs and t-shirts that sport the autism awareness slogans. I think that, for the most part, we (as a family) feel like we are a part of something big and beautiful and messy at times -- and that autism awareness is a good, great thing.

 

tommystark

 

Let me add, my kids are actually pretty proud of their autism. My son, especially, has been able to articulate that autism is a part of him. He feels like he thinks in a very special way, he can appreciate that his brain is wired differently from his sisters’ brains, and he couldn’t give a fig what others think of him because he is who he is and that’s all that there is. It isn’t all sunshine and roses (believe me, we had a meltdown today), but he really is very (extremely) confident in who he is and he is quite ok with how he views the world. Katie is very similar, but I think she is a little more sensitive to being aware of how others look at her. She wants to be accepted, I think, and cares about how she looks, how she dresses, and what other people think. We all want to feel accepted, of course, to some degree, but Katie is very acutely desirous of being accepted... by everyone. We grow these kids with big, big hearts, and rejection is super, horribly painful! Tommy, I think, just has a little more experience to be himself, whereas Katie is a thirteen year old girl... a thirteen year old girl with less filters than the typical child and with super magnified sensitivities. Imagine a teenager. On steroids. With a lamborghini. In gridlocked traffic. It's a wild ride at our house, all the time, mind you.

 

katiesitting

 

Now, honestly, I can go on and on about the good, the bad, the ugly, etc. I can get snarky when I’m tired, and I can dramatize some ups and downs of being an autism family. There are a great many ups, and quite a fair share of downs, and not a lot in between. When it’s good, it’s very, very good, which leads to the opposite of that being true, as well. I can share that I’ve had to put on the mama-bear-just-coming-out-of-hibernation-with-three-bear-cubs-to-protect hat several times during my career of mom of special needs kids. I’ve had to fight for the better part of twenty years to gain ground with insurance companies, physicians, and school officials. It’s not easy to fight for things all the time, and it is very, very hard to have to watch your child fail at something several times before actions are taken to accommodate their needs (here is where I plug in that homeschooling is a great option if you can do it). And, just maybe, these are all reasons to make autism awareness worthy of a whole month.

 

tompip

 

Now that my oldest is twenty years old, I can actually see strides in the awareness of autism paradigm. Most people, everywhere in this country, are aware that autism is a thing. When I see an older child having a meltdown in the middle of Target I look for ways to help, and so do my kids, and so do a good many other people. Not too many long years ago, my ten year old had a meltdown in Target and I got the “oh, you’re that kind of parent” snickers from people. That being said, around that same time, we, (actually- the girls and I) were at a fabulous dance studio where my oldest daughter danced, and when Tommy had a meltdown there (because he just found out dinosaurs were extinct), one of the studio owner’s kids took my oldest daughter to class, another took my youngest to play with Barbies, and the owner ushered us into her office where we could melt and deal with extinction issues in private and away from stares and glares (Thank you, Bobbi!). Anyway... Autism awareness is a good thing, and we’ve come a long way.

Now, though, there is a new challenge as the first huge wave of diagnosed kids are graduating from high school and heading toward future goals (whether those goals include college, work, or living more independently), and that is acceptance. Acceptance is such a buzzword lately, and is usually directed at social situations. Well, autism is one such situation that requires acceptance. Patience, kindness, and time are the currency of living with, loving, and working with people on the autism spectrum. Ups and downs will abound. The payoff, though, is usually a very loyal and loving individual sharing their space and perspective with you. And usually, your mind will be blown away by the depth of that person’s understanding of their world -- and yours.

 

katieally

 

Keep calm, love autism, and parent on!

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Testing Time!

robinunderbranch

 

It’s that time of year where I start to feel like I’m coming up short. Short on time, short on attention, short on patience, short on understanding. Spring is finally here, the weather is usually warming up a little, and thank-goodness daylight savings time (best invention ever!) has begun. Sunlight is a most welcome intervention for those of us that tend to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (yes, it is a real thing, and sunlight really is the treatment). So, why the spring for coming up short? The short days are over, the planet is tilting toward the sun, everyone should be starting to feel a little better... right?

Everyone has those seasons of life that are thankfully (for most) short lived, but that also wreak havoc on emotions, or relationships. No one is immune to stress, believe it or not. Everyone knows someone who seems like they have it all together: always these people are wearing real clothes, and have their hair washed, and they look presentable. Here’s a secret, though: even said put together people are stressed out sometimes, and they probably even hide out in their bathroom just to have a few minutes of peace- I’m just sayin’- I know one of these super-people, and she swears she has her moments. My season for hiding out-I can’t even-I don’t want to go out or do anything-have to talk to people...is spring. I’m irritable from the allergies (that are worse every single year!), I’m hypersensitive to everything around me, and for reasons I still haven’t figured out even after twenty-two years of marriage, my husband is always emotional in the spring. And, this makes me (very) emotional. The emotional barometer in our house is just whack-a-doo March through May. We are whack-a-doo March through May.

 

konlogsml

 

On top of everything else, it’s testing season. SATs, SOLs, Drivers License Testing, finals, projects, you-name-it, it all happens in the spring. We homeschool, yes, and we still have to do a standardized test every year. So, I’m short emotionally, and educationally - even if I really am not short educationally - it feels like I am. Did we cover enough material? Will the children score well enough to not make people think we are doing nothing? That little one of mine just does not retain any information unless it has to do with Minecraft. She dislikes history, she despises writing, she is a reluctant reader, and she barely tolerates math and science. I’m always challenged emotionally and educationally when I consider her. It’s a good thing I’m crazy about her! She has a photography assignment due tomorrow, and she is asking for one of the pistols so she can put a flower with it and call it a still-life. I’m like, “whaaaaaat?!”

 

IMG 3502donhorse

 

I can only offer a little bit of wisdom, here, and it’s this: Roll with it. I know that it all will work out. I naturally stress if given any scenario, including happy things. My oldest, Tommy, is on the Autism Spectrum, and I just had no idea what I was going to do with “this kid”. Well, Tommy is successfully living away from home and participating in training for a job. My middle child, like me, stresses and gets anxious about most of the things of life. She is my peace-maker, and she will be blessed, but it’s a hard place to be when you are sixteen. I’m sure she is going to be OK; she is going to be driving on her own soon, and she is pretty much independent school-wise. Every time I start to worry about her, she surprises me with a breakthrough, or some spontaneous bit of wisdom only a middle girl could give. Even that little one is going to pass her tests (maybe by the skin of her teeth- or mine- mind you), and keep it together for her old mom, if only because I’m praying fervently for that peace that passes all understanding. The husband, even, always seems to show up with exactly what I need (hugs and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, if you must know) even though he works so hard, and hardly gets a day off, and just needs about seventy-two hours of sleep- in a row- all at once... Some day, baby... we just need to hang in there!

 

peanut butter cups sml

 

Testing time will pass, and the tests of life, those pesky seasons that seem to drag on and on; they will pass, too. One time, long ago, I paused long enough to blink, and here I am with three teenagers. The testing has looked different, and the seasons have varied, but we seem to keep making it through, somehow. So, to all the moms and dads and parent-people out there, know you aren’t alone! You aren’t the only one who hasn’t slept for three days. You aren’t alone in wearing yoga pants and a baseball cap. You aren’t exclusively having the worst day ever. For sure, we (parents) are all in the same proverbial boat, and sometimes it might feel like it’s sinking. This may happen for you out of the blue, or it is something that seems cyclic, and you are surprised by it, even though it happens every year, around the same time of year. Stop being surprised by stress. Know that the tests are coming. Be comforted that these seasons don’t last forever. Look around, count your blessings, and keep calm, and parent on!

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Playground Misadventures

We were enjoying the beautiful February weather (the day I wrote this post). Two words that don’t really go together in the same sentence are beautiful and February, right? However, that is what we, my youngest, my husband, the two dogs and I were doing today. Having labs, we took a long, long, never-long-enough walk through the woods in order to let them run around, sniff the smells, roll in deer poop (I’m told this is a dog thing), and run around some more- because they are crazy. Because I have a very physical thirteen year old, I made her hike and walk with us. I’ve discovered that on the days she accompanies me (or us, as the case was today) on the outside walk time, the better she behaves in the evening, and the better she sleeps at night. She will swear that she doesn’t enjoy the outdoors, but my girl keeps up with the labs, is in front of them sometimes, and is usually grinning from ear to ear while we’re outside (thankfully, she does not roll in deer poop).

We emerged from the woods across from a playground, which Katie wanted to play on for just a few minutes. I am usually the nay-sayer, but Mark beat me to the punch and said yes, because, sun. In February. We can stay here for as long as we want.

There were a lot of moms at the playground with their preschoolers, but Katie is used to being around all ages of kids. We homeschool, so she is comfortable speaking and playing with adults and kids both older and younger than her. Nonplussed, she bounded, ran, and leaped from the sidewalk to the playground, while Mark and I took the dogs to the shade to cool off, as It was actually quite warm.

 

 

Not ten minutes went by before Katie scaled the playground equipment, and pulled herself up to the tippy-top of the highest part of the outside of the slide. Mark and I were watching her. We were present, and obvious to anyone that we were, indeed, her parents, and, truthfully, we were chuckling a bit while watching her climb.

She be little, but she be fierce! This is Katie’s norm, you see. She is a climber, and I have spent several moments of her life either biting my nails, or just praying over her and turning away. Honestly, it’s just better to not watch, sometimes. We’re a little bit mad here, and a bit old-fashioned, I guess, by letting our kids play hard, and we also aren’t about stifling creative play. We aren’t going to put her or let her stay in danger. Katie is a strong sensory-seeking-input type of child; and she is an athlete. She always has been, and I’m pretty sure she always will be. Climbing things is part of the package that makes up Katie.

 

that little streak of red is our Katie-cat

 

So, while Mark and I are laughing and watching, one of the moms present became so not amused. She went running (not exaggerating) up to the play structure, gesturing at Katie and commanding her to get down from there right now, which Katie did, thank goodness. Not a lot of filters on that little one, but we’ve been insistent on respecting adults as a rule. Then, said mom returned to her group of friends that she was talking with.

Mark and I, however, became immediately somewhat defensive. What just happened? Do we respond? What’s going on?

“Maybe it’s a rule that she can’t play on the outside of the play equipment,” I remarked.

Ever calm (sarcasm) about the “safety police” as he calls them (Katie gets this type of energy from him, by the way; I’m surprised he survived childhood), ranted, “It’s a playground! She is playing.”

I just nodded as he walked over to the rule board to read said rules. He conferred with Katie, and told her she wasn’t in trouble and came back to me with the news that there was no rule about “playing wrong on the playground!” Obviously.

“Well,” I said, “then she should climb if she wants to. She isn’t doing anything wrong.”

Mark asked if he should say something, and I thought yes, he should. Like I said, we were in plain sight of her, she wasn’t doing anything wrong, and she wasn’t being rude to anyone. So, he did just that and very respectfully walked over to the mom and told her that he could see Katie, and he was comfortable with her climbing, and she wasn’t breaking any rules. Well, apparently this wasn’t even about Katie, it was about her kids. She didn’t want them to be encouraged by Katie’s climbing prowess and attempt the same feat. Mark was dubious, and remarked that that was on her. She replied that she didn’t want to go the Emergency Room, and then she escalated, I know, because I heard her voice rise, at which point, Mark very respectfully waited for her to finish, then nodded and repeated that he was comfortable with what Katie was doing, and that she didn’t need to correct his child, thank you, have a good day, ma'am. At which point, I witnessed her throw her arms up and throw a book she was holding to the ground, and then she stomped toward her car. Then I stopped watching, because I so don't like confrontations.

Now, I understand both sides of this coin. Other children would surely see what Katie did as “cool” and want to try the same thing. They might take a risk they aren’t developmentally ready to take. They might indeed have to take a trip to the Emergency Room. The other side of this, though, is that Katie had every reason to be able to play on that playground as every other child. The rules were not broken, and it wasn’t even a private playground, it was a Stafford Parks and Rec playground. Not only that, Mark and I were watching her. On top of everything else, of course, is the fact that Katie is a great climber!

 

 

Furthermore, here is a truth: Parenting is a hard enough job to accomplish successfully with your own children. Outside of blatant harming behaviors (throwing rocks or sand, pushing/shoving, biting), correcting another person’s child crosses a line. At least I think so. Again, if she was being rude, or inhibiting younger children’s play, or purposely creating danger for other children, by all means, correct away. Otherwise, let me (us, my family) parent my kids, and you can parent your kids. Also, let the kids play on the playground equipment. We, as parents, are not doing anyone any good by keeping our children in a bubble. I’ve found that most children have a pretty keen sense of self-preservation when it comes to play. If they aren’t comfortable climbing, they probably won’t climb (an aside, again, would be teaching true danger limitations, such as loose rocks, busy streets, dead trees).

We returned from playground-gate completely unscathed and pretty calm (we still had a mile-walk home), but a little more aware of something happening in our country. Everything is about safety and lawsuits, even on playgrounds, and some people truly believe that they are part of the village that needs to raise all the children. I’m all about helping friends out or keeping a child from bolting into the street, but if you are present and watching your child do fill-in-the-blank, and you are not upset, then it isn’t my job to overrule your judgment. I think that would be bad manners. Also, injuries are inevitable during childhood. It happens. It stinks, but, guess what happens when a child gets injured doing something? I’ll tell you. They learn.

Keep Calm, and parent on!

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