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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.



We're All a Little Mad Here

Life Skills

If you were to have asked me in my twenties about life skills, I probably would have answered that they were just common sense. I would probably use words like obvious, instinctual, and innate. If I didn't know something, I could just figure it out. Besides cooking (I'm a terrible cook), I could totally live on my own at eighteen (I didn't, I know, not really, but I could have). Microwaves were invented, and I went to college. I had Domino's on speed dial (pre-cellphone era); I knew how to do laundry, study, and keep myself groomed. Life skills. Easy-peasy. 

Twenty(ish) years and three kids later, I realize that life skills are not obvious or innate for everybody. I didn't know what autism was, really, back in my twenties, back when I was first “adulting”.  I had never heard of sensory integration or executive functioning. While all kids, especially teens, and especially boys struggle to see the importance of clean clothes and toothpaste, for some kids it just doesn’t occur to them that they smell bad or have food in their teeth. Beyond that, unless they are reminded, they won't change clothes, deodorize, or brush their teeth. It's frustrating, to say the least, and heart breaking at times.  One day Tommy came home from high school with macaroni and cheese in his eyebrows.  A phone call to his case manager at school ensured it wouldn't happen again, but things like that happen all the time. He needs to be told to use a napkin, and to check the mirror before he leaves the restroom.

 

 

Tommy needs reminders for Every. Single. Thing. I'm not even exaggerating. He wakes up on his own, and goes on Wikipedia to get evidence to convince me the multiverse is reality on his own, but everything else needs prompting.  Did you shower? Did you use soap? Did you change your clothes? Did you brush your teeth? Did you remember the toothpaste?  It goes on and on and on. I'm even needing to smell him sometimes because the reply is often as automatic as the question.  Yes, yes, and yes.  I'm like, “Really? Come closer! No, you didn't!”  So, while most kids will realize eventually that it's important to be clean, Tommy just doesn't, and probably won't.   A lot of kids with autism don't and won't grow out of the stage of teenage unsanitariness. It just won't occur to them that it's necessary. Tommy won't figure out how to budget, meal plan, or organize himself by himself.  He needs a little extra help, and sometimes (at this stage of life) that help needs to come from someone other than his family members.  I call it launching him, this preparation for independence that needs to happen without the immediate safety net of his people always directing and guiding him. Forward progress!

So, Tommy had an evaluation week at the Woodrow Wilson Workforce center a few months ago.  It went very well, and he was recommended for the first part of his training to be the Life Skills program, which is nine weeks long.  We left yesterday and dropped him off (gasp)! He is living in a dorm, he is having to live with someone, and share a bathroom with eight other boys.  I'm excited and terrified, again. I wasn't quite as emotional dropping him off this time, but it is definitely unsettling for me--for all of us in this family.  Katie cried, and Mark was really quiet on the ride back home. It's what we want for Tommy, and yet it's hard to let go.  Parenting is kind of like signing up to have your heart broken a little at a time, and then to have it put back together, but it's just not ever the same. It's a beautiful and terrible thing. 

 

 

The biggest worry Tommy had, mind you, was his roommate.  “What if he is not like me at all… What if he is an atheist sports fanatic or something?”

Bless him.  I'm happy to report that the roommate was not an atheist sports fanatic, and, indeed, was quite a bit like Tommy.  They both like DC comics, Gotham, and conspiracy theories. The roommate is writing a book about the presidents’ secrets.  All the presidents. All the secrets. He is very organized. I was impressed.  Tommy and he fell into a very easy dialogue (and debate) about aliens, Area Fifty-One, and the “fake” lunar landing.  I left feeling good, a little less worried, because I was nervous about the room-mate possibilities, as well.  Part of life skills is social skills, and that is always a struggle for Tommy.

So, all in all, it's going to be an interesting nine weeks for this family!  One week without Tommy was fine, but nine weeks?! I'm a bit beside myself.  It's already so quiet. I didn't wake up to hearing him pacing around the house (laps, inside, every morning, with a very heavy heel). I didn't have to answer questions about him being the best swordsman in a multi-dimensional universe, scarf wearing fraternities in Brazil, or parallel Star Wars outcomes and theories, ad nauseum.  My brain won't know how to think without all that stimulation, I'm afraid. But, I'll keep you posted!  

 

 

Keep calm! Tommy is launching! And parent on!

 

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Moose

 

I think moose are just about the cutest and grandest animals that God thought to create. They are gentle giants unless, of course, you make them angry-- then they’ll just stomp you. But, still, they are cute, and awkward, and beautiful all at the same time. Adorable.

Danielle, my middle child, was born two weeks early. She came in just under seven pounds, and not quite twenty inches long. She is the tiniest baby I birthed, and the easiest, most laid-back baby about everything else. By seven weeks she was sleeping through the night and mostly content about nursing, being held, being in her crib, and being a baby. It was awesome. 

 

 

So, she was my tiniest for all of two weeks. She grew so fast! By the time she was two years old she was wearing size six (child) clothing. When she was learning to walk at twelve months, she had a size seven (child) foot. Fast forward to fifteen and a half years, and she is just over six feet and one inch tall, and wears a ladies' size twelve shoe.  She is my moose.  I called her that early on, which mortified my mother, but it's stuck with her. She is cute and awkward, and beautiful -- inside and out - all at the same time.

 

 

She is my middle child, but she is also my oldest child.  She developmentally is older than Tommy, so she has two birth-order places to fill. Growing up in between two special needs siblings has been challenging, but we truly believe in the purpose of each of our lives in our family, and how God has orchestrated us being together. Danielle is special, too, and is definitely growing with grace.  

I forget, in fact, a lot of times that she is only fifteen. She is an old soul, and has been fifteen going on thirty all year long. She helps me out immensely, and approaches problems and conflict with a very unique wisdom. It is wisdom I definitely didn't have at fifteen, or twenty, for that matter. So, when she reminds me she’s fifteen with typical teenage angst or drama, I'm usually pretty floored. We definitely have our moments! Danielle, though, is a natural teacher, and a very patient sister for the most part. She isn't a saint (yet); she does argue for her way with her siblings, but siblings will be siblings- even those with special needs.

Danielle is also a very talented musician. She is a gifted artist.  She is wicked smart.  Her heart belongs to Jesus in a way that is beyond her chronological age. Danielle loves babies and young children, so much so, that she is going on a mission trip to work in an orphanage this winter. I'm so very, very proud of her.  Loving her is one of my favorite jobs here on planet Earth. It is beautiful.

I wanted to write about her because I know I give so much time and attention (and writing) to the other two. That's how it is in special-need homes and families. I know that it's not uncommon for parents to be wracked with guilt over the time and attention variant among their children with versus those without special needs. I'm certainly guilty of feeling guilty a lot of times. I'm quick to point out that there is a plan and purpose for all of us, but that guilt monster is a tough one to squelch. Again, sharing information about special needs issues is what makes our families stronger.  Kids like Danielle make us stronger.

 

 

Mark and I try to make sure she knows she is loved and appreciated for being her, not just because she is an awesome helper. She gets some privileges that her brother and sister don't have because she has greater responsibilites than they do. We do some things like date-nights or date-days with just Danielle, and we encourage her to do some activities that are just for her. She also gets a smart phone, because she is in charge when Mark and I have dates alone. We encourage her to not be afraid to talk about the frustrations she faces with her brother and sister, and to not let those frustrations become the focus of her existence. I know some schools are starting support groups for kids who have a special needs sibling (or two), and I have a friend who tells me her daughter really enjoys the support group at her school. I know support groups are extremely beneficial to anyone who feels alone in a situation. I know because I've been a part of a few over the years. Sometimes, someone just needs to be told that therapy is OK. It is ok. It is all good. It is OK for your kids. It is OK for your family.

Feel free to share in the comments section some special ideas you might have that would help families who might be struggling with this kind of challenge. Share what makes your “typical” child special! How do other families gel together? Let's get some responses and discussion about togetherness and specialness. We are stronger together! Parent on!

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Frugality is Fine!


I was thinking about my supposed reality TV show the other day… the one I have in my head that will make us a lot of money, and will provide us with enough money to fix all the things that need to be fixed in our house, in our cars, our furniture… all the things.

Life here in the fancy-schmancy area called Northern Virginia is not inexpensive. Our family has made the choice of living on one salary so I can homeschool our kids, and be available for the many, many appointments that come with having kids on the special needs spectrum. So, it has become necessary to live frugally and learn how to love that trash-to-treasure look (I prefer the term “vintage” actually).

I thought it would be great to share some tips our family employs to help defray the high cost of living here. Some things might sound a little radical, some things may be unrealistic, but in my opinion, every little bit helps! Plus, as I keep writing, the more we share as parents raising families, the stronger we become.

One of the biggest cost cutters for us was to get rid of cable TV. You read that right: No TV. OK. I’m exaggerating a little- we have a Roku, and we subscribe to Pure Flix. We have a DVD player, too. We even still have a VCR in the basement, but that is only because we can’t figure out how to get the DVD player to work without it being wired through the VCR. We’re a bit mad, I know, but honestly, it was just easier to keep the archaic set up.  We exercise in the basement, and some of those workouts are on VHS tapes… I know…old fashioned. And there is another tip:  no gym memberships! Why pay to exercise when you can exercise for free?

 

 

We don’t cut coupons but we do shop mostly at Walmart and Aldi. We have a Costco membership for those things that make sense, like toothbrushes, toilet paper, and almond flour (and gas!). We go to Wegmans for their awesome produce and truly great prices on family-packs of meats and snacks. If you haven’t tried Aldi, I highly recommend you try it! Bring a quarter for a grocery cart (you get it back) and your own bags (environmentally friendly, anyway). They have really great prices on gluten-free things, too, if you happen to be on a special diet. Walmart has a savings catcher app, as well. All you do is scan your receipt and if there are other stores in your area that have a lower price on anything you purchased, it will give you the difference in price, which you can then transfer to a gift card to use at your discretion (we like using the extra savings around Christmas-time). Very easy-peasy penny pinching!

We don’t eat out often. That saves tons of money. I’m a horrible cook, too, so this is truly a sacrifice for us! Pinterest has awesome recipes, and printable menu planners. Menu-planning (check out my fellow blogger's post: Meal Planning Made Easy!  for more about that) is so helpful to organize a shopping list which also is helpful in saving money. I’m not super organized, but I know when I menu-plan I save money at checkout, and it cuts down on the mad dash to the store because I’ve forgotten ingredients or food. Plus, I don’t see the really cute t-shirts that just went on sale as I breeze past the clothing display to get to the food aisle in a hurry… therefore saving me more money. I can’t buy what I can’t see!  

 

 

Here are few other tips to use at the grocery store: Don’t buy juice packs- buy the mix and a pitcher and make your own. Don’t buy stuff at the check-out lane- these items (candy, gum, mints, mascara) are always marked up. Consider using frozen veggies and fruits instead of fresh. Opt out of soda and always try to buy generic (store-brand) items.

We also try not to buy the latest and greatest of anything. Cars, cell phones, TVs, DVDs… these items last longer than eighteen months; you don’t always need to upgrade your cell phone, and you can rent DVDs at Redbox instead of buying the film (unless, of course, it is a Star Wars or Avengers feature). Even clothing can be found not brand new, and in great condition! This is especially true for baby clothes. Furniture, cabinets, pots and pans, toys—these can be found at consignment shops and garage sales for a lot less than at the store. The library has used book sales once a month and it is free to join to have access to movies, audio books, e-books, and real books every day.  My family love, love, loves the library!

Now, let me encourage you to save money, and be creative while doing it! Pinterest (can you tell I love Pinterest?) is awesome for “life hacks” and “money-saving-mom” ideas. I don’t always have a successful month in the frugality department, but taking time to plan, and actually looking at more cost effective options for things helps here and there. Take some time to think about it! Share some of the methods you use to save money. Let me know how it’s going for you!

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Happy Independence Day!

 

My family loves July fourth! We like cookouts, festivals, wearing red white and blue, and fireworks!! Especially the kids and the husband like fireworks! The big kind, of course, are the best. Last year we celebrated the fourth Downtown Fredericksburg style by going to the street fair,  enjoying concessions and finishing up with fireworks and a live band concert at Pratt Park. I highly recommend that experience!! We had a blast- no pun intended:). We will probably do the same thing this year, in fact, because we had such a fun time.

In the spirit of homeschooling, I wanted to share some fun facts and activities to enhance your Independence Day celebration. 

Did you know? The actual vote for declaring independence happened prior to the fourth (most scholars believe it was the second of July), but the document (the Declaration of Independence) was published on the fourth, and it was a month later that all the delegates finally signed the document.

Did you know? John Adams thought the second of July would be the most memorable day in history. The publishing date of the Declaration of Independence may have been the reason that July fourth became the more popular date to celebrate. Also,  interestingly, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both passed away on July fourth in 1826, just hours apart. Congress declared July 4th a federal holiday on June 28, 1870. Also, on July 4th, 1946, the Philippines gained full independence from the United States of America. 

One more- Did you know? The colors red, white, and blue of our flag all have meanings? Red stands for valor, white symbolizes purity, and blue represents vigilance, perseverance and justice. 

I love history and homeschooling, so we make it part of the every day as much as possible, and because I love reading, we start Independence Day with reading the Declaration of Independence. It's not that long, and it's a great reminder of what we are celebrating. My kids are older, so they also know about tyranny, the Revolutionary War, and the sacrifices that good men and women made for the sake of freedom and liberty (and continue to do so). At our house we pause to reflect on the fact that freedom isn't free, and that we need to remember and respect that. I feel that a little focus on the history of the holiday makes it a little more special.

 

 

We all wear our red-white and blue colors, and always make a flag themed dessert.  We like to decorate, too. Patriotism is alive and well at our house, and it's great to be able to celebrate! Again, a little history makes the day come alive, and makes the festivities more festive! Google and Pinterest have fantastic ideas for games and crafts. There are great ideas there to help already excited kiddos stay excited and engaged throughout the day.  

 

 

Are you going to or hosting a picnic? How about setting up game centers for the kids? Some ideas to include at an outdoor party: a squirt gun station (re-enact a Revolutionary War battle scene), a patriotic bean bag toss (colonial children didn’t have electronics), and a Fourth of July scavenger hunt (nature study!). What if it rains?  You can do July fourth inspired painting or paper projects. You can always watch a movie or some TV, but why not choose a movie that coincides with the history of the day? We like the School House Rock! America edition-you’ll be learning lots of facts by watching that! Plus, for us older parents it is nostalgic! You can suggest the kids do a patriotic Lego building challenge, or for those Minecraft crazy kids, get them to craft a patriotic world for you. There are lots of things to do inside in case it rains, or it gets too hot, or they just need a break from the sun.

 

Education and learning can go hand-in-hand with fun. School certainly doesn't have to look like school-especially in the summer. When learning is incorporated into games, music, and activity, concepts are absorbed so much better. I feel like the kids are growing up with Google in their pockets, now, so memorizing dates and facts may not be what school is going to look like in the future. Concepts like liberty, freedom, and sacrifice, though, are concepts that everybody should learn, and value.

July fourth is an awesome time to celebrate those concepts! Parades, picnics and fireworks are so fun, and celebrating freedom is an extraordinary privilege to protect. Learning a bit about history can help solidify these values for the future generation of leaders we are raising today!

Happy Independence Day!!!

 

 

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My Katiecat

 

My youngest and I are doing math together Monday-through-Thursday.  We need to stay consistent. We have to stay dedicated and on top of it because we both have brains that struggle with processing fractions.  Yesterday, I contemplated ripping the rest of the fraction exercises out of her workbook.  The math program is on the computer, though, and the workbook is merely a tool… so not helpful.  We soldier on everyday like weary Russian troops trudging through Austria and Germany trying to defeat Napoleon (I'm (trying for the third time) reading War and Peace)... They are tired, hungry, poorly equipped, and want a shot of vodka (I don't care for vodka, actually, but you get the point).  I am all those things by May of our school year… the same school year we are extending through the summer.  Math, however, makes us all crazy.  Especially fractions.  We have calculators for this, people.  My middle doesn't like math, either, and we’ve done three years of seventh grade math with her-- all because of fractions.  We'll get through it. Consistency.

But, I digress.

Katie...  Katie is also known as my Special K, my Katie-cat and my Katiebug.  She is that child.  She broke her collarbone at age 6, she has scaled the outside of our house up to her second story bedroom window, and has no fear of tall trees, approaching crocodiles, or possibly rabid opossums.  I'm serious.  She is the one that had me on the phone with poison control every week for the span of her second year of life.  She figured out blister packs, “push down and turn”, and “squeeze and turn” tops in the space of a month.  She mastered climbing onto countertops to get to the top shelf where I moved said medicines in the space of a week.  She sampled dish detergent and was overjoyed that she could blow bubbles out of her mouth.  The terrible twos had a whole. new. meaning.  I was either frantic or crying most days. I wouldn't trade her for the world and I'm fiercely in love with her.  I'm overprotective, too, because things that should scare her don't.  

She is deathly afraid of things that shouldn't scare her, though. Changing weather patterns freak her out. Loud noises cause panic. Bees affect her in a visceral way (I can't complain about this, specifically, though, because I, too, have an unrealistic fear of bees).  She frets when my husband and I daydream about moving to a less populated area, and really truly gets upset about any kind of change. She has always been my most sensitive child.  She is actually more challenging to parent than Tommy is, even given all his issues. Everything for her is too… too loud, too bright, too quiet, too dark, too spicy, too hot, too cold… The list goes on and on.

 

It's interesting to me that very early on I had an idea that Tommy’s development was atypical. With Katie, I would lament, “she screams at me all day long.”  In hindsight, I see a million little reasons that could have tipped me off about autism sooner, but it took us twelve and a half years to pursue diagnostic testing, and we pursued  testing because trying to educate her was becoming very difficult.  It was becoming very emotional- for all of us.

Why did we wait so long?  It might have been because she was our baby, “the caboose”, we called her.  Birth order can affect personality. Parenting your first is different than parenting your third.  I was always checking out parenting books from the library (I read them, too). 

She also is a she… autism in girls looks different than autism in boys. It is hard to articulate the specifics, but hormones and drama are just more expected among girls, so a lot of behavior just gets chalked up to “girl stuff”.  

Also, she has had anxiety and sensory integration “issues” her whole life, but those were diagnosed early on, so autism was never something we really considered (early on).  I guess we (my husband and I) might have been in denial, too.  Although, I think for me, it was in the back of my head that she was spectrum-y for a while (for several years).  A lot of Katie’s quirks, and reactions to things like noises and weather patterns started to look a lot like things I remembered Tommy doing.  A lot of close friends and family told me not to worry so much, and to not go looking for trouble where there is none, and not to try to put a label on everyone… and for several years I heeded that advice. And then the tween years happened. That “girl stuff” exploded into “GIRL STUFF”.  As she descended the stairs each morning the “Imperial March” from Star Wars would play in my head.  We needed some definitive help.

So, let me say this:  It's not about the label, and it's not trouble, and I did worry.   Knowledge is power. Sharing knowledge is even more power. I like understanding that some behaviors aren't bad behaviors, they are coping behaviors.  I want to help her navigate those behaviors with grace and dignity.  I want not just her, but my whole family to thrive- just not survive.  We aren't perfect by any stretch of the word, but being able to name emotions and behavior has helped us (all) immensely--  to communicate and enforce consequences when needed, and to recognize stimulation overload and anxiety so we can change activities if needed. 

 

 

We’re all still learning and growing, but progress is happening.  Family raising is a dynamic process!  The house is a little more peaceful.  We still have some meltdowns here and there, but everyone in my house (including me) can be a bit dramatic.  School is definitely better.  History and reading are back on track, for the most part. Fractions and factoring are still miserable, but I didn't really expect that to change too much.  But… We. Need. To. Stay. Consistent. Consistency is key (with not only math, but parenting, as well)!

Can I just say this?  The best thing about my family are the people in it, and I want us all to live and love well. These kids are a gift, my husband is a gift, and it's a great privilege to be able to share a little piece of them with you.

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