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My Kids' Superhero

Happy Father's Day!

This year, like many of you, I woke up and celebrated Father's Day with my family. My kids and I showered their father/my husband, Doug, with homemade gifts from coffee filter art to cards!! I sprinkled in some other gifts just to show him how much we appreciate him and then we headed out for a crazy family brunch at a local restaurant.

Shawna family

Father's Day is important for many reasons to all families, but for Doug I feel it's a remarkable day to celebrate the selflessness he shows every day for his kids. Being a parent is no easy job and being a special needs parent makes the task at hand ten times harder some days. It's not relaxing to wear all of the hats he needs to wear for our family. Based on sheer strength alone, Doug often ends up being the muscle when we need Gavin to do a less preferred activity. For instance when Gavin needs a haircut or has to change into clothes for a more formal event, Doug is the one who has to physically hold him down. The last time we did this, about a month ago, Gavin wouldn't go near Doug for an entire day. He would walk up to me and say "no love, daddy". I could visibly see the pain in his face and the heartbreak he felt from these words. Even so, he knew he did what he had to do to get Gavin a haircut.


Many people assume the responsibility falls to the mom to take care of the child for doctor's appointments, school visits, etc. However, that is not the case with me and Doug; we have a team approach to everything. We attend doctor's appointments together and share all of Gavin's pick-up responsibilities. Before Gavin was in school Doug used to take Mondays off to spend 8 hours of therapy appointments with him. He was one of the only dads attending the play groups, but he went with question or resistance. He always puts our children first.

Doug KendallThe other important piece to Doug's role as a father is for our amazing and beautiful daughter, Kendall. I used to joke that the two of them were like oil and water. You couldn't put the two of them together without some disagreement developing, even when she was only two years old! Nevertheless, over the last year I have watched an amazing transformation; I have observed Kendall realize she is daddy's little girl and that he will do anything for her. The last four years Doug has established a tradition of taking Kendall out every Valentine's Day as his date. It has become so special to both of them. This year she told me that her favorite month is February not only because it is her birthday month, but also because it is her date month with daddy!

Doug and I have equally stepped up our game with Kendall over the last two years. We never want her to feel left out because so much attention is given to Gavin. We ensure that she is consistently receiving extra time and rewards with both of us. She has the biggest heart and we would never want to change that about her. If we didn't devote the time and energy to making sure she was included she could very easily become resentful to all of us. Finding a balance is not easy, but with amazing kids like ours you make the time even if it means sacrificing something you wanted to do. Their nightly routine now is to read Elephant and Piggie, books by Mo Willems, before bed every night. They fight over who will read which parts and I see remnants of their old arguments

When Doug proposed to me in 2003, even though I thought he was breaking up with me (the proposal definitely deserves its own blog post one day), I knew this was a man that would make me laugh for many years to come. I could have never envisioned what our life would be or the struggles we would have together, but I was right about laughing together. Sure there are days that we fight; what couple doesn't?! There are moments we feel like no matter how hard we push to be strong, make a difference, be an advocate, the end result is the same, one new fight after another, and sometimes you just don't want to battle anymore. However, we strive to pick each other up; we find the strength when the other can't. I never realized what our partnership would develop into during our early twenties, but now I can't imagine this journey with anyone else.

Doug and I sacrifice a lot to make everything work for our kids; date nights, vacations, etc. are just non-existent for us. However, when I look around, I am never alone. I have the man who promised to be by my side there for me; fighting this battle called parenting together. I knew he would be a great husband, but I had no idea what an amazing father he would become. Watching his love for our children is the best gift I could be given. He is their hero and he will do everything in his power not to fail them. If that's not love then I don't know what is!

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What a Difference a Year Makes

liub logoA year ago, on April 1, 2014, I let my guard down and allowed everyone in my social network to have a glimpse into our life with autism. I had been uneasy about putting anything on social media. There were already people who knew he was diagnosed, because they were family, friends, or co-workers, who would consistently tell me Gavin didn't have autism. I kept thinking I couldn't handle it if I revealed his diagnosis and then was hit with endless comments about how he was fine. I have to say though, reaching out to everyone last year was one of the best decisions I ever made; in many ways it made me stronger. In the last year I have found so much support and love from friends near and far. I have found our Altenburger cheerleaders; I found Gavin's fan club!


Certainly there are still people out there who provide their two cents on his diagnosis and there are people who judge us for talking openly about him through my blog. I continue to have people tell me he doesn't look like he has autism, that we are over-exaggerating his delays, or that he's just behind because he is a boy. Nevertheless, I am stronger now than I was a year ago and I have been able to ignore their toxic comments. The list of people that are not accepting of his diagnosis is a short one. Conversely, the number of people that continue to cheer Gavin on and our family is extremely large and those are the individuals I choose to focus on and listen to daily. I am an advocate for Gavin and our long lists of cheerleaders/supporters are mine and Doug's advocates!

shawna fam

To know Gavin is to fall instantly in love with an amazing little boy. Sure the blonde spiky hair and sparkling blue eyes pull you in first, but it's his amazing heart, compassion, and thirst for knowledge that make people instantly adore him. I know this to be true from the tears his therapists shed when they said good-bye to him in November. Likewise the e-mail we received from his preschool teachers on his first day of school which said, "We wanted you to know we have already fallen in love with your little guy!"

love youA year ago I was hopeful that one day I would hear my son's voice. He had a limited vocabulary at this point and was still considered non-verbal. People would tell me to be careful what I wished for, because once he starts talking he'll never stop! That wasn't funny to me though. Didn't they understand that's what I wanted? Sitting with my 2.5 year old son, I would watch other kids tell their parents they loved them. I yearned for that same affectionate phrase to be said to me, never knowing when that day would come. It's a privilege to say now that I am lucky enough to hear Gavin tell me every day, "I love you, mama!"

This year started another chapter for Doug and me in the world of autism, one that we did not experience in our first year. When Gavin started preschool he was placed in an autism-exclusive classroom. This was our first experience seeing other children who were on the spectrum. In one of my earlier blogs I wrote a post about how I was told each child with autism is different. I couldn't believe how true this statement actually was until we met Gavin's classmates.

There are general similarities, which I am sure is how each of them received the diagnosis, but there are such varying degrees of personalities in his classroom. I remember arriving to pick him up the first week and seeing one of his classmates argue with his father about why he didn't bring the stroller. His speech was so clear, so perfect; I spent a moment wishing that was Gavin.

Then in that same encounter, I met another classmate. I saw a young boy who was almost completely non-verbal. He does not say much and has been in the classroom for two and a half years. He makes sounds, gestures, and can read, but has very limited words. My wish above for Gavin to be more like the first child made me realize how grateful I should be for where he was. It left me feeling guilty for comparing him to another child rather than being proud of all that he had accomplished thus far. I thought to myself that the second child's parents probably wished their child had Gavin's level of speech.

Parenting in the autism world is hard. You want to be happy for your child's achievements because they take a lot of work and effort to achieve. However, I personally often feel sad, when I see other parents working just as hard and they aren't receiving the same results with their son or daughter. I have to try and not get lost in that sadness though and remain excited for all of the great things Gavin is doing. Special needs parenting is a lifestyle. It's certainly not a lifestyle we chose for ourselves, but it's one we have adapted to and will continue to adapt to for the rest of our lives
Our Journey with Autism. Shawna Altenburger (

gavin sister

About Shawna:

I am an Ohio transplant who moved, with my husband Doug, in 2007 to Boston, Massachusetts. We are parents to two beautiful, talented, amazing little kids, Kendall (6) and Gavin (3). In August 2013 our lives forever changed when our son was diagnosed with autism. Later that same year we found out our daughter was also exhibiting traits that fell within the spectrum, although she did not qualify for an official diagnosis. My blog highlights our ups and downs as special needs parents. It functions as a memory bank for us and hopefully as a resource for other families and friends.

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THE Question

Our first two children are only 18mo apart. So when I was pregnant with our current youngest/soon-to-be-middle child (Little Miss), our eldest, Little Man, was barely able to express his excitement over seeing the neighbor's dog for the twentieth time that day let alone ask any pertinent questions other than if I wouldn't mind, pretty please, changing his poopy diaper?

This time around, with both children walking, talking, and questioning every.single.thing? There are a LOT of baby-related questions flying at me from 5am-7pm each day.

How big is the baby this week? (The size of a turnip. Just like the one on your plate. That you should be eating right now.)

Is that the baby moving? (No, just my dinner digesting.)

Is the baby happy? (Yes?)

Does the baby like what you're eating? (Maybe?)

Is the baby crying? (No?)

Can I hold the baby? (I'd say no, but Little Miss was already cradling my stomach. In the middle of Target. So maximum creep-out status had been achieved, why not just let her have her moment?)

Is the baby ready to come out yet? (I hope not.)

How will the baby come out? .... (Covering the baby's exit strategy was simple enough. I'm as crunch-granola/natural as the next wanna-be-hippie, but my pelvis has never and will never be big enough to allow any child of mine to drop, let alone go into labor. So a quick explanation that a very good doctor will give Mama some very good medicine and then make a small boo-boo to take the baby out of my stomach without hurting me has sufficed.)

And that, fortunately, is as close as we've gotten to the question I'm really dreading: How did the baby get in there?

It's coming. I know it is. Little Man is a miniature carbon copy of his father. From his soft hair, long face, and appetite of a small giant, right down to his tenaciously inquisitive nature demanding only the most logical of answers. And every time he starts a sentence with "How does the baby," I brace myself.

Sure, once he gets old enough to even consider doing some baby making of his own I will be pulling out my husband's medical school textbooks and showing him every single horrific STD after-math image I can find.

But that might not actually answer his question at this point.

So I've decided, since we all know that he's most likely to be inspired to ask The Question mid-Saturday shopping trip at Wegman's when I'm trying to decide between Salted Caramel or Butter Pecan in the ice cream aisle, that I'm going to combine the powers of gardening and science for our Answer:

Daddy gave Mommy a seed to put in her belly to help grow a baby.

That, at least, will suffice until we get him home. By which time he will have silently picked apart my carefully crafted answer, and found it to be less than reliable.

At which point, it's his dad's turn...

The Big Man is a physician by nature. Even had he not slogged through the 12years it took him to become an actual physician, he would be one to his core. He shows his enthusiasm for anything by researching absolutely everything. Which is why, in theory, he could build his own bookshelf if needed.

Fortunately he decided to become a physician instead of a carpenter.

But I tell you this because, as I mentioned last week, Little Man takes after him in almost every way. So when he asks me The Question? He expects a real answer. And probably a dozen more after that.

Which means that when Little Man asks a question, he has come to expect a legitimate answer. When he asked about the differences between a boy and a girl, we told him boys have penises and girls have urethras. (Sure, boys technically have a urethra in their penis...but that's a finer detail he can figure out later in anatomy lab). Nothing overly graphic, but nothing couched in nicknames he'll one day find embarrassing and/or useless.

So when he thinks about my Answer to THE Question of how on earth I managed to get the baby in my belly to begin with, we're going to be doing a very find balancing act between giving him a legitimate, semi-scientific answer and not having to field calls from his friends' parents asking why our son is giving sex-ed lectures on the playground.

His father will introduce him to the terms Vagina and Uterus.

I will introduce him (again) to the term "Private"

And we'll explain, simply, that when a boy is a grownup and can be a Daddy then his penis can make seeds called sperm to put in the Mommy's uterus to grow a baby together.

And then I'll bake as many gluten-free, peanut-free, vegan cookies as I can to start making amends.

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Optimism in 2015: are you in?

ready for 2015Wow, 2015! I'm not even sure what to say, except the usual, time passes so quickly! January is always significant to my family because it marks the month when my son Roger was officially diagnosed with autism. Honestly I can't tell you the precise date. I just know it was in January that we went back to the doctor and I just sat there stunned.

Not stunned at the diagnosis. Heck we had even said to each other in the elevator we knew what was coming. It really was more of an I told you so moment for us. You see we already knew. We had known for years. But getting the doctors on board was a little tricky. As my long-time readers know I can be a little pushy. I refuse to give up and eventually we came by chance across a doctor who said, "I think your right, would you like a referral for testing at the autism center?"

Crazy, right? What's really crazy was the referring doctor was from the concussion center. We went to see her after a car accident where Roger suffered a moderate concussion. We were not even there for anything autism-related. She just picked up on some signs in her testing and that was it. Two years of being sent all over the hospital and the concussion doctor says "I'm pretty sure your kid is autistic." That's all it took. This was in August and by December we were in for testing and in January of 2011 we finally heard what we knew: Roger is autistic.

At first I did kind of go, What? Did I hear that right? At the same time I also took a huge breath. Now we knew for sure. Now we had a plan. Now we had direction. Trust me, after spending the several years having doctors find and look closer at a heart condition (very mild, no worries there yet), find a cyst in his brain (we had to wait and see what it was), and a movement disorder just to name a few things; autism, we could do that.

You see autism was not our greatest fear. When you sit in a doctor's office and have a neurologist say, "There is a cyst in his brain, but we don't know what it is, we need more testing. We need to see if it lights up." Then you wait for the tests, then you wait again for the results. Luckily for us it was ok. Just your normal everyday cyst in a brain...really that's what they told me. So yes I had been in scarier places.

I'm not going say autism has been easy. Far from it. It is a bumpy road. But I guess I'm trying to change the perception a little that autism is not something to fear. It is a lot of hard work for all involved but there are also very rewarding times. Like recently when Roger came home, ecstatic that he got a 93 on a Latin assignment. He has really struggled in that class and he yet he pulled off a 93. Sure there are hard parts. There a really hard parts, but there are also a lot of good parts.

In 2015 I just want people to stop always looking at the bad. Always looking at the struggles, while ignoring the progress. I heard someone say it or I saw it written somewhere: If you always look at who someone might be in the future you miss who they are today.


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Having the "Big" Conversations with Your Kids

So it all started when Laura was three and I was pregnant with Joe. We borrowed a couple of "where babies come from" books from friends who were a year or two ahead of us on the sibling curve and read them repeatedly. I don't know what, if anything, Laura remembers from those books...all I recall is that one book featured a mama bringing home twins which Laura insisted on calling "twizzers." I found that pretty hilarious. Still do, in fact!

When Laura asked me specific questions about her baby brother and how he got inside of me, I was able to get off easy. I told that I had to have help from some special doctors to get both Joe and, earlier on, her inside of me. This is absolutely true. My kids were the result of a long, exhausting IVF process. Heck yes, the special doctors helped out! Well, for a hefty fee.

I wanted the IVF to be a part of their story from the beginning, not some scary, shameful secret that we kept from them. Hence, I made it a point to introduce the medical angle to their conception very early on. And, yeah, in some ways it made the explaining a little less difficult, because, you know, the DOCTOR put the baby in me, and I was able to dodge some of the specifics...for a while.

mommy laid an eggBut I didn't wimp out completely. I bought a very, um, eye-opening book (which we still have) called Mommy Laid an Egg which provides silly cartoon images of a mommy and daddy basically going at it and explained to my kids that this is the more traditional method of baby creation. They both studied these illustrations pretty carefully, each in their turn, but never asked a whole lot of questions. Anything they did ask, I attempted to answer in a casual yet matter-of-fact manner.

As Laura and Joe got older (they are 12 and nine now), it seemed like a good idea to provide some more extensive education on this topic. We are really glad that the church we belong to (the UUFF of Fredericksburg) offers very (some might say VERY!) comprehensive sex education courses to the kids. These classes go by the cute acronym of OWL (which stands for Our Whole Lives). Attending these evening sessions is optional, of course, but they seem to be very popular with our congregation's families. Kids we never see at services show up for OWL (ok, we aren't there every Sunday either, so we may just be missing each other!)

When Laura was in fourth grade, we registered her for the 4th-6th grade OWL session. The trained teachers covered topics including values and sexuality, communication and decision making. When she was in sixth grade, we signed her up for the middle school class, which ranged from 6th-9th grade. I have to admit, I felt some trepidation about this large age range from the start, especially after a preview of some of the material. They were showing slides of that? And THAT?

In theory, I could get behind the idea of these slides: to show a variety of body types and ages in a variety of sexual positions without glamorizing any of it. These were pencil sketches of sometimes older, sometimes larger individuals. There was no photo shopping or hot bods present in these illustrations! Again, I could see the point of being introduced to sexual images in this way. It certainly demystified things and, if anyone tries to shock an OWL graduate with a standard porn image via cell phone, the idea is that the grad will be like, "So?" OWL does not hold back, the philosophy being that it is better to learn the facts of life in a straight forward and factual way, presented by trusted adults than through web searches and hushed chats with friends.

So I fretted and debated the pros and cons but finally decided to sign Laura up; the class wasn't going to be offered again for at least two years. If we waited, she'd be on the old side for it and I decided that I'd rather have her exposed to this information in a safe setting than stumbling upon it via the Internet or being shown by a friend. She was game for it (I never would have signed her up without her agreeing.)
However. She ended up quitting about ¾ of the way through the approximately 10-week class. She claimed that it was "boring" and that she did not care for the teacher. I tried to get more out of her. Was it scary? Was it too intense? Was she uncomfortable? Did something happen? But she's a taciturn girl at times and would never stray beyond her stated reasons for wanting to stop. However, we do plan to sign Joe up for elementary class the next time that it is offered, as that one was a very positive experience for Laura.

In looking back over this post, I guess my advice, not that we've done everything perfectly (far from it!) is to start "the conversation" early. Make it pretty basic at first and follow your child's lead into new topics and questions. That's what my husband and I have tried to do, and continue to try to do, even if we are red-faced some of the time!

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Village Fathers is a fatherhood education program and support group sponsored by Healthy Families Rappahannock Area. Its goal is to help fathers improve their parenting skills by promoting healthy and positive attitudes towards fatherhood and parenting.

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