Thursday, May 27, 2010


We have a birthday tradition in our family. Everyone writes a prediction for the birthday guy or gal's next year. Usually these predictions are funny. For instance, I observed Sasha's ability to side-arm lots of food off her high chair tray and predicted that she would represent America in the 2024 Olympic Games on the discus squad. Sometimes, though, they are more serious. On Martin's 5th birthday, I predicted that he would learn to ride a bike that summer. I was wrong.

Sometimes I find it hard to watch other children pick up childhood games and sports so easily. I'm a little jealous when I see little leagues of soccer and softball players. Periodically, we try a sport to see if Martin is both interested and able. Nothing has really worked yet. Because Martin loves the local pool, we tried swimming lessons. We were kindly told that it wasn't working. We tried T-ball and the only thing Martin liked about it was the t-shirt. We've received a few flyers about this summer's possibilities. I can't say that I'm eager to try again. I'm not the type who anxiously awaits the opportunity to sit out in the hot son to watch a less-funny version of the Bad News Bears without the Bizet soundtrack. The thought of schlepping out to the field only to watch your child be sad and unable seems infinitely worse.

Last night, we visited a local park with a small, asphalt track. Two kids were riding bikes on the track. Martin was really interested. We asked him if he'd like to go tonight. He agreed. Once there, he put on a helmet and pedalled away from us. We were astounded. Last summer, Martin seemed very uncertain when we tried to help him learn to ride. We would talk him through the motions, using our hands to guide his legs. It never took. Tonight, he just did it. I don't know how.

Although he rode about as slow as one possibly can, Martin was visibly happy and proud. The swimming lesson and T-ball traumas seemed like ancient history. Martin just turned 6 a few weeks ago. I predicted that he would learn to ride a bike this summer. I was wrong again. It's not quite summer yet.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


This morning Martin offered to help me wash the dishes. He was not motivated by disinterested benevolence. Rather, Martin knows that we have a new feature in a our sink: a hose with a nozzle that squirts water. Martin is intrigued. I let him join me at the sink.

It can be very difficult to teach Martin new things. For instance, Martin used to be in occupational therapy to learn tasks such as buttoning buttons and using scissors. He didn't have a physical problem. Instead, he simply did not understand instructions for completing these tasks. He could hear an adult say something like, "Put your index finger in here and your thumb here." But the instruction would not make sense to him, even if an adult helped him get his fingers in the scissors and proceeded to make them open and shut. Every new task demanded a strange curriculum of text (perhaps a flashcard with instructions), spoken word, visual cues (such as pictures on the flash card), and physical modelling.

This morning I tried to teach Martin how to rinse dishes after I washed them. I gave him four simple commands. 1) Wait for there to be three soapy dishes in the sink. 2) Turn on the water. 3) Grab the nozzle and aim. 4) Squeeze the trigger so the water comes out. We had some mishaps. Aim proved to be particularly difficult. There was some water in inappropriate places. Martin also struggled with waiting for three dishes, which was the only way I could get him to conserve at least a little water in the rinsing process. In the end, he was successful. He waited. He turned on the water. He loved using the nozzle. He rinsed all the dishes. The whole process made him feel so good.

Sometimes I sell Martin short. I've never invited him to help me wash dishes because I've assumed it would never work. Maybe it's me that isn't getting the world I live in?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

what i expected

Before I knew I had a kid who struggled mightily with auditory processing, I reveled in Martin's difference. I loved his oblivious attitude about civil holidays. I respected the way he ignored the strange parts of Christmas celebrations that involve making lists of things you want. I was proud of his refusal to care about clothes, toys, and propriety.

Then I realized that all of these ways that Martin resisted the world were the result of his failure to understand it and articulate a response. What I thought was his ability to ignore the world's lesser offerings was really a child who was mute in the face of an incomprehensible planet.

Last night, Martin demonstrated his understanding of the world. He talked about what day it was and what day followed. He talked about why the sky is blue. And he asked for a present. He received some little figurines - Littlest Pet Shop characters - for his birthday. He knew that some kids have little playhouses for these characters. He turned to me and asked: "Can I have a playhouse for my pets? I think we can can go to a store. And maybe I don't have any money, but we might get one."

This set of sentences reveals so much movement forward. He asks an unprompted question. He remembers something (a playhouse) that he saw in the past and connects it to the present. He shows that he now knows that some objects come from stores and require money. To be sure, this exchange shows my son to be a consumer, something I used to be worried about. But it means that he speaks English and knows where things come from. Not what I expected, but something I'm happy to live with.

Monday, May 17, 2010

road trip

I took Martin and his sister out to their grandparents' farm in Indiana. Here's a breakdown of our adventure:

Not to get all Platonic, but Martin had some wonderful moments. He raced across the backyard in order to converse with cows in their pasture. He had yet another round of birthday presents and birthday cake. He tried new foods, including coffee cake and banana cake. Martin also tried rolls, which was surprising because he was certain he would only like bread that was flat and not round. While getting a kid to try a new cake flavor might not be a victory in most households, it is like taking a beachhead in ours.

When out of his normal routine, Martin needs even more downtime than usual. He needs things that comfort him because vacations mean that things in his day are new and not routinized. The easiest way for us to provide downtime on the road is to let Martin have extra computer time. I often feel a bit bad about this. Just when Martin is with people who love him and who don't get to see him enough, he needs more time alone. I'm sure it seems anti-social, but it's what we have to do.

Or maybe this is hilarious? Martin's meltdown of the weekend came when I denied him the privilege of watching the Muppet Show episode starring Ethel Merman. He had already watched it earlier in the day. We don't let him repeat episodes in order to stave off obsession. That strategy works for us just about as well as it did for the Montagues and Capulets. Martin cried. Martin kicked his feet. He looked me with big, pathetic eyes and cried, "Please, please let me watch Ethel Merman." He cried out her name over and over. For a moment, I thought that I might be the only mother on the planet whose six-year-old son sheds tears over this late star of the Broadway stage. But then I remembered that David Sedaris must also have a mother.

Overall, it was a good trip.

It is so, so good to be home.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Today we had a meeting with school district officials to draft an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for Martin's next year. Martin got his first IEP in December 2007. That meeting involved reports that showed my kid at least one, if not two standard deviations below other children in verbal development and other developmental measures. One learning goal in the plan was that Martin would answer yes or no questions fifty percent of the time with a verbal prompt. That means that we were hoping for Martin to answer such a simple question, with some assistance, only half the time. I cried through most of that meeting.

Martin's new IEP includes goals of following game rules when playing with other children, increased proficiency with asking questions, and continued effort to help Martin process language without the aid of visual or verbal cues. It also projects his inclusion, for at least part of the day, in a typical first-grade classroom.

While Martin's new plan was exciting, the best part of the meeting was hearing from Martin's Occupational Therapist. Miss Sandy works with all the students in Martin's class. She was also Martin's OT when he was in a special needs preschool in 2007-2008. Until Martin started in the autism classroom this past January, Miss Sandy had not seen him since he left the preschool program in May 2008. During today's meeting, she talked about her shock at meeting Martin again. "When I had him last time, he could only say 'Hello, Miss Sandy.' Everything else was basically gibberish. He communicated what he wanted though gestures and gibberish. That's it. I can't believe how well he is talking."

The art teacher sat through Miss Sandy's account of Martin's history and looked totally shocked. She had been working with Martin only this past semester. She looked at us and said, "Of course I know that Martin is autistic, but I never would have guessed that he had such severe struggles with verbal development."

I used to wonder if my kid would ever, ever talk. I contemplated a life with him that included no conversations. Today's meeting is not the only proof that things have changed. Tonight, Martin looked over at his sister - who was finishing up an evening snack - and asked, "Sasha, how was your bowl of ice cream?" That's not gibberish.

Monday, May 10, 2010


Birthday Party Wrap-Up:

10 bowling pins

9 bowling balls

8 balloons

7 presents

6 candles

5 friends

4 bowling pins knocked down (on average)

3 rounds of ice cream and cake

2 attempts to make a Kermit the Frog cake

1 new 6-year-old

Happy Birthday, Martin!

Friday, May 7, 2010

a party

Martin's birthday is next week. Because we will be out of town then, we're having a birthday party on Saturday. Let me say a bit about Martin's past birthdays in order to make sense of the one we're about to celebrate.

When Martin turned three, he could not tell us his age. He did not know what a birthday was. We knew that he was a little behind in verbal development, but had no idea of the extent of his problems. If I think back on it, I had never even heard of autism on Martin's third birthday.

Martin was diagnosed about three months later.

On Martin's fourth birthday, as I have written about in an earlier blogpost, he read a book and he was wearing a diaper. He still didn't know what a birthday was. We had some strawberry pie and helped Martin blow out some candles. We didn't even try to have presents.

That fall, Martin went to preschool with the help of an aide. There, he learned about birthdays. His teacher had a delightful routine for birthday celebrations. It involved the child walking around a sun in the middle of a circle, representing every year that they had been alive. Martin got to do this ritual at the end of the school year. That same evening, we had four boys from the class over for cake and ice cream. Martin blew out candles and opened presents. He really knew what was going on and he loved it.

On Saturday, we'll have some classmates and neighbors over for cake and ice cream. Then we're going over to the college to bowl at the antiquated lanes. Martin has been looking forward to his birthday for several weeks. And because it has been such a long journey for him to understand this very basic, social celebration, I feel compelled to make a big deal out of it. I want to give him a big celebration since it took him so long (and required of him so much hard work) to understand this rite of passage. So I'm going to make a Kermit the Frog cake. And my husband is buying balloons.

I never would have thought I'd be a mom who throws a big party. I feel a little like the father in the prodigal son story. It's not that my son was off frittering away money or sleeping in a pig trough. But I do feel like my son has been lost, lost in his own world, lost in a confusing social universe, lost in his own language, and lost within his own family. Now that he's finding his way, I just want to celebrate.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

best in show

Of course there are multiple awesome moments in the movie "Best in Show." There is one in particular that gets replayed in our house. The owner of the champion poodle talks to the down-home, North Carolina-born owner of a bloodhound. The poodle owner wants to intimidate the poor fellow by reminding him of the champion status of her dog, famously named Rhapsody in White. "Do you know Rhapsody in White?" she asks. "Well," the cowed man replies, not wanting to admit it it, "I do and I don't."

I often feel that Martin lives in a similar world to the bloodhound owner. He usually knows what's going on. (This is a big difference from a year or two ago when his language was so delayed that he often didn't know.) He can read many social situations that come up day to day. It's not that he can't go along, it's that he won't. Autistic kids are often so fixated on their own vision of how the world is, they simply cannot bend. They know the world expects it to be another way, but they cannot make themselves adjust to it.

In some ways, I admire this quality in Martin. Maybe it will keep him from experimenting with drugs or stone-washed jeans. Maybe it give him confidence in going his own way instead of an inner dread about prospective unpopularity. But I'm trying to get him to do things like stay out of the street and keep playdough out of his ears. I'm not the Man.

But I don't get to choose what Martin wants. While I appreciate the strength of his desires, I probably can't channel them. He might come home wearing stone-washed jeans some day. I might ask him, "Do you know how ridiculous those are?" And he might answer, "I do and I don't."

Monday, May 3, 2010

just an ol' fashioned love song

Martin is now obsessed with the Muppet Show episode featuring Paul Williams. Even if you are older than 30, you probably won't remember this guy immediately. He's got longish, dirty blond hair. A pudgy face that could hardly be considered cute. Tinted glasses. He wrote some nice songs, but he could never be a star today. He lacks the necessary screen perfection. Martin, however, thinks he is the best, particularly in this clip (starting at minute 3).

Martin has wandered around the house for the past two days singing Williams' "Just an ol' fashioned love song." He gets all the music right. He imitates the different backup instruments. But he only gets the words of the first line of the chorus. After that, he sings nonsense words that sound like a garbled version of the real lyrics. Even though he's heard the song a dozen times, his brain has not been able to process most of the words. If I tell him what they are, he's unconvinced. When I say them or sing them, I don't sound just like Paul Williams, so I must be wrong. I'm not sure there's any way for Martin to learn the words of the song he loves short of Paul Williams and two Muppets coming over to teach him.

Martin is committed to a close imitation of the world he encounters. When he sings, he starts songs on the same pitch as the original singer, even if it's been weeks since he heard a CD. He's capable of mimicking very complex rhythms. But he can't process the spoken or sung word as quickly. He sings some garbled lyrics in most songs he loves. Only occasionally will he let us write down the lyrics for him. In written form, our lesson does not intrude on his aural experience. If I sing the words, it doesn't sound right. If I write them down, I have not upset his aural memory of the music.

That's not old-fashioned. It's new-fangled. I'm still getting used to it.