Monday, June 21, 2010

a first

Martin just returned from a successful evening at Bible school. If you're from the planet Mars or from California, you might be asking yourself, "What in the world is Bible school?" To answer, I must reference the (outrageously problematic) red America-blue America dichotomy and say this: Bible school is second-tier summer entertainment for country kids, coming in a close second to the county fair and far ahead of picking the giant patch of green beans your mom insists on planting.

More specifically, Bible school is a combination of Protestant catechism, bad crafts, and community mixer. I attended numerous Bible schools every summer: with my Baptist neighbors (who had a flag in their church), with my Conservative Mennonite neighbors (I had to wear a dress), and whoever else from the neighborhood invited us. It gives kids something relatively structured to do after a long day of playing in the sprinkler and shucking corn.

I had my doubts about sending Martin to Bible school, at least sending him unaccompanied. We have never been able to send him to a structured event and trust that he can handle it on his own. We've accompanied him to school, to birthday parties, to library reading groups. Last summer, I volunteered to be the teacher for his age-group's Bible school class. I couldn't imagine instructing another person on how to handle Martin.

This evening, I held my breath and dropped Martin off at Keezletown United Methodist Church. I provided my cell number in case anything went wrong. No one called. Two hours later, Martin was dancing and singing with a bunch of new friends when my sister-in-law went to pick him up. A first.

Bible school provided many firsts in my life. I lost my first tooth at Bible school and brought it home in the purse that had previously carried my offering money. At Bible school, I first learned about something called "the problem of world hunger." For a long time, I thought that Martin might not have the chance to go to things like Bible school, that he'd miss out on the bad crafts and goofy songs and play with other kids. But he had his own first tonight: he went out into the world and managed - had fun even - all by himself.

Friday, June 18, 2010

week 2

At the end of week one, Martin expressed a desire to go home. He was tired of Virginia, he said. He wanted to be back "at our home." These feelings, however, have faded and Martin seems to be enjoying himself as much as ever. One of his nicest moments included a visit with another child with a similar propensity for presidents.

Our friend, let's call him Louis, is 8-years-old. We've known him since he was a baby. He's always had a few funny qualities. As a small child, he was obsessed with water heaters. If he visited your home, he might ask what kind of water heater you have and if he could see it. He's never had an official diagnosis, but some of his behaviors certainly overlap with the autism spectrum.

Like Martin, Louis has a spectacular memory for heads of state. Like Martin, Louis knows all the presidents and what number they are in terms of service. From Louis, Martin learned that you can do presidential arithmetic. You can ask either one of them what Martin Van Buren plus Andrew Jackson equals. They will look at you with the air of someone who wonders why this is even a question. Then they will immediately answer: James Buchanan.

Last night, we visited Louis. He and Martin put together a president puzzle. Then they looked at a Time Life book about the presidents. Then Louis got out his historic presidential campaign buttons for Martin to see. Louis seemed happy to be around another kid who shared his passion. "All the kids in my class wonder who George Washington is," he explained with exasperation.

So Martin has found a friend here. And so I think he is happy to stay in Virginia a little while longer.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


For as long as humans have written, people have needed a bit of time before they could write about their travels. Paul took the time to collect his thoughts and construct theological arguments against his foes before he wrote his epistles. Indeed, some writers needed to make up other people's travels instead of writing about their own. Homer is the biggest culprit. And even Jack Kerouac added fictional spice to his tale of being on the road.

In that spirit, I needed some time before reflecting on our family's big trip. Last Friday, we packed up our things and headed for West Virginia. After staying the night with friends, we drove to Virginia, where we will be staying for 6 weeks. It's a big deal to decamp with your two small children for such a long period. But we figured that the benefits outweighed the downsides. Here's an accounting of things so far.

What's good:

Martin can run around outside, jump on trampolines, throw sticks in campfires, and blow bubbles to his heart's delight. He can play with his cousins. He can visit the local children's museum and a brand new park. He has not even mentioned the end of school.

What's not so good:

On day 6, Martin told us he wanted to go back to Ohio. Comparing his experience with past vacations, he thought our time here was coming to an end. Also, summer days are really long. What can you do with a kid who's awake from 7am to 9pm every single day? That's a lot of time for a kid or their parent to find stuff to do. And finally, we're starting to see that kids Martin's age (kids we have known a long time) realize that Martin is different. And in their awkward and honest kid-like ways, they are trying to figure how he's different and why.

For instance, one boy seemed surprised to hear that Martin turned 6 about a week before he did. The boy looked at me and asked, "How can Martin be older if I am so much smarter than him?" Another example: a 6-year-old girl has recently been told that Martin doesn't always understand what she says because he has something called autism. Now, whenever Martin doesn't do what she tells him to do, she repeats over and over that Martin can't do something because "he's autism."

Because these words come from little kids, I can be patient. But it still hurts. I've read that kids start to notice their friends' differences between the ages of 6 and 8. It's also the time when autistic kids begin to realize that they are different. Martin has shown no signs of understanding himself as different. And honestly, I'm not quite ready for it. It's enough to watch other kids begin this process.

Our summer trip has been good so far. We're still getting acclimated to a new pace of life. We're still working on establishing a pattern to our days. And we're experiencing things we hadn't anticipated. I guess Paul was also surprised by the noisy ladies in Corinth. Like him, I need more time to formulate a response.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

how it goes

In our family's effort to be open to whatever the universe offers us (ie. our desire not to be completely uptight), autism gets in the way. It's hard to play things by ear when one family member highly values the routine and the familiar. Not that Martin never tries new things. It's just that his willingness to do so depends on a magic set of circumstances. He's got to be feeling good and secure. He's got to have at least some signs of familiarity around him. The new thing has to make sense to him and appeal to him.

We got a last-minute invitation to eat with some friends last night. They are lovely people and terrific cooks. We accepted the invite, even though we had to leave right after Martin finished school and a therapy appointment. We should have realized he needed some down time. Maybe we could have tried to push dinner back a bit so that Martin could slow down by watching some Muppets for half an hour. But instead, we tried it. And we paid for it.

I won't tell you the whole story. It wasn't even his worst meltdown. But he was fairly unhappy the entire time we were there. He kept asking either to go across the street to a friend's yard he has played in before (the familiar) or to go home (the secure). We left early, apologizing for our exit, and assured by our friends that it was OK.

And even though it was OK for them, it never feels OK for me. I'm always sad that I've put Martin in a bad situation and that I've messed up things for other people. And I'm also sad for myself. My friend had just made tea when Martin's behavior warranted the red card. I really wanted to have tea with my friend.

We're about to leave for a summer sojourn at Martin's grandparents. While their place does not have all the comforts of home, it does have a huge yard and a cousin next door to play with. Here's hoping that this experiment with the new - six weeks in the Shenandoah Valley - will go better than last night did. Maybe I'll get at least one cup of tea.