Tuesday, May 17, 2016

I Wonder


Note: full-size version of the above map is here: http://www.emersonkent.com/images/mexico_1824.jpg 

We were driving to church one Sunday, and we were talking about Mexico. My son has been thinking a lot about Trump and his goddamn stupid wall idea (I've talked to him a little about the man, but he's also seen Trump's name online a few times). And I mentioned how Mexico used to be a much larger country - all the way up to the southern edge of Oregon.

"But that all changed after the Mexican-American War. And that's a whole different story."

Time was, he would have just moved onto another subject. But this time he turned back to me and asked this:

"I wonder what that story is."

He was curious.

So I told him some of the story. Not all, but some. I told him about how Texans pretended to be happy immigrants to Mexico, just hanging out, enjoying the land, until there were enough to make a scene. And how the Texans declared their rights weren't being honored. And then the American army interceded, and then the war, and then the claiming of California and Arizona and New Mexico as the spoils of war.

He listened intently. He didn't say much. He asked a couple of questions, but mostly he soaked it in like a sponge soaks in water.

He's turning eleven soon. He's right on the cusp of middle school, right in that awkward sweet spot of tweenhood - not a child anymore, but not yet a teenager. He's changing. And one of the ways he's changing is the conversations we have.

His mind is expanding, and his curiosity is growing along with it. He's been so interested in so much lately. I find myself having the most unexpected conversations with him.


  • He's interested in Hillary Clinton becoming the first woman president, and he thinks it's odd that we've never had one before. " I wonder why that's never happened before." So I explained to him how it wasn't until recently, relatively speaking, that this country would even accept a female CEO or take a woman politician recently. "Remember, Obama is the first black president," I told him. "that means that after two hundred and thirty something years, our country finally was able to accept that a black man could be the leader. We finally evolved to that point. We might be ready as a country to accept a woman president. We might have finally evolved to that point."


  • Slavery. That whole concept perplexes him. A few years ago, he would have kept it simple. When he was little, he would have said something about the lessons on Martin Luther King Day, how black and white people should be treated the same. But he keeps turning over the question in his head, and he asks me sometimes. "I wonder how people were so dumb that they treated people as slaves."

    I've approached it a few ways. I've talked to him about how people (white European people) didn't see black people as human. I've talked to him about the economic benefits of slavery, how the South became an economic force on the backs of slave labor.

    I've talked to him about the similarities between how slaves were treated then, and the way Trump and his ilk talk about immigrants now. The dehumanization. The casual acceptance of treating some other group as less-than. He listens and thinks and listens some more.

This is my son now. He asks questions. He wants to know more. I can have these deep conversations with him now because he is so obviously interested. He's trying to make sense of the world, of politics, of hatred, of othering. He wants to know the real story.

I'm going to be honest. I love having these conversations with him. I love that he's curious. I love that I can have deeper, more complex discussions with him now. But at the same time, history is messy and heart-breaking, and I know this because he struggles sometimes with it. He is troubled - as he should be - by the sometimes dark, sometimes barbaric, sometimes horrific history of our country.

We were standing on the beach last weekend, talking about slavery (as you do). He said suddenly, "I wish I could go back in time and change the past."

"I know," I told him. "I wish the same thing. But our history is our history. And it's important that we know what happened, and we're honest about it, so that we never make those mistakes again."

"I hope we don't," he said solemnly.

If he is any indication of his generation, we won't.








Sunday, May 08, 2016

Maybe I'll Just Take a Nap

You don't know what you're doing.

You're going to screw this up. 

You're going to fail.

There's no way you're going to get this right.

Anxiety is fun, because these are the things that go through my head when I'm planning dinner sometimes.

Anxiety is not like a voice in your head, whispering gently. It's a voice shouting inside your head, and the voice echoes off your skull and reverbs, and it screams all of the thoughts you don't want to think.

I was literally planning dinner tonight and I almost broke down in tears because I was convinced

  • I didn't know how to cook anything
  • I was going to burn whatever we ate
  • I didn't know the right things to cook to make my partner happy
  • I was going to disappoint her 
  • I was going to disappoint her kids
  • I used to be good at cooking, but now I'm lazy and she's going to resent how lazy I am.

Anxiety is hard to explain to someone who doesn't experience it. It's not just feeling nervous about tough decisions. It's feeling nervous about small, inconsequential things. What kind of coffee should I get? Is this a good shirt for work? Which tv show should we watch before we go to bed?

My breathing gets shallow. I find it hard to think. I can't respond to questions because of the swirl of emotions running through my head. My heart begins racing. I can feel it racing, right now, just writing about this.

Sometimes, I just think I'll take a nap and when I wake up, everything will be better. Or, different, anyway. Sleep is a coping mechanism. (Sadly, it's not an option at work. Usually.)

I take medication that makes it possible to get through the day. I take Wellbutrin. Before that, I took Zoloft. Before I did, I had panic attacks that would cause me to stare at my phone for hours, sweating bullets, knowing that I had to make phone calls and being terrified that I was going to screw them up. So I did nothing. I sat, paralyzed, overwhelmed.

Happy ending: I did make dinner, my partner was happy, the kids ate, the end. All is well. I got through it.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Failing.

Doubt is a pernicious thing. It sneaks in, like a virus, and works its damage before you even realize what is happening.

Someone said something. It made me feel like I was failing. I don't like feeling that way.

I'm doing good work. Very good work, in fact. When someone sees my good work and tells me it's poor, it makes me doubt myself.

At first, I was angry. I felt hostile, combative. "Why would you question me? Why can't they see how hard I'm working?"

But the doubt seeps in. Maybe I'm not good enough. Maybe I really don't know what I'm doing. Maybe I'm turning in mediocre work and I don't even realize it's not good.

Maybe I'm failing, and I don't even know it.

I've written about this before. I was fired twice from jobs, good jobs. Both times, it was because I was 1) over my head and 2) suffering undiagnosed anxiety and panic attacks.

When you get fired from a job, it leaves a scar. Sure, you can get other jobs. But that scar never completely heals. You always have that voice in the back of your head. "Is it going to happen again? Am I doing enough? Am I safe?"

And when you start seeing the signs, you panic. Especially when it feels like your fate is out of your control. Like there's nothing you can do to stop the disaster that you see looming.

And sometimes, it's just arbitrary. I got fired once, a long time ago, because I worked at a machine shop and they had to cut costs. I was a cost cutting measure. Doesn't matter. I still felt like a failure.

I hate that feeling.

I hate doubt. Doubt in one thing - especially work, where so much of my self-confidence is embedded - leaks into all aspects of my life. It cascades. Pretty soon, I'm doubting everything I do. Maybe everything is a failure.

There are things in my life where I know, unquestioningly, that I am not failing.

I am not failing as a partner. I have the great good fortune to be in love with an amazing, brilliant, passionate woman who loves me with her whole heart. I am not failing her.  I believe that I am doing everything I can to make our relationship successful.

I am not failing as a father. I believe that I'm doing everything I can for my son. I believe that, whatever is happening from day to day with him and with me, I'm doing the right things to turn him into a successful man. I believe that.

So maybe my boss will get some stupid idea in her head that I'm not cutting the mustard. That doesn't mean I'm failing. I won't fall into that spiral of doubt and shame and self-loathing again.

I am not failing. Just because someone else can't see my worth, that doesn't mean that I'm failing.

I can get another job.

I can move on and find other options.

I will survive if challenges arise. I will survive it. I can move through the challenging times and come out better on the other side. I will not let the doubt eat me alive.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Milestones

I remember when he was a baby and I wrote about him all the time. He was evolving so quickly, and I wanted to capture every moment of it. Also, I was with him all the time - every moment of the day, seemingly. And I was there, with him. Not like now, when he'll be in his room watching Minecraft videos on his tablet, and I'll be in my room, reading Twitter on my computer.

When he was a baby, I was there with him. Holding him, feeding him, changing him, putting him down for naps. Watching the expressions on his face change. Watching, as he learned how to use his hands. Watching, as he built up the strength to stand on his feet. Watching him, and watching the slow and ridiculously fast changes happened to his little body.

He's older now. The changes happen slower, but are no less dramatic. And I forget to record them. And sometimes, the moments that happen are more complicated to document than simply saying "he walked for the first time!" 

This year, my son is in student government. My shy, reticent kid who had trouble making friends and often was too nervous to ask his teacher if he needed help, is in student government. And he's excited about it.

He went to his first dances this year. I mean, let's be honest, elementary school dances are not much more than playing music in a room and watching what happens. Some kids dance excitedly, some run around the room like goofballs, some - like my son - stand on the outskirts and try not to look interested. But he's interested. Next year, by this time, I expect he'll actually want to dance and not just stand on the sidelines.

He's getting more independent, and I'm taking advantage of that at home. He has chores - he gets to unload the dishwasher and put his clothes away in his dresser. He helps with meals. He actually made one meal last week, with some guidance.

He's turning eleven in a couple of months. I'm seeing that there's a corner we're turning. He's no longer a little boy where I have to pick his clothes out, where I have to worry that he won't eat what we're having for dinner, where I always knew what he was thinking and what he liked and waht he didn't.

But he's not a completely independent young man yet, either. He still snuggles, when he can, with me. He still lets me read Harry Potter to him before he goes to bed at night. He still struggles with homework and tells me to cut the crusts off his sandwiches.

He's changing, though. Every week, he's evolving more and more. He's becoming an interesting, witty, creative, fascinating young man. I love watching this happen, watching this little boy grow up.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

My Autistic Kid

I forget to blog here sometimes. When my son was little, I would blog all the time, because he seemed to be changing every week. And it was all fascinating. What he ate was interesting, the way he learned to walk and move and communicate was fascinating. I do less of that now.

It's not that he's no longer interesting. It's just that, well, he's older. Change happens more slowly, but it is absolutely happening. He's in fifth grade now. He played baseball for the first time last spring, and in a few weeks, we'll be signing him up for baseball again. He has friends, he plays kickball on the playground. He's hilarious. He's insightful and witty and warm and loving. He's a great kid. He still fascinates me.

For those who don't know, my son was diagnosed as autistic when he was in first grade. My son is 10 and a half and he was diagnosed when he was in 1st grade. So ... he was six and a half.

This is what it looked like, in the months before he was diagnosed. We knew something was different about him. We just didn't know what it was.

Dealing with It, Whatever It Is

My son's got some stuff that he has to deal with. We saw some behavior-related issues last year, but with support from his teachers and other school staff, plus the invaluable help of a therapist that works wonderfully with children, he got better. It wasn't a perfect year, but he ended the year on a good note.
This year - first grade - we saw a lot of the same things. We tried the same kind of techniques that had worked last year, but they didn't seem to be working. There's physical stuff like hitting and getting in other kids' spaces.

There's name-calling. Unprovoked incidents with other kids. It's all behavior that we just don't understand.

See, our son used to be the kind of kid who was described as "really centered." Or "zen." "He's so calm," the other parents would say at play dates. And suddenly, we were in our second meeting in two straight years with the principal, the teachers, plus various other school staff. Suddenly, we'd be dropping him off at school and other kids would run up to us and tell us that he was being mean to them. Or that he had written on their book. Or hit them. This happens a lot.
 So ... we're talking to people. He's still seeing his therapist, but now we're going the next step. We're doing a deeper psychological evaluation on him, running some tests to see what else is going on with him. We might be dealing with ADD. Maybe some sensory issues (things like heightened sensitivity to noise or crowds). Or maybe something like Asperger's.

I resisted the idea of him being autistic at first, because I didn't know anything about it. Literally all I knew about autism was "Rain Man" and the kid in St. Elsewhere. That was it. That was my social context.

I was scared. I don't mind saying it. I didn't know what a diagnosis of autism meant. I didn't know what it would mean to have an autistic son. So I was scared.

But understanding autism helped me understand him more. Most importantly, I understood more about how he saw and experienced the world, and I found out about ways we could help him. He's been seeing a therapist since 1st grade. He's been in a social skills group since 2nd grade. This group, with other kids his age, helps teach him about social interactions like conversations, things that NT people take for granted but are fraught with unspoken rules and norms. The group has been incredibly helpful for him.

He's done occupation therapy before and that's been very helpful as well. He has a lot of sensory stuff - particularly needing deep physical input. When he was little, he would run from across the room and do these tackle hugs. Sometimes, they were strong enough that I almost lost my footing. Physical input. When he did OT, he loved things like diving into ball pits and mats. For a while, I would have him dive chest-first into a beanbag or onto the mattress a few times before he went to school, just so he could get that need met and he wouldn't be craving it at school. (At school, he would often bump into other kids in line, or swing his lunch bag around and accidentally hit them. We think this was him sensory input-seeking behavior. His teachers at the time, unfortunately, had trouble seeing it as anything other than him causing trouble. Sigh.)

My son is an intelligent, witty, joyful kid who reads constantly. Last year his teacher called him "brilliant" and I don't think that's an exaggeration. He also has Aspergers. It's a part of who he is. It's not the thing that holds him back, any more than having black hair holds him back. It's part of who he is.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Signs of Resistance

"It's time to go to school."

"No," he responds calmly.

You know who's not calm? Me. 

I ask him again, twice. Finally, he changes his tune and gets himself ready to go to school.

My son is ten years old. And he's grown; my goodness, he's grown. He's become so much more confident and charming and easygoing. Much of the social anxiety that we saw in the past has dissipated. He walks into the playground and kids call his name. And (Aspie parents take note) he stops and responds!!

There are many things going well. And then ... there's the testing that he does at home.

I'll ask him to turn off the television and he'll ignore me until the third or fourth or fifth ask.

I'll tell him to go to bed and he'll start whimpering, like a puppy dog. (It's obviously fake and I don't even think he thinks it'll work. He just does it instinctively.) 

And then there is the simple act of "No." Not that he wants to put up a fight or an argument. He just quietly says "no." To everything. 

With a smile on his face.

When he was a baby, he would run experiments on us. What happens if I drop my food off the tray? What if I smear it on my cheek? Now, I think he's doing experiments again. He's testing how I'll react if he ramps up the disobedience.

So I've approached with a certain amount of caution. Sometimes I'll ignore him and just ask again. Sometimes I walk off (making sure he sees that I'm irritated) and then come back a minute later.

Sometimes, I'll crack the whip on him. I've had to use my dad voice more in the last two months than I did for the previous year. 

"When I ask you to do something, I expect you to do it the first time."

And then I get the whiny response. "Okaaaaaaaay!" 

The whining. I HATE the whining. 

Or I'll get the angry response. He snaps back at me as though somehow I've angered him, instead of the other way around. 

He's testing, though. And he's still an Aspie, so I know that I can't just tell him to cut it out. So I'll check him. "When you respond like that, it sounds like you're angry at me. Are you angry at me? No. Okay, well your tone says something else. So make sure your tone matches what you actually feel." 

All things considered, he's doing fine. He's just testing some boundaries right now. I need to remember that he's always going to be testing me out. What's he really doing is testing himself out. Right now, he's testing out conversation, testing out emotions. He's trying to see what he can get away with, what he does that will upset the people he loves. He's growing into an older kid who needs to figure out how this human interaction thing works. I'm doing the best I can to help. 




Sunday, October 18, 2015

What We Talk About When We Talk About Talking

One of the most challenging moments in the day-to-day life of a parent is the unforeseen meltdown. Sometimes, kids just have the wrong thing happen to them at the wrong time and they just explode.

This isn't just true for autistic kids, although I notice it more readily with mine. He doesn't like surprises; when he doesn't get something that he's expecting (recess, dessert) or when he has to change his schedule without warning, those are the days when he's more likely to melt down.

And yes, he's ten. Meltdowns still happen when kids get older. They just take different forms.

I worry sometimes about how I respond to him after a meltdown. I can't talk to him during the meltdown - he's flooded with emotions, and all I can do is to keep him from getting worse or doing damage to something (i.e. throwing a remote control across the room). 

So I talk to him afterward, once he's calmed down. We talk.  

Usually, too much.

I'll explain to him patiently how the rules are the same as they've always been. And how he has to take school/weekend responsibilities/chores/whatever seriously.

Sometimes, I'll talk to him about how he reacts differently than he used to. How he's gotten so much more mature than he used to be, and how moments like this don't come as often as he used to. 

Sometimes, I'll ask him if there was anything I could have done differently. Wait, what?! Am I really asking him what mistake I made when he freaked out? No, not really, but yes, sort of. This is a dangerous avenue, but sometimes I go down that path anyway. I get talking, and look, I'm still a dad that hates to see his kid upset. 

And I think part of it is that he's getting older. I'm so aware that he's not the same little boy he used to be. I can't see ten-year-old him without seeing two-year-old him reflected in his eyes. And sometimes, the conversations we have are really conversations I have with myself. "How can I solve this problem? How did this maturity blossom in you without me noticing?"

Sometimes, the questions I'm asking can never be answered by him. "What are you thinking when these things happen? Do you still trust me?"

I need to shut up sometimes. I know that when it works best, he gets upset and I just step back and let him work it out. He can do it. He doesn't need coaching from me as much as he used to. And he doesn't need me to relentlessly dissect every moment of conflict with him. What he needs to know is that I love him, and that sometimes that love means cracking down on the rules and not apologizing for it afterward.