Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas, present

I have a new piece up at The Huffington Post, called Zen and the Art of Alzheimer's.  As I said when I posted the link on the MOM-NOS Facebook page, I rarely know what to get my father for Christmas, but this year I hope I can give him the perfect present.

Happy holidays, friends, from Bud and me.

Monday, November 18, 2013

This is autism

There's a flashblog going on today on blogs across the autism blogosphere in response to the most recent press release from Autism Speaks' co-founder Suzanne Wright, in which she writes,
"These families are not living. They are existing. Breathing – yes.  Eating – yes. Sleeping- maybe.  Working- most definitely - 24/7. This is autism.  Life is lived moment-to-moment.  In anticipation of the child’s next move.  In despair.  In fear of the future.  This is autism." - Autism Speaks "A Call For Action," 11/11/13
As you might imagine, this fear-inducing, desperation-drenched approach to "autism awareness" has been received with anger and offense from a large portion of the autism community, who believe that, in fact, they really are living - and quite well, thank you.  
In response, the "This is Autism" flashblog was born - a single day on which bloggers from all areas of the autism blogosphere, autistic and neurotypical alike, would write about what autism is to them.
There is plenty I could say I could say about my life as the parent of a child with autism.  It is hard, exhausting, beautiful, inspiring, challenging, exciting, messy, ugly, rewarding, confusing, and wonderful.  In other words, as Emily Willingham says, it is just plain PARENTING.
But instead of waxing on about my own experience, I decided to call on the resident expert in my household - the one who experiences autism from the inside out - to talk a little about what it really is to him.  Here's what I got:

This is Autism
By Bud
It’s good for your brain.
Autism is good at thinking.
I’m good at thinking about things way back when.
I’m also good at eating sandwiches.
Isn’t it great?
And you know what?
My autism is good at things like:
I’m good at eating bananas.
And I like making PowerPoints, I do.
And I love music.
And I like watching Fetch on PBS Kids.
And you know what?
I’ve got a computer I can play on.
I can read.
And write.
I like watching Teletubbies. It begins with a capital T.
I like dancing.
Autism is, like, your brain.

And there you have it.  Suzanne Wright had it partially correct:  We are breathing - yes. Eating - sandwiches. Sleeping - when we're not dancing. And working - on PowerPoints.

This is our autism.

And our autism is, like, good for your brain.


For some compelling responses to Suzanne Wright's statement - and for an explanation of why we'll be retiring our blue light for the awareness campaign sponsored by Autism Speaks and channeling our donations elsewhere, please read any of the following:

I Resign My Role at Autism Speaks by John Elder Robison

Why Autism Speaks Doesn't Speak For Me by Emily Willingham

ASAN - AAC Statement on Autism Speaks' DC "Policy Summit"

No More - A Letter To Suzanne Wright by Jess Wilson

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Presume competence

There has been a bit of back-and-forth in the comment section of my last post.  The gist of it goes something like this:

"Hey, look at this great thing Bud did."

"Actually, that might just be a deficit masquerading as a strength."

"Really, I gotta say, I think it's a strength."

"Perhaps.  On the other hand, it could just be a well-developed deficit."

I'm not going to volley back, because ultimately, any response I have will sound at best like I'm being defensive and at worst like I'm in denial.

But it does make me have to ask:

Why is it that when it comes to autism, so many of us are so quick to view behavior through the lens of deficit and so slow to view it through the lens of strength?

The lens through which we view our children matters.  The way we frame their behavior shapes our response, and the way we respond shapes their behavior.  It's a dynamic cycle.

Presume competence, folks.  Presume competence.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Autism, empathy, and understanding

The other day, Bud was doing something I didn't want him to do - something I've told him a million times not to do, but something he just keeps doing anyway.  I intervened and redirected, and I tried to make it clear to him, once and for all, that this was important.

"BUD!" I said sharply. "I mean it."

"You're angry, Mom?" he asked half-heartedly, barely glancing in my direction.

"Yes, Bud," I urged.  "I'm angry.  Look at my face."

"Look at my face" is a phrase I use with Bud, not to request that he make eye contact, but to remind him that there are visual cues in peoples' faces - cues that will help him understand what's happening and help him determine what to do next.

Bud turned and searched my face.

"You're not angry, Mom," he said.  "You're sad."

I knew in an instant that he was right.  He watched as it registered on my face.

"Why are you sad?" he asked.

And then the conversation turned in a whole new direction.

I'm tired of reading that children with autism lack empathy.  I'm tired of hearing that they have a compromised ability to understand that someone else's experience of the world is different from their own.

With one look at my face, Bud recognized something I hadn't.  I'd been labeling my emotion, even to myself, as anger - perhaps because anger seemed easier to manage and easier to resolve. But though it was emerging in harsh tones and barked words, at its heart, what I was experiencing wasn't anger.  It was resignation.  Defeat.  Sadness.

I'll remember this exchange the next time I read about what children with autism can't do.  Because this child?  The one with the disability that compromises his capacity to understand - or even want to understand - others?

Sometimes he knows me better than I know myself.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Yes, really

I wish I were cool enough to be nonchalant and just casually drop this into conversation, but I'm not.  Not at all.  Not even a little bit.  So here it is:

I'm in the Huffington Post.

I was invited to submit a piece for last week's TED Weekends series, the theme of which was "What We Can Learn From Gifted Minds."  I submitted and they accepted, and suddenly, there's my smiling face under the HuffPo banner.

I'm positively giddy.

I would have posted about it here sooner, but I've spent all week refreshing the page to make sure it's still up.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I feared that someone from the editorial staff would stumble upon it and say, "What is this doing here?"  But so far, so good.

For those who are fans of my Facebook page, thanks for celebrating with me this week.  It has been a lot of fun.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Growing up

Bud and I are going to stay with friends for the weekend.  They are teenage friends - 17 and 13 - whose dad will be out of town.  They don't need supervision, but we're going to keep them company.

I explained the plan to Bud last night.

"We're going to take care of them?" he asked.

"No," I said.  "They're old enough to stay by themselves.  We're just going to spend time with them."

"They're old enough to stay by themselves?" he asked.

"Yes," I answered.

"But I'm not old enough to stay by myself?" he asked.

It wasn't a challenge, but it stopped me in my tracks.  Bud is older than the younger of our friends. But, developmentally - well, no.  He's not old enough to stay by himself.

This is a brand new dynamic - this comparing himself to others.  It has only started emerging in the past couple of months.  It's an important developmental step, I know - and yet, it makes situations like this much trickier than they've been in the past.

"Well, you like to have someone stay with you, don't you?" I asked.

"Like who?" he countered.

I started naming favorite sitters.  "Like Cally," I said. "Or Ashley.  Or Amelia.  Or me!"

"Or you?" he asked.

"Yeah, me!" I cheered.  "I love staying with you."

"Aw, thanks, Mom," he said, leaning over to hug me.

And that was that.  The issue was resolved.  For now.  But it still feels like we've crossed an invisible threshold.  I think we've officially entered the next stage of development.

I just hope I'm ready for it.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Tripping the light fantastic

I think this is the first day since school started three weeks ago that I haven't gotten a call from the office, an e-mail from the team, or a note in the backpack.

I'm choosing to take it as a good sign.

Tonight at dinner, I thought I'd try to explore a little to find out how the day had really gone.

"So, Bud," I asked, "what was the best thing at school today?"

"Well," he answered excitedly, "the best thing was doing ballroom dancing in gym class!"

"Ballroom dancing?"  I said.  "Really?"

"Yeah!" he replied.

"That's cool!"  I enthused.

"That IS cool!" he responded.

Then we returned to eating our dinner and I started to think about it some more.

"Wait," I said.  "Was EVERYONE doing ballroom dancing or was it just you?"

"It was just me," he said.

Ah.

I have to tell you:  Sometimes I wish I were a lot more like Bud.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

An open letter to the future me

To be opened in April, 2014

Dear MOM-NOS,

Hi.  Hope 2014 is off to a great start.  Thanks for coming back and reading this.  (Siri reminded you, right?  She lives for this kind of stuff.)  Anyway, I need to remind you of a few things, because - well, I know how you get.  Don't get me wrong.  I love your rose-colored-glasses, focus on the positive, glass-half-full approach to life.  I don't know what I'd do without it.  But right now, as you're starting to prepare for the transitions ahead, I need you to stop thinking about how great Bud is doing over there in April - about how far he has come - about all the advances he's made.  Those things are important, of course.  But as you launch into summer, I need you to remember - REALLY remember something:

I need you to remember how stinking hard life is in early September.

This is not new.  You and I could have written this post virtually every September since  Bud started school.  And yet, somehow, the power and resolve we have in September to do things differently next year fades by the time we get to April.

You can't let that happen this time.  But don't worry - you don't have to come up with a plan on your own.  I'm here to help you - because from where I sit, over here in September, 2013, the answers are crystal clear.

I know you understand the perfect storm that is the late summer.  It's the time when Bud makes the enormous and exhaustive transition to a new school year.  Inevitably, he finds himself struggling to acculturate in an environment that is increasingly unfamiliar to him - an environment in which the developmental divide between himself and his same-age peers is even wider than it was when they parted ways just a few months ago.  As luck would have it, it is also the time when your workload at the college quadruples - when you are pulled simultaneously in multiple directions - when you are juggling metaphoric plates and extinguishing metaphoric fires and working around the clock.  It is the time when Bud's need for routine and structure and predictability is greatest, and it is the time when your ability to provide routine and structure and predictability is lowest.

It rarely goes well.

So I'm writing from here - where, as you know, things are not going well - to remind you that this is coming and to remind you that there are choices you can make differently.  Because I know you.  In the coming months, when you start to make plans, you will not recognize that you have choices.  You will try to do it all.  You will say "I am so lucky that Bud is doing so well that I don't have to worry that..."

Don't.

You do have choices.  Make them carefully.

He is doing well.  But a transition is looming and in the face of transition, he will backslide.  It is not your failing or his failing or the school system's failing.  It is because he has autism and transitions are hard.  He will get through it, but he will need your focus and your attention, and if you are busy channeling your focus and your attention elsewhere, he will flail even more than he has to.

So, right now, as you start to plan out the coming months - as you start to construct a complicated calendar of summer school and childcare and vacation time and workload -  I want you to start making choices.

August and September will be busy at work.  You can't avoid it.  But you have to - HAVE TO - sort out the "musts" from the "shoulds."  The musts are the pieces of your position that can't be done by anyone else.  They have to be your priority.  They have to be done well.  Structure your work time and your life so that they get done.

The shoulds are the things you think you should do to prevent someone else from feeling disappointed in you, or feeling unsupported by you, or feeling like you just don't care.  I'm telling you right now:  in late August and early September, there is no room for the shoulds.  You can only do the musts.  Accept it and stop feeling guilty about it.  (Or, as your old friend from grad school used to say, "Stop shoulding on yourself.")  Eyes on the prize here, sister.  Your boy needs you - not the exhausted, cranky version of you that emerges when you try to do it all, but YOU - rested, focused, and happy to see him.  You can't be that you when you try to do the shoulds.

I also recognize that in June and July, when you're planning your schedule for August and September. you will not be able to tell the musts from the shoulds.  But, believe me, I know the difference and I've made you some lists.  Please check your hard drive and then plan accordingly.

A few specifics that I'd like emphasize for you:

-  You may not work nights during Bud's first week at school.  No sitters, no making him stay at the office with you until 7:00, no working at the kitchen table before he goes to bed.  None.  I don't care what you'll miss or who will be left picking up the slack.  No matter who it is, I guarantee you that their coping skills and support systems are broader and stronger than Bud's.  No nights.  Period.

-  Plan ahead so that you can pick him up from school on the first day.  It will be his first day at the high school.  It will be the only first day of high school that he has in his life, and whether it's a great day or a terrible day, you need to be there at the end of it to process it with him.

- If this year is like every other year, Bud will go back to school for a few days and then have a four day weekend.  You will panic when you see this schedule, because you will believe that there is no way in the world that you can take any of that time off from work.  You will start planning to hire sitters to be with him for eight or more hours at a time, adding more transition and change into his life.  Don't.  Take the time off from work.  I'm serious.  It's April.  You have four months to plan for this.  You can do it.  So do it.

- Despite all your best planning - despite your focus, your resolve, and your four day weekend - the call will come.  Someone will tell you that Bud is struggling.  Someone will ask you to help problem-solve and strategize.  Bud will have a rough patch.  This is not a judgment on your parenting.  It is not a sign of incompetence from the team at school.  It is not because Bud is a bad kid.

Behavior is communication.  Listen to what Bud's behavior is telling you.  It will be telling you that change and transition are hard and there are things that he needs that he doesn't have.  Help him to get them, without blaming him, or yourself, or anyone else.  This should not be a surprise.  We should all have seen this coming.

Which brings me to why I'm making you open this way back in April and not later in the summer as you're really making hands-on plans for August and September:  I'm writing in April because I want you to talk about this at Bud's IEP meeting.  Remind people that the first weeks of the semester are going to be hard.  Remind them that his behavior might be extreme.  Remind them that no matter how solid his summer program is, he will not start the new school year where he left off last year.  He will backslide and regress.  He will also recoup and recover and make strides.  But if we want to raise the bar of expectation for Bud in the year ahead, we must start with a very low bar in its earliest weeks.  Success breeds success for this boy.  We can raise the bar incrementally over days and weeks and months, and I'll bet it will go higher than any of us imagined that it could have - but only if it starts the year very, very low.

Trust me on this.

Okay, that's it.  Except that, once September rolls around, if you find that this has been helpful, please revise it and send it to us in April, 2015.  We'll thank us later.

Good luck, MOM-NOS.  You can do this.  And Bud and I are counting on you.

All the best,

MOM-NOS

P.S.  I see you've lost ten pounds.  Looking good.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Thriving

I have two new pieces in the latest edition of Thrive magazine.  The first is a feature article on finding childcare for a child with special needs.  I'll be honest - if you're not in the market for childcare for a child with special needs, you may find this one a tad dry.  But if you ARE in the market for childcare for a child with special needs, I hope you'll find it chock full of helpful information, thanks in large part to the many parents who shared their experiences with me as I put the article together.  You can read the final product here.

The second piece is a bit more lighthearted - the result of nearly fourteen years of exposure to television programming geared to the preschool set.  I will say, though, that if you're like me and have had just about all you can take of this kind of programming, this column may make your eye start to twitch.  You can read it here.  But don't say I didn't warn you.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Meet the Beatles

"Bud, can you name all of the Beatles?"

"Ringo."

"Right."

"George."

"Yes."

"Paul?"

"Mm-hmm."

"Who else?"

"There's one more."

"Um.  Kenny?"

It seems I still have some work to do.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Echt? Deutsch?

Bud has always been great about visiting the dentist, because we set the tone early with low stress/low pressure visits that were followed by fabulous prizes.  (What's a little bribery when oral health is at stake, right?)

He does so well, in fact, that I've started taking it for granted, and yesterday I did the unthinkable - I forgot all about the prize.  As we drove toward the dentist's office, Bud casually asked what would be waiting for him when he finished.  After a few seconds of panic, I decided to come clean. I told him I'd forgotten and said that we'd visit Amazon or iTunes when we got home.  He happily agreed.

His appointment was as good as they get.  He sat patiently in the waiting room for 20 minutes as the staff ran late, then went in happily on his own with the hygienist. He got glowing reports when they finally delivered him back to me.  So I was happy to set him up on Amazon when we got home.

Bud spent some time in the afternoon surfing to find the prize that he wanted most and before long, he said he'd found it.  It was this:


Yes.  Sing' Und Tanz' Mit Uns Teletubbies.  Because what's better than Teletubbies?  Teletubbies in other languages.  Natürlich.

I can't say I was thrilled by the selection of this particular disc.  But I really should be more understanding.  When I was Bud's age, I had the same relationship with the Beatles that Bud has with the Teletubbies and I distinctly remember the stretch of time when this was on high rotation at my house:


So, Achtung, baby.  Who am I to say "nein"?

Bring on das Tubbies.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

In tonight's performance, the role of Bud will be played by David Rudman

For weeks now, Bud has been telling me, "When I'm 14, I will be voiced by David Rudman."  David Rudman is the voice of Jack on Jack's Big Music Show and the voice of Baby Bear on Sesame Street. 

The concept of voicing - and the associated lengthy, in-depth discussions about voicing - are not new for Bud.  He has long been interested in who does which voices in his favorite shows.  Did you know, for instance, that Robin Stevens, who plays Grandpapa on Boohbah is also the voice of Tom on Tots TV as well as the voice of Jim on Rosie and Jim and that he also did the voice of the Singing Man in the Pink House in the British version of that segment from the Teletubbies?  And, as an aside, if you live anywhere other than the UK and you are not Bud, have you ever heard of most of those programs?  No, I didn't think so.  But, believe me, if you lived with Bud, you would know more about them than you ever dreamed there was to know.

But back to David Rudman.  I have to admit, I hear so much about who-does-which-voices that I really didn't pay much attention to the "When I'm 14, I will be voiced by David Rudman" announcement the first several times I heard it.  But the other day, something clicked with me when Bud said it.

Bud will be 14 in September.  His body has started to change and I have started talking to him about the changes yet to come.  You will have more hair on your body.  You will get taller.  You'll start to shave.

Your voice will change.

Ah.

I'm not sure how Bud got from his voice changing to David Rudman, but I'm certain that's the connection.  I don't know if he thinks he gets to choose this new voice that will be his, or if he thinks that before long, someone else will start doing his vocal work for him.  I don't know if he just supposes that he'll have the sort of kid-like grown-up voice that David Rudman has given to Jack.  Or maybe he just thinks David Rudman's voice is cool and "When I'm 14, I will be voiced by David Rudman" is the Bud version of "When I grow up, I'm going to be an astronaut."

So, to cover all bases, I've started to shift the conversation.  Your voice will sound different, but it will still be your voice.  It will just be deeper and more manly.  You won't choose a new voice; the new voice will just happen.  It might not happen when you're 14.  You may be older than that.  It will just happen when the time is right.

Bud has listened politely and humored me as I've fumbled my way through the explanations.  But we both know that he's having none of it.  As far as he's concerned, the matter is settled.  When he is 14, he will be voiced by David Rudman.

I just hope that David is ready.

Monday, June 10, 2013

A follow-up and a request

Several months ago, I asked for your input on social pragmatics for a piece I was writing.  You were incredibly helpful and a couple of you asked me to post the piece once it was finished.  It's out now, in the Summer, 2013 edition of Thrive magazine.  You can read it here.  (And if you're interested, I have a humor column in the same issue - right here.)

And now I'm back to ask for your input on another piece.  In this one, I'd like to focus on the challenges of finding childcare for a child with special needs (and I'd like to point out that I'm looking at "special needs" more globally, without a specific focus on autism, so if you have a friend who is a special needs parent and you can point them in my direction, I'd appreciate it!)  I'm thinking about both ongoing care (daycare for toddlers and preschoolers, afterschool care for older kids) as well as occasional care - since we all know that popping out for a quick dinner and a movie can take a month's planning when you have a child with special needs.

I'm seeking advice, lessons learned, success stories, and not-so-success stories.  Please share what you have - and, if you can, jump over to the Facebook page, where I'll be posting more pointed questions on the topic.  (And, again, if you know parents with children who have needs other than autism, I'd love to hear from them as well!)

Thanks in advance for your help.  You are the best resource I know.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Monday, April 22, 2013

In which Bud tells it like it is

We were packed up and headed out for the weekend - one of those crazily-scheduled weekends that always compels me to over-pack.  As I struggled out the door toward the car, looking like a pack mule with my arms full and bags hanging from both shoulders, I looked at Bud walking happily ahead of me, his laptop bag on his shoulder and his iPad in hand.

"Hey," I called out to him. "Why is it that I'm carrying everything and you're carrying nothing?"

Bud spun around and made his way back to me.  "I don't know," he said.

"How exactly did this happen?" I joked.

He turned his face to mine and moved closer until our noses were almost touching, then raised his eyebrows and flashed me his trademark closed-mouth grin.

"Oh," I laughed.  "Is it because you're so cute?"

"No," he answered.  "It's just because I'm so... "

He paused, searching for the right word until he found it.

"Smart."

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Under pressure

I’m looking for feedback.

For years, I've been thinking that I recognize a connection between the weather and Bud’s ability (or inability) to maintain emotional regulation.  Specifically, it seems as though Bud struggles as a low pressure weather system is approaching our area.    When the forecast calls for a major storm a day or two in the future, Bud is volatile – sometimes emotional and easily overwhelmed, sometimes oppositional and aggressive, and sometimes all of those things at the same time.

On the other hand, I’m aware that I live in a region of the country characterized by volatile weather systems.  We have a lot of advancing storm systems, so I sometimes wonder if I’m grasping at straws and seeing correlations where none exist when I attribute his behavior to the weather.  Maybe we are so rarely more than a few days away from a storm that there is always a low pressure system I can point to when challenging behavior erupts.

So, reality check me here.  Do you see a connection between the weather and your child’s behavior?  And if so, what do you see?  I’d really like to know.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

High, kids!

Bud brought a children's book with him to the doctor's office last week.  As we sat in the waiting room, I glanced over his shoulder to see what had him so engrossed.

And then I did a double take.

And then I took a picture of it.

Because, really.  WHAT???


Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Autism awareness goes to the office

In which Jerry uses a figure of speech:

Bud's sitter has dropped him off at my office.  We have packed our things and are heading out.  My colleague Jerry meets us at the door.

"Hey, Bud," Jerry says.

"Hey, Jerry," Bud replies.

"You going home?"

"Yup.  We're going home."

"What's for dinner tonight?"

"I don't know," says Bud, turning to me. "What's for dinner tonight, Mom?"

"Well," I say, "we have some of that chicken left over."

"Okay!  Chicken!" says Bud.

"You're easy to please," says Jerry.

"Oh, yeah," replies Bud, appreciatively. Then he turns to me and corrects himself. "Okay, chicken, please."

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Autism awareness goes to the doctor

In which the nurse gets a quick lesson on literal thinking:

Nurse (taking health history):  Bud, does anyone smoke in your house?

Bud:  Actually, I live in an apartment right now.

Nurse:  Oh, that's okay.

Bud:  Yeah, it's great.

Nurse waits.  Bud returns to his book.

Nurse:  So, Bud, is there any smoking where you live?

Bud:  Well...

Nurse waits.  Bud thinks.

Bud:  Well...

Nurse waits some more.  Bud thinks some more.

Bud:  Well, one time someone burned some brownies.

And scene.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Our kind of autism awareness

"So, I put a new light bulb in the lamp in the window, Bud.  You know what color it is?”

“Blue?”

“Yes.  You know why?”

“Because it’s Autism Speaks Day?”

“Kind of.  It’s Autism Awareness Month.”

“Today is April?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.”

“So, what will the blue light tell people?”

“About autism.”

“And what do you want people to know about autism?”

“I have a brain.”

“You do.  And it works in a special way because you have autism.  So, what things are hard for your brain?”

“When my brain gets stuck.”

“That is hard.”

“Yeah.”

“And what things are easy for your brain?”

“Um.  I don’t know.”

“What are you good at?”

“I’m good at playing the Penguin Polka on the piano.”

“That’s true.  You’re very good at that.”

“And I’m good at hosting a game show.”

“That’s true, too.”

“A reality game show where everyone’s a winner… except five of you.”

“That’s Fetch With Ruff Ruffman.”

“Yeah.”

“You are good at that.”

“Yeah.”

“What else do you want people to know when they see the blue light?  What do you want them to do?”

“Um.  I don’t know.”

“Well, what can people do to make things easier for you?”

“They can be kind.”

“That’s a good one.  It’s really good to be kind.”

“Yeah.”

“Anything else?”

“No.”

“Just be kind?”

“Just be kind.”



Monday, March 11, 2013

What's your story?

I'm trying to do a little background research to figure out how much of my experience is shared by other parents of kids on the spectrum.  So, if you're a parent of a child who has difficulty with pragamatic language - using language with comfort and fluidity in social situations - and you're willing to share your story (and possibly be quoted elsewhere), can you leave a comment and tell me about any of the following:

Social situations you've attempted with your child and how they've played out;

Social situations you've avoided because the challenge feels too great;

Social successes your child has had;

Things you do with your child to prepare him/her for social situations.

Thanks in advance, friends.  And for those who have asked - yes, once this article is out, I will definitely post a link.  In the meantime, maybe we'll all find some wisdom we can use (or at least the reassurance of a few good "me too"s) in the comment section.

Friday, March 08, 2013

On second thoughts and shifting perspectives

That pesky universe is at it again.

A little over a week ago, I published a new blog post about approaching life through the lens of appreciative inquiry.  It was up for about an hour, it got a little bit of positive feedback on Facebook, and then I re-read it and groaned.  It seemed heavy-handed and pedantic.  It felt like a whole lot of academic bluster - a whole lot of blah blah blah that just made me sick of myself.  So I took it down.

Then today, I spoke to a Speech Language Pathologist for an unrelated article that I'm writing, focusing on pragmatic language disorders and what parents can do at home to help their children.  His response was neither heavy-handed nor pedantic.  There was no bluster and no blah blah blah.  He used completely different words and he handed my philosophy back to me.

"We need to step back from a deficit model," he said. "We need to ask, 'what are the intrinsic gifts that this child brings to me as a parent and to this family?'"

"We need to be constructive in the building of solutions," he said. "We can decide to see the difficulties or we can learn to focus on the opportunities."

In other words, he said we need to identify what's working and then do more of it.  Not only that:  he said that it's the most important thing that we can do for our children.

My last post is up again.  And my thanks go out to both the universe and Dr. Jeff Marler of ASPIRE - Innovative Language Interventions, PLLC in Southlake, Texas for leading me back to it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Appreciative living

Where do I begin?

It's been more than a year since I posted a real update on my life.  There have been some snippets here and there - little vignettes that captured moments - and there have been more of those on the Facebook page than here on the blog.  But I haven't posted updates about the real stuff - the big stuff - going on behind the scenes.

My last real update was in September, 2011, when my dad's Alzheimer's was advancing rapidly and I felt like my life was in a tailspin.

So, what has changed since then?

Well.  Everything.

That's why the updates have been hard to post.  How do you write about everything?

So here are the thumbnails, to get you up to speed.

My parents moved to another state just a couple of months after that September post.  Bud had seen them every day since he was two months old - had lived in the same house with them since he was two years old - and then, suddenly, they moved two hours away.  It was a good move - it was the right move - but it was a big move.

My dad's Alzheimer's has continued to progress.  It's hard for everyone, though I imagine that it's hardest for my mom.  He just turned 90 - a happy occasion and a bittersweet milestone.  And, despite the distance, despite the difficulties, he and Bud continue to have a relationship that takes my breath away.

Bud and I are living in a residence hall on the college campus where I work.  The planets aligned at just the right time personally and professionally and the plan fell easily into place.  It's a few miles and a thousand light years from our little house on the dirt road in the woods, but it's been a good move for both of us.

My house is on the market.  Where it sits.  And sits.  And sits. 

There are new relationships in my life and in Bud's - new game-changing relationships with people who have come to mean more to us than we could possibly have predicted a year and a half ago. 

And, of course, there's Bud - the boy who has historically struggled with transition and change more than any other issues.  In this year full of external change - different settings and locales, new people in his daily life, new kinds of relationships - he has also turned 13, an age marked by tumultuous, ongoing internal changes.

So, yeah.  It's been a fast-paced, head-spinning, change-everything eighteen months for Bud and me.  And every bit of it has been hard and messy and challenging and painful and really, really good.

I can't really go into detail on any of it.  As I've said a million times before, I am hesitant to tell stories that are not mine alone - to share information that's not really mine to share.  So, instead, I want to tell you about something else - a philosophy that has helped ground me and guide me through this time of head-spinning change:

It's called Appreciative Inquiry.

I was introduced to the concept at an academic advising workshop at work almost two years ago.  The premise of the workshop went something like this:

You are an academic advisor.  You're meeting with an advisee about her mid-semester grades.  She has a D in Biology, Bs in Writing, Math, and History, and an A in Psychology.

How do you start the meeting?

If you're like most advisors, you start with a little chit chat - how are you doing, isn't this weather beautiful, my what a lovely scarf you're wearing - and then you jump to the heart of the matter: the D.  What's going on in Biology?

But the workshop encouraged a different approach - one called "appreciative advising" - in which the advisor follows the chit-chat with an entirely different focus: the A.  What's going on in Psychology?

It's a simple shift, but it's transformative.  It changes the whole paradigm of the conversation, moving it from "what's going wrong?" to "what's going right?"  It encourages the student to focus on her success - to identify and articulate why she is successful, what conditions are enabling her success, what talents she's using, what strategies are working.

And then, once the student has explored that, the question expands:  How can you do more of that?

In other words, what can we take from our analysis of your work in Psychology to apply to your work in Writing and Math and History and Biology?  How can we build on the success you have already established - the skills you already exhibit - the strategies you already know how to employ?

It's likely that an advising session framed through the lens of appreciative inquiry leads a student to feel  empowered and prepared for success, because it starts with the assumption of strength.  In contrast, the more traditional "What's going on in Biology?" conversation starts in a place of challenge.  It starts where the student feels least confident, where her footing is least sure.  It is a less sturdy foundation on which to build.

But it's not just a model for academic advising.  When my department was asked to re-engineer in an effort to save money and increase efficiency, we read  a monograph, The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry by Sue Annis Hammond, which introduces appreciative inquiry as a model for approaching organizational change.  The book transformed my thinking.  "It never occurs to us that we can fix an organization or even our society by doing more of what works," Hammond writes.  "We are obsessed with learning from our mistakes.  But, why not allow our successes to multiply enough to crowd out the unsuccessful?"

Hammond draws a distinction between having a problem-solving focus, which is how we typically approach change, and having an appreciative inquiry focus, which she suggests is more effective.  When we problem-solve, we try to do less of something we don't do well - we try to fix what's broken.  When we employ appreciative inquiry, we try to do more of what works - we try to capitalize on the things that are already effective.

Hammond suggests that the traditional problem-solving approach is the old "Don't think of an elephant" directive.  How do you NOT think of an elephant?  If you're like most of us, you start by thinking of an elephant, and then you try to unthink it.  The unthinking is nearly impossible to do, and you find yourself hopelessly stuck with a mind full of nothing but elephants.   

But what if the elephant is out of the equation entirely?  What if we use the appreciative inquiry model instead and we focus on the thing we want more of? What if we simply say, "Think of a lemur?"  Instantly, our imaginations are full of leaping, swinging primates, and there's not a trunk or an ivory tusk to be found.  Suddenly, through appreciative inquiry, we don't have to worry about the elephant problem, because it has gone away on its own.  There is no elephant to eliminate.

When we use appreciative inquiry, says Hammond - when we identify what's working and then do more of it - the problems that have existed will fade away naturally.  She identifies a four step process in making that happen:

- Appreciating and valuing the best of "what is"

- Envisioning "what might be"

- Dialoguing "what should be"

- Innovating "what will be"

It's a simple premise, but it can be difficult to employ - especially for those of us raised in a culture that has encouraged us to tackle problems head on - to focus on the D in Bio instead of on the A in Psych.

But I'm telling you - when I've been able to do it - when I have really focused on it and been very intentional about it - it works.  It's been instrumental in shaping organizational change in my workplace.  And, truly, I can't imagine how some of the changes that I've experienced over the past 18 months would have been possible had it not been for appreciative inquiry.

I wish I could say that things are leveling out in my life and that the waves of change have calmed, but I don't think that's the case.  That's life, though, right?  Change is the only constant.  There's a lot to think about, both in the short term and the long term, for Bud and for me.  At times, it can be completely overwhelming.  So I'm glad my subconscious led me back to this post today - a post that's been lingering in draft form for at least four months - to remind me that I already know what I need to do next.

Next, I need to figure out what's working.

And then, I need to do more of it.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mooed music

I often wonder what mental images Bud is carrying around in his head that I could easily clarify, if only I knew they existed.

We were driving the other day and Carrie Underwood's song "Two Black Cadillacs" came on the radio:   Two black Cadillacs driving in a slow parade, headlights shining bright in the middle of the day...

Bud read the song title on the satellite radio screen.

"Cadillac?" he asked.  "Like a cow?"

Of course.

Cattle.

Ack.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Flummox and Friends: Tune in, connect, have fun

Today was one of those days.

I spent the day at work in a small, crowded room.  I spent the day talking.  But not just talking.  Talking, debating, rehashing, rephrasing, summarizing, confronting, objecting, parsing, facilitating, suggesting.  And then talking and talking and talking some more.

It was exhausting.

It was one of those days that makes me acutely aware of my introverted nature - of the very real fact that though I enjoy people, I enjoy them most in small doses with long breaks.  By the end of the day, I was left with just enough energy to crawl onto the couch with my iPad to block out the world and become totally engrossed in an episode of The West Wing.  Or three.

As a result, of course, it was also one of those days that left me with a new appreciation for Bud, who must have days like this all the time.  It's no wonder that he often comes home from school and heads for his laptop and the safe haven that is PBS Kids dot com.  Because it's HARD to navigate the world of social interaction and it takes a whole lot of energy when you're forced to do it. 

And so, it seemed like a really good day to sit down with my boy and re-watch the pilot episode of Flummox and Friends, a live-action comedy designed to enhance children's social and emotional development.  We've watched it before, of course, and are both huge fans - but, really, it's the kind of show that never gets old.

If you haven't been introduced to Flummox and Friends yet, let me give you a thumbnail.  The show was created by Christa Dahlstrom, Jordan Sadler, (two of my favorite people) and Liesl Wenzke Hartmann (who I'm sure is also delightful).  It's designed to engage children who have social challenges and to give parents and teachers a jumping-off point for conversation and education.  I have to admit, when Christa and Jordan initially told me about their plan, I was excited, but my expectations were modest.  But let me tell you:  the finished product blew. me. away.

It's sharp.  It's funny.  It's SPOT on with its message and its approach.  It meets children where they are - it says "I see you.  You matter.  You are whole and full and complete just as you are."  And then, it says, "And, if you're interested - when you're ready - there are some other things you might want to think about, too.  Because you have options, if you want them.  You always have options."

The characters in Flummox and Friends are quirky and endearing.  When I watch Bud watch the show, I can see him see himself in them.  He laughs in all the right places.  He processes all the right talking points.  In other words:  it works.

The first time Bud and I watched Flummox and Friends, he was riveted and, like me, seemed impressed by the production quality of the show.  "Is this PBS?" he asked, voicing the highest praise he could bestow.  "What is this?  Is this PBS?"  ("No, Bud," I replied.  "But it should be.")

And then, weeks later, we got our very own copy of the pilot in the mail.  Bud ripped open the package, held up the DVD, and proclaimed, "Flummox and Friends?  I've been looking EVERYWHERE for this!"

Not bad for a show designed to teach him how to engage with groups by tuning in with his eyes, ears, and ideas.

But don't take my word for it.  Or Bud's for that matter.  Click here to watch the pilot episode for yourself.  You can also download guides for families and teachers, filled with suggestions about how to use the video with children.

So go.  Watch.  Enjoy.  Complete the online survey to let the creators know what you think.  Come on back and leave a comment and let me know what you think, too. I promise, I'll read it.  But later.  Right now, I'm going to curl up on the couch with my iPad to block out the world and become totally engrossed in an episode of The West Wing.  Or three.

Cause, you know.  Today was just one of those days.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Crossroads

So, Kristen is shutting down her blog.

It's giving me pause.

I've seen so many of my blogging friends - people who were my lifelines in Bud's early childhood - step away from blogging as their children get older.  And it's no secret that I've stepped back myself.  I start a lot of posts, but truly, it's hard to write about the core issues - the things that REALLY matter - without feeling like I'm invading the privacy of a whole lot of other people in my life - people who never signed on to being vaguely pseudonymous Internet characters.

I've thought about it a lot over the past year - a year in which I experienced extraordinary change in my life, and yet a year in which I posted only seven times.  The internal conversation has inevitably gone something like this:

Can you call yourself a blogger if you never really blog?

Can you call yourself a writer if you never really write?

And what's that all about, anyway?  If writing - if blogging - has been central to your sense of self for so long, critical to your perspective on who you are - what does it mean that it hasn't gotten any of your attention?

Are you losing sight of who you are?  Or is who you are simply changing?

Meaty questions.  But questions that go mostly unanswered.

And now Kristen is closing shop.  Kristen, who has continued to post regularly - by my standards, anyway.  I know she's been thinking about it for a long time and that it's the right step for her.

It would be easy to follow suit - to toss in a "me, too" and go watch another re-run of Downton Abbey. 

But it seems I'm not ready.

I'm not sure what I have to say.  But I'm not ready to decide not to say it.

I'll be back in a day or two. 

No, really, I mean it. 

Some friends of mine have a really cool project I've been meaning to tell you about.