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Thursday, April 14, 2011

*Guest Blog* Finding friends for kids on the spectrum

I asked my friend Rana if she would write a guest post for me here, and she kindly accepted. I'm so glad she did, because I love reading anything she puts together, even if it's only a few sentences. She has great insight, and can see things and solutions that are not always apparent. Rana is a homeschooler, a homemaker, and a  proud military wife.  She is also an awesome mother to two very cool kids. I hope you enjoy her post as much as I did!

I was very flattered when my friend Natalie asked me to write a guest blog on her site.  Then I became a little scared.  What would I talk about?  I mean, I know it would relate to autism, but what would it be about?   So I thought about it for a moment, and then it hit me.  What is one of the things children crave aside from the love and affection of their parents?  FRIENDSHIP.
I’m sure many of you look out your windows most days and see kids playing with their friends.  I wish that for my child.  How do we help our children on the spectrum make a friend?  First, what IS a friend?  Someone you can talk to, has similar interests, is a shoulder to cry on, and someone you can laugh with.  Webster’s Dictionary defines a friend as:  one attached to another by affection or esteem OR a favored companion.
My son is 10.5 years old and has Asperger’s.  He’s a sweet boy, but is socially awkward.  He tends to take over a conversation with his interest at the time (currently it’s HALO the video game, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and cryptozoology).  While most kids his age are riding bikes, skateboards, and running around the neighborhood, he’s content to do research on his current interests.  He’ll act stories out with his toys, or replay certain episodes out loud, to himself.  Kids his age are not interested in these things.  OK, some enjoy the talk about the video game, but only for a fleeting moment.  He has great conversations with adults, and younger kids seem to be enthralled by his knowledge.  However, most moments he’s by himself.
When we lived in Texas, there weren’t very many children on our street.  The only time he had with other children was in school, or with his younger sister at home.  Those days in school weren’t always good because the children saw they could push his buttons and attempted to get him in trouble when he would act out in frustration.  By the end of his 3rd grade year we decided to homeschool him.  I found a great homeschool group that was just getting started in our area.  All the moms and kids were very welcoming and for the first time my son got to engage with other children who didn’t judge him or try to push his buttons.  When Natalie joined the group with her kids, what a blessing it was.  Her son is on the spectrum too.  The boys hit it off immediately.  They would talk about their interests together, walk around the park, and explore things. My kiddo had a real friend!
Because my husband is military, we ended up moving to Florida in May 2010.  I was sad to leave my homeschool family.  They were such a delight.  I was very sad to leave a friend that understood the days for families like ours, and for my son to leave his friend!  How would the kids take to him in the new place?  When we got to Florida, we found out our house was right next to the playground.  Kids were always there.  While some were initially friendly, they noticed he was different.  I don’t fault them, they are kids, and they don’t get it (even if he’s explaining what Asperger’s is).  There are days they play with him, and days they don’t.  I thought he was ok with it until one day he was upset and said “I want a friend.”  Cue momma’s heart shattering.
Before we moved to Florida we had to find out what places offered therapy.  I came across one called the Autism Education Center and was hooked.  The lady that started it (it’s a non-profit) is a military spouse like me, and has three children on the spectrum.  Her oldest has Asperger’s like mine.  We decided to try a playgroup for the kids.  It is here that my son has made a true friend, his “best friend in the world.”  While they have different interests, they engage in conversation with each other, play games together, watch movies, have sleepovers, etc.  He’s found friend who is even there to listen to him about his bad days, how they feel with their siblings, parents, etc.  You name it, they talk about it.  And it’s great!
So how does another child on the spectrum make a friend?  What if they aren’t verbal?  First, if they have siblings, that can be one of their dearest friends (they just might not know it yet).  It is with their siblings that they have day to day interaction and they can play together and teach each other things.  I encourage you to connect with local families that may have children on the spectrum as well.  Start a playgroup for them.  Help them in floor play, board games, art projects, computer games even.  Together they can work on communication skills, develop their social skills, and enjoy being a kid!

  Rana's son Anthony (left), and his new best friend. :)

Friday, April 8, 2011

"How can I help? What can I say?"

I've been dealing with the wonderful world of autism for a little over 8 years now. I'm not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I do know quite a bit about it. I can't think of a time during this experience that I haven't been reading, online, or asking questions. That said, there is still alot left for me to learn. People that do not have a child on the autism spectrum could not possibly be expected to know all the little ins and outs of this weird, unexpected little world.This post is for those people.

I had a friend tell me once "I just don't know what to say or do." I understand that. I've been there myself with other issues my friends have dealt with. Sometimes you just can't think of anything to say, either because you don't know what is appropriate, or you don't know anything about the issue. I've come up with a few things that as a friend or relative, you can say to a parent of a child on the autism spectrum. I know we can be a little sensitive, but hey, wouldn't you? We're always on alert, just in case someone says something mean, because believe me, those people are out there, and they say some pretty mean stuff. Unfortunately, we get gun shy. However, we do want and need support, especially from friends and relatives. Autism is isolating. Alot of times you feel alone, like nobody gets it. We need our friends and family to be there, even just in thought and email.
Now on to the list...
  1. Offer help. Something simple like offering to grab something while you're already at the grocery store is a huge help. When my kids were younger and my husband was working crazy hours, it would be a huge 2 hour ordeal just to grab a roast for supper. You could also offer to watch the kids for an hour so that mom can get a much needed nap. A girl's night out or an offer to watch the kids while mom and dad have a night out is also a wonderful gift.  We might not take you up on it, but the thought means so much.
  2. Call or email to check in. Like I said before, we tend to isolate ourselves. You get your head down and trudge through, and sometimes forget to look up every once and a while. Just a little note to say "Are you ok? What's going on lately?" is all that's needed to help us stop for a moment.
  3. Offer your shoulder. Hearing your friend say "I'm here anytime you want to talk, cry, scream, etc." means so much.
  4. Periodically ask for an update on the kids. It feels nice for anyone to know someone cares enough to ask about your kids or yourself. 
  5. Try to read a little about autism. Ask your friend for the name of a good book or blog you can check out. Having friends that "get it" is very special. 
  6. Help raise awareness just because you care. Last week I learned that two extremely irreplaceable friends did a 5k walk for autism, in honor of 2 kids, one being mine. I can't even begin to describe the emotions that ran through me. I felt love, pride, humbled, and probably feelings that don't even exist. They probably have no idea the impact that one action had on me, but knowing they thought of us in that way is amazing.
Dealing with autism is tiring, and it can really get you feeling pretty low. With any issue, it's good to have a friend to lean on, or talk to. I hope some of these ideas help those that are unsure of how to help. We don't need much, a hug is just fine. We just want to know you're there.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

10 Common Autism Myths

I actually wrote this last year for autism awareness month, but I still like it, and it still makes sense. I decidd to go ahead and share it here, I hope you likey. :)

Autism is becoming more and more prevalent, and there is still a ton of misinformation surrounding it. I would like to use this as an opportunity to bring these to the forefront and discuss them. Some of them are simple misunderstandings, while some of them are stereotypes that can be very hurtful. Please take a moment to read this. Maybe you'll learn something that you didn't already know.

Myth #1- Eye contact is impossible for someone with autism.

Some people with autism find making eye contact with others difficult, but others have no problem whatsoever.

Myth #2- People with autism can't show affection.

My son is the biggest snuggle bug ever! Being able to snuggle up has never been a problem for him. For some, it is, but not all.

Myth #3- If a child is progressing, he never had autism.

This is not true. It takes work and patience, but progress is possible!

Myth #4- People with autism cannot communicate.

If someone with autism is nonverbal, they have other ways of communicating. Sign language, pictures, computers, etc. are all forms of communication. Just because a person can't talk, it doesn't mean they can't communicate.

Myth #5- Autism is the result of bad or neglectful parenting.

The "refrigerator mother" myth has been around for some time, and I'm actually surprised it still exists. Almost every parent of a child with autism I've met is very kind, loving, and incredibly patient. They also spend much of their time feeling needlessly guilty about their child's autism, so this myth is less than helpful.

Myth #6- If you have autism, you can repeat the whole phone book or tell you what day of the week April 23 is in 4 years.

While most children with autism are very smart, an autistic savant is rare. We can all thank the movie Rainman for this little myth. So in the future, please do not ask a mom to get her kid to perform parlor tricks for you.

Myth #7- Children with autism do not want friends.

All children want friends. Some can show this is a better way than others, but I think all children want a friend. Alot of kids with autism just can't figure out how to go about it.

Myth #8- Kids with autism don't get their feelings hurt.

If you've ever seen my son's face after a kid has refused to play with him, you'd know this is not true. They may not get mad and yell at someone, or sit down and cry over it, but it's just as easy to hurt a child with autism's feelings as any other. Please remind your children to be kind.

Myth #9- Better discipline would get their acts together.

Boy, do I love that one! I've been told on many occasions that all I need to do is spank him. Another good one, "Let me keep him for a few days, I'll fix him". You can't spank or yell autism away any easier than you can spank cancer away.

Myth # 10- If a person with autism cant communicate, he can't understand you either.

If someone tapes your mouth closed, do your ears plug up as well? Comprehension skills and expressive skills can develop at different speeds and often do with autism. Just because a child can not say I love you does not mean he doesn't hear you when you tell him you love him.

These were just a few that I've heard or been told, but I'm sure there are more out there. I hope this helps anyone that thought any of these myths were truth.