Posted in family life, musings

social learning through play

When I first read Peter Gray’s Free to Learn a couple years ago, I was struck by his descriptions of young children playing together. In the interactions he transcribed, these children were negotiating social hierarchies, defining relationships, experimenting with emotional expression and response, making small talk, and learning to understand the thoughts and feelings of other individuals – all through the context of undirected, independent, imaginative play with each other.

At the time I was both impressed and discouraged: impressed at the ability of the human mind to use pretend play as a means of acquiring important social skills, and discouraged at the thought that I hadn’t yet seen my son engage in pretend play with another child in that way. He could parallel play with his baby brother, and that was about it; other children overwhelmed and even frightened him.

But lately I have watched him playing with Limerick, roaring and yelling and screaming at each other, and when I cautiously peek around the corner they quickly assure me that it’s all part of the game, and their characters are angry, not actually them. Their pretend animals ask each other if they can come in, or share space, or help with something difficult. The boys ask each other, outside of the game, about what they are each comfortable with and what the other one’s preference would be for the kind of game they play, back and forth until they reach a compromise.

I have watched him playing with Aubade, laughing and wrestling and generally being silly, until suddenly she pretends to be sad with a pouty frown and a slump of her shoulders, proclaiming that she is sad, and he instantly changes his mood to match her emotional expression, curling up next to her to give her snuggles until she decides she is happy again.

While his understanding of other people’s emotions may not be as intuitive, and while social norms and niceties may always be more of a second language, he still has the innate desire to connect and belong with others. And so with the people he loves, he works hard to understand them, to compromise with them, to adapt to their wants and feelings. We’ve done a lot of “play coaching” with him and his siblings over the years, to get to this point, but now, every time I see him bend and adjust, every time I hear him ask what his siblings would rather do instead of demanding things go his way, I am so encouraged by how much he has learned, and by how much he can do without any adult around reminding him. Those hours of play have really been effective in helping him pick up and hone his budding social skills – and I have no doubt they will continue to be.

Posted in information, musings

quack quack: my autistic duck analogy

Whenever my husband and I talk with people about autism, or describe some of the behaviors and traits that are related to it, someone will inevitably identify with one or more of those behaviors and joke about how they must be on the spectrum too. As another logical conclusion would be that autism is an exaggerated or imagined condition, I am glad that no one I know has used their identification with an autistic trait as an opportunity to disbelieve the existence of autism! However, the situation is common enough that I’ve been searching for a good way to illustrate the difference between having one or more common autistic behaviors and actually being autistic.

An infographic from Little Black Duck (an Australian company specializing in autism communication services) uses the analogy of pregnancy: someone might have some of the symptoms that are commonly associated with pregnancy, like sore feet or nausea or weight gain, without actually being pregnant – there is a different underlying cause behind the similar or even identical presentations.

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I think this is a helpful analogy for the most part, except for the fact that autism as a condition is defined by the presence and degree of certain types of behaviors. Pregnancy is very clearly distinguished from non-pregnancy by the presence of a fetus; there is no such clear-cut biological test to distinguish the autistic mind from the allistic mind. Those very human behaviors that present in both autistic and allistic individuals are the only metric used in making the diagnosis, and the line is drawn at a somewhat subjective conjunction of multiple co-occuring traits and the severity thereof.

To me, the clinical struggle of defining the autism spectrum seems similar to the zoological struggle of defining a taxonomical species. Perhaps a duck could be defined as a warm-blooded, egg-laying animal with wings, feathers, webbed feet, and a broad bill. A seagull could relate to many of these duck traits, but not having all of them would fall short of the official criteria. A bat or a snake or a duck-billed platypus could relate on a more distant level, while a moose or bear would struggle to understand the duck at all save from an external perspective.

Likewise, some people will relate to the social anxiety many autistic people struggle with; some people will identify with sensory sensitivities; others will connect with the difficulties of small talk and nonverbal communication. People with other neurodifferences, like ADHD or FAS, will probably have more behaviors in common with autistic people than the general allistic population will, but like the seagull will fall short of the official criteria for the diagnosis. On the flip side, some people will lack almost all of the autistic traits and behaviors, and struggle more to bridge the differences between them and their autistic family and colleagues. But just like ducks are still animals, and all of their characteristic traits are shared (individually or in sets) by some species or another in the animal kingdom, so too autistic people are still human, and all of their characteristic traits can be found scattered throughout the general human population. It is only when all those traits converge that a duck is defined, or autism is diagnosed.

Now I just have to wait for a conversational opportunity to use my new analogy 🙂 What do you all think? Does it make sense? How do you try to explain the difference between autism as a neurotype and commonly seen autistic behaviors?

Posted in family life

lizard love!

We are now officially pet owners!

Rondel had been asking us for months when we would get an animal of our own (seemingly taking it for granted that someday we would), and slowly things fell into place for us to be able to buy a pair of green anole lizards. Rondel and I talked about different types of animals and researched how to take care of them; Paul took him to pet stores to see the animals in person; and so we settled on lizards as an acceptable option. Paul found a tank and lamp at Savers; Rondel made a hide from a wooden puzzle box; I watched YouTube videos with Rondel about setting up the tank so the lizards could be comfortable and safe.

And finally, after days of Rondel asking us when, when, when? – we finally brought them home.

Aubade and Rondel were immediately entranced with them, pulling up chairs by the bookshelf and watching them explore their new home (it looks a bit bare in these first few pictures, but we’ve since added more vines and climbing sticks).

After a few days of helping them to adjust, and the addition of twenty little crickets to the tank (buying those at the pet store was definitely a new experience for me… the employee just reached into this big bin of crickets and started shaking them into a bag and they were hopping everywhere!), Rondel was able to hold them, one at a time, to his great delight. While the lizards were not sure about being handled at first, they seem to have become a lot more comfortable with Rondel, and he is definitely comfortable with them. He asks if he can take them out at least 3-4 times every day, and plays with them longer and longer each time. At this point he is able to gently lift one from the tank (I remove and replace the cover), remain calm and gentle while letting it climb all over him (he’s getting good at directing where they climb, also, though they both still try to get to the center of his upper back when they can), retrieve it if it hops off of him onto the floor, and gently return it to the tank when he is done.

I am greatly impressed.

He also keeps an eye on the temperature and humidity gauges, and knows how to mist the tank through the cover if the humidity is below the recommended range.

In short, especially for a five year old, he is showing himself to be quite responsible and very natural with the lizards… and he has already started asking when we will get more animals! If things go his way we will end up living in a zoo – and he would be such a happy little person, so I suppose more animals will be inevitable at some point. But for now we will just enjoy these two green additions to our home.

Posted in family life

picky eating, oral stims, and anxiety

Rondel is not exactly a stereotypical picky eater, but he is quite particular when it comes to food, for clear sensory-related reasons. Texture and temperature are probably the most important aspect of a food for him – his favorite foods tend to be either frozen or in the dry-to-crunchy range. So he can be quite happy eating some tortilla chips (sometimes he’ll tolerate them with melted cheese) alongside a bowl of frozen mixed veggies, he loves toast and frozen blueberries for breakfast, he prefers crackers to fig bars, he only enjoys chicken nuggets if the outer coating isn’t at all “mushy”, and he won’t eat any fresh fruit at all (except perhaps melon in the summer or pear in the fall) after having decided his primary previously acceptable fruit (apple) made his mouth feel funny. He will eat noodles and potatoes in moderation, but not consistently. Mexican refried beans and rice are acceptable, but runnier beans and rice dishes (I have a few really good ones) are not. I don’t think he has ever consented to eat soup or oatmeal, and the thought of sweet potato or avocado is enough to make him emotionally upset. Also, having a favorite food to accompany a merely tolerable one seems to help by resetting or calming the tactile receptors in his mouth.

I had never really given much thought to picky eating prior to having kids, because I tend to be a more adventurous eater, but I am realizing now that I have my own sensory quirks. I heavily prefer foods where each bite will have a variety of textures, or where the level of spiciness is enough to leave a burn, or where dedicated chewing may be required – so in a peanut butter sandwich I will use crunchy peanut butter and orange marmalade and toast the bread if at all possible; I attempt to make even normal bland foods more bold by adding extra seasonings (cayenne in the mac and cheese, double the recipe’s amount of every single spice for spice cookies); and I enjoy fairly tough meat but can only rarely handle creamy soup.

The appearance or smell of a food can also cause an overwhelming or challenging sensory reaction. Rondel reacts quite strongly to anything that looks mushy or gooey (like yogurt or banana); I recoil from unevenly bumpy foods (I avoided looking at peeled bananas for at least a year as a child). Rondel can be bothered by the smell of the food other people are eating or even by food that he enjoys eating (which I have only observed in myself during pregnancy – I notice smells quite well but am not usually bothered by them), but we’ve found that lighting a candle on the table makes things significantly better for him.

Interestingly enough, I have also recently noticed that eating painfully spicy food actually helps lower my anxiety levels, and temporarily decreases my reliance on other stims. I’m guessing it is similar for Rondel, and may be part of why he’s been a bit pickier and more wild lately as we are out of both tortilla chips and frozen blueberries. It makes me wish some of his earlier oral stims were still helpful for him – he had been able to translate overt licking of his hands and arms into chewing a wooden necklace, and it made a big difference for him in more stimulating environments especially – but he hasn’t shown much interest in them since this summer. I was beginning to think he would take after my grandmother, who still surreptitiously chews on her hands to stim! And who knows, maybe he will 🙂 in my experience, stims can ebb and flow over time, even if some are more enduring or central.

In the meantime, we’ll keep on freezing our yogurt into creamy cold dots, stocking our house with plenty of whole-grain bread for toast, lighting our candle at dinner, and continuing to try new foods in hope that some of them will cooperate with his unique blend of sensory cravings and aversions!

Posted in family life

aubade’s second birthday

It’s hard to lose the habit of calling one’s youngest child “baby”, I think. The older siblings protest as they grow, and the name passes on to the younger ones – but it holds on more tightly when there is no one to take up the mantle.

Still, now that Aubade is two, we don’t really have any babies in the family anymore, no matter how much we still call her our baby.

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At two, Aubade is hitting a verbal growth spurt, leaping from the occasional echoed two-word phrase to consistent spontaneous three and four word phrases – linking words are still a challenge, but her vocabulary is expanding exponentially. She has always been adept at communicating her thoughts, and it is so fun (and often amusing) to watch her incorporate language into that communication more and more.

Far more than either of the boys, Aubade has developed an attachment to certain toys (a few stuffed animals and a few hard rubber animals, alternating depending on her mood and the demands of the situation) and an affinity for choosing her own clothes. To be honest, she’s enjoyed selecting her own outfits for at least a year now – but at this point she likes clothes enough that she considers them birthday presents worth getting excited about. She even has a hierarchy of favorite pajamas… as she was telling me when I asked her what she wanted to wear, “bear jammies dirty… food on it. puppy jammies dirty… food on it. firetruck jammies!” (She did not have food on her dirty pajamas, but that is her current understanding of why clothes need to be washed. Wearing something for two consecutive days and nights apparently doesn’t count if you haven’t covered it in food…)

She loves to be held but she also loves to climb on your head and flip upside down in your arms; she pulls her brothers all around the house but also loves to find herself snuggled up with them, and never goes to bed without making sure to give them both a goodnight hug.

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She wants to do everything her brothers can do, and do it all by herself, and she has perfected the sideways glare, the downwards pout, and the backwards flop to use when she isn’t allowed to do something she wants. Also the persistent requesting of the thing desired, with perfect confidence, until you start to wonder why you aren’t just doing what she wants after all 🙂

She loves fiercely and plays fiercely and fights fiercely, all over tooth and claw and growls and pouncing possession of all things good and desirable as hers.

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She gets very enthusiastic about something for a short time, then moves on to the next thing – she doesn’t have the deep and lasting interests that the boys had even at this age, but rather roams widely over a variety of objects and activities. Limerick, for example, was happy to sit still on a three hour airplane flight with a magnet board drawing letters before he was even two years old; Rondel could spend hours talking about cars; but Aubade needs to be able to move, mostly, and to have a range of toys (or other medium-sized things) to move around with her. I think that means she is a typically developing two-year-old and that we have nothing to be concerned about!

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When she gets excited about something, she wiggles side to side in a manner slightly reminiscent of a satisfied feline. She will pretend to cough or laugh just to make other people laugh at her, and she has a smile that is almost a smirk that she flashes just for the answering attention of a smile in return. Far more so than the boys, she is tuned in to the people around her, seeking out eye contact and thriving on back-and-forth interactions, copying social behaviors and imitating types of play.

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But more than anything else? She is light and laughter, the flashing energy pulse of our family, the multiplier of our love – her very own self, just beginning to take on her own unique shape and form, unfolding in bright bold colors like a sudden grin or the brilliant burst of a firework.

Posted in book lists, sqt

{sqt} – reading highlights of 2018

I’m joining up with the seven quick takes linkup again this week, for the first time in a while, with a fitting theme for the last Friday of the year: 2018 favorites! My focus is going to be on the books I’ve read this year; with my end-of-the-year detour into fan fiction my booklist is shorter than it was in 2017, but it is still full of books I loved and want to share.

Parenting: Differently Wired, by Deborah Reber

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If you were following my blog this summer, this favorite should come as no surprise! This is one of the best books I have found for parents of neurodivergent children – one that honors their differences and supports parents in helping their children to remain authentically themselves while also learning to live in a world that is often critical of who they are. For a more in-depth review, see this post leading up to its release this summer. (You may notice I tried to run a giveaway for the book; well, no one entered, so if you feel this book would be relevant or helpful for you, let me know… I still have the extra copy 🙂 )

Science: The Emperor of All Maladies: a Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

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This book offers an interesting take on cancer, as it examines the history of human interaction with cancer in all its ethical and political context rather than focusing solely the medical manifestations of the illness (though it delves quite deeply into the biology of cancer as well). I learned a lot and was deeply fascinated through the entire book (but as it was a library book, I can’t go back to pull up any awesome quotes for this post, unfortunately!). While it is very long, I think it is definitely worth the time and effort to read it, especially for anyone interested in biology, pathology, bioethics, or science policy.

Other Non-Fiction: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson

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When you grow up in a privileged environment, it can be challenging to learn about corruption and brokenness in systems skewed in your favor. This book was difficult to read primarily because of the nature of its topic, and the injustices it exposed – whose depths I had no idea existed beforehand (even though I was aware of the biases in our judicial system, I was not aware of the extent of those biases, particularly in certain areas of the country). I picked up this book last Christmas on the recommendation of Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, for both myself and my grandma, and both of us agree that it was a powerful and moving book, containing invaluable context for understanding (and hopefully healing) some of the racial and cultural divides in our nation. (For more of my thoughts, and some quotes, see this post from April.)

General Fiction: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

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In this novel, an old British major slowly falls in love with a Pakistani shopkeeper (both widowed), to the general consternation of her extended family and their entire village. The interactions between them on both individual and sociocultural levels are simultaneously awkward, amusing, and enlightening (in other words, fairly realistic for two very different people from very different backgrounds thrown into contact with one another); and the twists and turns of the plot are both somewhat unexpected and very satisfying. Major Pettigrew especially, as a slightly cynical and cantankerous old British man finding himself in ludicrously unprecedented circumstances, is quite a wonderful character 🙂

Dystopia: American War, by Omar El Akkad

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I’m surprised I didn’t post about this book back in July! Dystopia is one of my favorite genres, and this one hit particularly close to home. It is set in the southern United States, in a future in which climate change catalyzes a second Civil War; with Northern forces applying external pressure and international agents internally taking advantage of hatred and discontent, the book follows one individual from poverty, through a refugee camp, to indoctrination and grooming in a shadowy terrorist cell. The methods and circumstances are drawn from the actual history of civil war and terrorism in the Middle East, but the culture and setting are undeniably American, and the juxtaposition reinforces both the humanity of people our culture often labels as “other” and the very real possibility that our nation too could be ravaged by the dark side of that shared humanity. I highly recommend it, but it is not a comfortable read.

Science Fiction: Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin

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LeGuin is an exceptional world-builder, and I have enjoyed all of her works, but this is in my opinion one of her best, exploring aspects of nationalism, humanity, and gender. How arbitrary are the categories with which we identify ourselves? When one of those categories is rendered meaningless, how do we cope with our own self-understanding, or refashion the image we present to others? How far can one stray from the center of a category and still be considered part of it, by either themselves or by others? And of course all of these questions are not so much discussed as illustrated and implied as the two main characters seek (in both the context of two different nations, as well as in almost total isolation) to accomplish a mission with global and even universal consequences.

Fantasy: Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

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The story here, as wonderfully epic and convoluted and fascinating as it is, in a world with magic and music and legend coming to life, isn’t even the main reason I have to choose this book (and its sequel) as my top fantasy book of the year. Rarely have I encountered an author who can make their prose sing as beautifully as Rothfuss manages to do here. My only disappointment is that the third book in the trilogy has not yet been published, so while each book so far has a definite story arc and is still satisfying to read, the overall story is incomplete.

What are some of your favorite books from this year? Please share in the comments – I always love to hear about good books to read!

Posted in quotes

merry christmas!

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“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.

For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.

The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.

His mercy is from age to age
to those who fear him.

He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.

He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.

The hungry he has filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty.

He has helped Israel his servant,
remembering his mercy,
according to his promise to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

– Luke 1:46-55

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When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.

And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.

– Luke 2:15-19

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He [Simeon] came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying:

“Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.”

The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

– Luke 2:27-35