What Anxiety Looks Like

Screen Shot 2013-10-13 at 9.22.23 PMDespite a fantastic first day of his afternoon Montessori class, my older son, age four, grew quieter the morning of the second day of class. He dawdled through lunch and, tears appeared each day as the time to leave approached. I’d reassured him, reminding of him how happy he came out each day, a day he’d walked in with confidence, eyes dry. I asked what was wrong.

Eyes full, face tight with emotion, he confessed: “I’m worried.”

“What are you worried about?” I probed.

“I’m worried that I’m going to get worried while I’m there,” came his reply.

If metacognition is thinking about thinking, this must be meta-anxiety. We talked and continued our daily treks to school, where his teacher reassured me that his anxious expression faded within the first half hour each day, at which point he fell into the rhythm of the prepared environment and stimulation of the Montessori classroom.  That was vaguely reassuring, although I couldn’t shake the sting I felt when looking on his anxious face every day for three weeks, at which point, it seems, worrying about worrying wasn’t necessary.

Twelve years later, that expression is still all too familiar in our house. As an intermittently anxious mom who parents two anxious kids, I’ve watched anxiety in all forms. Too often anxious feelings go unspoken. They can get lost in the frustration feeling tied by one’s emotion.  It can come out upside down, inside out, and sideways, presentations that require a mental contortionist with a sharp eye to recognize.  It can cry and scream and hide and even vomit. It never fails to break my heart.

Anxiety looks like physical illness. It can be the recurring stomach ache or headache that drives a child to bed due to severity. It can look like an approaching cold or flu or case of food poisoning, and separating out what is what can press a mom’s skills of detection. This is not feigned illness. The headache of anxiety is as painful as one from sinus pressure or severe muscle tension. The stomach distress can keep one tied to a bathroom much like the aftereffects of an aged burrito from a street vendor. The chest pain and palpitations drive many an adult, certain death is imminent, to the emergency room. Anxiety and its sibling, panic attacks are as debilitating as the organic diseases they mimic. Classes are missed. Play dates are cancelled. Sleep is lost. More confusing yet, the symptoms can begin after the bout of anxiety ends. Adrenaline may help us outrun the saber tooth tiger, but we pay a price for its untimely release that so often occurs with anxiety.

Anxiety looks like resistance and noncompliance. Anxious children can be avoidant children. Avoiding what is causing anxiety — a difficult piano piece or a math assignment that just might be challenging — doesn’t help, of course. The dreaded assignment reaches gargantuan proportions with avoidance, and delay generally means the work, when finally done, is done under pressure of time, thus producing more anxiety. The piano piece never practiced because it might be too hard causes anxiety at each practice, anxiety that builds as the next lesson approaches. Quiet avoiders may fly under the radar until the next lesson or the day of a test, when anxiety then flairs. More overt avoiders may find themselves in constant (anxiety-provoking) conflict with a parent or instructor.

Anxiety looks like anger. Anxious children can tantrum — screaming, crying, arguing, and even physically lashing out when faced with the powerless feeling that anxiety can bring. Being loud and mad can bring a semblance of control that is, of course, not control at all but often complete lack of it. With the focus moved from the source of anxiety to the misdeeds of all those around the child : mom, who said I had to do it, my brother, who just happens to be in the way, him or self, because being angry seems better than being scared. The wake of the anger can become the focus for all involved, with consequences meted out to children without control of their flood of emotions.

Anxiety looks like sadness. Anxiety can walk with depression. It’s hard to be anxious all the time. Anxiety is exhausting. Anxiety can take a child away from new experiences, because anxious children will avoid what might be fun if the risk appears too great. When anxiety about a new experience – joining a club, attending a sleepover, riding the roller coaster – pride and confidence may develop. But for some anxious children, brave attempts to try something new are met with anxiety that makes enjoyment impossible. It’s easy to feel like a failure, and that can lead to sadness.

And sometimes, anxiety look like anxiety. The keyed-up child who keeps asking if he is safe during each thunderstorm, checking forecasts and windows. The child who, before vaccinations, asks for weeks what day the dreaded shot is, losing sleep the nights before and breaking down in hysterical tears before the actual event. The preschooler who cries each morning before preschool starts, because he saw someone else cry on the first day, so there must be something to worry about.  And sometimes, kids can give it voice.

“I’m feeling anxious, Mom.”

Those words bring me hope and relief. Not for the anxiety itself. I’m sorry my kids worry about what worrying won’t help, and I’m sorry anxiety keeps them from doing all they’d like to do. But that they can express it — identify it and share it — makes me hopeful that they’re learning to cope with what for each of them has been at times a debilitating condition.  And that makes me just a bit less anxious about them.

For more posts about life with twice exceptional (2e) kids, visit this month’s Gifted Homeschooler’s Forum Blog Hop list. 

Seventh Grade: Plans for 2013/2014

School is underway for my seventh grader (whatever that means when you homeschool), now twelve. As I write, he’s working on math, and once that’s done, he needs to spend time on a project for an online class. Our early start wasn’t my choosing, but since his online classes started last week and he does better when occupied, here we are.

Math (mean, median, and mode today) picks up where we left off in the Spring. Rabbit trails, anxiety, and a textbook switch means he’s still a few chapters short of finishing Singapore’s Discovering Mathematics 7B (Common Core edition).This seriesweaves algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and miscellaneous math topics across four years of texts, meaning that we’re likely trapped in this series of four books until we see our way to the other side. That’s fine, Singapore has served us well for many years, and we’re both happy while he’s learning.

Biology is our science this semester, and I’m thrilled. I’ve spent weeks reworking the high school level biology course I used for his brother and a friend when they were technically in  seventh grade. (Syllabus here.) Centered around Exploring the Way Life Works (Hoagland) and Biology: Concepts and Connections (Campbell), this is a rigorous study with plenty of labs, reading, and writing, as well as explicit teaching of note taking skills.We have two weeks before our first class, and I can’t wait.

Much of my twelve year old’s learning is online this semester. He’s taking two classes from Online G3, an impressively taught source of real-time classes for younger learners ready for big ideas and dialogue. He’ll take Current Events, where a portion of each session is in the hands of a student who takes fifteen minutes to present on an event he or she finds interesting. (My younger son is taking on Common Core and presents next week. That should be interesting.) Also from G3, he’s studying Shakespeare’s Comedies, a high school level literature course using Lightening Literature’s text by the same name. For second semester, he’s hoping to take Shakespeare’s Tragedies and perhaps British Literature. My children couldn’t be more different.

New this year is Latin. We played with Latin in the spring, using Linney’s Getting Started with Latin, which provided a gentle introduction to the language. He’s enrolled in Lone Pine Classical School’s Latin 100, an intense course requiring strong study skills. What he does not have now he’ll hopefully develop along the way without too much drama or trauma for either one of us. He’s also plotting his language learning course, debating the benefits of four years of one language then two of another versus two years each of three different language. That’s my child. Planning years ahead when there is absolutely no need.

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month — write a novel in a month) will keep him busy come November, although he’s not decided on a word count goal. He’s participated two other years, with a published book coming out of his first experience. While I love his dedication to the project and accompanying word goal (25,000 this year, he says), it does take a good-sized chunk out of each day. Our only flexible point this semester is math, so we’ll likely take a break from that for November. He’s not complaining.

Social skills are my hidden agenda for him. Asperger’s doesn’t go away with age, and he’s struggling more again as he approaches his teens. There is more to miss, more subtext, and more to feel anxious about. We’ve not had an easy time, and I’ll admit that homeschooling has buffered us from not just the perils he’d face at school but  also made me a bit complacent about his lagging social skills. He has good friends who accept him as is. I’m grateful. But he needs some assistance in the everyday sorts of relations: small talk, meeting new people, even emailing a friend. So we’ll be hitting these harder at home and enrolling in a live class for homeschooling  middle-schoolers, Jury Trial. He adores the topic, and I’m glad to have him try some of those skills in a live classroom. We’ll see how it goes.

His extracurriculars remain the same: fencing with Salle d’Etroit  and piano with a private instructor. He makes slow but steady process in both. Neither come naturally to him, and I’m some mix of pleased and surprised that he’s not daunted by that. As he says, he’s not sure where his body is in space. He simply can’t feel it, and both endeavors are far easier for those who have access to that internal wisdom. I hold my breath when he struggles over and over with each, hoping he’ll stick with it despite the struggles. That can be hard for gifted folks. When so much comes so easily, persevering in what doesn’t (fencing, piano, social skills), takes a good deal of sense of self outside of one’s natural intelligence. I admire his persistence.

Reading through our plans, I realize my role is gradually shifting from teacher to facilitator. This didn’t happen with my older son until tenth grade, when he started dual enrollment courses and a few online classes. I can’t say I mind, since my younger definitely does well learning online, and the options for that mode of learning expand by the day, but it does remind me that we are closer to the end of our homeschooling journey, which started nine and a half years back, than the beginning. As I somewhat reluctantly look at our schedules and the waning days of August, I find that a bit of a relief.

Twelve

IMG_0591It’s hard to say when my drift away from childhood started. It can’t be at the point where each thought isn’t spoken and shared, for I can recall private success and shame from age three onward. We work to separate from parents from our first step. But at some point, the move isn’t just to more autonomy but away from childhood and toward all that comes next.

It might have started at twelve, in the basement of a new friend from my new junior high. Being the new kid in seventh grade may not really be any worse than being any kid in seventh grade. Almost everyone swings and sways the hormonal winds of puberty, starting each morning trying to dress a body that isn’t one’s own only to face crowds of kids in the same predicament, each deciding to flaunt or conceal nature’s most recent trick. But I weathered this storm with three girls who provided sure shelter in this period of shift, and with them, I found myself in the basement, music blaring.

Oh, Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind. oh, Mickey! 

I can’t recall the dance moves paired with that unfortunate pop song of the early 1980s with lyrics I am sure I didn’t entirely understand at twelve. But the sense of experiencing and embracing what was mine — that made perfect sense. This wasn’t the music of my childhood – the classical, folk, and show tunes that had been the soundtrack of my first dozen years. This was…something else. Toni Basil’s Mickey begat Top 40 radio stations, followed mix tapes of favorites of the radio and long conversations over the phone or behind the bedroom doors of my girlfriends about school,music, books, mean girls, and cute boys. These were conversations for girlfriends only — no parents allowed.

His twelve is of course different. He parks himself in front of Minecraft videos and the game itself for hours, if left unchecked. (And sometimes, because I need the peace or I know he needs the same, I turn my head.) His siren song has riffs of zombie attacks and choruses of spawning cats and horses.  Sometimes he plays with a friend beside him, their loud voices exhorting each other to gather arms or resources or just to get out of the way. It’s public and loud, their banter and games.

His friendships look the same at twelve as they did a few years back, lacking the confidences and collusion of my version twelve. Sword fights and fantasy play dominate his offline time with friends, and his play still screams little boy. His conversations with buddies revolve around video games and trading cards, with occasional plots to bother siblings. He holds all the spirit of eight with his friends, although with an ability to compromise and apologize that are just beginning to bloom.

Twelve brought me changes to my body that bewildered and irritated me more than brought me delight. There seemed more to hide and disguise during that year, and too much time was spent in front of my closet’s full-length mirror trying to determine if my bra’s straps showed under my short sleeve white uniform blouse, and, if they seemed to, deciding whether to sweat out the day with a sweater to cover said straps, in a thicker long sleeve blouse, or wearing a t-shirt under my uniform blouse. Braces. Deodorant. Glasses. Hair that suddenly needed something done to it. My twelve was a constant tug between the desire to be invisible and to be seen.

His twelve smells sweetly sweaty, lacking the pungency of adolescence. His clothing choices revolve only around what is comfortable and within reach — the mirror in his bathroom receives little attention. His voice has gradually lowered in pitch to the point where callers confuse it with mine, a curse of the preteen boy. And while he is firmly, passionately male, his golden hair, which sweeps below his shoulder blades, throws off almost all strangers, who ask about my daughter. He’s confident in his masculinity, reminding me that after puberty, no one will make the mistake again. He is still far more boy than almost teen, from the soft curves of his cheeks to the bounce in his step, but the autumn of childhood is here.

At twelve, my father read to me most nights. Sitting on the edge of my bed as he had done since as early as I can remember, he introduced me to classic and contemporary literature. Whatever growing up I did during the day, I was still glad to have my father’s voice bring me mystery, adventure, fantasy, and a bit of childhood in the hour before I went to sleep. An affectionate child raised by affectionate parents, twelve brought less exuberant demonstrations of love, but goodnight hugs and kisses persisted at a point where physical reassurances that you are real and loved and still your parents’ child despite the churning changes you can’t control.

Firmly attached to mom, at least at the end of the day, he still waits for the snuggle before bed, greeting me with purrs and meows, rubs of his head against mine, feline behavior being his only way to express his affection and love for many years. This ritual tugs some nights, and sometimes my eyes fill. At twelve, we are reaching the end of this scene of childhood, and I don’t know which purr and rub will be the last. Each “good night” leaves me wondering. In daylight hours, I’ll just sometimes find his hand in mine as we walk somewhere. I hold his back with equal strength, allowing his to slip out as quickly as it came. Grasping works no better here than when a child learns to walk. Letting go at the loosening of their hands is part of the deal.

My twelve is only available to me in snippets, like the trailer for a movie. Sleepovers with girlfriends. Gut-knotting moments on the playground with girls who met puberty with vitriol. First crushes on oblivious boys. Math tests. Books that introduced me to the adult world, tantalizing and cautioning at the same time. Time home alone, similarly exciting and frightening. Homework on weekends. The constant tug of childhood and adolescence, with the latter winning out thanks to the unrelenting forces of nature.

I cannot recover the inner narrative of being twelve anymore than I can guess that of my son’s at twelve. His twelve is knowable only by what he tells me, and that is very little. I have no doubt his interior life is rich, but temperament and gender and Asperger’s keep it within his heart and mind. Sometimes, just sometimes, I can make a guess at what is behind his increasingly irritable tone, guess at worry and anxiety at a world that just holds too much mystery. Then bits come out, but still just glimpses at what it means to be him at twelve. In all ways, his twelve seems bigger than his eleven, with more talkback, more hair, more brilliance, more negligence, more sideways humor, more misunderstandings about the world, and even more tears. How does his still small body carry all that bigness?

Perhaps its hubris to try to understand his twelve through the lens of mine, over 30 years buried in my brain, but it’s the only lens I have. We share neither gender or life experience, but our temperaments are similar, and so I try to extrapolate — to guess, really — what might be inside. And for what? A chance to understand him a bit better before the throes of adolescence consume him even more. It’s coming. My little boy is going. But for now, we have twelve.

Twice Exceptional: When Exceptions are the Norm

DSCN0301I realize that after three years of blogging about my twice exceptional boys, I’ve never written about what twice exceptional means. The conventional definition of twice exceptional, or 2e, is gifted with learning differences. Parents would tell you that it’s a life of contradictions and contrasts, often pulling against each other resulting in a child who looks, well, average, whatever that is. They’d also tell you stories of advocacy twice failed, kids who work twice as hard with half the results, and twice the concerns about where a child will fit in the world. And the kids? Some might tell about wondering who they were, wondering at why life seems so hard, and perhaps about just feeling not so smart.

Until my older son struggled in school with handwriting tasks, I didn’t know a child could be learning disabled and gifted. Since he was my first child, I took much of his way of being in the world as normal kid stuff. Well, I knew he was ahead in areas, largely in the academic realm, but I also knew he lagged in fine motor skills, from writing to tying shoes to buttering bread. The diagnoses of his level of giftedness and dysgraphia, a disorder of written expression, arrived in tandem, making sense out of what we’d noticed while making the job of finding an appropriate educational setting that much harder. The poor fit of school was made no easier with those pieces of information.

So eventually we came home from school. Three years later, the ADHD diagnosis came along for the ride, with a trail of question marks still following, challenges undefined and unexplained. And three years after that, my younger was formally diagnosed with Aspergers, changing everything and nothing in a few sentences that were too long in coming.

That’s what those second exceptionalities do. They change everything. And nothing.

Ideally, they how we frame our children’s challenges. What was once seemed stubborn is now likely anxiety about what just doesn’t come with effort alone. What looked lazy is avoidance of what just feels bad or is simply beyond one’s skill set. What appeared to be neglect is a brain that struggles to make sense out of time and space. When I knew that my older son’s refusal to write more than the briefest phrase was because holding the pencil hurt and that making each letter took intense concentration that made it impossible to focus on content, I stopped thinking of his resistance as stubborn or lazy. It was a reasonable reaction to facing a Herculean task. When I found out that his trouble following a list of tasks, never mind create his own, came from a frontal lobe that was taking its time maturing, I stopped seeing his day as strewn with neglect.

Or at least I mostly did. Truthfully, it’s hard to look at a kid who started to add at three and explore the details of earth science at four and understand why the trajectory of learning that came so easily when no product was demanded comes screeching to a halt when it seems to be time to write a simple sentence about the moon. It’s not much easier at 15, when detailed monologues about computer guts dominate conversations but writing a list of tasks and following it still requires Mom.

Parenting a gifted kid often means parenting a child who was somewhat like you. Even if time and thousands of questions without answers seem to have beaten the giftedness out of us, apples don’t fall far from trees, as my father would say. For many of us, there is something familiar about the intensity of our gifted children, if only in shadowy images as we remember our childhoods.

But if you are not also learning disabled — and my children’s father and I are not — the dichotomy of the 2e kid is frankly mysterious. I don’t know what it’s like to be unable to write  with ease, to be unable take notes during a lecture, to look for my homework that I’m sure I did only to find that I never did it, or be stymied by the social norms of conversation. I just don’t know. It’s an unfamiliar way of being in the world.

Now, that’s expected to some degree. I don’t expect my kids to like what I like or see the world the way I see it. They are individuals. But when their operating systems seems so foreign, it’s sometimes hard to parent effectively and respectfully. In a fit of frustration, I once asked my older if the world in his head was as chaotic as it appeared from the outside. “It’s much worse,” he replied, without hesitation or, thankfully, frustration with his stymied, frantic mother.

Having a child who is twice exceptional means school will never be a sure fit. Or at least not a simple and comfortable fit. Mid-second grade, when my older came home, I was exhausted by meetings where I tried to explain what seemed like impossible partners, my son’s disparate needs for more information and challenge with less written output (although a keyboard would have been welcome). Having mercy on my son, myself, and even the school, I took the challenge home. That doesn’t make any exceptions vanish, but it does return your child to being your child, free of as many comparison points and evaluations. The dissonance with the world persists when field trips are missed (too loud, too many people, too many places to go in a day, or just too something else) and when reading through boards for parents of gifted kids, but being at home is a respite from the expectations of the world, where “gifted” and “learning disabled” mean different classrooms, methodologies, and outcomes. And as I’ve returned one to school (dual high school and college enrollment), I’ve been reminded that the differences persist, causing different challenges than eight years back, but still making fit difficult.

And for the kids? It’s even harder. For my older, having learning disabilities has caused him to question his intelligence. How can being smart and a quick learner coincide with forgetting to do assignments and struggling still to write a legible sentence? It seemed a more likely explanation that he wasn’t very smart at all, I suppose, and at an age where being “normal” is valued above being oneself, it seems reasonable to want to wish both away. Having both his giftedness and other challenges negated by school didn’t help, either, although by now I thought time would erase those feelings fo poor fit. Thankfully, college experiences in schools with strong disability resource offices have somewhat ameliorated of those feelings. (See Accommodating Disability, College Style for more on that adventure.)

My younger, at least on the surface, has an easier time. At home and in online classes, his difference doesn’t often interfere. After all, a preference for no eye contact, fewer bodies in the house, and a tight routine all mesh well with homeschooling. He’s also comfortable in his own skin, embracing his difference. (Don’t you dare call it a disability, Mom!) But I worry. The accommodations for him are largely invisible to him — careful scheduling, plenty of time for transitions, and adequate downtime happen without him realizing it. And while he’d likely be eaten alive in a live middle school classroom, he’s just one of the pack in his online classes. I’d not say it’s been easier to parent him over the years (oh, it’s not been), but out of school, the social issues just don’t cause as much difficulty day-to-day. He sees himself as smart and capable and enjoys the friendship of some wonderful children and adults who accept him as is. I’m grateful for his comfort within his own skin.

There is no ending. Twice exceptional kids become twice exceptional adults, and with guidance, support, and a bit of luck, they enter adulthood confident in their talents and equipped to seek and use supports for their disabilities.  I keep my fingers crossed, admittedly, but mostly I just keep guiding and supporting. And loving.

If you want to know more about supporting 2e learners, follow the links below. 

And We’re Off!

We’re back to school. No, we’re not year-round homeschoolers. Or at least we weren’t until now. My older son’s summer vacation ended three weeks ago when he began a class through Coursera (to be reviewed soon). He’s been working on half a high school English credit with the course Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, thus freeing up some time this fall for other pursuits. It’s a fine class, but he’d likely admit he’s struggling with school in summer.

Me, too.  I wasn’t ready to remind, prod, and schedule. Since our (or for the rest of the summer, his) travel schedule continues class or no class, finding time to get the assignments and readings done while we’re at home proves a challenge. I was hoping that having only one class to plan for would encourage my older, now 15, to take time management seriously. Let’s just stay that remains a work in progress and organization issues remain a chronic stressor in this house.

This week marks the start of physics with a class of four teens, including my older. I’ve been planning on and off during break but still have some anxiety about this undertaking. We’ll be meeting three hours a week for a bit of lecture, problem review, and lab, with extra monthly labs from a friend who speaks fluent physics and has enthusiasm to spare. His presence reassures me that this will be fine and even fun. To follow along with the syllabus, visit Don’t Touch the Photons (plans will pop up here a bit later). The rest or my older’s schedule starts after Labor Day, with classes at the University first then personal finance with a small group a few weeks later. By the time that last class begins, his literature class will end, a fortuitous coincidence.

Next week, my younger joins in with his Online G3 courses. He adores these classes, and he’s more than ready to return some routine to his life. He’s also firm that no other course work can start until after Labor Day (tradition trumps all for him). At that point, he’ll start the rest, aside from Coursera’s offering, A History of the World Since 1300, and NaNoWriMo will capture much of his time in November. He’s a bundle of emotion now, definitely ready for the structure the school year provides yet anxious about how he’ll get it all done. The gradual start helps allay some of the fears about keeping up (and he’s quite able to do so), yet doing so forces repeated routine changes (which he doesn’t do so well). It’s all a bit Goldilocks-like without the baby bear’s contribution. Just right is elusive.

We’ve always had a staggered start, although never nearly one this early and staggered over so much time. Amidst keeping track of all these start times, I’m starting my own venture, coaching a handful of kids as they work to write with more ease and ability. This week’s tasks are largely logistical — opening an LLC, creating record-keeping systems, and reading writing samples. My mixed emotions are similar to my younger’s: I’m excited to start (and it will be a staggered start) yet anxious about meeting families’ expectations and keeping up to my standards. Apples don’t fall far from their tree, it seems.

So ready or not, here we go. I know my anxiety about the year will fade as I sink into my routine and the boys into theirs. I know my younger will struggle as we make this move from summer to fall, despite his inborn need for a predictable schedule. I hope my older will embrace (or at least accept) scheduling and planning, seeing it as a tool that can help him decrease the chaotic feeling he often has. I’m certain we’ll all learn and grow this school year, as we have all the ones before it.

May your start to school, if you have a formal one, be met with peace and optimism. Best wishes!

 

 

An Education in Humor: Keep it SOFT

My younger son (now 11) is working on telling jokes. He’s working on being funny overall, but specifically, he’s creating his own jokes. I’d like to report they are hilarious, appropriate works of humor art, but they aren’t. Yes, he says some hilarious stuff. Some of that is even intended to be funny. He has an odd sense of humor based on obscure historical references, plays on words, politics, and body humor, sometimes all in the same joke.

After a few months of watching his joke telling in horror and fascination, I decided it was time to take action and help the boy along with this budding desire to be intentionally funny. Together, we created a screening tool for jokes, which, with a bit of creativity, lent itself to a memorable acronym:  SOFT. Each humor intent is screened for SOFT criteria, with input from any impartial observers who are in on the system welcome.

S: Does the joke make sense? So many jokes fail this first test. Like most of us, my younger’s mind wanders to odd places that make sense to him but not to others. Like a few less of us, he fails to see that what makes sense to him might not make sense to someone else. That’s a hard skill to teach, and while he is growing in his understanding that different people think different thoughts, his sense of humor has yet to reflect that new knowledge. Now, I’m okay with not fully understanding the sense of humor of an eleven year old boy. I also understand that sometimes I’m missing something, so I ask my older son, 15, if the joke makes sense to him. If it fails both of us, no dice.

O: Is the joke offensive? Oh, this is a minefield. There are two questions here: Is the joke potentially offensive in content to anyone anywhere? If so, the second question is asked. Is the joke potentially offensive to anyone in listening range? When you assume everyone around you shares your political views and it’s election season, one can make frequent mistakes with the second question. I’ve leaned toward giving very specific feedback on this point, such as, “This is a joke you can tell around your brother and I at home when no one else is in the house.” Before we have house guests, we’ll often review what passes and what doesn’t by genre: body humor (not with Grandma), politics (yes, I give names), religion (similar list, but with additions) and current events (generally the same set of names as politics). He’s made strides in this area but tends to err on the side that everyone he knows shares his opinion on the above issues unless he’s been expressly told they don’t. Let me just apologize now.

F: Is the joke funny? Sometimes they just aren’t. Often the ones that aren’t funny also don’t make sense, but there are many that meet one criteria but not the other. This is definitely subjective and not a terribly big deal, as long as the lack of funniness isn’t because someone found the joke offensive. This is a minor criteria, given getting a blank look from his audience doesn’t really faze him. Score one for underdeveloped facial expression reading. Unless he’s told, he’s pretty sure he was funny, no matter how people respond.

T: Does the joke have good timing? A joke told about a conversation that ended five minutes earlier (or even two minutes earlier) falls flat, and given his rather reflective thinking style, this happens quite a bit. That timing faux pas isn’t a big deal but is worth gentle guidance. (Late jokes are an interruption in the conversation at hand. We’re working on interrupting, too.) Timing matters in other ways. A joke told in the middle of class may be funny, make sense, and not be offensive, but it doesn’t belong in the middle of class.  Along a similar vein, some (okay, most) body humor jokes just don’t have a place at the dinner table.

These four easy-to-remember criteria aren’t a miracle cure for all humor errors, but they are providing guidance. When he’s on the verge of a joke, I’ll sometimes interrupt and ask, “Is it SOFT?” That can sometimes be enough to avoid serious social discomfort for the mother of the teller and the recipient. Is this a selfish system, designed to protect me from embarrassment? A bit, perhaps. But it also informs him of the very social norms that elude him so often. It’s another reminder that all of our minds work differently as well as a gentle nudge to a more gentle, considerate way of being in the world. Asperger’s or not, it’s likely helpful for plenty of kids and some adults who might want to make sure a joke is appropriate before launching it. Try it with your own kids or someone else in your life in need of guidance, and let me know how it goes.

Preliminary Planning for 2012/13: My Younger

It’s that time of year. May. The time of year when I can’t stand one more minute of homeschooling and just want to be done. It’s the point when we’re almost done with most of the books and classes we started the semester with and have even moved on to new material in some, vamping a bit for the last few months of the school year. (This always seems to happen with math.) It’s also the time to set the fall schedule for the classes and events that happen outside of our walls, and given that’s going on, I might as well make some selections for home, too. Here’s what I have so far.

A.B. (11, 6th grade)

Math: After a fair amount of angst, we settled on continuing with Singapore Math for secondary mathematics study.  We’re a few chapters into Discovering Mathematics 1A, which contains a fair amount of review for him on subjects covered in The Algebra Survival Guide but with far more depth and extensions. Our pace is a lesson a day, with a day at the end of each chapter to play with the more challenging problems in the workbook and a day for the end of chapter test.  Taking tests is new for him, and he’s still pretty anxious about that process, but since that’s the only hiccup thus far, I’m giving DM a thumbs up.  We’re still plugging away at Singapore Challenging Word Problems 6 as well, and I keep a stack of alternative math options on the shelf for his more anxious days when “regular” math just isn’t doable.

Language Arts:  A.B. will continue with Michael Clay Thompson’s Word Within the Word and Magic Lens series via Online G3, this year studying the second level. This program of study (both the books and online class) work wonderfully for him. For literature, he’ll pick one the Hewitt Lightning Literature classes Online G3 offers, most likely Mid to Late 19th Century American Literature.  That course’s reading selections seem accessible given his age (and I’m fairly sure some of the selections in British Lit, like Jane Eyre, would not be enjoyable reads for him). He’s determined to participate in NaNoWriMo 2012 and plans to continue to write on his blog. I’ll likely try to broaden his writing beyond these forums, but he’s a strong enough writer that I’m willing to largely follow his lead and work my agenda into his.  I’m considering signing him up for WriteGuide for the second half of the school year with the aim of strengthening his fiction writing.  Finally, since he enjoys Steck Vaughn Spelling, he’ll proceed to level six in that series.

History: In fall, he’ll take the last of the American History classes from Online G3 this fall. This course covers the Civil War and the rest of the last half of the 19th century using Joy Hakim’s History of US books.  He has his eyes on her Government class for the following spring. The first semester, he’ll also take Coursera’s A History of the World Since 1300, a free online class from Princeton University.  History is his favorite subject and one of his career aspirations (historian and college professor vs lawyer), so plenty of new ideas in this area are key to his happiness.

Science: This year is physical science with a focus on physics. Middle School Chemistry provided a sound base in that portion of the physical sciences, so I’d like not to belabor that end of the subject. He’ll be studying with a friend, although what text or supports we’ll use are to be determined. Any suggestions for a text are welcome!

The Rest: He’ll continue piano lessons and daily practice, and at this point, he’d like to attend Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in the summer of 2013 for further piano study. We’ll see where that drive goes come the new year. For physical education, he’ll continue to fence, a sport that replaces karate for him as of the last five months. Lessons are twice a week, and eventually, he should be ready for a few tournaments. He’s interested in becoming a fencing director (think ref), which is a path open to him as well. He loves rules and the enforcement of them, so this seems a reasonable pursuit. We’re still discussing foreign language options. He’s interested in German. I know none and have no desire to learn it. He might play with it via Rosetta Stone this summer and see if that mode of learning works for him. It was not a good match with my older son, but these boys are wired completely differently, so I’m willing to give it a try.

As always, we’re working on communication and social skills. I’m not using any formal materials for this but rather continually discussing the nuances of the conversation, friendships, and general relations between people. We have a few resources on the shelves for this purpose, but they just seem to sit. We do post-mortems on situations, with a mix of trouble-shooting and celebration of successes and will continue this process.

As always, ideas are welcome. What are your plans for fall?

Moving from Autism Awareness to Acceptance

Thanks, autismacceptanceday.blogspot.com.

April 2, 2012, was Autism Acceptance Day. Some people refer to it as World Autism Awareness Day or the start of Autism Awareness Month, but I prefer the first term. Awareness is the easy part, although it is necessary first step to acceptance. Acceptance is what causes people to struggle, but it’s the essential step to granting the dignity and respect each human being deserves.

I’ve written before about the relief that came with my son’s diagnosis of Aspergers a year and a half ago.  It was the day I stopped wondering if I was a bad parent, if he would just “outgrow” his challenges, if I was just getting it wrong. I’d wondered if he’d had a spot on the autistic spectrum prior to age nine. The question of a pervasive developmental disorder had been raised since he was four, discarded because of his prodigious vocabulary and high intelligence. I’d spent the previous few years “acting as if” to some degree, relying on books about parenting kids on the spectrum. I knew before I knew.

The formal pronouncement wasn’t a surprise. It wasn’t devastating. It was a point of peace. It was the start of understanding my son better. Perhaps those are some of the reasons why I found Hannah Brown’s article in the Huffington Post bothersome. Her piece 10 Things To Do After An Autism Diagnosis treats an autism diagnosis like a death sentence for a parent. It removes focus from the child and places it on the parent.

Who has the diagnosis here? Yes, finding out your child is likely to need support and assistance on many fronts possibly for life is daunting and gives one pause. Even with the relief I found initially in my son’s diagnosis, I experienced (and still experience) a sense of the enormity parenting a child who’s wiring will always be quite different from that of the vast majority of other people. Helping him find his way through the world; aiding him in feeling comfortable in his own skin: these were the tasks that daunted me and brought (bring) me to tears.

This is, after all, the same child that one has been parenting all along.   Whomever gives the diagnosis isn’t changing a child’s biology just explaining it. The nine years of parenting my younger son before his diagnosis were harder in many ways than the year and a half that have followed.  With a diagnosis, it was easier to access help (although not the kind covered by insurance).  Just calling local psychologists and opening with, “My son was diagnosed with Aspergers,” made vetting therapists and getting appointments easier. Just having a schema to support my understanding my child’s behavior and mind helped me understand him a bit better. Information is empowering.  An accurate diagnosis on the autism spectrum provides information for a family and, depending on the age of the child, an opportunity for self-revelation for the child.

Brown’s first three items to do after diagnosis reek of negativity and doom.  Advising one to obtain Valium (#1 on Brown’s list) and reallocate assets to one’s own name to prepare for the inevitable divorce? (#2 and 3)? Please. (The stats show no difference in divorce rates between parents with spectrum kids and those without. I was divorced at the time of his diagnosis, and I assure you, it was not my child’s fault that my marriage imploded.) Not that parental needs and feelings don’t matter. Parental mental health contributes to the mental health of the child. If that’s Brown’s point, however, she’s missed the mark. Certainly any parent feeling overwhelmed or depressed should seek professional help and the support of others, but Brown’s drama and narcissism removes the focus from supporting the child. It is, after all, the child who is autistic.

So here’s my list, limited by my own experience with my child who is on the Aspergers end of the autistic spectrum but perhaps helpful for someone else.

  1. Remember this is the same child you had before the diagnosis, the one you’ve parented since the beginning. Nothing about being labelled autistic changes your child. The label provides information for you, your family, and those whose lives touch your family. For an older child, knowing one has autism can be empowering and peace-bringing. Schoolhouse Rock was right: knowledge is power.
  2. Breathe. Eat. Try to sleep. Brown’s suggestion to meditate was a good one (although sullied by her application of using the practice when comparing your kid to other kids). If you are the prayerful type, pray without looking for direction but rather in search of peace and inner quietude. All parents need plenty of that.
  3. Read. Read widely. Start with The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism book and blog. Continue reading the blogs of the parents and autistic people who post there. Start looking at autism from those who live it. Here’s a list that helped me: Reading Through Aspergers: Part I and Part II.
  4. Listen. Learn what self-advocates have to say, even when it hurts. Yes, there tends to be a tension from adult autistic self-advocates and parents of autistic children. It can be hard to read stories from those who grew up autistic even ten or twenty years ago. It’s even harder to be rebuked and corrected by these same adults when you’re trying your best to figure out how to help your own kid. Listen anyway, with as open mind as you can muster. Then open your mind just a bit more. There’s much to be learned.
  5. Think and research. Brown and I agree here. There are plenty of interventions, proven (a few) and not (a large number) for those with autism. The Autism Science Foundation and LBRB: Autism News, Science, and Opinion are fine places to start when investigating therapies and interventions. Avoid anything using curative language. There is no cure, although charlatans will be glad to try to sell one to you.
  6. Maintain relationships that support you and your child. It may be tempting to reduce your world to those with autistic children, but don’t. It’s a big world out there, and autism isn’t all of it. Your matter-of-fact presence in that world with your child on the spectrum can benefit your child, you, and that big world.
  7. Teach others about the autism spectrum and about the needs of your child. Not the preachy kind of teaching but rather the more spur-of-the-moment sort of teaching. Pass on books or internet links to those who are interested. A world that understands autism is far more likely to appreciate and support your child now and into adulthood.
  8. Vote. Vote for public officials who work to expand insurance coverage of autism therapies. Vote for health care coverage for all, coverage that includes mental health care.
  9. Remember the rest of the family. It’s easy for the autistic child’s needs to be so great that the needs of the “easier” members of the family become lost. While your time might not be spread equally across all the family, your care and love can be. I remind myself (and have reminded my older son) that fair treatment doesn’t always mean equal time. Remember that just because your other children may have quieter needs, their needs are no less important. Nurture that relationship with your partner, too. A loving teammate can make a difference.
  10. Accept autism. Start by accepting your child just as he or she is while continuing to help that child be all he or she can comfortably be. Acceptance isn’t passive. It’s an evolving spirit of support, love, and compassion. It also isn’t always easy, so be prepared to start over with acceptance on a regular basis. That’s okay.

Studying War

We watch a fair number of documentaries. Since my older was three, we’ve taken in shows about birds, oceans, presidents, volcanoes, Gandhi, the brain, quantum physics, archeological finds, and much more. For the last several years, however, most of our watching is history related. Humans being what they are, this much of this fare includes war. From ancient Roman warfare to Britain’s battles with everyone, from Troy to World War II, we’ve seen an astounding amount of footage, recreated and actual, depicting humans at their most violent.

It’s enough to make a peace-loving mom turn off the TV and stop paying the Netflix bill.

My younger son, well on his way to eleven, is my historian. I’ve written before about his methods of self-studying history. He is a master at integrating information from books, internet resources, and videos and then processing it with solitary re-enactment, writing (check out his blog), and long discussions/monologues with anyone willing to listen (read: generally mom, who is searching for others to help carry this rather heavy load). As he ages, I allow him to self-select his reading but do strew potentially useful books in his path and often read aloud historical fiction he’d be less likely to pick up on his own. But unless I know the video he’s about to view, I watch it with him or at least remain in earshot.

When watching, he seats himself on the love seat (aka “war seat”) in front of a table with either Risk board or Axis and Allies board atop it.  Sometimes he’s playing himself, but often he’s either reenacting a battle or just trying out strategies. History reruns play as background noise for his internal thoughts and external game playing. He’ll pick a specific episode of The Revolution, for example, and watch and play for 45 minutes. Often his seat contains favorite history books on the subject before him, just in case more information is required.

New videos require the same seating arrangement but are generally watched more closely, although I suspect his boards and pieces offer some escape from what is either dull or a bit too graphic. As his understanding of history has deepened, we’ve progressed to some video choices that are, frankly, disturbing at times. Ken Burns’ recent offering, The War, consists of 900 minutes of riveting but intense coverage of the effects of World War II in Europe, Asia, and in the US. No, it’s not children’s fare. Yes, I watched every minute, monitoring his face and verbally checking in as we went along. Sometimes I found him watching his board, but generally his head was up. Many times I considered hitting the fast forward button, but I instead let a fine documentary carry its message. To break the tension I often felt, we watched in smaller bites, often taking in only 30 minutes at a time. I don’t know about him, but I needed the breaks to digest what I’d seen and heard.

After we watched, we’d talk, my younger, my older and I. My younger’s knowledge of the war was already broad and deep, but the video’s focus on segregation in Mobile, Alabama, internment camps in the Philippines and in the US, and more took him from a battle-focused understanding to a greater appreciation of the world at that time. We talked about fairness and hard choices, about absolute rights and wrongs. He expressed dismay at the civilian deaths in Germany and Japan caused by ally forces and was utterly silenced at the images of the liberation of the camps in Germany and Poland. We talked and talked. Genocide. Just war. Nuclear bombs. Choices, justice, and human rights. There was simply so much to discuss.

When we received an invitation to watch a series on the Vietnam War at a friend’s house, I thought hard before offering the opportunity to my younger son. For years, we watched only documentaries with rather tame reenactment of times long before video cameras went to the battlefield. The War was our first foray into more graphic coverage, but most was still in black and white, which did little to blunt the gore. Vietnam footage would be in color and likely of higher quality, bringing grisly images into even sharper focus.  He’d read fairly extensively about Vietnam, however, and I would be there if needed. I offered, and he eagerly accepted. For a few days, he waited impatiently for the first of the three two-hour gatherings.

So last night we joined three other families who make up part of my older son’s homeschooling high school cohorts to watch the first two episodes of Vietnam in HD.  It was new viewing for all of us, saved from fall for when those in a US History class reached this point of time. By ten minutes in, I knew we were not settling down to a balanced, full account of the Vietnam war. Instead, we witnessed two hours of choppily-cut, full-color (but grainy) battle footage interspersed with cuts to men who had fought discussing their experience. There was almost no historical content in those hours,  but there was a total disregard for the citizens of Vietnam then and now. Only 30 seconds of footage of the growing unrest in the US about the war made it to these hours, and the discontent was brushed off as a failure to understand the greater good of the war. Ken Burns this was not.

In addition to being hawkish and painfully unbalanced, the film was boring. I don’t care for war documentaries overall. What makes them palatable for me is the treatment of the war in context, with attention to both sides to the conflict that acknowledges the horror that always accompanies any violent conflict. Vietnam in HD lacked all that. I’m fairly certain that its intended purpose was not to offer that view and understanding but rather to project an image of success, somehow sanctifying the deaths of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians.

Near the end, someone asked about the ending. “We won!” announced one child. Moms collectively shook their heads, a few saying, “No one won.” I was silent, bothered that I’d not vetted the film ahead of time and deeply disturbed by the message the film was sending.

My younger spoke out, “They won.” He voice was soon drowned out by others, some repeating that there had been no winner.  I carved a verbal path for him and encouraged him to explain: “North Vietnam won.  Within a year, the whole country of Vietnam was communist.”  The pause after his announcement was brief and no comments were made. A moment later, we were donning coats and heading out into the night. On the short ride home, we talked about winning. From a political standpoint, my younger was correct. He’s also aware that the human price of a war like that is so high that everyone loses — humanity takes a hit. Both boys were disturbed by the bias of the movie and general lack of history of anything other than details of specific battles. We agreed that we’d not attend the next two portions and search out some other materials for this area of study.

Today, we searched for other resources that might better explain that decade of war and what we can learn from it. We looked for information that remembers that more than American teens and young men were casualties, sources that remind us that the scar on Vietnam from that war remains today. We compared Vietnam in HD to the other documentaries on war we’ve watched, including our current viewing of Ken Burns’ The War. And we talked and talked, considering humanity, war, and those who die along the way.

Peace.

Balancing Hope and Acceptance

What about parenting and/or homeschooling do you find most challenging? What keeps you up at night, sounds its sirens to you at top volume during the day, and suddenly tugs at your chest just when you think it’s furthest from your mind?  What do you swear you’re going to master or promise you’ve going to accept, yet only to find yourself face to face with it again?

I ask because I’m hoping I’m not alone here.

I’ve written extensively about the learning challenges my boys have.  My younger son’s Asperger’s, formally diagnosed just over a year ago, is an omnipresent reality in our home. It was no less a reality for the nine and a half years before that, but without the blessing of a name (and is was, indeed, a blessing), it was harder to describe the brain difference itself.  Instead, the focus was symptoms: tantrums, meltdowns, rigidity, precision, social skills, and more.  He was the primary focus of household angst.  He demanded it, not with words but by the depths of his distress.  Today, his Asperger’s is no less present, but most days, he’s more settled and comfortable in his own skin and his world.

His Asperger’s is not my biggest parenting and homeschooling challenge.

My older son is a sensitive, compassionate, kind young man.  He avoids conflict (sometimes to his own detriment) and feels deeply for others.  He’s smart and talented, with a sense of humor that ranges from dry to slapstick.  He’s helpful when asked and often even when not.  I love him beyond all reason.  He also has ADHD/Inattentive type, and some of the traits that go with his ADHD challenge me above anything else.

I joke that I have a case of acquired ADHD. I always seem to require a return trip into the house before we can finally leave the driveway. I misplace my coffee daily. I slip into autopilot in the car, finding myself driving to church or the library when my destination is in the opposite direction. But I don’t share his ADHD, not really. I don’t know what it’s like to live without a firm hold on time, to be distracted by minutia, to struggle to prioritize and order an hour, much less a day. I just don’t get it, and it shows.

Every week, sometimes every day, I start anew, thinking, “Today, it will sink in. Today, he’ll remember to complete his assignments/budget his time/organize his day effectively.” I’m that hopeful, I suppose. But I think that hopefulness is exactly the problem. I don’t wake up each day thinking my son with Asperger’s will now be appropriately social, able to read metalanguage, and enjoy unpredictable situations. I accept him where he is — who he is — and gently encourage his growth. Yes, I’m hopeful that he’ll find a way in the world that doesn’t leave him lonely. No, I don’t find myself hoping that this is the day he won’t have Asperger’s.

If only I were so charitable to my older son. My hopefulness damns us both to repeating the same (one-sided) conversations (tirades), where I think that this time, I got through.  This time, he’s going to see how being more organized will make his life better, I think hopefully. And I really believe it. Then tomorrow comes and he struggles as he always has. And I’m disappointed.

What’s hardest for me is to accept is his attention challenges: the executive function skills that just aren’t in place because his brain is wired in a way that places priorities differently than mine does. It’s no more or less of a brain difference than his brother’s autism spectrum brain difference.  Perhaps, however, I’ve always seen it as less. After all, he’s been a far easier child to raise, and he is pleasant and accepting nearly to a fault. He values family harmony, humor, and fun while caring deeply about the feelings of others. All these delightful character traits were part of what kept it from really seeing his ADHD until he was in double digits, when the difficult parts of ADHD really made teaching him harder.

Accepting his learning differences fully is what I desire. I want to accept his brain as-is, while encouraging him to acquire the skills he needs to get where he wants to go in life. I want, in a sense, to be less hopeful that tomorrow will be any different from today, that the long view is far more important that if this week’s planner use is any more effective than last week’s.  Maintaining long-term hope for the ability to enjoy his higher education (yes, he wants that in his future) and find a career he finds satisfying is different from hoping for change today. It requires more emotional distance than I’ve been able to muster thus far. It requires more appreciation of his brain as-is than I often have. In truth, my deepest panic is that he’ll struggle years down the road, that he’ll find himself unable to do what he wants to do in life.

Saying it like that helps. Certainly he will struggle (we all do) and undoubtedly his every wish for his life will not come true. That’s life, and no amount of nagging, hoping, begging, or wishing will change those essential truths. Of course, I want him to struggle less and succeed more, but that’s parenting — wanting an easier way for our children.

So it’s out there. I’ve said aloud (or at least in print) what worries me most and challenges me the greatest.  I’m seeking to be more accepting rather than constantly life-changing organizational solutions or hoping for sudden change. This works nicely, since acceptance seems far more likely to find and is actually within my control. I want better than the intermittent acceptance, interrupted by my fear and latest flash of (not) brilliance of what will help him now. It can only be better for him for me to find a deeper acceptance than that. It would also be better for me. I’ve not abandoned hope, but I’d like to move it to the periphery, like it is with my younger child. This is perhaps, ironically, the most hopeful course of action I could take.

Now it’s your turn.  What wakes you at night about your homeschooling or parenting journey? What mistake to you fear you’re making? What would you like to master or to never do again?