Archive for the ‘expectations’ Category

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.” ~ Mary Anne Radmacher

After our terrible, horrible no good, very bad morning you might think that Niksdad and I decided to lay low and stay close to home this afternoon.  You’d be mistaken.  After a hearty lunch and some down time for Nik —and a healthy dollop of analysis and brainstorming by Niksdad and me— we decided to try our luck a second time.  After all, the festival is only one day a year and the orchard offers free peach ice cream cones—made from their own peaches— which is heavenly!  Even Nik adores it.

I am happy to report that the outing was a rousing success!  Nik managed to consume an entire cone by himself —along with a goodly portion of mine!  We even managed to get in some play time at a nearby park which we’ve recently discovered.  Nik was so happy all afternoon; he sang and clapped and raced around the park without a care —exactly as we had hoped it would be.  He even picked up a sweet little guardian angel!

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that our afternoon was the antithesis to our morning. 

So what was different the second time around?  Nothing, really.  And everything.  I know, I know —that doesn’t make sense.  But, really, the things we did were so incredibly simple that I wasn’t even sure it would work.  We met Nik where he was.  To do that, we had to observe his behavior and listen to his cues.

Let me give you a little background which might help this make sense:

Nik is nonverbal but extremely intelligent.  He understands just about everything that is said to him, about him, around him.  He takes everything in.  He also has a very strict interpretation or understanding of certain constants.  One of those constants is that food is eaten while sitting in his booster chair at the table unless it is otherwise specified. e.g., “We’re going to Nanny and Granddaddy’s for dinner.” or “We’re going to a restaurant for lunch.”  (Snacks are a different category; he’s ok with eating them in the car, at the park, play group, etc.)

Nik is also usually very good about adapting as long as he understands the sequence in which he can expect things to occur.  Nik knows ice cream is food.  He doesn’t know that “going to get ice cream” means going somewhere —let alone somewhere new —in the car.  So, to Nik, “ice cream first, then park” would mean “We’re going to sit at the table and eat ice cream and then go to the park.”

Nik is also amazingly observant of his physical surroundings.  He can tell where we’re going based on the turns I take or the scenery along the route.  If I tell him that we’re going somewhere different —and I may have to repeat it many times to reinforce the message as I drive— Nik is, generally, ok with it.  Today’s destination —the orchard for the ice cream and petting zoo —took us right past the turn for the park.

Can you see where this is going?

Right. So here’s our happy-go-lucky boy —already wound tighter than a top from the shoe incident— thinking he’s going to sit and eat ice cream and then go to the park.  By the time we got to the orchard, not only had we not eaten ice cream but we’d driven past the park!  Poor Nik  was experiencing such tremendous cognitive dissonance that he simply could not function.  I’m not using hyperbole for effect, either.  By the time we returned home this morning, though he was happy and clapping when we pulled in the driveway, Nik was completely motionless and silent when we opened the car door.  It was as if he simply checked out for a moment to re-calibrate.

This afternoon, armed with those realizations, and the knowledge that Nik doesn’t know what the new place —the orchard— is, we realized that we had to give him only one part of the sequence at a time.  Otherwise, we risked the likelihood that Nik would fixate on “going to the park” and block out the rest because he couldn’t visualize it.  We also decided to try something that I’ve been meaning to try for a while —a rudimentary picture schedule to help Nik know where we are going in the car and why we are not going the way he expects us to go.  (Side note: Nik doesn’t seem to have this trouble with changing activities at home or at therapy; it’s only when we are driving places that he gets so rigidly attached to his expectations.)

I printed out two pictures to take with us.  We gave Nik the first one —a full size picture of an ice cream cone— before we got in the car and explained to him that we were going to “a farm” to get ice cream.  Oddly enough, though I don’t think we’ve ever taken him to a farm, Nik seemed to understand that concept.   Maybe it was simply because I named something that he understands as an actual place or, at the very least, a place that is not home?  I really don’t know.

As we drove along the exact same route we took this morning, I sang silly songs about eating ice cream and going to the farm for yummy ice cream.  Nik even got into the spirit when I asked him to show me how he eats an ice cream cone by, well, eating the ice cream cone picture!

eating pic of ice cream

Nik never once whined nor got upset the entire drive.  As soon as we arrived, he let Niksdad put him up on his shoulders and we made a beeline for the ice cream.  Nik’s reaction was all the proof we needed that we had done the right thing:

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After Nik downed an entire cone —and attempted to eat a few twigs, too —we asked if he wanted to go to the park.  He wasn’t quite clear about that so I asked if he was ready to go in the car.  That got a clear affirmative so we went and sat in the car.  Once we were in the car, Niksdad gave him the second picture —a picture of a playground similar to that at the park —and asked if he wanted to go there.  The light bulb went on and our little dude was on board.

The rest, as they say, is history.

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The shoes should have been our first clue.

After a perfectly delightful morning —one which began after more than twelve hours’ sleep for Nik and a leisurely breakfast for myself and Niksdad— we began our preparations for a jaunt to the local peach festival, followed by a visit to the park.  The pre-departure routine is always the same: “Okay, buddy, time for some clean pants.  Bring your toy and let’s get clean pants.”  “Clean pants first, then socks, MAFO’s and shoes.”

Nik is always eager to perform this routine; he loves to go out with us.  Lately, he’s begun to put his orthotics on by himself —even getting them on the correct feet.  He was just beginning to clamber onto the sofa, where I sat waiting with wipes and pull-up in hand, when Niksdad brought over his socks, MAFO’s and shoes.  The scream which issued forth from my heretofor sunny child was unlike anything I’ve heard except when he is in extreme and urgent pain.  It was the kind of sound which makes my heart race and causes me to drop everything and come running in an instant, certain I will find my child covered in blood.

There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth (to put it quite mildly) until we figured out the problem: the shoes.  Perfectly good, serviceable Nike’s which Nik has worn on many occasions though not for sometime.  (His other Nike’s were so filthy from repeated outings to the park— the laces were nearly black— that I insistedwe wash them last night; they were still in the laundry closet, slightly damp.)  I put the offending shoes on the floor at my feet while Niksdad went to get the still-damp shoes.  Apparently, even that was too close for those awful shoes; Nik screamed and jumped off the sofa, grabbed the shoes and ran to the entertainment center to put them on top.  That’s were they’ve been sitting for weeks now; it made perfect sense to Nik’s sense of order.

Once Nik realized the “correct” shoes were going on his feet he calmed down.  In fact, he seemed quite eager for our outing.  Off we went on our merry way.  “We’re going to get ice cream first, then go to the park. Ok buddy?  Ice cream first, then park.”  I repeated that phrase, like a mantra, as we drove.  Nik is usually pretty good about changed routines or routes as long as I tell him the sequence several times over.

I should have known that the shoe incident had my precious boy already wound too tightly.  As soon as I turned right at a traffic light where we normally turn left, Nik’s tenuous balance shifted and the tempest began.  I talked to him in soothing tones as I drove.  “It’s ok, sweetie, we’re going to get ice cream first then go to the park, remember?  It’s ok.  You’re ok.”  All the while, Niksdad held on to Nik’s feet so he couldn’t injur himself (or us) with his kicking.  I drove with one hand on the steering wheel and one hand holding Nik’s sweaty fingers, gently squeezing to give him some proprioceptive input which I hoped would calm him.

We parked right next to the entrance (God bless our disabled parking placard!) and waited for the storm to abate.  When Nik didn’t seem to show signs of calming, Niksdad said tersely, “This isn’t going to work, let’s just skip it.”  His frustration level was, understandably, rising with each howl and each kick which landed on the back of his seat.  Not realizing that Nik was already overwrought and wound too tightly, I insisted we at least get out of the car and try

There have been times when simply getting out of the car has shifted Nik’s attention enough that he is able to calm down and we end up having a decent outing.  I also felt very strongly that we neededI needed— to not be held hostage to the autism.  We spent the first two years of Nik’s life sequestered away from everyone and everything because we had to protect Nik’s fragile immune system.  We’ve spent much of the last couple years isolated from nearly everyone and everything except the occasional family outing.  At some point, I felt, we just have to say “Damn the consequences!” and try —just try— to be a part of the very society in which we want our boy to thrive.

Today was not the day for that.

We never made it to the ice cream or the petting zoo.  We pulled into the parking lot at the park and Nik fell apart again.  By this time, he was so overwrought he couldn’t tell us anything.  “Are you hungry?” Nik signed please so we offered him a bite of his sandwich; he thrust it at me and screamed.  “Do you want to go play in the park, sweetie?”  He simultaneously signed please and shook his head no.  I started to hum Mary Poppins songs to calm him.  It seemed to work until I stopped.  The wailing began again.

We drove home to nurse our wounded hearts and try to figure out what our boy was telling us, what he needed.  As we pulled into the driveway —like magic— the tears and tantrums abated and the happy singing began.


Nik has now had lunch and is a very happy camper —singing Mary Poppins and Signing Time songs to his toys, playing with his alphabet puzzles.  We may attempt the outing again in a while —or not.

It’s so hard, trying to find the right balance between stretching Nik’s boundaries and honoring his needs.  Between giving my child what he needs and giving myself what I need.  Trusting my instincts and listening to the voice in my heart that says “We have to try…”  The lines are hazy and constantly shifting —like walking on a sand dune in a headwind. 

I believe we are at a crucial point in Nik’s communication development:  the more he knows he can make himself understood —and the fewer tantrums as a result of that success, the more intensely frustrated he becomes in those instances where he cannot make himself understood.  The extremes seem to be farther apart and I feel stretched to my limits straddling the chasm.  But I’ll write more about that another time —after I mull it over some more.

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The Ghost of Christmases Past lingers near my doorway; it hovers, ever-present, a whisper of sharp memory away. It carries with it the stench and heaviness of unmet expectations and disappointed dreams.

Nik’s very first Christmas —in a NICU isolette, attached to tubes and wires, needing a ventilator to help him breathe. Even the hospital Santa gasped when he saw Nik; “He’s so incredibly small,” he said, “Smaller than any doll I’ve ever seen.” It was a strange and oddly joyous Christmas for us, though; Nik was alive against so many odds. We celebrated the miracle that had been visited upon our family.

Nik’s first Christmas at home —with all the oxygen tanks and tubing, the feeding pump and medicines. The monitors and alarms. Everything felt so surreal that year. All I could do was watch my fragile little boy sleeping near the Christmas tree and pray to God that the worst of his ordeal was over. Having just spent Thanksgiving and his first birthday in the hospital undergoing life-saving abdominal surgery, we were again relieved; but the glow of the miracle seemed a bit dimmer that year.

The next year —our first Christmas in our new home —back in my hometown of Dover, Delaware. It felt less surreal but still “not quite right.” Nik had managed to shake off the need for supplemental oxygen mere weeks before we moved but he still was very vulnerable. Though we were able to have a small party to celebrate Nik’s second birthday, we spent most of that first holiday season isolated from all but family and the closest of friends. Nik couldn’t yet sit up and was not yet eating by mouth. It felt like a lonely and uncertain time for all of us. We didn’t know what the future could possibly hold for any of us. All we knew was that it didn’t look at all the way either of us had imagined.

That year, we became acquainted with the local fire company tradition of visiting neighborhoods the week before Christmas. The night they came driving up our sleepy little street —sirens blaring and lights flashing as Santa waved and “ho, ho, ho’d” from the cherry picker basket on the ladder truck —I wept. It was shortly after dinner time but Nik was already asleep; the endeavors of his vigorous schedule of home therapies exhausted his delicately balanced system back then.

Trying to block out the sounds of merriment outside, I sat looking at the Christmas tree my son did not even acknowledge; the gaily colored lights twinkling in the darkness of the living room did little to cheer me. I was weighted down by my anxiety.

That year, we didn’t even bother wrapping Nik’s gifts —he wouldn’t touch the paper. On Christmas morning, he sat in his exer-saucer playing with a brightly colored bow —still oblivious to the enormous tree directly in front of him. That was the year we began to have serious concerns about his vision and hearing. It was also the year he began to have absence seizures. The miracle we had felt that first Christmas seemed so remote; like it had happened to some other family in some other life.

The Ghost of Christmas Present darts furtively in the shadows; occasionally, it looks a bit like its predecessor but, every so often, it shimmers in the bright light of day. When it does, it brings with it an aura of hope —a promise of possibility —and the inspiration to create new traditions, new dreams, and the release of expectations.

The second year the fire company came around, Nik was asleep again. This time, I did not cower in my darkened living room; I stepped outside and politely asked the firemen in the advance vehicle if they could maybe not blast the siren. “You see, sir, I have a little boy with disabilities who is inside sleeping. If you wake him, he will not go back to sleep.” My request was met with thinly veiled disdain but it was honored none the less; it felt like a small victory.

The next year —last year —the advance driver remembered me. “It’s okay,” I beamed. “He’s awake and we’d love to see Santa!” Niksdad came to join me at the end of the driveway; Nik sat astride his daddy’s shoulders bundled in his jammies and winter coat. When the fire engine came down the street —horns blaring, sirens wailing— Nik went wild with excitement. The cold made my eyes water and my throat tighten just a bit.

This year, we raced to the end of the driveway —all three of us running and smiling. Nik remembered the trucks if not Santa. As Niksdad hoisted Nik onto his shoulders, Nik became a frenzy of squeals, clapping hands and kicking legs. He was so excited I worried he’d actually hurt his daddy. He practically jumped down by himself as he and Niksdad approached the truck to see Santa. As Nik squealed and bounced, the cold night air made my eyes burn and my throat constrict. When the fire trucks drove off into the darkness Nik was distraught. I smiled.

Our trip to ride the Santa Clause Express this year held little expectation of more than a pleasant ride through the Red Clay Valley and the promise of a chocolate lollipop. Though Nik was excited to see Santa last year —mostly to clap hands with him as he did with anyone he met— his response this year was tepid at best. I think the families around us were surprised at Nik’s subdued response; even Santa seemed a little puzzled until I explained that Nik has some delays and doesn’t always react the way other kids do. Santa seemed to understand and was willing to take some extra time with Nik so we could, possibly, get a good picture. Sort of silly, isn’t it? I mean, those pictures are really for us parents.

(I’ll write more about the trip in a separate post and include some of the awesome pictures I took.)

Overall, it feels more and more as if the Ghost of Christmases Past is disappearing into the mists with each passing day. On his back he carries a sack weighted down with the burden of useless expectations.

As for the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, I suspect I won’t know him until after he’s been around for a while. He may look exactly like the Ghost of Christmas Present. Then again, perhaps the day will come when Nik understands about Santa Clause and Christmas trees. Perhaps he’ll even appreciate the joy of giving to others and of helping those less fortunate —be it at Christmas or any time.

The day might come —or it might not. None of that really matters, does it? After all, Christmas isn’t about Santa, or trees, or —gasp! —even trains. It’s about celebrating the goodness of humanity, the promise of hope and the wonder of miracles—the very things Nik embodies always.

So fill your heart with love and joy
And through the eyes of girls and boys
Share their wonder, live through their joy
It’s easy to do, just open your heart
The spirit will come to you

Oh and God bless us everyone
The good and the bad
The happy; the sad
Oh and God bless us everyone
Here’s to family and friends
It’s good to be here again

(The Magic of Christmas Day by Celine Dion)

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