Saturday, May 29, 2010

Watch and Learn

One of the most striking differences between Ryan and the average child is that Ryan does not usually learn by observation.  No matter how many times he saw other kids ride the swings on their bellies, he never tried to imitate them; I eventually manhandled him into belly-swinging position to demonstrate the concept.  And when all the children at a party are following along as a DJ teaches them the YMCA dance, Ryan is staring intently, vaguely wiggling one hand over his head like he knows he's supposed to do something with it but can't for the life of him figure out what.  Seeing that other kids are standing in line does not lead him to infer that he, too, should be in line.

We have much better luck with hand-over-hand demos coupled with step-by-step coaching.

The one thing he invariably parrots along with me on: brushing his teeth.

When it's time to brush his teeth, I do a preliminary scrub for him, then hand him the toothbrush so he can try to do it himself.  Then I grab my toothbrush to demonstrate my fab technique.  I turn on the water and wet my brush; he wets his brush.  I brush my back teeth; he brushes his back teeth.  I make a funny face; he makes the same face.

I know this is one of those things that most children naturally do from infancy, but now at age 4 1/2 is the first I'm seeing it, and it's thrilling.  Seeing that Ryan is capable of imitating in real time at all gives me hope that we can figure out how to extend this behavior into other parts of his day.  But how?  It could be the presence of the bathroom mirror that has made the difference, though he will also mimic my tooth brushing while facing me directly. 

Any clever suggestions out there on how to build on this new skill?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Roller Grrl

The past year and change has been, shall we say, stressful.  I frequently find myself daydreaming of escape routes.

One of my fantasy escapes involves through-hiking Route One.  Like other people plan on hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, I imagine taking a solo walk from the Maine-Canada border 2,400 miles down to the tip of Florida, and writing about the changing (or not-so-much changing) landscape.

My other fantasy is being a roller derby girl and kicking some ass.

Last night, I actually tried out for the local derby league.

I found out mid-day that there were try-outs that evening, and I signed up before I could chicken out.  While I'm a competent rollerblader, I had never used quad skates before.  I borrowed skates and equipment, and heavily-tattooed girls with names like Bruiser and Vixen and Shrieking Violet put me through my paces for over two hours, showing me how to fall and push and whip around a polished concrete track.

There was also an interview portion of the try-out.  After an hour and a half in the rink, two women asked me why I wanted to join the team; it took me a moment to remember.  I said, "I have an autistic four-year-old at home, and I have some aggression to burn off."  They nodded and said, "Oh yeah, Jammer's kids have Asperger's or something.  We're like a big support group here."

I didn't say that since the break-up of my playgroup, I've been feeling lonely and in need of some local friends.

After more than two hours of aggressive skating, the Fresh Meat was expected to do a speed test: five laps in one minute.  I was surprised I was able to make it in 1:07 as tired as I was (I had also run for about an hour at the gym that morning).  Then they thanked us all for coming and said they will announce who made the cut sometime next week.

Even if I don't make the team, I'm proud of myself that I tried out, and survived without serious injury.  I did it for myself, to see if I could do it.  And I did it in spite of the fact that my husband strongly disapproved of my decision - he feared I would be carried out on a stretcher, and I think my antics gave him an anxiety attack. 

If I do make the team, I'm not sure I will join, because between buying equipment and paying for insurance and dues (and potentially medical bills), it becomes a very expensive hobby.

But a really freaking cool hobby.

Monday, May 17, 2010


A recent study has shown strong preliminary evidence of a connection between pesticides and ADHD.  In the study, children with higher levels of pesticide residue in their urine had increased chances of having ADHD.

ADHD is thought to be very closely related to autism.

Will additional research prove that this is the environmental connection we've been looking for to explain the uptick in autism diagnoses?  And can changing to an organic diet improve ADHD symptoms or autistic behavior?  I'll be staying tuned, and probably be spending a little more on my groceries...

Saturday, May 15, 2010


The Boy was a total basket case this morning.  Cranky, irrational, following me into the shower then complaining that he was wet.  There was no pleasing him.

So we took him to Rye Playland.

Kiddieland worked like a sensory gym for him.  Between the overwhelming noise, all the bright flashy spinny things to look at, and the extreme motions of the rides, Ryan was in sensory-seeking heaven.

We arrived before the park opened, so we started on the beach.
Sand on his feet, rocks to throw.  Perfect.

Then we hit all the rides - twice.  The more intense the ride, the better.  He was totally blissed out on The Whip, the roller coaster, the Jump 'N' Bean, the Flying Dragons, the Playland Express.  He was unimpressed with the slower rides, like the carousel or the antique cars. 


Bonus: he wore the admission bracelet with only a moderate level of resistance.

And in the middle of the day he wore some ice cream.

A perfect day all around.  Now I need to look into whether it's worth getting a season pass...

Friday, May 14, 2010

By God, it actually works!

One of the more popular ways to teach kids with autism is to use PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) - a nonverbal system of communication that uses small pictures.  I have no experience with it, and I don't think Ryan's school uses it with him because he generally responds to verbal language.

Ryan has been having trouble remembering the order of operations involved in using the bathroom (pull up pants before you wash hands...), so Chrissy suggested I use a PECS-like picture schedule to help him.  I put it off for a few weeks, then drew a five-step sequence for using the toilet, and another handy chart for using the sink.

And it's working!

At first Ryan was resistant - he freaked out, shouting something about "get purple arrow back please" - but by the third day, he was reciting "Step Four: up da underwear!"  Now that he has this chart for reference, I don't have to stand in the bathroom door and hector him with annoying (to me) questions like, "What do you do first?  Pull down your pants.  Pants!"  He's better able to focus on the task at hand, and less likely to throw himself on the floor in frustration.

And he's another step closer to being an independent little person.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Happy Mother's Day

On behalf of the kids who can't yet tell you how much they love you: they do.

You know they do.

As sure as you know you love them.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Did the Muppets warp my baby's brain?

A 2006 Cornell University study makes a good case for the hypothesis that television viewing before age 2 is a likely environmental trigger for autism.  The researchers first establish a positive correlation between how much tv kids watch and how much rainfall their communities get, suggesting that if tv is a trigger for autism, there should be more diagnoses of autism in wetter communities than in drier areas.  Then they gather various county-level data for Washington, Oregon, and California:
Employing a variety of tests, we show that in each of the three states (and across all three states when pooled) there is substantial evidence that county autism rates are indeed positively related to county-wide levels of precipitation. In our final set of tests we use California and Pennsylvania data on children born between 1972 and 1989 to show, again consistent with the television as trigger hypothesis, that county autism rates are also positively related to the percentage of households that subscribe to cable television. 
They conclude that the more time an already-genetically-predisposed toddler spends processing two-dimensional images during a certain critical period of brain development, the more likely he is to develop autism.  Then the researchers offer this final wisdom:
As a final point, although as discussed our results do not definitively prove that early childhood television watching is an important trigger for autism, we believe our results provide sufficient support for the possibility that until further research can be conducted it might be prudent to act as if it were. In other words, maybe there should be additional emphasis placed on the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatricians that early childhood television watching should be eliminated or at the very least quite limited (as discussed in footnote 3, the current recommendation is that there should be no television watching before the age of two and no more than one to two hours per day for older children). We see little downside in taking this step and a very large upside if it turns out that television indeed causes autism.
It seems plausible that a baby's visual experiences during that critical period of neurological development would leave a lasting impression.  It also seems plausible that time spent indoors, sedentary and surrounded by household toxins, would leave its mark as well.  I would love to see further research on this subject.  In the mean time, I agree with the researchers: it can't hurt to act as if early childhood tv viewing contributes to the development of autism.  No child was ever harmed by watching too little television.

But now, of course, I'm wracking my brain trying to remember how much tv we let Ryan watch as a baby.  I don't remember when we introduced Sesame Street, but according to the baby book the names of certain Muppets were in his vocabulary at 16 months.  I am a lifelong Jim Henson fan, and at the time I was thrilled to be able to share Sesame Street with my baby.  Now, I'm plagued by the fear that I ruined his life - or at least contributed to the warping of his little brain - by letting him watch Sesame Street. 

Honestly, I didn't think I was doing anything wrong.  But as a mother, it is my instinct to blame myself for my child's challenges.  Had I had the slightest idea my baby's brain might have been harmed by watching Cookie Monster, I would never, never have exposed him to that.  I'm kicking myself for my own choices, even though I know it's a fruitless exercise.  Stu has tried to reassure me by telling me "if this were true, 80% of kids today would be autistic."  But Ryan's not 80% of kids - he's my kid.  My responsibility.  My baby, who has a hard road ahead of him. 

And part of me is going to blame myself for this, no matter what anyone tells me.

So, to all parents of newborns: it can't hurt to act like this study actually proved that tv causes autism.  Don't risk that Cookie Monster might eat your baby's brain.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Behold my awesome powers!

It's not easy being the most important person in the world.  In my absence, hope dissolves, words are rendered useless, and basic bodily functions can not be controlled.

On Saturday I left Ryan in Stu's capable hands for the day so I could chat with musicians and recording industry professionals at Kindiefest.  I did this to help book gigs for a friend of mine who is a terrific children's musician - please check out Music by Zev - listen to his albums, book him for parties in the greater New York area, share the love.

Aaaanyway, I left my boys alone for the day.  When I returned, I found Stu clutching his phone, about to break down and call me to see when the hell I was coming home already.  He declared the day had been "an unmitigated disaster."  All day, Ryan staged an elaborate protest to express his displeasure at my truancy; it involved a flat refusal to use any sort of interactive language, intense irritability, and a boycott of the bathroom.

As soon as Ryan was tucked in bed, Stu took himself out to dinner and left me home alone.  I couldn't blame him.

Sunday, in my presence, Ryan was pretty much back to normal.  His nerves were perhaps a little raw, but otherwise he was as fit for human company as he usually is.

Being the center of the universe is an awesome responsibility - one I do not take lightly.  I shall try to use my powers for good and not for evil.