Thursday, September 9, 2010

Snap that Umbilical Cord

For many months, perhaps even years, I have been preparing for this day.  I am not birthing a child or graduating from school or giving my vows of marriage, I have done all that, no this afternoon I cut the umbilical cord.  Not the one Peter slit, but the cord of dependence that has been stretched to the point of breakage.

Over the summer Peter and I began leaving Tristan home alone while we ran two blocks to pick-up milk and bread.  Just like teaching Tristan how-to communicate or what social cues look like, we have coached Tristan in being responsible while being home alone.  Being home alone is one thing, but now Tristan will be walking from school to the library with friends.  Two blocks, one side street to cross, and hanging-out with the others kids that is what I will face this afternoon.

My friend, Diana, said you could spy from across the street.  As much as I want to jump behind the bushes and experience Tristan’s independence with him that would be just stretching the cord further not snapping it.  We moved to this town of 8,000 residents so our children could grow-up walking to school and to the store.  In the 1970’s I walked to kindergarten with a friend, without a parent.  Today, crime is lower than the 1970s and 1980s and I still have ping in the stomach every time I think of Tristan strutting down the sidewalk.  

Just like the sadness and anxiety of weaning a nursing baby or leaving your kindergartener at school, plunging your child into the world without you is another milestone toward adulthood.  The sadness comes with the realization that you can never turn back.  It is not like I can begin nursing my eight year old again as much as I might miss the cuddling, I really don’t miss always carrying a baby, so we are moving forward and growing (hopefully not horizontally). 

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What to do with a Public Meltdown

All the lunch-goers at Faneuil Hall in Boston probably expected a peaceful lunch while people watching from their cafe tables.  Instead they got Liam in total melt-down mode for about as long as it takes to order drinks and your meal, then to have the chef prepare your burger and fries and for you to consume all of it.  I should have seen the melt-down coming, Liam had the right forecast-- barely any sleep the night before, it was lunch time, and we were in Boston, three hours from our house.  But the sunshine and seventy degree weather blinded my perspective.

For 45 minutes I sat with Liam on a bench while he tried to stop screaming, "I want new, green Crocs."  I wished he would stop screaming, kicking, and hitting, but hoping and crossing all my toes and fingers did not seem to help.  So, I pulled-out my parenting toolbox right-on one of the busiest spots in Boston and went to work.

Even though I am writing about Liam, who is typically developing, kids are kids first before any diagnosis (like autism) and all kids have tantrums and sometimes they have meltdowns.  Tantrum vs. meltdown:  I think of tantrums as a power struggle (I want this toy and you will buy it or I will scream) and meltdowns are a complete loss of control.  There is no reasoning or distracting, the meltdown just has to run its course.   I bet most of these melt-downs happen in the public eye.  

As a parent you probably know what triggered the meltdown-- a sound, plummeting blood sugar levels, lack of sleep, a sensory overload, or all of the above.  So, what do you do in the middle of a busy tourist destination with a screaming, kicking kid?
  • First, check-in with yourself-- are you calm?  Have you lowered your voice?  Are you remembering to breath slowly?  Allow yourself to pause and not be in a rush.
  • Second, forget about the on-lookers!  Either they are empathic (I have been there with my child) or annoyed and probably have never raised children.  Focus on your kid, remember this can be a teachable moment (self regulation).
  • Third, find a quiet, empty space for your child to sit and place him there. 
  • Tell him why he is being place in the spot (I use the same language as at home-- break spot or time-out spot).  Remember to keep your language simple and clear, like "Liam, you can get up when stop crying, kicking, and hitting."
  • If your child gets up or tries to make break-for-it set him back down in the "break" spot without any words.  And keep doing it, don't break and give into the meltdown... you have come so far, don't give-up now.  Remember you are teaching emotional regulation, once your child calms then you can move-on.
  • Now this is the hard part, you need to WAIT until they can get themselves together and out of meltdown mode.
  • Finally, when all is calm (or at least somewhat reasonable) hug and move-on to getting sleep, food, or a less busy environment.
We all have our moments when life gets to overwhelming and we break, however most adults have learned strategies to cope with their own meltdowns and that is what children need to practice.  Think of meltdowns as practice in emotional regulation and the more your child practices the better they will be in control of themselves.  

How Temple Grandin Changed My Parenting

I posted a link to a TED talk that Temple Grandin gave in February on the Parenting Autism Facebook fan page.  Then I asked members what they thought of Temple and the responses reminded me why Temple Grandin changed my parenting.

After Tristan was diagnosed with ASD, I drove right to Bear Pond Books 
(our local book seller) and guess what they had one copy of Thinking in Pictures.  That night I read the book from cover to cover and woke-up with a different thought about how I parented Tristan.

We already knew that Tristan responded to visual cues more than verbal cues, but Temple's description of how a visual thinker interprets the world gave me a greater understanding.  I am a verbal thinker, you say "school", I know what you are talking about, my brain does not flip through a Rolodex of pictures of all the schools I have ever seen.  But I think Tristan does. 

So, I began to shift my thinking to how Tristan may think.  The first step we took was to give Tristan more time to process verbal language.  If you are a visual thinker, flipping through all those pictures could at first take longer than a person who is a verbal thinker.  What we found is that if given a little longer to process Tristan did respond verbally.

Then I decided to make Tristan's world more visual with picture boards through out our house (and at school) to provide some independence to Tristan.  He could access the information he needed about dressing, bathing, brushing teeth, getting ready for school, daily schedules, and undressing.  Ann, our SLP (speech language pathologist), even made me a bracelet with tiny pictures dangling off so when we were out-and-about I had pictures to use to communicate with Tristan.

The bracelet became essential in diverting tantrums or when I needed to communicate quickly with Tristan.  Knowing how Tristan thought leaped me forward to understanding what skills to cultivate in Tristan.  Tristan spends hours building with Legos or reading comic books.  And in kindergarten Tristan began making his own books, first without words then now with words and even a storyline.

The most valuable information Temple gave me (as a parent) was what she calls the "1950's parenting".  How I interpreted Temple's words was that I needed to be direct with Tristan.  For example, if Tristan is talking to his classmates at lunch about a comic book and all his friend's non-verbal cues are saying they are not interested.  I would say, "Tristan look at all your friends' faces, they are not interested in Spiderman, ask them what they want to talk about."  Also, if Tristan doesn't respond to a person greeting him, I would position Tristan's body to face the greeter and have Tristan respond.  I think of all this as practice for Tristan.