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Monday, August 31, 2015

How are girls with autism different than boys with autism?

A good question was posed by my father recently.  He asked me what I had found over the years made autism different when shown in girls as opposed to boys.  I had some ideas, based on talking (mostly online!) to other mothers of autistic girls, but I wanted to find out more, so I reached out to people who are members of the Facebook group that is a companion to this blog, and I got some great responses!

A BIG NOTE HERE!  I am NOT an expert on autism or autism in girls!  ANOTHER BIG NOTE!  Everything I note here is NOT TRUE OF ALL GIRLS!  For everyone that had an idea for a trait that was different in girls, there were others who saw the opposite trait.  And there's the old saying "You've seen one child with autism, you've seen one child with autism", meaning kids with autism are NOT homogeneous!  They are very different from each other.  But I think it's worthwhile to collect some ideas and trends I've seen, if only to spark conversation!

The first difference with girls is one of the few that I've been actually told by someone who IS an autism expert, a specialist at a clinic we take Janey too.  I've also read a few studies that say something similar---girls with autism, statistically, are more severely affected by autism than boys.  Of course, there's many ways to look at being severely affected.  You can't just say on a scale of 1 to 100 how severely affected someone is.  But if you looked at the impact of autism on a life, and perhaps looked at the likelihood of a child someday living independently, overall, I think girls would be seen as more severely affected.  Not every girl, of course, but as a group.

Another difference mentioned by quite a few people was that girls with autism seem to be more social than boys with autism, or they want to have friends more.  They often have good eye contact, and are good at imitating social speech, even if what they are saying is echolalia from TV shows or videos.  This can make them seem more verbal than they really are.  They often want very much to have friends, but aren't sure how to go about it.

In terms of sensory issues, there's a LOT of girls that do have severe sensory issues, but many also that don't.  They seem less bothered as a group by noises, and often are less picky eaters than boys with autism.  It seems a few more of them are sensory seekers, which can be an issue in itself---they like things like hot sauce or smashing into things.

Girls with autism often seem to not have the extreme need for routine that boys do.  They are more willing to go along with changes in the day's routine.  This being said, many girls with autism are prone to MAJOR mood swings, which could be wrongly interpreted as being caused by routine changes.  I've talked to quite a few women with older girls that said puberty was extremely, extremely tough, with PMS being almost unbearable.

Many girls with autism are very affectionate.  They like people, and want to be around people they especially like.  I have seen this very much in Janey.  She has a few favorite people, and asks about them constantly.  Other girls also seem to have people that are very, very special to them.

In terms of speech, for the girls that are verbal, nearly every person I've ever talked to has told me their girls use a great deal of echolalia.  A very lot of their speech is scripted in some way, but often used very appropriately.  For example, if they want to say they are sorry about something, they might say "I'm terribly sorry I disturbed you", a line from a video they've watched over and over, but also pretty much saying what they want to say!

Another point a lot of people noted is that their girls don't have special interests as much as boys they know or have heard of.  Many, many boys with autism have a very major special interest---trains, dinosaurs, drains, bridges, whatever---but I have not heard of many girls that has an overriding interest like this.

Although there are many, many more traits I'd love to have people tell me about, there is something odd I've noticed from pictures I've seen of girls with autism.  Many of them look alike.  It's hard to put my finger on, because of course girls with autism come in all kinds of colors and hair tones and heights and weights and so on.  But there is somehow a look they share.  It's a beautiful look!  But there's more to it---a way they smile, a look to their hair, a way of holding themselves---that just makes them look a bit like relatives.

The biggest difference between girls and boys with autism, as you might have guessed from the name of my blog, is that autism is rarer in girls.  The CDC says that 1 in 42 boys have autism, while 1 in 189 girls do.  That makes autism almost 5 times more common in boys.  Way back when Janey was first diagnosed and I was picking a name for this blog, I went with Rarer In Girls.  Rare can mean several things.  Maybe for tonight, I'll go with the 3rd definition that came up on a quick Google search for the meaning of the word---"unusually good or remarkable"  Our girls, I think we can all agree, are remarkable.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

With just a little editing....

Janey, Freddy and I went up to Maine to visit my parents for four days, last Saturday through Tuesday.  My parents live in midcoast Maine, where I grew up, and I hate to have a summer go by without visiting there.  There is something about the summer in Maine that simply can't be found anywhere else, and I want my kids to know a little of that, especially this year Freddy, as he heads into adulthood---he will start college in eleven days.

Janey and the chickens
How did it go?  Well, with a little editing, it went well.  I got to show Freddy a lot of the places that I loved growing up, and he got to spend a lot of time talking with my parents.  Janey loved running around barefoot outside, talking a long walk with Grampie, singing along while Nana played the piano and running around after my dear friend Julie's chickens.  I got to take a lot of deep breaths of Maine air, and of course I took too many pictures, literally over a thousand.

What gets edited out?  Screaming, mostly.  Janey had many, many screaming spells.  They came on suddenly and often without any reason we could figure.  They were intense and overwhelming.  My parents live on a back dirt road, but they do have neighbors, and luckily, they had talked to the neighbors about Janey, or it well could have been thought something awful was happening to her.  The most severe editing dealt with a drive we took up Mt. Battie.  Mt. Battie is really a hill, but it has a view worthy of any mountain on earth, of Camden Harbor and all kinds of islands.  I wish I could have enjoyed it for more than a few moments, but something there triggered Janey and she flipped out and was hysterical, and bit me pretty hard.  We left fast.  Later on that drive, she did all she could to bite and hit Freddy, next to her in the back seat.  It took both our strengths to keep her from hurting him.
The briefly seen view from Mt. Battie

Janey, Nana and Grandpa
Freddy and I can look back on the trip and feel pretty good about it.  I'd say 80% of the time, Janey was fine, and sometimes, she was more than fine---she was a delight.  But that 20%...I don't think much of anyone except someone who has lived this life for a while could edit it out as we do.  My parents did a very good job with Janey, but they were shaken.  Like many people who see Janey's intense moments, they wonder how it's possible to keep going.  They worry about her safety and our safety.

So---is editing a good idea?  Should we do it?  The question is more if we could stop doing it if we wanted to.  If I thought all the time about the awful moments....well, at the very least, I wouldn't enjoy the good moments.  I have to edit in my mind.  I have to think about Janey's delight running after the chickens, the fun of hearing her surprise my parents with yet another song she knows, the wonderful moment when she saw Daddy again and said, confused about the exact terms, "It's your brother Daddy!"  Reversed pronouns and muddled relationship names aside, her voice showed how she felt.

We can edit, and can be left with memories of a good trip.  But the larger world can't be asked to do the same.  And more importantly, I don't know if Janey can do that editing.  How does she remember things?  Does she remember the good times, or remember the scary, out of control times?  How would she tell me she felt about our time in Maine, if she could?  I don't know.  I really don't know.  I hope she would understand that we are trying hard to give her a good childhood, and that we are doing our best, and that we would do anything within our power to ease the tough times for her, if we knew how.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Quest for Help

The big 11th birthday is over.  It was a good one, truly.  Janey was happy most of the day.  Our dear friends invited us to a BBQ/Birthday/Going off to college party, and we all had a wonderful time.  Janey lasted there longer than I think she has at anyone's house for years, with just a little break for a car ride in the middle.  She adores my friend Maryellen and her daughter Julia, and we are so thankful as always for friends that value and love Janey.  Freddy had a very good birthday too, and we felt quite happy about how the day went.

The night was another story.  We realized, way too late, that Janey had had far too much chocolate during the day.  She didn't sleep, not a wink, until about 4 am.  She wasn't tired at all.  She didn't scream, much, but she didn't sleep.  It was like it was daytime for her.  Tony and I traded off shifts and both wound up exhausted.

We couldn't sleep in this morning, as we had a 8 am appointment at the Lurie Center, the autism clinic.  We'd put off the appointment several times due to Janey's illness, so we needed to go.  We dragged ourselves out of bed and made it on time.

The doctor I saw (mostly just me, as Janey wasn't having any of it and only lasted about 3 minutes before Tony had to take her out of the room) was the same one we saw before, a very thoughtful and knowledgable woman.  We talked mostly about medication, and ideas she had for ones that might work better for Janey.  The problem is that very rightfully, a child should have only one psychiatrist prescribing medication, and Janey has the psychiatrist she'd had since she was 5.  We need to make a switch to use the Lurie Center for medication, and we aren't sure what to do.  I think the Lurie Center knows more about autism---I know that, really, but we like Janey's current psychiatrist and he's always been available when we needed him.  And we are never sure about medication, and tend to be very conservative about it, so we need to make some decisions.

The other talk, just briefly, was about help and respite.  Basically, we went over the fact there is none.  Starting this fall, Mass Health will cover ABA.  The problem is, ABA isn't respite.  It's a very specific kind of teaching that more and more, I don't think helps Janey at all, and might actually hurt her.  It's well meaning, it's often extremely skillfully done, but reading school reports and looking at what 7 years of ABA have actually done for Janey---well, I don't think adding more of that to her life is going to help anything.  It's certainly not going to reduce her stress or our stress.  So---basically, more ABA isn't going to do a thing to help.

I jumped on a few opportunities our local autism agency posted, without thinking them through too well.  They were hosting an evening at the Children's Museum, just for autistic kids.  That might be okay.  It's certainly not respite, and getting there will not be easy, but it's something.  Then, there was actually a drop off, one to one program.  In my delight that something like that was offered, I RSVPed right away.  Finding out more about it, I realized it's in a place only accessible reasonably by public transit, and not directly by that without changing trains, and that it's to go to a plaster craft activity.  I can't take Janey alone on the train.  She will have no interest in plaster crafts.  I'm still going to try to go, because the lure of 2 hours of respite while she's at the program draws me in, but I will need to bring someone else with me, and I am very worried Janey will not make it through the time, based on the last time I attended an activity, with both Tony and me THERE.  She was the only child I saw there who needed to leave, basically because she was kicking me in the head.  The third activity is a field day, not drop off.  I will try it.  I am glad there are activities, and I hope they work, But 11 years of Janey have led me to a deep form of realism about such things.

Today, we got the back to school information.  I had planned to sign Janey up for after school this year.  We didn't last year, because it was only going to last until 4:15, and Tony wouldn't be able to drive there to get her.  The drive is at a very busy part of the day, across town, and increasingly, I can't drive if it's dark at all.  But this year, it was going to run later, until 5:15, so we planned to try it.  The flyer in the material today said the program will have a 17 to 1 ratio.  I called the school and talked a minute ago to the very nice director of the program, who informed me that due to a lot of budget cuts, they are unable to serve kids that can't work under a 17 to 1 ratio.  She did understand that means basically NONE of the kids with autism at Janey's school can attend the program, not just Janey.  Some kids in her program could handle maybe a 5 to 1 ratio---not every kid needs one on one like Janey---but I don't think there's many autistic kids at all that can be in a program with a 17 to 1 ratio!  I asked her if she knew of any people I could call to try to get them more funding, and she said she appreciated that and would look into it for me.  About half of Janey's school, 19 classrooms, I believe, are for kids with autism.  It's kind of sad that the city won't fund afterschool for them.  And kind of a blow to our plans for using afterschool for respite help.

Reading all this back, I worry I sound like I'm being a no-win kind of person.  Instead of saying "Wow!  Now Janey can get ABA and go to a art activity and after-school!  They are all open to kids with autism!", I am saying none of them will likely work for Janey.  This brings us back to the doctor this morning, who completely understood what I was saying.  She said the big umbrella of what is currently diagnosed as autism very often doesn't cover the kids at the extremes.  There are many, many kids with autism that would be, and are, very well served by what is out there.  But for a child like Janey, with a severe intellectual disability, with self-injurious and aggressive behaviors, with tantrums and limited speech---well, anyone who has spent more than a few minutes with Janey gets it, right away.

This is a long entry.  If you got this far, thank you!  I am half working this all out in my head.  We'll keep on questing, and keep on writing about it.  Meanwhile, the birthday love so many of you sent our way keeps us going!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Janey is 11!

In many ways, I'm glad to see Janey's year of 10 being over.  It was a tough year, by any standards.  It featured two long hospitalizations---one for psychiatric reasons, one for a ruptured appendix.  Partly because of that, her school year was rough, with many absences and a lot of behavior issues, and not much progress, if any, academically.  However, I look toward Janey's year of being 11 with tempered hope.

Who is Janey, right now?  She's a beautiful girl.  She's getting taller and taller---I wouldn't be surprised if 11 is the year she overcomes me in height.  She's endlessly interesting---you can say that about her!  She is prone to extremes of emotion.  She goes from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, sometimes within minutes.  She loves the things she loves---certain music, some movies and TV shows, some people.  When she doesn't like something, you know it.  Her smile is something amazing.  Her scream is, too.  She is intense.  She is a force.  She's my Janey.

Learning to be Janey's mother is a process that will never end, I'm sure, but I feel like I've made some big steps this year.  One of the biggest is a step of acceptance---acceptance that Janey is not going to change.  She is who she is, and it's us who have to change.  We can work helping her with some issues, we can try to teach her and modify her behavior, but in large, it's our job to modify.  We have the tools to do it.  She, for whatever reason, doesn't.

Parenting Janey is not something a book or an expert or anyone else can tell me how to do.  I need to figure it out myself, along with Tony and her brothers.  There have been some moments from this past year so tough that I never dreamt, in a million years, that I would have such moments in my life.  I picture a room in the ER full of people trying to subdue Janey after she bit me and started flinging everything in site.  I picture being told Janey's appendix had burst and she needed emergency surgery, right then.  I picture the moment I got the call from her school that her behavior was such they were calling an ambulance to take her to the hospital.  I picture the night we struggled all night to keep her oxygen mask on, as her oxygen leveled dropped to dangerous levels over and over.  After a year of such moments, we no longer are living a life that parenting books cover.

But hope shines through.  The simple phrase "I'll be so proud when you calm down" has worked some miracles lately.  In leaving it up to Janey to calm herself, in praising the end result and not worrying about the reasons for the outburst or feeling we must react in typical ways, she is learning to calm herself, and we are learning something I thought I already knew, to emphasize the positive.  And we are learning to have true delight in the little moments of joy Janey gives us.  Yesterday, she said "Chinese rice, please?", hoping for a take-out treat.  Tony said "Chinese rice?  That's an interesting idea!" and Janey repeated back, in her perfect imitation voice, "Chinese rice!  That's an interesting idea!" over and over, encouraged by our laughter.  We never did get the Chinese food, which she handled, but we had a lot of fun.

I think the biggest change in my mind lately has been in how I see Janey within the family.  We've all realized, from the times she was in the hospital, that she is a hugely vital part of who we are as a family.  Somehow, in the past, she was always separate in my mind.  I thought of it as having two "regular" kids and one "special" kid.  It's hard to admit that, but it's true.  Lately, I have gradually changed that thinking. I have three kids, three amazing kids.  They are my family.  We might not be quite like other families, but no two families are.  All three of them are equally special, not "special".  So, a very Happy Birthday to my Jane---and, an equally Happy Birthday to Freddy, who turns 18 today!  August 16th was a very busy day for me, 11 and 18 years ago today!  And all my love to them and to Tony and William.  You are a family any woman on earth would be proud to have.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Summertime, and the living is...not so hard

Yes, I wouldn't call the living easy, but it's closer to easy than it usually is with Janey.  Here's an account of a typical day this summer with Janey....

8 am ...  Wake up.  Janey has shown that left to make her our schedule, as I pretty much do with my kids in the summer, she is a night owl.  She's been staying up late and wanting to wake up late.  Actually, thinking about it, 8 am is not that late, but in our family of mainly larks, it is.  

8-9 am  Get ready for summer school.  I tell Janey it's a school day as soon as she wakes up, along with any other vital information about the day.  The problem with that is that she's always ready to move on to the next part of the day, so if it's a school day, she wants to be out waiting for the bus.  I delay her as long as possible, but we always wind up waiting for the bus long before it actually comes at 9.  Some days, there's screaming and arm biting as she gets tired of waiting but it's too late to go back in, but most days, it's been okay.  I sing some special bus waiting songs, mostly songs from Oklahoma, which for some reason I've sung each summer as we waited for the summer school bus.  I comment on each car or truck or bus that goes by, using my excited voice, which tends to keep Janey happy.  And then the bus arrives, and she hops on quite readily, to head off to the black hole of summer school.

9-3  I call it the black hole of summer school as I have little idea what she does there.  Her teacher does write now and then, and I know there's ABA and going in the sprinklers and breakfast and lunch, but of course Janey tells me nothing about her day, not a word.  That is a tough part of having a minimally verbal child.  Her life when not with me is a blank to me.  However, she seems happy!  I do dishes and laundry, and garden and play Scrabble on Facebook and try to make myself clean, and usually sneak in a nap.

3-4  The Waiting For Daddy Hour   Tony goes into work very early in the summer, so he can get home around 4.  Janey knows EXACTLY when he should be home.  I don't know if she can tell time somehow, or is just a very good judge of how long time chunks are.  But every day, about 3:45, she asks to "go see Daddy", which means walk down the street to meet Daddy coming home from the train.  If Daddy is late, or takes the train that comes in a different place, it's not very pretty.

4-6   This is Janey's favorite time of the day.  It's when Daddy does one of three things with her, sometimes all three.  He takes her for a ride in the car, a ride to nowhere, just cruising around and listening to mix CDs he has made for her.  She's become a huge fan of The Animals and The Monkees, and it's mostly those they listen to, with a few other songs thrown in---some Black Sabbath, some Beach Boys.  If they aren't riding in the car, they are cooking together.  Janey's favorite is "soup", which means kale or collard greens fried in oil and topped with hot sauce.  The third activity is a fire in a little fire pit Tony got.  We of course watch her extremely closely during this activity, but she adores looking at the fire.

6-9 (or whenever) This is video or TV time, combined with YouTube and iPad time, with occasional snack time or brother time thrown in.  Janey is in love especially with one movie this summer "The Little Mermaid 2:  Return to the Sea"  I am not sure what the appeal of it is, but we know it by heart.  There's also a lot of Word World and some Little Bear thrown in.

9 TV unplugged time, bed time.  We have to unplug the TV, as when Janey gets tired, she gets dissatisfied with shows after about a minute.  Most of the shows she likes are on Amazon Prime, which we have to use a password for, as otherwise, Janey can and has bought shows that aren't included in our membership.  So we are called upon to enter the password every time she gets tired fo a show, even if she just wants to watch a different episode of the same show.  We do let Janey have the iPad in bed.  It doesn't keep her awake, as once she's ready to sleep, she sleeps, instantly.  There is no drowsy period with her---she's wide awake or fast asleep.  Some nights, she's up until 10 or 11, but I'd say 9:30 is a good average.
So....we are hanging in there.  I left out a lot of times that there is screaming or arm biting, not just to make the days look better, but because these episodes are far shorter than usual lately.  We can edit them out of our days because I'd say the longest they have lasted all summer is half an hour in a row, which in the scheme of things, is very short.

I think we've been catering to Janey, to how she likes things, more than other summers.  I am sure this has to do with her time in the hospital.  We needed to keep her fed and keep her calm there, and once she first came home, at all costs.  It was a life or death matter, and I am not overstating things to say that.  And I think we realized, after doing that for a while, that we were all happier if Janey was happier.  We don't bother as much to say no to the little stuff.  If Janey needs a ride, if Janey wants to wait for the bus early, if Janey desires 5 viewings in a row of Little Mermaid 2, who cares?  If we are creating a monster...well, we aren't.  We are creating a happy girl, and one who because she is happy is making us happy.  We've done more family drives and had more of those spontaneous little good times than in years this summer.  I'm going to write more about some thoughts about what I'd call a new approach to life with Janey, but for now, I'm going to go meet her bus, cut up cheese into thin slices while she watches, the only way she likes cheese, put on a show and then change it if she needs it, and walk to meet Daddy.  And I'm glad to do it.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Tougher, the same as and better

Janey will be 11 soon, and I've been reflecting on what 11 is like for typical kids, what 11 was like for me.  It's not the easiest age for any girl, I don't think.  It's typically the start of middle school years, around the start of puberty and of girl on girl meanness and on starting to notice boys, the age of questioning your parents and figuring out who you are.  I think a lot about ways that life with Janey is, all at the same time, tougher and the same as and better than with most almost 11 girls.

The tougher part is quite obvious, of course.  It's a lot of what I write about.  It's tough to have a girl her age who isn't usefully toilet-trained, who is minimally verbal, who has no academic skills, who screams and bites herself when she's upset.  It's terrifying, as we found out, to have a child who can't tell you the most basic things that are wrong physically---who can have a burst appendix for days that even doctors at a top notch hospital can't easily detect.  It's sad to not ever really know what Janey's life at school is like.  It's very hard that she doesn't have friends.  It's heartbreaking that her future is not going to include marriage or a career or children.  All that is, putting it mildly, tough.

Some parts of Janey at this age are really not that different than having any almost 11 girl.  That hit me this past weekend at the beach.  Janey loves the beach, and she ran in and out of the waves and picked up shells and just had fun in a way that was truly not that different than anyone else her age.  Of course we had to keep an eye on her, but we would be keeping an eye on a typical girl that age in a public place.  Her enjoyment of the beach was not because of her autism, or despite her autism---it was just enjoyment.  When we all sit down to eat Chinese food or pizza, she is no different than any sister in a three kid family.  She grabs her share and we all gobble down.  There are moments when I look at the three kids in the back of the car and think "There's my family!" and don't think for a minute about the autism.  That might not seem like a big deal to most people, but it's a wonderful kind of ordinariness to me.

And there are the parts of Janey at this age that are better than what I think life would be like with a typical almost 11.  Yesterday after school, I put on some Beatles while I did dishes.  Janey was in the kitchen with me, and she delighted in the music.  She delighted to such an extent that she was truly in a state of bliss.  We listened together to "In My Life" 5 times, as she kept hitting repeat, and as tears came to my eyes, she hugged me over and over.  Then we danced to "Birthday", the theme song of her shared birthday with Freddy.  I thought about this birthday to come, when my baby will be 11 and her brother Fred will be a legal adult, 18.  I thought of the moments of joy with Janey, and how she will in some ways always be my sweet little girl.  The joy with Janey is pure and overwhelming when it happens.  Those are the moments that keep us going.