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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Autism and Routines, with thanks to Naoki Higashida

I recently got a chance to review the latest book by Naoki Higashida, a Japanese man with autism who writes by means of pointing to letters on a letterboard.  I'm ashamed to say I've owned "The Reason I Jump" for years, and hadn't read it until now.  When I got the new book, "Fall Down 7 Times Get up 8", I read them both.

The books were not what I expected.  They were far more helpful than I'd expected, and more nuanced.  The author is very honest, and the books are far from all positive---there are many parts of being autistic that he says are very painful.  He sounds much like Janey in terms of his verbal speech and his level of independence.  That doesn't mean that she is like him, any more than I'm like others who speak at my level, but it's a chance to get a glimpse into the mind of someone with more insight into Janey's mind than most.

I won't go over everything about the books---you can read them if you want to.  But what I want to talk about is what I learned about autistic routines, both from the books and from applying what I read to what I've seen in Janey.

Higashida explains (and I'm paraphrasing here) that routines are not really a positive or negative thing.  It's not that they bring him pleasure or make him upset.  It's more than they simply MUST be done.  They are like breathing or eating.  Once something is established as a routine, it feels essential to follow the routine.  If someone tries to prevent this, it's extremely upsetting---again, not because he enjoys the routine so much, but because it feels like something vital is being stopped.

From this, I thought about how routines get established.  We establish routines all the time, often without realizing it.  For example, if Janey goes onto the bed and wets it during the day, our next part in the routine is to get upset, to remind her we always go in the potty, and to change the bed.  By following our parts of the routine, we further set it in place.  I can see how that goes.  If Janey feels the need to urinate, she starts her part of the routine---go to the bed.  We follow our parts---get upset, remind her, change the bed.  The routine to her isn't what it is to us.  She doesn't see it as "IF I wet the bed, THEN they will get all upset, SO I shouldn't wet the bed"  She sees it as a series of events that are linked.

Getting ice cream---one of the happy branches of the routine!
It's making me think that one of the big keys to both Janey and us being happy is to do everything to keep routines that make us unhappy from being established, and do everything to make routines that make us happy established.  I've done this sometimes, without thinking of it as such.  For example, after school used to be a hellish time often.  I thought about what after-school things are positive for Janey and for me.  The first part of coming home for her is always taking off her shoes and going to the refrigerator and looking for a snack.  Now, I always have a snack she will like waiting for her to find.  Before, I'd wait for her to ask, and if she asked for something I didn't have, the routine was for her to freak out.  Now, since she does the looking, her routine is to eat the food she likes that is there.  Next, she watches a video.  Before, if I was in the middle of something, I'd tell her to wait a bit to put on the show she wanted.  Then she'd scream.  Now, I make myself available when I know she'll want a show, and put it on right away.  The routine now is to watch the show happily, and my routine is to get to sit there and read or knit.  We are both happy.

It's my parts of the routine that I can change.  Much of the routine for her is reactions to things I do.  It's FAR easier for me to change the things I do to get the reactions I want from her than it is for her to change her routine.  I think this is where I often used to get tripped up, and where things like ABA don't really take into consideration how the mind of someone with autism works.  We think in terms of actions being modified by feelings.  If someone reacts angrily, or someone gives you a treat that makes you happy, we assume that will change the next step.  We think of thoughts like this... "Mama waited to put on the video because she was busy, and when I screamed, she said she wasn't putting it on because I was screaming, so next time, I won't scream"  But Janey thinks (I believe) more like "First I ask for a video.  Then Mama says not right now.  Then I scream.  Then I wait a little more.  Then later Mama puts on the video"  Janey's screaming is part of the routine.  But if I am available to put on the video right way, I switch Janey to a new routine, a branch in the other one, one where she happily watches a video and I don't have to hear screaming.

So much of what has worked over the past few easier years has come about by what many would probably see as us "giving in" to Janey.  What I think people who see it that way don't get is that we ALL are much happier.  Why is "giving in" seen as bad?  I think it's because we again don't think the way Janey thinks.  We think of someone more typical, someone who might think like "So if I make a fuss, I get what I want.  I need to use that!"  Janey doesn't think that way.  She doesn't generalize that way.  She thinks in terms of the sequence.  The sequence can include screaming or not, but it's not a cause and effect in her mind.

I might not be explaining this as well as I wish I could, but in my mind, it's been a bit of a breakthrough. Higashida explains routines much better than I do.  And I very much appreciate how hard it was for him to write the books, and I thank him for doing so.  His insight is going to make at least a few lives, those of our family, easier and happier.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The count of five is the best

The last few weeks have been busy.  We went to get Freddy at college, and then the next weekend was one of our biggest events ever as a family, William's graduation from Brandeis!  If I might boast just a bit---he graduated summa cum laude and gave the featured speech at his history major diploma ceremony.  It was a day for the lifelong mental scrapbook.

This past week, I've been thinking over and over how my favorite times are when the count in the household is five---when all three kids are around.  It's crowded, it's loud, it's food consuming and endless dishes and lots of arguments and loud music, and it's fantastic.  It's wonderful.  Being a mother to three very different and very cool kids (or two adults and a kid, now!) is my dream come true.

I've also been reflecting, though, on how autism affects the family count, the family unity.  I'll say the right things and mean them---I think we are all better off than we would be without Janey.  I think she gives our life the salt, the spice, that makes it more than it would be otherwise.  I am pretty sure her brothers and Tony would agree.

However, it also makes it very hard to be a family of five anyplace but at home.  We were very lucky for the graduation weekend.  My parents came down and watched Janey during the morning graduation, so Tony and I could go with Freddy.  When we picked up William and drove him to the ceremony, we all noted how odd it felt to have the four of us in the car.  It's the combination that just about never happens.  Someone is always at home with Janey, or if she is with us, usually the boys aren't.  But we were able to attend, and that was great.  My friend Maryellen was even there as a backup, if something had gone wrong with the arrangements.  But I wish...I wish Janey could have been there too.  And of course she COULD have, but in many real ways, she couldn't have.  She would not have stood two minutes of ceremony.  No-one around us could have listened to the speeches.  One of us would have had to leave, to take her outside.  And the focus would not have been on who deserved it at that moment, William.

For a rare event like a graduation, I accept that we will rarely number five.  But I wish that we could do more as a whole family for the more minor events---a dinner out, a visit to friends, a movie or outdoor concert or trip to the beach.  A lot of why we don't has nothing to do with Janey, and much to do with the big age divide in our family.  The boys are no longer at home most of the time, and when they are, they are often working or with friends, and that is how it should be.  But even when they are around, the simple fact is that very few places are possible to go to with Janey.  Or they are possible if one of us is primarily a caregiver, and ready to leave at any moment.  It's nobody's fault.  It's just the way it is.

Tony, William, Tony's sister Rose and Freddy
And so I treasure the times at home when we are all together.  I treasure them more than I can even explain.  Yesterday morning, Freddy came down for breakfast (more like lunch, as he works late).  The rest of us were eating and talking.  Janey ran over to Freddy and said "It's Freddy G-mara!" (a jokey way we say our last name sometimes)  We all laughed and laughed.  Then I said "It's great to have you here with both your brothers, Janey" and she said "My brothers!  William and Janey and Freddy!"  I started tearing up.  I felt like at that moment, she was grasping something she never quite has before---that she is one of three kids, one of Tony and Suzanne's children, one of the Amaras.  That is what I want for her more than anything on earth---to be part of it all, to be an equal and included member of the group.

I'm going to hold onto the moments this summer we are all together.  William heads to Chicago to graduate school in the fall.  Some day, both boys will perhaps have their own families.  Maybe, if we are lucky, we will have grandchildren.  But the moments we all five at home---those are the moments that make me wish I could save time in a bottle.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Better Than Typical

Trying on a cape!
It's interesting that I am a lot more cautious when writing about the extremes of Janey's behavior than about the everyday parts of it.  I'm always a little wary of being completely honest about how bad or how good it sometimes gets, although I always do try to be as honest as I can.  But either extreme is something I know can be hard to read about.  I don't want to discourage those with girls like Janey when I write about the toughest times, and I don't want to discourage them by writing about the best times, either, if they are going through tough times.  However, our one night trip last weekend with Janey was so wonderful I feel like I have to share.  And what kept striking me the most is how I imagine it was far BETTER than such a trip would be with a typical almost teenager...

Last Friday after Janey got home from school, we drove out to get her brother Freddy in upstate New York, at Skidmore College where he was finished with his sophomore year.  It's a trip Tony could and has done alone, but I really felt like I needed a change of scenery, so we reserved a hotel room for Friday night.

Janey was completely happy during the whole five hour drive out (it would be three hours without any stops, but we don't roll that way).  We played music the whole time, and she rocked out to a huge variety of tunes.  I love how open she is to music, to songs she hasn't heard before and songs she's heard a million times.  If it has a good beat and is interesting, she likes it, and lets us know (as she does if she doesn't like it!).  She isn't influenced by what's cool, or not cool, or what we want her to like---she likes what she likes (which was proven by the fact one of the songs she got really into on the drive was sung by Justin Beiber, and our feelings about the song didn't matter to her!)  We all discovered we loved a song by The Lemonheads, Janey let us know she's not into Madonna, we all liked the various Nicktoons songs my Slacker Radio app picked, we had a blast.
In awe of Freddy's dorm

When we got to Skidmore, Janey was just about overcome with excitement.  We don't go a lot of places at night, being very early to bed people, and getting out in the parking lot of Freddy's dorm, seeing his dorm tower and the streetlights, taking an elevator up to his room, trying on a cape that was in a box of give-away castoffs in the dorm hall----it was like we had set her up with the ultimate night of fun and thrills.  I kept thinking about how I would have felt about such a trip at her age, or how the boys might have felt.  It's fair to say I wouldn't have been quite so excited over a long drive with my parents to pick someone up---one with no real recreation or treats involved.

The thrilling elevator ride!
Janey loved the hotel, slept well, had fun at the breakfast, was happy in the car, where she several times looked to Freddy and said "It's Freddy!" in pure delight he was with us again, requested french fries but did fairly well waiting for it to be 11 am so they would be available at a rest stop McDonalds---she was great for the ride home almost all the way, until literally the last few minutes when she was sick of driving, as were all of us.

It's funny---it somehow sometimes seems wrong to delight in the GOOD that having a child like Janey brings, and it shouldn't be.  There is much that is good about having a 12 year old that still adores us, that can get excited without self-consciousness about little things like an elevator ride or a Happy Meal, having a child that wants little more in life than family, music and fun.  When Janey is happy, we are all happy, and I am going to try to stop thinking of that with an asterick, thinking "Yes, she's happy, but although being a typical preteen might be tougher, she is missing so much..."  Well, we all are missing something.  What she is missing might be different, but what makes her happy is different too, and we can delight in her happiness without thinking of it as a "despite of" thing.  We are so lucky to have you as a daughter, Janey.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Janey is not materialistic, and that's a problem

If you look up how to get a child with autism to do something they aren't inclined to do, there is almost always the same answer.  Use a motivator.  Use a reward.  Give it consistently for the target behavior, and not at other times.

When thinking about this, I thought at first "There's nothing that motivates Janey consistently"  But that's not really the case.  There is a lot that motivates Janey, but there is almost nothing that can be given as a reward to her easily.  There is a lot she loves, but not a lot that I would be able to only give her as a reward.

A typical rewards chart
What does Janey love?  What motivates her?  Silly attention, as the first thing that comes into mind---joking around with her with funny voices, or little games.  She lives for things like playing Creep Mouse or pretend tickle or high five with the whole "too slow" routine.  She adores those games.  But she doesn't adore any single one enough for it to work as a motivator for something like ABA or toilet use.  And I can't, or won't, withhold playful attention, the main way she likes to interact, to be something she only gets when she performs.

She loves music, of course.  But there isn't a certain song that would always be a reward.  She likes variety.  And it's not a case of any music.  It's not like she'd be willing to work to hear something she doesn't like or care about.  And again, I would never withhold music, her basically only hobby, from her, hold it out to get her to do what I want.  That would be cruel.

She loves food.  And I'd be fine with having some certain food be a reward for ABA or the like.  But there is no one food she's always into.  Some days, she adores chips or M&Ms, other days, she could care less about them.  Even the kind of foods that could work at home but not at school, like bacon or home fries, are not always something she wants.  Like most of us, she is in the mood for something different on different days.

Trinkets still motivate ME!
What about toys, or stickers, or beads, or something like that?  No, not at all.  She enjoys me looking at her sticker book with her, but actually putting individual stickers in it, or getting stickers as a prize---no interest.  There is not really a toy in the world she cares about.  In fact, there is not really any non-food physical object she is motivated by.  She is not materialistic, in the true meaning of the word.  Material things don't much interest her.

She likes a car ride, but not all the time, and in practicality, it's not something that would work as a reward---certainly not at school, and not all the time at home.  We are not going to put her in the car at 10 at night for using the toilet.  And it isn't practical to tell her she can't have a car ride until she does certain things.  Sometimes, we need her to go in the car.

As does candy...
I know that many kids with autism have a special interest---something that is hugely motivating to them.  And it seems like most programs to teach kids with autism skills count on this.  I don't know if Janey is unusual in there really not being a motivator for her that is usable as a reward.  I know she's not totally alone there----I'm thinking of you, Lindsey, and wondering if others have experienced this with their girls.

In some ways, I admire Janey.  She doesn't have the monkey on her back that almost all of us have---desire for what we don't have.  The things she loves most in life are free things---playing silly games with Mama or Daddy or her brothers, listening to the right song at the right time, being out and about and seeing the world.  But today, as I walked around the Target and looked at all the toys and snacks and stickers and countless things that would have been a huge reward to me (and still would be, to be truthful), I wished very much that teaching Janey could be achieved with something I could buy.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

How girls and boys with autism differ....a collection of links

In response to a question on the Facebook companion page to this blog (thanks, Ragon!), I decided to look at various articles about the differences between girls and boys with autism, and give a list of links.  I'm not endorsing the articles here by including them---just trying to provide a variety of takes on the topic!  Three big points seem to keep getting mentioned---of course that less girls than boys are diagnosed with autism, that girls with autism tend to be diagnosed later, and that girls show autism differently, with less repetitive behaviors and more typical special interests.  There's a lot of talk about the brains of autistic girls and boys being different, and some about how the ratio is less skewed in children with intellectual disabilities.

If you have any articles you've found useful I didn't include (there are MANY out there!), let me know about them---I will probably do another post like this at some point.

A pretty good piece.  It cites a lot of research, and does talk about how when there is an intellectual disability as part of the autism, the ratios get closer to 1 on 1.  But also a lot about how Aspergers type autism is harder to see in girls.

About the brain differences between girls and boys with autism, and about how boys tend to have more repetitive behaviors than girls.

A short general review, including notes on how girls are more affected academically than boys, but tend to have less sensory sensitivities and repetitive behaviors.

A list of differences between boys and girls with autism.  It mentioned as do several other articles that when girls have a special interest, it tends to be more typical than boys special interests--for example, being into music rather than train schedules.

This is a longer and very interesting piece, although it does have a lot of the "girls with autism are harder to notice" type talk.  But it has a lot of fascinating ideas, like that girls with autism have brains that are more like typical boys than like boys with autism, and the idea that it might seem like girls are more severely affected than boys because it takes more clear-cut autistic behaviors for a girl to get diagnosed at all.

Talks about the differences in ratios in more pronounced autism, and about how sometimes autism in girls can show itself as severe shyness

An interesting note about how girls and boys with autism both often have the same genetic mutations, but girls need twice as many as boys for the autism to be manifested.

A long article that is quite well done, with three girls showcased, each with a different level of functioning and different issues as a result.  Talks about how girls are diagnosed later, as a rule.  A personal note---tells about a US researcher with a $13 million grant to study the differences between boys and girls with autism.  I hope there are some blockbusters findings from that study, as $13 would certainly go a long way in providing respite and recreations activities for the girls affected.

A lot about how girls with autism appear more typical than boys...but with the interesting note that girls tends to show more autistic behaviors at home than at school or elsewhere in public.

This is a good summing up type article, with a lot of the points other articles raise in bullet form.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017


Setting up the scene---Janey is home from school in the afternoon.  She has asked me to put on a show---let's say Kipper.  As the show starts, she starts her routine.  She takes the remote from me and places it in the middle of the right couch cushion.  She observes it, and then re-places it several times to make sure it's right in the middle.  She then surveys the room, and looks for laundry baskets.  I have four of them, and I tend to leave them in the room after folding laundry.  Janey goes to any she sees and moves them carefully to the place she sees as correct.  Then, if there are any shoes in the room, they need to be lined up, left on the left and right on the right, next to each other.  If it's a light arranging day, the next step is the last---she looks in the trash and makes sure nothing in there is out of place.  Certain things don't belong there---magazines, wet pull-ups, most any form of crumpled paper.  Those items get taken out and put next to the can.  Then, and only then, does Janey settle down to watch her video.

Although it sounds hard to believe, I first noticed Janey arranging things literally as soon as she could purposely use her hands.  She would make sure toys she could reach were symmetrically positioned.  Her arranging habits well pre-date her autism diagnosis.  Over the years, the habit has ebbed and flowed, sometimes almost disappearing for long periods, sometimes being out in force.  Lately, it's at a huge peak.  The arranging rituals can take a very long time.  They are almost always done before she does something she enjoys or something relaxing---before a video or before going to sleep at night.

Unlike many of Janey's behaviors, I relate very much to the organizing and arranging.  Not that I am much of an arranger.  But I know how it is to feel I need to do something that to an outsider doesn't seem to make much sense.  I'm completely sure Janey has OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder).  I am sure because I also have it.

My OCD never took the form of arranging.  It's funny (in a strange, not ha-ha way)---OCD has a lot of forms, and most people specialize in one of them.  I was a checker.  I checked things.  On my worse days, I could check my pocketbook to make sure my credit cards and keys were in it thirty times in a row.  I could re-open a bill envelope over and over to make sure I put the check in it.  I could go down to the cellar enough to get a great workout to make sure I'd actually started the dryer.

OCD doesn't bother me much any more.  Mine has been very well under control, with medication, for a long time now.  Even before that, like with Janey, sometimes years and years would go by without the checking urges.  It's a strange disorder.  Like Janey also, I think I had OCD pretty much from birth.  I can remember as far back as my memory goes needing to check things, feeling like if I didn't check them, sometimes horrible, something unacceptable, would happen.  Unlike Janey, though, I usually knew that my checking made no sense.  Most people with OCD have that knowledge.  We know our obsessions and compulsions are generated by our minds, but that doesn't make them any easier to not do.  I don't think Janey understands that.  I don't think she has the kind of perspective that allows her to see that.

Sometimes, when the arranging gets out of hand, almost anyone would feel like saying, with some degree of impatience, "Just stop that!  Stop moving the baskets!  Stop taking things out of the trash!  Stop uncrossing people's crossed legs (another big one)!"  But I don't usually feel that way.  I know how it feels.  I know how, despite in my case knowing full well I didn't need to check my pocketbook again, I still couldn't help doing it, no matter how hard to tried to fight it.

When we next see Janey's psychiatrist, I'm going to do my level best to explain more effectively than I have in the past what is going on, and ask him about medication specifically for OCD.  I have resisted, partially because I hate the thought of her being on another medication and also because, interestingly, I think the lack of perspective in her situation makes the OCD less distressing.  It's a bit of a problem for us, but for her, I think it isn't, mostly.  I think it just feels like something that needs to be done, or it did in the past, until this latest escalation.  Now, occasionally, she is getting upset, because part of her arranging now involves my placement.  I am supposed to be in the bedroom while she watches her shows.  I can't always be there, partly because I need to check on her quite often and partly because I don't always want to just stay in there for long periods.  So far, she has mostly accepted it when I've explained I have to be elsewhere---at least for a few minutes, until she tries again to push me to the bedroom.

In a strange, small way, it feels good to be able to relate to one of Janey's behaviors as I do with this one.  I'm not autistic, which is why I often get some very good insight from those adults I know who are autistic on Janey's behavior.  With the OCD, I have the perspective. I've talked before about having OCD, but not quite in this detail, and it's a little hard to do, but also---very fair.  I write about Janey, hoping I am representing her in a way she'd approve of if she could read what I wrote, and so I should also be willing to be open about myself.

Now, to have a few minutes to myself before the bus arrives home and we start this afternoon's session of arranging.....