Commentary

All too often people—especially young men, and probably disproportionately Aspies—get into fights. Or worse still, someone attacks them by surprise and overwhelms them before they can respond. 

George Orwell once said “The trouble with competition is that somebody has to win.” That doesn't apply to physical fights, where both sides often lose. Maybe you get to walk away and go home while the other guy has to be carried to the hospital. But you still may have gotten hurt—and in ways that can pain or even cripple you for the rest of your life … physically and/or emotionally. (It's easy to think before the fact that you don't care about seriously hurting somebody as long as they “deserve” it.) 

And that's not counting stuff like your girlfriend getting mad and leaving you. (Hint: If she actually likes it when you fight, dump her. She's going to want you to get into nasty situations indeed. It's never worth it.) Or being banned from the bar or nightclub. Or getting sued for damages to the furniture … not to mention the other guy's body. (Even if you “win” that case, do you want the publicity, time sink and stress, not to mention legal fees? Not to mention if the other side wins, it's on you for the rest of your life unless you pay it all off.) 

Or maybe you get arrested and charged with assault and battery, or even worse. That means heavy legal fees, time and stress, likely fines and probation and the distinct possibility of clearing your schedule for months or even many years. And good luck getting a nice job or apartment after that! 

Another possibility: The other guy, and/or his friends, gang brothers or family, may come after you personally. Just in case, you've now got to look over your shoulder and become paranoid for days, weeks, months … or even the rest of your life (but maybe not for too long!). A few guys with Louisville Sluggers and tire irons can give you a lesson you'll never forget. Or they may skip the lesson and just blast you from behind with a shotgun one night. 

So much for winning, huh? 

Now for the good news. As the great general Sun Tzu put it in his The Art of War more than 2,500 years ago: “[T]o gain a hundred victories in a hundred battles is not the highest excellence; to subjugate the enemy's army without doing battle is the highest of excellence.” In other words, there's a great way to win most conflicts: Avoid them! 

As self-defense expert (and former drug dealer, bouncer, security guard and correctional facility director, among other things) Marc “Animal” MacYoung points out, most violence happens between people who know each other. That means that a large majority of folks who got beaten up had ticked off the wrong person. 

That's why MacYoung's Violence, Blunders and Fractured Jaws: Advanced Awareness Techniques and Street Etiquette can be the best self-defense book you ever read. It doesn't contain a single punch, kick or block. What it does give you is detailed knowledge, from someone who has been there, done that and buried more than a few of his buddies, about what makes people—including you and me—tick and how to avoid ticking others off. Also, you can learn how to avoid most muggers and other criminals, by staying out of places where they can ambush you, spotting them coming and signaling them that they should pick somebody else.

Finally, you'll be better able to navigate the complex social minefields at school, in your neighborhood, at work and elsewhere. Your professors, roommates and co-workers might never throw a punch at you anyway … wouldn't it be nice to get them on your side?

It occurs to me that for most of us, autistic or not, the ability to seek out support when needed is at its core an issue of trust. Though I would never presume to speak for all individuals who share my autism spectrum diagnosis, I daresay that it is a fair bet that many experiences mirror my own on some level. All too often, I find myself swinging wildly back and forth between a paralyzing fear of trusting anyone (think Murphy’s Law in hyperdrive) and placing my faith in individuals or situations without limits. Needless to say, neither extreme is effective in the long run, which raises the question: How do we know who we can count on to offer support when needed? Taken one step further, how do we know when it is safe to trust, whether that trust is being sought in another person, or a set of circumstances? After all, in the adult world, success hinges on one’s ability to be not so much independent as interdependent. We must be able to get along with others, and we must be able to get support on a regular basis, whether we want to or not!

I have been blessed with some amazing students with Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis—not to mention the two amazing young people with whom I share my home. A common theme I have encountered across the board—whether at work, home, or in my own head—is this admittedly pretty insane idea that to ask for support is to admit weakness, to declare defeat, to pronounce oneself a failure. My best guess is that all too often, we have found ourselves to be woefully—albeit understandingly—ignorant of the intricate social rules that tell our neurotypical counterparts who is and is not trustworthy.

I believe that at any given point in our lives, we all want to be able to seek out and receive support as needed from trustworthy individuals. If our capacity for determining who is and is not trustworthy is impeded by our autistic wiring, then how will we ever get it right? When I make the same mistake over and over, I am living the definition of insanity when I believe that this time, things will turn out differently. Ultimately, I not only end up feeling terrible about the results of my actions, but less and less likely to trust my own judgment about the motivations of others in the future. I cannot help but think that my adolescent counterparts feel the same way, only without the “wisdom” that one gathers with age and experience. Many of our children and students with ASD are being asked to learn how to recognize when they need to ask for help, for support. This is a pivotal skill for anything that resembles success in the adult world. But if being able to trust other people and forces beyond our control—and most of all our own judgment—needs to come first, then are we missing a crucial step in this lesson? Is this a lesson that can even be taught?

I think it is. Call me crazy, but I think we can teach our young people born with Theory of Mind deficits how to trust wisely. In my own little world, I am learning how to do this with lots of support from trustworthy individuals. I did not enter the situations where I have found these people with unbridled trust. Quite the opposite, in fact. Fresh from more than a few situations where trusting had left me feeling helpless and defeated, I was quite guarded, trusting no one and nothing. In my professional life, I found myself side-by-side with individuals who I learned to trust thanks to the way they treated me: with honesty and respect, compassion and friendship. So I would venture a guess that our young people who need to learn to ask for support need first to spend quality time with individuals who treat them with honesty and respect, compassion and friendship. This in turn becomes a lesson to us all. For who among us—autistic or not—doesn’t  benefit from spending quality time with others who treat them with honesty and respect, compassion and maybe even friendship? Perhaps this is Universal Design at its finest.

I’m trying to write, and my soon to be 17-year-old (yikes!) is outside on the swing set, making so much noise I can’t think. I pound on the window, and the dogs start barking. Great. That’s much better.

Cameron likes to swing. And he makes these noises while he’s swinging. Neither of these activities are what would be considered socially acceptable behaviors for a 17-year-old. Both of these activities are becoming somewhat of an annoyance. Well, truth be known, the noises have always driven me crazy. I guess somewhere along the line, I just started tuning them out. Other people aren’t so fortunate, I gather. Cameron and I were at the gym last weekend, and I could hear his vocalizations and high-pitched chattering throughout the facility …  with my earphones on! At one point, I overheard two gym goers discussing the strange behavior of the boy on the treadmill. I seriously contemplated just ignoring Cameron while they were around, so they wouldn’t associate me with the “strange” boy. Instead, I walked over to Cameron and let him know that his noises were echoing, and I asked him if he even realized he was doing it. As expected, he said he hadn’t realized it, and was quiet … for a moment or two.

The vocalizations are one thing, but then there’s the swinging as well. Cameron sees it as a NEED. It used to be enough to jump up and down on a mini-trampoline in his bedroom. Unfortunately, we don’t have the headroom to accommodate indoor tramping anymore. Cameron now gets his energy release in the backyard on a well-worn swing set. It’s so well-worn that I’m a bit worried about its structural soundness, especially considering the daily workouts Cameron puts it through. But what’s a mom to do? Buy a 17-year-old a new swing set for his birthday? In the not too distant future, I see Cameron living independently. Must I add “close to playground” to the list of amenities we will be looking for? Surely that won’t go over well when parents see a young adult male hanging out on the swings.

So how do I transition Cameron to a more age appropriate way to satisfy his need for swinging? How do I make him aware of his noises and their effect on people around him? And are there other behaviors I need to consider transitioning him from or to that I’ve overlooked? Should I wean him off of Sponge Bob, or will that eventually happen on its own? If it doesn’t happen naturally, does it matter that Cameron’s entertainment choices are the same as most 10 year-olds? Going to the movies with friends might prove to be challenging if his interests don’t mature somewhat.

I’ve noticed a rise in the use of my question mark key. Just when I think I’ve figured out what I still need to figure out, more stuff to figure out appears. And how can I think straight with all that noise coming from the backyard? The first reader to answer all these questions correctly wins a “slightly” used swing set!

OK, so that isn’t necessarily true, but I got your attention didn’t I? 

I’ve never been skilled in the art of subtlety, so I’ll just come out and say it: Autistic people have sex! If reading this statement makes you feel a bit nauseous, well, tough—autistic children grow up! Contrary to popular belief, not all of us are quirky, asexual robots. C’mon Temple Grandin, people are animals too! Enough about cows, let’s talk about the birds and the bees. 

Unfortunately, many parents dread having the sex talk with their children, carefully avoiding that particular can of worms as long as possible. Guess what, with or without you, your child will one day get hold of a can opener. If you don’t educate them about sex, someone else will. Think fifth grade is too early? Well, their peers don’t—word around the schoolyard goes from Pokémon to Penthouse in the blink of an eye. 

Your child may not be asking about sex, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking about it. This is especially true of autistic children, who are less likely to come to their parents with questions and concerns, yet more likely to be confused and disturbed when hormones kick suddenly into high gear. The wrong kind of sexual education can be outright dangerous. Make no mistake, sex is powerful, but ignoring it solves nothing. 

My parents began worrying about my sexual curiosity relatively early. At 11 years old, I happened to read that the world would soon end in a “massive nuclear orgasm.” The following evening the principal of my Christian school joined my family for dinner. We found ourselves discussing the book of Revelations. I informed my principal that we were, indeed, nearing the end times... and would all soon die of nuclear orgasms. 

In reality, I was something of a late bloomer. I had no interest in sex whatsoever during my early adolescence. Peer pressure got to me eventually. Honestly, my first time was pretty disappointing. This isn’t like that scene in “Titanic!” I thought. 

Sex is a bit tricky for an undiagnosed autistic with sensory issues. I complained the whole time. “That feels weird … Your perfume is making me woozy … I can’t concentrate—the cat downstairs is eating too loud!” Eventually I gave up, crawled out of bed, and went to make a grilled cheese sandwich. My girlfriend broke up with me before the cheese had time to melt. I could not understand why she was upset. What did I do wrong this time? The whole evening was baffling. The grilled cheese was good though! 

I’ve since learned that healthy and honest communication is the key to enjoying sex. If parents begin an open and constructive dialogue, children will feel more comfortable continuing that dialogue with future sexual partners. An autistic person may bring a lot of baggage to the bedroomanxiety, sensory issues, phobias, and emotional dysfunction can be a major turn-off. Initial experiences may prove awkward and upsetting. However, with time, patience and open communication, many autistics become quite comfortable with sexual activity. Some of us become really comfortable!  A few just don’t see what all the fuss is about. 

Some autistics are heterosexual, while others are asexual, homosexual, bisexual, or transgendered. Autistic or neurotypical, gay, straight, or sidewise, everyone deserves love and respect, both of which are vitally important beneath the sheets. 

Our autistic deficits follow us into the bedroom … but so do our unique assets. After a bit of practice, you may quickly realize that autism has an upside—we are persistent, focused, inventive, detail-oriented, uninhibited by social conventions, and … we leave no project unfinished. What more could you ask for?!

No matter how much it freaks people out, autistics have sexual feelings. We may, at times, express our sexuality awkwardly or inappropriately, but who doesn’t? There’s no such thing as normal, in or out of the bedroom. Be safe, be educated … and watch out for those nuclear orgasms.  

 

There was once a time when a day in Cody’s life was filled with regimen and routine. He got up at the same time every morning. He wanted things in his room a certain way. He wanted to eat the same food for breakfast every morning. If anything deviated from his routine then the whole world was no longer right.

But as Cody has grown up and had the chance to experience more of life, adapting to change has started to become easier and in some cases it is even welcomed.

Many other families with loved ones who have some form of ASD tell similar stories. And sometimes adapting to change is very difficult. But change is part of life and even those with ASD must endure it.

In one of my previous columns I spoke of having worked with at-risk youth at a residential treatment facility. It was a job I enjoyed very much. When the schedules changed, however, and I had limited time at home with Cody and Bill, I knew I must leave. Then several weeks ago, I was hired as a Behavioral Health Technician at a local children’s psychiatric hospital. I was elated to be able to work with children again. But the new job would mean a change in our family’s schedule.

My first month of orientation required me to work many different shifts. How could I make this acceptable for Cody? He had been used to me being home at certain times during the day and knowing I would be downstairs in my bed if he needed me at night made him feel secure. So the first thing I did was to go over my schedule with him. I explained to him how it worked. I told him when I would be leaving the house and when I would be home again. Then I hung the schedule on the refrigerator where he could come back and look at it anytime he wanted.

Cody is accustomed to me working days, so there were no issues there. The evening shifts where I work 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. were a bit more touchy, but not terrible. I explained to him that I would be home for him on those days in the mornings and promised to come to his bedroom and let him know when I was home after my shift was done. The overnight shifts were a bit tough for Cody. Those not only require that I be gone all night, but then I am only awake for a few hours when I get home. I get home rather early in the morning, so often Cody is still in bed. Then I go to sleep about an hour or so after he gets up. Not having this time to spend to together is difficult for both of us. But after showing him that there were only a few days per month that would be like this, his anxiety lessened. I always make sure to say goodnight to him before I leave and let him know what time I will be home in the morning. When I do get home, I go to his bedroom and give him a kiss on the forehead. He wakes up just long enough to acknowledge my presence and then he goes back to sleep almost immediately.

Cody knows I will be awake at a certain time in the evening again and we spend time talking while I make my midnight meal to take to work with me. I often have him help me make it. It gives him a sense of pride to do this. He sees it as sort of his responsibility, but one he enjoys because he knows I truly appreciate his help by the praise and acknowledgment I give him.

Overall, giving Cody a good heads up and involving him in the process of making change go smoothly has proven to be quite effective in helping him come to accept both minor and major changes we all go through in life. His anxieties are kept at bay and the lessons he learns are valuable in his development toward reaching his goals of achieving a self-sufficient adult life.

In culling my closet's contents this holiday season, I've discovered a wealth of memories. I found a book for my brother last week, and today I discovered another childhood treasure: a kindergarten composition, complete with illustrations, that I made when I was five years old. More specifically, I made it on January 10, 1991 … nearly 21 years ago. This yellow, fragile piece of paper features a stick-figure image of me—brown hair, red clothes, big red line signifying a smile. I'm standing next to a snowman, with a white crayon body, three black buttons, a top hat, big arms, and a cheerful face. I've scribbled my name across the top of the image, and written a short essay below. 

The text below the images reads, “Met I Snowman. I wis boold a snow man. I wis hape. Wis I wis hape.” An approximate translation of this cryptic passage might read:  “I met a snowman. I built a snowman. I was happy. I was happy.” 

When I read this now, my first response is laughter—the laughter of recognition, and surprise. That little girl was me. Is me. She built a snowman, and was happy … so happy that she felt the need to repeat herself, just to get the point across. How simple, and yet profound. 

My second response to this piece of paper is to remember a story about Willie as a small boy, one that I don't actually remember, but that I treasure nevertheless. 

To hear my parents tell it, one winter morning they woke to find Willie missing. He wasn't in his bed, he wasn't watching TV, or eating breakfast. He'd vanished. After a few moments of panic and imagining the worst, my mom opened the front door … only to find her “missing” child happily prancing around the front yard in several inches of fresh snow. The kicker:  Willie had apparently remembered to don a tee shirt and snow boots … but he had not felt it necessary to put on underwear or pants before heading out into the frigid winter morning. The lack of these items didn't seem to bother him, however; when my mom found him, he was content, happy, playing in the snow. 

The connecting threads between my composition and Willie's escapade? Play, delight, and happiness. As children, we know that happiness is significant. Why is it that we let ourselves lose this essential knowledge as adults? Why do we let even our holidays become a flurry of things to do, rather than experiences to savor? 

My kindergarten composition has become a touchstone for me, just as the story of Willie running out into the snow is something I love to think of. Both help me to remember what whole-hearted happiness looks and feels like. And thanks to these things, I know something of why we avoid such free-spirited play: It makes us feel vulnerable, and that vulnerability is unnerving. It reminds us that within our adult selves, a child still lives … and that child loves to explore the world and enjoy life. 

Somehow, my childhood misspelling (hape) breaks through my defenses every time I think of it. Hape makes happiness seem like a new concept; it opens my heart to possibilities. It has me asking questions such as: What if we did something each day that was the metaphorical equivalent of building a snowman, of running out into the newly-fallen snow in the early morning? If we did, we just might find happiness waiting for us, right where we left it. 

That's my challenge to you:  Do one thing today that's just for joy, just for fun. There are many ways to do this, just as there are many ways to love. But if you're going outside, do remember to put on pants.  

One thing we need to keep in mind is that when people are talking about one thing, sometimes they're really thinking about something else. 

On an episode of  “Married ...With Children” (my all-time favorite sitcom), Peg Bundy and Marcy D'Arcy start arguing loudly about whether cups should be stored right side up or upside down. Peg thinks right side up is best, whereas Marcy swears by upside down. Sounds silly, right? 

That depends. In this case the difference is symbolic. You see, Al and Peg Bundy run a dirty household—and yes, that extends to the cups. Right side up cups collect dust … which, according to Peg, they eventually use to make hot chocolate! (Don't try this at home.) 

Well, issues like this are a constant peeve of their neat neighbors, the D'Arcys. Marcy is an affluent (and childless) bank manager, who feels—and acts—superior to the Bundys. Al Bundy left his glory days behind in high school decades previously. Now, he has a low-level retail job, a bad attitude and worse personal hygiene, a lazy wife, two underachieving children and a messy household. 

So when Peg argues for storing cups right side up, Marcy sees it as one more example of the Bundy household's laziness and filth. Right-side-up cups are, to her, symbolic of all that is wrong with the Bundys—and, by contrast, of all that is right with the D'Arcys. 

It's a bit like the joke about the man who went bear hunting. He saw a huge bear, fired at it … and missed. The bear ran up to him and said “Take your pick … I kill you, or you clean up all the trash around this forest.” Not exactly the toughest choice he made that day. 

He came back the following year, eager for revenge. He sighted in on the same bear, pulled the trigger—and found he'd left the safety on! The click brought the bear running: “Now I'm getting mad. Do you want to die ... or pick up all the trash around this forest, burn it and bury the remains?” Still a pretty easy choice. 

The year after that, he was determined that this time he would get the bear. He brought his trusty rifle once again, saw the bear up close, got into firing position, made sure to turn the safety off—and the bear disappeared. Next thing he knew, he felt a tap on his shoulder and a now familiar voice: “You're not here for the hunting, are you?” 

In other words, what you see someone doing—let alone saying—may not be all that's on their minds. We may have to dig deeper to see what's really on their agenda. What something is on the surface may not represent all it means to them. 

One thing that often helps in these situations: Look at the history! Play “Concentration”--look for a match—in each side's past behavior. What did they do or say before that's a bit like what they're doing and saying now? 

The Bundys and the D'Arcys had fought for years about issues like dumping garbage, noise and how much money they make. So, Peg may have seen putting cups upside down as meaningless pretentiousness, like keeping the living room spotless and never allowing anyone in it. Whereas Marcy likely perceived the Bundys' keeping cups right side up as yet another shortcut that only dirty people would want to use, like going days without showering. 

Something to keep in mind next time we see someone arguing over something that means little to us: There may be more to it than meets the ear.

It’s the phone call you don’t want to receive. 

“Ms. Galli,” she began. “This is Ashley from Camp Greentop.” 

My heart sank, wondering what Madison had done to merit a phone call midway through the seven-day camp. I had taken my first solo trip to the beach to visit a friend and was at least six hours away from the camp. 

“Oh, hi,” I replied, wheeling away from my friends so I could talk more privately. We were sitting out on the deck, watching the sun slip into the sea when my cell blared, interrupting our pre-dinner banter. 

“Is everything ok?” 

“Yes, Madison is fine,” she said. “But I wanted your advice on a couple of issues.” 

Wow, I thought. Not one but two issues. What had my precious Madison done now? 

The counselor began to describe the first issue. Madison was apparently using her cabin bed as a toilet. Her clothes were dry but the bed was wet. 

“No fluids after 7 p.m., right?” I asked. 

“Yes, we have that in your notes, but I will double-check,” she offered. 

Then we reviewed the bathroom location and set up. I suggested that they go through one toileting with Madison using that bathroom. She agreed. 

“So what else is my Madison doing,” I asked. 

“Well, she’s been hitting a fellow camper who uses a wheelchair,” Ashley explained, “for no apparent reason.” 

As I looked down at my own set of wheels, I wondered if Madison could be expressing some deep-seeded aggression. She was only four years old when I was paralyzed. I quickly dismissed that thought, letting go of that history—and the guilt. 

Did it really matter? I had to deal with the issue at hand, I reminded myself, and needed to keep my analysis of the situation behavior-based and current. I could navel-gaze later. 

“Okay, so is she angry, or does she laugh?” I asked. 

She was not angry, Ashley reported, but she did think that Madison may have found amusement in it. It happened only at dinnertime, she noted. 

I flashed back to our own dinner hour routines. My 18-year-old son still flinches when Madison gets that mischievous look in her eyes. To this day, my son ducks when Madison starts jumping. 

After my paralysis in 1997, I made it a point to be at the dinner table every night with my kids. Brittany, then nine and a born mothering type, sat on my right. Peter, age three, sat on my left with Madison to his left. I was in my wheelchair, Pete in his booster seat, and Madison was buckled into her chair. 

Sixteen months younger, Peter was often the target for Madison’s outbursts that began soon after my paralysis. Unprovoked, she would randomly whack him on the back of his head, and then laugh hysterically. 

Often she attacked at dinner. 

Madison would whack Pete. Brittany would scold, “Madison!” Pete would holler, “Mom!” And then Madison would laugh uncontrollably. Sometimes she would even hit him again, saying one of her few words, “No!” in that playful staccato tone of hers, and laugh even louder as the cycle began again. 

At that point in my life, it was so rare to experience a normal cause and effect situation that I, too, had to stifle my laughter. It felt like my own private three stooges show. 

Slapstick redefined. 

Yet, I had to find my straight-face and parent. So I did then —as I had to do now, 10 years later, with this counselor. 

When all else fails, I’ve learned, state the rules as simply as possible. 

“If she does it again,” I instructed, “state the rule. Say, ‘There is no hitting,’ and make sure she doesn’t smile or jump up and down with pleasure. Repeat it until she does not smile at all.” 

“Hold her hands, if necessary,” I added, “and get her to look at you in the eyes. Then she will know you are serious.” 

“Got it,” Ashley said. 

“And then,” I said, “make her apologize. Say, ‘Madison, say sorry,’ and use the camper’s name. Restate the rule. There is no hitting.” 

“Okay, sounds good, Ms. Galli,” she said. “Thanks for the tips. We also plan to have counselors sit between the two of them at dinner.” 

“Excellent! Love that plan.” 

We finished the phone call and I hung up. 

I dropped my head into my hands and exhaled. She was ok. Madison was ok! And, I had an advisory role—not a solo performance. 

How refreshing to have a knowledgeable team ready for input to include in their plan instead of having the parent be the plan. 

Madison finished the camp without further incident. We both enjoyed our vacations thanks to the help of good staff who embraced creative problem-solving.

Happy New Year! It's time for resolutions. I'm going to attempt to branch out from my usual eat and drink less/exercise more standing resolutions. This year I'm going to put together a special set of Transition resolutions. 

I resolve to start attending those seminars and workshops I get constant emails about. You know the ones: those seminars about SSI, Transition roadmaps, and the like. It's high time I find out what's out there, apply for services where applicable, and make sure Cameron and I pursue every opportunity available. It's so much easier to just kick back and think that there's plenty of time ahead of us before any of that nasty administrative stuff will be necessary. I'm not kicking back in 2012. I'm getting my Transition on, along with my running shoes. 

I resolve to keep Cameron on his toes. He has developed some less than desirable coping skills of late, which have essentially been shortcuts to completing a task. He is not doing himself any favors by choosing the path of least resistance, and I am doing him no favors by allowing him that path. One problem with addressing this situation is that Cameron has gotten quite adept at masking his effort, or lack thereof. As an example of this cop out coping skill, Cameron was asked to walk the dogs and give them water during a holiday road trip gas stop. My husband realized he had forgotten to pack the dogs' water bottle, and we decided to see what Cameron's solution would be. Sadly, Cameron's solution was to lie and tell us he had given the dogs water. When confronted, he apologized and said he had become frustrated when looking for the bottle. But had we not known that the water bottle was not in the car, Cameron would have just lied his way through the task, instead of asking for help in finding another solution. When I think of this type of scenario playing itself out in the classroom, I wonder how many classes is Cameron faking his way through? How many times does he say he gets it just for the sake of ending the pressure of the conversation? I resolve to cut down on those instances, and not overlook them, just because that's MY path of least resistance.  

I resolve to keep the short term in sight, as well as the long term. As I begin to project, and maybe obsess a little, about Cameron's future, I need to remember the here and now. I need to keep in mind that as anxious as I may be to chart his future, I shouldn’t create anxiety for Cameron. Cameron's father asked him what he wanted for Christmas, and Cameron responded that he didn't want anything. He said he would be moving out soon, and he would be selling all his stuff. Um … Okay, maybe I need to dial it down a notch or two. All my prompting for becoming more independent doesn't need to be interpreted as "Pack your bags buddy, you're outta here." 

It looks like 2012 will be quite a year. Cameron will be turning 17, and another year closer to adulthood. I'm going to get our Transition ducks in a row, keep him on his toes, and keep my own toes on the ground. Watch this space to see our progress. Happy New Year, and good luck with your own resolutions. 

If there is one thing I have learned from having a child on the autism spectrum it is that he perceives the world around him as well as you and me and anyone else, if not better.

What is it that programs society to automatically believe that because a person’s speech is inhibited or seen as different from the norm, that all cognitive function of that person is inhibited as well? I have seen this response time after time when others interact with my son. Now, I’m not expecting that total strangers who have never encountered anyone on the autism spectrum before will automatically know from Cody’s speech exactly what he is talking about all the time. Sometimes Cody’s speech patterns are puzzling even for me. But I strive to put my mind where his is and I can usually figure out what he means. And oh the excitement and the joy that shows in his expression when I do! Sometimes it is almost a look of relief! Like, “Oh Thank God! She did understand me!”

It has been a learning process though. It’s an ongoing one too. But I have found that patience and persistence is the key.

This involves asking many questions. For instance, Cody might say something like, “What are we going to do with them of a night?” This is one of his most common questions. One might think he might mean there are other unnamed people involved in his inquiry. But with a little investigation you will find out that “we” in this instance is actually Bill and me. “Them” is Cody himself. So he is actually asking what Bill and I going to do with him, tonight.

Thought processes for speech and language do not always mean the same thing to people with ASD as they do to neurotypical individuals. It is almost as if they have their own language. In the same way that phrases in foreign languages cannot be translated word for word and still makes sense in the English language, language patterns from many with ASD cannot be translated word for word and make sense to neurotypical people.

For example “Come sei bella” is an Italian phrase that means, “You are beautiful.” But literally translated it says, “How are you beautiful” or “What are you like beautiful.” The word “sei” is also the number six. So it is important that we know that ASD speech process sometimes work the same way. We may have to think of what the phrase really means in “our” language instead of looking at the literal translation which may make absolutely no sense to us.

For some people with autism it is very frustrating because others don’t automatically know what they mean. But for Cody, we find it works much better if you ask questions to decipher the phrase. When Cody talks about seeing a “cobra” he knows this is a species of snake. But it is also a helicopter to him. So I might say, “Where did you see the cobra?” If his reply is “up in the sky” then I know he is talking about a helicopter. He knows from going with Bill to the local museum where artifacts from the Vietnam War are on display, that there is actually a helicopter called a “Cobra.” I then might ask him, when he saw the Cobra. If he says, at the hospital then I know he is talking about the LifeFlite or the AirCare helicopter. Then I can go on to ask more questions about the subject and engage in an actual conversation about the subject matter he has initiated.

I would explain to him in that instance that not all helicopters are Cobras. There are different kinds, and they have different names. If it were only for purposes of Bill and me understanding him, I may not do that. But since he likes for everyone to understand him then I explain these things to him to help him to relate to other people. I may say, “Some helicopters are called, Grasshoppers. Some are called, Jolly Green Giants. They have different names like you and I do. Your name is Cody and mine is Michele. Both are names, but they are different names to say who we are.”

While Cody doesn’t get frustrated with being asked questions in regards to things he says, he does get very frustrated with people who reply with the all too typical, “Yeah … uh huh … ok …” He knows those people are not really paying attention and not showing they care to hear what he has to say. It does indeed take a bit of effort to ascertain what Cody means in some of his statements or questions. But it is an effort well worth putting forth to make him know that he is worth being understood.

Christmas Day has come and gone, and I am in good spirits. I received many wonderful gifts from my parents, friends, and members of my extended family. I gave some gifts to them as well before Christmas with some help from my parents. To me, it feels good to give to others around this time, but I have some trouble finding appropriate gifts for them by myself. I usually require help in this area.

The trouble with picking gifts for others is that I am more inclined to think of what I might want rather than what others would like. I write out a list of items including books, DVDs, videogames, and other things that I would like for Christmas every year. It is easy for me to compose this list because I know what my personal interests are. However, since I tend to focus on myself quite a bit, I rarely concern myself with what others might like or want, and I find it difficult to choose gifts for other people because I do not usually remember what their interests are. In this regard, my parents help me each year with finding appropriate gifts for other people in my life.

Besides myself the only other person whose interests I can remember each year is one of my previous speech teachers. I know she likes penguins, so I try to find a penguin-themed gift for her each year. It is fairly easy to find penguin-themed items, but finding one to give to her that is original and distinctive becomes harder to do with each passing year.

Even though my parents and I speak about gift ideas for others, when I actually go out to shop, I still find it difficult to remember their interests and pick out appropriate items. Again, my parents guide me as to the person’s interests. When I give the gifts, I often cannot remember what I picked out for my friends because, again, I am more focused on my own desires than others. When the gifts are opened, however, I then remember the trips where my parents and I worked together to find them. I am always disappointed that I am unable to remember what gifts I got for each person until I actually give them the gifts, and it is not that I do not want to give them a gift or think of them during the holiday season or other occasions, but it is just hard for me to focus in this regard.      

Fortunately, there was one gift I gave this year in which I did not run into any of these problems. My father and I got my mother a high-definition television. Due to the circumstances of her life, my mother currently spends a lot of her time watching television. Therefore, my father and I decided to get her an HD TV as well as a special internet streaming player which allows her to access thousands of television shows and movies, much more than we currently have access to through our cable provider. My father picked out the television and streaming player, but I suggested that we get the player at a store other than the one where we first looked for it, and it turned out that my hunch was right because we found the same player for a lower price at the other store. My mother is really enjoying our gift so I am quite pleased that I was able to help purchase this for her.

My mother has made the suggestion that I start keeping a list of people’s interests so that I can shop more independently. I think I will do this. I always do better at carrying though with tasks when information is written down and organized.

Even though I have trouble finding gifts for other people on my own and often need help to do so, I enjoy the experience. It gives me a chance to do a bit of creative thinking as I think about what other people might like and then find items which I think they will like. I hope to become better at this as my life goes on. I want to get to the point that I can choose gifts for holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions, without having to rely too much on other people’s help. With a list, I hope shopping for others will go smoother. I will be able to think of appropriate gifts on my own, thus giving me greater independence.         

This Christmas eve, I found myself in clearing-out mode, going through my closet and letting go of the extraneous. In retrospect, this seems a fitting task for the night before Christmas: Clearing out the unnecessary to make space for the new. I wasn't consciously thinking about it that way, but that's what I was doing. 

In the course of my cleaning, I found a small book I'd made when I was six years old, under the tutelage of my first grade teacher, Mrs. Sanosi. I remember her with fondness because she encouraged me in my dreams of writing and authorship. Even at six years old, I knew that I wanted to write. 

Fast forward to twenty-one years later, and I've written and published two digital books, and completed two additional manuscripts, one of prose, one of poetry. Most significantly, I am living my childhood dream, working as a full-time, freelance writer as of this November. And this dream began all those years ago, with a little book about Willie. This first book is called “My Brother,” and it is fully illustrated with the best crayon drawings I could manage at the time. The text of the book is as follows: 

“My brother's name is Willie. We do things together like jump on the bed and wake up at 6 o'clock and wake mom and dad up. 

My brother does things alone like read books and play dinosaurs. He loves to play outside. He likes to be alone most of the time. He hates to do his speech lesson with my mom and dad. He hates to be yelled at. I love to play with him sometimes. 

My parents spend most of their time teaching him. I go to my freinds' [sic] house while this is going on. He is used to being alone. He loves to line things up outside. 

His favorite book is “The Jungle Book.” His birthday is May 10th. He is 5 years old. He has brown hair and blue eyes. He loves to play his Talking Animal keyboard. His favorite room is his room. He also loves his toy stuffed animals. 

I love my brother so much I could run through the wall! My brother is one of the best people I know. My next-door-neighbors have a club house. My brother loves it. My mom and dad love my brother just as much as I do.” 

On the final pages, there are a few lines that read, in various states of scrawl, “Willie. Willie. Willie” in orange crayon. Beneath them, my mom wrote, “Willie's Printing.” 

Reading this book now, these thoughts arise: first, I admire how my childhood self had a distinctive ability to state the facts (as she perceived them) bluntly, in a free-associative way. Second, I can't help but think: My parents are my heroes. (We woke them at 6 am? For fun?) In light of all I know now, I wish I could re-write the final sentence to read: “My parents love my brother and me more than I will ever know.” 

Finally, I notice that I wrote about my brother's likes and dislikes, his preferences and personality, without once referring to autism. Though I'm fairly certain I knew the term, I'm glad that I wrote about Willie as a person, not a diagnosis. 

Reading this book reminds me of what has always been true: That I have always wanted to know my brother, and that I've struggled with sibling rivalry since day one (who hasn't?). Yet despite my struggles, at the end of the book, what rings out is love. 

The final page of the book is written in Mrs. Sanosi's hand. It says, “This book is dedicated to my family, especially my brother, my friends, and my teacher, because I love them.” And this Christmas eve, with candles in the window and tears in my eyes. I can't say it better than that.

As we're reading all those nice holiday cards and opening our gifts (I got a neato torpedo Kindle), can we think of a gift we can give ourselves? 

Let's take stock of 2011—give ourselves a “Year in Review,” as it were: 

  • What triumphs did we have? Maybe we changed someone's mind about us in a good way. Or we did something like go to a party or go on a date for the first time. Possibly we kept the same job for over six months. Go us! 
  • What have we learned? Perhaps people's tones of voice are clearer to us now. Maybe we've gotten a step closer to figuring out which occasions call for “outside voices.” Or we've mapped out a few more euphemisms—like “I need more time for myself for a while” means “I don't want to go out with you anymore.” 
  • How can we do even better in 2012? For example, we might be able to help others feel more relaxed around us. Or maybe we can devote a bit less than five minutes to discussing our research on the chemical composition of glue before asking the other person how her day went. Or work up to one unplanned trip each month ... maybe even in a group. 
  • What can we be in 2012? This year, I began the technological jump. Having grown up with landlines, paper credit reports and cloth-and-paper books, I found it quite a stretch to move to a smartphone, online credit checking and eBooks this year. (Heck, I used WordPerfect until 2004, landlines exclusively until 2005 and a desktop computer until 2010.) 

Sometimes, you can find lots of goodies lying just outside your comfort zone. The Droid that now graces my hip packs more power than my first few desktops combined. I can check my email and keep in touch no matter where I am, find the nearest Five Guys (my all-time favorite burger place, bar none), figure out which stuff at the supermarket is actually good for me, scan certain announcements and instantly put the events they contain into my personal address book and calendar and much more. 

How does it do all that? By synchronizing with others the world over. Not to mention by updating regularly. 

If a humble little palmtop device can do it, what can we accomplish that way? 

Here's something we can all get in on—whether you’re on the autism spectrum or not. Take a few minutes and remember what you hoped to accomplish in 2011. Look and see what actually happened—what you wanted and what you didn't, what you were looking forward to and what seemed to strike you blindsided. 

Now, where do you want to go from here in 2012? How do you want to be a better friend, a more successful professional, a part of a happy (happier) relationship? Focus on one or two SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound) goals. Then visualize them. When you have an image of yourself, say, smoothly chatting with others, or changing plans more flexibly or going out on a date, you can work toward them—and achieve them—much more easily.

“I just don’t want to go to work.” I have heard this phrase countless times in my life, and have uttered the words on more than one occasion myself. Growing up, I always imagined myself in a career, rather than a job. When my adult life headed in a direction that was not leading me down a “career path,” but rather a “job-after-job-after-job” path, I grew increasingly dissatisfied with how I was spending a large portion of my time. For those of us with Asperger’s, feeling unsatisfied in how we are spending a large portion of our time can have disastrous consequences.

My own experiences in the working world for the two decades or so of gainful employment has led me to reach the conclusion that meaningful employment can make or break us Aspies, at any age. This makes the importance of my career now—teaching employability skills to teenagers with disabilities—all the more significant. One of the skills we work on teaching in Career Education is knowing when to ask for help when help is needed. Every time I have a student say to me, “I just don’t want to go to work,” I see this as an attempt on the student’s part to do just that—reach out for help. The reasoning behind the request may end up being mundane, such as being tired on that particular day. Or the reason may be that the student is bored with the job that has been assigned. I suspect most of us, Aspie or not, can look back on our first ventures into the working world and recall that these were not exactly stimulating experiences on any number of levels. I know my days as a supermarket cashier left much to be desired, but there was enough motivation in the job, which suited my comfort level, to keep me going back shift after shift for the better part of three years. The point is, though, that if an individual who struggles in the area of self-regulation by nature is faced with having to perform in a job where there is no motivation to be found, this is a recipe for disaster. My gut tells me this is true, and my experiences back it up.

I spent most of my adult life working in jobs where the only motivation was a paycheck. While this in and of itself certainly is a reason to show up every day, there came a point where the part of me that needed a career finally won out over the part of me that was convinced that I would never be able to do what was required of me to attain that goal. So in addition to making sure that my students know how to ask for help when it is needed, I need to make sure they also learn to recognize those situations where help IS actually needed. If, “I don’t want to go to work,” really means, “I’m feeling very (bored, out-of-place, stuck, undervalued) at work,” then our young people with AS need to learn to be able to identify and express that feeling. Back in the day when I was an adult with undiagnosed Asperger’s and working in a job that was just a job and not a career, I grew increasingly dissatisfied day after day, week after week, month after month. I did nothing to change my situation because I didn’t recognize that I needed help, and therefore didn’t know to ask for it. I would inevitably end up leaving the job under circumstances that were typically of my choosing but not in the best interests of building my resume. The one time when I did recognize that help was needed, my attempts to ask for it in an expected manner were disastrous. So despite the fact that this was actually one of my first jobs in the career that I love and was meant to be doing, this one failed attempt led to a worst-case scenario. Getting my diagnosis—and along with it a much better understanding of how my mind worked and what I needed in order to be successful—led  me to the understanding that asking for help is not actually a sign of weakness, but of strength. It led me to the understanding that knowing when to ask for help is not actually a sign of inferiority, but of intelligence on a level I never understood. So in the interest of keeping with the tradition of New Year’s resolutions, I would like to resolve here and now that in 2012, I will do my best as an educator to impress upon my students the importance of recognizing when help is needed, and asking for that help—and while I’m at it, I resolve to apply that lesson to my own life as often as need be.

My husband asked me when I was going to write a column about what it was like to not get a hug from your son. My immediate response was a bit on the defensive side. I told him that Cameron lets me hug him from time to time, and that allowance is more than most moms get in the autism universe. But then I started to think a bit about the well-intended writing prompt. I’m sure my husband notices that I never miss an opportunity to grab our daughter and smother her with kisses. It stands to reason that he would think I’m aching for that type of interaction with Cameron. While it’s quite true that Cameron isn’t very demonstrative, he does show his love in countless other ways that feel just as good as a spontaneous warm hug. How does he love me? Let me count the ways:

Cameron strives to live up to the expectations we have of him. He does his chores without prompting. You don’t know how good it feels to open the dishwasher, expecting to have to unload it, only to discover that Cameron has been there first. Everything is put away where it should be, and anything left in sink purgatory has been moved to the dishwasher. That feeling of pride and love overwhelms me when I realize that Cameron has done exactly what he’s supposed to do.

Cameron respects me and understands that we have different priorities. Cameron has a pattern of dressing, in that he wears a certain type of shirt on certain days of the week. When one of his button down shirts had to go out of the rotation due to a missing button, he dropped casual hints about the needed repair. He understands my challenge with a needle and thread, and only sporadically asked how the shirt was coming along. I knew how important that shirt was to his routine, and the fact that he didn’t nag me about it for the month and a half it took me to finally get around to fixing it made me proud. He knows I’m busy and never considers his needs more important than mine, even if they are.

Cameron wants to be more independent and he appreciates every little nugget I teach him that gains him more independence. Whether it be cooking an omelet or tracking his bank account, Cameron really wants to learn. And when he expresses his gratitude for this education, whether in words or actions, I feel as though my heart may burst with love.

Cameron is certainly no Momma’s Boy, that’s for sure. But it’s clear to me that I’m one of his favorite people on this planet. I remember when he was 4 years old and I was going through a particularly rough time. We were drawing with chalk on the sidewalk, and he said, “Draw Mommy.” I drew a stick figure with great hair. He said, “Draw Mommy sad.” I drew tear drops on the face of the stick figure with great hair. Cameron patted the sidewalk and said, “Oh. Poor Mommy.” I didn’t need him hugging my neck at that moment to know how much he loved me.

It has been a long time since that night when Cody was four years old and we were looking for a seat in the bleachers at a local horse show, when all of the sudden he bolted up the stairs and planted himself next to a little blonde girl who was about the same age. The look on their faces as they gazed at each other and grinned was priceless. That was the first time we saw evidence that our son had a true interest in the opposite sex. It was all so innocent back then but now Cody’s interest in young ladies has matured. He notices much more about them now than just pretty hair and a sweet smile. While not many questions or comments have risen as of yet, I can see the day is approaching when they will.

So how do parents explain the subject of the birds and the bees to an adult child with autism? This is a question I have been pondering a lot over the last couple of years as I have watched my son’s curiosity about women growing stronger a little more each day.

Little by little we have been engaging in conversation about the matter with the greatest finesse we can muster. One of the first things that we talked about was the subject of the respect that two people who love each other should have. This requires a great deal of breaking the term respect down into definitions that make sense to Cody.

I like using analogy and visualization. For instance, “Cody if you wanted to spend an evening with a young lady you really liked, by doing something you both like to do, that might be called a date. But if you choose something you like to do, but she does not, do you think she would want to go out with you again? So would it be better to choose something you both like to do?”

Now with Cody I know his favorite activities, so I use specific examples. Being specific as I can be in the theoretical example I give him provides the vision. I ask him lots of questions such as, “Do you think a girl would like you better if you used good table manners or if you talked with your mouth full?” Or, “You like people to talk to you in a soft voice, so do you think it would be a good idea to use a soft voice with a girl who you want to like you?”

We also have instilled in him what is appropriate with some people in his life is not appropriate with everyone. For instance, while it is perfectly fine for him to bear hug me, but others who do not know him as well may become a bit anxious about that. Therefore it might be better to treat those who do not know him as well in a more gentle way.

We also do role modeling with Cody. If we all go to a restaurant, Bill instructs Cody about what it means for a man to open a door for a lady while he opens the door for me. Then when we are leaving Bill passes the torch to Cody by saying, “Now it’s your turn to open the door for the lady.” Then Cody will open the door.

These techniques are used by parents of neurotypical children every day for the purposes of teaching all kinds of different skills and beliefs. But for those of us with adult children on the autism spectrum it is important to continue those techniques into adolescence and adulthood. Repetition and routine are very important for Cody to progress in all areas of life, including how to develop a rapport with the opposite sex.

These are the fundamentals we have chosen to start with. Once Cody has a grasp on the concept of respect between a man and a woman, then we can begin to talk about the feelings he experiences when he is with a young woman to whom he is attracted. Discussing these types of sensitive subjects with Cody requires using very plain language and skipping the scientific terms. While explaining this adult matter to neurotypical children in a more detailed and abstract manner may be beneficial to them, explaining the same adult subject to Cody requires us to use explanations that can be understood by a concrete thinker.

My brother Willie and I are alike in our desire for order; he likes to have things just so, and so do I. We like lists and plans and knowing what to expect. Unexpected changes to our usual routines do not sit well with us. And though this can pose difficulties at times, it also presents us with moments of beauty, shared experiences of continuity and tradition. In the midst of this holiday season, I think of the traditions that my brother has begun, the small ways in which he shows his love for our family through his acts of service. For example, Willie likes to run to the mailbox and pick up our family's mail each day. He enjoys taking empty plastic, metal, and glass containers out to the garage for recycling, and helping my dad unload the groceries from Costco. He takes pride in his ability to contribute, and becomes frustrated if he cannot complete his usual tasks. For Willie, as for all of us, service to others and a sense of personal success are inextricably linked.  

At times I lose sight of this; at times, I cannot see past Willie's support needs, and how much my parents do to care for him. Yet it is important for me to remember that Willie cares for them as well. He gives as he is able. Though at times I forget this truth, the holidays help me to remember. In this season, I am reminded that, in fact, we all need each other's small acts of love more than we know. 

In a way, seeing how Willie values his acts of service prepared me for life in the L'Arche community (a faith-based non-profit with group homes across the world, where I lived for two years). In working with the core members there, I learned about the humility and dailiness inherent in real love. I learned that sometimes, the most heroic actions are the small, consistent ones, the ones that no one will applaud or herald. And nowhere was this more apparent to me than at L'Arche's nightly prayer-times. Most often, prayer-times are very simple: Community members pass a candle around the table and share something that they're thankful for, or their favorite part of the day. But at one L'Arche supper I attended, the person leading prayer asked us to share an insight about the nature of the person to our left. Specifically, we were asked to share “what filled them”. Cassandra, who was seated to my right, shifted to face me when it was her turn to speak. With a smile on her face, she said, “I believe that you are full of love.” That unexpected statement has sustained me through many dark times. When I doubt myself, I have held on to Cassandra's words, knowing them to be both an affirmation and a challenge. 

People like Cassandra and Willie have taught me that small acts of love are what light our way in dark times, literally and figuratively. Case in point: When my husband and I visit my family for the holidays, I know what we'll see as we drive up the dead-end street at night. As we approach, we'll see a house full of light, a home with candles in every window to welcome us. Turning on the electric candles has become Willie's responsibility, something he does with clockwork regularity each night of the holiday season. I always thank him for doing it, though I'm not sure he understands why I value it as I do. And, in truth, I do not fully understand it myself. All I know is that, when I see those lights in every window, I feel connected to my brother. Whenever I see those small lights illuminating the darkness, I remember all that Willie has to offer, and I give thanks.

As Aspies, we tend to have a tough row to hoe. 

If you're an Aspie, you've likely grown up being yelled at, bullied and generally made to feel like a failure. And having little idea why. 

Not knowing from day to day if someone is going to scream at you, complain about you to the teacher or the boss or even maybe call the cops on you for doing or not doing something that no one ever told you about tends to put a damper on your confidence. 

And when you say something like “Well, if she'd only told me such-and-such I'd have been glad to ...” and the response is like “BUT SHE DIDN'T WANT TO HURT YOUR FEELINGS, YOU STUPID JERK!” you might wonder if you'll ever understand people. 

If we had a more visible disability, it would be one thing. People would not be on our case quite so much for doing things that annoy others. 

But when we regale everyone, especially our elders and betters, with something like the history of horsemeat, then stare at someone for minutes on end and when confronted about it plead that we had no idea there was a problem, it doesn't go over quite as well. People respond “Don't play stupid—we know you've got brains!” 

Understandably, it can feel like we don't know anything and everyone hates us and we shouldn't even bother trying. That goes beyond discouragement to something approaching learned helplessness. 

And with other kinds of helplessness, we need to start by discovering the power we already have. And as the saying goes—if it were easy, we'd have already done it. 

Thing is, we hold a great deal of power over our lives—we just need to learn to harness it and use it wisely

If we don't notice all the unwritten rules and expectations that guide society, we can go through life assuming that most people are stupid, oversensitive, irrational overbearing jerks. If the only dimensions of life we can see are technical and intellectual, we figure all we need to do is read enough books and get through school with flying colors and we'll know everything. We can keep telling ourselves that every time we lose a friend, job, volunteer opportunity, date, etc. 

Paradoxically, we need to discover our power—beginning by understanding all the things we don't know and all the ways we've been ticking off everyone else. 

In other words, we need to buck ourselves up by putting ourselves down a little bit. Not with a blanket, hateful dismissal like all too many people do, but with a point by point road map of the ways in which other people actually tick—and of the ways in which we've been ticking them off. As the saying goes, knowledge is power!

For the first time in eight years, I’m beginning to see signs of … what should I call it? Sibling stress? Resentment? Attention envy? My daughter, Chloe, is eight years younger than Cameron. My passion for all things Autism After 16 is getting on her nerves, frankly. How do I know this? Well, I’m afraid I cannot divulge that, as it would require that I admit to having read Chloe’s journal. And what self-respecting mother would ever do that … much less admit doing it? Suffice is to say that after being read aloud a recent “Transition From The Trenches” column, Chloe was clearly of the “enough already” mindset.

I have two very unique, very different, and very wonderful children. Because of their age difference, I often tell people I have two only children. Despite their differences though, they are very much brother and sister in every sense. I have never seen Cameron as happy as when he found out he was going to be a big brother. For years, he would comment out of the blue, “You know, I still remember the day we got Chloe.” We “got” her, as in we “got” a gift, which is exactly how he thought of her. And Chloe loves being Cameron’s little sister. She likes to pester him, but she also supports him. She’s sensitive to Cameron’s challenges and tries not to be the “smarty pants” he claims her to be. In Chloe’s homemade Thanksgiving card to Cameron, she wrote, “I’m thankful you are my brother because you give GREAT hugs and you are SUPER intelligent.” (Did I just hear “Awwww”?)

So now with all my pride in Cameron’s accomplishments and my ramblings about AA16, I’m afraid Chloe finds herself in the shadows from time to time. She’s struggling with the role reversal, but her way of dealing with this struggle is not rebellion or pouting. She is confiding in her “For Chloe’s Eyes Only—Keep Out” journal. Ahem … so I assume. Though Chloe is not an attention seeker, it naturally gravitates towards her. She’s bright and talented, and her father and I are constantly in awe of her. We are also in awe of Cameron’s ability to work hard and take on the responsibility of moving towards independence. I hope that neither of my children begrudges the other the awe received. It’s a difficult balancing act, and it’s even more difficult to know if you’ve got the balance right. There is an implied understanding expected of them both. They each must know when it’s time to let the other shine, and not take it personally. That’s a pretty big expectation.

Admittedly, as Cameron has entered the age of transition, and as I have embarked on this endeavor with AA16, my focus has shifted over the last year. The good news from Chloe's perspective is that I now work from home, and my schedule allows for much more field trip chaperoning. The bad news is that this whole process of growing Cameron up is clearly lighting a fire within me. Why is that bad news? It's not really. Unless you're the child that is recognizing for the first time in her life, she is not the source of that fire. But as she is the source of so many other fires, I'm sure she won't be filling up those journals too quickly. Not that I would know if she did!

As of this writing, I am officially finished with my latest college semester. I have spent the past three days completing one last assignment, a pair of essays similar to the pair I had to complete for midterm. I feel incredibly relieved now that both of them have been submitted and graded. I have a sense of closure with the events of the previous semester, but I also know that I have one more semester to go, and I am already preparing myself mentally for it. 

I felt a copious amount of stress as I began writing the last two essays for my remaining class. I had completed all of my assignments in all of my other courses, so I had plenty of time to finish the essays, but the pressure was still on because both essays would require some time to research and write. I had gotten my reference books at a couple of different libraries about a week ahead of actually writing the essays, but I didn’t  have a lot of time to look through them because I had to complete all of my other work first. Therefore, as I wrote each essay, I looked up material in the books at the same time.  Fortunately, most of the books contained indexes arranged by topic so I could easily find which pages might contain the type of information I needed. Using the indexes, composing the essays took far less time than I thought they would.  

I put the finishing touches on the essays and submitted them yesterday, thankful that both of them and my obligations for my other classes were complete. I have spent today waiting for my final grades to come in and relaxing, something I have not been able to do for quite some time. It feels so good to be able to have about a month off between semesters, and I am also now able to turn my attention to celebrating the holidays with my family. I still have chores around the house to complete, but fortunately, I find it much more relaxing now that I do not have to worry about deadlines and grades for a little while. 

I am also anticipating my final semester coming up in about a month. Prior to beginning my finals, I visited my course administrator at the college campus to choose my classes for the upcoming semester. I am looking forward to next semester because I feel I picked out a good mix of classes which will help me immensely in the future. I am especially excited to start the three writing classes I picked up. I have done a lot of writing for my previous courses, but I have not worked in a class devoted specifically to writing just yet. I think I will enjoy these classes more than most of the ones I have had in the past because they will help me to learn many different writing techniques, techniques I hope to use to make my living as my life goes on. My other classes are mostly extensions of classes I have enjoyed in the past, but I feel they may provide me with insight into some interesting subjects to write about in the future. In a few weeks, I will head to the college bookstore to pick up the materials I need for my new classes, and I will be checking the syllabi so that I will be able to plan out my work schedule. This process has always been a bit chaotic for me in the past, but once everything is organized, I will be able to settle down and begin my work in earnest. Now that I know that everything smoothes out as I go, I feel I have been able to handle the process better and better as each semester comes and goes. 

Of course, my preparations for the upcoming semester will not fully occur for another few weeks, but I feel like I am in a period of transition. I have finished climbing one mountain, and I am looking forward to beginning my climb up to another peak. I also take comfort in knowing that my next semester will also be the last one I have to do before I graduate. If my past semesters are any indication, I am sure that this one will have its fair share of challenges, but also some truly enjoyable moments. As usual, I look forward to learning new things.       

Perhaps it is the spirit of days gone by, when life was much less complicated, that brings Cody to a place where he is of a peaceful heart toward everyone and everything around him.

Antiquing is one of Cody’s favorite past times. From the moment we walk into an antique store, all distractions from the outside world seem to disappear. I see my son transform into this young man who finds a quiet and contented place inside himself where he feels free to be curious and inquisitive about all the things from generations past he sees before him.

He wanders from booth to booth inspecting all the things of old he sees. Unlike other times and other places where he has more of a boisterous demeanor, in an antique store he takes great care and thoughtfulness when handling and examining items on display that capture his attention.

He ponders over them surveying each detail. Occasionally, he asks, “What is this?” “What does it do?” “What is this for?” When we give him answers to his questions, he listens with mindful focus.

Some of Cody’s favorite articles to look at are antique lamps. Many of them have the Tiffany-style shades with the stained glass designs of a multitude of colors. Some are hurricane lamps, which sometimes still have oil reservoirs and work by lighted wick. Others have been revamped to work by electricity. Cody enjoys the ones he can actually turn on and off in the store, which he may do a couple of times before moving on to the next object he notices.

Other things Cody likes are old lunch pails. For instance there was one that was covered in leather and had an image of young children playing etched on the face of it. He also likes the different types and colors of old bottles such as the brown vanilla bottles or the cobalt blue ones that may have been used for medicines.

Then there are the different types of blankets, quilts or bedspreads. Chenille is one of Cody’s particular favorites to touch and feel. While some people with autism are tactilely defensive, Cody is the opposite. He is tactilely sensitive. This means instead of having an aversion to how things feel to him, he has a deep fascination with how things feel to him.

I have often wondered what it is about this environment that makes such a difference in Cody’s overall behavior from the time we step from the car to the time we enter the building. There is almost an instant metamorphosis in his conduct, his personality, really his whole state of being. He even seems to take on a different appearance. The rather hyper animation and expression we are used to seeing in Cody seems to stay in the car to be replaced by a mood of repose and tranquility.

One of the things that I have noticed is that most antique shops have music playing overhead. Generally, it is very soft and soothing. Sometimes the genre is classical but I have also heard acoustic, indie and different types of ballads.

Typically the stores most always have a cozy kind of atmosphere. The booths are neatly arranged, some even to the point they may look like a bedroom from the 19th century.

Occasionally, we do more than window shop. We have been known to buy. Over the years we have built up quite the collection of different pieces of antique furniture and accessories. Cody’s bedroom now looks somewhat like the captain’s quarters of a ship. Our family room resembles our vision of what the living quarters of an old lighthouse might look like. These are two of Cody’s favorite rooms in the house. Neither room has a radio or television. In the family room he often enjoys sitting in the quiet by the fireplace and walking around what he calls his “Antique Road Show Room.”

Even though Cody is now 25 years old¸ we still must engage in positive support for appropriate behavior, actions and decisions. And one of the best rewards we can offer him is a day out to the antique stores, even if it is only to look.

As I shared the news of my recently-launched digital book with a sibling support network on Facebook, I remembered the first form of sibling support I ever experienced, which took the form of a friendship with a fellow sibling named Holly. Our mothers introduced us because they thought we could both use a friend. (They were right.) Yet Holly and I connected not only because both of our younger brothers had autism spectrum diagnoses, but because we were both shy, creative, and extremely introverted girls. Meeting Holly was something of a strange relief; for once, here was someone that I could help come out of her shell. Yet beneath Holly's shyness, I could distinguish the outlines of a vivacious, smart, witty, one-of-a-kind personality, and I couldn't help but want to get to know her. 

We were fast friends, spending untold hours together. When we weren't actually visiting at each other's houses, we were talking on the phone. The fact that we could understand one another's unique siblings was a significant part of the foundation on which our friendship flourished. Whenever my brother ran away or lost his temper, I knew that I could count on Holly for support. This support sometimes took the form of in-depth conversations about the nature of autism, but more often than not, it simply took the form of companionship. With Holly, I felt freer to try new things, and we would include our brothers in our adventures, from skateboarding to trampoline bouncing to picking up litter. This last effort was a part of our Kids Can Do Anything! Club, the mission of which was simple: Save the world by picking up litter, one piece at a time. But regardless of what we were doing, being with Holly and her brother helped me to feel accepted in a time when I wasn't quite ready to 'leave normal' on my own.  

Self-publishing my digital book also reminds me of Holly, because we developed and published a small neighborhood newspaper, The Whippany News. We typed the paper on her family's computer, begged her dad to print out copies at work each month, and sold it door-to-door for 25 cents a copy. (Special anniversary editions were 50 cents.) I would write articles, and Holly would do layout, provide graphics, and illustrate our signature comic strip. We were so proud of our paper, and rightly so; it was a challenge to put together every month, and an even more daunting task to overcome our shared reticence and sell it door-to-door. But we believed in our work, and we believed in each other. 

Sadly, Holly passed away in 2006. Yet I can't help but feel that she would have been proud of me for self-publishing, and that she would have applauded my book's title, "Love’s Subversive Stance." She loved anything contrarian and subversive, and she would have cheered me on in telling the stories of the people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that have changed my life. 

When I think of her, I know that the success of this book is not about monies earned or number of copies sold. Instead, its success is about whether or not the work speaks to people, whether or not the stories ring true. It's about whether or not I could write stories to encourage other siblings and caregivers, whether or not I tapped into that same spirit of adventure and courage that helped two very shy girls to go door-to-door with their neighborhood newspaper so many years ago. I only need to think of my brother, playing the piano, or of Holly, drawing comics, to remember what success really means. When I think of them, I remember that true success is about love. Which, as it just so happens, was Holly's middle name.

Friday night, near a downtown ATM: 

Hmmm...that's a very interesting ATM screen pattern. I wonder how it reflects on the bank? 

As the saying goes, one picture is worth a thousand words. Isn't it cool that my Droid takes pictures and sends them in a flash? 

I call up the appropriate application, stand back a bit and aim my Droid at the screen. 

Say cheese, Mr. ATM! 

Click! 

I step back and touch the photo on my screen. 

Hmmm … a bit blurry and doesn't cover enough. Maybe another pic, with just one click, will do the trick! 

An older lady approaches the ATM, presumably to do business. 

Uh-oh. 

What do you mean, uh-oh? Don't I have a right to take a picture in a public place? 

You mean to let people know the truth? Sure. Let's start by making sure the woman right there knows the truth—about what I'm actually doing. Right now, here's what she's seeing: 

  • An adult male, younger and likely stronger than she, standing at the ATM and not doing business there. You know how many muggings happen that way every year? 
  • A stranger taking pictures of the ATM. Is he trying to document its security weaknesses so he can break in there at a later date? 
  • Somebody who ought to know how suspicious this looks, yet is doing it anyway … maybe that makes it even more likely he's a criminal, because only a good crime would make it worth looking suspicious? 
  • Not to mention maybe somebody who doesn't care much about others—if he doesn't care about what others think! 

You mean to tell me she's a freelance security expert and is going over all these possibilities in her mind over these last few seconds? 

No--she's a human whose ancestors fought their way to the top of the food chain on the backs of many more physically powerful creatures and even some of their fellow humans. And thus we've evolved a suspicion of anything out of place—especially around something as sensitive as a money machine. 

She's probably read or heard a few news stories about crime around ATMs. She doesn't recall much of the details, but she knows criminals do nasty things there. Besides, the important thing is knowing what to be suspicious about, not the exact minutiae of crimes. People are always thinking up new schemes, and in any case most people can't instantly recall complex stories in a couple of seconds. 

Bottom line: She's not going to say to herself “Is this exactly like the crime scheme I read about last week, or maybe three weeks ago, in “Time, or was it on the TV news? No—it’s a smartphone camera instead of an infrared camera, so everything's OK.” More like “Hmmm...I don't know what's wrong—but I know something isn't right. Maybe snap a picture of this guy, duck into a nearby store and call 911?” 

“Good evening, Ma'am.” 

“Uh—good evening?” 

“This is an intriguing screen display, which I was just snapping a picture of. Here, take a look and see what I mean ...” 

I step back, and wait for the display to come up again. Then I point: “There it is!” 

“Wow—that is interesting!” 

I nod. “Funny, eh?” And then step back several paces to the side and face away so she doesn't worry that I'm trying to observe her type in her PIN or even planning to mug her. 

After she leaves, I go back and snap a good picture. Then I leave.

I would like to take time this week to tell the story of a very dear friend on the autism spectrum, whose experiences may serve as a cautionary tale. This friend, who did not find out about her autism until well into adulthood, spent a lifetime believing that the path to true happiness must lie in her ability to make sure those around her were happy. In childhood, she spent countless hours working to achieve an unattainable level of perfection, and failed on any number of levels, because, of course, perfection is unattainable. Faced with this inability to please everyone all of the time, and to never make waves, she buried herself in a never-ending series of secret, potentially self-destructive patterns of behavior. Even when she felt as though she had attained normalcy, there was that pesky voice in her head that would tell her she was wrong, she wasn’t like everybody else, she was crazy, she would never really be able to function the way everyone else did. Still she plowed on, doing almost all of the normal things that normal people were supposed to do, all the while making sure that everyone around her was happy, or so she thought. Getting married, having children, joining the PTA, these were all normal experiences that normal people had and surely if she could handle these then she would be normal. As she tells the story, though, it turns out she could not handle these. The efforts to please everyone—her spouse, children, extended family and friends, and even virtual strangers—took their toll both physically and emotionally. Through it all, she was convinced that she was happy, because her spouse, children, extended family and friends, and even the virtual strangers were happy. 

Except… 

Lo and behold, the spouse wasn’t that happy, after all. And as time went on, on any number of levels, it grew increasingly apparent that the children weren’t that happy, either. The others may have been—it was hard to tell—but the bottom line was her efforts to please everyone had failed miserably. My friend had never had a real understanding of what true happiness was because she was, after all, crazy, lazy, and certainly not normal … or so she thought. She had never had any reason to believe otherwise. 

One day at a conference geared towards parents and educators of children with autism, my friend decided that for all of the times she had compared her own patterns of behavior with those of her children with autism, it might be worth looking into whether or not the diagnosis fit her too … and lo and behold. There was an answer, after all. As it turned out, she was not crazy. She was not lazy. And while she may not have fit the societal definition of “normal,” she had spent enough time on behalf of her own children learning what strategies could help individuals with autism feel at least home in their own skin that perhaps there was a chance that these strategies would work for her, too. And over time, they did, and still do. My best friend now knows she is not crazy and more importantly, she knows that the clearest path towards bringing happiness to others is to find happiness for oneself. 

Why I am telling this story? After all, ‘tis the season, and perhaps a more holiday-themed reflection would be better suited to this time of the year. But I am reminded these days, for whatever reason, of all of the children I have encountered over the years in my career who have not been told about their diagnosis. These children and teens know they are different. They know where they have strengths and weaknesses. They may know that one day they will have to fend for themselves as adults. They know that they are expected to be able to do this, but if they are living in a cloud of uncertainty the odds that they will be able to do this are slim. Autism can be a scary word, but it doesn’t have to be. Approached with love, and understanding, and most of all, acceptance, autism can be part of a conversation with that young person who is struggling with self-acceptance. It does not have to be a scary conversation. Our children need the truth in order to be their own best advocates … their own best friends. For adults such as my friend, there was no high-functioning autism, or Asperger’s Syndrome, or PDD-NOS—autism wasn’t thought about as a spectrum. But today, we have the knowledge available to us as parents and teachers to give our children the tools they need to face the world. If you are reading this and you are a parent who fears what hearing the word “autism” will do to your child, please fear not. Full disclosure gives your child the best chance at figuring out who they are, where they fit in, and how to be their own best friend.

In an earlier column, I mentioned that Cameron was participating in a mentoring program with the Gallup organization, coordinated by Special Olympics. As part of this program, participants are asked to take a self-assessment called the Clifton Youth StrengthsExplorer. The StrengthsExplorer is designed to help children ages 10-14 identify their talents and build on those talents to achieve success. Cameron and his peers in the program are all over the age of 14, but based on their learning disabilities, this assessment is the proper tool for them to use.

I helped Cameron take the assessment by reading the questions to him. The questions are the type where you are given a statement, and you rate how much the statement applies to yourself: “Almost never, Sometimes, Almost always,” and the like. There was also an option to respond “I don’t understand this question.”

I actually had to take care when reading the questions to Cameron, because a few of them caused a significant lump in my throat. These were the questions pertaining to having friends and enjoying helping others. What mother doesn’t want their child to have plenty of friends and want to help those in need? But when Cameron responded to these types of questions, he inevitably chose “Almost never.” I so badly want Cameron to have friends that I have dreams about it! I recently dreamt that Cameron had been drinking beer with his friends. The conflict became whether to punish him for underage drinking, or give him a high five for having a group of friends! I woke up laughing at myself for creating this conflict in my subconscious. At the same time, I also felt a little sense of relief that I don’t have to face typical teen drama … just yet, anyway.

But back to the StrengthsExplorer assessment. As Cameron answered the questions I read to him, I was struck by how well he knew himself. He answered “I don’t understand the question” two or three times, but for the most part there was no hesitation to his responses. The results of the assessment are what really blew me away. I couldn’t believe how 10 minutes of basic questions had yielded such an insightful report on my son. Here is a summary of the results:

TOP THREE THEMES FOR: Cameron

ACHIEVING: You have more energy and more goals than other people. You love a sense of accomplishment. You are in a hurry to get started and make things happen because you almost always have a list in your mind of the things you want to get done. It is fun to achieve small goals and even more exciting to achieve big goals that challenge you. The more you get done, the more you feel like a successful person. And the more successes you have, the more you want to have. Finishing a project feels good to you because you love a sense of accomplishment. An award, a good grade, or praise can mean a lot to you because it feels good when your effort and ability are noticed. Because you are a hard worker, you always feel that you could and should be doing more.

DEPENDABILITY: Trust is important to you, and you care about being seen as responsible and trustworthy. People count on you to do what you say you will do. When you make a promise, you mean to keep it. You like being chosen to be in charge of getting something done because you know it means others see you as dependable and trustworthy. Sometimes, being asked to do more is like getting a reward because it means people believe in you. Maybe you have special chores or responsibilities at home or at school. Whatever job you are given, you want to get it done. Some people might say you act older than other kids your age because you are so responsible. You can be a good example to other people. Earning the praise of teachers and parents for getting things done and doing what is right feels good to you. People count on you to do what you say you will do.

ORGANIZER: Scheduling, planning, and organizing your world makes life better. People count on you to get the details right and pull a plan together. You like to create order in your world. Schedules help you feel in control of your life. Planning makes you comfortable and calm about what you are going to do. It is fun to think ahead, organize, and include all that you want to do in your plan so you don’t leave anything out. You like to think about both the big ideas and the details. It feels good to make something absolutely perfect, whether it is as simple as your hair or as complicated as a big project for school. It is important to you to be on time or even early so you are ready to start whatever you are about to do. Not only do you like order and rules for yourself, you like them for other people too. You help yourself and others by pulling all the pieces together.

There’s that lump in my throat again. But this time it’s because I’m bursting with pride!