Autism, Meltdowns, and the Unexpected Kindness of Strangers in a Supermarket

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(Excerpted from original article at Parents.com) I have been a parent for over ten years now, and for a large part of those years I have also been an Autism parent. It has been quite the eventful journey; full of twists, turns, and lessons along the way. In my house we call it “Not Boring,” and have come to celebrate my son’s uniqueness. Back when my two boys were small and I was new to the Autism world, however, I spent a lot of time feeling confused and overwhelmed. I wish I could go back in time and reassure that worried mother, “Everything is going to be okay.”

One day in particular stands out in my mind. Many years ago I attempted the ambitious feat of grocery shopping with two small boys. Our trip to Kroger took longer than I would have liked, and the sights and sounds became overwhelming for my youngest. At the time he was pre-verbal, and his lack of ability to communicate seemed to heighten his moments of frustration. At that point I knew that he was facing developmental delays, and suspected Autism, but I had not discovered how to best help him when he became upset. I also had not yet learned all his triggers, and constantly walked around in a state of high alert because I never knew what the day would bring.

We finally finished shopping and approached the checkout counter to pay. I abruptly took a package of rice cakes out of the hands of my youngest son without thinking, and placed them on the conveyor belt. He was surprised and upset, because rice cakes were his favorite food at the time. A scream came out of his mouth and he took his frustration out the object nearest to him: the soft flesh of his older brother. My firstborn started crying, my youngest kept shrieking, and I desperately tried to calm the scene and comfort both children. I soon became completely overwhelmed, and all I could do was press my face against the soft hair of my oldest son and sob. I cried for his hurt, I cried for my own fears, and I cried because it broke my heart to see my youngest baby get so upset. Yet, as disturbing as it was for me, I knew it must be even more terrifying for him to feel so overwhelmed.

So there we stood, immobilized in the middle of the checkout lane; a screaming, crying spectacle…

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Want to know what happened next? To read the rest of the story you can visit the original post, Autism, Meltdowns, and the Unexpected Kindness of Strangers in a Supermarket  at the Parents.com Special-Needs Now blog. Thank you to Parents Magazine for allowing me the opportunity to share!

(Image is via Shutterstock and was posted on the original article.) 

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Celebrate what makes you unique! It’s Not Boring. Seriously.

When Pretty Dresses Lead to Ugly Actions: The Lilly for Target debacle

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Four months ago it was announced that Lilly Pulitzer would be releasing a product line at Target, and the Internets went wild over the news. Apparently flowered sundresses are a Big Deal.

Today at 8am when Target stores opened it was the PEOPLE that went wild. They displayed selfishness and savagery in horrifying fashion.

Word quickly spread on the Internet again, but this time it wasn’t positive. Tales were told of pushing, shoving, hoarding and cursing. Headlines said things like, “Shoppers stampede for Lilly Pulitzer at Target.” Typical comments on Twitter were:

@abigailnoelleee: If you bought items just to resell online for your own personal profit I basically hate you.

@KnoxvillePains: I sincerely believe there should have been a police presence at the #LillyforTarget opening day. I have seen terrible things.

@tomandlorenzo: .@TargetStyle needs to stop humiliating its costumers and plan these collaborations a little better.  

My kind friend Eleonora Link just happened to be there shopping for other items and was appalled at what she witnessed. She wrote about it on Facebook this morning and I share with her permission:

“I have never seen such rude, obnoxious, selfish people. Seriously… what have we become when we accept this behavior of grabbing, and I mean GRABBING, grabbing cute pink/green sundresses!? I felt so sorry for a mother and daughter I witnessed in the middle of this who missed out. The girl appeared about 9 and was almost in tears early into the sale and already disappointed she did not get anything. She commented to her Mom how rude a lady was who tore a garment right of the girl’s hand with no apologies… just sick!”

Eleonora continued, “What are we teaching our kids about appropriate behavior when we witness ADULTS behave so greedy and show such selfish, rude, outrageous behavior!!!”

It’s a SUNDRESS, people.

The individuals that my friend saw act so selfishly had loaded their carts FULL of items, and then bragged how they had collected 5-10 different sizes and intended to sell them all on eBay. While I admit that is selfish, they have the right just like any of us to purchase those items and even to try and make money. But just because they have the right doesn’t make it right! What makes me most upset is HOW they got those items into their cart… pushing, cursing, and even snatching an item out of the hands of a 9-year-old girl. COME ON! And then gloating over their “accomplishment” and how much money they are going to make.

A totally separate issue is how Target failed to enforce appropriate crowd control measures. Tales are being told of employees enforcing a “one item per style per customer” with some shoppers, but not with others who were allowed to literally clear the entire contents of racks and shelves. There should have been clear boundaries set in place and announced before the sale began, and then enforced both in the aisle and checkout line. Target seemed completely unprepared for this. Maybe they just underestimated people’s greed and selfishness.

This type of behavior is nothing new. Greed is a theme that plays out across the centuries. Yet it never ceases to amaze and sadden me when people place the value of things and personal gain above the value of their fellow human beings.

SHAME on you, human people. For SHAME. Today I am embarrassed to be one of you.

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When A Writer Is Blocked

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On Monday I have my very first deadline for my very first article for the Special-needs blog at parents.com. I also have performance anxiety. And Pinkeye, but that is a whole other thing.

I intended to have this article written several weeks earlier. I even started it a month ago. But then I had a sick kid, sick ME, the start of Autism Acceptance month, sick kid again, class parties (I was a sucker and volunteered to be room mom), Easter, Spring Break, sick kid again again, loss of a loved one and subsequent arrangements and gatherings, sick ME again (with pinkeye that I caught taking the sick kid to the doctor)… and on and on. You get the drift. Basically, LIFE.

When I woke up today I was EXHAUSTED. It was the very first day in three weeks that I felt like I could sit and catch my breath. Except that I have a pile of laundry, a sink full of dirty dishes, and a house in otherwise total disarray. And then I realized that if I want to get any feedback from the editor, before my article is due on Monday, I have to finish it today so she can read it before she goes home for the weekend.

I really want her feedback because I feel an immense amount of self-imposed pressure to write the Best. Article. EVERRRR.

I was thrilled when I was offered the opportunity to have an occasional featured post on the Parents website. It was exactly what I had hoped for and had been working towards. Then about an hour later I was absolutely terrified. Terrified that I wouldn’t be good enough, and that people might laugh at me because there are other writers out there that are better than me. I worried I would make grammatical mistakes and look foolish. Most of all, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to think of anything to write, or that the words I did write wouldn’t be worth reading.

Why do we punish ourselves so much with self-doubt? And why is it, even when we have an opportunity in front of us that we find incredibly exciting, we are so willing to let all the other mess of life get in the way of accomplishing our goals?

Oh, and why is it that I have been inspired to write SEVERAL posts this week that are thoughtful and compelling (if I do say so myself), but still can’t finish the one I most want to do???

ENOUGH, I say. I’m going to go grab another cup of coffee and then I’m going to write.

I am going to finish that article. I am also going to have to trust that, even though it will NOT be the “best article ever,” somehow it WILL make the world a better place.

My words matter, because they come from my heart.

Wish me luck!

(Image is of a coffee cup, pen, and paper. All are shrouded in shadow. Just like my thoughts.)

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Not Alone

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“All my friends are dead!” Two days ago a dear family friend stood at the coffin of my grandmother and those heartbreakingly honest words escaped her lips. My spirit ached for her as I watched tears fall down those beautiful cheeks. She is in her nineties and is one of the sweetest, most beloved individuals you would ever meet. Yet aside from her devoted son, who stood at her side, she feels alone.

Due to her limited mobility and the passage of time she feels that life has continued at its customary pace but cast her aside. She can no longer be a part of the activities that used to give her joy and community. Her community is also dwindling because over the decades she has watched as, one by one, her friends left this earth.

“It’s so special that you could be here today,” I said.

“I’m not special,” she replied. I hugged her as tightly as I could to show her differently. I made sure I hugged her every chance I had for the next two days.

I was also reminded that I needed to go seek her out and give her more hugs more often.

Today I encourage you to make sure that no one you love feels left behind. Go give them hugs, a LOT of hugs, every chance you get. Don’t let them be alone. They are special. Make sure you BOTH remember that.

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Life Continues

Yesterday I lost an older, beloved family member who had been ill for some time. Even though I said my goodbyes to her a long time ago I still found the reality of the loss quite difficult. This morning it finally hit me, and I found myself immobilized in the car at my children’s school, finally letting the tears flow.

Then I came home and viewed this with fresh eyes and my spirit was renewed.

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There is something inspiring about seeing new life emerge out of the earth every spring. It is also deeply satisfying when it is life that you placed into the soil with your own hands. The amazing part is that, after my initial efforts, this growth continues on year after year without needing my help. Life wins.

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This reflection left me encouraged that all our efforts for good will continue to bloom and grow and add beauty to this world, even after we are gone.

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Not only that, but it can spread. All the plants and flowers in these pictures are from the garden of a friend (and there are many more not pictured). Many years ago she graciously shared with me from the abundance of growth in her life, and every spring I smile and think of her.

Now my own garden overflows and these plants are ready to be divided and shared. I can continue to pass on her gift to others.

So today as I gaze upon this growth I will remember… though the body of my loved one has stilled, what they contributed to this world will remain. The lessons she taught me and the kindness she showed to others will continue to beat fruit.

Beauty, kindness and memories continue on. Life wins.

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Inclusion In Action: How My Son’s Classmates Responded When They Learned About Autism

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After my son was diagnosed with Autism I constantly worried about how the world would treat him. Those worries escalated when he was at school interacting with classmates and under the care of others, but with the help of his teachers we found a way to help foster a positive, supportive community for him. It was accomplished by talking to his classmates about Autism, and the results have been more effective and encouraging than I ever hoped.

Alex is outgoing, energetic, and has a knack for improv comedy. His big brother is his best friend and his favorite things are Minecraft, sea lions, and Lego. He is also Autistic with some social, sensory, attention and impulse control issues. As “Twice-Exceptional” it seems at times that he is caught in between the typical and special-needs world, so sometimes he struggles to find a sense of belonging and acceptance. As he grew older those struggles became greater, and we hoped to find a way to help.

Some of you may be wondering why I would want my son’s classmates to know about his Autism label. Wouldn’t that complicate things because he would seem MORE different? I believe honest dialogue about special-needs is crucial to acceptance, and that children can be surprisingly open-minded about diversity and uniqueness. If you tell them, “Different is cool,” they will believe you. The trick is to explain those differences in a matter-of-fact and positive way, before they can be affected by the prejudices of the world. (It also helps if you do it in a voice like Matt Smith’s Doctor when he said, “Bowties are COOL!” And yeah, I totally made this picture.)

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I once read these words, “If you’re the parent of a child with AS & worried about what will happen if other students find out, here’s a thoughtthey already know. They know they have a classmate who has different and difficult behaviors. But they don’t realize the reasons. And the reasons they imagine are much worse than the facts.” I felt that my son’s classmates were more likely to be kind if they understood more about him. As the article stated, “… children are never too young to learn that…we need to treat each other with patience, kindness and understanding.” I was also inspired by a presentation given by the Executive Director of our local Autism Society chapter, who had talked with her own son’s classmates when he was in school. She felt that it was important to share with classmates about strengths first, then weaknesses, and then involve the other children by stating ways that they could help.

Taking that into account, Alex and I first shared with his classmates about Autism when he was in 1st grade. We did it again when he was in 2nd, both times in conjunction with his Star Student presentation. Any time I discuss Autism it is with Alex’s permission, and he is proud to talk about his “special brain.” We wanted to show that Autism was just one of the many things that makes Alex interesting (if you want to read the script I used you can click here, The Star: Telling classmates about Autism). We made sure to point out that even though Alex was a little bit different, he also was just the same as the other students. Both times I contacted the teacher first to gain permission, and gave her a copy of what would be said so that she could be prepared to answer any questions the students may have later.  Continue reading

Autism Acceptance for Awesome Alex

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April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day. So, “World,” this is Alex. Alex has Autism, and there are some things that he and I would like people to know. Alex is just like you, and different too. And we think different is pretty NOT BORING. Alex wants you to accept him just the way he is.

In the picture above he is wearing a shirt with our Autism Ninja that he helped design and his Uncle drew for him. The NinjAlex is an Autism superhero that fights for Autism acceptance and to make the world a better place. The Ninja’s original belt was modeled after one of the symbols of an organization that has meant a great deal to our family, The Autism Society of America. Plus Alex thought it looked cool. Since then the Ninja has had a costume change and sports a snazzy new acceptance infinity symbol belt. He is blue because Alex’s favorite color is blue.

We need Autism acceptance because the world can feel hostile to those who are different. Autism comes with both blessings and challenges, and it can be difficult for Autistic people to navigate a Neurotypical world that refuses to accommodate them. Alex and I hope that others will learn to appreciate what makes him unique and take action to be more welcoming to people with Autism. (For more specific ways that you can help the Autism community please see the post, “Autism Action Month. DO Something!“) Another desire is that Alex will encounter patience and compassion if others see him having a hard time, and that they offer a helping hand instead of being harsh or judgmental. His classmates at school recently demonstrated what happens when you teach children about diversity and acceptance. They are aware that Alex is Autistic and advocated for him during a misunderstanding. They inspire me!

Alex is proud of his unique brain, and says  “Autism is a great thing. No kidding. It makes me special and creative.” When asked to describe himself in only one word, he said, “I’m FABULOUS!” His big brother is his best friend and his favorite things are video games, Minecraft, sea lions, and Lego. He is also energetic, smart, and has a knack for improv comedy. When he grows up he wants to be a scientist and a video game programmer. He also says that if someone is different, “You should treat them nicely, kindly, and give them good respect.”

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A VERY Not Boring Birthday!

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Autism Action Month. DO Something!

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Image Source: Autism Acceptance Month website http://www.autismacceptancemonth.com/

April is “Autism Awareness Month.” I say that’s not enough. Parents of children with Autism are aware of the isolation that their children feel when they are mocked by their peers, and they are aware of the lack of sufficient resources to help their children thrive in schools. Adults with Autism are aware that many who claim to speak for the Autism community don’t actually ask Autistic people for their opinion. They are aware that many businesses refuse to give them a chance at meaningful employment.

It is not enough to be aware one month of the year. Honestly, it seems like the only people really paying attention to Autism Awareness month are people in the community. Others seem to just want to donate money to an Autism charity to ease their conscience and feel like they made a difference.

Here’s an startling, heartbreaking example of why we need to do MORE. My friend, Cindy, shared a story of what happened when she was shopping at Walmart this week with her son, Ty. Ty is Autistic and has limited speech. He’s also sweet and funny and we love Ty, but moving on… Cindy described an encounter they had while in the store:

We were approached by an employee who seemed to have an intellectual disability of some kind. “Is he special?” He asked, pointing at Ty. “He sure is!” I said. “He is VERY special and I love him very much.” The man said, “I’m special too. So I understand. He can be my friend”. I assured him that we could be his friend too, and agreed we’d high-five him whenever we shopped there. He liked this. “Of course, everyone else thinks we are freaks”, he said. What could I do but laugh? “Well maybe we are ALL freaks”, I said.

My emotions changed from inspired to heartbroken as I read it. Everyone else thinks we are freaks.NO ONE should have to feel that way. If you want to make a difference then YOU should be a friend to this man too. Not just in April, but EVERY month.

Want to REALLY make a difference? ACCEPT. APPRECIATE. ACCOMMODATE. ADVOCATE. Take ACTION. Keep reading for some suggestions of ways that you can improve the lives of people with Autism.  Continue reading

The School Conference That Made Me Cry

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I recently attended a conference at my 3rd grader’s school and it totally made me cry. This time, however, it was a GOOD cry (although also a borderline “ugly cry” too). All because my youngest son has incredible teachers, and he has some amazing, supportive classmates. But let me rewind…

Parents of children with special needs are used to crying in conferences and IEP meetings. We walk into the room bracing ourselves because we feel raw, vulnerable and are afraid of what we might hear. (We brace ourselves every time the phone rings during the school day, too!) In some school settings our children do not always get the support and services that they need. Resources are limited, teachers are exhausted, and classmates can be cruel. I feel blessed to say that has NOT been our experience at my son’s school. From the beginning Team Ninja has been full of exceptional, patient, caring teachers who have found creative ways to help my son THRIVE.  Continue reading

Best. Costumes. EVER!

This morning was the annual Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10k in my hometown, and a good time was had by all. My kids participated again in the 1-mile Kids Fun Run and crushed it. I was so proud of them, especially because it was so cold. Here’s a post I wrote last year about why their running in the race was such a BIG deal. At the time they were more Lego and Minecraft kind of guys (okay, they still are), and had some anxiety related to team sports. We were struggling to find physical activities for them to participate in, and running was a good fit. Since then they have also started taking martial arts and have worked their way up to green belt. Super proud of them!

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“Stuck? STUUUUCK!”

As we were walking away from the Kids Run I heard a deranged Easter Bunny and a flag pole shouting my name. It took me a moment to realize that it was an incognito version of my friends Phil & Sandy Lawson.

Then I realized that the costumey goodness didn’t stop there. I saw that they were accompanied by two friends. BEST. Team costumes. EVER. I wonder how it feels to run in fishnets?

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“Fra-geee-lay”… must be Italian!

When you got them all together it was GOLD. Totally NOT BORING, and I knew I had to post pictures so that you could view them and agree.

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“You’ll shoot your eye out!”
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“I triple-dog dare you!”

LOVE the detail in their costumes, right down to the Red Ryder BB gun and tuft of blonde hair sticking out of the bunny costume. They did the WHOLE 10k like that. I hope they drank their Ovaltine.

Here is a link to see more of this year’s costumes. There was even a Lego Batman!  One year there was a TARDIS. Aw YEAH.

Soooo… they are entered in a costume contest and could use YOUR help to win a Major Award! (See what I did there?) Click here to place your vote… just make sure it is for “The Christmas Story.”

Great job, guys! And good luck. Hope you get your Major Award. :)