Sunday, June 17, 2018

If Only You Could Tell Me

Wonder Boy is a 7-year old child with autism.
I am his grandma. My name is Nonnie.

Dear darling, adored child, what’s your favorite color?

If only you could tell me.

What did you learn in school today? Did you raise your hand, ask a question, answer one? What’s your favorite subject? Music, art, PE? Science, math? English? Speech? Occupational Therapy?

Did you run? Jump rope? Slide? Did you pump yourself high into the sky on a swing? Did you bask in the sun, run with the wind? Did your imagination soar?

Were you a friend today?

Do you like your teachers? Therapists? Classmates? Who do you like the best? Why is he/she your favorite? Do you have a buddy?

I’m here. I’m listening. I want to know everything.

What did you eat for lunch? Are you hungry? Thirsty? Do you want a snack?

Who did you sit next to in Morning Meeting? Laugh with on the playground?

How do you feel inside right now? Do you think in colors, pictures, symbols, letters, words? Tell me. Show me. Help me understand.

What does it mean when you repeat sounds over and over and shield your eyes with flat palms? What are you thinking? Where are you? Take me there too.

What I know:

You like sandals on bare feet. Hugs. Squeezes, massage.

You need to run, jump, bounce, touch and be touched.

You adore your daddy, Stuart Little, Woody from Toy Story.

You’re excellent at matching, sorting, repetition. You thrive on schedule and routine. You do not like to be wrong and prefer to “do it myself.”

You like privacy in the bathroom, alone-time in your room, “close the door please.”

Very slowly, you’re learning to play piano. You can write letters and numbers. You eat almost everything as long as the textures are separated. You seem to prefer red food. Except in popsicles.

Sometimes you need space and quiet to look at books (are you reading?), roll your cars, race your trains.

And sometimes you prefer company, a hand to hold, a friend to jump with on the trampoline. You like your sister close by. You need your daddy to throw you around, toss balls, race…and snuggle. You like hats, Thomas the Train, playing in sand and water.

What did you say? You want a popsicle? Yes, I’ll get you a popsicle! Thank you for asking! Which color do you want? Red, blue, green?

Orange! Thank you for telling me! I’ll get you an orange popsicle.

You’re welcome, Sweetheart. Take it outside please.

How much do I love you? More than there are numbers. Higher than there is sky. Wider than any ocean. Beyond the place birds fly.

But dear, darling, adored child, what do you think, feel, dream? What niggles at your heart? Tickles your mind?

What do you want to be when you grow up?

What’s your favorite color?

If only you could tell me.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

In My Small House

The following is an edited version of an essay first published in 2010. It’s particularly meaningful today as we adapt our home to meet the needs of our large, loving multi-generational family.

In my small house, elbows bump. The tv and radio are too loud. There is clutter and a line for the bathroom. There is straightening hair in the hallway, a crowd at the mirror and chairs wrapped like ribbon around the dinner table. There is teasing over passed gas, stinky bathrooms, everyone-sick-at-the-same-time.

Like a tiny town, there are no secrets in my small house. No sneaking out when you're grounded or cheating-on-your-diet-no-one-will-know. No hiding Reese's Cups or saving the last bit of cheesecake for a solitary midnight snack.

There is noise and chatter and laughter in my small house. There is talking after lights out in shared bedrooms. There is arguing and there is making up.

Tinkling piano keys stream music into every corner of my small house. Flour footprints trail into the hallway and the sweet aroma of warm sugar cookies tickles my nose.

In the spacious back garden my tow-headed 4-year old learns to swing. Her legs catch the wind as she sails into the sky. For two exhilarating hours. Without stopping.

On the street in front of my small house, my competitive 7-year old meets his 6-year old sister's challenge to ride his bike "no hands!" He does her one better, propping his feet on the handlebars: "No feet either!" He hits a curb, tumbles, snaps his collar bone. Three cozy days at home later, he returns to school with half his math book completed.

My Kidz
Early attempts to teach homeschool PE involve giggling circles around a fat, white bark tree. (Later, we use the space to train for competitive team sports.) We watch a mother butterfly lay eggs on a milkweed plant placed at our kitchen table. We chart the progress of her babies from pupa to wet-winged Monarch.

In the living room of my small house I braid wire into my 10-year old's long hair for her lead role in the homeschool musical. Her endearing, high cee voice sings light into the shadows.

We "do school" all over my small house until one by one my babies leave for high school, college and life.

Now, this very minute, wheels rattle across the hardwood floor in my small house. A pony tailed cherub pushes Big Bird into my kitchen office using a little red stroller. Her soft pillow cheeks puff into a smile. "Nonnie!" she sings.

I swoop my grandbaby into the air and kiss her perfect little face.
So. Much. Love.
 Concrete or wood, tile or carpet; barrier walls or open gardens; a house is just a shell for living. It's what's inside that matters.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Happy Anniversary, Hubby

Married in Paris
A comedian compared marriage to buying a car:

"Owning this car is going to be really hard. It'll either run perfectly forever or leave you stranded without bus fare. It will need more time and attention than you have and maintenance will be expensive! The transmission will go out, bumpers will rust, paint will chip and it will run rough, even as it promises not to. Sometimes it will refuse to start. The only guarantee is…owning this car is going to be really hard."

“What’s it like to stay married for a long time?” my friend said.

Professionally he was a successful globe-trotting, storytelling author. Personally, he was a twice divorced dad, single in his 50’s. Was it too late to experience a long marriage? What’s it like to kiss the same face every day for 20-30-60 years, the rest of your life?

Was it worth the effort?

I hesitated. There’s comfort in companionship over the long-haul. There’s familiarity in shared history. But every relationship is different.

In ours, there is kissing. Hugging, holding, smiling. Talking. Listening. Hearing. There’s “Good night,” “Good morning,” “Please,” “Thank you,” “I’m sorry” and “I love you.”

“We still hug the first thing in the a.m. and the last thing before turning the lights off at night.”
-my mom, married 63 years to my dad

Love ebbs, flows, withers and grows. Love is hungry, demanding and changes over time. Nurturing looks different within each union, but there is nurturing. Or there is relationship death.

For us, marital nourishment means words. Patience. Kindness. Togetherness. And space.

“…we’ll go, together, to the gym, where we each go our separate way for thirty minutes of exercise…”
-my mom, who likes my dad around, but not too close

Hubby and I also feed our relationship by embracing one another’s annoying idiosyncrasies. For example:

I fart. A lot.
He eats loud.
I require time alone in a quiet house.
He likes the tv on, people around, noise.
I like things done my way.
He’s (always) right. (Very annoying!)

We don’t tell one another everything, especially when a truth is (pre-marriage or) unnecessarily hurtful.

When I gained 67 pounds (first pregnancy), he never once called me “fat.” He bought half gallons of Blue Bunny Chunky Chocolate Chip ice cream and (lied) that I was beautiful.

When Hubby’s employment ended without warning in the middle of an economic downturn, we (fearlessly) celebrated a future of (unknown) opportunities with joy and chocolate.

We share a private language.

“I’ll just do it wrong”: A nod to the childrearing years when I’d complain Hubby never helped out - even as I sabotaged his efforts. Reminder to give others space and time.

“I need $500.” Throwback to the days when, it seemed, we were always ($500) over budget. Today it’s a reminder to be grateful for hard-won rewards and enduring the toughest times…together.

My friend waited.

“Is it worth the effort to stay married?” I smiled. “Yes.”

Happy 33rd Wedding Anniversary, Hubby. I love you.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Sensory Saturday: Niggling Systems to Balance

In the beginning, twice a month - because that's all the time we had - there was Sensory Saturday.

We stood barefoot on damp earth in drizzling rain, watched and listened as cars zipped by. We climbed trees and stomped in puddles. Waded into murky lake water, our bare feet slurping the gooey clay. We immersed fingers in tubs of balls and poms, plates of jelly, baskets of squeezable things. Listened to birds, wiggled toes in wet grass. Enjoyed bubbles, beans, colored rice, shaving cream, play-doh, water balloons, beads, bells, dirt, mud, bowls of wet stuff. We added scent, varied sound and color, incorporated light and motion, modified textures.

Why? Exposure to lead in the early years alters the function of a child’s developing brain. Social and educational deprivation, limited life experience and nutritional deficiencies inhibit her mental and physical maturity and influences his future performance in school.

And sometimes? All of this together? Impairs an individual’s ability to process sensory input.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a brain condition that affects the brain’s ability to perceive and respond to sensory information causing…(hypersensitivity) to surrounding environments.

There are 8 sensory systems that may be affected when the brain and body misconnect:
  • Visual (sight)
  • Auditory (hearing)
  • Tactile (touch)
  • Olfactory (smell)
  • Gustatory (taste)
  • Vestibular (part of the vestibulum in the inner ear, involves the ability to coordinate movement with balance)
  • Proprioception (ability to track the body’s position in space; recognize stimuli and respond by appropriately contracting muscles and joints)
  • Interoception (ability to sense hunger, thirst, heartbeat, need to eliminate, etc.)
The causes of SPD are not yet fully understood, although some form of the disorder usually exists where there is autism or learning differences like ADD/ADHD. Sensory deprivation, especially when it occurs in the early years, may be another factor.

When Wonder Boy and Amaze Girl came to live with Super Daddy, both had sensitivities to light, sound and texture. They were fearful, clumsy, could not catch a ball, ride a bike, stand on one foot, productively hold a pencil or utensil. Wonder Boy refused to eat anything but frozen pepperoni pizza. At 5 years old, he was not potty trained or sleeping through the night. Both had an overwhelming need to be touched, held, squeezed, hugged.

Increasing the children’s tolerance to a variety of foods, along with gaining cooperation when it came to toileting would take another year of focused, regularly occurring effort. Meanwhile, our attempts to waken under-stimulated senses eased transitions, calmed, soothed and brightened little bodies and minds.

After sensory play, the children were more open to learning.

We filled small pools with blue sand. Tiny toes touched the cool, azure grains. Soon, fingers, hands, arms, whole bodies were involved. The children poured sand down shirts, trickled it into plastic containers. They smelled, touched, saw, listened as the textured grains complained.

Later, there would be every day reading, writing, a trampoline, bicycles, swim, baseball, gymnastics. Doctors, school, music, speech and occupational therapy; diagnoses. There would be activity, growth, progress.

But first? Twice a month? There was Sensory Saturday.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Sophie's Runners

Wonder Boy glistened with sweat. He pointed at runners wearing bright, yellow Sophie’s Run tee shirts like his as they passed him in ones, twos and bigger groups. He howled in frustration, hit his head and threw himself, bum-first, to the pavement.

With my right arm in a cast I was not able to participate in Sophie’s Run, the annual 3.4 mile charity event that provides AAC devices to individuals with communication needs - including Wonder Boy. Aunt Katie ran in my place. Super Daddy and Amaze Girl competed together. Wonder Boy, Aunt Kimmie and I were to be cheerers.

We’d watched the sea of runners in yellow shirts gather along the tree-lined road. A whistle blew and the crowd surged forward. Wonder Boy clapped. “Hooray!”

As the last runner passed us, Wonder Boy eyed the receding blur. He pointed.

“Do you want to run?”

“Yes, I do!”

What could it hurt? I thought. We’d go a bit, then circle back to Aunt Kimmie, food and games. Then we’d head to the finish line to cheer for Super Daddy, Amaze Girl and Aunt Katie.

At a nod, Wonder Boy ran. Arms swinging, knees pumping, head high, he cheerfully lapped one runner after another. We did not see a circle-back-to-the-start point.

Half-way through the course, as it sometimes happens in autism (and life), our race suddenly, inexplicably ended.

Wonder Boy stopped. He walked backwards. He screamed. He flailed. His scalp glittered. A homeowner called from a nearby yard. “Do you need water?”

There are times it’s not practical to carry a communication device: bathtime, for example. While using the restroom, the machine stays in the hall. Wonder Boy does not jump on the trampoline with his talker draped across his chest. And he doesn’t generally have it on him when he’s involved in active play. Like running.

Very unfortunately, Wonder Boy’s talker had been left at the race start.

We were halfway through the course and alone. The last runners and end-of-line vehicles were gone. I had a broken arm, Wonder Boy was nearing melt down and I was in tears. What were we to do?

There was a rhythmic whirring, like the benevolent thrumming of angel’s wings. Heaven reflected light on a golf cart hovering nearby. The dark-haired stranger at the wheel was shrouded in a golden halo. “I’m Robert,” he said, in a smooth voice. He pointed to his purple Sophie’s Run tee shirt. “I’m a race volunteer. Can I help?”

Wonder Boy slid into the cart beside Robert. I cozied next to Wonder Boy, who was enraptured by Robert and his machine.

Robert gently calmed a grandmother’s tears and eased a little boy’s confusion. He took us to a water station and drove us to the final leg of the race, where Aunt Katie was waiting.

“Do you want to run?” she asked Wonder Boy.

“Yes, I do!” he replied.

Wonder Boy and Aunt Katie raced over the final bridge and crossed the finish line together.

Wonder Boy clapped. Hooray!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Why I Attend School Field Trips (Class Parties/Musicals/Open Houses/ Showcases/Celebrations/Ceremonies)

The bright yellow bus squealed to a stop. Doors opened and Wonder Boy popped out. Talker draped across his chest, aide close. “Are you ready to roller skate?” I said.

I attend field trips to be with my (grand)kids. But there are more reasons:

1. Because I Can.

Don’t call me “lucky”! My once-upon-a time role as at-home mother and now grandma Nonnie-on-the-Spot represents a family’s effort and resolve: purposeful, intentional, planned. Sacrifices were made. Lifestyles modified. Goals and ambition altered. It’s the hardest job I ever loved. Among the happiest perks of this challenging occupation? I’m first to greet joyful faces that emerge from buses at the end of the day. Flexibility to be present for successes, failures, tears, triumphs. And field trips!

2. To Meet My Child’s Friends.

Kids once played together after school. Rode bikes to one another’s homes. There was cutting through backyards, tapping on windows. Waiting on stoops until a buddy’s homework was done. There was public access to family phone numbers – and addresses! Now? It seems everyone has their own unlisted cell phone. Kids aren’t home as they split time between households or attend after school care. And when they are around? Kids watch TV in solitary bedrooms instead of rushing out to climb a tree. In a world of on-purpose play, field trips can help one keep up with how a child is doing socially.

3. To Connect with Teachers and Administrators.

This child with learning differences? This child with autism? This child who has been hurt? Who has just one involved parent? She is an intuitive, empathetic, sensitive overcomer who absorbs emotion, feeds on knowledge, uses imagination as a shield. He is bright, able, athletic and understands what you feel before he comprehends your words. This sometimes challenging, distractive child is interesting, unique, loving, loveable, smart and positively brimming with potential. This child is strenuously supported and wholly, deeply, perfectly loved.

The most important truths are often best relayed wordlessly; through one’s presence. During field trips, for example.

4. Create Memories.

I’ve picked pumpkins, bounced on trampolines, huddled in a balloon. Fed goats, bathed in corn, watched a lion nap, laughed at a curious monkey, ridden a streetcar, played in a treehouse, driven carts, climbed aboard a fire truck, sipped cider, explored, tasted, adventured, flown, danced, sang, jumped, slid, swam. And more. With my grandkids! How great is that!

5. Because it’s Fun!

Neon lights glittered on the smooth rink. Silver balls reflected shiny patterns. Wonder Boy shaded his eyes to view first one color, shape, sparkle, then another. Laughter, screeches and shouts echoed the sound of happy children roller skating.

I waited.

Wonder Boy moved his hand away from his face. He smiled. He reached for my arm and tugged.

I prompted, “Skate with me.”

“Skate with me,” he said.

Together, we circled the rink. Arm in arm. Front to back. Side to side. When offered a break, Wonder Boy said, “No! I want to skate more!”

So, we did.

And then? Ever making memories...I fell and broke my arm. The right side this time.  I'll be back!

*All photos by June. Thanks, June!

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Holding on to Happiness

“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
-Forrest Gump, in the movie.

For weeks, Wonder Boy had colds and repeated strep and ear infections. There was agitation, loss of language, refusal to use his talker, jump on the trampoline (a favored activity) or play on his own. He woke from a sound sleep in tears, required constant adult attention, was not coping in school.

One day after Wonder Boy’s sedation dental procedure, his unhappiness, discomfort and unrest began to improve.

The first clue to the coming joy was the silence.

Wonder Boy is not a morning person. He does not like getting out of his cozy bed in the early light. But this week? He rose without sound. Giggled while he pottied. Danced while he dressed.

Transitioned smoothly from one activity to the next. Ate all his breakfast. Brushed all his teeth.

And while he waited for his bus? He read his books. Stimmed his trains. Played piano. Asked to go outside. Where he played some more.

Wonder Boy’s teacher reported better days at school.

“Our independent (boy) seems to be coming back…He…walked down the hall and out the recess door by himself…”

Wonder Boy took turns. Played alone. Ate lunch. Did his work.

And when he arrived home, he told his bus driver good-bye with words and a fist bump. Fell into his grandmother’s arms. Requested a popsicle using his talker and returned to the talker to specify the color of his popsicle. Played in the sand. Climbed a mountain of dirt. Did his piano lesson and greeted his therapist with zero screams-hits-tantrums-refusals.

He raced his therapist to the door for outside breaks. Jumped on the trampoline! Played on the slides and swings.

At the end of the day he chose his own bath bomb. Sang head-shoulder-knees-and-toes. Perused a book.

And Amaze Girl? It’s hard to be a sibling of autism, especially during periods of unrest. Amaze Girl has thrived in her brother’s happiness: joy-filled mornings. Breakfast conversation. Successful time tests. Climbed a tree. Ran for the bus.

She’s received positive reports from her teacher. After school, she raced home, arms extended, shoelaces flying; poured giggles into her grandmother’s arms. Hurried outside without bothering to snack. To her tree and sunning place. Where she climbed a mountain of dirt.

When it was time to work, she said, “okay!” and came inside. Completed homework, wrote poems, collected vocabulary, read books, did puzzles, played piano, sang songs, danced.

She cheerfully ate all her dinner. Finished bath on time. Built a pillow fort.

After their story times with Daddy, both shared kisses, hugs, squeezes,“ I love yous.” Lights out. Sleep. Peace.

Until the next wonderful day full of laughter, communication, connection, family reunion:

                                           Our Katie has returned to Kansas City!

 And language: “Good catch, Nonnie!” “I want Daddy.” “I’m hungry.” “Let’s go eat.” “I want to go outside.”

Autism and learning differences present unknowns that challenge communication, interaction and – sometimes – one’s ability to cope. But for this moment? Today?

We’re holding on to the happiness where it appears.

Contented Morning

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Water, Concrete, Mud: What It's Like to Add on to a House

Rain streamed from the sky in roaring sheets. Hubby peeked through a gap in the plywood nailed to the recently cut opening between the home’s existing foundation and the newly-poured addition. The concrete slab surrounded by smooth cement walls was now a wading pool.

Inside? At his feet? Rainwater crept over the threshold and drained into the existing basement.

He slogged outside and dropped a sump pump into the concrete pool. As rain pelted his skin and wet his hair, he plugged the machine into an unprotected extension cord. He trailed the wire through the garage and prepared to plug it into an outlet. Lightening flashed.

What’s it like to add on to a house?

It’s a toilet in the front yard.

It’s two years of dreaming, planning, revising, finalizing. It’s interviewing disinterested contractors. It’s lining up subcontractors who go out of business before work begins.

It’s gravel, cords of wood and rebar dropped on the driveway while you’re in the bathroom.

It’s pumper truck hoses raining concrete into cavernous holes. While dangling over the house. It’s gloves, cigarette butts, paper bags, crumpled plastic and concrete blocks. Dropped in the yard.

And it’s mud. Outside, inside, everywhere. Garden ruts the size and shape of backhoe treads. Waste concrete dumped wet and dried hard. Pebbles in the bathroom. Clogged drains. Late night trips to Home Depot. Nail guns, tape, sump pumps, shop vacs. It’s remembering to use the wood ladder and not the metal when it’s storming. It’s air billowing through a boarded-up door. It’s snow in April (and other delays).

It’s strangers with clipboards. Pickup and pumper trucks, semis, trailers and cement mixers in the driveway. It’s flatbeds laden with “two-bys.”

It’s burst pipes and broken wires.

It’s borrowed money. Late nights paying bills. Screeching, rumbling, shouting, laughing, thrumming; noise.

It’s (finally) getting-to-know-the-neighbors. “We want to add on, too” and “will you do one for us?” It’s a room for him, a space for her, an area for Mom and Dad. It’s the promise of closets, storage, no-wait bathrooms, another bedroom, a library. It’s a two-car garage reconverted to its original purpose (ie, cars, not boxes).

It’s a thin blog, posted late.

And it’s electrical connections exposed to rain.

Hubby plugged the cord into the outlet. Outside, the sump pump groaned to life. Inside, the basement leak slowed. No sparks.

When the rain stopped, he would rerun the cord through the foundation opening. Raise it safely above the puddle. Cover the plug’s connection with plastic and tape. Dry and replace soaked towels. Mop.

He returned to the sloozy outdoors. His hair and skin glistened. Chunks of earth dropped from the yard-length mountain of wet dirt and settled at the silt screen that protected the neighbor’s space. Rain slowed; the air cleared. Stars shimmered around a full moon.

Water gushed from the sump pump’s hose, balanced over the new foundation wall. He wrenched a boot free from the oozing sludge and held it to the stream until his shoe was clean.
Ready for the next challenge.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Popsicles and Netflix, Sedation Dentistry

“…If allowed to remain on the teeth, bacteria begin to attack and break down tooth enamel, which can lead to cavities and tooth decay…”

Until he was 5 years old and before he lived with Super Daddy, Wonder Boy purportedly subsisted on sugary foods, pepperoni and sweet juice. He rarely, if ever, brushed his teeth.

Later, and before he had words, he persistently pushed his mouth onto soft things, like pillows and blankets. He progressed to holding his face to people’s arms, legs and toys. Finally, he pressed other people’s fingers directly onto his teeth.

He wouldn’t allow the first dentist to look in his mouth. A second dentist got a quick view. A third saw cavities. Four, in fact. Which would need to be filled.

Cavities in baby teeth should be filled because “…tooth decay, particularly if left untreated, can result in infection, chewing difficulty and even malnutrition. If the decay is bad enough, abscesses may develop, affecting the health of the child’s permanent teeth…”

The procedure would take time. It would be uncomfortable. Due to his autism and the accompanying difficulties treating Wonder Boy, it was decided he would be sedated.

Wonder Boy would be made chemically asleep while his cavities were filled.

The appointment was scheduled two months away; payment required in advance. No eating or drinking 12 hours prior to the procedure. Wonder Boy should wear pajamas and bring a second set of clothes, “just in case.”

As time went on, Wonder Boy became increasingly agitated. He had repeated bouts of strep throat and an ear infection. He rejected his toys, stopped playing independently, required persistent adult attention, and refused to jump on the trampoline, a favored activity.

On procedure day, Super Daddy took the day off work. He arrived early at the outpatient clinic. Alone, he carried his son into the room where the dentist, anesthesiologist and others would sedate and treat Wonder Boy.

"Sedation dentistry is used to provide a relaxing and anxiety-free experience for certain people receiving dental treatment. It enables individuals too afraid to go to the dentist to receive the dental care they need while avoiding...apprehension..." 

When the procedure was done and his time in the recovery room time complete, Wonder Boy would enjoy a Netflix marathon, beginning with The Robinson’s. He’d eat a bowl of popsicles, drink cool water, nibble animal crackers. He’d spend the day wrapped in his weighted blanket, with his daddy and favorite snugglies close by. He’d wear a hat, because he likes that. The next day, he’d go to school, participate in therapy and jump joyfully on the trampoline for the first time in many weeks.

But first? He wobbled out of the clinic on his own steam. He paused, turned and tottered toward Super Daddy. “I need help,” he said, his words slurred.

Super Daddy circled his arms around his son. Wonder Boy relaxed into his father’s chest and sighed.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Words In-Between

“By 18 months, babies have heard 4,380 hours of spoken language…If AAC learners only see symbols modeled for communication twice weekly for 20-30 minutes, it will take 84 years for them to have the same exposure to aided language as an 18 month old...”
– Jane Korsten, SLP, and author of Every Move Counts, QIAT Listserv 2011

We like to read...
Bodies close. Shoulders touching. Knees entwined. We are huddled around a book.

Twenty little fingers caress smooth paper. Four blinking eyes watch letters dance, absorb color and texture. Two little noses delight in new book smell.

Amaze Girl interrupts the story to comment. Wonder Boy giggles. There is a torrent of unrelated-to-the-tale language.

Reading lights a child’s imagination, incites curiosity, fuels play. It’s a sensory experience; chocolate for the brain, a hot toddy for the heart. It’s I love you and You’re more important than Reese’s Cups.

But reading is not the best way to grow a child’s brain.

What’s more important than reading? The words that happen in-between.

“Parent talk is…the most valuable resource in our world…In the same way, the lack of language is the enemy of brain development…”
Thirty Million Words, Building a Child’s Brain, by Dana Suskind

A University of Kansas study shows that children whose parents talk to them from birth to age three adopt language more quickly and are more successful in school by the end of third grade. (The Early Catastrophe)

The study revealed a correlation in the number of words a child hears to socioeconomic status: children from wealthier families heard more words than those raised in less affluent households. Thirty million more words, in fact.

“Talking and language…is food for the developing brain. The words you speak, and how you speak them, (build) baby’s brain.”

No, tv doesn’t count. Neither do video games, texting, computer or phone apps. Parental imperatives like “pick up your socks/sit down/do your homework/brush your teeth” add to the total number of words a child hears but are not brain boosters either.

What matters most? Dinner table conversation. Bath time chatter. Focused narration, description, recitation, affirmation. Counting bath bubbles, relaying textures, color, likes and dislikes. It’s everyday use of consequential words to share ideas.

A daily dose of focused parental patter lays critical groundwork for a child’s future literacy, discipline and academic success.

What about kids who arrive at elementary school language-deprived? Children neglected in their early years, those raised on tv? Kids with difficulty communicating due to autism, ADD/ADHD and other learning differences? Will increasing the quality and quantity of parental talk help them succeed? Does modelling use of a child's talker matter?


Dana Suskind founded the Thirty Million Word Initiative, which seeks to close the word gap. She recommends parents employ the Three T’s:

Tune In: turn off the tv. Put down the phone. Engage.

Talk More: ask questions, narrate tasks, use rich words.

Take Turns: gestures, babbles, scripting and aided language are conversational; respond with words to keep the talk going.

And then? Maybe? Snuggle close with a good book.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Super Sensory Excavation

In autism “…Any of the senses may be over- or under-sensitive, or both, at different times…”
It’s home addition excavation day at Super Daddy’s house.

Wrapped in a blanket, Wonder Boy breakfasts at a glass door overlooking the digging. He leans back in a kitchen chair, legs crossed, shoulders relaxed. He sips cranberry juice and nibbles waffles. He presses himself to the barricaded opening to improve his view of the production in process.

The skid-steer loader is a “small, engine powered machine with lift arms used to attach a wide variety of labor-saving tools or attachments.” This day the vehicle is equipped with a sharp-toothed front-loading bucket and rotating, rubber covered tracks.

The machine rumbles to life and the earth quakes. It roars across the ground and the house shakes. The bucket drops with a clang. Teeth tear through the damp soil, teasing nostrils with musky, wet-dirt scents. The odor alters our senses of taste. When the machine travels in reverse, it screeches, beep-beep-beep. When it maneuvers near the main house, teeth scrape the foundation like fingernails on a chalkboard.

It’s a sensory rich spectator event.

Amaze Girl? Sleeps in. She briefly joins her brother at the window before donning noise reducing headphones far from the hubbub.

Wonder Boy oversees the activity for hours, reveling in the sights, sounds, tastes, smells. He watches the machine eat through the earth. As the hole deepens, the skid-steer’s path out of the widening crevasse is both precarious and engrossing. The little machine powers sideways, spins and turns. It teeters almost vertically up the lofty wall.

Soon the pile of removed dirt is a mountain range that spans the yard’s length. It encircles the swing set, traps the trampoline. With each full bucket, the elevation of earth and clay rises. Beeping, belching, growling, groaning, the little skid-steer crawls higher up the mountain to release its catch.

Long after Amaze Girl retreats to homework, piano and books, Wonder Boy watches the machine at work. He is enraptured, enthralled, enchanted.

Until he isn’t.

Sensory overload in autism may appear like a tsunami on a sunny day: one moment the sea is warm, placid and calf-high. The next, calm recedes into a broiling horizon, uncovering moldy rocks and flopping fish. It returns as a wall of water, high, salty, angry.


Wonder Boy flat-palms the kitchen table. He circles the living room and races down the hall. He slams the bedroom door, screams.

He rejects his talker. “Pick me up,” he says, when he wants a squeeze. “I want juice,” he says, when he needs a hug.

Wonder Boy’s in-home therapist arrives. Wonder Boy drapes his talker across his chest and relaxes into the comforting structure of one-on-one attention, routine, work.

After the noise is done, we sit on a picnic bench outside. We are walled in by the mountain of dirt; a breeze tickles our backs. A fat robin hops about the silence, searching for worms in the upturned terrain.

In this moment? There is peace.