Tag Archives: friendship

Feeling A.A.L.I.V.E.

DSC_0052Last weekend we visited the Wolf Sanctuary of PA  for the Full Moon Tour …  listened to wolf lore by moonlight, warmed our cold feet by a huge campfire, got to know 40 rescued wolves, gazed into their yellow eyes and heard their lonely howls.  It was under 20 degrees F, but we walked around for two hours and Jose still wanted to keep asking questions as we were leaving. We warmed up at Cousin’s Pizza at 1030 at night and told our favorite wolf stories.

Our trip to New York City last month was a beautiful unseasonably warm and sunny day strolling the pedestrian street at Times Square, eating lunch at the HardRock cafe, and seeing a ‘sensory friendly’ production of ‘elf’ off Broadway. We checked out the New Year’s ball that we had just watched on New Year’s Eve, does it sit up there all year long?!  and we watched the skaters at Rockefeller Center before we boarded our own private, quiet and not too crowded bus back home to Pennsylvania.

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Rockefeller Center, New York City

This past year we have had box seats at minor league baseball games (box seats IMG_0639so we can walk around, have our own bathroom, eat Crab Fries and be somewhat flappy without bothering others)….. watched the spectacular Disney on Ice, spent a week at the beach, seen the most amazing jelly fish at the Baltimore Aquarium, met the HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS!, gone to the China Buffet once a month or so where we can eat lots of fried dumplings and make ice cream sundaes with unlimited whipped cream for dessert…… and amazingly we got to geek out at the New York City Comicon where we talked Anime/LEGO/ Ninja Turtles non-stop for 6 hours.

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We’ve learned to tolerate … maybe even enjoy….each other in the van on the way to events; gotten comfortable in restaurants; learned to make it through (without meltdowns) the dreaded ‘getting ready and loading up’ period before each excursion, learned that new places and faces don’t have to be scary, and formed close, trusting relationships with our dear A.A.L.I.V.E. family and friends who we see on many of our trips.

Priceless…

And just how do the guys get to do this on their $698 dollars a month?

A.A.L.I.V.E.  Adults with Autism Living with Independence, Value and Esteem.

Money is tight for many people who have a disability and who are trying to create a fulfilling, productive, independent life for themselves.  Even when you’ve been able to put some money aside for a fun trip, it is difficult to structure an outing to meet the needs of folks with severe sensory issues and a fear of new environments. It’s a strange, scary, noisy, crowded world out there!

WE ARE SO LUCKY to live in southeastern Pennsylvania!

Colleen, Frank and Brian Foti, Founders of A.A.L.I.V.E.

Colleen, Frank and Brian Foti, Founders of A.A.L.I.V.E.

The A.A.L.I.V.E.organization has evolved into an amazing resource for adults with autism … and it’s such a GOOD IDEA… to structure experiences for folks like the Juniper Hill guys so that they can venture out of their comfort zone and see and do amazing things.

You COMPLETE us, A.A.L.I.V.E….

THANK YOU!

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Friday Night Funnies with a bunch of autistic guys

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Jose Jalapeno on a stick

I sat by the fireplace listening tonight… quietly… but laughing laughing laughing inside, at times just marvelling at the magic… as I wished, as always, that I could record the after-dinner conversations going on in the room. Some of the conversations were an exchange between two friends, some were a give and take with characters not visible to me, and some were just musings, no audience necessary.

These guys are FUNNY.  Deliberately funny.  They play off of each other like a seasoned comedy team.  They take each other’s quirks and they run with them.  They accept the jokes about their own quirks that others are making, and they make them even funnier.  They interject pop culture humor, so SouthPark and Family Guy and Jeff Dunham are often partners in their act.  (…Jose aka Jose Jalapeno on a Stick thinks his nickname is pretty cool.) And when the comedy routine takes a turn for the intellectual as Ray expounds on a joke in excruciating detail, everyone yells NO MORE, RAY!! and the comedic exchange returns to the ridiculous.

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There’s magic here. We love and accept some of the guy’s imaginary friends.  The imaginary friends are funny too.  They have names and voices and places they like to sit or sleep and rules they think we should all follow and lots and lots of things that they do that are WRONG and it’s a good thing the imaginary friends can’t really get in trouble because EVERYONE would get them back for it.

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and I just can’t imagine anyone else’s dinnertime being this much fun.

Of course… things are not always this way.  Sometimes a glance at the wrong instant becomes a serious insult, or the timing of a joke sends anxiety through the roof.

But there is something about Friday nights.

Maybe it is the anticipation of a lazy Saturday morning with bacon… and NO STAFF in the house.

Or the complete and utter shutdown after a week of intense thinking about how to load a dishwasher … or worrying how not to drink more than your share of DSC_0192orange juice … or the guilt about how you should save money towards something practical when all you want to do is coerce your support staff to drive to WalMArt IMMEDIATELY because that $5 in change in your pocket needs to be spent on a LEGO or there is no future and you can’t relax until that money is GONE.

OHHHHH the pressure!

DEEP BREATH.  It’s Friday night. All those things you tried to learn this week, already a distant memory.  Let the dishes pile up.  Bring on the OJ.

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Fear and the fragile friendship

New York ComicCon 2012

Michael called tonight… thankfully at a very reasonable 730 PM, not midnight.  He touched base with Ray, as he does almost every day (too often at midnight).  They share the day’s HALO/Bionicle news, the latest on the Disney Star Wars’ purchase, and the plan for the next get-together, as distant as it might be.

On the Farm

Michael and Ray have been friends for four years.  They met by chance at the Goshen Country Fair, where Michael and his family volunteer each year.  At the time, Ray was living independently in the same town. They struck up a conversation, found they had many interests in common, were able to plan and get together on Friday nights for the next two years…and the rest is history. Michael lived here at the Hill for a year while he was finishing up his transition program in high school, and now lives back home with his family about 40 minutes away though he makes it down to the farm on weekends regularly for HALO marathons….

These two best friends share their interests, their possessions, often their money, and their secrets… and they happen to also share an autism diagnosis. They help each other through their sensitivities, annoying habits and meltdowns, and almost always remain true to the other, no matter how disruptive they become.  They have two very very different dispositions, yet it works….  They are a couple of lucky guys, and they know it.  Many folks, with or without a diagnosis, could benefit from their recipe for true friendship.

What is this recipe exactly?  Patience, trust, familiarity, tolerance, compatibility, convenience…. and TIME……all of the qualities that one would guess….. plus a healthy dose of luck and  ‘perfect timing’ no doubt.

Now if only we could replicate this recipe again and again.

Too often, what I see with folks on the spectrum and other disabilities is a desire for friendship, but an overwhelming fear of intimacy, change, and sensory overload. Confusion about what friendship is, and what expectations are involved. An ambivalence about leaving that comfort zone where one can immerse themselves in special interests without interruption…. and a need to be alone to control all input. Sometimes it can be just a simple preference for convenience over company.  The fear of disappointing, and disappointment. The fear of the unknown. The fear of vulnerability.

FEAR.  That’s a big one.

Things don’t always go as smoothly as Ray and Michael, when forming a new friendship.  And this week, I have a new respect and appreciation for the bond that they share, because I tried to help a couple of other guys get started with a new friendship.

Check out this wonderful movie about a friendship like this…
http://www.youtube.com/movie?v=tDJZO-QUS2A&feature=mv_sr

Several months ago, nurturing these types of friendships became my livelihood, when I went back to helping others …. young folks just like Ray and Michael and the Juniper Hill guys….  set up independent living in the community.  It’s not so difficult to find a place for people to rent, or to make sure they have the supports needed (help with cooking, cleaning, budgeting)….. or even to find two or three people who want to live in the same place at the same time. Sounds complicated?  It’s the easy part.

After the furniture is moved in and the kitchen is stocked, real life begins and new housemates unfamiliar with each other have to spend lots of time together. It’s not so difficult, when the support people are there too.  Helping with decisions about what to eat for dinner, where to move the couch, what to watch on TV.  Helping with facilitating conversation, especially. But then the support people leave, and the chores are done, and no one is reminding anyone of what ‘s next.

It’s scary, but it’s fun.   It’s confusing….but it’s exciting.  Its empowering, but at the same time old insecurities surface.  It’s evolving, and it takes time… lots of time… for trust to develop.

And sometimes before that trust develops,… the whole thing just blows up. And then you have to help them pick up the pieces, and figure out how to help them move on. And that has been my life these past two weeks.

Ray and Michael, you sure made this look easy.  Keep taking care of each other, you are truly lucky.

Juniper Hill two years later.. a reflection on what we’ve become

Shelly, the crayfish

Happy Anniversary to us!  Tomorrow is Ray’s 27th birthday… and it is this weekend that he moved into the green house on Juniper Hill, just two years ago.

He moved in with a blue crayfish, giant bins of LEGO/Bionicles, plus one GIANT bin which contained the cardboard /packaging of all of his LEGO/Bionicles …. because they have information on the cardboard that he wants to remember… just in case.

Jose had also just moved in,  to the cottage at the top of the hill where he  joined Brent who had been alone since his housemate of 12 years had moved out three months before. Andy had been visiting for weeks at a time during the summer, and had decided that he, too,  could leave his parent’s home after all, and move out on his own.

And so the ‘core four’ began their life together on the hill…. navigating social interactions  and the well-stocked pantry of available food. That first weekend all together, Ray asked if his best friend could visit for the weekend … and so we met Michael. He became a regular visitor, and moved in some months later while he finished out his last year at school.

October, 2010

We had a plan, my friend Mollie and I.  We would all live happily together and grow giant fields of sunflowers and other cut flowers for bouquets, and we would work the fields with help from all of our other friends who happened to have a disability.  Our flower business would thrive, and we would make flower arrangements for events, wreaths for Christmas, and hand deliver bouquets for all holidays. We would have herds of fiber animals, and after we sheared the alpacas and combed the cashmere goats and angora rabbits, we would process the fiber and spin it into luxurious skeins with our spinning wheels as we sat by the fire on cozy winter nights. And then come spring, we would travel all over the East Coast selling our wares at farmer’s markets…. and we would earn enough money for all the guys to have a decent income, plus become a non-profit and get start-up grants to get it off the ground.

Ready… set… go!

Go?

Reality check.

Live happily together?  But he’s LOUD.  He hurt my feelings. He stole my … _____ (LEGO, money, chips, favorite shirt).  He hogs the TV.  He hogs the computer.  He swears. I hate his music.

Grow giant fields of perfect flowers?  Not if the groundhogs and deer, weeds and stinkbugs have anything to say about it.

Work in the fields? In the dirt?  With bugs?  In the sun? For how long?

The toilet’s broken again…. a gallon of milk, a dozen apples, and two bags of chips just disappeared in an hour…… and there is a mystery $300 dollar overcharge on the Comcast bill.

Farmer’s  Markets all over the East Coast? You mean, like when we are not busy weeding?  Like on Saturday mornings? When we are sleeping until noon because we are tired from our busy week?

It’s midnight and the dishes are done and the kitchen is clean and the guys seem settled and getting along… guess I should write that grant now.

And weren’t we going to learn how to spin?

Sigh….

Here’s what we DO have here on Juniper Hill, after two years.

A growing community of friends who happen to have autism, or other disabilities.  A group of friends who care about each other, who trust each other, and who get together once a week to work for an hour or so, here in the fields and then hang out over a fantastic lunch made by Jose, who loves to cook and feed people.

A group of WWOOF (http://www.wwoofusa.org/index.aspx) volunteers who help out on the farm when the guys just can’t (those bugs and that dirt….)

A medium sized field of flowers, but sunflowers only, kind of weedy.

A place at the local West Grove Farmer’s Market, which runs on Thursday afternoons…. only. Close to West Grove’s ice cream shop, the library, and Chinese restaurant… for market breaks.

the market ….where we sold all of the sunflowers that the groundhogs didn’t eat. and where we show off our future with fiber (cause this coming year, the guys are really going to learn to love making things out of felted alpaca! Right?!)

One toilet fixed, one more to go.

No start-up grants or non-profit, went back to working instead.  So I now help other people with autism and other disabilities, to set-up their own independent housing in the community.  I have a regular paycheck, and it pays for fencing.

And here on the hill are a group of guys who have learned to live together, play together, share their space, their food, and the TV. They take care of the farm animals, do daily farm chores, learned to cook, have great support staff who have hung in there for the entire two years….

they have lost a ton of weight and learned what healthy eating choices are, found volunteer jobs and paying jobs… and they are happy, self-confident adults who are great ambassadors of autism when we are out on our many wonderful trips together, courtesy of AALIVE (http://www.aalive.org)

It was always supposed to be about the GUYS.  And it is.

And no, I haven’t learned how to spin.  But the WWOOF volunteers came with a spinning wheel and cozy winter evenings are coming up… who knows?

Jose’s Life Worth Living…the success story of a new kidney, and new life

Next month we celebrate six years of Jose’s new life, given to him with a kidney transplant on September 20th 2006, his 18th birthday.

You might have seen the national headlines this week, about a young man here in Pennsylvania being denied a heart transplant because of his autism… yes, it actually states ‘autism’ as a reason in the doctor’s report.

Here is the link to the story:

Autistic man denied heart transplant

We are thinking about this a lot here on Juniper Hill, and this is why.  Our wonderful friend, Jose, was given a kidney transplant six years ago, and now he has a  a rich, fulfilling life.  A life filled with friends, family, adventure, new experiences, a happy home, and so much more to look forward to, now that he has been given this second chance.

Jose also has an intellectual disability.

Jose is not on the autism spectrum, but his best friends and housemates here on the Hill, all are. And Jose would like everyone to know that his life is important and worth living, and if his autistic friends were in similar circumstances, they all would deserve a transplant as well.

Jose was not what a doctor would consider a ‘good candidate’ for a transplant, given the usual requirements. He had all of the same issues that Paul Corby has, the ones listed as reasons for denial.  Psychiatric issues, a disability, and an environment that did not appear to be able to handle the complexity of his life-long after-care. He was taking medications to help him deal with the stress of dialysis and not knowing if he would ever get a new kidney…. his immigrant family struggled financially, did not speak English, and did not understand the instructions that came with his medications.  But for some reason…. after years of dialysis at AI DuPont Childrens Hospital in Wilmington, Delaware, he received a life-saving kidney.

Jose struggled for some time after his transplant.  His home environment was not ideal for his recuperation, he gained unhealthy weight because of his medications, and he was sick quite often.

He moved to Juniper Hill in the Fall of 2010, and his first winter was filled with bouts of nausea and indigestion, migraines, and flu symptoms.  His new support workers, funded by his government disability  ‘waiver’ that paid for people to come to his home and help him with medical and daily living needs…. kept up with doctor visits while teaching him how to cook, keep house, and get along with housemates.

Jose combing Cashmere off of Johnny the goat

Today, two years later…. Jose has lost all of his extra weight, no longer takes psych meds and has reduced his medications to basically just those that help with the kidney transplant.  He is strong and healthy and ready to take on the world.  It is inspiring just to be part of his life.

Jose received the ‘Against all Odds’ self-determination award at the annual luncheon this year

He volunteers at the local community center for after school children, mostly Hispanic, at The Garage in West Grove, PA. He is active in his church community and has made many friends.  He is passionate about singing… and his life long dream is to become a Christian singer. He is talking about moving to a nearby city in the ‘not too distant’ future… and getting his own apartment because he loves the hustle and bustle of city life.

Now that he has his health back, he goes out on weekends, by himself (without  his support workers) in his old neighborhood of Kennett Square PA and knocks on doors of businesses asking for work. He wants to work with young children and especially loves to be in hospitals making children laugh.

And home on the farm? …  he takes care of the farm animals in the morning, prepares his own meals, does his laundry, is an all around responsible young adult, considerate housemate and loyal friend.  He cooks lunch for a crowd of 15 volunteers every Wednesday with his wonderful support worker Carin.  And for breakfast, he makes a mean pot of homemade oatmeal.

He makes everyone laugh, every day.

Well lived, Jose.

Autism and the extraordinary power of peers

Andy’s Chicken Cordon Bleu

Motivation…. it started out as competition, before they cared.

Brent cooked independently …. and got lots of attention from visitors for it.  The other guys started cooking.

Ray brought home a paycheck and bought himself his own junk food and CD’s.  The other guys requested that their support workers take them job hunting.

Jose made a conscious effort to change his eating habits and lost a ton of weight…. everyone who knew him before showered him with compliments.  The guys started dropping waist sizes and talking about food choices at dinner .

Andy volunteers at the library and checks out books that he reads each night  after dinner.  The others wanted their own pile of library books.

Before they really cared about each other, they just wanted what the others had. Their motivation began as a competition… for attention, for money, for books. It got them off the couch temporarily, but that type of motivation just doesn’t go very deep.  The anxiety, anger, melt-downs, sensitivities, intolerance, mistrust… still front and center.  They just had more books.

Ray is working on his art and is showing it off at market this week

Almost two years ago…the guys started out as a group of pudgy overweight, unmotivated, anxiety-ridden gang of couch potatoes.  Except Brent… older than the others by at least 10 years….healthy, fit, and motivated to work from sun-up to sundown, had hobbies and filled his leisure time…  He has lived here on the farm for 18 years.

Brent has most of the same difficulties as the others …. anxiety and melt-downs, sensitivities and intolerance.  But he doesn’t have the mistrust that the others have, and his behaviors are rarely directed towards the guys.   He really likes his housemates, and he was the first to show that he cared, no matter how much the other guys were acting out.

Brent is also quiet…. he sits at dinner listening, rarely contributing to conversation.  Everyone else battles to get a word in. And every other guy has SOMETHING about him that annoys the others. But Brent?… there appears to be nothing about him that is annoying to the other guys.  So Brent became the one that everyone bonded with first.  Coming to his defense when it seemed like he might need it, always watching out for him and making sure he got his share…..they TRUSTED him.

But they also respected him.

They see how hard he works, without complaining … ever.  They can see that he doesn’t need to be begged, prodded or lectured to about adult responsibilities in a household.  They see that when the arguments are about whose dishes are in the sink and who should load them, he just gets up and does it.  And they see that he earns  a decent amount of money each week because of the extra work he does.

They also see that he keeps most of his personal ‘stim-stuff’ to himself when he is out in the community.  No one forces that issue. He wants certain things from those he comes in contact with… so he makes an effort to understand the people he meets and has learned to express his needs in a way that can be understood.  His desires are rarely ‘typical’…..they usually involve checking out the heating systems in people’s houses, or asking questions about their car keys.  But he has learned to do it in a way that endears himself to almost everyone he meets.. EVERYONE loves Brent.

Brent has been selling blankets every week at the farmer’s market

His maturity and work ethic shine in everything Brent does.  He makes the other guys want to better themselves.

There is a turning point in young adulthood, with or without a disability.  A point at which your motivation changes from doing something because someone older expects you to, to acting on something just because it’s the right thing to do.

A few weeks ago, Jose started getting up in the morning on his own, giving himself an hour before his staff showed up. He started making his own coffee, and real homemade oatmeal from scratch (with frozen strawberries blended in yummm), the way he has been taught over the past year.  and when he is finished now…. he loads his dishes and checks to see if the dishwasher needs to be run, and TURNS IT ON if it needs it.

He turns on the dishwasher now, just because it needs to be run. Seems like a small thing, right?

It’s not.

Jose cooks lunch for all of the volunteers every Wednesday

Jose’s Birthday September 2010

Who’s in Charge?

It seems like a simple question.  When a group of young adult guys with autism are living independently but require additional daily supports ……  who is in charge?   

It definitely is not such a simple question.

Everyone involved has a say, but who makes the final decisions?  The parents.  The support staff.  The support staff’s agency.  The bossy big sister roommate (that would be me).  The landlord (uh, that’s me too). Society. The guys?

Everyone wants to be in charge of his/her own life.  Everyone has that right. OK great.  Let’s say we try that.

Let’s stay up until 430AM playing this video game and then sleep all day.  Oh wait, it’s 9AM and my support person is here.  I don’t feel like doing anything, could you just go home?  What, you depend on the money, this is your job?  Yeah but I’m YOUR BOSS and I say go home.

You want to help me find a job?  I don’t want a job. I get enough money from social security and food stamps to pay rent and eat.

No, I haven’t showered.  No, I haven’t done the dishes.  No, I haven’t cleaned the bathroom.  Yes, I guess the garbage is overflowing.

no… this is not a real picture from the house

I don’t feel like cleaning up, you are my staff so please take me to the mall.

I’ll  just eat ramen, chicken flavored only.  And popcorn.  And drink Dr Pepper.  Yeah, I gained 75 pounds this year.

I feel terrible.  I’m going back to bed.

Hmmm… this definitely is not going to fly with the parents.  Be back home with Mom in no time.

OK …let’s try the parents.  ‘You have to go to bed by ten, are you brushing your teeth? wear that green shirt with those jeans, throw that old sweatshirt away, make your bed, stop playing with those toys you’re an adult now, you don’t need dessert every night, and here, use this new quilt on your bed it matches the furniture better.’  ‘Oh, and I am calling your support staff to tell them that they have to teach you to cook  chicken cordon bleu.’

…What ABOUT the support staff? (or the ‘bossy big sister’ housemate?)… ‘You have to go to bed by ten,  brush your teeth, wear that green shirt with those jeans, throw that old sweatshirt away, make your bed, stop playing with those toys you’re an adult now, you don’t need dessert every night,  and you have to learn to cook  chicken cordon bleu.’

ugh,  you  sound just like my mother….

Wait, I thought I was going to live independently?

Maybe it should go something like this……

‘My parents spent a lot of time and money helping me to get set up in my own home, I should make an effort to be responsible and considerate.  I’ll put some time in every day to learn how to take care of my home, but then I’d like my support person to take me to the mall. I hired my support staff, so it is my responsibility to be available (and awake) during the hours they are scheduled.  But on Friday  nights, I am going to stay up most of the night playing video games, and I just might sleep all day on Saturdays.’

‘I hate taking showers because I don’t like to be wet. But nobody wants to be near me when I stink ,and I do want friends.  I live in a house with other people, it’s not fair to make them put up with a smelly house.  But I refuse to shower every day, three times a week is enough’.

‘I am NOT making my bed, I’m keeping the old sweatshirt, and I am having dessert every night … but only after I eat a real dinner, because I do feel better when I eat real food. Sometimes I am going to eat dessert first. And there is no way I am using that ugly quilt from my mother’.

It’s all about compromise.  And when the rewards are an independent life and new friends, it feels worth it in a very short time (give it a year, that’s not so long).

Mom, however, may never get over the quilt thing.

As for the landlord, she gets to insist that the garbage gets removed. She cannot tell you what time to go to bed.

this isn’t a real photo from the house either. We only have one trash can… but sometimes, that one trash can looks like this

And society? the rules say that you have to drive on the right side of the road in the U.S., and you cannot walk down the street in your underwear.  You don’t get to change that just because you have autism.

and these are the things that we talk about during dinnertime around here….

Just for the record…..  It took a year or so, but here at Juniper Hill we are resigned to the fact that we just can’t stay up all night and still function with our staff the next day, so we make an effort to get some sleep.  We like the attention we get now that we’ve lost some weight because of a better diet.  And we’ll shower a few times a week just so the ‘bossy big sister’ will let us in her van to go grocery shopping.

‘More Rules than Jesus’ (today’s Juniper Hills quote of the day)  …Last night we were talking about the new ‘house rule’ that the TV, computer and video games have to be off during the week when it is before 2PM, (which is the time when the support staff all leave), to be considerate of others who are working around the house.  So Jose, one of our devout Christians, says…’ I wish I lived with Jesus, he doesn’t have so many rules’.

Hmmmmm…Not sure if the Pope would agree!

and guess what?  it was ANDY’s idea to learn how to make chicken cordon bleu (‘you know’, he says, ‘that chicken with the cheese and ham rolled up inside’) and he picked up the phone and called his mom for the recipe. IT WAS AWESOME.

Autism Acceptance… begins at home, here.

Six guys with annoying habits and quirky interests.  Six guys who have difficulty accepting other people’s annoying habits and quirky interests. But these guys love each other, they really do. They miss each  other.  They help each other.  They forgive each other.  They are good friends, loyal friends.  They ACCEPT each other……

Their musical tastes range from death metal to christian rock, 70’s music to broadway musicals. Someone gets up at 630AM and bangs around in the shower next to another’s bedroom who went to bed at 2AM.  One makes loud sudden sharp whooping noises when it is least expected, causing others to drop to the floor in shock, hands covering their ears.   One collects Barbie dolls and designs clothes for them.  One has Tourettes and swears often.  The Christian guys hate swearing and dislike any behavior that has a hint of femininity. Another melts down loudly at the word ‘WAIT‘, which is inadvertently repeated by everyone else, several times every day.  Two are very religious, another is an atheist and recites the historical significance of every religious event that refutes Christianity.  They are determined to convert each other, and very sure that they are right and the other is wrong. A deep monotone baritone that drones.. on and on and on about scientific facts in great detail is ever-present.  Often, impulse control is non-existent and they steal from each other.  Accommodating food sensitivities always makes someone else unhappy. Everyone believes in a right way and a wrong way for everything. But no one agrees on what that is. Television preferences include Anime cartoons, Sci-fi, History, Discovery, old Abbott and Costello, chick flicks with Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise, Mr Bean, and the Weather Channel.  No one agrees on what to watch.  Oh, wait a minute, except Mr. Bean.  They all agree.  Everyone thinks Mr. Bean rocks.

Holidays and autism: free-to-be age inappropriate

Yesterday morning, Brent arrived at the main house at 700 AM to search for hidden easter eggs, something he has done with our family for 25 years.  He wore bunny ears, and found every egg but one (hard-boiled, and yet to be found, ugh) of the 3 dozen we colored the evening before.  His giant Easter basket (another 25 year old tradition) contained all the usual chocolate eggs and bunnies, jolly rancher jelly beans, and a few kitschy plastic Easter toys… but the best part these days are the things that he buys himself, wraps up, and gives to us the week before, to make sure the ‘easter bunny’ puts them in his basket.

Brent as a Hershey’s Kiss

As he has gotten older, he has taken matters into his own hands, refusing to take any chances that the holidays won’t happen the way he wants them to. He spent many years tormented with the possibility that something would happen before the big day came…. Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s, Halloween, May 10 (his birthday).  For a month leading up to any event, his anxiety was through the roof and he would melt down at the smallest disappointment. Not any more.  He has figured out that if he just does it all himself, he doesn’t have to depend on any of the rest of us to do it right.

He buys himself birthday presents and Christmas presents, wraps everything up, and hands them to people weeks before the actual day, and instructs them to give them to him on the holiday itself. It’s not that we would ever forget a present for Brent on any of these occasions, EVERYONE that knows Brent loves to get him things on holidays… he gets so much pleasure out of a box of Lucky Charms cereal, or a ball of yarn or a key to your car.

But he just has to be SURE. He remembers a time when he was told that holidays were for children, that he was getting too old to trick or treat…. he remembers a time when he heard rumors that Santa and the Easter Bunny were not REAL, and he doesn’t want those times to ever come back.

Twenty five or so years ago….. as a young and inexperienced student of ‘behavior modification’ for people with intellectual disabilities, I was trained to teach ‘QUIET HANDS’. …  and ‘age-appropriate’ behavior…. to facilitate ‘fitting in’ with society.  I didn’t question this, back then. (Oh yes, I question it, now.)

Dylan and Brent 2008

It was my son, Dylan, who made sure, long ago, that we preserved these holiday traditions for Brent.

Brent joined our family in 1984 when he was 16 years old, and by the time Dylan was born… almost 22 years ago… I had already begun to try and make Brent ‘understand’ that he was an adult (he was 21) and that adults celebrate holidays differently from children. There were a few years before Dylan knew what holidays were all about, and those years were frustrating for Brent.

Not to worry, those days are gone forever.

It began with Christmas Eve, with Dylan and Brent putting on their Christmas pajamas and listening to Grandma Bobbie read ‘The Night Before Christmas’ before they went upstairs to Dylan’s bedroom. Brent moved to the spare bed in Dylan’s room for the night.  They knew the rules… they had to wait until 630AM before they could go downstairs to see if Santa had come.  Sometimes they would sneak downstairs in the middle of the night together, anyways.

Christmas 1998

But it was Halloween where we REALLY got creative.  It was fine for a few years when Dylan was really young… but there came a time when I just couldn’t let Brent trick or treat in the community anymore.  You can not imagine how scary he is dressed up as a clown.  Clowns are creepy anyways, but with a stiff autistic gait and no response when spoken to….

So we solved this problem. Brilliantly, I might say.  We had two houses on our lane (and now we have three houses!  last year was great fun!).  Each house has 4-5 doors to the outside, counting the garage, basements, playroom, etc. Brent gets dressed up in his costume (actually, Brent wears his costume for at least three days, everywhere he goes ).  We stay inside the house, and Brent runs around outside of the house knocking on each door and exclaiming TRICK OR TREAT! when we answer with a bowl of candy.  So now Brent gets to Trick or Treat at 13-14 doors, and ends up with a bag full of Halloween candy.  Last year, the other guys on the Hill wouldn’t join him, they thought it was childish.  Guess what?  This year they did.

And as for all of us boring neurotypicals who tried to end this childish behavior?  We are embracing Brent holidays…. and now we get dressed up in our costumes and run around on the INSIDE of the houses…and change our wigs and hats and masks for each door that Brent knocks on.

And yes, each Christmas Eve Brent still packs his overnight bag and walks next

Brent and Dylan, Christmas 2012

Brent and Dylan, Christmas 2012

door to our family home where Dylan is…. to spend Christmas Eve in Dylan’s room.  And my absolute favorite moment of the year is STILL the time that comes on Christmas Eve after Brent reads us ‘The Night Before Christmas’ in honor of Grandma Bobbie… and he and Dylan go upstairs in their Christmas pajamas, and Dylan tucks Brent in and reminds him to wake him up at 630AM (Dylan needs a little help getting out of bed that early now)… so that they can go downstairs and sit together by the light of the Christmas tree lights…. playing with that kitschy singing toy Santa that Brent had on his Christmas list.

 

So, about this autism and empathy thing….

People with autism lack empathy.

Really?? ….I’m confused. Do the people who say this actually live with a person with autism… do they spend a lot of time getting to know people on the spectrum?  Have they experienced sad events together with their friends who are autistic?

I have.  Many many times over the years.  I’ve seen their anguish when a friend or animal is sick or hurting…. and I’ve seen how quickly they respond when a stranger needs help.  I see …and yes, I can feel…their pain when they have unknowingly hurt someone’s feelings or disappointed someone that they care about. I hear their apologies, and those apologies come from a place so deep and sincere that I expect that any second they will shut down completely out of sheer empathy OVERLOAD.

Lack empathy?  Not a chance.  But I do understand why so many neurotypical folks PERCEIVE a lack of empathy in their students or acquaintances with autism.

The other night around 10… Ray and Michael grabbed the lantern and headed up the hill to Ray’s house.  Down at the main house, I was checking Ray’s mouse live- trap, since we have had an influx of cute little meadow mice lately with the coming of spring.  I opened it up, and one of those cute little meadow mice jumped out of the trap and into the sleeve of my shirt and ran up my arm and onto my stomach… under my shirt. Now… I am not afraid of mice. Or snakes, spiders, rats or scorpions.  I live with them, Ray collects pets like this. I like all these critters almost as much as Ray does.

courtesy of bluebison.net

But it caught me by surprise and I screamed… LOUDLY.  and CONTINUOUSLY for what seemed  a very long time… because I could not get the thing out of my shirt and it was running around on my body.  Andy and Jose just watched me jumping around… and afterwards, Andy says ‘WOW! You scream like a girl!’

Ten minutes later, Ray and Michael return, carrying LEGOS of course.  Still excited, Jose and Andy tell the mouse story…. and Michael says…..

‘we heard you screaming all the way up the hill when we were walking up.  It sounded like you were really hurt, or like something was attacking you’

and I said ‘then why didn’t you run back?’

and Michael says..’ well  we were pretty intent on finding this LEGO piece that we were missing.  We’re back now.’

Uhh OK.

This is not lack of empathy.  It’s something else, hyper focus …or something.  To their credit in this particular case, I truly believe that sometimes the guys here assume that I am some kind of super human that can not be physically hurt… similar to a Bionicle or HALO individual perhaps, guys?…. (perhaps it is my ‘Bossy Big Sister‘ New Yorker attitude).

I am neurotypical but have lived with adults on the spectrum for 30 years. This kind of focus is going on all the time here.   Often, a problem will arise around a disruption of focus…of hobbies… or computers, televisions, or music…. something in the present environment that has to be shared with others.  And when this kind of focus is interrupted, these guys often have little tolerance or understanding of the person who is interrupting them.

I have tried to get them to explain to me how they are feeling, but I’ve never once succeeded at the time it is happening. It is during these instances that you see another side of these generally kind and gentle, compassionate guys. No matter how many times they are asked ‘how would YOU feel if …… ‘   or… ‘don’t you think it’s time for someone else to get a chance, you’ve had your chance for 4 hours’… there’s just ALWAYS a reason (actually, many reasons) why they shouldn’t have been interrupted because what they were doing was very important. So sure, in that particular moment, there is not much empathy… anywhere.

but by the next day…. they always rationally discuss possible solutions to the problem… and they apologize to everyone involved.

So am I missing something here?  Is this what is meant by ‘lacking empathy’?  I respectfully disagree.

April is Autism Awareness month, and tomorrow is April 2, World Autism Awareness Day.  The numbers are out and autism is now 1 in 88 births… we are past ‘awareness’.  Isn’t it time it became ‘Autism Appreciation and Acceptance’  instead?

And that is my rant for the month.

The border collie puppies visit the Hill

P.S. And speaking of empathy… in case you missed it, the family dog passed away recently, and I blogged about it here