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Lessons We Can All Learn from My 94-Year-Old Dad


We will all be lucky if we age like my dad.

My dad just recently started to age. Truly. A year ago, he was still playing golf twice a week—even though he was 93 at the time.  He only started using a cane six months ago (and it’s one he personally created out of a dowel stick, with a golf-ball-handle on top), and it’s just been a little over two months since he stopped driving altogether.

So it’s entirely new for me to watch my dad . . . finally age and require some modifications in his life.

But rather than focus on what he no longer can do, I decided to see what kinds of lessons I might learn as he enters this new stage of life. It turns out this was much easier to do than I thought.  Here’s some of what I’ve gleaned.

Experience 1: My dad’s vision has diminished somewhat, so I recently bought him a phone with extra large buttons and offered to copy his personal phone directory in large, bold font. But while the time-worn book was filled with lots of names, he only wanted me to copy the numbers of these few people: his daughters, sisters, and grandkids.  That was it.

The Lesson: Most people in our lives come and go, yet a small inner circle will remain with us for life.  So the next time a coworker or neighbor or teacher upsets us, we can ask ourselves: When I’m 94, is this person going to make the cut in my new phone book? Could be a helpful guideline for deciding who’s worth getting distressed over right now.

Experience 2:  I’ve never known my dad to drink wine, and he has probably had a total of a dozen or so beers in his entire life.  But recently, he started drinking wine with his “girlfriend.” (My mother died after they had been married for 50 years, and he’s been with his girlfriend for the last ten years.)

The other night we were all out to dinner, and they were both having a glass of wine.  While she has always enjoyed wine, I confess it was such an odd picture for me to see my dad drinking out of a goblet.

So I nonchalantly asked why (after all these years) he had now decided to drink wine.  Without missing beat, he raised his glass and toasted it against his girlfriend’s glass and said, “So that I can do that.” And then with a twinkle in his eye, he added, “I couldn’t do that if she was drinking alone.”

The Lesson: With my dad’s new changes, he can no longer help his girlfriend in some of the ways that he previously did. So, he has found a new way to make her smile. Bottom line: If we’re willing to explore possibilities, there’s always a new option.

Experience 3: Since I started taking my dad to his doctor appointments, I noticed a disturbing theme. The doctors turn their back on my dad and talk to me—as though he isn’t even present.  After the third time this happened, I brought it up to my dad.  I was getting pretty huffy about it, but he merely shrugged his shoulders and said, “They just don’t have experience treating a 94-year-old patient.”

The Lesson:  Insight over indignation is always a much better way to go.

Experience 4:  My dad does not talk about what he can no longer do or what he now does more slowly than before. Instead, he proudly shows off what he can do—and that’s a lot.

For example, while he’s no longer driving to the grocery store, he does all his own shopping once someone takes him there. While he has some difficulty seeing the line to sign on his credit card, he whips it out of his wallet right on cue. If you shake his hand, be prepared for a grip that rivals young twenty-year-olds.  The list goes on.

The Lesson: There are always going to be negatives and positives in our lives. That’s a given. However, we can choose which of those two we decide to focus on.

Experience 5:  For as long as I’ve known my dad, he has eaten the same breakfast, for which he preps each night. He’s still doing this; however, he recently asked me, “How would you define optimism for a 94-year-old man?” His answer was:  A guy who prepares his breakfast . . . the night before.

The Lesson: It’s important to have a sense of humor at any age.

Now, it’s not as though my dad has lived a charmed life. Not at all. He’s a WWII veteran with some pretty horrific war experiences. In his forties, he was robbed at gunpoint. He has had cancer not once, not twice—but five times.

Yet, he never complains about anything.  There is something to learn from that, too.

So as I spend time with my dad in this new phase of his life, I’m going to keep focusing on the positive and see what other life lessons I can extrapolate from our time together. That’s because I want to feel joy, not sadness, as he continues to age.

And that  . . . seems the best way to honor how he’s lived for over nine decades.


Why Kids Lie


After our child makes a poor decision, does he believe that lying is his best response?

There are three reasons kids lie.  When we understand those differences, we know how best to respond.

Kids lie because:

1) They don’t process information well.

In such instances, they really think they heard you (or someone else) say something—even when that’s not the case. There’s often even some shred of “truth” to their fabrication.

For example, suppose our child hears us say that we’d love to go to Hawaii for Christmas, but her brain processes that as  . . . We’re going to Hawaii for Christmas!

So that’s what she tells everyone. She may even get upset when called out for her “lie”—since she really believes that’s what was said.

2) They don’t interact well in social conversations.

The intent, here, is not to create a lie to evade responsibility for something they may have said and done.

Instead, such kids come up with something often wildly preposterous as a way to circumvent feeling uneasy and to start or become part of an on-going conversation. For example, they may say that they saw a famous pop star when they were at the store.  Or they’ll say something such as, “It snowed at my house yesterday”—but they live by the beach in Southern California.

When called out on the whopper—which is what usually happens—the child insists that whatever she said was the truth. In fact, the more someone challenges the whopper, the more adamant she becomes.

So the whopper becomes a way to shift an initial friendly conversation into an argument. And guess what?  That kind of interaction actually feels good and familiar to the child who told the whopper. So, now she’s at ease (which was the original, subconscious goal).

3) They want to avoid judgment and punishment. 

From these kids’ perspective, it’s more appealing to lie than tell the truth because the former (at least) creates the possibility of avoiding a negative response.  In other words, this kind of lie is more of a protective, fear-based reaction to how such kids project someone might respond if they “find out” what they did.

There’s a common thread among kids who tell these kinds of lies.  Usually, those in charge of them tend to be attached to an outcome, judge if such outcomes don’t meet their criteria, use lots of judgmental words in their daily interactions, and resort to punishment if behavior is not up to their standard.

So how do we respond to such different kinds of lies?

If we realize that our child doesn’t process information well, we initiate a general discussion on this topic. We make sure to do this when we’re all “in our cortex” (versus right after there’s been a miscommunication).

We may even play the game “Telephone” to underscore the idea that communications are not always processed as they were actually said.  We then establish some kind of code word to use if our child now says something that she believes to be true, but we know . . .  wasn’t actually processed as intended.

At various times, we can also ask our child to tell us what she thinks we just said (especially if we don’t think she processed the message). Doing so gives us a chance to clarify any misinterpretation, right then.

If our child tells whoppers, we no longer call her out.  In fact, we completely ignore all whoppers. Instead, we use that as our cue to see how we might include our child in the current conversation in a way that puts her at ease. We may also seek ways to help her, in general, become more skilled in the art of making conversation.

If our child tells lies as a fear-based reaction, we first reflect on how we actually deal with mistakes in our home that perpetuates such fear.  Do we yell? Do we judge? Are we demeaning? Do we immediately punish?

If so, then it’s really no surprise that our child concludes it’s better to lie than tell the truth—even though such conclusion is not viewed similarly by others.

But trust is also a two-way street. While we want to be able to trust our child, here’s the second part of that equation: Does she trust us?  In other words, why doesn’t our child believe she can tell us the truth?

That may be a hard question to answer. But more times than not, such answers are the catalyst for changing a child who lies into one who tells the truth.

We may also ponder these questions: Has our child ever had a positive experience where telling the truth served her well? Has anyone actually taught her how to take responsibility if she makes a poor decision?

I’m not advocating that if kids tell the truth, then they just waltz away without any more ado.  Not at all.

But if our kids don’t first trust us enough to share the truth, then we miss incredible opportunities to teach them.

For example, when they feel secure enough to admit when they’ve “messed up,” we can now help them explore ways to rectify that situation. We can teach them not only to learn from their mistakes, but also how to accept responsibility for their actions. It seems like those experiences would build ever-lasting character and serve our child—in the long run—far more than issuing a generic punishment for lying.

So I’m not sure that it’s ever helpful to view a child as “a liar.”  Instead, we can opt to hear such responses (if they happen) as mere feedback that gives us insights—both about our child and ourselves—so that we may know how to respond in a way that moves everyone forward.

Kids with Control Issues


Kids reclaim their childhood when they no longer think they are in charge.

When we think about it, why would kids even want to be in control of everything? After all, the best part about being a kid is . . . adults make the decisions and assume overall responsibility for whatever happens.

Yet, I’ve met a lot of kids who think they are in charge of their life, their home—and even their parents—and they’ll work overtime proving that by trying to control every situation.

In my experience, this behavior came about for one or more of these reasons:

1) Kids with underdeveloped lower centers of the brain often experience a lot of failure when others are leading. That’s because those in control usually have no awareness of how to build into the structure (i.e. make subtle modifications) so that such kids can then easily comply and experience success.

So to avoid that dreaded sense of failure, some kids compensate by seizing control of the situation.  They’ll insist on doing it “their way.” But their way also works best for their brain, and now makes it impossible to fail by not doing a task as others expect.

2) Kids take control because others (inadvertently) reinforce this distorted sense of power by giving a lot of attention to the negative behavior. Here, the child’s brain may actually register holding the whole family hostage (by refusing to do whatever, and thereby delaying everyone) as giving him a distorted sense of importance. It’s even better if family members become upset. Now he’s even controlling how they act!  He’s center-stage as he proves that, again and again, he can turn a whole house upside down. And every time he’s allowed to do that, he further entrenches a brain map that reinforces he’s the boss.

3) Kids take control when they don’t trust those in charge to lead. If that’s so, then a key question to ponder is . .  . how did those kids lose that trust in the first place?

Some variables that affect trust are: 1) As parents, we second-guess many of our decision; 2) We’re inconsistent with how we respond; 3) We focus more on the negative, without honoring the present gifts our child has to share; 4) We don’t regularly build into the structure to make it easy to comply.

So how do we help kids relinquish their need to control?  We start by telling them that they are giving up the best part of childhood when they think they are the ones in charge. We point out how they’ve already lost so many years of their childhood by thinking they were the boss—and we don’t want them to lose any more. Bottom line: We don’t ever get to be a kid again.

In my experience, that kind of conversation really resonates with such kids. They’re not so keen on giving up childhood years that can never be regained.

However, that conversation won’t have any lasting effect if those in charge continue to do the reasons (above) that created this behavior in the first place.

So, instead of being resigned to thinking we have a “strong-willed” or “defiant” or “controlling” child, we can choose to view such kids as a mirror to what we’re not yet providing for them. We can pause and re-think what we may do differently that, in turn, will create a sense of security for our child.

Once that’s in place, I’ve yet to meet a child who did not willingly let go of the reins.

Holiday Tips for Special Needs Kids


With a little behind-the-scenes planning, we can ensure everyone enjoys the holidays.

I recently read an article on this subject, and this was actually one of the suggestions:  Plan for your child’s inevitable melt-down.

Wow. Talk about a downer attitude.

Now I’m all for planning, but here’s what I propose: Plan to have . . .  a great time.

So, here are some suggestions to ensure a wonderful holiday.

1. Role play positive behavior for situations we anticipate may trigger a negative response.

For example, our child can practice simply saying, “No thank you,” if offered food he does not like.

2. Allow our child to wear something that doesn’t skyrocket her sensory issues.

Who cares if Aunt Sue (who we only see once a year) thinks our child’s outfit is inappropriate? Why add more sensory overload by requiring our daughter to wear a cute outfit (that feels horrible to her)?

3. Be prepared to respond to family members who criticize our child and our parenting.

A ready-to-go response for any criticism may be: I’m actually very thankful to have my child in my life. And then, we just smile and walk away.

4. Initiate escape breaks.

We take our child outside to “get something we forgot from the car” or to see (whatever) that’s in the backyard, and so on.  Little breaks from all the party noise prevent sensory overload and help keep our child calm.

5.  Have consistent expectations.

If we know our child is a picky eater–and we don’t require him to try new foods at our own dinner table—then we don’t suddenly demand our son branches out and try new foods (just because Granny made the dish).

6. Strategize where our child sits at the table.

Usually, sitting at an end is a lot better than being squished in the middle. (This spot also makes it easier to get up . . . see next suggestion.)  We also assess the chairs. Will our kids’ feet dangle? If so, we can put something under them. Is there a choice between a chair or a stool? If so, the former provides more support. Are some family members more tolerant than others? If so, that’s who sits closest to our child.

7. Strategize ways to avoid long periods of sitting at the table.

We may ask our child to get up and pass the rolls to family members or to go to the kitchen to get something we (intentionally) forgot to put on the table. Also, there’s no law that says kids have to sit through the entire meal. So why should we make them suffer through endless adult chatter that has no meaning to them?

8. Leave early.

We don’t wait until our child is tired and over-stimulated before we realize it’s time to go.  But not everyone has to leave while the party is still happening. We can take two cars, and already know which parent makes the early exit with our child (and in some cases, that parent may even welcome the chance to cut out early).

No, we can’t anticipate everything that might happen. But here’s a general guideline for any unexpected situation: We vow to keep the bigger picture in mind.

In other words, it’s not relevant whether extended family members “get” why we may be going outside for breaks or leaving early or doing whatever to ensure our child enjoys his time with the family.

We stay focused on doing holidays just like everything else—our actions are dictated by what’s in our child’s best interest. Period.

The irony is . . . such actions then also ensure those critical relatives enjoy the party, too. :-)

Apps for Autism: Helpful or Not?


Wonder if Steve Jobs knew the iPad would be a hot topic in the autism community.

Knowing that I work with lots of families with autism, many people were interested in what I thought about the recent 60 Minutes segment, “Apps for Autism.”

That’s because at Brain Highways, we experience again and again how nonverbal kids (including those with autism) do speak and communicate their ideas after they’ve integrated retained primitive reflexes and developed their lower centers of the brain.

How’s that possible? Well, since it takes way, way, more highways to speak than to walk, speech (which takes place in the cortex) is going to be a luxury and inaccessible until the cortex is no longer preoccupied with compensating for underdeveloped lower parts of the brain. However, once that development is complete, the cortex is now “available” and, therefore, can focus on developing speech.

But the 60 Minutes story wasn’t about nonverbal kids learning to speak. Rather, it highlighted how some kids with autism were now able to communicate their thoughts by using an app on an iPad. So people were curious about my reaction to this.

I think many were surprised by my answer.  I thought it was great.

Do I believe everyone would prefer if a child actually spoke his thoughts? Yes.  But not everyone knows about brain organization or is willing to do the work.

So if something, in this case the iPad, proves what we’ve always known at Brain Highways— then it’s a great plus for everyone who interacts with nonverbal kids.  Namely, just because a child cannot articulate his thoughts does not mean that he also doesn’t understand what’s being said. Yet, too often, that’s the assumption

In fact, that’s probably why the people in the segment seemed so surprised by what the kids were showing they knew once they began communicating via the iPad.

In short, I say anything that helps people get past a “disability” and makes it easy for them to see, for example, an incredible child who is full of all kinds of thoughts and ideas . . . then bring it on.

That also includes kids who are in programs organizing their brain. The apps for autism fall under what we call “building into the structure”—where we encourage parents to help kids compensate (in this case communicate their ideas) while they’re building highways.

The 60 Minutes segment also noted it was interesting that kids with autism were so attracted to the easy touch-and-swipe iPad screens. However, this too makes sense when we look at kids with underdeveloped brains.  In such case, there is often a huge disconnect between what they’re thinking they want to do and what their body then actually does.

Yet with the iPad, it’s practically effortless to do just that. So, it’s really not surprising that such kids like using it.

We see the same reaction with our non-electronic “brain toys” at our site.  With very little effort from these kids, such toys produce an immediate really cool visual and/or auditory effect.  So, just like the iPad, kids are very attracted to them.

There was something else to glean from the 60 Minutes segment.  Near the end, they showed a boy who did not seem very enthralled with the app.  The teacher kept trying to redirect him to use the iPad to communicate, but he clearly wasn’t interested—until by mistake, he touched something, and a lion appeared and growled. That seemed to catch his attention and amuse him.

So what to learn from that part of the segment? Well, before we get down to business . . . (in this case: “This is how you will use this app to communicate.”), we need to allow all kids some time to first explore and play with whatever’s new.  Not everything always has to be an instructional moment.

Bottom line: It’s positive when compensations make something easier for kids who are trying to function with a disorganized brain.  But I also want parents to know we can help kids beyond that. We can actually help kids organize their brain so there are now an endless number of possibilities available to them.

And within that same process, such kids will be able to share their thoughts and ideas . . .  even if an iPad or some other compensation is not around.

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