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Holiday Tips for Special Needs Kids

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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. :-)

Why Kids Avoid Eye Contact

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We may not realize that incomplete lower brain development affects our ability to make and sustain eye contact.

Adults have told kids like a zillion times: “Look at me while I’m talking to you.”  And when they still don’t do this, people assume such kids must be shy, unfocused, disrespectful, defiant, and more.

Or, avoiding eye contact is often part of a subjective list of red flags that support a myriad of diagnoses such as autism, reactive detachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, Tourette’s, and ADD.

Yet, there are physiological reasons that explain why kids don’t make eye contact, and those are far more likely to be the reason than any negative spin.

To start, we need good peripheral vision to sustain natural eye contact. Why’s that?

Well, our peripheral vision acts sort of like “anchors.” When we make eye contact with a person, our peripheral vision keeps our eyes relaxed as it takes in what’s to the side of us.  In contrast, if we don’t have good peripheral vision, making eye contact becomes more like staring—and that gets old quickly.

Try it. Put your hands up to the side of your eyes to block your peripheral vision. Now see if it feels comfortable to engage in nice, easy eye contact. How long before you feel your eyes either staring or wanting to drift away?

Our two eyes also need to work together as a team to make good eye contact. Here the eyes converge to see one image (i.e. the face). However, if those two eyes are not in sync, then we see a distorted image. In fact, when kids’ eyes do not team well, they may be seeing multiple faces if forced to look at the speaker. If so, what would all of us naturally do? Look away.

Okay, if that’s so, then why don’t these kids tell people they’re seeing double or triple or more? Well, that might happen if they were actually aware that they “see” differently than everyone else.

But how would they know that? It’s not like we can “borrow” someone else’s brain and eyes for bit to discover that we see differently from the rest. (Note that some kids with poor eye teaming can make eye contact. They do so by slightly tilting their head when they look at the speaker. This allows just one eye to engage with the person, thereby, eliminating the distortion caused by two eyes that don’t team well.)

The truth is . . . we really can’t take any credit if we can make and sustain good eye contact. It’s not like we studied this in school or worked extra hard at home on the weekends.

No, natural peripheral vision and eye teaming are part of natural brain development—and some kids just did not finish this development when they were young.

At Brain Highways, we observe, again and again, that peripheral vision and eye teaming evolve naturally after certain primitive reflexes are integrated and the pons and midbrain develops.

And yes, that’s no different for kids with diagnoses such as autism, reactive detachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, Tourette’s, and ADD.

Interestingly, a brain imaging study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that the amygdala—the emotion center of the brain that reacts to perceived threats—lights up to an abnormal extent when kids with autism gaze at a person’s face.  The researchers concluded that kids with autism shy away from eye contact because they have an over-aroused amygdala.  Such kids, they concluded, see faces as a “threat.”

But guess what? An over-aroused amygdala is also present when the lower centers of the brain are underdeveloped. Add to that . . . maybe seeing double or triple or being asked to stare (if there’s not good peripheral vision) is enough, in itself, to trigger the amygdala (especially since so many adults are relentless about requiring eye contact).

So, how about re-thinking our demands for eye contact? For example, if what we really want is for our child to listen to us, we may actually have a better chance of that happening if we don’t require them to look at us. After all, most of us can probably concentrate a whole lot better if we’re not seeing multiple faces or if our eyes aren’t hurting like they do when we stare.

We can also decide to toss any negative interpretations (e.g. he’s being disrespectful) if our child isn’t making eye contact.

In truth, it comes down to this. As adults, we put a lot of energy into requiring eye contact from kids. While I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard adults say, “Look at me while I’m talking to you,” I’m trying to recall if I’ve ever heard a child say that to anyone. I’m coming up with no examples.

Maybe this is one of those times where kids—and not adults—have a better sense of what’s important and what’s not.

The Upside of Letting Go

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When we’re not so attached to an outcome, we find ourselves smiling a whole lot more.

How many times have we been emotionally invested in an outcome, only to react with fear or anger or frustration when it didn’t turn out as we hoped?

Since we can’t control many of the outcomes in our lives, maybe it’s time to give up being so attached to them.  In such case, we still note what we’d like to happen—but then, we let it go, choosing to view all outcomes as just opportunities to learn and grow.

And guess what? Turns our there are lots of perks when we chose to detach from an outcome.  Here are just a few:

  • We don’t waste time worrying about what might happen.
  • We aren’t disappointed by whatever does or does not come to pass.
  • We don’t place judgment on the experience.
  • We aren’t tempted to cheat (e.g. on a test) since we are no longer fixated on the results.

Seems like a pretty good deal for simply shifting how we think.

Yet letting go is not always as easy as it sounds, especially when it comes to our kids.

For example, we’re often calm and collected when dealing with someone else’s child. But the minute our child does the very same thing, we morph into someone else. Why? Well, we’re very attached to our child’s future.

Yet there’s some irony here. The child we’re not nearly as invested in . . . gets the better side of us. Hmmm . .  maybe that awareness alone can help us lighten up when interacting with our own kids.

We may also have trouble letting go if we think we’re owed an apology. Nothing like feeling we’ve been wronged to justify “holding on” to something.

Yet, again, what does that really get us? I’ve found this quote to be helpful in such situations: “Apologizing does not always mean that you’re wrong and the other person is right. It just means that you value your relationship more than your ego.”

Last, I think it’s easier to be detached from an outcome if we remember that other people may also be involved in same situation. That means, by default, not everyone is going to get what he or she wants.

Carol Burnett underscored this kind of thinking when she first started her career. I recently watched an interview of her, and she was sharing how she never became upset or second-guessed her talent if she didn’t get a job after an audition. Instead, she just viewed the actor who got the role as . . . this time, it was the other person’s turn.

So, it comes down to this: Is it serving us (or our kids) well whenever we’re attached to an outcome? If the answer is no, then why not let it go and see what happens.

Since I’ve been doing that, I find that I’m traveling much lighter these days—and enjoying the journey so much more.

Staying in the Moment

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Are we always “present’ when we’re with our kids?

When thinking about our kids, we often spend a lot of time lamenting the past and having angst over the future.  But there’s a problem with doing that.

We lose the moment. And that means we miss who they are right now.

So why do we jump back and forth in time? Well, we often use the past to justify our present actions, and we regularly leap to the future when we’re fearful something “might” happen.

To be sure: The future needs a new public relations campaign. That’s because most of us associate some kind of apprehension or dread with the unknown.

But uncertainty about the future also means . . . anything is possible!

Think about it: Would any of us really want to know our kids’ future with absolute sureness? Yikes. To me, that kind of knowledge would create even more angst.

So if the moment is where “life” is really happening, how can we stay there?

First, we become aware of when our thoughts are time traveling.  With such consciousness, we can then immediately return our focus to the present.

For example, suppose we’re watching our child during soccer try-outs. Instead of enjoying the moment, we suddenly find ourselves thinking: “Oh, no! There are some new kids who are really fast. That means Tommy may not make the team this year. If he doesn’t make the team, that’s going to be embarrassing. He’s going to be so upset . . .” and so it goes.

However, if we’re cognizant of staying in the moment, we return to the present the minute we realize we’ve left it.

But yes . . . . that’s much, much easier said than done.

So, I find it helpful to have some ready-to-use phrases to pull me back to the present: They are:

Drop the story (whenever I’m thinking about something that happened in the past or could happen in the future).

Drop the judgment (whenever I’m attaching some evaluation to something that distracts from what’s actually happening)

Now, it’s also possible to be at that same soccer try-out without any angst—and still leave the moment.  How?

Well, we might find ourselves planning what’s for dinner, when we’ll get our next work-out in, how we might reorganize the pantry—instead of watching what’s presently happening on the field.

For those kinds of thoughts, I tell myself: Drop the to-do list.

Note that staying in the moment is not just for adults. We also model and teach this to our kids.

How do we do that? Well, we can start by encouraging our kids (and ourselves) to look for people who are in the moment.  For example, I was recently at a resort. Musicians were playing in an outdoor area where lots of people were passing by. While the music was certainly enjoyable, it was a three-year-old girl that made me stop.

She wasn’t just dancing to the music with zero inhibition. She was feeling it—in every part of her body. As she blissfully moved this way and that, the people passing by didn’t even exist.

And you know what? I found myself in the moment, enraptured by her joy.

We can also seek programs and experiences for our kids that focus on being in the moment. For example, learning how to be present is an integral part of our new Brain Highways Sports program.

Is this component common among most activities for kids? No. But who knows what might transpire if we (as parents) start asking for it to be included.

And it’s funny. Once you start thinking about staying in the moment, you realize that people you’ve always thought of as calm, grounded, and engaging –are those who do live in the present.

For example, my dad will be 94 next week. He has lived through the depression. He’s a WWII veteran. He has long lost count of how many funerals he’s attended. He’s had five cancers.

Yet, he has never wished for more than he has. He doesn’t judge people or himself. He isn’t fearful—and that was incredulous to watch with each of his cancers.

And while I’ve known that people of all ages love chatting with my Dad, I now realize it’s because he’s always “right there” when he’s with you.  Whatever you’re interested in, so is my dad  . . . at that moment.

You know what? Tonight, I’m going to call my Dad and thank him for being present throughout my life.  I’ve never done that.

As parents, I’m thinking that’s a call we’d all like to get one day.

Why We Can’t Lose Hope

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If we’ve lost all hope, what are the chances for a better future?

A lot of parents start Brain Highways with a sigh of relief and this sobering comment, “This program gives me hope.”  That statement always makes me sad because I think: How did those parents lose hope in the first place?

It’s a question worth pondering because I don’t believe there’s a single child in this world who wants their parents to feel hopeless about them.

So where does it begin?

I think much hopelessness is triggered by bold, “absolute” statements that some doctors, teachers, and therapists (i.e. people in authority) say to parents about their kids. The problem is . . .such statements don’t allow for the possibility that others—those with different perceptions and experiences—may differ greatly from what that person has just said.

For example, consider the difference between saying, “I don’t know how to help your child learn to speak” and, “Your child will never speak—and you need to accept that.”

Not only does the latter statement slam all doors of hope, but it’s accompanied by a strong subconscious message.  Namely, if parents cling to “false” hope, then they must be in denial. With the denial card on the table, the authority figure’s position is reinforced, suggesting he can “see” the situation much more clearly than the one in denial.

But since no one can predict the future for certain, I always wonder why it isn’t equally probable that the person in authority is the one in denial. Yet that’s not where such conversations usually go.

Instead, “absolute” comments often end up only reinforcing our own doubts. After all, we tried many approaches that did not yield desired results. We’re feeling helpless and vulnerable and have probably already wondered if we are at the end of the road, that there is nothing else we can do.

Most of all, we’re tired, so tired of searching for ways to improve the current situation that it seems unbearable to get our hopes up, once again.

So, it’s somewhere around this time, it just seems easier . . . to let go of all hope.

I truly understand how that can happen.  But I can’t accept it.

That’s because what started out as the most sincere desire to help the child has now inadvertently shifted to protecting parents from further disappointment. That means that somewhere along the line, the child is no longer the first consideration.  That means the child, by default, now becomes the recipient of all that hopelessness that hangs in the air, in unspoken messages, and in the way everyone looks at him.

And that just can’t be right.

Well, how do we turn that around?  We can post and remember this truth every day: “As long as we’re breathing, there are options. As long as there are options, we have hope.”

If we need an additional boost, we can also post this saying right below it: “The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.”

I’ve had the honor of knowing lots of families whose experiences underscore that sentiment. I’m also thinking it’s the kind of spirit every child wants to see in the eyes of everyone they know.

 

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