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Autism Criteria May Be Changed

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How will changing the autism criteria help kids?

That was the headline in today’s paper.  So, if your child was diagnosed with autism in the past, he could be instantly “cured” in the near future—if he doesn’t fit the new definition.  But why doesn’t that sound . . . right?

Here’s what has transpired to date. A panel of experts, appointed by the American Psychiatric Association, is recommending pretty dramatic changes in the present criteria for diagnosing autism.

For example, with the new guidelines, there would no longer be related disorder categories, such as Asperger’s or PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified).

Instead, there would be just one autism spectrum disorder, and qualifying for that diagnosis would be much more difficult than the current guidelines.

But here’s the upside. These experts claim that such changes could dramatically affect the rate of autism.(In some places, the rate of autism is now as high as 1 in 100 children.)  In fact, Dr. Fred R. Volkman, director of the Child Study Center at Yale University of Medicine says, “The proposed changes would put an end to the autism epidemic.  We would nip it in the bud.”

Okay, first pause.

Changing statistics do not improve a problem.  For example, we could raise the driving alcohol limit, and thereby greatly reduce the number of people arrested for drunk driving. But a change in those statistics wouldn’t mean we’re now any safer on the road. In fact, changing the criteria for drunk driving (by making it so less people were deemed driving under the influence) would only put everyone more at risk.

Second pause.

Is money partially (or completely) driving this reclassification?  With the current criteria, hundreds of thousands of people receive state-backed special services. So, you gotta wonder if tightening the criteria for autism and eliminating its related disorders isn’t just a creative way to help fix existing state budget problems.

That being said, diagnosing autism and its related disorders has always been subjective, and this latest attempt to change the criteria underscores that point. In other words, such diagnoses have never come about in the same way, for example, as a cancer diagnosis—where there’s tangible “proof.”

And here’s another truth: While parents of kids with Asperger’s and PDD-NOS may presently qualify for certain resources, those services are limited. Often, such assistance does not even render significant results.

So maybe this is one of those blessings in disguise.

Maybe—if such changes pass—more parents will be motivated to learn about brain organization and how they can facilitate positive changes in their child’s brain wiring.  Maybe more parents will no longer be resigned to out-of-bounds behaviors that they’ve been told to “expect” if their child has autism or one of its related disorders.

And maybe, just maybe, the focus will return to this question: How can we best help kids who are struggling?  If that is the driving question, then having or not having a diagnosis becomes irrelevant.

 

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

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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

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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.

A Different Letter for Santa

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What gifts can’t be wrapped?

Okay, I may be a little old to be writing Santa, and admittedly, this may be beyond the scope of what he ordinarily does.  But here it goes:

Dear Santa:

Please make sure all kids get . . .

  1. Daily opportunities to share their innate gifts
  1. Unstructured downtime
  1. An educational environment where joyful learning is required
  1. A sense of security and trust in those who are in charge of them
  1. Encouragement to be creative
  1. Lots of time to move throughout the day
  1. A sense that they belong—even if they seem different from the rest

Santa, I’m thinking that some of today’s kids have become so lost that they don’t even know to ask you for any of the above. So I’m asking for them.

I also truly believe there isn’t a video game or electronic toy out there that even comes close to bringing the kind of joy this list could bring to kids.

So, please talk this over with your elves and see whether you can help make this holiday a brand new beginning for many kids.

Nancy

Giving and Receiving

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Do we give to others, but deny others to do the same for us?

Giving and receiving are part of the same circle; we can’t have one without the other.

Yet, after we’ve become parents, that circle is often lopsided, with the greater emphasis on the giving side. Somewhere along the line, we seem to forget how to also receive graciously.  We’re overwhelmed, tired, frustrated—but when people offer to help, we often brush them aside, saying, “I’m okay.”

My dad, who lives completely on his own, now needs help getting his weekly groceries. Mind you, he can still do all the shopping; he just can’t drive to the store any more. So, I wanted to arrange a schedule where family members came and took him to the store each week.

As expected, his first response was no.  He just could pay someone to do this.  But I was armed with my giving and receiving speech.

I told him he had given so much throughout his life, yet I couldn’t recall a single time he had ever asked someone else for help. I talked about his lopsided circle when it came to giving and receiving, and how it wasn’t fair to my sisters or me if he didn’t allow us to help him.  I knew I had to offer a fresh perspective in order to circumvent his knee-jerk “I can take care of this myself” response.

Guess what? We’ve not only set up a grocery store schedule, but he loves doing it this way! He still gets to do the part that’s fun for him (picking out his own grapefruit, deciding what cookies he wants, etc.), all while enjoying the company of one of his girls during the excursion.

But we don’t have to wait until we’re 94 to open some space to allow others to give to us.  However, the first step may be to make it known that, yes, we’d love some help.

That’s especially true if we’re now thinking, “Well, no one ever offers to help me.” Chances are  . . . they did a long time ago. But after so many refusals, people do quit asking. Of course, we don’t ever have an expectation that someone should help us.

So, what else gets in the way of receiving graciously?  There’s pride (I’m confident and capable) or self-judgment (I should be able to handle this on my own) or just plain habit (I’m used to doing everything myself).Yet, each of these thoughts push others away from helping us, and so our giving and receiving circle remains lopsided.

For kids, receiving is a natural.  However, their giving and receiving circle is often tilted heavily on the receiving side.

So how can we balance that? Well, we can encourage our kids to routinely give gifts that require no money.  For example, they can give thanks for the rain and sunshine (since we couldn’t live without either!).  They can give their time, such as visiting a senior home or even just calling up Grandma or Grandpa to chat.  They can give away something they own to someone who may appreciate it more. They can give a smile to someone who is feeling down.

Sharing is also a form of giving, so kids can be encouraged to share a toy or treat, or even share a creative idea that they may have.

In truth, there are endless possibilities when it comes to giving and receiving.

So maybe this upcoming holiday becomes an opportunity to begin balancing our giving and receiving circles if they’re out of whack. For example, if we fall short in the latter category, we now open space for others to help us.  If our kids fall short in the former, we now redirect them to adopt more of a giving than receiving mindset.

And when we do so, we discover that the spirit of giving and receiving . . .  is truly one and the same.

Why Kids Slouch

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We can glean clues about a child’s brain organization by how he sits in a chair.

Somewhere along the line, we’ve come to associate slouching with being inattentive.  That’s why we often hear adults telling kids, “Sit up, and pay attention!”

Yet, I know many kids who actually pay less attention when made to sit up straight.

How can that be?

Well, some kids have retained primitive reflexes.  In such case, sitting upright in a chair isn’t as automatic as it should be.

For example, a child with a retained Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex will experience difficulty doing movement that goes against the pull of gravity.  So these kids can only sit upright for a very short period of time before being “pulled down” (i.e. gravity wins).

This then explains why such kids sink lower and lower into their chair, or they sprawl across the desk when reading and writing.  At least, in these positions, they can start to concentrate on the task as hand (they’re no longer distracted by fighting gravity) . . . that is, until they’re, once again, told to sit up straight.

Some teachers mistakenly think the child who always puts his head on the desk while writing is not going to bed at an appropriate time. She may even call the parent about this.

If the parent does not also understand the connection between retained primitive reflexes and difficulty sitting upright in a chair, she may now put her child to bed earlier (even though she’s a little miffed about the call because her child does go to bed at a decent hour).

Yet that mom can put her child to bed at noon or earlier—and he’s still going to go down, down, down when sitting in a chair.  He’s wired to do so.

But now, the teacher may think the parent is ignoring her bedtime concern or lying about his real bedtime. After all, the child is still always sprawled over the desk. Since the mother is putting the child to bed earlier, she may start to think the teacher is just out to get her son.  And all the while, no one understands the real reason the child slouches.

We’ve actually all experienced fighting gravity while sitting up. Think when we’ve had a bad flu. Suddenly, trying to sit up (let alone straight) is very cumbersome. We’d much rather be lying down, right?  Imagine, then, how difficult this is for kids with primitive reflexes, who have to deal with this all the time.

So, maybe the next time we see a child slouching . . . we let it be.

Kids with Control Issues

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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.

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