On Raising an Atheist (and an Agnostic): Part II

The steps behind the Unitarian Church of Charleston (SC) sum it up nicely.

Last week, I mused about my younger son’s atheism and my older son’s agnosticism, both which came to light after years of my own questioning and movements into and out of churches. (Here’s On Raising an Atheist: Part I.) I can see that piece may be seen as a cautionary tale to the parent wanting to foster theism. Perhaps it is. This installment, however, I think could inform a parent raising children of any belief system, at least any open to the idea that others can be moral, ethical people even if they hold different beliefs. As a strong proponent of a free and meaningful spiritual search for each individual, I’m fine with my children’s choices, which may be temporal or permanent. Either way is fine with me.

But.

Yes, there’s a but. It’s where I focus attention when we discuss atheistic and agnostic views, where my energy into their religious education goes. My “but” goes like this: those labels tell me what you don’t believe and nothing about what you do. Without a sense of what one then does hold sacred, important, or true, those are labels of negation (atheism) and uncertainty (agnosticism).  There’s nothing wrong with either, but to me, left alone, they are immature and incomplete.

So fostering this deeper thought is part of the work of raising the atheist and agnostic, including myself. What do you believe? I pose this question quite often to my boys, generally receiving a list of what my younger does NOT believe (God, creationism, etc) and silence from my pondering older. I often answer my own question aloud, noting that I believe in social justice, love, peace, compassion, loving kindness, marriage equity, equal rights in general, and the mystery that is our universe. I believe in honesty and integrity, hard work, and the ability of humans to change and grow. I believe in the sacredness of the world but not of any one nation. I believe we are all one in some ineffable way and that there is more in this universe we can ever comprehend, although the act of trying touches the sacred.

I never make it through the whole list without interruptions. “There is no God!” my younger exhorts. “Why would anyone think so? No one can prove there is one, so there just isn’t!”

My usual retort goes something like this, “And you can’t prove there isn’t one.” Witty, huh? Such is theological musing with my ten-year old.

The last time we conversed, he gave a bit of ground. “I believe in science,” he said. That, I told him, was a start.

My older remains silent for these spirited discussions, and I’d guess that has more to do with staying out of the fray than lack of serious thought on the subject. He’s in a Unitarian Universalist Coming of Age class dedicated to supporting that process. (Think confirmation without confirming a preordained belief.) He’s worked for weeks in class on a statement of faith and values –which is perfectly doable without a deity. No, I haven’t read it, but I have some inklings about what he holds valuable and sacred based on what causes him to cheer (Obama’s statement of support of marriage equality) and slump (intolerance of any sort).

Supporting the development of a personal belief structure in a child without a catechism upon which to rely takes more than benign neglect. It takes, I believe, both an education in the religious teachings of the world and in the gritty, sometimes scary and sometimes beautiful world in which we live. Teaching children the language of the sacred and the religions of the world offers context to what they will see and hear throughout their lives.  It also offers them choice — the choice to embrace the path that leads them to the truth as they understand it. Informing children (in age-appropriate ways) of the ways of our physical world, from a sound grounding in cosmology, Earth science, evolutionary biology, and environmental science to a culturally diverse accounting of our planet’s sordid history, poverty, and human rights abuses — this is the education that leads them to establish their values and worldview. Topped with accounts of the world’s peacemakers and civil rights workers, there is a message to spread that good people working hard can make necessary change in a messy world.

I’ve yet to see my children suffer at the hand of theists for their beliefs or lack thereof, but I’m not naive to think that will not happen. Statistics indicate that about 16% worldwide and 3 -9% in the US identify themselves as atheists, agnostics, or non-believers. These are slippery statistics, since nonbelievers also may identify with other philosophical or faith traditions, like Taoism, Buddhism, Unitarian Universalism, or something else.  Others still identify with a theist tradition although reject the notion of a divine actor. There’s overlap, but the message is clear. As agnostics and atheists, we are a minority. And to many evangelicals in this country, Protestant, Catholic, or otherwise, we’re morally suspect and in mortal danger. So far, we’ve been surrounded with gentle, accepting folks of a variety of religious beliefs, many deeply held, including some nonbelievers, who hold just as tightly to their worldview. It’s likely many we’re with don’t know what we believe. Some don’t care. Others likely assume we’re Christian, the assumed norm in this nation. I’m open to the conversation and encourage my children to be the same, but it generally just doesn’t come up.

And this may be the toughest point about raising and atheist or agnostic. Do I teach my children to avoid the subject and give vague answers when discussions about the religious arise. No, but I’m not sure I’ve explicitly taught them how to handle those situations either. Our participation in the Universalist Unitarian tradition admittedly makes this less of an issue. We go to church. They go to religious education. They’re relatively well-versed in the seven principles (which aren’t doctrine or creed but really provide a fine framework for living life, regardless of belief). I’ve largely focused on reminding my younger to speak respectfully to others and avoid his more inflammatory statements about what he thinks about the presence of a god. He’s generally taken this charge seriously, although he’s prone to spout anti-theist rhetoric to those he deems likely to think like him, meaning family and a few close friends.  We’re working on this balance between speaking one’s truth while not being overtly offensive to others.  Evangelicals of all beliefs (atheists included) struggle with this, although most of them are not still ten and struggling neurologically with understanding  that the internal milieu of others might differ from one’s own.

Perhaps a better title for these posts would have been “On Raising  a Respectful and Responsible Atheist (or Agnostic) Who Appreciates the Role of Religion in the World and Can Articulate What Values and Beliefs He Has, Not Just Speak Against Others.” That’s a bit unwieldy, however, and still likely missing something.  I’ll stick with the original and continue to encourage my children to articulate their beliefs and values that accompany their atheism and agnosticism. I’ll teach them paths to peace from all the world religions and open their eyes to the real need to work for that peace today. Whether they remain agnostic or atheistic or not, whether they remain within the Unitarian Universalist church or not, this education will serve them well.

Peace.

He’s the One Percent

My ten-year old has Aspergers.  He’s proud of his place on the autism spectrum, referring happily to himself as an Aspie and chiding me for my neurotypical status. The way he sees it, he has a spot in a special minority. He will proudly remind me that as a person on the autistic spectrum, he is one in 110.  He is the one percent, he boasts.

But don’t call his Aspergers a disorder (as in “Autism Spectrum Disorder”). From his point of view, he’s hardly disordered.  His order is just fine, thank you very much.  Is it an autistic brain order?  Certainly.  But disorder?  Nope. While he’s not been exposed to the idea that autism is something to be “fixed,” I can imagine he’d quickly point out that he isn’t broken.

I agree. His Aspergers is as much a part of him as his blue-grey eyes. In the past year and a half, I have learned plenty from the autistic community, a diverse group of people who fall all over the spectrum.  I have fumbled my way through conversations about love, self-advocacy, and emotion, stumbling and standing corrected on many occasions.  For several months, I left the autism conversations to others, wary of misstepping in my efforts to understand autism in general and my son in particular.  A month back, I re-entered the conversation on Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, responding to two editorials in the New York Times that called into question the reality of Aspergers.

Have no doubt.  Aspergers is real. While it may be losing its place on in the DSM 5 as a new definition of autism emerges, incorporating (hopefully) those with Aspergers and the mysterious PDD-NOS, it is no less a real entity. Not so sure?  Live with us for a day.

Aspergers, whether with that name or not, is disabling.  Certainly it is more disabling to some than others, but, by definition, it “causes clinically significant impairments in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”  We don’t talk about that at home, not because it isn’t real to me but because, at this point, it isn’t real to him.  Homeschooling has left us without a need for the accommodations he might require in a classroom. He simply doesn’t feel disabled.

So something must be going right. Truth is that he struggles plenty. Social life challenges him mightily, and while he’s gradually adding to his body of knowledge about the rules of relationships, the older he gets, the more tricky that game is. As I watch his brother navigate a kind, accepting crowd of teens, I’m often reminded that even for the most socially aware and conscientious, the teenage years are far harder than these relatively blissful pre-hormonal ones.

Make no mistake. I don’t care much for blending in with the crowd. I’d just like him to have some sure-shelter friends who will stand by him as he moves into those difficult years. He does have friends now: a few kind, tolerant souls who accept him for who he is. A subset of these stand up to him when he digs his heels in, and I love them for it. It’s connections with humans that I want for him. I don’t want him to be lonely.

I can’t say that any of his friends are aware of his diagnosis, although if he’s shared it with them or their parents have shared it with them, that’s fine by both of us. He recently outed his Aspergers in an online class, and the responses were polite and positive. I can’t think of a better outcome. No one fussed over it, and at least one child researched Aspergers and decided that he himself did not fit the criteria. While letting that detail out in class, he yet to write more about his Aspergers, preferring to blog about cats and history, with a brief foray of late into poetry (Bertram’s Blog). I’ve asked him if he’d want to share about that part of his life, wondering aloud if his positive view of autism might educate others. He’s still thinking that over.

It may be hard for him to write about it, as hard as it would be for me to write about being neurotypical. After all, he’s experienced no discrimination and feels empowered by his Asperger’s. The diagnosis was a relief, since it explained the difference he’d felt for so long. While the anxiety that accompanies his Asperger’s troubles him, the actual Asperger’s does not, at least to his way of seeing it. There simply seems to be nothing to say.

Whether he decides to turn his writing in that direction or not, I hope he retains his satisfaction with Aspergers. I am sure he’ll face challenges related to it over the years. Every day he struggles with transitions, sensory issues, paralanguage, and social norms, all related to his Aspergers. For now, however, he only sees the positive parts of being in the one percent. May the world of his future see him the same way.

Hairy Tale

A before shot. It doesn't look much different now, aside from being a bit more even across the back.

Part I

My younger son (ten years old)  has agreed to get a haircut.  A real haircut.  By someone other than Mom. While most kids hit the barber or salon well before their child’s second decade, this cut will be the first outside our home.

Why now? His hair is hitting his shoulders, and he wants it longer.  That’s fine.  I pick my battles, and hair length, schoolwork in pyjamas, and brown rice everyday for lunch aren’t grounds for fighting.  As long as he keeps it clean (no problem) and brushed (a bit more hazardous ground), I’m fine with his blond tresses cascading down his back. But I don’t know how to cut this thick, long stuff.  I was fine when it was just below his ears, but somehow this long stuff seems to go everywhere under my scissors.  I end up hacking away, taking far more than he wants taken, and still leaving his head looking like he just removed it from a blender. Thus the need for professional intervention.

He’s a bit nervous.  I’ve reassured him that, since she’s in our hire, she’ll follow his directions.  For months (years?) he objected out of fear that any hair care professional would just take the whole of his hair off, leaving only an inch or so to protect him from the world.  He wants long hair for a few reasons:  he likes to feel it swish around him when he shakes his head, and he likes to hide behind it.  Plus, it’s just comfortable.  I agree on in part — I don’t hide behind mine, but I do like that swish.

So in few hours, we’ll head down the street to a local salon to see my stylist.  She’s been informed about his anxiety and sensory issues, and she seems quite sensitive to his concerns.  He’s cautiously optimistic, although I’d not be surprised if his courage waned as we approach the cutting hour.  We’ll see how it goes.

Part II

That was uneventful.  My younger approached the chair with his usual nonchalance.  He cooperated fully, from the water spritzing to the end-of-cut dust-off.  His hair is still long and shaggy, but just not quite so shaggy.  It’s easier to brush, which pleases him, since I insist on that daily ablution.  His facial tic of the season was in full force:  a wide, open mouth not unlike what a very large sandwich would require.  It’s been around for the past week or so, whether stressed at the moment or not, so it’s not much of an indicator of his internal milieu.  He took the trip in stride, and he’s willing to do it again.

And So What?

So why is a non-story worth a blog post?  Because a year and a half ago, this visit never would have been possible.  I’d only hesitantly suggested the expedition within the last six months, only to be shot down immediately for the first five.  Just giving him a hair cut at home was traumatic for the whole house until the past few years.  I managed with a video to distract him and a snack, both items that complicate the process almost as much as help it.  (Hint:  A snack in a baggie helps to keep the hair out of the food.)  Asking a child to look down so you can properly assess the length in the back is just more torturous if it means you miss a moment of the Vandals, the Franks, or Saxons raiding or pillaging some unsuspecting village.

Sometimes it takes a non event like a haircut to remind me of the gains he’s made in the last year. It’s like watching your kids grow:  when you see them all the time, the growth is only apparent when they need a new pair of shoes or pants.  When we’re so close, we must measure our children’s growth by what they’ve cast aside and what new they put on.  The same holds for emotional growth. Day-to-day nearly constant contact makes it hard to see that serious change has occurred.  It often takes being with a family member or friend who sees my children less often to point out what has been so close I couldn’t see it — attainment of skills that just weren’t there at the last visit.

Over the last six months to a year, we’ve done many things I couldn’t previously imagine happily doing with my Aspie son.  We’ve been to late and loud parties, summer camp as a family, and the opera.  We’ve hosted parties for more than a single other family without meltdowns.  And now, he’s had a haircut outside of the home.  That’s a big deal for him.  That’s worth a non-story blog post.

Privilege, Autism, and Mistakes Along the Way

I’ve turned off the lights at Asperger’s at Home.  My short-lived third blog fell prey in part to time pressures and in part to my reluctance to screw up.  Some stinging comments and scorching tumblr feed rants from my post, Love, By Any Other Name, left me shaken and doubting.   A few weeks of theoretically “dialogue” posts on The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, each day with dozens of comments from autism self-advocates (those on the spectrum who advocate for themselves and others on the spectrum) and parents of autistic children, vitriol flowing back and forth (mainly from self-advocate to parent), kicked me closer to the electronic door.  I’ve decided to leave regular autism blogging to others.

A few good friends have encouraged me to grow a stiffer spine and thicker skin. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and that advice would serve me well across my life.  But that’s not why I’m leaving.

Neurotypical privilege is the term I learned a few weeks back in the dialogue turned diatribe on TPGA.  I’ve long been aware of my white, middle-class, right-handed, heterosexual, (currently) able-bodied privilege.  I’m also a female non-Christian.   I’m not so sure what I’m to do when any of those situations unto which I was born or raised except be aware and alert to the benefits that brings me while being sensitive to those who aren’t that long list.  I was brought up firmly middle class in a largely black upper middle-class neighborhood, and the privilege part of “white” didn’t resonate until around the age of 10. Still, I’ve received plenty of privilege for characteristics I did nothing to earn.  I’m sorry seems grossly insufficient.

So, unaware neurotypical privileged person that I was (I know better now), I blogged about my son’s autism.  Specifically, I blogged about how it affected me.  I used language that suggested that some of the characteristics related to my son’s Asperger’s were hard on me.  I discussed his difficulty with perspective taking, his difficulty reading nonverbals, his social delays, and, in a fit of honesty, I even said I was tired of Asperger’s.

A bit of self defense.  I love my son.  I’d not remove his Asperger’s (although I’d love to release him from his anxiety) anymore than I’d remove his brilliant mind, laughing eyes, and sweet snuggles and purrs.  It’s all part of who he is.  It’s not to be cured, exorcised, rejected, or “treated”.  It’s just him, and I love all of him.  (For the record, sometimes that mind drive me nuts, too.  Don’t get me started on the mouth that goes with that mind.)  But sometimes, I’m tired and defeated.  I had written out of my experiences and feelings. I had often written to sort those two things out.  Trite as it sounds, I’d written from the heart.

But it seems I made mistakes.  Re-reading some of those posts, I can see where I went astray. I overstepped my experience with my son and mused about the ways the characteristics of Asperger’s (generally from the DSM IV) were reflected in him.  This matching of definition to experience is a favorite word pastime of mine, especially when writing or arguing a fine point.  Yes, I’m blogging from my own experience, looking for personal growth and a bit of release from the stress that builds up some days.  I’ve worked hard to be fair to my child in that process.  Since he likes to read what I write (and would undoubtedly complain if he disapproved), I’d not worried about offense.  Yet, I’ve offended.

Could I do it differently, with more thought to those with autism who may read it.  Probably.  Do I want to throw my thoughts through another filter?  Not now.

Not because I don’t care about the rights of autistic people.  Not because I don’t think the voice of those with autism matters.  Not because I know more about autism than those who live it from the inside every day.  Simply because it’s not a battle I want to fight now.  I don’t have the energy to make sure I get it all right, that I really give those with autism their due.  Because I don’t entirely have my head wrapped around that neurotypical privilege that I’ve just learned I have.  Perhaps later, with more time listening to self-advocates and simmering this new stew of information, I’ll step back in.

Not that autism won’t find its way to this blog and Quarks and Quirks. It’s part of my life, part of our lives.  My younger’s Asperger’s touches our daily routines, homeschooling, church life, play, and sleep patterns.  It’s not leaving, and that’s fine by me, but I’ll return to this forum to ponder, wonder, and wander about what autism means to us.

I’d challenge others to consider neurotypical privilege.  Visit Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism.  Lurk on the forums on Wrong Planet.  Keep your mind open.  And if you really want to know what’s going on in the self advocacy world, here’s a few reading opportunities: AutisticSpeaks, Illusion of Competence, Journeys With Autism, and many more.

Peace is in the Letting Go

For the past two weeks, I’ve not written a word.  Okay, I’ve emailed a bunch and Facebooked many a snarky comeback, but I’ve not blogged or written outside of my blogs.  In general, I’ve been grumpy, weepy, pensive, and just off.  With a bit of thought, plenty of conversation with friends, followed by even more thought, I’ve decided there’s too much on my plate as of late, so I’m scraping some of it off.  I’m letting things go.

    • Cats.  We’ve fostered cats from the Michigan Humane Society for the past three years.  As a good friend said, it’s like owning a cat without owning a cat.  Specifically, it’s like borrowing (serially, although sometimes in gangs of six tiny beasts) cats.  After half a summer without feline companions (travel doesn’t mix with foster care), I was practically running to MHS for a kitty or two.  Shockingly, the last thing we needed when starting our homeschooling year was a mother kitten with the runs and four active kittens.  Hmm.  Two weeks in, the adorable ones and their stinky mom were ready to return, and I declared retirement, at least for the near future.  We adopted two gerbils, Brian and Bill, who never climb the curtains, poop in helmets, or chase yarn.  Good trade.
      • Blogs.  In May, I started Asperger’s at Home, my third blog.  With a personal goal to write four times a week on each of my three blogs and write for other venues, this increased my self-imposed work load dramatically.  I wanted a forum for my posts about Asperger’s, with which my younger son was diagnosed last November.  It’s an issue that shapes us all around here, and it seemed to need its own forum.  Plus, as I started writing for The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, I thought a blog focused solely there would be appropriate.  For the summer, I enjoyed the new forum and subject matter.  Come the school year, it’s just too much to manage and keep up with my other writing goals.  All future posts about autism will find their way either here or on Quarks and Quirks, my homeschooling blog.  In retrospect, this wasn’t a hard decision to make, but it did take time to feel comfortable with letting go of that venture.
      • Martial Arts.  I’ve practice Tang Soo Do for over four years, accompanied by my sons.  If we stay the course, we (or two-thirds of “we”) should be eligible for black belt testing in March.  My older son plans to continue karate after his Black Belt.  Our dojo supports a vibrant and ever-growing body of learners working for higher degree black belts, and I admire his dedication to the sport.   My younger son remains uncertain about his future with the sport but hints at wanting to try something different.  And me?  I’m just tired of being in pain.  For the most part, it’s the sparring that gets me.  On many levels, I object to sparring.  Sure, some of my objection is to being punched and kicked.  Some is the risk of hurting others accidentally.  I’ve accumulated a fair number of bruises and strains over the years from karate class, almost all due to sparring and other self-defense practices.  Thanks to an injury sustained outside of the dojo some three years ago, my back takes all sudden movement and jostling quite personally.  Simply put, since then, it takes little jarring to produce long-term pain.  I’m forty-two. I’m tired of hurting myself and others.  I adore the other aspects of the sport — mental discipline, strength, balance, focus, control — but carrying on the rest of my life in more comfort (and with less costly visits to my chiropractor) needs to be a priority.  I’ve not found a final solution.  Since leaving the sparring behind undoubtedly means never reaching black belt, I’m in a bit of limbo.
      So am I suddenly sweet, smiling, carefree, and on all the time?  Not quite.  I am sleeping better and writing again.  Mentally, I’m gentler with myself and more focused on the (long) list of what remains:  homeschooling my boys, taking care of the yard and house, writing (remaining blogs and beyond), reading, knitting, working, and generally maintaining a pretty full plate.  The mental energy expended on doing what I wasn’t sure I really wanted to do took a toll.  And I’ve some sorrow about each of those changes, although relief lessens the sorrow.  All have been labors of love, delights more than not.  All had (and may have again) a place in shaping me and my children.  So I remind myself that sometimes, peace is in the letting go.

      SUUSI: We’re Here!

      We’re here.

      SUUSI.

      The Southeastern Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute., in Radford, VA. It’s a week of Unitarian Universalists eating, playing, laughing, learning, and worshiping together at Radford University, a small liberal arts college in the mountains of western Virginia.

      After two full days, we’re starting to find our SUUSI groove, and we’re having a blast. My younger found his first, which was no small surprise to me. He’s my wild card, and submerging into a group of over a thousand people, several hundred of them children, was not easy for him. He’s toast at the end of the day (he’s shunned all after dinner activities so far, pleading exhaustion), but he’s being about as social as he can be, sharing dinner with crowds without hiding behind a book.

      My older is a bit more circumspect about the event. While fourteen year olds are encouraged to try out the well-supervised teen dorm for the week, he preferred to stay with his brother and I. Other young teens make the same choice, he’s found, but it makes it harder to meet other kids his own age. Day two’s been better than day one. A kayaking trip with teens provided afternoon entertainment and contact with other young people. My rather conservative (for a UU) son is a bit wary of the more, um, obvious SUUSI teens. They’re large (compared to his 75 lb frame) and often flamboyant. e claims to be too civil for that crowd, causing me to muse about his definition of that word. I understand his concerns, but I’m glad to see him warming to the event.

      I’m warming, too. While there are a dozen or so of us from our home church with whom I’m sharing meals and walks across campus, I’ve met a handful of folks new to me in our wing of the dorm. Conversation over coffee or wine (depending on the hour) with new companions goes a long way into increasing my comfort in what is otherwise an often overwhelming event.

      I’ve kept my schedule light, anticipating my need to have some time alone (this is NOT an introvert’s paradise) and aware that my kids are likely to need me, given all the stimulation of this place (the introvert gene was dominant in our family). I’ve attended two sessions so far. The first netted me a handful of henna tattoos, including an Om on my ankle, a Yin Yang on one arm, and a Chalice on the other. I adore henna but (as one of my patient classmates can attest) have no skill applying it. Thus another career door is closed.

      This afternoon, I attended a Mantra Yoga class. As I’ve written here previously, I’ve explored Hindu mantra in its call-and-response form several times over the past year. This was my first time experiencing it with yoga. Most of my yoga experience is also over the past year, with a class last summer reigniting my memories of the yoga my mother taught me as a child. I’ve kept up with some since then, but I’d call it more of rescue medicine than spiritual practice. I’ve found some yoga to relieve the recurring neck and back pain and some newer running-induced knee pain, although I’m sure using it preventively would be far more effective than my use of it as an adjunct to ibuprofen. Now and then I muster a more substantial and holistic approach, but I’ve not yet made it a regular part of my life.

      Back to the Mantra Yoga class. I enjoy yoga and mantra, and I did enjoy them together. However, I don’t multitask well, and remembering a short mantra or a series of yoga poses challenges me sufficiently. I was afraid remembering a chant WHILE doing yoga would reduce me to incoherent babbling in a knot of arms and legs. To my surprise, pairing the chant with the movement made both easier to remember and was quite relaxing and energizing at the same time. I’d like to repeat that experience, too, and I’m likely to find more success than with the application of henna.

      SUUSI offers opportunities for activity in nature as well. The boys and I opened our first day in Radford with a silent hike through some local falls. We managed to maintain a suitable level of silence (or at least kept the whispers from the ears of those with stronger internal controls) while thoroughly enjoying the hike. The boys have separate trips with age mates, and we’ll all travel together to a historical site and a chocolate factory at the end of the week.

      There’s plenty we haven’t done as well. The nightlife is rich, I’m told, although I’m pretty much dorm-bound after dinner, given my younger’s exhaustion. I’ve yet to attend a worship service, but have high hopes to manage that tomorrow. I have caught some music in the afternoons, including Brother Sun today. They have an astounding amount of talent and are well worth a listen. If I can coax my younger into it, [perhaps we’ll explore more of the evening music scene later this week.

      So we’re here. At SUUSI. And while we’re a bit overwhelmed and I’m sure barely scratching the surface of available events, we’re finding our way. And, oh yeah. We’re having fun.

      Autism Awareness? Yeah, We’ve Got That.

      Our car now sports this magnet -- my child's choice.

      During announcements, my heart dropped.

       

      “Remember that at noon, our congregational meeting about the accessibility improvements to the church,” announced the service leader.

      Understand that I’m all for the improvements plan and the capital campaign required to bring them about.  Armed with my knitting, I knew I’d get through the potentially too-long meeting to put these issues up for  congregational vote.  While the meeting may be tedious, it’s democracy in action, and I respect and appreciate the Unitarian Universalist value of democracy.  Our church is built on four different levels, connected only by stairs.  We’re without an elevator (action item number one on the list), accessible bathrooms (item number two), and many other amenities that would make our facility the welcoming building it should be.  It’s an old building (the meeting-house is 160 years old) with numerous additions made over many years, resulting in a markedly unwelcome building for those with disabilities for a church that prides itself on being a welcoming congregation.

      It wasn’t the subject of the meeting or even the meeting process itself that caused my apprehension during announcements.It was dread of my younger son’s reaction to the news that we’d be at church (a place he likes) for an extra hour or more (a surprise, which he doesn’t like).  My older was likely to groan a bit and join his similarly trapped peers, complaining just enough to remind me that he’d rather head home.  My younger, recently diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder, was likely to revolt.  Loudly.

      “We’re not staying for that, are we?” he stage-whispered to me.

      I started with an apology, attempting to curry some good will from my son, and added that I’d forgotten the meeting myself.  Briefly, I contemplated a quick escape after a cup of coffee in the hard-to-get-to-if-you-have-difficulty-walking-down-stairs gathering area.  But, as much as I wrinkle my nose at the thought of a long back-and-forth (or whatever it is when Robert’s Rules of Order are followed) about the accessibility  project, I delight in the democratic process of my church and the earnest, honest way it plays out.  I took at deep breath before replying, “Yes, we’ll be staying.  It’s like election day.  I have to be there to participate.”

      But my younger’s more enamoured with dictatorship than democracy (unless the vote goes his way) and was unmoved by my dedication to Principle 5:  We believe in the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.  He was caught unawares, he had no template on which to draw for how the time would play out while I was in a meeting, and he had had enough of people.  Somehow, he dropped the issue for the rest of the service, although I knew I wasn’t in the clear.

      Sure enough, as soon as the service ended, he started back on the issue.  Why did we have to stay?  How long would the meeting be?  Where would he be during the meeting?  When could we go home?  Did we really have to stay?  We were staying, I calmly told his panicked visage.  We’d stayed before for these (albeit with mental preparation for a few days ahead), and he’d be fine.  He went on for a while then galloped off, not happy but no longer looking panicked.  Before heading into the meeting, I noticed he’d made his way into the room where the younger children would be supervised during the meeting.  I didn’t dare make additional contact, and seeing he looked content and busy, I headed into the meeting.

      An hour later, the vote for the needed changes secured, I gathered my knitting and went to find my boys.  My younger dodged the crowd to get to me, face without a telling expression.  He made up for his impassive face with the first sentence, full of indigent anger, “They kept me prisoner in there!  I told them I wanted my freedom, and they told me I couldn’t leave!”  Tears came to his eyes as he gestured wildly to punctuate his take on the injustice.  As we wound our way to the coats then to the car, gathering his (older and therefore free) brother, his tirade continued, fury mounting.  I attempted to get an accurate picture of the situation, doubting an hour under the care of some middle and high school youth condition were quite as desperate as he stated, but reason had long departed him.  On our way out of the building, we ran into one of the “bratty high schoolers”  who had kept him from “escaping”.   The youth raised his eyebrows as he listened to my son’s tirade, then turned to me and said, “He is really persistent when he wants something.”

      Tell me about it.  I stumbled over a quick response, acknowledging my young son’s tendency to get a bit stuck.  My son screeched again, and out the door we flew.  As we walked through the parking lot, my older son pointed out a magnet on the back of the car next to us:  Autism Awareness.  “Hey, look!  They have the same magnet we do!”  His effort to distract his younger brother was unsuccessful, but the irony of the siting struck me.  Autism Awareness. Yeah, I’ve got that.

      On the way home, I tried to ferret out more details, but he was so wrapped up in his take that little came forth.  Knowing him as I do, I’d venture that he had indeed asked to leave (loudly, with references to prison) but hadn’t asked to be reunited with me in the meeting, as this request would have been met.  I explained again about safety and the need for the younger children to have some supervision while the meeting was in progress, but he remained stuck.  After all, he maintained, usually after church, while the adults had coffee and conversation, he ran around the playground or hung out in the church without being “imprisoned.”  I got nowhere, and, fortunately, he ran out of steam by the time we arrived home.

      Autism Awareness.  Awareness that the unexpected is his enemy and predictability his ally.  Awareness that justice for him means adults and children (and even “bratty teenagers”) should all have the same privileges.  Awareness that while his words flow freely and his ideas are complex beyond his years, his understanding of how to navigate the neurotypical world he inhabits is relatively underdeveloped.  Awareness that he can learn, with patience and support, how to navigate this world with, I hope, relative comfort.  Autism Awareness?  Yeah, we’ve got that.

      Look Me in the Eye

      We’re together all the time.  Okay, we’re apart for 24 hours on the weekend and 15 or so one night on the week, but otherwise we’re together quite a bit.  One of the best parts of homeschooling is time with my kids.  One of the hardest parts is all that time with my kids.  The good in that time trumps hard times, hands down.  But I’m with my boys so much that sometimes I forget to look at them.

      You know what I mean.  How often do you really look at your spouse, your kids, your cat?   Familiarity breeds, well, familiarity.  Why look closely when you’ve seen them day after day after day.  It’s not like when they were babies and changed in the blink of an eye.  Older folks pretty much look the same day-to-day, and by older, I mean over the age of five or so.  I’m a bit disturbed to get to the end of the day and wonder if I ever truly stopped and looked into the faces of the two people closest to my heart.

      We talk all the time, and those who know us in real life know this is not just an expression in this case.  We talk in the car (I look where I’m going), we talk across bathroom doors (less face-time while in the bathroom now, thank goodness), and they talk to me when I’m on the phone.  I’m often the distracted one,  cleaning the sink, cooking a meal, tending to animals or bills, while talking with a child.  When I’m not occupied, they’re playing with legos, waving duct tape swords, or looking for the cat(s) of the month. 

      Until they’re in trouble.  Then, out of my mouth, unbidden by my conscious mind and not part of my childhood memories, comes, “Look at me when I’m talking to you.” 

      Then the sad/worried/angry face aims itself towards mine.  We look at each other, eye to eye, angry, concerned, frustrated, tearful.  Rarely smiling and full of joy.  Those more pleasant moments, occurring much more often than the less pleasant, go unmarked by eye contact.  And I’m bothered by this.

      Neither boy has ever had the best eye contact by nature.  Both tend to look away and turn away while talking, as if the countenance of  their conversation partner is too much stimulus when their thoughts are flowing out their mouths.  And perhaps this is so.  But I could do better, searching out their eyes during the joyful and even mundane parts of our day, rather than only when expressing my disappointment or concern. 

      I take solace in our nighttime rituals.  Come evening, when my younger and I snuggle into bed, ready to read and cuddle, he’ll often gaze directly into my eyes, smile full and bright, as he says, “Ready? Read!”

      The imperative is tradition between us, and for whatever reason, we’re always eye-to-eye for this line.  And I drink in his green-grey eyes for just a moment, before he turns his head to listen to the story.  And I am filled.

      Awaking in Rome

      My younger son performed his filial duty of waking mom at 6:30 this morning. Earlier than I would have liked, given some insomnia last night, but later than other awakenings. He’s 7 and wakes with fear, sure something is under the edge of the bed or peering down from the empty top bunk, ready to, well, I don’t really know what. He won’t move til I’m there but will yell from under the covers should I try to pretend his holler was a dream. Once I arrive, he creeps out from his covers and changes his jammies, a necessary action when you aren’t yet dry at night and your pj pants are a bit damp despite precautions.

       
      Within two minutes, he’s snuggled up next to me, allergic-kid morning breath paired with the softest skin on earth, all warmth and love. Before I can revel in the moment, I’m barraged with the history of ancient Rome, his current passion. “Mom, did you know why Hannibal chose elephants when attacking Rome in the Punic Wars? Do you thing it would be worse to be a slave or a gladiator?”

       
      I’m still trying to maintain a position of sleep, closed eyes and all, but he’s warmed to his subject and oblivious to my fatigue. “Will you read me some history, Mom?” he queries.
       
      I give up on sleep, accept the Usborne History Encyclopedia he offers, and find Rome. Again. We’ve read these sections before and will read them again. He reads them to himself, but nothing’s better than hearing them aloud. As we read, I pause periodically to make a comment or listen to his consolidation of information. He makes new connections every time we go through these pages, and it’s fascinating to listen to his ponderings and conclusions. It’s a privileged view into his incredible brain at work as well as a view of history through the eyes of a child.

      These moments are homeschooling at its best. Curiosity aroused about Rome two years prior (when we were actually studying Rome as a family) returns. With much more history under his belt, he has new ways to look at Caesar, Octavian, and Hannibal. His view of the world, two years older, allows him to turn the history around and around, mixing it with all he’s experienced since he’s last played with that part of the past.

      I know this affair with Rome won’t last forever, but I’m just as certain this interest will return down the road, taking on the shades of knowledge not yet acquired and life not yet lived. And I’m hoping to awaken in Rome with him, although maybe just a bit later in the day.