To the Unassuming Superheroes

batman-1070422_1920This week fellow author Melissa Tagg shared some wonderful news about her brother-in-law and nephew, Chip and Ollie Reece. Chip, dad to Ollie, wrote a book for his son with Down syndrome about a super hero with…you guessed it, Down syndrome.

Evidently, Ollie LOVES superheroes and I bet Ollie already knows he’s living with one 😊

You see, in my twenty years of working with children who have special needs, I’ve met real-life super heroes. People who do extraordinary feats on a daily basis.

People who learn to think super creatively to help their child transition from the car into Walmart

People who are scared of next week but draw on super-human courage to step into tomorrow

superheroes-2People who have to wake up throughout the night well beyond the ‘baby’ days to help their kid out and STILL get up to face the next day.

People who cry themselves to sleep at night because they felt weak, but somehow garner strength to hope in tomorrow.

People who love tirelessly, provide boundaries so their kids learn how to be responsible adults, give with seemingly endless reserves, laugh even when they’re hurting, dream bigger than circumstances, take the stings of reality and bathe them with the balm of possibility.

Superheroes lives among us.

I’ve met them.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing more than one.

They’re parents of little superheroes like Ollie.

Like the ones I’ve had the honor to know throughout my career as a speech-language pathologist and Autism expert.

Many of them found hope and strength in their faith.

Most of them found courage and optimism from their communities.

And they walk among us. Loving their kids. Living their lives. Sacrificing in ways we can’t even imagine to unassumingly inspire. Yes.

I’ve met super heroes.

They’re those people who are helping their children feel like heroes too.

And I’m honored to live and work among them 🙂

Worry, Autism, and God’s Big Plan

Some of you may know that by day I am a speech-language pathologist with a specialty in Autism, but to be perfectly honest, most days the kids I serve teach me much more than I think I teach them. Their perspectives, strengths, and needs bring a fresh look into a world that can become to automated, predictable, and loud.

anxiety-2019928_1920.jpgI’m also a woman who struggles with worry. Sure, it’s not a sin to have healthy concern, but ‘worry’ is that almost-obsessive fear or distractible nervousness that alters your thinking and behavior. Another word for worry might be anxiety.

The Bible has some great things to say about worry/anxiety and casting our cares on Christ, but really, how can we do that? Life has big problems! Kids get sick, money gets tight, safety isn’t promised, health isn’t secure. Isn’t there plenty to really worry about?

Beginning.pngMy kids with Autism have an expectation when they come to see me for therapy. They know that when they walk in the door of my therapy room they’ll see a dry-erase board with the schedule for their session. The beginning, middle, and end. The whole session is set up in a nice checklist of expectations because…not knowing what’s going to happen next is really scary for these kids. Schedules, plans, and expectations help keep their hearts/minds calm so they can learn. There are so many things they ‘can’t’ control, like the people and sounds around them, so knowing what to expect is important for their peace of mind and heart.

We’re the same way, you know?

God will give you strength... and best friends to remind you of it. And lend their strength too. Saranghae my dongsaengIt’s interesting how this very understanding should impact a Christian’s heart when he/she is tempted to worry. We all like control in some form or other. Managing a schedule or employees or kids or health. Sorting through where finances are going. Feeling like we have our futures planned out and our emotions amiably adjusted.

When unexpected things happen, it can send us into a ‘meltdown’ of uncertainty and fear.

Here’s the good news in the middle of the spin-cycle.

As Christians, we serve a God who is Alpha and Omega – beginning and end. The Creator of all time, space, and schedules. The Ultimate planner. The Keeper of our hearts, minds, and futures.

And though the Bible isn’t crystal clear on exactly what’s going to happen on which day, it IS clear on the beginning, middle, and end…well, there’s really not going to be a definitive end since we really DO get to live that happily-ever-after, but you get my point 😉

God has written this page into the story of our livesThe point is…

Life can get messy, scary, hard, and dark.

Plans may fall apart.

Expectations crumble.

And yet…God has written this page into the story of our lives knowing exactly what happens in the next sentence, on the next page, and in the next chapter.

The schedule is there and the Author lets us know He’s with us all the way.

Utterly Unique

It’s the beginning of a new semester for me – which is one reason why I’m behing on my blogging.

When the responsibilities of a new semester begins, I’m afraid the writing and the blogging have to move aside and make room for the paying job.  🙂

BUT – I learn so much through my job as a clinical instructor and teacher at East Tennessee State University. I also have the remarkable opportunity to work with families touched by Autism.

This week I had one of those wonderful experiences that happen all to seldom. I went into a school and the teachers were excited about learning new ways to support the kids in their classes who had Autism diagnosis. No hesitations or arguments.

General interest, compassion, love, and excitement.

It was a wonderful experience and renewed my faith in the fact that God has teachers ‘out there’ who love children – and still love learning.

One of the most fabulous books I’ve found which celebrates the different ways kids on the Spectrum view the world is called I Am Utterly Unique by Elaine Marie Larson. It’s colorful illustrations and optimism turn the ‘historically’ negative view of Autism on its head.

Unique – and processing the world in a different (not disordered) way – necessarily.

God creates so many different people in the world, and He creates them for His glory. People who see the world from a different perspective, people who are quiet, people who are loud, people with disabilities you can see, people with disabilities you can’t see. People! To quote a children’s song (which would probably be considered politically incorrect now) “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

You are ‘utterly’ unique because you were designed by the hands of a Loving Father!

Growing Challenging Characters – A Spectrum of Possibilities

Ya know, I was going to write about characterization from the Bible today, but I wanted to share something a little different today.

As some of you may know, I am a speech-language pathologist (by day) – with a special interest in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Almost every day, I get the opportunity to work with some amazing kids and adults who view the world a little differently (or a lot differently)

There is a great quote from the HBO movie Temple Grandin, I’d like to share with you. Temple Grandin’s mother was talking to Temple’s teacher- the teacher said:

“Temple is different.”

Mom said, “Different, not less.”

ABSOLUTELY!!!

This way of processing info might lead to areas of need or disorder, but viewing the world in a unique way is not a disorder in and of itself. Or at least, I don’t see it that way.

Can it be frustrating? You bet. Infuriating? Sure. Heartbreaking? Of course – and that’s true for the parents, the professionals, AND the children themselves, but it can also be many other beautiful things. Amazing, exhilarating, fun, brilliant, insightful…those too.

Many of the individuals are the most sincere and genuinely kind people I’ve ever met.

Now, with characterization in mind:

I’ve promised myself that one day I’m going to write a romantic comedy where the hero is an Aspie (an affectionate term for individuals with Asperger’s syndrome- a ‘high functioning’ form of Autism. In fact, I have two novels in mind, but to write him really well, it’s going to be hard work.

You see, many of the Aspie or Auties in my life are pretty amazing. Their genuineness, honesty, and kindness are often hidden behind nonverbal communication that doesn’t portray those qualities. Since most of us are hard-wired to show and read facial expression and body language, we give off the right signals to others. We show the ‘appropriate’ smile or frown, the appropriate ‘attention’ and eye contact – but that’s not usually strengths for people on the Autism Spectrum.

Some people might not agree with my point of view – but I hope I’ve learned to ‘think outside the box’ a little by learning from all the wonderful people in my life.

So, I have two different books in mind where I hope to portray the beautiful ‘hearts’ of Aspies. Writing ANY character requires knowing him/her, though.

So what do you do to get to know your characters?

A character sketch? Profile? Do you fill out a form?

How do you make your characters 3 dimensional? Any pointers you want to share?

Do you have a wonderful story about someone you know who has Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome?

ASD – 2 Ways of Thinking, 1 Heart

Have you ever tried to figure out what someone is thinking? I think we spend a majority of our time in relationships trying to ‘read’ people by their nonverbal communication and social responses. Somehow, when someone says ‘fine’, but their body language isn’t in agreement with that word, we pick up on it and either ignore it, or (as a good friend should) reach out to them with compassion.

Even though a majority of people in the world have the ‘social thinking’ skill intact, there are some who do not…as a matter of fact, the number of people who have trouble working out the puzzle of nonverbal communication seems to be growing (or we’re more aware of the characteristics).

As I’m learning more about ASD, and in particular Asperger’s syndrome, I realize that these kids don’t necessarily have a defective way of thinking, just a different way. Whereas most Neurotypicals (NTs – non-Autistic thinkers) make social connections and process information with both logic and emotions intertwined, Aspies have an amazing ability to separate the two. So, they are either thinking with the logic ‘on’ or the emotions ‘on’. This means that sometimes they may not appear to have an emotional response to a situation because they are processing it logically – therefore people feel like they are indifferent, unemotional, even unapproachable or rude. Which isn’t the case.

This way of thinking works out great for certain situations and jobs. Professions which require unbiased, practical, and even deep critical thinking (void of emotional influence), they excel in (research, mathematics, computers) – as opposed to emotionally driven, charismatic, socially-prioritized jobs (sales, human relations professions)
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There are other things that add to the preconceived notion that Aspies and Auties are selfish, unemotional…even uncaring individuals. Many times they don’t show the ‘appropriate’ facial expressions or present with ‘expected’ nonverbal cues in situations – but again, this stems from a ‘logic’ way of thinking compounded with the fact that they are not processing the nonverbals appropriately. Those nonverbal cues are often confusing to the Aspies as well – so not only are they trying to decipher the words spoken to them, but all the hidden clues in nonverbal communication too (which comes ‘almost’ naturally to NTs). It makes sense to me, that they just have to pick ONE to pay attention to – and words are the practical and obvious choice.

Does this mean that they don’t ‘feel’ emotions? That’s the most ridiculous notion – of course they do. In fact, most Auties and Aspies have felt more hurt and rejection than NTs can imagine. Besides growing up feeling ‘lost’ in the social world, they beat themselves up because they don’t seem to ‘get’ the rules and follow what everyone else does. They are often bullied in school and may not develop close friendships because of their directness, social awkwardness, and ‘apparent’ lack of empathy.

Some of the best things we can do as NTs, is educate ourselves on Asperger’s syndrome and Autism, open our minds to thinking outside of our usual way, and realize the human heart is the same no matter how the mind processes information. Hurt, loneliness, compassion, love, understanding, and friendship are all universal feelings of the heart whether they are ‘interpreted’ the same way or not.

We have so much we can learn from each other, if we open our hearts and minds to those possibilities.

So, for Auties, Aspies, and NTs alike, what can we do? Take a Biblical principle: reach beyond the barriers of ‘expectations’ with the welcoming bond of love. Love means seeking to understand, thinking the ‘best’ of the person even if (and especially if) the response doesn’t make sense, trying to find a mutual place of understanding, being honest with emotions (even direct) and forgiving quickly.

It all comes down to this simple truth:

The bridge between two ways of processing the world is in the heart: love.

ASD – A different point of view

One of my five year old students with Autism ran out of the stairwell and down the hallway, leaving an earth-shattering scream reverberating off the cream-colored tile floors. I jumped up from my office chair and moved at a quicker-than-usual pace toward him, passing a few wide-eyed college students along the way. The little boy’s mom stood by, helplessly, wondering what set him off this time, while the college students started to snicker.

No one snickers at my students. Therefore, the students received an Autism 101 lesson right there in the hallway.

I went to the mom and asked her to give me the events of the morning up until he stepped onto the stairs. As we rehearsed those events, Mom said, “Well, he was fine until we had to take the stairs instead of the elevator.”

Aha! What would make a 5-year old have a meltdown over not getting to take the elevator? Was it simply a tantrum? I don’t think so. Of course, Auties can throw tantrums just as well (and sometimes better) than the next kid, but unless you can step inside their world a minute, you won’t really know.

From my work with kids on the spectrum and from the wealth of research out about ASD, I’ve learned that these kids live in a world of high anxiety and fear. The social realm is a scary place for them, words and language can be like a 5,000 piece puzzle (which they’d probably prefer). Since they can’t predict the actions of others or catch the social nuances, then they seek out things that are predictable and safe – like spinning wheels, lining up items by color, flicking their fingers, or rocking. Those activities are predictable, completed, and within their ability to control.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? How many of us feel completely at ease in a new situation where we know no one, have no idea what’s going to happen next, aren’t sure whether we’ll survive the next moment, can be confident that the person we rely will be back…AHHH. Sounds kind of like my first experience with childbirth.

It’s easy to automatically assume as child is spoiled rotten when you see him screaming, crying and throwing himself against the floor – but be careful. For certain there are plenty of spoiled rotten kids in the world, but as a Christian we must seek to show mercy & grace first.

After five minutes of a ‘break’, where this little kid went into a darkened room and talked to himself, he emerged with a beautiful smile on his face ready to play & learn. He just need to work through his fear – he expected to take the elevator (as he usually did) up to my office. When someone else took the elevator before him, his little mind started going into panic phase. “If this doesn’t work out like I’ve planned, what else is going to mess up?”

He’s a beautiful little boy, with a personality that blooms every week – what he needs is understanding and guidance.