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Sayonara, 2015

As 2015 and winter break come to a close, I am grateful for the past two weeks off work. Seventh graders were driving me bat-shit crazy, and I spent the week leading up to break telling them, “It’s not you. It’s me. We should see other people. We need a break.” My husband usually has more time off between Christmas and New Year’s, but not this year. We were still able to enjoy family staycation time. We made at least three trips to the mall for last-minute Christmas shopping, and the boys took in all the lights, reindeer, puddle jumping, and train rides their little brains could handle.

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Thing 1 has gotten much better about responding to questions with “yes” or “no” appropriately this fall. His behavior therapist hit that hard in their ABA sessions. When the Short Pump Express chuffed by, Thing 1 erupted into words asking and answering his own questions: “Go train? Yes! Train? Yes!” We rode–twice. Those little victories are amazing to witness, when you can see his eyes light up, everything click, and break through those communication barriers.

The husband and I managed a couple day dates thanks to the grandparents babysitting. On Christmas Eve, we drove to Veritas Winery to pick up my wine club bottles and a bottle of bubbly Scintilla for New Year’s toasting. I love Veritas wines, especially the Viognier and Merlot. I also love that the Veritas management allows people to bring outside food to the winery and picnic on the grounds. That’s what the husband and I did. We brought crackers, sausage, cheese, and enjoyed a glass of Scintilla on the veranda. We hit Blue Mountain Brewery afterwards for a tasting flight, and worked off that pretzel and beer by walking around my college alma mater.

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Christmas Day was not about fanfare. My kids do not like to open presents, they do not show excitement over Santa, and they definitely do not want to eat what’s served for Christmas dinner. Thing 3 was the first kid awake and thought all presents were for him. Santa brought him a shopping cart filled with fake fruits and veggies, which he’s pushed around the house nonstop for the past week. Thing 2 got launchers for his Thomas trains that make the trains race. And Thing 1 got an I.O.U. Lame, but the Target gift card we ordered using our Chase rewards to buy him an iPod never arrived. Santa’s gift is still in the mail, but Thing 1 did not seem to notice or mind. He instead showed Thing 2 how to work the train launcher.

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December has been unusually wet and mild in Virginia. We’ve had soggy days and temperatures in the 70’s. When it wasn’t raining, I took the boys to the playground, and we took the grandparents to the zoo one afternoon. These boys needs lots of fresh air and space to run.

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As last year ended, we felt tired and frustrated. We hated Thing 1’s school and the administration, Thing 2 was on a downward spiral of not sleeping and outrageously erratic behavior, and we had an infant. In the words of Jim Gaffigan, “Imagine you’re drowning. And someone hands you a baby.” We are still tired, but the year improved. Thing 1 had a great year with less meltdowns, more communication, and he is truly a delightful kid. Thing 2 is not sleeping, but we’re on the road to answers. Thing 3 is moving into terrible-two’s territory. They are all happy. We wish our friends and family the same health and happiness in 2016.

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One-Year Blogiversary

This month, I celebrated my one-year anniversary blogging with WordPress. Thank you to everyone who read, shared, and subscribed to Far Beyond Zebra in 2015! I continue to be shocked to see how many people share my ramblings… My top eight posts were about our autism journey (no surprise there) and shared 382 times on Facebook.

WordPress monkeys put together a cool yearly stat report:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,100 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 3 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Now it’s time to make some 2016 goals.

Thanks again, and Happy New Year!

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Not-Your-Grandma’s Chicken Casserole

It’s the question as old as time… What’s for dinner? I imagine Adam asked Eve this question in the Garden of Eden. It was muttered by cavemen. Shakespeare spoke it in eloquent iambic pentameter. And it comes out of my husband’s mouth almost daily, slightly less eloquently.

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(Image source: someecards.com)

I had a few ingredients approaching expiration dates in the fridge, namely sour cream and a block of cheese, and thawed chicken to work with. I threw this casserole together on the fly, and it was pretty good. Two of my three kids ate it without too much duress, so that makes it share-worthy.

I used quinoa instead of rice in this casserole for extra keep-you-full protein because I really need to stop stuffing cookies in my face. And wine. And cheese. And potato chips. But I digress… I jumped on the quinoa bandwagon a couple years ago (thanks, Pinterest). Quinoa is a cool superfood as it’s high in protein and an excellent source of riboflavin. The grain is also alkaline-forming, antiseptic, gluten-free, and low on the glycemic index.

Let’s start with the “soup” part. You’ll need:

  • 2 tbs. butter
  • 3 tbs. flour
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1 1/4 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese
  • salt and pepper

Melt butter in a small saucepan. Add flour to create a rue, and let that cook for 90 seconds. Whisk in chicken stock, and when that is combined and smooth, slowly whisk in milk. Let that cook for 4-5 minutes and season with salt and pepper to taste.

That there is my recipe for cream-of-anything soup. I use it for casseroles, chicken pot pie, and anything calling for a can of cream-of-crap.

I transferred that soup to a large mixing bowl and whisked in sour cream, 1 cup of the shredded cheese (I used Sargento’s Garlic & Herb Jack), and 1/4 tsp. each salt and pepper. Then I rinsed out my saucepan to cook the quinoa, which included:

  • 3/4 cup uncooked quinoa, rinsed
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1/4 tsp. salt

Cook the quinoa according to package directions. Just like rice, you bring it to a boil, then simmer covered for around 15 minutes.

While the quinoa simmered, I got the chicken and broccoli ready. The final ingredients you need are:

  • Two chicken breasts, cooked and cubed
  • 10 oz. box chopped broccoli, thawed

I buy chicken in bulk, then freeze it in 2-breast or 3-thigh portions in a rub or marinade. For tonight’s dinner, I used two chicken breasts sprinkled with Wildtree’s Garlic Galore and Absolutely Onion blends; but you can roast plain chicken with salt and pepper, pull it off a rotisserie, or use leftovers. It really doesn’t matter. I microwaved my chicken in a Pampered Chef Deep Covered Baker for 5 minutes, let them rest, and chopped them up.

Add the chicken, broccoli, and cooked quinoa to the soup and cheese mixture in the mixing bowl. Give it a good stir, add salt or pepper to your liking, then transfer to a greased baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup shredded Jack cheese on top.

Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes at 350. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 8 minutes.

Dinner. Done.

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I wish I did a topping with breadcrumbs or crushed Ritz crackers. That would have been the piece de resistance. Turn it southwest by using black beans, diced tomatoes and corn, pepper jack cheese, and chicken seasoned with taco seasoning. Go Greek with feta cheese, olives, and chicken with garlic and herbs. Or order a pizza. I always vote for pizza.

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Neurology, Part II

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Loud, tense, erratic, anxious, unpredictable. That describes our second child in a nutshell. It’s not that he is a bad kid; he is loving, smart, funny, and playful, too. Over the past year, though, we have struggled with his anxiety and lack of sleep…thinking there is more going on than just his autism.

After our visit to a pediatric neurologist in September, we were advised to sleep deprive Thing 2 until he cracked, and eventually the primitive desire for sleep would take over. That doctor focused solely on sleep patterns and ignored other symptoms I described, such as my son’s strange staring and zoning out, blinking hard as if he’s trying to focus, and clenching his face and jaw. Instead, I got a lecture on circadian rhythm. He told me I did almost everything wrong up to that point, and to stop giving Thing 2 medications or supplements (we tried melatonin, hydroxyzine, 5-HTP, l-theanine, and clonidine at separate times) to make him relaxed and sleepy. And that was that.

To say we felt helpless is an understatement.

The next month, we saw a different pediatric neurologist for a second opinion at the urging of our pediatrician. I described the same symptoms, and this neurologist gave partly the same advice–that we need to see a developmental pediatrician for a comprehensive evaluation. I agreed with that, and he shared our frustration with the exacerbating wait list. It’s a supply and demand problem. Then he completely deviated from the first neurologist. First, he said we gave Thing 2 one-third the amount of an effective melatonin dose based on his weight, so he suggested we use and increase melatonin. Second, this doctor was willing to flush out some symptoms, and he zoned in on staring and blinking behaviors. I wondered if the blinking and clenching I see is stimming (repetitive movements or sounds prevalent in ASD individuals) or an indication of possible seizures. Either way, the neurologist ordered an EEG to get a better idea of what’s happening in Thing 2’s brain.

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An EEG is an electroencephalogram  Small metal discs and thin wires are attached to different points all over the head, and this painless test records electrical activity of the brain. Through an EEG, doctors can look for abnormal wave patterns that indicate seizures and other problems. And here’s where I learned more about brain anatomy than I ever wanted to know.

brain_anatomy(Image source: www.hopkinsmedicine.org)

The occipital lobe is the back part of the brain involved with vision. This area showed abnormal impulses on Thing 2’s EEG. The neurologist suggested that if Thing 2 is having seizures, he is likely seeing bright lights or orbs around objects, which may account of the blinking. Either way, the abnormal EEG warranted full imaging of the brain, specifically an MRI.

It’s standard to put young kids (especially young kids with autism) under general anesthesia for an MRI. I hate anesthesia, and it’s my opinion that it was the environmental trigger that caused my oldest’s autism. He breathed in that sleepy-time gas when he had a myringotomy performed at 16-months and was never the same. We needed to put Thing 2 under general anesthesia for his own myringotomy, then to correct that procedure when one ear tube never fell out, and to remove a nasty mole off his ear lobe. Now faced with putting him under general anesthesia again, I questioned the necessity of all these procedures we subject kids to, but how else can we expect to get answers. And with the neurologist throwing the word epilepsy around, I scheduled the MRI.

An MRI is a magnetic resonance imaging test that uses a magnetic field and pulses of radio wave energy to make pictures of organs and structures inside the body. There were two findings based on Thing 2’s MRI. It confirmed seizure activity in the occipital lobe, and he has a Type I Chiari malformation severe enough to restrict the flow of cerebral spinal fluid. I had two reactions to these findings… First, it’s fascinating to see the images of Thing 2’s brain. We’re all amazing, intricate creatures, and you cannot take that for granted. Second, I was scared shitless at all the terminology and wanted off the neurological crazy train. I’m pretty sure I looked like a deer in the headlights.

So, what’s next? Symptoms of the type of Chiari malformation Thing 2 has include neck pain, unsteady gait and coordination, numbness in the extremities, dizziness, vision problems, speech problems, scoliosis, and sleep apnea. If Thing 2 was having headaches or vision problems, how would he let us know? Is sleep apnea contributing to his overall sleep problems? If the flow of his cerebral spinal fluid is impacted, could that lead to a build-up of fluid and hydrocephalus? Those questions need to be answered by the experts who treat Chiari malformations, so the neurologist referred us to a neurosurgeon. The neurosurgeon may recommend decompression surgery or to monitor the condition for now.

I am so, so grateful we got that neurologist’s second opinion in October.

Christmas is in three days. All I really want for my children in the coming year is good health, happiness, and answers. And maybe a full night’s sleep…that would be nice, too. Thing 2 only wants more doughnuts.

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