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Conscious Un-Halloweening

It’s that time of year again when leaves change color, mums are abundant, and pumpkin spice rules the world. The back corner of Target was in shambles today as families bought last minute fall decorations, costumes, and extra bags of candy. As I trotted around Target waiting for a prescription refill with Thing 3, I bumped into a few people I know who all excitedly and sweetly asked the same question: “What are your kids going to be this year for Halloween?”

Ah. Nothing.

We had a blast last year when we decided to ditch the Halloween fanfare. Thing 3 stayed home with the grandparents while my husband and I took Things 1 and 2 to a college football game. They ran around campus, danced to the marching band, stuffed their faces with pizza, and skipped and smiled the whole night.

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Because October 31 falls on a school night this year, we need to keep plans low-key and local; but again, there will be no itchy costumes or mandatory trick-or treating for my brood. Maybe we’ll watch a movie, or maybe we will eat dinner out and do something fun with the boys. Since I received a lot of positive feedback on the original Conscious Un-Halloweening, I wanted to give a shout out to my fellow special needs parents. We are all heading into the busiest time of year with parties, extended family visits, dinner spreads full of foods our kids won’t eat, blinking lights, and extra layers of clothing… But it is a wonderful time of year, and I hope all find ways to make the holiday blitz special.

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And this is what happens when I roam Target unsupervised.

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How early did your son or daughter start talking about Halloween costumes this year? How many times did she change characters or ideas?

Some autistic kids are fine with this holiday, but my kids…

Well, they HATE Halloween.

My kiddos will happily support the pumpkin patch, corn mazes, orange lights, falling leaves, free candy, and spooky decorations, but they despise October 31st. Wear costumes? No, thanks. Trick-or-treating is out of the question. These are aversions that I had to pause to wrap my head around—because what kid doesn’t love dressing like a superhero and collecting free candy? I had visions of my adorable children dressing up, turning our Radio Flyer into the Batmobile, and joining a neighborhood trick-or-treating posse. Every October, I start concocting costumes for the whole family. And every Halloween, without fail, my kids have meltdowns. If Gwyneth can coin the phrase, “conscious uncoupling,” then my family is hereby consciously uncoupling with Halloween…

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Igniting the Flame

If you follow this blog, you know I often write about life as an autism mom. This year, our youngest son was also diagnosed with autism after we noticed his regression of skills similar to our oldest child. By 12-15 months, Thing 3 was “talking” on the phone, playing imaginatively, pointing to objects, initiating games like peek-a-boo and patty-cake. All that stopped by 18 months and was replaced with toe walking, repetitive movements around the room, fixation with his hands and fingers, and silence…no sounds coming from our baby except epic meltdowns nightly at dinnertime. In July, we finally had our appointment with the Transdisciplinary Autism Assessment Clinic at Commonwealth Autism. In addition to administering the ADOS (Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule–an assessment of communication, social interaction, and play), the team included occupational and speech therapists’ assessments. It was a long morning of questions and observations, but we knew what the findings would be.

So here we are, raising three boys with moderate autism.

Part of me was sad. Regressive autism is crushing–to see your child struggle with actions and words that used to be easy. On the other hand, life with autism is normal to us. Around the same time Thing 3’s language and social engagement vanished, there was a workshop on regression sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland that focused on the development of infant siblings of autistic children, but overall the National Institutes of Health grapple to understand the neurological changes, immune responses, and other physiological causes of regression. In an attempt to find answers, our family was evaluated by a genetics team at the University of Virginia. They completed a microarray analysis, which detects possible chromosomal abnormalities, and that revealed nothing out of the ordinary. The next test to be completed is called a DNA extraction using blood samples from Thing 1, me, and my husband. This testing did not exist when we took Thing 1 to a geneticist six years ago, so we are excited to see what it may reveal.

Autism research becomes a touchy subject when people argue for neurodiversity versus “curing” disorders. I accept my children for who they are and wish the world understood their struggles and respected their dignity…but I would be a liar if I didn’t say I would love to take away those struggles. In an attempt to contribute to the body of research, our family signed up for SPARK. SPARK is an online research partnership involving 50,000 individuals with autism and their families attempting to accelerate research, coordinate those findings among medical institutions, and advance the understanding of autism. Over 20 medical schools have joined SPARK, and SPARK provides those researchers with medical and genetic information from participants like us. When we signed up, we completed questionnaires about ourselves and our children, then sent SPARK our saliva samples.

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Special needs parenting cannot only be about IEP battles, inspirational quotes, and memes about coffee consumption. While those are all very true, I want to know WHY my children have autism. I know about ASD and ABA, IEP’s and IDEA, BIP, plenty of SIB’s, IFSP’s, ADHD, OT, SLP, and the whole alphabet soup. But why does this condition impact all three of my children? Perhaps new research will lead to custom interventions and therapies tailored to each child. Will new research explain the systemic medical problems related to autism, like immune deficiencies, seizures, and gastrointestinal issues, and therefore lead to better treatments? There simply is not enough research or funding to answer these questions, and SPARK looks to bridge that gap.

I was shocked to hear many of my friends in the autism community never heard of SPARK. I hope you share this information with other families affected by autism and be the spark that ignites a flame in the lives of others.

 

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Suck It Up or Suck It In

This past spring, I was in a funk. It was frustration (seeing autism red flags in Thing 3), exhaustion (Thing 2 still not sleeping), and burn out (lethal mix of immature students and their psycho parents). When I am stressed, I do three things: eat, drink, shop. By the time July rolled around, I finally stopped eating my feelings and decided to get healthy–because I was tired of feeling lethargic, and raising three kids on the spectrum required more dedication to my own health.

Weight loss is about setting goals and maintaining control, and eating less is more important than exercising more. For me, I maintain control by streamlining and simplifying. My husband and I joined Weight Watchers in 2012 and had success with that program, so we started religiously tracking points again this summer. I returned to the habit of meal planning, creating a weekly calendar for breakfasts, snacks, lunches, and dinners and prepping those dinners in advance. Once a month I create at least 25 meals to stock our freezer. On Amazon Prime Day, I bought an Instant Pot for an amazing price so those dinners go from freezer to table in 20-30 minutes, and all I do is push a button, which keeps us from hitting a fast food drive-thru on busy weeknights. I also joined monthly accountability groups led by my high school friend (a Beachbody coach) for extra support. I check in daily and tell the group what I ate, how I exercised, and everyone shares meal planning tips and recipes. I tried Shakeology and loved it, and now those shakes are my breakfast. They are 130-160 calories depending on flavor, keep me full until lunch, and almost completely banished my sugar cravings. Only downside is they’re freaking expensive, so I had to break up with Starbucks to afford them… $4 for a latte versus $4 for my “daily dose of dense nutrition.” I’m on target some weeks more than others but lost 9.8 pounds so far, and my husband is down 13 pounds.

So what does meal planning look like? Cooking Light has a cool interactive dinner planner, and Organized Home provides tips and printables to get you started. I don’t really understand people who plan menus before shopping because I work in reverse. I buy meats on sale and plan menus from there, using Pinterest and my cookbooks for inspiration (I try one new recipe each week). We buy meats in bulk once a month, then visit the grocery store weekly for produce, milk, etc. So here are two sample days to show how I survive Weight Watchers and the new SmartPoints system…

Monday:

Breakfast: Shakeology (vanilla blended with coffee and ice — 3 SmartPoints)

Snack: Coffee with 1 tbs. creamer (1 SmartPoint), hard-boiled egg (2 SmartPoints)

Lunch: Leftover Chicken Piccata (3 SmartPoints) and 1/3 cup egg noodles (2 SmartPoints)

Snack: Banana (0 SmartPoints) and Babybel Light cheese (1 SmartPoint)

After-School Snack: Apple with PB2 (1 SmartPoint) OR Cheez-It crackers (5 SmartPoints)

Dinner: Low-carb wrap (2 SmartPoints) with romaine lettuce (0 SmartPoints) and homemade chicken salad (made with Greek yogurt instead of mayonnaise — 2 SmartPoints)

Snack: 2 cups SkinnyPop popcorn (2 SmartPoints)

Tuesday:

Breakfast: Overnight oats (1/2 cups oats, 1/2 unsweetened cashew milk, 1/4 tsp. cinnamon, 1/4 cup diced apple — 4 SmartPoints)

Snack: Coffee with 1 tbs. creamer (1 SmartPoint) and Siggi’s strawberry yogurt (3 SmartPoints)

Lunch: Leftover red beans & rice with turkey sausage (6 SmartPoints)

Snack: Apple (0 SmartPoints)

After-School Snack: Larabar mini (4 SmartPoints)

Dinner: Homemade corn and potato chowder (6 SmartPoints)

Snack: 2 cups SkinnyPop popcorn (2 SmartPoints)

That leaves me enough wiggle room within my 30 daily points to enjoy a small second helping at dinner, or a slice of banana bread left in the copy room, or that piece of chocolate my coworker brings to a meeting, or a glass of wine after dinner (4 SmartPoints for a 5 oz. pour).

For me, though, diet alone is not enough. To tone this mombod, I need to work out 3-4 times every week. I pay $10/month for a gym membership and head there on weekends for a mix of cardio and strength training. I tackle cardio first and spend 30 minutes on the rower or elliptical. Then I opt for machine weights…or if I feel ambitious, I’ll grab a kettle bell and follow this routine. During the week, I complete a couple Focus T25 workouts. Even though his oblique knee push-ups make me want to cry, I try to follow Shaun T’s advice to not over-do it and work out at least every three days.

It is hard to push play after the Spanx come off at the end of a long day, so we try to get moving as a family. We take a lot of walks after dinner–either around our neighborhood or following the trails at a county park. My kids love these hikes, especially when they include rocks, bridges, and bodies of water. We let Thing 1 and Thing 2 set the pace, and often their skipping and prancing turns into running. I’ll gladly tackle a two-mile jog if it tires them out before bedtime!

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Thing 2–the kid with endless amounts of enthusiasm and energy–usually quits with 1/2 mile left to go so he can commune with nature. While he rode on my back, he kept saying, “I speak for trees.”

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The family that sweats together (and recites The Lorax together), stays together.

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