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Yep, We Ditched Halloween

Hopefully I’ll get around to creating original content for this blog again…but right now work, kids, and the Richmond Moms Blog is keeping my plate full enough.

I wrote about how my kids are unimpressed by the usual holiday traditions, especially Halloween, here. This month, Thing 1 has recited Super Why’s “The Ghost Who Was Afraid of Halloween” on repeat. I assume that’s how he feels about October 31st with it’s eerie sounds, kids in masks, and sensory overload. That inspired my latest post for the Richmond Moms Blog about why we don’t celebrate Halloween. It has nothing to do with Christian ethics, but rather respecting our kids’ limits and interests. Read all about it here.

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Surviving Parent-Teacher Conferences

The time has come…

We are less than a month away from Parent-Teacher Conference Day, and I’m not a fan. Conferencing with parents any other day is usually fine, but Conference Day is exhausting. It’s an under-caffeinated marathon of jilted ex-spouses, helicopter and bulldozer moms, and parents who want their every action validated. It’s speed dating without the benefit of alcohol. In an attempt to make Conference Day more productive, I put together three tips to make those meetings a success. Read about it here on the Richmond Moms Blog.

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Every Kid in a Park

I usually feel like a well-informed person…but I did not know about Every Kid in a Park until recently. And, honestly, I felt belligerent towards Thing 1’s school or not sharing this information.

Between now and August 31, 2018, the National Park Service offers FREE admission to 4th graders and their families. This program has been offered yearly since 2015 to 4th graders and applies to all national parks across the country. Get the details and how we’re using this pass in my latest post for Richmond Moms Blog, here.

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Understanding PANS

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Imagine having a bubbly, precocious child suddenly plagued by tics, compulsions, mood swings, and a loss of skills. Imagine going to various developmental specialists, neurologists, and psychiatrists searching for answers. You may hear diagnoses of OCD, autism, Tourette Syndrome, and even bipolar disorder thrown at you, while your child is put through hours of assessments.

What if all of the symptoms were caused by a strep infection?

PANS stands for Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome, and it effects 1 in 200 children. It occurs when an infection triggers an immune response causing brain inflammation and life-changing psychiatric symptoms. My latest post for Richmond Moms Blog is all about PANS and the important work of the PANS Research and Advocacy Initiative (PRAI) in Virginia. Read all about it here!

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Pink Pancakes!

valentines_headerHolidays make me feel young at heart. Cheeky cards, garland, lights, and decorations make me giddy. It’s probably all Pinterest’s and Target’s fault. But as much as I love making every holiday special for my kids (whether they want me to or not), Valentine’s Day sends me over the freaking edge. Yes, my boys love chocolate and candy and parties, but the pomp and circumstance of card exchanges and all-things-heart-shaped are lost of them. So I sat at the dining room table several nights in a row decorating shoe boxes and bags, addressing cards, and preparing gifts for teachers, aides, therapists, and bus drivers (so I don’t look like the only deadbeat parent in a sea of hyper PTA moms). Let me just add that general education class, autism classmates, speech therapists, occupational therapists, instructional aides… We went through a ton of valentines.

Okay, enough complaining.

First challenge this year was finding valentine cards my boys actually liked. They may be 9- and 7-years old, but developmentally they enjoy the same characters as their 2-year-old brother. They would be completely happy with Elmo or Thomas, but I feared passing those out in an elementary school classroom would be social suicide. It is hard to find unique valentines at the usual box stores, and I didn’t want to spend a fortune. Thank goodness for Etsy! Thing 2 loves Pete the Cat books, and I downloaded these valentine cards for him. Thing 1 agreed to these Star Wars cards. I was able to personalize both at no extra charge, then printed them on cardstock at Office Max.

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My idea for pink pancakes for tonight’s dinner came from Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious cookbook. She has some inspiring (and insanely complicated) ideas for sneaking vegetables into foods kids typically love, and I usually keep roasted butternut squash or carrot purees in the freezer to toss into pasta sauces and pancakes. While Seinfeld’s original recipe uses beet puree and ricotta combined with store-bought pancake mix, I used my standard oatmeal pancake recipe and added beet to it. Roasting beets is super simple… Just trim the leaves and scrub the beets clean, wrap in aluminum foil, and roast at 375 for approximately 45 minutes. Let them cool enough to handle, trim and peel, and then you can slice, dice, or puree. For creating the puree, add 1/2 to 1 cup water to create a smooth consistency. For easy use, I freeze small portions in an ice cube tray, then thaw (more like microwave) what I want to use.

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Pink Oatmeal Pancakes

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup unsweetened almond or cashew milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 pinch sea salt
  • 2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1/4 cup beet puree
  • butter, coconut oil, or cooking spray for the griddle

Combine all ingredients (except butter) in a blender and blend until smooth. Heat up your griddle and melt butter or oil of choice. Ladle approximately 1/4 cup batter onto that sizzling hot griddle, and cook for 2-3 minutes per side. Top with maple syrup, powdered sugar, fresh fruit, whipped cream, or all of the above.

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Okay, okay…I used my heart cookie cutter. I was only entertaining myself at this point. We also ate turkey bacon and grapes because there’s nothing more fabulous to my children than breakfast for dinner, especially when it comes with a side of powdered sugar.

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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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Censorship and Other Bad Words

I recently read an article from Lehigh University’s First Amendment Site regarding book censorship. Written in 2009 by a journalism student, the article chronicles a brief history of censorship and book banning. One quote struck me: “The most effective antidote to the poison of mindless orthodoxy is ready access to a broad sweep of ideas and philosophies. There is no danger from such exposure. The danger is mind control.” That was the 1978 decision of Judge Joseph L. Tauro of Massachusetts in Right to Read Defense Committee v. School Committee of the City of Chelsea.

Thinking about a few amazing works of literature that have been banned over the centuries, including To Kill a Mockingbird (racism), Call of the Wild (banned and burned in Nazi Germany), Ulysses (obscenity), Of Mice and Men (profanity), Fahrenheit 451 (uses God’s name in vain), The Giver (drugs and suicide), The Color Purple (people have sex), and even Dahl’s The Witches (move over J.K. Rowling because Roald Dahl was inspiring wizardry first)…parents, legislators, and school board committee members love to stoke the literacy funeral pyres when students read anything besides censored textbooks or that one book that begins with the line, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Why is this relevant now? In my county in Virginia, where I live and teach, there is a mother who homeschooled her child. Then she sent that precious snowflake to public school and became very concerned over the county’s suggested summer reading lists for secondary students. Last month, that mother took her complaints to our county’s weekly newspaper, who published her story. In that article, this mother threw words around like “pornographic,” “vile,” and “trash” to describe the books Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell and Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys. Yet has this mother ever read the books herself? No. What concerned me most was her bragging that four titles on the 2015 summer reading list for one county high school were removed after she contacted the school’s administration. Why administrators cave to the whims, rants, and aggressive nature of bulldozer parents is beyond me…it not only undermines teachers, but also feeds into the mind control that Judge Tauro warned against. By allowing one parent to dictate the summer reading list for an entire school of 1500 students, she came back for round two this summer with an even bigger chip on her shoulder. In the case of fundamentalist mother versus administrators without backbone, mother wins.

As if the original story wasn’t infuriating enough, the following week The Chesterfield Observer published a follow-up article that included an interview with our State Senator, Amanda Chase. In the interest of full disclosure, I do not care for Mrs. Chase, nor did I vote for her. I consider myself politically moderate (despite the fact I’m wearing my “Feelin’ the Bern” t-shirt as I write this), but I am wary of politicians aligned with the inflammatory and fear-mongering tea party. Mrs. Chase defeated our previous out-of-touch senator in the primary and there was barely a contest in the Republican stronghold of District 11 in the general election. She won with 64% of the vote. Our Virginia General Assembly notoriously passes what I call “Do-Gooder” laws, and Amanda Chase is one of those do-gooders. A family friend described the problems of our General Assembly this way: there are too many do-gooders and not enough lawyers. However, I am grateful that our Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, vetoed two bills in particular while in office so far–one requiring public schools to notify parents before using sexually explicit books in school, and he twice vetoed a “Tebow Bill” that would open public school sports to homeschooled children. So that tangent aside, in the June 29th article, Mrs. Chase calls for firing certain librarians, stating, “If librarians are not recommending books that line up with Chesterfield County Public Schools’ core values, they should be dismissed.” When the Observer presented the idea that parents should help their children pick out books, Chase says parents are too busy.

What. The. [Censored].

Dear fellow parents and Mrs. Chase… I do not claim to be a perfect parent, or even a patient one. I swear in front of my children, and the f-word flows pretty freely in these parts. I listen to SiriusXM’s Backspin in my minivan while shuttling my children around town. I know you mean well, I really do. “Save the children!” It’s a noble thought, but my children and many like them do not need saving. Granted, my kids are young and autism keeps them blissfully innocent and unaware of many of life’s harsh realities, but they know there is profanity and obscenity in this world. Nonetheless, my kids mind their manners, follow directions, and do not hit, bite, or swear. And here is an outrageous idea…I am not too busy to be a parent. I know what they watch on YouTube, I know what book characters they like, and I take time to help them choose books and activities. I even talk to their teachers about their interests and ask for suggestions for books and games. If and when the time comes that I am not comfortable with them reading, hearing, or viewing something, then I will make that call. Please, please stop telling us how to parent. Any middle- or high-school kid wanting to read Eleanor and Park will find that book tamer than what she hears in your average school hallway, bus, or locker room. Bad habits are not curated at the public library. Instead of sheltering kids from controversial things and hiding from reality, we need to teach them how to cope with adversity, make good choices, consider other viewpoints and experiences, and learn from good and bad consequences. If my senator Amanda Chase wants to protect my kids in a meaningful way, she can introduce a bill that will erase the age cap from the autism insurance mandate rather than call for the dismissal of public school librarians who foster curiosity, imagination, and creativity in young adults. To these micromanaging legislators and the parents who seek to impose their will on all of us, don’t you have anything better to do? Maybe you should read a book.

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(Image source: http://quoteaddicts.com)

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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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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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