Last summer my husband and I traveled alone to this place, Ouray, Colorado, to celebrate our 15th anniversary and for him to run an incredibly challenging 100 mile race. But while we were here we did something unexpected- we fell in love with the mountains. I’ve loved mountains and trees and the little towns that get nestled within them since I was a girl, but being an east coast resident until two years ago, I had never seen mountains like this. And it wasn’t just the mountains. On our last night in town my husband, who isn’t always in touch with his more mystical emotions, looked at me and said, “Do you feel at home here?” I did, and I do. This year the kids came with us and were spellbound even on the first day.
One thing I’m reading and learning from this journey of becoming a writer is that our experiences with our Creator don’t always come to us through words. I’m a big fan of words, but God communicates in an infinite variety of ways if I’m listening. He communicates in mountain air, the sound of water rushing over rocks and cliffs, the voice of my husband, my child, my friend, or a stranger. Listening isn’t easy in our culture, and interpreting can be even harder. But honing my communication skills and sharpening my ears to hear the language of my Lord is worth it. I encourage you today to open your ears, your heart, your mind, your pores, and your soul to the Holy Spirit’s calling.
Sometimes it seems like back to school season is an extended and complicated version of New Year’s Eve. All that changes on New Year’s Eve is the date, but back to school season means new clothes, new shoes, lots of notebooks and pencils, and about 85 glue sticks to donate to the classroom supply.
It’s not quite the same in my family, though. As a mom of two teens with autism I have to think differently, shop differently, and set goals differently. And that’s just the beginning. While my teens deal with many of the same issues that other teens do there are a good number of common teen concerns that don’t come up in our house, and a whole host of others that are pretty unique. Our family’s back to school experience is different in a lot of ways. Here are three examples.
1. “Back to School Fashion” isn’t a thing.
As a neurotypical teen in the 1990s I anticipated my annual back to school clothes shopping trip like a second Christmas. I couldn’t wait to go to the mall with my grandmother to update my wardrobe with the newest styles. (Jnco jeans, anyone?) But as a mom of teens with autism buying new clothes looks very different. My son and daughter aren’t interested in trendy clothes because for the most part they aren’t concerned with trends. In many ways this makes things easier for me as a parent because I can shop for my kids’ clothing based on need instead of want. While I may take advantage of clothing sales this season to stock up on jeans in the next size up, my kids don’t care what time of year they get them, nor do they want to go along to the store. In our house back to school shopping is a one-woman job, and when I bring home the new jeans I toss them on their beds and remind them to put them away in their closets.
In other ways, though, buying clothes for my teens is a challenge. When I buy new jeans for my thirteen year old son I also need to be sure to remove the old jeans and pants from his room because often he doesn’t realize that they’re two sizes too small and barely long enough to cover his knees, let alone his ankles. Because he also has ADHD he may forget that he has new jeans if he still has a drawer full of the old ones. With my fourteen year old daughter clothes are more complicated. Since women are unfortunately held to a higher standard of appearance than men I have to balance cultural expectations for how a teen girl should look with her own sensory needs, her ability to dress herself, and the kinds of things she likes. Like her brother she isn’t always aware of it when her clothes are too small. Having kids with autism has shown me that much of the language we use as neurotypicals is very vague. Pants that one young woman might think are too small might be perfect to another woman, even if they both wear the same size and have similar body shapes. My daughter might notice that her underwear are uncomfortable, but she may not be able to recognize that it’s because they’ve grown too small. Or she may know they’re too small but not remember to tell me until I see her unabashedly fixing a wedgie in public. I have to remember that she likes cotton pants but not leggings and has trouble fastening back-closing bras. This gets more confusing around the holiday season when well-meaning relatives want to buy my kids clothes as gifts.
2. We don’t always know what school they’re going back to.
Between my teens’ special needs and my husband’s Navy career my kids change schools a lot. My daughter, who starts high school this year, has attended nine different public schools already, but only two of those changes were due to a physical move for our family. While all kids have their own unique educational needs, the needs of children with autism are often harder for schools to accommodate. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which was signed into law in 1990, was designed to ensure that American students with disabilities can still receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). But since a diagnosis of autism can cover a wide range of needs and abilities, parents of students with autism and school staff need to work together to evaluate each student’s needs and design an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to communicate educational goals and methods used to achieve them to all schools staff. Of course a student’s IEP needs to be adjusted regularly as she or he achieves some goals and needs change, and this is where things get complicated.
When a school doesn’t have the right materials or staff to address a student’s changing needs, or when parents and school staff disagree about what those needs are, something needs to change. While parents do have the option to legally contest a school’s decision regarding a child’s needs these appeals can mean a lengthy and potentially costly battle with an uncertain outcome. As a family we’ve found it faster and simpler to move our special needs students to a more accommodating school. For the last two school years we chose to have our autistic teens enrolled in an online school, where they were able to follow a public school curriculum and meet with teachers and classmates online from inside our home. While my son has thrived in this environment we found that for my daughter this specialized school setting widened an already existing gap between her academic and social/emotional abilities. Her ways of interacting with other teens and adults became problematic for her. So this year, at least to start, she may choose to attend our local “brick and mortar” public high school, where the special education services she receives can happen in person. So, yes, that will bring the count up to ten different schools for her in eleven years.
3. We pay more attention to our kids’ social lives at school than their academic lives.
With little exception my teens with autism have generally been able to get good grades and understand the material their teachers present at school. While this isn’t true for all autistic teens, my kids tend to have more difficulty interacting with other students than they do with teachers and textbooks. As a result I pay more attention to when, where, and how my teens interact with peers than I do their grades. Because, unfortunately, my teens have a lot of peers, but few friends. Bullying has been an on-and-off problem throughout their school careers, but a lack of supportive friendships has been a consistent theme, especially once they started middle school. It’s not that I want them to be popular social butterflies, but I can’t be their main source of support forever. I want to know that they can find and maintain good relationships and know whether or not a new friend is a safe, reliable person to spend time with. Right now they’re with me and each other more than anyone else, and I have no need to kick them out of our house when they turn 18. But someday I’ll be gone and they won’t.
In all respects parenting these two amazingly unique people has been a joyful and humbling challenge. There was a time when we thought that all we had to do was find the right combination of school services, doctors, therapists, and parenting methods and then we could simply maintain the course while they figured the rest out on their own. In reality their needs are perpetually moving targets, and while consistency is important in parenting, it’s just as important for us to know when we need to make a change. So every year when back to school season arrives we take the time to mindfully observe how our autistic teens are really doing. While academics and social skills are things we look at with their input, whether or not they’re happy and comfortable is usually the barometer that tells us when change is in the air. So this year as they try on new jeans, new schools, and new friends, my job is to help them find the right fit.
Photos by Steve Harvey, Ben Weber, Austin Pache, and Melissa Askvew via Unsplash.
**This is the first post in my series Essentials of Self Care. For more ways to soothe your soul, read my second post in this series, Essentials of Self Care: Breathe.
Self care is hard. It shouldn’t be hard, since most of the common choices for self care actions are pretty enjoyable. With some exceptions, many of the things we naturally enjoy can provide us with nurturing, rejuvenation, and comfort. Sports and exercise strengthen our bodies as they simultaneously release endorphins that leave us feeling like the hard work was worth it. A day at the spa, or even just a long hot shower, can bring a feeling of both relaxation and renewal. But I struggle to make time for the self care I need, and based on the many health articles I see on this subject, I’m not alone. There are plenty of ways to care for ourselves, and most people can probably name at least a few things they know are good ways to care for their bodies and minds. So why do we fail to actually do these things if we enjoy them and they’re good for us?
I’m sure there are as many excuses as there are people to make them, but perhaps most of them come down to one word – time. As the world grows bigger in population and more closely connected our opportunities expand exponentially, along with the expectations we and others put on ourselves. Our work lives no longer end after our shift, and many of us are expected to remain available for work-related communications during our time off. This takes away some of the time we may have otherwise used to nurture our families and ourselves. So what one thing can you do today – or even right now – to refuel your body and mind?
You can sleep.
I’m sure we’ve all heard a million times that most Americans in particular do not get enough sleep, that the average adult needs 7-8 hours of sleep each night, and that our physical and emotional wellbeing suffers for it. We all know it, but that doesn’t change it. We’ve been hearing this for years. We have much to accomplish and experience that makes it hard to turn out the light early enough, or we suffer from pain or insomnia that keeps us awake.
Though I’ve definitely experienced a lack of sleep because of pain, my issue is typically time. After several years of waking up every 2-3 hours to care for my babies they finally began sleeping through the night. Then I discovered the sweet, quiet, peaceful hours between their bedtime and mine, and I craved it all day long. So the light went out later and later each night as I tried to enjoy the silence just a little longer. Lately I find myself taking on new projects that would have been impossible when my kids were younger. This blog is one of them. And so now my projects are my new babies, stealing my late nights alone and robbing me of the sleep I desperately need.
As I continue this battle I’ve discovered one strategy that really helps me get the sleep I need, at least when I utilize it – my winding down ritual.
It took me a few years of exhaustion to realize that even when I was tired I often fought the arrival of sleep. I know I need rest, but I find myself spellbound by the quiet, dark night with its promise of uninterrupted time. Unfettered, I dive into a book or my computer and lose track of time until I feel my head drooping.
So I use my winding down ritual. Here’s how it works:
I begin mentally preparing for sleep early, usually no later than 9PM. That’s the point when I make the decision to end the day’s productivity and begin a period of rest and transition to sleep. Making that decision is the hardest part, and often I fail to do it, but I’ve learned that when I do that one more thing instead of preparing for sleep I’m actually stealing that time from tomorrow, when I could be more alert and productive than I am at night.
I try to incorporate all my senses into my routine. Repeating some specific sensory experiences each night helps my body recognize that it’s time for bed. God designed evening and morning, darkness and light, and He also created us with the need for sleep. He knew that by creating us to need times of rest He could remind us of our limitations, along with His love for us.
There are many ways to engage your senses to help you enter a period of rest. Here’s my list:
I lower the lights, making each room dimmer, to remind me that darkness is a time for rest.
I light a candle or use an essential oil diffuser to help me remember that I have the privilege of peaceful rest because of Jesus.
I play relaxing music throughout the house to help lower my heartrate closer to its slowest resting rate. Studies have shown that that music with a beat that is slower than our normal heartrate has a relaxing effect.
I go through a nightly body care routine that includes a soft moisturizer for my face, some slow mild stretching, and soft cotton pajamas. At this point I am feeling so comforted that anything that doesn’t bring me peace is unwelcome.
I eat a small healthy snack, usually berries and milk. This is my favorite snack, so I look forward to it as a treat. Comforting my taste buds before bed helps me feel cared for.
After this routine I may allow myself to watch some TV, depending on the time and how tired I am. However, I make sure to turn off the TV and avoid looking at my phone for at least the last 30 minutes before I turn out the light. I spend that half hour reading, praying, or meditating. Sometimes my husband and I simply just sit and talk.
All of this is my ideal. There are many nights when I choose to ignore the sunset and continue pushing myself to get more done. I almost always regret it.
There are many ways that you can train your body to recognize the need for sleep sooner. Do you have an evening activity that always helps you sleep? Let me know in the comments.
Photos by Jeremy Allouche, Toa Heftiba, Mona Eendra, and Alexander Possingham via Unsplash.
My husband, Eric, runs ultra trail marathons. For those who aren’t part of the running world, a marathon is 26.2 miles, so “ultra marathon” is a term for any race that’s even longer, and the “trail” part means that he’s running on what others would consider a hiking trail, usually involving elevation gains. Often when I tell people this they ask me why he does it, and that’s a hard question to answer, even though I think I do understand his reasons. It’s about pushing.
I definitely don’t run ultra marathons, but pushing is something that Eric and I have in common. I’m not only talking about physical strength and endurance; I’m talking about a constant drive to get more from life and more from ourselves. For some people pushing looks like keeping up with the Joneses — get a good job, make more money, buy the big house and the nice car. Eric and I were on that track for a while, but we found that it quickly came back to bite us. Now we’re more focused on achievements. We want to reach more personal goals, do more things, grow more spiritually, do more to serve others, maybe make a name for ourselves. Harder, better, faster, stronger. Eric made a career change several years ago and is currently finishing a masters degree. I got my masters as well, and now I’m focused on fulfilling my lengthy bucket list.
Our sermon this morning centered around Hebrews 12:1-2:
In years past when I’d go along to watch Eric’s road races there were usually at least a couple of runners with a portion of this verse printed on their shirts, and it’s certainly encouraging, as if the writer of Hebrews was giving believers a pep talk. But what about “the race that lies before us?” Does this mean that, as Christians, we all run the same race, regardless of our individual differences? Or has God ordained that each of us run on our very own trail, achieving only what He has destined us to achieve?
What if I get to the finish line only to realize I ran the wrong race?
I’m not going to claim to know the answer to any of that because I don’t. I’m just another runner like the rest. The truth is that when I run a race I’m just following the person in front of me. All those goals on my bucket list are just things I want to do someday. I’d like to think that I want to do them because God has called me to, but I don’t know that for sure.
During one long trail race Eric found himself facing a dark overnight run with trail markers that weren’t easy to find. The only way he could stay on course was to search for and follow a series of small orange flags, set roughly a quarter mile apart, and barely visible on a high dark mountain. But I don’t think God calls me into a lifelong game of hide and seek where I must constantly wonder whether what I’m working on is really a part of His will for me or not. I worry about that a lot, but I also know that God has given us the Way (John 14:6), so maybe this is a worry I need to loosen my grip on.
What God does say in Hebrews 12 is that I really just need to do what I do during a race –follow the Guy in front of me. “Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus…”
Jesus, being full man and fully God, guides us on our own course, because He has run it before and He knows the way. I’m not called to die on a cross (I hope), but I’m called to pick up my cross and follow Him (Luke 9:23), being willing to carry it for the joy that lies before me.
So perhaps whether I run 100 miles or 2, whether I write books or grocery lists, whether I tend a mission field in a foreign country or just the one inside my home, I just have to keep following the Guy in front of me. Maybe God cares less about what goals I achieve because what’s important is whose name I achieve them in.
I’m a wife, a mother, a writer, and a Christ follower. But none of those roles have come easily. I want to walk with you and share with you as we find God’s love on the dust of the earth, in a difficult world, through a difficult life. Join me as we grow from Eden’s dirt.