Rules of Engagement

APRIL IS AUTISM AWARENESS MONTH.

Yeah, this post’s title is a military term.  Rules of engagement tell you when you’re allowed to shoot back.

Sometimes care giving feels like combat, albeit in non-lethal form.

One particular battle is the effort to engage people with autism in collaborative behavior.  I was going to say meaningful behavior but that assumes that people with autism are absorbed in meaningless behavior on their own, which is not true.  Their behavior has great meaning to them, even if we can’t always crack the code and understand it.  And who knows, maybe they perceive our antics as meaningless.

OK, back to collaborative.

Our 25 year old son with autism, Joey, lives in a warm and supportive group home here in town.  Our custom is to pick him up on Sunday afternoons for dinner and an overnight with us.

We try to engage him in play, household activities or just chit chat.  None of these have ever been among his favorite things.  And as we shared a few weeks ago, his priority right now is to negotiate and nag about an unavailable form of entertainment he used to enjoy on his own.

So there’s some creative combat as we try to get him to say or do anything besides chanting “VCR will be here soon.”

Music usually engages him, but he’s figured out that playing tunes on our computers or phones is our effort to stifle the VCR negotiation.  So he either covers his ears and stomps away, whines “No MUSIC” or, wonder of wonders, forms a sentence to say, “I want quiet, please.”  Which is collaborative communication, except it leaves us all staring at one another non-collaboratively.

So I ran and got some picture books from our years of accumulated kids’ books.  We got a few smiles out of him with our funny character voices,  but he would not sit on the couch with us to look at them, let alone read with us.

So Melissa continued to try an engage him in talk or music while I huffed away to empty the dishwasher (does he think I’m engaged in meaningful behavior when I do that?  Do I?)

Then a little light bulb fizzed on over my head.  I said, “Hey Joe, come in here with dad.”

He glowered at me.

“Come on and help dad,” I chirped.  “This will be FUN!”

He uncurled from the couch and stood looking at me.  I indicated the silverware drawer.

20190331_213344“Help dad put these away.”

I handed him a butter knife.  Lo and behold, he put it in the slot with the other knives.

“Good job with the knives,” I oversold the moment.  Then I gave him a salad fork.

He put it in with the other smaller forks.  That was impressive, as he could have just mixed it up with the larger dinner forks.

I commenced praising him and called out my delight to Melissa.  I was going to move on to spoons, but he made an annoyed face, sounded off with his go-to word, “NOOOO,” and returned to the couch.

We counted the night a success.  Caring for people with autism requires rejoicing in small victories, connections that might seem trivial in what we perceive as normal life.

We’re still refusing to chase after another VCR.  But we are adopting a puppy.  And we’re provisionally excited, because Joey made eye contact and whispered “Yes” when we told him about it and Melissa showed him pictures like this one:

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This little guy is named Henry.  We hope he will help us with some fun engagement with Joey.  That is, once Henry’s done eating Melissa’s glasses.

So, what forms of engagement reach the one(s) in your care?  Always open to new tactics.  What works with one person with autism doesn’t necessarily reach the next one.

Very often, the most loving care is to keep showing up, trying again or trying something new.

And sometimes just showing up and letting them be.

Are you a family caregiver or know someone who is?  Consider getting or gifting our little book for this Autism Awareness Month.

 

Antiquetism

Our son’s 25th birthday is at hand.

Joey at DavesHe’s picked out a fave place for dinner.  They serve up his favorite burger & fries and a mound of vanilla ice cream sporting sparklers for birthday dessert.

But on the gift front, we are stalled.  We were messaging with his older brother last night, and at a loss for ideas.

His gift choice for most of his life has been movies – – – in VCR format.  (The link takes you to a piece from the Wall Street Journal, which, if you can get past the subscription sales pop-ups, speaks fondly of the technology as antique and having reached its demise.)

20190223_125608

Actual morgue photo.

You can still find VCRs for sale, but they’re increasingly expensive and impossible to maintain or service.  Our son is a button pusher extraordinaire, and the contraptions give up the ghost to that or to the funk of his very old video collection.

We are feeling for him.  Melissa points out that this has been one of the principal pleasures of his life, and now it’s gone.  He’s chafing at our suggestions of watching his movies on his computer, but that seems the best way to go.  He’ll trash or lose discs, thumb drives and other such media.

Anybody else made this transition?  Wide open to suggestions, both on replacement media and techniques for helping him embrace it.

Annuals

Our publisher’s site has another excerpt from our book up for ya.  It posted with some typos (since corrected) which was kinda funny because it is an excerpt about things getting out of our control…

Flowers Olde RectoryHere in South Dakota, the weather extremes must be navigated. If you plant before spring locks in, a frost can occur, and the annuals are history. In the midst of a broiling summer, a thunderstorm can sweep in and dump inches of water. You have mud puddles where your planting once shined. The blazing sun in the bright blue sky, like the pattern for our state flag, fries fragile flowers. The result is that we’re on hiatus from planting flowers here.

Joey’s autism does yeoman work of blowing up my fantasy of predictable order. Just when something seems to work, it breaks down. For example, Joey loved the water. One of my first memories of him appearing “normal” in public was at a beach where he ran out to the water and let the waves chase him back, all the while laughing just like the other little kids. But it wasn’t just the ocean. Any water made caring for Joey easier. Then he stopped liking water.

Give it a read.  Hope it is helpful if you’re in the midst of a “things are getting away from me” mood.  They are, of course, getting away from you.  But you’re OK.  No, not FEELING OK.  You’re OK because you are, against all the evidence, the very best resource that the universe sends to those in your care.

Holidays and Expectations

Ah, the holidays.  Happy memories of childhood magic float into our thinking, only to crash upon rocks of present reality.

This can be acute for caregivers.  We want to enjoy the season; we want to make magic for those in our care.

48362608_10217973652521354_2826689720354865152_oWe’ve been fortunate.  Our son with autism loves Christmas.  I’ll just share this picture-worth-a-thousand-words…

But he’s also done numbers on our memories and expectations (and property and bodies) over the years.  As I wrote in Raising a Child With Autism,

Joey has taught us a lot about saying goodbye to things we valued and enjoyed. We had a set of stoneware mugs from the bed-and-breakfast where we honeymooned. He threw one and shattered it. We kept a little mesh bag of Jordan almonds from a place setting at our wedding reception. He ate them.

The smiley kid by the Christmas tree?  You mean that happy child?

As I went on to write in the same chapter of the book,

Taking care of one off-the-wall, scary child of God means that a bunch of our nice stuff will get trashed. We can go down with our things and drown in a lake of resentment. Or we can find the love in our hearts that makes the well-being of that one person worth all the losses. More than this, if we open our eyes of faith, we can see God’s love for us.

Prayers that your holiday – holy day – catches even a bit of the holy.  A little goes a long way.  Little town of Bethlehem, a baby in a manger, from what seems small comes divine blessing.

Little you in your little part of the universe – you are a blessing to those in your care.

Caregiver Health Risks

Not sure we needed research to tell us this but maybe it will awaken some compassion in others who haven’t walked down (yes DOWN, as in stumble, fall, get up, repeat) our path.

Caring for others ain’t good for your health.  And if you fit certain profiles you’re at greater risk:

Participants with emerging chronic health problems experienced the biggest declines in health, with rates of hypertension, arthritis and rheumatism, digestive diseases, chronic lung and heart diseases more than doubling.

Being older, female, not receiving a pension, not feeling financially adequate and having depressive symptoms and functional limitations at the start were also associated with worse health among caregivers at the final follow-up.

deadI don’t have most of those factors working against me but stress about not feeling financially adequate is kicking my posterior.  Well, that and turning 60.  I get short of breath and feel overall weakness after bouts of anxiety – it’s like I can feel my own death settling in.

So, you know the drill.  You go to a doctor or other professional or even a friend you perceive as wise and you lay it all out and the reply is,

Hey, take care of yourself.

Take time for you.

Exercise, diet, sleep.

And of course your anxiety goes back up because these are exactly the things that are getting wiped out of your life and why you asked for help in the first place.

I go to the Bible often because it’s not the pie in the sky that many assume it to be.  Much of it is written to and for people caught in rotten situations.  There’s precious little “here’s how to fix it” and much more empathy and simple encouragement to hang in there, because who you are and what you do has meaning.  Here’s a good bit:

“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.  And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.  (1 Peter 5:5-11)

Yes – there are wretched things happening to you and to many folks just like you.

No – it won’t go on forever.

Yes – There are evil voices trying to talk you into despair.

No – those voices aren’t the final say.

Yes – there is divine power on your side.

The Greek word translated cast (cast your burdens) is a verb associated with throwing loads on pack animals.  Which is to say that when you pray – when you try to talk to the divine power about what you’re going through – you do NOT need to be elegant, gentle, proper, pious or whatever you think that talking to divine power entails.

Dump the load on God and insist – insist – that he carry what you can’t.

Did you catch the next line?  God will because he cares for you.

God can be the caregiver to caregivers.  Because the divine power does not get sick and die from taking care of us.  God has no risk factors.

Well trained in dysfunction

You’ve been practicing these habits for a long time and it will be hard work replacing them.

So said a good counselor after hearing another summary of my neurotic accommodations to life’s challenges.

While “normal” life invites us to try out personal training in dysfunctional thinking and behavior, care giving pretty much necessitates it.

Are you angry?  Practice holding it in because if you get loud or take a tone it will upset the person in your care.

Are you a people pleaser with crummy boundaries?  Keep pulling down your fences and pushing open your gates because you’re Just So Needed.  Where will those loved ones be without your sacrificial efforts?  I mean, the whole world might come off its axis if you stop.  And It’s All Your Fault.

Are you the addictive type?  Eat, drink, smoke or otherwise imbibe comfort, ‘cuz you ain’t gonna get it from healthy relationships (of which, it should be said over and over, you’re manifestly unworthy.)

20170715_131800A friend sent me this pro wrestling poster from our younger days.  Pro wrestling is a good simile for what I’m talking about here.  Yes, they train hard.  But it is to produce a product that is fake.

Hey, it draws cheers from the crowd if you do it right.  Even if all the pretense might leave you crippled.

My big discovery this week is that things are worse than I thought.  Why do you try to play God and take the world on your shoulders?, I’ve been asked more than once about my care-giving-supplemented anti-health training.

But that would be easy to address, wouldn’t it?  I mean, it’s a simple confession that my pride is taking on stuff beyond what a normal being can do, so the path of repentance is clear: identify the over-the-top stuff and leave it to God.

But what I realized this week is that I’m not playing God: I’m worshiping a false god, an idol.

Trying to make everybody happy and ensure good outcomes, the focus of my relentless training, IS NOT SOMETHING THE REAL GOD CLAIMS TO DO.

It is a fake god, a demon.  I’m not stepping into the middle of the universe to play God, which reality quickly corrects.  I’m wandering around in a phony universe, a simulation that maintains the lie and never delivers on what it promises and promises and promises.

Although a humiliating discovery, when I was able to express it I felt about 500 lbs. lighter.  Some restoration of health and sanity is already underway.

I wish I could say that it was like an exorcism and now the idol is gone and I’m back to reality and can’t we all just get along?  But there’s much more to do.

My working name for the idol is “FEAR.”  Fear goes back a long way in my life, taking up residence (at least as far as I can consciously regress) in childhood trauma that I’m not going to dump here.

But it now pervades everything. It warps decisions, it mocks every thought and stalks every experience.  It casts a smoggy haze over relationships.  Decades of care giving, with all the could-go-wrongs and worries that accompany it, helped FEAR embed and enlarge in my soul.

So I need to change my exercise program.  I need to pull down and smash the stones of which this great idol is built.

When people were dazzled by a great ancient temple, where political power and profit had displaced prayer and the presence of God, Jesus of Nazareth said, Yes, look at these great buildings. But they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another! (Mark 13:2, New Living Translation)

I’ve been repeating that – not one stone left on top of another – as the voice from the FEAR altar snarls in my consciousness.  My resistance training now must be pushing and pulling down worries and expectations over which I have no control, and stepping up to action where I can be responsible.  Saying NO more often.  Speaking for myself instead of bouncing back what I think someone expects me to say.

I hope this reaches some folks at the start of their care giving years.  Please, please, please: don’t smash yourself.  Smash the stones that are piling up – the false expectations that ask you to do things that aren’t necessary and/or by which you hope to gain some kind of elusive approval from the universe.

Smash your idol before its temple gets built.

Jerusalem Temple Stones Matt Kennedy

Jesus was right about that temple.  Matt Kennedy took pictures to prove it.

Upside Down

Well, not literally.  I’m not flipping the car or other antics described in the last post.

The publisher of my book about the care giving experience occasionally posts excerpts on the web.  One came up today, and it flips into that “upside down” feeling,

I guess it can’t be any other way. There is no magic cure for autism. You have to take in lots of advice and experiment with different approaches because what lifts the life of one autistic kid could be fruitless or even counterproductive with another.

upside down me

Care giving: actual footage.

The universal manual of “normal” parenting fails to help. Normal parenting is to yell if you spot an emergency in progress. But if we’d raised our voices and warned Joey, “Hey, put that down. You’ll put your eye out,” we’d be living with a Cyclops by now. You learn to use soft, reassuring tones to say, “Honey, you’re standing in front of an oncoming bus there. How about standing with Mommy instead?” You find yourself looking at the world upside down.

Care giving is a practice in which common sense and conventional wisdom take frequent beatings.  Which is why I try to share some spiritual perspectives here from time to time.  Misery loves company as it stands on its head, and it also cries out for help that can bring things into perspective.

And just like that…

ditch

He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire.  (Psalm 40:2)

…I was at the bottom of the ditch between north and southbound lanes of the Interstate.

I probably fell asleep at the wheel.  I know that one moment my car was heading north and the next it was turned west, running over an orange construction cone.  I managed to control the vehicle, not slamming on brakes and steering to roll with the the terrain.

I bumped down into the culvert, nosed the car north and, as it was running and did not seem damaged, was working to ease it back up onto the blacktop when I became stuck in the muddy bottom.

Smart phone, auto club, yada yada yada.  Just like that, I was winched out and driving home.  After a County Sheriff showed up and told me he wouldn’t ticket me for reckless driving and just chalk it up to stupidity.

Yeah, have a nice day.

Talking with my wife at home, I found out I’d been snoring the night before.  Full disclosure: I have sleep apnea and use a CPAP.  Came on just like that in my late 50s.  The mask must have slipped in the night and I was probably oxygen and sleep deprived.  The sun through the windshield warmed up the car and just like that, I was westbound on a northbound Interstate.

Just like that, we are old and do old folks’ stuff.  We fall asleep at embarrassing times and drive less aggressively but also less competently.

My wife talked about me needing to recognize my age and not turn around from a late night meeting and drive (which I had) to run right back to work early the next day (did that too).

Just like that, we were into a discussion about formerly easy household tasks that now seem like hard labor, changing diets, things with which we used to roll that now cause impatience, and other old people gripes.

Now, these are not unique to caregivers.

What strikes me is the way we didn’t accommodate the changes and evolve with them as we went along.  Just like that, they’re all in our face.  We didn’t age gracefully or go through midlife crises or any of that.  We went flat out as caregivers and just like that the role mostly went away and just like that we looked around and found ourselves aged.

So back to yesterday’s mishap – down in the ditch, just like that, my inner teenager represented as a compulsion to Instagram the picture of the tow truck setting up to pull me out.

I was struck by the cross-shaped apparatus being deployed atop that green hill not-so-far-away.  It’s the sign of life that Christians see by faith, and Jesus planted it right where we live, among the visible, sensually perceived signs of decay and death.

So my heart, mind and spirit are still in working order (assuming that meditating on the cross while being towed from a ditch isn’t a sign of mental degeneration, which can also arrive just like that.)

Anyway, as you come to the end of a season of care giving, you will find that a bunch of changes set in while you were so busy.  Be gentle with yourself as you recognize and adapt to them.

And don’t drive when you’re tired.

And if you’ve neglected it, commence a gentle turn toward things eternal: In you, O LORD, have I taken refuge; let me never be ashamed.  Do not cast me off in my old age; forsake me not when my strength fails.  (Psalm 71)

Strong mind, weak back

When advocating for our son’s placement in a group home, one of our arguments was our increasing age and the upcoming physical challenges of ’round the clock care for an adult with autism.

Now that he’s placed, our incredible wisdom is validated.

This week, Tim was diagnosed with something called “frozen shoulder.”  As the Mayo Clinic reveals,

Certain factors may increase your risk of developing frozen shoulder… People 40 and older… (Note: Tim’s about half past 40).

Even with Joey in a good group home, our age impinges on what we can do for him.  We just bought the new bed he needs, and Melissa’s call to the mattress place went something like,

My husband can come pick it up, but he’s got a shoulder thing.  Can someone there help him get the mattress on top of the van?  And can you tie it down for him?

Which is to say,

Silver Roses

An excerpt from our book showed up on our Publisher’s page today.  Hope it helps you get off of your own back.

One year, my wife and I planted roses all around our backyard. If we knew what we were doing, we would tell you that the flowers were called Lady Wilhelmina Sunburst Spectaculars or some such name. The reality is we went to the nursery and said things like, “Oh, let’s get some of those silver ones.”

Sure, we had red roses and yellow roses, but we were really excited by the bush that would give us silver roses. Our friends would stare and sputter, “Wow, silver roses. Never seen those.”

We planted the silver rose bush in a prominent angle of our fence line. It would be the eye-catching star of the backyard. We followed the nursery’s instructions about how deep to dig, how much to water, and whether it liked red or white wine with meals.

Our dog at the time was a burly malamute mix named Rocky. Evidently, he shared our interest in silver roses. We came home one afternoon to find Rocky lying on the grass, gnawing on the dug-up silver rose bush. After much arm-flapping and loud shouts of, “Oh no!” and “Bad dog!” we replanted the bush. Rocky was a good dog and left it alone. A few weeks later, we had our silver roses. That rose bush didn’t pout because a couple of beginning gardeners forgot to protect it from their dog. It just went back to making silver roses.

Our son Joey endured much because his caregivers were medical amateurs. We never spotted warning signs before a seizure caused him to bang his head on a TV stand, making him bleed profusely. He couldn’t tell us that a stomach bug had him dehydrated, and all we could do was watch the emergency room nurses give him an IV to re-inflate him like a tire.

But after incidents like those, he just took up wherever he left off. Our expertise—or lack thereof—didn’t bother him. He went back to his daily routines and loved us just the same. Joey is not what we made him or failed to make him. He’s always carried strengths of his own that we can admire as precious gifts from God.

We are part of a culture that takes responsibility for too much and assumes that our every word, deed, or thought will have a life-altering impact. Caregivers take that warped thinking to another level since we are in constant interaction with people who have special needs, and we assume that we will do them more harm by our perceived failures.

“For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?” (2 Corinthians 2:15-16 NIV).

We are who we are. Others are who they are, too. Our impact on them is dictated as much by their own inner workings as by our intention and skill.

So let’s drop fear of failure from the one hand and fantasy futures from the other and concentrate on taking hold of what is true in the relationships entrusted to us by God in the here and now. Those placed in our care have special needs we can meet, but they are unique people and not just extensions of our lives.

Silver roses are not our creations; they are the beautiful flowers of tough plants.