XtraGram: Real stuff you won't find on IG, FB & Twitter
One of the most memorable, meaningful moments of connection between my son, Bennett, and me was, ironically, enabled by digital media.
“Mommy, what’s your favorite color?” was the opener from this child, barely three, diapered and clutching his LeapPad with sticky toddler fingers. That question surprised me on the spot for the simple fact that Bennett, at that point, hadn’t ever before inquired after something outside his own restricted interests—which is not unusual for people like my son on the autism spectrum.
“Blue,” I answered. He disappeared into his room with the device.
Thirty minutes later, he resurfaced and excitedly pulled my face down to the glowing screen. Bennett’s countenance beamed as he looked from me to screen, on which resided a simple blue square scribbled with a stylus.
While this may seem insignificant to most, let me elaborate: Bennett didn’t have words yet for his emotions, but he was able share his heart with a little square sketched onscreen in my favorite color. What I saw was love and empathy illustrated.
Now, school is back in full swing and Bennett (now age 9), like your kids, is reaching for the iPad to doodle, explore the properties of addition and discover how many rings there are around Saturn. The screen time squabble is back in full force, and I’m sure I’m not the only mom in carpool whose kid opens the door and always asks, “Can I play your phone on the way home?”
While I’ll be the first to say I’m guilty of handing over the technology when I need to finish a brief or stir the meatballs, my kids and I have been building strategies together to screen responsibly, so I thought I’d share. PLEASE comment below with your own! We’d love to learn how you do it.
Set time limits on tech
Our children are digital natives. Case in point: my kindergarten daughter is taking CODING classes. Recent surveys show that the most teachers use tech every day in the classroom to boost learning, and the majority of parents firmly believe our children’s future career success is linked to tech intelligence. With screens everywhere-- and with seemingly infinite battery life-- how in the world is a parent supposed to mind those American Academy of Pediatric guidelines for screen time?
I didn’t start counting the minutes until my son went for a hospital stay earlier this year. And when I tuned in to the data coming out of psychiatric units about kids who were seriously struggling as a result of cyber-bullying, online harassment, excess social media use and anxiety, I started setting time limits on technology for my crew.
Need more convincing? Research shows that very few of our kids even report abusive behavior to us in fear of having their devices taken away.
For my nine-year old, we allow 15 minutes of screen time a day. My daughters, 7 and under, rarely get access to a device. Find what works for your family.
Screen Responsibly tip: There’s a handy “Screen Time” feature in your iPhone settings where you can monitor usage, set time limits for apps and block inappropriate content.
Use as a reward
As the mother of a child on the autism spectrum, I’ve seen great strides in not only my son but with my other children when using tech as a positive behavioral reinforcement. Clean your room, then Minecraft. Feed the dog, then Prodigy.You’ll quickly see what motivates them!
Choose uplifting apps
There are a TON out there. I try to make sure our 15 minutes are either edifying or educational. When my son was younger, we used Choiceworks to set visual schedules, incentivize chores and establish routines. Using the app turned fights like teeth brushing into a game. There are also some great mindfulness apps like Calm, Sesame Street’s Breathe, Think, Do and loads of music apps, story podcasts and more that help kids with character building, self-regulation and anxiety.
Screen Responsibly tip: One of my six-year old’s iPhone faves is Canticos (found on the Nick Jr app). With easy-to-follow songs in Spanish, it’s a great way to encourage multilingual learning.
Parents, keep doing your best! And comment below to share your screen-time strategies for the benefit of all.
I’ve been a fan of Ben Franklin since my teenage years after reading his “Letter to a Royal Academy.” The sharp-witted Franklin penned the essay almost 250 years ago to address physicians and academics of the Enlightened Age whom Franklin believed were acting pretentious and impractical.
Today, sitting in a psychiatric unit at a child’s table playing Uno, I recalled Franklin’s humorous treatise-- calling for research to improve the odor of human farts—as relevant and evergreen.
It was visiting hours: Around me were Hispanics, whites, blacks and Asians outfitted in Nike, Gucci & Wal-Mart. The young patients we were all there to see padded around the hospital in grippy socks. No shoes with laces. Safety hazard.
My boy and I had checked out our pens from the nurse (“must be returned after use”) and were selecting tomorrow’s meals: Nachos. Jell-O. Carrots.
A freckled child one table over was crying.
“When can I go home?”
“Not yet,” said the mother. “You made an unsafe choice when you tried to hurt yourself.”
Just as I was about to turn and offer my fellow traveler a box of Kleenex, the ENCORE: one bombastic and highly odiferous fart.
As much as I wanted to cry in that moment for my fellow, heart-shattered mama and obliterate any trace of the mental illness that infected our babies’ brains and landed us in the psych ward, the entire room erupted in laughter. Including the culprit.
One kid sounded off like an alarm: Flatulence in the unit! Flatulence in the unit! As if it were gunfire and we should all duck and cover.
My God. I’ve never laughed so hard.
Then, the guilty party stood up like he was addressing Parliament and nobly announced: “I ate 6.7 ounces of tomato soup, and I’m very gassy.”
I wanted to applause.
Instead, we parents just exchanged knowing looks and resumed our card games.
I think Franklin, who alternatively titled that essay, “Fart Proudly,” was a practical guy who understood that we all need a good belly laugh sometime. Stop taking yourself so damn seriously.
God no longer speaks to me. But He used to. And it was always about you, Son.
Let me address the Big Silence.
You were six. We were in the psychiatric ward.
I, answering questions, “Does mental illness run in your family?”
You, hugging your favorite blue dinosaur, in circle time with Eating Disorder, age 10, Violent Outbursts, age 11, and Suicidal, age 12.
A child began screaming in the padded isolation room.
Not you, that time. But for me, each shriek was a bullet to Belief.
I’ve been waiting for the kill shot ever since.
Son, Doubt may never cross your mind. Perhaps the upside of your Autism.
But if Doubt should ensnare you like a lamb in barbed wire, like it's cut your mother, consider my last conversation with God:
“Change my son,” I pleaded.
“Don't ask me to change him,” God replied. “I made him perfect. You are the one who must change.”
+inspired by minimalism + penned from Marfa, TX
“Are they going to saw open my skull?” asked my eight year old. “Cause that would be cool!”
While it sounds like a line from a Halloween horror show, this is real life in the Bowen household.
On this week’s agenda: Neurosurgery.
If you’ve followed my blog, you’ll know that a few weeks ago we got results from an MRI of my son’s brain.
Magnetic fields revealed the rare structural defect in his cerebellum that basically pushes brain tissue into the spinal column and blocks the flow of cerebro-spinal fluid.
Symptoms of this brain bug mirror autism’s myriad symptoms and behaviors. Bennett was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at age 3. And between then and now, doctors have heaped on additional psychiatric pronouncements.
The fact that we’ve now unearthed this neural flaw, one we could potentially fix, that could possibly be contributing to my son’s metal health pickle, is absolutely thrilling.
But, brain surgery as the remedy? Not so fab.
So, what do we do, as parents, when life lobs these softballs our way?
In the past, I’ve retreated in avoidance.
You’ve seen me in the neighborhood, in my running shoes, pounding concrete. Gin works too.
However, a braver route is to consider the way our children face these challenges: with no fear, and full of confidence.
For a while I’ve vacillated between tattooing one of two things on my hands: “Stay calm.” Or, “No fear.” Today, I choose the latter.
I’ve watched my eight year old do life with an alarming amount of brio.
His absence of worry is terrifying to me as a mother. I hold his hand to cross the street because speeding cars do not stay him. I avoid puddles, pools, rivers, lakes and oceans because he’d plunge in despite the fact he’s not a good swimmer.
But for all my anxiety that stems from special-needs parenting, I can proclaim that this kid is my hero.
Thanks to him, I’ve grown this rhino-heart inside my chest that’s bourn much and can handle what’s next.
I think all us parents can.
So, if the prognosis is brain surgery, we got this.
The conversation unfolded like this:
Me: “Where does your son go to school?”
She says, “We had him for one semester at __________ School. But it was horrible,”
“Why so bad?” I asked.
She leaned in. She lowered her voice: “We didn’t know this before we enrolled, but there were, you know, AUTISTICS,” she said, cringing. “We pulled him out and went somewhere else.”
This Is Me: boiling in the middle of a business lunch.
A few precious seconds passed. I bit my tongue and changed the subject.
Now I’m kicking myself, and instead I’m cowardly penning this exchange.
Autistics, retards, homos, niggers, and anyone else who’s felt the sting of a small-minded, pejorative tongue, I apologize.
I missed the cue to move this narrative of loving our neighbor forward.
Haven’t we made incredible strides in humanity? Didn’t we abolish slavery? Give women the right to vote? Wed whomever you want?
WHY ARE WE STILL HAVING THIS CONVERSATION?
All day, the lyrics of this old civil rights tune has been running through my head:
If I could help somebody
As I pass along
If I can cheer somebody
With a word or song
If I can show somebody
How they're travelling wrong
My living shall not be in vain
I heard this song a few months ago for the first time at my grandfather’s funeral.
Ruskin Reddoch was a war hero with a Silver Star and Purple Heart. This World War II Marine Core vet taught civics and coached every sport imaginable in Tarpon Springs, Florida after returning from the Pacific theater.
When he died at age 100, an African American preacher by the name of Dr. Nate Crawford came forward to give his eulogy.
He said: “It was just after segregation ended in schools… Coach Reddoch was the first teacher who looked me in the eye like I was a human being who belonged there.”
Dr. Crawford went on to describe how my grandfather, whom he’d met at age 15, had had this incredible hand in making him feel human.
Later Dr. Crawford sang a soul-stirring rendition of “If I Could Help Somebody.” “It’s the song that reflects Coach’s legacy,” Crawford said.
To my son ("The Autistic”) and the rest, I promise to do better next time,
I’m going to make this simple and brief. What I have to say is worth it.
You don’t have to spend any money. You already have it. And it could change your child’s life.
Say hello to your gut.
I’m not talking about your great abs or your C-section scar or your indigestion.
According to Albert Einstein, it’s “the only thing of any value.”
Our husbands don’t have it. Our doctors don’t have it. Our mentors don’t have it.
I’m talking about this invisible cape we Moms don called mother’s intuition.
Instinct. Sixth sense. Still, small voice. Gut feeling.
I like to think of it as the superpower we’ve earned for all those sleepless nights, stretch marks and Legos we’ve stepped on.
Yes, we’re busy with PTA meetings, carpool and baseball games.
We’re commuting, emailing, ironing, breastfeeding.
Aren’t we all trying to carve out one impossible hour to escape for a pedicure?
But please move this to the top of your to-do lists, Moms.
First, turn down the static: You’re wrong. You worry too much. You’re being dramatic.
I heard that, too. But remember, no one else has the hunch.
Don’t shrug it off. Don’t second-guess.
Now do a gut check. Anything feel off with your child?
For the past year, I heard a whisper from deep in my belly. “Keep fighting for answers,” it said as we rode a roller coaster of examinations, medications and therapies with one of my three children.
A few days ago, I met with a neurologist who leaned in close and listened intently as I relayed my convictions. They weren’t logical or evidence-based, just deeply felt.
“I believe you,” she said. “Here’s what we do next.”
She called me yesterday and said, “Lizza, I have some test results concerning your son. Can we talk?”
Today, I’m armed with information that could change the quality of my child’s life in an extraordinary way.
Mamas, I share this story (and there’s more to come) to encourage you. For the sake of the child that you carried or adopted unselfishly, lost sleep over, prayed for unceasingly and continue to love more than yourself, tune in and listen.
I’m packing: pajamas, stuffed animals, sunscreen, books and bug spray.
Soon we’ll dodge the 100-degree Texas heat and embark on the Family Vacation.
Minus a family member.
This is shaping up to be one of those big years I’ve heard other moms of children on the autism spectrum talk about: “It doesn’t get easier. It just gets different,” they say.
My brilliant son, almost eight years old now, is like most autistic kids in that he needs routine and structure.
Summer is the antithesis.
Every year I see June coming like a wrecking ball.
Two years ago we tried the beach. Strolled the boardwalk to an Italian restaurant.
Noodles arrived at our table curly (not straight, like we eat at home).
Plates went flying.
My brother’s kids who were vacationing with us were crying. They quickly exited in search of snow cones. We spent the next hour trying to calm my son.
Ixnay On The Vacay for the next two summers. We didn’t give up. It was just too stressful to travel as a family.
Now here we are. With two curious little girls who’ve heard this RUMOR about summer: Stay up late catching fireflies? Popsicles? Meet Mickey Mouse?!?!
For the first time, my daughters are old enough to recognize that their summers haven’t quite fit that idyllic mold.
A few weeks ago, my in-laws graciously offered to host my son for a few weeks at their Tennessee farm. I knew he’d have a blast at Grandparent Camp: swimming, gardening, cooking, but within well-defined routines and fixed schedules.
My husband and I felt as if we’d been handed a golden ticket to SUMMER.
SUMMER, with our daughters untethered to early bedtime (when the meds make him crash), and therapy ride-a-longs, and meltdowns that require earplugs, and medication schedules, and hospital waiting rooms, and the same day after day we uphold because we love and adore our son, but know he requires more.
So (finally!) here’s to the dog days. And to our first almost-family vacation.
May my daughters know the joy of spontaneity and the wanderlust that breezes in when we split my son from the picture.