Morning light in the sky

flows through my window.

I hear Mom’s cheerful voice,

encouraging and gentle,

warming my heart

for a new day.


I love the plump, hot sausages

and  fresh bread I devour for breakfast.


Then open the books with kind Belinda.

It’s a great adventure.

What secrets of science

shall we unravel today?

What heroes and heroines of history

shall I meet?

They become friends.


I ride, I tumble, I glide

through landscape, gym, and water.

I love to move with gentle friends and coaches,

Stephen, Sargis, and Gabby.

Dancing with Mom is my favorite.

The music weaves a song in my steps.

I’m not striving, nor trying;

it’s free and easy.


Evening descends.

The colors in the sky

form a palette of gold,

then rose,

then soft purple.

Savory smells of garlic, onion, and soysauce

waft through the air

as I walk through the door.

Aimee puts a big plate in front of me,

hot and delicious.

Satisfied, I rest back in my chair.


Then it’s cozy time.

Gliding through moonlit streets,

I wonder who lives in the warmly lit houses,

as Papa takes me on a car ride.

Mom and I type.

We read stories.

King Arthur defeats the Green Knight,

or Beth (“Little Women”) plays the piano

while old Mr. Laurence leaves his study door open

and listens.

They are also friends and guides

as I pass through this earth.


You, O Lord,

light the way,

sending your angel before me.

With friends surrounding me,

friends from the past behind me,

a bit of soul shining through each story,

may I shine too in my story.


Thank you, dear Jesus,

for giving me a loving, peaceful family,

happy life,

dear parents,


and plenty of every blessing,

that every day there is lots to learn and do,

and love

to share.


(Belinda is Peter’s tutor, Aimee cooks, Stephen takes him biking, Sargis coaches gymnastics, and Gabby is the best swim teacher in the world. We thank the Lord for all of you!)





A Skirmish with OCD

Dealing with mental illness is not for sissies.

So many of our poor kids have OCD. What a horrible brain glitch! Repetitive thoughts (the obsessions) and actions (the compulsions) that go round and round, and erupt into violence at times when you as a parent have to block a dysfunctional compulsion.

Peter’s OCD cycles up and down. Right now we are in a fierce upswing in the frequency , intensity, and sheer variety of compulsions. As soon as we tackle one and face it down, another pops into its place. As Peter puts it, “They are popping up like daisies!” But ferocious daisies.

Meds can take the edge off, at least temporarily. But meds frequently aren’t enough. Peter and I put on our armor of psychological tools to do battle with OCD daily. The following example from this morning illustrates the major ones we use, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), shifting attention, and delay.

No sooner had I walked into Peter’s room than OCD greeted me at the door.

“Good morning, Peter,” I said cheerfully.

Peter’s eyes flew open. He sat up in bed and grabbed my wrist, drawing me in close as I sat by the side of his bed.

“Pink goggles,” he said, eyes wide and staring into my face.

I sighed. For weeks off and on, Peter had been holding on to an old pair of pink swim goggles that he would tap incessantly. I had relocated them earlier in the bathroom as an incentive to get him out of bed and into the bathroom. “Wow. Looks like you really want those goggles. You seem really anxious to have them right away. Now think about it, Peter. Is it reasonable to feel so driven about a pair of goggles, or is this an OCD?”

“OCD,” said Peter, still gripping my wrist.

“Well, if it’s OCD, let’s not just give in to it. The OCD is saying you have to have those goggles right now or die. But you know you’ve lived many years just fine without holding onto them every moment. So how about teaching your OCD a lesson? I put your pink goggles in the bathroom. You can either turn OCD into a reward to help you get out of bed and into the bathroom where they’re waiting for you, or try to ride the wave till it diminishes. Hey, I wanted to talk to you about that great show we saw this weekend in Vegas with Cirque du Soleil and all the divers.”

“Pink goggles,” said Peter. I could feel the heat on his emotional thermometer rise.

“Come on, you can do this. Shift your attention and type with me. Remember, you have access to those goggles any time you want. They are a short walk over to the bathroom, and you can go get them any time, no problem.” As I reassured him about access, Peter’s face and grip relaxed. He sank back into his pillow. The rest of the conversation went as follows:

Mom: So did you like the clowns at “O” (the name of the Cirque du Soleil show)?
Peter: Yes. The little one was cute. I liked his sounds. His body movements were ingenious.
Mom: I agree. I especially liked their first act on the sunken houseboat. What was the storyline?
Peter: The little clown used a big hammer to (knock himself out to) fall asleep. The  big clown lost control (of the hammer) and made  a hole in the boat (which spouted a fountain of water gushing up into the air).Then they sat in the undersized bed together and shared the umbrella with holes.
Mom: Did you get the joke about the grandfather clock?
Peter: Yes, it was a bathroom.
Mom: Peter, you are good at reading body language. Isn’t it amazing how without any words used, the clowns communicated an entire story so well?
Peter: Yes.
Mom: I thought the ending was bittersweet.
Peter: The clowns showed that we go through life solving problems in silly ways that cause more harm than good, but at least we can love each other.
Mom: Beautifully put, my dear. Very true, actually. Peter, did you notice, how the OCD wave passed you by as you redirected your attention?
Peter: You are right! I guess you  appraised the situation well. I feel strong, not a slave to the OCD.

So what were we doing? The overall strategy was CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy. The basic steps of CBT are to identify or label what’s going on, then identify the false thought, replace it with more realistic thinking, and problem solve how to proceed. So we identified the request for pink goggles as an OCD. We replaced the false thought of “goggles now or die” with a reminder of his own experience of having survived successfully without them for most of his life. Then I offered him a choice of alternative ways to deal with the OCD rather than giving in to it. Peter seemed very agitated about any thought of not getting the goggles, so I reminded him that access was possible and in his control at any time if he just made the effort to get out of bed.

That reassurance was enough to dampen the fire of the OCD drive enough to allow his upper brain to engage with me. Indeed, that is why delay is the number one most useful tactic in dealing with OCD; if there’s an end in sight to the misery of not getting to do the compulsion, the amygdala seems to immediately cool down a notch.

Then we embarked on engaging that wonderful frontal lobe, master of illusion and distraction. I chose a subject that was fun and interesting, a circus act we had recently watched. You want to ask questions that engage the mind, but are not too hard, especially at first when the child already has his “affective filters” up (meaning already upset, and therefore not thinking at his best). So I asked Peter for a summary of the action, which for him, is a pretty easy question. Once we got into the conversation, I made a more challenging comment (“the ending was bittersweet”) to really fully engage the frontal lobe and give him something more provocative to get into. Peter’s answer was indeed beautiful, not only because of his insight, but because delving deep into his thoughts and feelings reconnected his upper and lower brain, and freed him from the grip of the OCD.

We were lucky. This time the obsessional wave actually passed him by and completely left him for a time. It’s not always so neat. Many a time the OCD is too big, circumstances are such that I cannot grant even partial access, and a meltdown ensues. However, my point is that if you just keep working on your tools of CBT, attention shifting, and delay, you will have successes like this. Starting with the smaller OCD’s. As the frontal lobe connections get stronger and the OCD circuits get more and more starved of practice, the hope is of building a stronger fighter and weaker OCD monster. Time and practice will tell.

Executive function skills (EFS) encompass a broad array of important managerial capacities. EFS originate in the prefrontal cortex, which directs and orchestrates the rest of the brain to get something done. They include paying attention, selecting, focusing, initiating, inhibiting, shifting, monitoring, modulating, correcting, pacing, sequencing, anticipating, evaluating, prioritizing, organizing, and planning.

To encourage the development of planning skills, teach your child to make choices and set up his own visual schedule. For example, if he has several homework assignments, let him decide on the order he does his worksheets, and within reason, where to put in breaks, and what to do for his breaks.

You can even start smaller, in a more limited field. Say your child loves to stim by tapping a stick. Within one worksheet assignment, consider letting him decide where to put in short tapping breaks, so that if he has ten math problems to do, he might plan a break after the third and sixth problem. That way he will be more likely to persevere in working without stimming till each of his breaks. He also gets to practice how to plan, initiate, focus, and inhibit, while harnessing the self-motivating power of having more control.

If it was hard slogging getting through those ten problems with only two breaks, help him learn how to evaluate his own planning. “How did that go? Ah, so you could get through three problems without a break okay, but getting through four was very hard?” Give him the opportunity to learn how to modulate his plans. “What do you think you could do about that for the next set? Have a tapping break after every third problem? Sounds like you know what you need- great self-awareness!”[1]

Make planning ahead (anticipating) and putting away (organizing) part of the whole process of doing tasks or assignments. “What will you need for school tomorrow in your backpack?” Work in the practice sequencing. “Let’s go through your day tomorrow. What will you need for math? (workbook and pencil box) Reading time? (storybook) Recess? (snack)”

Teach your child to organize as he goes, instead of letting things accumulate. “Great that you finished that whole worksheet! So where does it go?” “Let’s see the work you brought home. Do you think you’ll need those papers in class again? What should we do with them? Where does this go?” Many parents color code their child’s bookcovers and notebooks, one color per subject. They place a box or shelf by the front door for things the child will need to take to school the next day, so there’s less to gather up at the last minute. The child is given a specific quiet place to do homework, with a drawer for supplies and a shelf for books, and is taught to create a place for everything, and to put everything back in its place.

Teach your child how to make a checklist of tasks and then rearrange the order so he learns how to prioritize. Have him check off boxes or put his word/icon labels of each activity in an “All done” envelope so he learns to monitor his own work completion. That’s the beginning of self monitoring skills. Organize his work in consecutive drawers or file folders so the environmental set up suggests and reminds him of the next step. Let him experience shifting his attention as he moves from drawer to drawer on his own. Once he finds the exercise easy, add some spice to the game with a timer and reward so he gets to practice how to pace himself. You can make use of such a set up to create an independent work station containing several file folders of maintenance activities, meaning activities that practice mastered concepts that you want him to retain (Chapter Seven), which you can rotate and vary. That may be your child’s first step toward learning how to study on his own.

Create worksheet exercises in which the goal is to find and correct mistakes you include intentionally, so your child learns how to check his work. Once he gets good at this, next time he looks at you inquiringly to see if he did his math problem correctly, direct him to think of correcting it himself saying, “It’s great that you want to know if you got the answer right. I know someone who’s really good at checking and correcting.”

Help your child practice using all these EFS with all the support he needs. If you feel overwhelmed, write down specific EFS goals the same way you set academic goals, and work on mastering a few at a time. (See sample at end of this subsection.)

Teach EFS the same way you teach everything else. Gradually reduce your scaffolding as the child becomes more able. Once your child can perform these EFS with minimal prompting, continue to give short, direct cues throughout the day on when to exercise them. “Look over here. I have something important to show you.” (learning readiness) “Pay attention, your teacher said this will be on the test.” (learning readiness) “Don’t start eating until everyone sits down.” (inhibition) “Timer rings in five minutes. Put your things away.” (pacing, anticipating, organization) “Put it back where it belongs.”(organization) “You’ll need to work quickly, as there’s not much time left.” (pacing) “Remember the order of the steps. What’s next?” (sequencing) “Does yours look like the model?” (monitoring, checking) “What’s the order you need to do things to get this task done?” (planning) and “Which of the tasks is most important?” (prioritizing)

Once the child gets used to performing EFS throughout the day on cue, make the cues subtler. Come up with single word substitutes or better yet gestures or hand signals. Then bridge each skill by making the cues more indirect like, “This will be on the test. What should you be doing?” (Looking at what you are pointing at, paying attention). “We need to be polite and start at the same time, so what should you be doing?” (Waiting till everyone sits down at the dinner table before eating.) “The timer rings in five minutes. What do you need to do?” “Where should you put that?” (Back to its usual place.) “We have ten minutes left. What can you do to help you track the time?” (Set timer.) “Oops, are we forgetting something?” (Say if you’ve paused expectantly, and the child skipped the next step in a sequence.) “What could you do to see if you did it correctly?” (Check your work against the model). “That’s a lot of assignments. What’s the best way to go about it?” (Prioritize in order, schedule.)

A good rule of thumb is to use the Socratic Method. Whenever possible ask, don’t tell. If the child is talking too loudly in the library, instead of saying “Use your indoor voice,” try “Look at all the people studying. Do you study better when it’s loud or quiet?” Use every success and failure to help your child understand the purpose of working on executive function skills, so that they become goals for the child, not just yours. “Wow! I’m so glad you did half of your book report last weekend. That way you finished up in time for us to watch a movie together before bedtime.” “Oops! You had your homework in your backpack the whole time, but couldn’t find it to turn it in. Can you think of a way to make it easier to find next time?” The more the child owns the problem and comes up with the solution himself, the more he will internalize executive function skills.

It is common for parents to find that even after teaching these executive function skills, and seeing their child perform them under observation, the child won’t use them on his own.[2] A job well done might be enough gratification for some children to practice EF skills independently. But many children also need a contingent rewards system which offers tangible rewards for performance. So consider putting up a chart listing a few EF skills at a time, and have the child check them off as he does them in return for extra screen time minutes, time with you playing a game, or whatever else he finds motivating that you agree upon. Over time, teach him to create these kinds of reward systems for himself, as a general self-help strategy to use to meet his own goals.

Sample of Executive Function Goals for Peter Tran 2014-15


EF Skill Baseline Goal
Planning, evaluating, adjusting, pacing, inhibition Peter makes the effort to follow a timer schedule to restrict picking up sticks on walks, so he is less enslaved to that intense sensory need. Set up his own schedule of increasing minutes of walking before picking up a stick, adjusting the timer up or down according to ability, and creating his own reward or shrinking reward system
Planning, organizing Peter occasionally remembers to grab his bib or earplugs before outings. Peter will pack his swim bag.
Organizing Peter is learning how to save work on the computer into files. Peter will learn to copy and save important work from notes to pages and sort work into different subject files
Evaluating, planning, organizing Peter often resists putting used favorite clothes in the laundry basket, but occasionally changes his mind and makes a big effort to dump a favorite item in the washer. Peter will learn to do a sniff test or # of days worn test to put dirty laundry in the laundry basket, and select and put out fresh clothes on his bathroom shelf
Self-monitoring Peter occasionally independently toilets and puts his clothes on in the morning. Peter will use a check-off list to do his entire morning routine and bathroom routine, including wiping, flushing, dressing, hand-washing, and tooth-brushing.
Self-monitoring, correcting Peter occasionally corrects a misspelling or goes back to capitalize a letter himself. Peter will edit one line of writing himself for each assignment.
Prioritizing, ordering, organizing, initiation (self-study), shifting Peter makes choices as to which assignment he wants to do first. Peter gets three maintenance “homework” tasks like a worksheet of a couple of questions each of math, grammar, and reading paragraph/comprehension fill in the blanks to put in the order he wants to do them, complete them, and put them in a homework notebook with subject dividers.

Like all brain development, learning executive function skills takes time. Try not to get too frustrated about it. We provided virtually all the executive function for Peter, organizing, pacing, and monitoring him, for years as we worked on the fundamentals of engagement, communication, and cognition, before we started introducing EF skills as goals in themselves. As your child grows more capable in the fundamentals, whenever you see the opportunity, such as planning a picnic or deciding on the order of doing homework assignments, try to work on them. If you intentionally and persistently do so, you will see progress. Just try not to get frustrated if progress is slow. You can’t rush brain development. Modulate your own expectations. It happens at the child’s own pace.













[1] So what do you do if your child grabs the stick and stims before finishing the third math problem? One idea is to make a checklist of 3 reminder boxes. Each time your child stims before the agreed upon time, remind the child of the contract, have him put the stick down, and check off a box. If all three boxes get checked off, explain to your child that he needs more help in inhibiting the stimming, and move the stick farther away, or even out of sight to reduce access.

[2] This is especially common in those children with comorbid attention deficit disorder (ADD), which is associated with a 40% decrease in measures of dopamine receptor and transporter activity in the reward centers of the lower brain. (Vulkow, 2009) For these children, a top-down approach of just teaching EF skills isn’t enough to get them to use them in real life. A bottom-up approach is necessary concurrently in which you supplement their deficient internal reward centers with external rewards.



As parents, we are all used to doing a lot of emotional regulation, ie soothing and calming. This is especially true when your child has autism, where the amygdala (center of fight or flight responses) may be intensely active, but the frontal lobe inhibitory and modulatory connections take extra time and practice to develop. That translates in real life to lots of tantrums. meltdowns, acting out, and other emotional storms we parents have to figure out how to navigate through every day.

A lot of us have been given a lot of information from our kids’ OT’s on first looking at sensory needs and making sure that we get the hypersensitive child out of noisy, crowded environments, remember hunger, thirst, pain, or the need to go to the bathroom in the child who can’t tell you, and make available the sensory toys they need like putty or trips to the swing or trampoline. This “bottom-up” approach is all good and essential. Got to make sure the lower brain/body essential needs are met.

Assuming those immediate body needs are not the primary issue, our kids’ psychologists make sure we understand how it’s important to address the child’s emotion before we start trying to fix a situation or attempt to problem-solve together. So they tell us to do lots of reflective listening, balance or buffer the child’s mood with our either calming or upregulating (high affect) demeanor, and remember all the hugs and affection our kids might need. That’s what Dr. Dan Siegel (2012, “The Whole-Brain Child”) coins “connecting to the right brain” before you can access the left. Got to make sure essential emotional needs are met.

Our kids’ SLP’s make sure we work hard on helping our kids to verbalize or otherwise communicate their distress, so they don’t have to act it out, and so they have the language they need to negotiate solutions together. This more “top-down” approach develops frontal lobe connections and communication capacities, and is also excellent and essential. Got to make sure the child has the language tools she needs. (Teresa Cardon, 2004, “Let’s Talk Emotions”)

Eventually, gradually, and with repeated practice of walking our kids through these fundamental processes, our kids do improve in emotional regulation. But there is another level that most of us parents perhaps don’t do enough of, sometimes because we aren’t sure our kids have the capacity to do it. That is what Dr. Siegel  calls connecting the left brain with the right brain. That’s when after you’ve done all the above steps, and the child is calmed and regulated, you talk about what happened. You can make learning even more efficient if you not only walk your child through emotionally stressful situations at the time, but reflect and replay them later in conversation and/or play therapy. Ask your child what was going on inside when the explosion hit. Give him/her a chance to identify the emotion, learn to talk about feelings, and recognize gradations or degrees of intensity of feelings, perhaps with an emotional thermometer. You want the child to develop the capacity to recognize an earlier stage of emotional dysregulation, so she can take steps to calm herself and get her needs met before the emotion becomes overwhelming.

Help your child review the event, reprocessing it as you lend your perspective to help her understand what happened. “Oh yes, the circus did seem frightening at first, so we do understand why you cried and screamed so we had to leave for a while. But Mom and Dad were right there the whole time, with a comforting lap to crawl into. And wasn’t it fun to peek into the tent at the last act and see the acrobats? Plus there was that really fun pinwheel you got to blow.” Bring in other memories and experiences that bear upon the situation. “Remember how it was also hard to get out of the car last week when we went to the zoo for the first time? But once you got out and looked around, you saw the elephants and really liked it. Sometimes things are hard at the beginning, but if you give it a chance, you might like it.”

Then help your child apply what he thereby learns from his mistakes. Try what Noel Janus-Norton (2013, “Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting”) calls “think-throughs.” In anticipation of entering similar stressful situations, you think through the upcoming event with your child as to what to expect and what emotionally self-regulatory strategies the child might initiate if needed. “Hey, tomorrow we’re going to Sarah’s birthday party. It’s a new place, but remember when you went to the circus? That was new too. Yes, you did get anxious, but in the end. remember how much fun we had? Remember this picture? Yep, there you are with a big smile. What did we do when you got anxious? Oh yes, we went outside for a while. You crawled into my lap, and we rocked and hugged under your blanket, and then we got that pinwheel and watched the wind blow it. And then we came back. You know I’ll still be there, I’m coming to the party too. And we can bring the blanket and the pinwheel. And you can tell me if we need to go outside for a while. How do you tell me? Sure, if you can’t find your words, you can point to the door. That will be our secret signal, and I’ll know.” When you do a reflection or a think-through, you are actually walking the child through the steps of cognitive-behavioral therapy, naming the emotion to objectify it and help your child see that it is something she can work on, part of her but not her, identifying the false thought (“all new places are scary and must be avoided”), replacing it with a more realistic thought (“I’ve been to lots of new places before and had a great time”), and brain-storming alternative strategies to screaming or crying (like making a signal to leave for a while, crawling into a parent’s lap, and bringing a transition object).

This process of left-right, top-down brain connection is taking an incident of emotional dysregulation, and making use of it to grow those frontal lobe connections by both looking back and looking forward. Each episode of emotional dysregulation is an opportunity to walk your child through this process, and grow those frontal lobe connections. Especially as she practices initiating the strategies herself, and as you allow her to walk herself through this reflective process, using narration first, then yes/no questions, then leading questions, and finally open-ended conversation, your child will learn to emotionally regulate herself, essentially learning how to do self-CBT (Ann Marie Albano, 2013, “You and Your Anxious Child”).

And I would add, be even more ambitious. Go ahead and introduce your child to bigger concepts like morality and community and virtues. I go ahead and name them. “Hey, Peter, looks like a good opportunity to practice some flexibility.” Or, “Maybe this would be a great time to exercise the temperance muscle.” Madrigal and Winner (2008) have a great book out called “Superflex.. A Superhero Social Thinking Curriculum” where they give the maladaptive behaviors goofy villainous names like “Rock Brain,” so that the parent can say, “Hey, I think Rock Brain just showed up,” and the child can take on the personae of “Superflex Hero,” and brainstorm alternative more flexible courses of action.

Does this all really work? Maybe for your “high functioning” child, you might say. But most parents I’ve met of seemingly less able children tell me they suspect there’s a lot more in their child than meets the eye. Peter was labeled as severely autistic, nonverbal, and low functioning at one time. But even when his expressive communication was at a very primitive level, I kept talking to him as if he could understand, just in case he could. With each episode of emotional dysregulation, I went through all the steps of bottom-up, right-left emotional regulation to try to help Peter feel his needs were met and that he was understood. Then after he had calmed down, we’d work on the top-down problem solving, and at the end of the day do reflections to work on the left-right brain connections. I started out doing nearly 100% of the work, but scaffolded my support and let him do more and more of the work, as he showed the capacity to do it, and developed more and more communication. Believe me, it wasn’t at all as smooth as this summary is making it sound. I didn’t know what I was doing, until I read authors like Cardon, Siegel , Norton, Albano, and Winner later and could be intentional about it. (That’s why I’m sharing this with you, so you can be intentional and efficient to begin with.)

In any case, whatever bumpy, twisty road we took, Peter did learn. He has developed frontal lobe connectivity to an extent that at one time I would have doubted possible. The other day, we went to the community park to watch the Memorial weekend fireworks. What I saw on the outside, was a somewhat anxious teenager who was holding onto my arm for part of the time, but seemed to have matured a great deal compared to his level of anxiety as a child. What I found out later after reading the poem he typed about the experience, was all the hard work of emotional regulation he had been doing for the most part on his own, and the sense of community and love, a highly top-down approach, that ultimately held him together and transformed his experience. (In the story, Joe, Teddy, Luke, and Judy are all siblings; Judy, his oldest sib has two young children of her own.)


Memorial Weekend Fireworks, 5/24/15,

by Peter Tran
“Hurry, hurry, Luke put on your coat.”
grab your shoes and open the door.
“Grandpa, tuck those elbows in,
don’t you remember banging them
through the last doorway?”
We rolled him safely through the front door,
and hoisted him onto the front seat.
We all piled in.
Then we arrived,
corner of Foothill and La Canada Blvd,
heart of our fair town,
busy, bustling.
We spied two tall lanky figures,
Joe and Teddy waiting to receive us.
We paused behind a firetruck
and unloaded Grandpa and his wheelchair.
I felt numb.
Crowds of people
all smiling and talking.
Mom grabbed my arm sand propelled me through a maze
of picnic blankets, chairs, and baby strollers.
It was chaos.
I heard a flood of brassy notes,
the high school jazz band playing their hearts out.
Hold on, don’t panic, it’s all just in fun.
I relaxed as the noise diminished.
Phew! the music stopped.
I sank  into my comfy lawn chair.
Dad was there, Luke, coughing from asthma, rolled on the blanket,

Teddy positioned Grandpa’s chair, and Mom miraculously
found Judy and the babies.
Then after a  brief lull,
darkness descended.
That’s  when it started.
Boom, sizzle!
Nothing prepared me for what followed.
The sky exploded in color!
Gold, crimson, all shades of brilliant hues,
spinning, darting, bursting bouquets of flashing stars.
The sights and sounds engulfed me.
I didn’t have ears enough to hear all the music,
reverberations from the explosions filled my head.
Then it was all over.
The lights went on,
and everyone started gathering
their blankets, ice chests, and children.
Pressed in by the happy crowd,
we flowed liked molasses slowly down the street to our cars.
I felt safely insulated by my family,
and families like ours,
my community,
And even Grandpa was smiling.



My point is, even though developing emotional regulation may be hard in our kids, and takes a lot of work and time, don’t despair. Over time and repetition, those frontal lobe connections do grow. Tackle episodes of emotional dysregulation from the bottom-up, top-down, and left-right, looking back with reflections and forward with think-throughs. Each episode of emotional dysregulation may thereby become an opportunity to connect the parts of the brain and get them to work together. If you miss a few, don’t sweat it. Heaven knows our kids give us plenty of opportunities to practice again!

I don’t think most people realize the beliefs of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood and movement to legalize abortion. I was shocked when I googled her name on Wikipedia. The following is taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Sanger#Eugenics

“Sanger’s 1920 book endorsed eugenics.
As part of her efforts to promote birth control, Sanger found common cause with proponents of eugenics, believing that they both sought to assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit. Sanger was a proponent of negative eugenics, which aims to improve human hereditary traits through social intervention by reducing the reproduction of those who were considered unfit. In ‘The Morality of Birth Control,’ a 1921 speech, she divided society into three groups: ‘the educated and informed class that regulated the size of their families, the intelligent and responsible who desired to control their families however did not have the means or the knowledge and the irresponsible and reckless people whose religious scruples prevent their exercising control over their numbers.’ Sanger concludes ‘there is no doubt in the minds of all thinking people that the procreation of this group should be stopped.’  Sanger’s eugenic policies included an exclusionary immigration policy, free access to birth control methods and full family planning autonomy for the able-minded, and compulsory segregation or sterilization for the profoundly retarded. In her book The Pivot of Civilization, she advocated coercion to prevent the ‘undeniably feeble-minded’ from procreating.
Sanger also supported restrictive immigration policies. In ‘A Plan for Peace’, a 1932 essay, she proposed a congressional department to address population problems. She also recommended that immigration exclude those ‘whose condition is known to be detrimental to the stamina of the race, and that sterilization and segregation be applied to those with incurable, hereditary disabilities.'”

I don’t know about you, but her writing sends chills down my spine. Her view of the worthlessness of whom she calls the “feeble minded” and “unfit” is so cruel, dark, and untrue that reading her words makes me feel like I’m looking down a black hole of death and despair.

On the other hand, my sweet Peter is on his way soon to the state capitol to receive an award for winning first place in a state high school competition for literature. Here’s the poem he submitted:

The world as a garden

the green stillness of an oak forest.
the sound of birds singing, squirrels chattering, crickets chirping,
the sun upon the mountaintops,
the blueness of the sky
these make the world beautiful.

The taste of chocolate chip ice-cream,
the swirl of a hot Jacuzzi
the thrill of a roller coaster,
the joy of riding my bike
these make the world a fun place.

the warmth of my mom’s smile
the chatter and laughter of my little nephews,
the gruff nod of my grandfather
my tall brothers playing card games,
my little brother sharing his snack
my papa when in a good mood
these make the world a warm, loving place.

you and I can be friends.
we can plant a garden,
make the earth a garden
that we tend with loving care
with room for everyone to
to be free to be themselves
loved for what they are.
that would make the world a better place.

Contrast the two writers. Their visions could not be more diametrically opposite. When I read Peter’s view affirming the value of every individual and the vision of the people of the world tending the earth like a garden together in loving friendship, I know in my heart that that is the vision I choose as well. I will not go down the slippery slope of abortion to a vision of a society that decides who is worthy of life and who is not. Peter and the other beautiful individuals I have met in my journey in autism are my real experience. Margaret Sanger is absolutely wrong to the core. I am prolife and stand against the culture of death together with my brothers and sisters of all “unfit” and misfit diagnoses. As Peter put it, “I hope our nation never loses its belief in God because then some people will seem to cost more to help than they are worth.” But to Jesus we were all worth dying for, “fit” and “unfit,” more gifted and more challenged, saint and sinner. I pray we may all open our eyes to the beauty in each person, and plant a culture of life with love and respect for everyone as a nation.

Currently our nation is at another crossroads. Let’s pray together that the Holy Spirit enlighten the Supreme Court as they make their deliberations and move the justices to make the right decision, with the grace of humility and wisdom, that they might lead our culture to the Lord, following His holy will.

“NO, Peter! You are not an animal!” I cried, as I brandished a towel like a whip to drive my son away from the food. He had that crazed “raw amygdala” gleam in his eye that I have seen on too many occasions, as he bit into a family-sized apple strudal that he’d lifted whole from the platter. I returned the strudal to the platter, only to protest in dismay as Peter snatched a sizzling sausage from the pan with lightening speed. “Stop it! Stop it! Peter, I told you we were having breakfast after Mass!”

We’d already had a long history that Sunday morning. I had to play tug-of-war with Peter to get the bedcovers off, then had to hang the goggles he loves to tap on the thermostat in the hallway so he’d have to get out of bed to get them. I had to set the timer twice for him to finish his bathroom routine. Even so, he refused to get dressed till I’d fetched the black underwear his rigidity demanded be exchanged for the white one I had previously laid out. It was getting so late by that time, that I didn’t even protest, but just ran to make the extra roundtrip to his bedroom clothes drawers.

Getting from the church parking lot to the front door was another struggle. Peter tends to grab my arm and lean hard upon it. I was so frustrated with him, that I shook him loose. I dashed a few paces ahead of him, saying, “Come on, Peter! You know Peggy (one of Peter’s therapists) keeps saying you should practice walking independently.” I kept walking ahead of him, pausing every ten feet for him to slowly catch up.

By the time we made it into the side chapel, we were really late, and had missed nearly half of Mass. I was so upset with his impulsivity and inertia that I didn’t even want to look at him. But when I turned to my Missalette, I saw the responsorial psalm of the day, “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me. A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me. Cast me not out from your presence, and your Holy Spirit take not from me.” (Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13)

I felt convicted in my soul. What was I doing, punishing my son with my attitude? He didn’t ask for autism. It’s not his fault that his prefrontal cortex doesn’t have the ready connections to the amygdala that neurotypicals have (NIMH study by Richey and Dichter, Journal of Autism Developmental Disorder, Jan 2015); neither is the miswired circuitry through the basal ganglia causing rigidity and inertia voluntary in the least. But it was Peter who took the initiative. Taking the keyboard, he typed,

Peter: i asdm sorry mom forf everyything.
Mom: I’m sorry too. will you forgive me for the towel and unkind words?
Peter: yes., i actedc badly. i’ll try to do bettter.
Mom: Thanks, Peter, so shall I. Love you.
Peter: i love you too

The rest of Mass flew by. Freed from the heavy angry feeling I carried before, my heart felt light and joyful. My sweet, humble son had not only forgiven me, but had asked for forgiveness, for behavior that was not even his fault, but due to autism. Autism is a heavy cross our children carry. I should be helping Peter carry his cross, but how often do I instead add to it by blaming him for behaviors he can’t control? When he really can’t help it, blaming him for them is like blaming him for having autism, like blaming him for having this cross to carry. I am sorry, Lord. I looked down at the beautiful words on the pages of my Missalette again.Pointing to Psalm 51, I showed them to Peter.

Mom: Beautiful words, aren’t they? They are the words of a famous psalm by King David. Pretty cool that the same words written thousands of years ago express the longings of our hearts even now.
Peter: just marvelous. thanks mom, for making the words real for me.Mom: Peter, you are the one who makes them real for me!
Peter: dear jesusm, may we honor you with our lives and minds, and hearts, amen i thank you for helping me just helping mom hagve gtrace (have grace). amen
Mom: and Peter too! Amen!

Forgiveness. It’s a beautiful thing. It gives life to the dead, and makes all things new. It’s so elementary, we forget about it. Every good parenting book I’ve ever read from Noel Janis-Norton to Dan Siegel talks over and over about how restorative and critical it is for parents to repair rifts in their relationships with their children. How there’s no better way to walk them through the process of asking for, giving, and receiving forgiveness than to demonstrate it in real life situations. How it’s such a great opportunity to grow the children (and oneself!) in perspective taking, problem solving, and emotional understanding. How it makes everyone and the relationship even better and more resilient. But at the time I read all that, I just said to myself at the time, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, I know.”

But at that moment in the chapel the rubber finally hit the road. It shouldn’t, but for me it took supernatural grace to say those words, “Will you forgive me?” When I did, it was like opening a door. I felt a mighty rush of a river of grace, love, and forgiveness from Peter. He was waiting for the opportunity. He was just waiting for me to open the door. So I just wanted to pass on the encouragement I received from this experience to encourage you to open the door. Your children are waiting. They need to hear those healing words, and experience the joy of forgiving and being forgiven, a process that is beautiful, even life-giving to a relationship.

It doesn’t even need to happen right away. It’s never too late. We all need time to reflect. When rifts occur, it’s hard to take in the whole situation at the time. That’s okay. The important thing is not to shy away from reflecting upon and confronting the challenges in our lives, including negative interactions with our kids. So don’t be afraid to go back and recollect; take the time and effort to do so. It’s not just my experience, but on talking with other parents it seems that our children may be the most forgiving people on the planet towards us. They want so much to forgive us because they love us so. So if one messes up, or if there’s a misunderstanding, don’t despair. You can always repair. which leads to restoration and respect. Just open the door.








Thanks be to God and our Savior Jesus Christ for the great gift of forgiveness!

Happy Easter to all!

“I’m so tired of this!” I moaned, walking through the hallway after Peter and I had struggled through his toothbrushing routine for the 16,000th time. Peter has never got that forward and back toothbrushing motion down despite literally working on it three times a day for 15 years. I guiltily stopped myself too late. Could he have overheard?


Later that evening, I steeled myself as I handed Peter a damp towel to wipe down the dining room table, having finished dinner. I had asked him to clear his dishes and bring them to the sink, but he had stayed rooted to his usual spot at the table. After a long pause, I wearily pointed my finger to a spot on the table for his hand to aim for, and back to edge, back and forth over and over to create targets for his hand to move between. When he finally finished wiping the section of the table he could reach from his seat, I said, “Come on, Pete, stand up now, so we can do another section of the table.” Nothing happened. Long pause.


I took a deep breath, and made a last ditch effort. I pulled all the chairs far enough away from the table so that a person could easily move from one chair to the next. “Come on, Peter! Here we go!” I sat down on the chair next to him and wiped down the table space in front of me, then scooted to the next chair. “Your turn!” Peter got the idea at once, and slid his bottom to the adjoining chair, wiping the table space in front of him with gusto. Wipe, wipe, wipe, scoot,… wipe, wipe, wipe, scoot,… Without having to stand up, Peter moved from chair to chair, wiping the table with alacrity, grinning ear to ear. I felt at once amazed and delighted, but also deeply humbled. Here I had been feeling so annoyed and impatient, and clearly, Peter was eager to help. He just needed help getting started.


We talked about the episode later.

Mom: Did you like our goofy “musical chairs” game to get the table wiped?
Peter: yes.it wwas ffun. i couldn’t get myself to move. i could,n’t gett my feet to srtand up.

Mom: How did the stuckness change when we played musical chairs?
Peter: i dion’t know hiows it works butv when you finally started a game, my body got into a rhythnm.

Mom: Do you know what to do, but just can’t get your body to do it?
Peter:  I do know what to do on most of my chores, but sometimes I feel like I am climbing an unsurmountable height to get my body in motion. Thanks for the game it makes all more manageable.
Mom: This seems to happen a lot. Most of the time when I ask you to do chores or self-help skills, you sit there until I get close to you and offer verbal encouragement and often also physical assistance or gestures.
Peter: i do want to cooperate, but my boddy just won’t move. i really can’t stress enough how hard i try to move. of course i understand how frusttrated you must get with me, but i can”t makee my body go.
Mom: Bet it makes you feel even more frustrated when i get frustrated.
Peter: just sad.

Mom: I’m sorry I make you sad sometimes.

Peter: the sad part is that you try so hard, but i disappoint you.


As we were talking, Peter’s dear friend and tutor Miss Belinda came walking up. She started chatting about a talk show she’d just been listening to about changes in American culture. That reminded me of an incident along the same theme that occurred to Peter and me the day before. We were approaching the family/handicapped locker room at the YMCA after swimming when a little girl darted in front of me and opened the door to the single use locker room.

“Excuse me, little one, but do you think Peter and I could use this room since you and your sister are both girls and can use the girls’ locker room? Peter and I can’t be together in either the boys’ or girls’ locker rooms, and he needs my help,” I said.

“I just have to get my shampoo,” said the girl, who looked around ten years old. I stepped aside as she entered through the door.

Just then, a strikingly beautiful young mother came running from behind and pushed her two girls into the locker room. “Peter, I do believe these ladies really want this locker room,” I said to Peter, who was already partially in the room, gesturing for him to come out towards me in the hallway. Peter promptly came out. We eventually found a bathroom we could use, and did fine. But I described the incident to Belinda as an example of how times have changed. When I was growing up, little girls were encouraged to be sweet and gentle, but I suppose the current trend is to put a priority on assertiveness. Just then, Peter chimed in on the conversation. He typed,

“Mom, i’m sorry you were offended but i personally felt ok to let them ha ve uit (the family locker room). ”

“Peter, I am truly sorry for every time I get unfairly impatient with your movement. You most certainly do not disappoint me. Rather, you refresh my spirit, my dear.”

“Just natural,” replied my little gentleman.


I share these stories with you to encourage you. We parents get so exhausted accommodating and remediated our children’s deficits. The beauty of their inner selves gets hidden, buried under the weight of their challenges. If we hadn’t fortunately struck upon the musical chairs game, Peter would not have been able to show me his eagerness to help. If we hadn’t reflected on it later, I wouldn’t have known how much he hates to disappoint me, and how sensitive he is to both how hard I’m trying and when I get frustrated. If Belinda hadn’t come along and got us off conversing about that locker room incident, I would not have realized what a courteous gentleman he is. I would have just breathed a sigh of relief that he left the locker room willingly, and chalked it up to a lucky day. But whereas I was annoyed, he was truly happy to defer to the needs of others.

When our children can’t move, can’t express their beautiful intentions through actions because of a faulty start mechanism in the basal ganglia, it’s automatic for us to underestimate them. How they must suffer with constant misunderstanding. So these incidents are a good reminder for me. To take the time to make that extra effort to pull out the electronic keyboard or bring with me everywhere that handy paper alphabet board to check-in with Peter, so he has a chance to be “seen” and understood. And to give him the benefit of the doubt that he has earned over and over throughout years of struggling that he is doing his best, that I keep forgetting, in all my impatience.

“…the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”  1 Samuel 16:7




Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 154 other followers