Teenagers with autism need life skills and job training. Life Skills & Life Lessons: Autism Dad 3 is a personal memoir told with humor and grace that looks at the unique challenges facing special-needs children transitioning into young adulthood. This collection of essays not only details a father’s take on raising a special-needs child, but tells the story of a family shaped by the everyday challenges and rewards of raising a child with autism.
* What Causes Autism And Can It Be Prevented?
* Teething Pain Is Only The Beginning
* Autism And The Art Of Toilet Seats
* Help Wanted: Employers With Open Hearts And Minds
* Celebrity Autism Insults Real People Struggling With ASD
* Precocious Pre-Teen And Racy TV Ads Yield Parental Torment
Autism Dad 3: Life Skills and Life Lessons ISBN-13: 978-1983499593 ISBN-10: 1983499595 $10.99 print/$3.99 digital
Every time I wash my hair I feel like the victim of a cruel joke…and not just because I’m naked in the shower. It’s because I can’t figure out which bottle is shampoo.
My wife and daughter use a lot of different products, from shampoos and conditioners to body washes and cleansing gels. Everything comes in pretty, decorative bottles with cleverly designed logos and packaging. It’s all too clever for me, who has weak eyesight, and can’t read the labels very well.
What’s in this bottle? I know the brand, and I know it’s called “Hello Hydration,” or “Body Envy,” but what is it? What’s Brazilian Keratin Therapy? Do I need that? One bottle promises “nourishing oils,” while another offers a soupy mixture of rosemary and eucalyphus. Am I really supposed to pour this on my head?
I’ve frequently have to exit mid-shower and find my fogged-up glasses so I can read the labels on bath products. Even with corrected vision it’s hard to tell what some of this stuff is. I know it will “strengthen, enhance, and heal” my hair, leaving it, “sleek and shiny, full of bounce and body.” I know it’s made with exotic-sounding ingredients like kukuli oil, moroccan argan oil, and teatree mint. These things are clearly legible on the bottle. But where are the words telling me what this stuff is?
Ah, there. Printed in a miniscule font usually reserved for legal documents are the words, “shampoo,” “conditioner,” or “body wash.” It’s usually written on the very bottom of the bottle, or stuck in the middle, sandwiched between two larger-type phrases. (Superior Shine / Rejuvenate and Revive).
Manufacturers in the cutthroat hair care industry have over-designed their product packaging to the point of uselessness. They are so focused on making their bottles look appealing, they forget to tell you what’s inside.
Admittedly, I’m out of touch when it comes to hair care. My wife and daughter speak the language; they know what all this stuff is and does. Many products use small-type on labels (“100% Spring Water” / “Chocolate Flavored Drink”) and I don’t demand such explanatory packaging from my hot dogs or potato chips.
But bath products are always used when you’re wet, naked, and vulnerable. You squint to protect your eyes from water and soap, so your vision is automatically impaired. If you wear glasses you’ve got double trouble. How are we supposed to see clearly in the tub or shower? Hey, Mr. Shampoo Guy, how about an easy-read label here? Better yet, put Braille bumps on your plastic bottles. This type of universal design would assist users of all ages and bathing levels, while teaching everyone a bit of Braille and the importance of touch. We’re all blind in the shower.
I’ve learned to pick out my bath products before I get in the tub, an essential procedure for anyone who wears glasses and/or shares a bathroom with a woman. There are so many strange and mystifying products in a lady’s bathroom, it’s best to keep your male toiletries to yourself. More than once I’ve fumbled out of a slippery shower, groping for my glasses, only to find myself holding a bottle of Nair.
Near miss! Lesson learned.
This column ran in TODAY Newspapers in January 2016. Thanks to my friends at PhatLabels.com for the life-saving labels!
My nine-year-old daughter got invited to spend a week with her cousins at their lake house in New Hampshire. It’s been in the planning stages for weeks, and she’s got everything worked out. She knows what outfits to pack, which shampoos to bring, and which stuffed animals will make the trip with her. She’ll be under the watchful eye of my brother and sister-in-law the entire time. She’s going to have a blast, the time of her life.
But I don’t want her to go.
“Look, Dad, you have to be reasonable,” my daughter says, her expression so serious, she looks 19 instead of nine. “I’ve been to sleepovers before. And I spent the whole week with my cousins when we were at the shore. I’ll be fine!”
She’s done two sleepovers. The first was a Girl Scouts campout at a park across the street from our house. I spent all day — and most of the night — staring out the window, wondering if she was okay. The second was a slumber party at a friend’s house. She was fine both nights.
But I wasn’t.
Our house feels strange when a family member is missing at lights out. I feel the same when my wife spends the night away. (A rare occurrence — the only times I recall her being gone overnight were when her Mom was dying, and when she was in the hospital following her stroke.) Our home doesn’t feel right — doesn’t feel like our home — if the entire family isn’t present and accounted for.
I know I’m fighting a battle that’s already lost. My daughter has her mother’s support.
“It’ll be good for her to get out of the house for a week. And she’ll be with family,” my wife says. “You know the old saying: ‘The best thing you can do for your kids is give them roots, and give them wings.’”
“Wings suck,” I say. “She’s only nine. Too young to fly.”
“Didn’t you have sleepovers at her age? Didn’t you spend vacation with your cousins?”
Yes, I had sleepovers, and vacations away from my parents at her age. I remember having fun. But what I remember most is the feeling of freedom and independence. I was a big boy. I didn’t need my parents so much anymore. I could take care of myself. I had my own life, and they had theirs.
It was the start of a detachment from my parents, my first stumbling steps toward adolescence.
I don’t want my daughter to detach from my wife and I. I don’t want her to taste freedom. I want to stop it, squelch it. I want to stunt her growth. I want to seal my wife and kids up in a bell jar, freeze time so none of us gets any older.
Like I said, I’m fighting a losing battle. But this isn’t about being an overprotective father, or a visit to my brother’s lake house.
I fear my daughter is growing up too fast (Well, too fast for me — too slow for her.) Before I know it, she won’t be lecturing me like a 19-year-old, she’ll be a 19-year-old, wings fully spread, and she’ll be able to fly wherever she wants.
I’ve seen my daughter’s wings. They are beautiful, powerful, colorful, and strong. I know they will carry her far in life.
But I’m also afraid that someday they’ll carry her away from me.
When life gets confusing, sometimes you look to the universe for answers or a sign. This is especially true if you’re facing a big life choice, making a major decision, or, like me, looking for a new job.I took our dogs out for a midnight bathroom break the other night, and I noticed a small, black shape on our landing. At first I thought it was a blackened leaf, or maybe a little “gift” from one of the dogs. I bent down for a closer look and the black shadow wiggled.
It was a big, thick, fuzzy black caterpillar. It was equal parts creepy and beautiful. I’d never seen one like it before.
Where did it come from? Maybe it fell from the trees above. It certainly didn’t belong on our back landing; that was way to close to being inside our house. This multi-legged, furry-backed creature belonged deep in the Great Outdoors. I helped Mr. Caterpillar get one step closer by flicking it into the grass with the end of a broom. It was better suited there among the roots, shoots, and dirt.
But after giving the dogs their biscuits and locking up for the night, I wondered if the mysterious black caterpillar wasn’t the heavenly sign I sought. Caterpillars represent change. They mean fall is coming.
Good Luck, New Birth
Some cultures consider caterpillars a sign of good luck and new birth. Caterpillars mean it’s time to start a new project or endeavor, shed the old and welcome the new.
Old farmers claim you can predict the severity of next winter’s weather based on the amount of fuzz on a caterpillar’s back. According to the guy I met the other night, we’re in for a rough one.
Caterpillars transform themselves like no other creature in nature. They’re built for change. Trading in ten little legs for a pair of colorful wings is what they do. Caterpillars become butterflies, and butterflies are free to fly, fly away. (Though I’m pretty sure the “wooly bear” caterpillar I met the other night will become a Giant Leopard Moth, but you get the idea.)
An Internet hippy named Presley Love puts it this way:
“Caterpillar holds the grand dream of becoming all that it can be, with no limitations. It reaches out to become its greatest expression of self, spirit, and soul. Putting everything aside, it follows the drive to evolve. Caterpillar teaches us to do the same, to find our power to transform in deep meditation, to go into the cocoon and emerge as a greater aspect of self…believing in the possibilities that with faith all things great and small are possible and to remember that the grand and beautiful things have very humble beginnings.”
Creepy Bug At The Door
What was my role in Mr. Caterpillar’s future? Did I sentence him to death by flicking him into our yard, where he might fall prey to birds and other wildlife? Or did I provide him with a “relocation opportunity,” a chance to start over someplace new, a place he’d never considered, a place he would have never reached, without my intervention?
Being unemployed gives you time to think (maybe too much!) Sometimes you feel like a caterpillar, or some other creepy bug, lying on a stranger’s doorstep, waiting to be either crushed or brushed aside. Other times you can feel the wings growing on your back, waiting for the right moment to break free and send you soaring skyward.
Either way, it’s time for a change.
Originally published in Wayne TODAY, September 2015
Like dodo birds and dinosaurs, handwriting is facing extinction. Approximately 46 states have adopted the new Common Core Standards, a set of educational guidelines that do not require cursive writing as part of the school curriculum. Many school districts around the country are already starting to phase out handwriting courses.
Some argue this is a natural progression in educational instruction.
Everybody uses computers now, so it makes more sense to teach kids how to type on a QWERTY keyboard, right?
My gut instinct is no, handwriting is still important.
Writing in longhand connects you to your words in a way typing doesn’t. Pushing ink over paper with a pen is a unique sensation, a singular pleasure. There’s nothing quite like it.
But I honestly don’t do much handwriting anymore, and, from what I gather, neither does anyone else.
I still sign checks, but most payments are made electronically.
I write to-do lists by hand, and shopping lists. (Then again, the last two times I went to the supermarket I forgot the list, so my wife texted it to me. I shopped with phone in hand instead of a crumpled Post-It.) I handwrite thank you notes and greeting cards, and sometimes I’ll leave a dirty note and/or crude drawing in my wife’s purse for her to find later.
I edit with a pen, and make lots of handwritten notes (like this one!)
And I’ll still use pen and paper when I need to write something with a certain shape or rhythm. Sometimes I’ll write magazine coverlines by hand if I need to see how the words stack up. I write song lyrics longhand. Poetry, too (hey, no giggling!)
I’m old enough to recall how important penmanship was in grade school.
It was never my best subject.
I remember my second grade teacher pacing the room while the class worked on cursive writing.
“Nice job, John!”
“Robert, your Cs are so sloppy! Stay in the lines!”
I tried, but my penmanship hasn’t improved much beyond grade school level. My mother says I have a “doctor’s signature.”
Evidently my horrendous handwriting is now in style.
Autograph seekers have found that younger stars like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, have barely legible signatures, while older celebrities have a more practiced hand.
“With stars ages 30 and above, they generally have a much more full, legible signature,” says Justin King, a Toronto-based paparazzi and independent autograph seller. “When you deal with these new people like Elle Fanning, you’re lucky if you get an E an F and a heart for her signature.”
My script is sloppy, but I write fast, a skill I acquired covering town council and school board meetings as a Today reporter.
You had to get the quotes right, along with the facts and figures. I even know a bit of shorthand.
Not too long ago my wife and her sisters were cleaning out their deceased father’s old office records, boxes upon boxes of ledgers filled with neatly-scripted dental records.
That’s something you’ll never see again. I felt a bit strange feeding the pages into the shredder, like I was destroying a bit of history.
Because history is written in longhand, from the Declaration of Independence, to the old tax records down at town hall, to the love letters your grandmother keeps in a box in the attic.
I suppose there comes a point when a culture needs to let go of an old-fashioned way of doing things to make way for new technology. Cave walls gave way to stone tablets, which yielded to paper, the printing press, and now, the computer screen and memory chip.
But if schools decide to no longer teach cursive writing, I hope they still teach students how to read it.
“I need you to bring this dirty laundry down to the basement,” my wife said. “Move the stuff that’s in the washer to the dryer, and bring up the clean clothes that are down on the folding table.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I replied, grabbing the laundry basket and heading down.
“And don’t forget to separate the colors from the whites!” my 7-year-old daughter shouted behind me.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said again, already at the bottom of the basement stairs.
“Daddy isn’t even listening to you,” I heard my daughter’s voice drift down through the floor vent.
“No. I don’t think he is,” my wife replied.
“On Spongebob, Plankton’s wife says that husbands never listen to their wives,” my daughter said.
“Well, you’ll find that with a lot of men, honey. They don’t always listen to their wives,” my wife said. “But eventually, they come to realize they should have listened more closely.”
Down in the basement my jaw dropped. How dare my wife give such advice to our daughter! I’m a pretty considerate husband and father – better than some (most) of the guys I know. But like any man – any person – I occasionally lose focus during conversations and/or forget things.
I could accuse my wife of being equally inattentive. How many times have I asked her not to leave her shoes in the middle of the floor? How many times have I asked her to uncap the empty water bottles before she tosses them into the recycle bin? How many times have I told her that the plug on her iPhone charger needs to point left —not right – in order for it to work? Sometimes I just don’t think she listens to me.
But the truth is we’re both listening to each other, we’re just hearing and retaining different types of information. Scientific studies have shown that men and women listen differently. Men primarily listen with the left side of their brains, while women use both sides. That doesn’t mean women are better listeners. It means men and women process the same information differently.
It’s unfair to paint all husbands — all men— as lousy listeners. Women are equally guilty. I flip the laundry, dump the dirty clothes in the washer, start it up, and head back upstairs to set my wife and daughter straight.
“You know, I can hear you through the floor vents!” I said when I reached the kitchen. “And I don’t think it’s right you’re teaching our daughter that all men are bad listeners. I listen to you!”
“Did you bring up the clean clothes?” my wife asked.
“Did you separate the colors from the whites?” my daughter followed.
I turned around to head back down to the basement… and tripped over my wife’s shoes in the middle of floor.
I‘m heading into the New Year with a new attitude, because, in all honesty, I need to get a grip on myself.
In many ways 2013 was the best year of my life. Unemployment was a godsend. I love being home, spending time with my wife and kids. Grocery shopping? Laundry? Picking the kids up from school, and helping with homework? Count me in!
My wife and I had time to return to animal rescue this year. We fostered a pregnant stray, and helped find excellent homes for her and all her puppies. Our current foster, a sweet Cairn terrier named Enzo, is still looking for his forever home.
I spent the year rebranding myself as an author. I promoted my books, built a few web sites, and dipped my toe in the blogging sea. I’m not earning enough (yet) to make it a full-time profession, but I’ve had a lot of fun trying.
A lot of fun … that was 2013. A little too much fun.
I let myself go in 2013. I ate like an animal, and packed on pounds. I fell off the no smoking wagon months ago, and can’t seem to find my way back on. I’m indulgent, gluttonous, living too high on the hog.
Mick Jagger once said, “It’s all right to let yourself go, as long as you can get yourself back.” But it’s more difficult to get back on track when you’re older, (Mick also noted, “What a drag it is getting old.”) It’s fun and scary living a decadent lifestyle, like riding a roller coaster. But it gets old and pathetic.
If the body is a temple, then mine is a battered old shack, a handyman’s special in need of TLC. I’ve had a lot of fun in this house — it was a 24/7 party palace in 2013! — but I’ve neglected the maintenance. I need to turn it around. I need to dig deep. I need to refurbish myself. I need to get control of myself and get healthy.
Most important, I need to set a good example for my children.
All success in life stems from self-control. When you’re out of control, your world spirals out of control, too. Control your inner self, and you control the world around you. As Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho writes in Aleph: “If you conquer yourself, then you conquer the world.”
It takes discipline, but as a wise man once said, “Discipline weighs ounces, regret weighs tons.” Unhealthy lifestyle choices lead to a world of regret.
But it’s never too late to change. As author C.S. Lewis noted, “You are never too old to set another goal, or dream a new dream.”
Yeah, some weekend chores are more interesting than others. This past weekend was a doozey. The seeds were sown on Thursday when I got a frantic call from my wife. My 4-year-old son decided to expand his knowledge of sea creatures by climbing on top of his dresser and sticking his hands into his fish tank. He pulled out a bunch of the underwater plants, a bubbling treasure chest, and whole lot of water. The sole occupant of the tank, a bug-eyed goldfish we call “Mr. Fish,” was still in the tank, but he did not escape my son’s aquatic explorations unscathed.
“It looks like Mr. Fish lost an eye,” my wife said. I asked her to repeat herself. She did, at a louder, slightly more panicked volume. “The fish has only got one eye!”
One Eyed Wonder
When I got home that night I found out she wasn’t kidding. Mr. Fish had indeed lost one of his eyes. It was floating around at the bottom of the tank like a little black marble among the colorful stones. Other than the missing eye, Mr. Fish seemed in pretty good health. He’d cruise through the tank, fixing me with his one bulging black eye, then he’d turn and give me a good look at the deep, empty socket where his other eye used to be. The effect was disturbing, ghastly. It gave me the willies.
I can only speculate on what happened between Rocco and Mr. Fish. Maybe Roc tried to remove him from the tank and somehow knocked his eye out. More than likely, Mr. Fish was hit by one of the items by son was pulling out of the tank and that’s how the eye got ejected. Either way, Mr. Fish’s new, lopsided gaze seemed accusatory. “It was YOUR monstrous offspring that did this to me! YOU!”
So over the weekend I fished the errant eyeball out of the tank with a spaghetti strainer (novice aquarium keepers, we don’t even have a proper fish net) and I gave it a suitable burial (in the serene aquatic fields of La Commode). I tidied up the tank, added clean water, and changed the filter. Mr. Fish looked content in his freshly cleaned tank.
A Scaly Survivor Swims On
In fact, he looked so content, that I began to admire Mr. Fish. He had suffered an extreme physical trauma, yet here he was, just days later, carrying on as if nothing had ever happened, placidly cruising his tank. From his viewpoint, half his world had suddenly disappeared. But he didn’t let it bother him. He was a warrior, a survivor. He faced an inexplicable accident and its devastating effects with a grace and dignity I can only dream of.
I get stuck in traffic and I feel like having a meltdown. My two-year-old daughter knocked over a display holding approximately 300 Tic Tac containers in the grocery store the other day, and the embarrassment and frustration of the situation nearly reduced me to tears. Sure, Mr. Fish has a lot less responsibilities than me; his job is to eat, poop and look cute (he can still eat and poop). But responsibilities aside, I couldn’t help but feel that Mr. Fish was teaching me a lesson about accepting life’s changes, no matter how unexpected or unwanted, and simply going with the flow.
So, life goes on for both Mr. Fish and myself. The lawn got mowed and the grocery shopping got done, too.