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Anything is Possible if you Dare to Dream

November 8, 2008

Mom, where's the dining room. . .

That's what my 6.5-year-old son asked me today when he brought me a handmade present and asked me where to put it. I laughed and told him it's the room with the Christmas tree.

I had to laugh, because we have not used the dining room, as such, since long before he was born. Then I started thinking about all the changes we have made in our house in the past 10 years.

We started out with the typical house format: an front entry-way with a living room on one side, and a dining room on the other. A downstairs bedroom and bath, a 2-story great room and a kitchen. The second floor had three bedrooms, two baths and the traditional master suite, plus a tiny home office over the garage.

That was back when we had only one child, a toddler, and autism was not a word in our vocabulary. We used the dining room a couple of times for extended family dinners and birthday parties, we turned the living room into a music room to house my antique grand piano and turned the downstairs bedroom into a living room. In other words we had way more space than we needed.

Over the course of the next 4-5 years things rapidly changed. I started telecommuting 3-4 days per week, my daughter was diagnosed as autistic, rather than simply ADHD, and we added a son to our household.

We turned one of our upstairs guestrooms into a nursery, we turned our living room/TV room into a playroom, complete with rubber mats for our son to play on, because he had severe reflux, and we expanded our upstairs office into the dressing room to accommodate multiple computers, fax machines, printers, scanners and several shelving units overflowing with office supplies.

We stopped any attempt to have meals together, because our son was allergic to milk, wheat and everything else on the planet. We segregated our kitchen and pantry into GFCF safe zones, labeled everything and expanded our food storage into the garage with shelves for dried and canned foods and an extra freezer to store our son's GFCF foods, which we had to purchase in bulk from health food stores and websites.

We never used our dining room for family gatherings, because our son didn't understand why he couldn't eat the same foods as the rest of us. We fed him separately and ate our own dinners, while he was watching TV in another room or after he went to bed.

A couple of years later, we started allowing our daughter to sleep downstairs in the TV room on the weekends as a reward for good behavior during the week. At the age of 8, our daughter fit perfectly on a kids' pull-out couch, which functioned as extra seating during the day. We moved our then-toddler son's expanding collection of toys and puzzles to the great room and gave him the kitchen desk, complete with TV/VCR and all of his favorite Baby Einstein videos to watch while he ate.

This worked great for a couple of years. We even got to the point where we had an occasional meal "together," with three of us at the kitchen table and our son happily ensconced at his desk with his GFCF food and videos.

Then the kids started growing up. My daughter outgrew the pull-out couch and started sleeping on a blow-up mattress. The TV room became her extra bedroom/locker room complete with her favorite character accessories (Pokemon, Star Wars, Sponge Bob Square Pants and most recently Indiana Jones) all lined up in rows on the tables, couches and floor etc. . . in classic autistic fashion.

My son outgrew the desk and needed space for all the crafts and art supplies we bought to entertain his mad-scientist/craft-boy/severely ADHD brain. He took over the great room, kitchen floor and 1/3 of the garage. We also gave up two of the closets in our master suite to house his craft supplies, which we buy in bulk at the dollar store, Big Lots and Michaels.

For the past two years we have been bursting at the seams and were planning to finish our basement to give the kids and us more space.

Fast forward to the present and things have changed drastically. The economy tanked and ended any dream we had of finishing our basement in the next 10 years, I added photography services to my weekend/nighttime home printing business, which necessitated additional equipment that overflowed into our bedroom, and we had to hook up the Wii, which my daughter bought with her own money, to the little TV in her brother's bedroom, because he was the only one in the house, who had any space left to move around in.

So, two months ago, I cried uncle and decided to take back the house (i.e. rearrange it).

  • We had a huge yard sale to get rid of extra toys, unused kitchen appliances and furniture;

  • I moved the big TV out of the "locker room" into the great room, hooked up the Wii there and rearranged the couches to maximize the floor space;

  • I used to money from the yard sale to buy a designer desk and tables from Big Lots at 75% off the original manufacturer's price and set up a stylish downstairs office with all of my printing equipment;

  • I reorganized the upstairs office to maximize our room and storage space and put a combination lock on the craft closet in an attempt to keep our son out of the master suite;

  • I added risers to my son's bed so that we could store all his toys underneath in movable containers, which also helps to keep him occupied in his room at night until he winds down and falls asleep; and

  • I set some strict rules for both kids with regard to keeping their rooms, the great room and the kitchen in order.
It didn't take long for my daughter to get the hint that I meant business after I put a lock on the TV/Wii cabinet and started changing the combination every time she forgot the rules.

So what about the dining room you ask and why have I had a Christmas tree set up there since early October?

Long story short, I decided the turn the unused dining room into a weekend photography studio starting with a Christmas set up.

On the bright side, I have tripled my tax deductible home business space and it's a lot easier to keep the house clean. On the downside, I now need an extra freezer to store my son's food, because my husband and daughter have taken over his freezer space to store their frozen foods from Sam's Club, Costco and BJs and my son's screaming, because he's out of his favorite breads, which I buy in bulk from Kinnikinnick in Canada.

Give me a break, I hate cooking, we all eat different meals anyway and it costs more to buy the ingredients than it does to buy gourmet frozen dinners from the wholesale clubs.


P.S. The tax deductions are about the only real benefit I get from my printing/photography business. I have a full-time day job, very little free time and a bad habit of donating my services to various night and weekend charity projects.

November 5, 2008

It's a different world. . .

As parents of an autistic 12-year-old we go out of our way to make our world and our daughter's life as accommodating, predictable and secure as possible. We observe a strict schedule, give her plenty of notice of any impending changes and try to provide an autism safe-zone where she can relax. Usually that's our house, but it also includes her social skills classes, counselor's office and even the soccer field.

It has never been easy and it's getting harder, as she gets older and involved in more activities. With all the recent hullabaloo over the elections and the economy, our daughter started to panic that the sky is falling, we're going broke and we're going to lose our house. She sees everything in black and white and takes everything she hears literally.

For the last couple of years, we've been talking about finishing our basement so that our kids have a fun place to play and hang out. Recently we told our daughter that we can't afford the expense. It's not as if we need the extra space. Instead, we rearranged our main floor to make better use of the space we already have.

We also cut back on a number of unnecessary expenses, made the decision to put our son in public school, so that he can get the help he needs, without having to pay for private tutoring, had a big yard sale to raise the money to pay his private tuition for the remainder of this semester and told the kids that Christmas would be lean this year. We jokingly told our kids that Santa had to lay off half his elves due to the tough economy. Our daughter may be autistic, but she figured our the Santa thing a while ago.

We thought she understood why we were tightening our belts and battening down the hatches.

We we're wrong!

In our daughter's mind, not having the money to finish the basement meant not having any money. No money to pay our mortgage, no money for food and no money for soccer (which by the way is a major expense when you get into the teenage competition leagues).

Even worse, we completely missed the boat, when she kept saying "So we're going broke" and "kids at school are saying that the world will end, if so-and-so is elected." We brushed her off with the usual parental assumption that she's overreacting like all girls her age.

Needless to say, I felt terrible when her counselor had to point this issue out to us.

We should know better and we do, but in our defense, it's really hard to figure our what's in our daughter's head sometimes. We have to keep reminding ourselves that no matter how many times we explain something, she will keep asking the same questions.

In our daughter's world there is no such thing as a generic or all encompassing answer. She may understand our answer to one question, but she is often unable to apply that answer to a similar or even identical question in the future.

That means that we have to keep repeating ourselves and reassuring her every time she has a question or concern. We can't just say: "We talked about that, don't ask me again."

When our daughter stresses about something, she needs continual reassurance. She often repeats her questions several times: "Are you sure it's going to be all right?" and we have to keep telling her, yes, until she calms down or we can get her to refocus her thoughts.

Which brings me back to my main point. It's a different world out there from where our daughter comes from (i.e. our safe zone) and the older she gets, the harder it becomes for us to shield her from issues that she doesn't understand.

And, more importantly, we don't want to shield her too much. We're trying very hard to help her become more independent and mainstream with her peers.

It's easier to stay in our safe-zone. When our daughter is less stressed, so are we, but she has to learn to adapt to the world outside to the best of her abilities. We want her to function at her highest possible level and that means being more vigilant, more patient and more understanding.

And when our daughter says, "You're not listening to me," we have to go way beyond the count to 10 rule. We have stop what we're doing, help her explain what's wrong and help her find a way to resolve it, not matter how stressed we are at that particular moment.