Saturday, April 16, 2011

SNSS: Our Social Skills Group is 24/7

Another Saturday, another Special Needs Sibling Saturdays post! 

One thing I need to mention before I introduce Stimey, this week's wonderful guest blogger... You may have noticed that the "special needs" of the children in all the families I have featured so far fall onto the autism spectrum, and this week continues the trend.

There are two reasons for this. First off, when I conjured up this series and sent out my initial query letters to see if anyone else thought it was a good idea, I naturally turned to the folks I felt most comfortable with, knew best. And those would be my fellow autism bloggers.

Then, it IS April, which, as I am sure YOU are aware, is Autism Awareness Month, so it is making sense to feature autism posts this month.

That said, this is soon to change. Starting in May and going forth, you will see stories from families whose kids have other Special Needs: from cerebral palsy to seizure disorders to pediatric mental illness to genetic disorders of many varieties. And combinations thereof.

There will also from time to time be stories written by adult siblings telling tales of their own childhoods in SN families, and families where all the kids have SN, but of differing degrees and diagnoses, which creates yet another challenging sea to navigate.   

With that out of the way, let me introduce you to this weeks amazing blogger, a woman who probably needs no introduction (but when has that ever stopped me before?)...  

Jean Winegardner who blogs as Stimey at Stimeyland was one of my very first autism mom blogger connections when I was still a newbie, wet behind her ears, beginning blogger (was it really only a year ago?) I had just joined the SVMG NYCMoms group blog, and she wrote for their sister DCMoms site. I noticed right away that she was smart and funny and an autism mom like me.

Then BlogHer10 began with Stimey's Blogging Autism Panel and so we got to meet. And meet. And meet. Because it seemed everywhere one of us went, we immediately bumped into the other. Kismet.  

Stimey is an amazing woman, a fabulous mom, and truly a talented writer.  She blogs about her three sons: her middle son, Jack (who is on the autism spectrum), her eldest son, Sam, and Quinn, the "baby."  She also writes a lot about the boys' relationship with each other.  

Then there is her writing about autism itself, about mice (yes, mice, don't ask), about running her kids summer fun & learning program called "Camp Stimey" and just in case you think she is Wonder Woman (as I sometimes do), she also writes brutally honestly about those dark days when she's having a really rough time.  

Jean can write beautifully and entertainingly about anything and everything; but don't take my word for it, read her post now and you will see....


Our Social Skills Group is 24/7 - by Jean Winegardner, a.k.a. Stimey

It's 8:45 p.m. and Jack and his little brother are supposed to be asleep in the bedroom they share, stacked in bunk beds one atop the other. They, however, are wide awake and chatting with each other.

The mom in me thinks I should march in there, separate them, and threaten them to within an inch of their lives if they don't fall asleep right this very minute!

The autism mom in me, however, is delighted. I can't tell what they're chatting about—if I had to guess, I would wager that it is a conversation about a complicated video game mission that the two of them are creating in their minds—but I don't really care.

They're talking. One speaks, then the other follows up with a related sentence, and it continues for as long as I listen. It's not really that big of a deal, unless learning how to hold a conversation is not something that comes naturally to your child.

This is the advantage I have in parenting a child with autism who has both an older and a younger brother. Social skills never stops at my house.

There have been many times when my family is out and about somewhere and my three kids are running around like the little chaos machines that they are, and I think, "Wow, this would be so much easier with fewer children."

But then I stop and think, "No, really having three kids makes life so much easier." And that's not just because they play with each other instead of hassling me to play Candy Land.

My parenting goal when it comes to my children is that I want to make them a unit. I want them to be able to count on each other and be each others' best friends. I want their brotherhood to be one of their strongest, life-long bonds. I have long accepted that eventually they will use that bond to become united against me. I am 100% okay with that.

This sibling bond became even more important to me once my middle son, Jack, was diagnosed on the autism spectrum a few years ago. Since then, having one brother ahead of him in school and one behind has been nothing short of a godsend. Being sandwiched between brothers has helped in so many other ways as well.

Jack has a fair amount of trouble relating to his peers. While his teachers are fantastic, they don't have time to try to get him to engage with the other kids as much as he needs.

Jack has a social skills group once a week, but an hour of group time cannot make up for the other 167 hours in the week. Adults will socialize with Jack, but that's not his main problem. He needs to learn to engage with other children.

What Jack does have are brothers. His brothers are constantly with him and pushing him to participate in appropriate social behavior. They ask him questions; they include him in games; they have hurt feelings and desires that require Jack to learn to navigate these kinds of interactions, but in a safe place.

I think that we are doubly fortunate in that Jack has an older brother who paves the way for him (and me!) both in school and coming-of-age experiences. Having an older brother helps Jack reach, stretch and grow.

Jack's younger brother is wonderful because he looks up to Jack so very much, and it is so valuable for Jack to get to be a role model. Not to mention that in certain things, Jack and his younger brother are very much on the same developmental level, so it is lovely that they can share their interests.

Learning how to interact with his brothers can't be the be-all, end-all however. They have learned his mannerisms and quirks so well that they will often compensate without even thinking about it, letting Jack slide by without utilizing the skills he is learning. It is so important that Jack have typical peers around who don't know what he's thinking.

Enter my other sons' buddies. Because my three kids are so close in age, they like to do many of the same things. When my oldest or youngest son has a friend over, Jack gets to practice his social abilities to figure out how he can get involved in what they are doing. Plus, his brothers act as a sort of buffer between Jack and other kids, who may not understand his peculiarities.

There are times when we have kids over to play with Jack as well. Those playdates can be hard. It can be exhausting to try to get Jack to engage with a peer for an hour or two. I imagine it's tough for Jack as well. When Jack (or I) needs a break, his brothers are there to step in and shoulder some of the pressure of playing.

Mundane things can teach social thinking skills when you do them all day, every day. Even something as simple as filing into the bathroom at night to brush teeth can be a lesson in patience and turn taking.

I believe that the more success and fun Jack has with his brothers, the more interested he gets in non-familial children. Having brothers around helps Jack see that there are benefits to interacting with other kids. Furthermore, my other children can be role models for typical behavior. (Although, frankly, they have their own quirks too.)

All this said, there are downsides too. Families with only children have so much more time and resources to spend with their autistic child. When you're focused on only one child, it is so much easier to target exactly what he or she needs; there is no other child with competing desires.

Every time I'm waiting for Jack in a speech or occupational therapist's waiting room with my other kids, I think about how much easier it would be with just the one.

Let me tell you also, that it's not all smiles and sunshine in my household. Yes, my kids all get along and play together beautifully — when they're not screaming at each other and trying to commit fratricide.

Still, for my family, the benefits outweigh the negatives. More than anything else, I am so grateful that Jack gets to experience the greatest social benefit of all: having two best friends who accept him as he is.

Yes, they get frustrated sometimes and, yes, sometimes Jack gets annoyed, but for a child who wants to socialize, as Jack does, having two willing bodies nearby is the best thing we could hope for.


One of the things I find so moving about this piece is how appreciative Stimey is of the gifts her children give and are to each other.

Also note that she points out how Jack's being in the middle feels a big part of the magic. I have to concur, as I have identified how some of the big trouble in my house comes from Jacob being Ethan's twin. There is such an expectation of sameness and equality there that autism's delays and immaturities just confound so deeply. Sigh.

I especially love how Stimey contrasts the reactions of "The mom in me" with that of "The autism mom in me" to a situation.  I have so been there, as I think all autism moms have been, too.

So now that you have read her post here, you'll surely want to go
read more at her own bloggy home, Stimeyland. Besides all the posts previously linked and mentioned above, you might want to try this one here, or this one, a funny favorite of mine.

Stimey is not only a prolific writer, but an active member of the Autism parenting community. She founded, runs and writes for AutMont, Montgomery County, Maryland's autism community website. Jean also write a regular column, Autism Unexpected, at The Washington Times Communities.

Stimey can also be found posting on the 15th of every month at Hopeful Parents. Finally? Follow her on Twitter and like her on Facebook

Stimey, thank you so much for bringing your awesomeness here, to share with me and my readers at The Squashed Bologna. You truly inspire.

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