Category Archives: Managing Anxiety

Got a problem? Get a gizmo

Today’s post is from Ryan’s Dad…

Ryan achieved an important milestone last week: he rode his bike without training wheels for the first time.

On the road again, this time without training wheels

For our family, it was a huge accomplishment. Ryan, now 8, had long resisted the idea of riding without extra wheels. He was anxious about crashing. “I’ll be killed,” he’d yell.

Getting Ryan to ride with training wheels had been a struggle in itself. At first, he would travel only short distances, complaining loudly about how hard it was. He’d hit the brakes as he approached even the slightest downhill grade. He wouldn’t ride uphill at all.

He was worried about getting hurt, anxious about learning a new skill.

But we kept at it. We made frequent trips to the path around the nearby duck pond. In time, he complained less and rode farther. At one point, he surprised us by pedalling around the pond on his own.

It’s not unusual for kids on the spectrum to shun bike riding, mainly because of a lack of co-ordination, poor balance and anxiety. On one discussion board I found, some parents argued that trying to teach their Aspie kids how to cycle just wasn’t worth the heartache. They said it was a mistake to think that cycling was a necessary rite of passage. They said it was better to focus on more important skills rather than cause familial strife over a recreational sideshow.

More importantly, they stressed that it was wrong to push kids to do something they simply did’t want to do.

Fair enough, I thought. You have to pick your battles. I was prepared to give up on teaching Ryan how to ride if it only made us all miserable.

However, it was clear that Ryan enjoyed the sensation of riding once his anxiety had subsided. So we kept at it.

Still, I figured that teaching Ryan how to ride on two wheels was going to be challenging. He needed extra security and stability. Crashing wasn’t an option.

Like most guys, I figured I needed a gizmo. So I turned to the Internet. That’s where I found the E-Z Bar.

It’s a long, metal pole with two handles and a wobble-joint at the other end. It attaches to the bike’s seat post, which allows the trainer to maintain control of the bike, virtually eliminating crashes. More importantly, you don’t have to stoop over the bike, and the rider gains confidence without really seeing the trainer.

At the beginning of the summer, we practised riding in a straight line. Then we focused on stopping and starting. Finally, we tried turning in circles and figure-eights.

There were many times when Ryan grew frustrated with his slow progress. He’d often get off the bike and sit in the grass, his arms folded, his mood foul.

I would simply wait while offering gentle encouragement. I knew that getting angry wouldn’t help.

And I remembered the words of the parents who advised against pushing too hard.

But Ryan was motivated to learn, even though he made it clear he found it hard.

After a few minutes of pouting, he would inevitably rise to his feet and get back on the bike.

I knew his determination made it likely he would succeed.

As well, Ryan has a good sense of balance and his gross motor skills are, well, getting there. It was really only his anxiety and lack of confidence that were getting in the way.

After about a dozen practice sessions — some of them lasting up to an hour — the anxiety was gone, his confidence bloomed. He was ready.

During our final session, I was exhausted. He was often travelling at top speed down a small hit in a nearby church parking lot. I could barely keep up.

I told him I had to take a break to catch my breath. I sat down and wiped the sweat off my brow. I told him we would return to the next day with his mother because I wanted her to witness the progress he had made.

But instead of waiting for me to re-attach the bar for the ride home, he simply pedalled away — on two wheels — travelling about 10 metres.

“Did you see that, Daddy?” he asked, a big smile on his face, the sun glinting off his red helmet.

“I did,” I said. “That was awesome.”

Then he rode off as if he hadn’t used training wheels in years. He hooted and hollered, and he sang. He was elated.

The next day, my wife Anne-Marie was ready with the video camera as Ryan climbed aboard his red, BMX bike, suitably called “No Rules.”

We hadn’t told her about Ryan’s accomplishment the day before.

I pretended to attach the bar to his bike, but Ryan knew what to do. He rode off, smiling and singing.

Anne-Marie gasped and immediately started to cry — all of her raw emotion captured on the video soundtrack as Ryan merrily rides through the frame.

Afterwards he asked me: “Are you proud of me, Daddy?”

That’s when the tears started the well up in my eyes.

“Tears of joy, Daddy?” he asked, still smiling.

You bet.

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Filed under Managing Anxiety, Sports and extracurricular activities

Asperger’s and expectations: a summer of surprises

I’ve learned a lot about expectations this summer. We’ve spent most of our time travelling to visit family or holidaying with close friends. Every second week we’ve been off to a new destination – one trip involved a five-hour flight and seven-hour drive that took us right across the country, another included living with a dog the size of a small horse.

We did a social story about Buddy the dog and then we just crossed our fingers!

Given Ryan’s fear of dogs and his love of routine, I expected some serious bumps along our holiday highway. I was cursing myself for failing to see the big picture as I booked these various trips at different times of the year.

 But Ryan surprised us at every step of the way. The five-hour flight was breeze (Thank you Teletoon!), the seven-hour drive included only one major meltdown and détente was declared with the dog on day one.

As we watched Ryan adapt to new surroundings and new people every week, I was reminded of some wisdom shared with us during our quest for a diagnosis: a health care professional urged us to beware one of the pitfalls of diagnosis: lowering our expectations. I understood what he meant: we would ask less of Ryan, go ‘easier’ on him because he had a specific challenge.

Of course we have made allowances such as:

  • Using visual aids rather than relying on verbal instruction
  • Helping him choose appropriate extracurricular activities
  • Acting as bridge in building friendships
  • Being more understanding about his social faux pas
  • Respecting his sensitivity to smells/sounds

But our psychologist was equally clear with us early on: don’t let Ryan disappear down his rabbit hole of special interests or stay in his small comfort zone. Keep him engaged in our daily lives. Expect him to join in, to be a part of things. And for the most part it’s worked.

Our parents’ group recently had the honour of meeting a high school student with ASD who candidly shared his experiences of growing up with Asperger’s. He shared so many valuable insights:

  • How swimming provided him with an outlet for his anger/energy
  • How his Asperger’s led him to argue endlessly with his parents because his way just seemed better or smarter
  • How theatre became a passion for him and helped him learn how to interact more successfully with others

 But the biggest lesson I learned from this remarkable young man had to do with expectations. His parents had high expectations for him. They expected him to succeed. They pushed him to do his best. And even though he found it challenging, in retrospect he appreciated it.

His words underscored a key part of bringing up any child, but particularly a child with additional challenges: we need to help them push their limits – to stretch themselves – so they can feel the exhilaration of unexpected success.

An unforgettable day: swimming back from the raft

If you’d asked me in June if Ryan would a) go ‘tubing’ attached to  power boat b) jump off a six-foot dock or c) swim out to a raft in the middle of a lake, I would have answered ‘none of the above.’ But there you go, it’s been a summer full of surprises.

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Filed under Diagnosis, Family, Managing Anxiety, Social stories, Sports and extracurricular activities

When learning new things is hard

If learning a new skill or trying something for the first time can evoke anxiety in an adult imagine what it can be like for an Aspergian kid who relies on routines and predictability to keep their world feeling safe and secure.

Before we knew Ryan had Asperger’s he used to scream when it was time to do his homework. He was five at the time and the ‘homework’ was cutting and pasting. The mere thought of picking up scissors, which challenged his fine motor skills, was enough to create a meltdown. Now, thanks to Jed Baker, I understand why.

Slow and steady really does win the race

I recently attended a conference, organized by the Autism Awareness Centre, that featured Dr. Baker. His advice was incredibly practical and we’re now planning to use some of his tips in our upcoming plan to teach Ryan to ride his bike without training wheels.

By the way, if you have kids who haven’t started riding a bike yet, I recommend starting with those bikes with no peddles since balance is the hardest part of riding a bike. That way you can skip the training wheels altogether! 

Here are a few of the tips we picked up from Jed and will be sharing with Ryan’s swimming and skating coaches as well.

  • Start with what’s easy, not hard. This is so basic, yet I often find myself jumping into the hard work right away, which triggers stress and anxiety. Now I will try to start with a task that Ryan is really good at, so he feels confident, and then work up to something more difficult.
  • Break it down into small pieces. For our bicycle plan, the first (and maybe the only) thing Ryan is going to start with is sitting on the seat. Then we’re going to ask him to go from point A to point B just using his feet.

I read about this approach in a wonderful memoir called Finding Benabout a mother and son struggling to make sense of their world long before the Asperger’s diagnosis was available to them. I think it took them months for Ben to start riding his bike, but he did it, in his own time and at his own pace.

  • Give choice of work & use special interests. If we have three activities on our list maybe Ryan can choose the two he wants to do and in what order. Options increase comfort levels and special interests (Super Mario!) can be a big help.
  • Use visual supports. White boards, diagrams, labels are all great for our visual learners. We use them to break down our activity into steps and show what the reward is at the end.

 A few weeks ago Ryan’s skating instructor showed up with his lesson plan written on a white board. I could have kissed her right then and there!

  • Reduce length. ‘Let’s try this for one minute and then we’ll do X.’ Keep the trying short and then move on to a preferred activity. Or take a break and then try again.
  • Reward trying. I loved this part of Jed’s presentation. He talked about how compliance isn’t a skill but trying something is a skill that we need to teach our kids. So he rewards trying, not just succeeding. He even suggested a reward system based on trying rather than achieving.

Let me know what techniques you use to teach ‘trying.’ I’d love to hear from you. 

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Filed under Education, Managing Anxiety, Sports and extracurricular activities

Autism conference coming up in Halifax

A friend in our Asperger’s parents network recently mentioned an Autism Conference for parents and professionals that’s taking place in Halifax on April 15 and 16th.

The conference is one of several taking place across the country, organized by the Autism Awareness Centre Inc. I had never heard of the group but one of the parents mentioned it at our last meeting and I’ve now signed up for their eNewsletter.

I personally don’t know much about the event speakers, Dr. Jed Baker and Dr. Lori Ernsperger but the workshop titles and descriptions definitely caught my interest.

Let me know if you’re aware of their work and if you’re planning to attend!

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Filed under ASD events, Managing Anxiety

Social stories: Saying goodbye

Here’s another example of a social story.  Last year Ryan went through a big change at school, so I tried to prepare him for the changes and let him know that while some things would be changing, others would be exactly the same.

Saying goodbye

When I was in Grade Primary, Mrs. Wallace was my Learning Centre teacher. She was lots of fun.

Then I said good-bye to Mrs. Wallace and Ms. Choyce came to the Learning Centre. She was great too and we had lots of fun together, like during the Olympics when we put up flags from countries and cities all over the world.

I learned a lot from Ms. Choyce. We did different activities every week and I learned about breathing and being a good friend. I even did yoga, which I’m going to do with my Mom and little brother over the summer.

Next year when I come back to school, I will have another new Learning Centre teacher. Her name is Mrs. Paul. Ms. Choyce is going to a new school closer to her house.

Sometimes, when I think of something changing, or someone leaving, I feel sad. But it’s like when Mommy goes away on business trips, it feels upsetting at first, but once it happens I realize I’m okay.

Saying good-bye to Ms. Choyce may feel sad, but if I miss her, I can look at this picture and remember the fun we had together. I can even send Ms. Choyce a note on email if I need to talk to her. I can also hug the teddy, since he is staying in the Learning Centre to keep me company next year.

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Filed under Building social skills, Managing Anxiety, Social stories