Category Archives: Sports and extracurricular activities

What I learned on my summer vacation

Camping is a summer ritual for our family. Every year we tow our little tent trailer to various provincial and national parks. And every year camping shows us how much our boys have grown. How much they’ve learned and changed.

Photo by D. Wilson. Parks Canada

We had a glorious time camping in Kejimkujik National Park in August – full of the kinds of times that one hopes will become fond childhood memories later in life. Lazy mornings snug in sleeping bags, board games played on the picnic table, munching on s’mores by the campfire.

As the busyness of our daily lives fell away, I became aware of what they boys had learned over the past year and the lessons they were teaching me over the course of the summer.

Lesson #1: It really is a journey, not a destination!

Some of you will know that last summer Ryan said good-bye to training wheels for the first time. It was a big moment for him and for our family for so many reasons. So when spring arrived Mike and I were expecting bike rides galore. The training wheels were off. The milestone achieved. The learning complete. Ha!

There’s a big difference between riding a bike and going on bike rides. We quickly encountered a whole other level of learning that needed to take place around hills and speed and the myriad of other things that go into a successful bike ride.

It wasn’t always pretty – sometimes because Ryan fought getting on his bike and sometimes because I had to face my own need for ‘efficiency’ and ‘speed.’ Ryan was content to be riding and who cared when we arrived.

Lesson #2:  Man, those kids can really surprise you

We arrived at Keji with what I considered ‘realistic expectations’ around bike riding. The park has great mountain bike trails, but I assumed we would hike those and keep our biking on the roads, which are easier to navigate.

Day One at the park: Ryan immediately gravitates to the mountain bike trails; we spend the better part of the next 10 days covering at least 6k of trail every day and on our favourite day we probably covered 20k.

Mike and I were floored. We were elated, overjoyed, thrilled! I will never forget the feeling of flying along a mountain bike path, watching Ryan peddling his bike alongside Lake Kejimkujik. Mike provided steady, quiet commentary behind Ryan on his first ride and I could tell it left him feeling confident and at home on the trail.

Lesson #3: They really do grow up – and we have to grow with them.

This was also the first year the boys went cycling solo around the campground. And even though I knew they were ready and okay, I still had that dread of the unexpected.

True confessions: we called park security the first time Ryan went out and Euan came back without him. Ryan showed up 20 minutes later – having decided to go mountain biking on his own! Mike and I were upset and excited at the same time: “Omigod, we couldn’t find him. Omigod he voluntarily went biking on his own!”

This newfound independence extended to some playground visits as well. The boys kept in touch with walkie talkies and finally mastered the ability to hold the button and talk at the same time. I can still picture Mike’s grin as he carried on a long conversation with both boys.

It’s easy to get caught up in the challenges facing our kids – the things we need to work on and help them master. But we have to be determined not to let those ‘to dos’ define us or our relationships with them.

So for me, this will not be the summer of shoelaces or stressful summer camps. It will be a summer where we all learned to stretch ourselves a little bit more, step out of our comfort zone, and experience the thrill of doing something for the first time. We’ve already started planning next year’s mountain biking and our first family foray into backcountry camping. Stay tuned for more tales from the trails…the path may get a bit bumpy along the way, but I think we’re ready for it.

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Filed under Family, Sports and extracurricular activities

The Kindness of Strangers: Part Two

After my first blog post about the kindness of strangers a funny thing happened: those kind strangers started coming out of the woodwork. Maybe it was because the story about prof from Carleton University moved me so much I felt compelled to write and thank him for seeing past the challenges that our kids can present. He responded right away and I was glad I had reached out to him.

That encouraged my husband to make good on his promise to write to the family-run business that manufactures the E-Z Bar, which helped Ryan learned to ride a bike this summer. The owner was incredibly touched by Ryan’s story and how his gizmo had prompted so many joyful tears!

Since then I think I’ve been awakened to the myriad of kindnesses around my family everyday. Ryan started taking an art course just days after my last post and when I shared my usual Asperger’s tip sheet with his instructor she wrote back right away with questions and ideas about how to make his experience more positive. Not only that, her assistant’s mom got in touch with me too to learn more too!

Soon after that, there was the neighbour who told me how Ryan’s great behaviour at a noisy basketball game blew her away – she didn’t know I’d been worrying about his relationship with his peers all night and how her casual comment helped me regain my perspective.

The skating badge of honour! Courtesy of Emma the amazing instructor.

Then I got to thinking about Ryan’s swimming instructor – who builds small towers with flutter boards for him to destroy when he reaches a goal.

Or his skating instructor who promptly showed up with a white board when I told her that giving Ryan a list of tasks to complete during lessons really kept him focused. I almost fell on the ground with gratitude when she showed up with that dollar store whiteboard with the happy faces drawn on it. Yesterday, Ryan got his second skating badge. If his instructor had seen him three years ago lying on the ice and refusing to get up she would have wept ‘happy tears’ as Ryan loves to say.

I’m writing these little gems down, so I can take them out at a later date and admire them all over again. They are a good reminder that there’s plenty of kindness out there, just waiting to be recognized and appreciated. Happy Valentines Day everyone!

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Filed under Celebrating Difference, Education, Sports and extracurricular activities

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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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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Navigating the minefield of extracurricular activities

I know we looked completely crazy to the parents sitting near us in the skating rink today. After all, how many parents laugh, hug and practically cry as they watch their child glide down the ice? But we knew how hard won this icy flight was for Ryan and we couldn’t help ourselves. It was a big deal and we knew it.

Finding activities that work – and knowing when to push your child and when to throw in the towel – is such an intricate dance with any child. Add Asperger’s Syndrome to the mix and it becomes a bit more complicated.

Ryan started skating lessons before his diagnosis and his initial reaction to lessons was one of the things that hinted that he may be on the spectrum. He hatde his uncertainty on the ice – and his fears scared the bejesus out of all the other little kids in the dressing room. Oh the cold hard stares we got those Saturday mornings.

Once we coaxed him onto the ice (talking about how he was Anakin Skywalker travelling across Hoth) he would lie down more than stand up and use his skate to repetitively take chunks out of the ice . We all felt horrible and at a loss. But we peservered, made some small gains, and then abandoned skating for a year.

Now we’re so much more prepared to meet Ryan’s needs. We know one-on-one instruction is definitely a must in his case. We also know that skating, bike riding and other activities are naturally going to take longer for Ryan because of the coordination/gross motor issues that often accompany AS.

And we prepare his instructors in advance. I recently met with the aquatics supervisor at the pool where he receives one-on-one instruction. My goal was to share a quick handout I created about Aspergers. He was surprisingly positive and open to the piece, so I’m reprinting it here, in case someone else finds it helpful.

Three Things You Need to Know about Asperger’s Syndrome

1. It’s neurological. That means Ryan’s brain is wired differently than ours and he experiences the world differently. The rules that most of us follow quite naturally don’t really make sense to him.

Listening. This is Ryan’s biggest challenge. The pool is a very overwhelming place for him. His brain is like a blackboard filled with sticky notes and they all look the same, so things that we block out (background noise, the shimmering water, the lights) all demand his attention at the same time.

  • What works: – Visual instructions. Showing rather than telling. Ryan’s very smart, but processing verbal instructions is difficult. Show him the list of what he needs to do to get his badge and check off the things he accomplishes.
  • What doesn’t: Don’t expect that saying Ryan’s name or calling to him will get his attention. I often touch his shoulder to ensure he connects with what I’m saying.

 2. Asperger’s makes the world a confusing place. Things that most of us learn, know and remember (like I’m safe in the water when my teacher is here or I can’t run on the pool deck) aren’t as easily accessed by kids with Asperger’s – that means we need to give them lots of reminders.

Staying on task. All Asperger’s kids resist change because it scares them. Ryan resists change, so learning new things can take a lot of time and patience.

  • What works: Make things a game. Ryan loves role playing The offer of doing something ‘fun’ after he tries a new thing works well too.
  • What doesn’t: Talking too much. Short instructions. Gentle encouragement. The promise of something fun after something hard, is much better than long negotiation.

 3. Ryan’s brain is an eccentric, but exciting place. He’s command of language and concepts is very advanced for his age. Don’t be surprised if he wants to talk forever about a computer game or if he uses very big words.

  • What works. I use Ryan’s love of language and information to keep him on task. Give him a word he doesn’t know or explain how something works and he’ll be listening with laser-like focus.
  • What doesn’t: If he would rather talk about computer games than do what you’re asking, use what he’s talking about to your advantage (i.e. It’s time for the Super Mario brothers to swim up to me…)

I have this in Word format. If you want a copy just let me know and I can send it your way.

I would love to know what sports/activities your kids like and why? And how do you prepare them and others?

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