Book excerpt

The Autism Trail Guide:
Postcards from the Road Less Traveled

© 2007, 2014 Ellen Notbohm

You Know More Than You Think You Know

“Trust what your instinct tells you. You know more than you think you know.”

A wise doctor told me this when I had been a mother for less than twenty-four hours. He called it his nickel parenting advice, but it’s million-dollar advice.

We chose wisely when we chose Dr. Springer, and we chose him from a pool of one. He was the first on a list of pediatricians we intended to interview shortly before Connor’s birth. After chatting a few moments, Dr. Springer said, “And now I have to ask you a question. Do either of you smoke in the home?”

We shook our heads, no.

“Good,” he said, “because I am not able to accept new patients whose parents smoke in the home. I figure if you’re going to disadvantage your child’s health so greatly right from the beginning, there won’t be much I can do to help.”

We’re impressed. “So,” I continued, “I guess you have to treat the mothers as well as the children; at least that’s the cliché I’ve heard about pediatricians.”

“Yes, I’ve heard that one too,” he said. “But I guess I have all the good moms in town because it’s never been an issue for me.”

We didn’t interview any more doctors.

From time to time—and not nearly often enough—the mail brought us a small treatise from Dr. Springer expounding on some aspect of life as it would relate to kids. I loved those epistles, but only as Bryce’s childhood slowly unfolded in its onion-like layers did I appreciate the depth and breadth of these apparent stream-of-consciousness musings.

He wrote about strength:

Once upon a time little girls were made of sugar and spice and everything nice; little boys were made of snips and snails and puppy dog tails. What exactly is a snip? The children I know are nearly 100% puppy dog tails, both boys and girls. Who needs sugar and spice? It melts in the rain or even if you sweat.

Mother Nature gives us this wonderful start. Why do most people stop running around at age twelve? “I didn’t make the team.” Before twelve and after twenty nobody has to “make the team.” Try Frisbee or skiing; the rules are more flexible. “I catch balls with my head.” Me too, but when you have an hour, let me list the sports that don’t use a ball. “I’m too tired.” Okay, this is a problem of strength so listen closely.

Strength is acquired, not genetic. It is mental as well as physical. It’s easy to recognize people who glow, are able to weather distress with grace and also have high self-esteem. Sounds perfect for all children; sounds perfect for all parents.

The path to strength must be completely non-critical of self, like the spontaneous play of little kids. Running is the one I know. Start slowly, be completely non-critical and walk more than jog. The body is in charge, not the ego. Three months is plenty soon to be running and then not for the whole hour. It must be playful. The stupidest path to strength is chemical. Steroids never did anything for anyone’s mental strength.

Don’t change anything about yourself except the urge to start and keep going. Starting me takes five minutes, my engine is slower than a diesel. The eventual delight of play does come, I promise, and then it’s hard to stop. Any kind of play counts as long as you work up a sweat. Let me know of your strength. Complain some, brag a lot. Be the perfect model. Children always catch on.
Was he writing specifically about Bryce or did it just seem that way? Nearly every word was pertinent.

Dr. Springer didn’t figure largely in the specific approaches taken to Bryce’s autism or in the specific treatment of Connor’s ADHD; he retired when Bryce was only six. But he’s been a spiritual presence shepherding my work with the children. Though he never gave me direct advice about autism, his low-key common-sense approach to parenting in general became my most valuable tool in dealing with autism.

Connor at five years old was an ADHD sunflower in full bloom. Dr. Springer loved him at face value. “I’m not the one to ask about ADHD. I don’t see him in social or educational settings. I see him one-on-one in my office, and he’s great. He doesn’t climb the blinds and tip over the fish tank. However, if the people who are with him six hours a day are telling you something different, I suggest you listen to them. Then come back to me with the information, and we’ll talk some more.

“In the meantime,” he said, with his slow-spreading smile that told me a zinger was coming, “if you take that kid to a restaurant, you deserve what you get.”

It was his gentle way of telling me that we can’t always slot our children conveniently into the activities and the lifestyle we want. Their inability to handle certain experiences and social settings at various developmental stages of their childhood isn’t a deliberate attempt to sabotage our lives or make us miserable. They’re not “out to get us;” they’re children with very limited life experience. If, like my children, they have the complexities of autism and ADHD layered on top, it’s stunning to think of what they faced in getting through their days. From Dr. Springer, I learned to accept the day-to-day challenges of both autism and ADHD with a enough objectivity to allow me to bypass some of the frustration, exasperation and self-pity. I had a choice: I could look at their limitations as restrictive or oppressive, or I could see them as opportunities. Having to develop a constant stream of Plan Bs is a skill I’m now grateful to have, even though—or maybe because—it was forced upon me. Friends, I am very good at it, and it’s one of my proudest achievements. I never feel stuck; how great is that?

Those so-called limitations meant that during our children’s early years, large family get-togethers most often took place at our house since that’s what the kids handled best. Family members and friends who cared about our kids and understood their challenges visited frequently for fun and boisterous happenings. The others? We didn’t see them much. It was their choice and their loss.

By late childhood/early adolescence, both kids grew into their social selves and went everywhere with us. It’s funny how we can’t remember what we missed while letting them unfold in their own good time, if in fact we missed anything that mattered.

“Much stress is self-generated,” Dr. Springer wrote in another newsletter. He’d observed an SUV sitting halfway into a crosswalk; driver flicking cigarette ashes out the window with one hand and mashing cell phone to ear with the other. The light turned green, the car practically leaped from the pavement and the race was on! “Sixty-five miles an hour is too slow for many of us. But the minute we save adds up to almost nothing in a 1,440-minute day.”

And even though he was a devoted exercise advocate, he painted a wry picture of the dogged athlete strapped to that pulse monitor. “Stop to smell the flowers?” he asked satirically. “No way; a runner shouldn’t even be looking at the flowers or their pulse may slow out of the training range!”

If we are to help our children ease the rigidity of their thinking, we must do so ourselves. Look at some of the dispensable pressures in your life: sports pressure, house-perfect pressure, traffic pressure (you can’t change it, but you can make use of the time, perhaps by listening to audio books). In true child-wise fashion, Dr. Springer’s two-year-old granddaughter provided the beginnings of a way out for us. “Don’t even try to push her,” he said. “She will answer by asking herself, who are the people I need to please?”

Do I really have to?

“The bad phases will pass,” he assured me. “Just remember, so will the good ones.” He didn’t say this as license to disengage from the process of teaching and guiding my children; it wasn’t a declaration of fatalism. It was a reminder that a Big Picture looms as a backdrop to whatever smaller drama of the moment is unfolding. Complacency is the quicksand on one side of the trail, discouragement on the other. For best results, stay on the path.

But the most valuable gift Dr. Springer gave me was a handful of words left in my swollen, smarting lap when Connor was less than twenty-four hours old.

“I’ve come from the nursery,” he said, moving briskly across the faded linoleum of my hospital room, “where your son is performing feats of neurological wonder.” I couldn’t imagine what this meant, still in the sleepless fog following a twenty-two-hour labor. Something about gross motor ability, reflexes, eye movements.

He pulled a chair alongside bed. “Here’s my nickel advice,” he said. “There are a hundred ways to do any given thing parents have to do. Only thirty of them will make sense to you. Only ten of those will be anything you might consider trying. And you might get around to trying three of ’em. If you’re lucky, one will work.”

He stood up. “The most important thing is, trust your instinct. You know more than you think you know.”

It turned out that he was being modest with my initial question about treating the moms as well as the kids. Every visit to his office included summoning Mom to his office to sit in the orange plastic chair across the desk from him so he could ask, “And how are you doing?” Moms, he said, have to take care of themselves if they’re to be able to take proper care of their children. “Remember, who has the power here?” he asked me on a particularly difficult day. “You have the power.”

“Oh no, I most certainly do not,” I told him. “Not today. They do.”

“Not true,” he said. “You have the power, and you are doing a great job with it.”

Every visit ended with him telling me what a great job I was doing. Even when I didn’t believe him, the seeds of empowerment were busting through the sod of my self-doubt. I was never a natural mother. The biological clocked ticked past thirty before I thought about motherhood, and then only to doubt whether I was up to the job. But several years in the orange chair took effect. He instilled in me the self-confidence I would need to own if I wanted to infuse my children with the same.

Trust your instinct. You know more than you think you know.


© 2007, 2014 Ellen Notbohm
from The Autism Trail Guide: Postcards from the Road Less Traveled (2014, Ellen Notbohm)
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