It’s that festive time of year where I insist my family sticks to all the traditions of years gone by, regardless of how old the kids have become or how horrific the tradition was last year. How quickly one forgets the swearing and cursing with each little hoof as we wander aimlessly searching for the perfect Christmas tree. Well, this year was no different. And after the tree was cut down, dragged to the car, rigged up in the family room (more swearing) and trimmed with ornaments of Christmas’ past, we made a solemn promise (through more swearing) that we will not do that again next year. Until next year rolls around, of course.

One tradition we all still love (I swear, it’s not just in my mind) is watching all of our favorite holiday movies. “The Grinch,” “Christmas Vacation,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Bad Santa” (that one is for Mom and Dad only) and our all time favorite, “The Polar Express” — the magical movie that makes us all want to believe.

“The Polar Express” was dug out of the Christmas movie archives and watched on Friday night.

As we all snuggle in under our blankets with the glow of the Christmas tree lights and the warmth of the fire, I think regardless of age, regardless of time, regardless of how many lights have burned out on that glorious traditional Christmas tree, in those two hours, each and every one of us does indeed believe. Believing is good for the soul.

We ask that children believe in Santa, believe in flying reindeer and believe in a magical train ride to the North Pole, all things they can’t see, and yet, they do. You know why? Children believe with their hearts. They don’t have to see to believe. “The most real things in the world are the things we can’t see,” said the Polar Express conductor and sadly, just days after watching and believing, I watched a different video that showed me sometimes even when I did see, I didn’t believe.

After a night out celebrating one of our dear friend’s birthday and a quick stop at another friend’s Christmas party, my husband Dan and I decided to throw in a DVD of some of our home movies at 10:45 p.m.. It was the highlight of my week.

Yes, there was a lot of nostalgic tears and the astonishment of why I ever wore my hair that way, but, mostly I sat mesmerized by this face. In the videos, my son Ryan was 3, not yet diagnosed with autism, but, both speech and OT services were in place for “developmental delays.”

While watching the videos, I certainly saw some of what concerned me back then. The brief eye contact, the looking out of the corner of his eyes, the scripting of the entire “Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” video (which was freaking hysterical) and the way he was the only child in his daycare Christmas play sitting down, falling down and wandering around the stage. I saw in the videos glimpses of what was “different.”

But what amazed me, awenestly, what shocked me, was how in most ways he looked the “same.” The way he chased the dog, the way he asked for “another present for RyRy,” the way he followed his brother, the way he told us every shape of all the Christmas cookies he was baking with messy flour-covered hands and the way he ran to me, smiling from ear to ear after his daycare Christmas show and jumped into my arms with the most beautiful, heartfelt “Mommy!”

It was almost 1 a.m., and I couldn’t stop watching these videos. My husband was snoring loudly, and my daughter Emma was sound asleep with the glow of the Christmas lights shining on her face. I was alone with only these video images running through my brain, and the stark realization that at the magical, glorious age of 3, words like “developmental delay,” “sensory processing disorder” and “the A-word” were constantly at the forefront of my brain, blocking me from seeing and believing. This brain block caused me to focus on all I felt was “wrong,” blinding me to all that was “right”.

Ryan was funny, brilliant, snuggly, loving, rambunctious, beautiful and perfect, and I hate that I had to see that on a home movie. I hate that all those years ago, I did not see or believe… in him. Years later, through the lens of a camcorder I saw more that was the “same” than was “different.” I’m just sorry I didn’t see it with my own two eyes and believe with my heart as it was happening before me 11 years ago.

Ryan was, is and always will be awesome, and as I watched a much younger mom (with a horrific hairstyle) snuggle him, praise him, cheer for him and love him, I think even through my concern and fear, I always believed that, even though sometimes I failed to see it.

Sometimes you really do have to see to believe, and other times even seeing doesn’t help you believe. I guess that’s why believing… really, truly believing, has to come from your heart. Maybe back then, my heart was just too scared to believe what and who was right in front of me. Back in those days when the fear in my brain blocked the belief in my heart, I did in fact believe that “different” meant less. I worried that “different” stood out more than “same” and that “different” would always cause my heart to fear believing.

My hairstyle is better now, and my heart has certainly made a turn for the best. I am no longer a doubter, and every time I see my boy sing, every time I read a paper he has written for school and every time he almost knocks me down with his back pounding hugs, I hear “the bell ring.. .as it does for all who truly believe.”

Yes, I believe.

Christmas boys


I know, Christmas is a week away and Hanukkah has come and gone. But maybe you’re a procrastinator, too, and this list will still be useful. Even if it’s too late for the holiday season, there’s got to be a birthday coming up. I am willing to bet that sometime between now and 364 days from now, you will be looking for a gift and then you’ll be happy you read this.

The other day my friend Sarah showed me the wish list she created on Amazon. She has a daughter with special needs who doesn’t really like to play with toys. A lot of kids like hers (and mine) don’t. Our conversation reminded me of when my son was younger and didn’t want anything to do with toys and he couldn’t sit still for a board game. He was really, really, really hard to shop for. There were times when we’d wrap socks or underwear or other things he needed because he got the most joy from just unwrapping things.

Although my son now enjoys a growing number of toys, it’s still hard to come up with gift ideas for him because he gets frustrated with things that are hard to play with and he is always losing pieces. When people ask what he wants for his birthday, it’s still a difficult question to answer. You can only tell so many people to get him things that light up.

So what do you get a kid who doesn’t play with toys? Here are a number of suggestions.

Toys They Can Watch

My husband is really into Quadcopters, and the kids love watching him fly them. These remote control flying devices range in size and price and, I have to admit, they are fun to watch fly, especially when they get stuck in a tree (shh, don’t tell my husband I said that). You can get a mini one for around $20.

Disco balls and aquarium lamps are fun to watch and calming, too. Several years ago we gave out disco balls to all the kids who came to my son’s birthday party. It was by far the most popular goodie bag item we’ve ever presented. We got the disco balls for $5 each at a dollar store. They now start at $15 online. Aquarium lamps start at around $25.

There was a summer where we had three different Gazillion Bubbles hurricane machines. We used the bubble-blowing machine so much that we had to replace it a few times. The self-blowing bubble maker generates more bubbles than anything we’ve ever seen. The only downside was the number of times we had to buy new one.

aquarium collage

Cause and Effect

Kids, particularly with autism, like to see action and reaction. My favorite toy in this category is the Stomp Rocket. There was a time when we had a closet full of them to give as gifts. The kids love stomping the “launch pad” and watching a foam rocket soar into the air. Not only is it fun for them to see how high it gets, it also helps with gross motor skills.

The Hoberman Sphere has always been on my personal wish list. It’s a simple circle that contracts and expands by pushing and pulling. When my kids get their hands on one, they can’t seem to get enough of it.

Other great cause-and-effect items are the Gyro Wheel (especially ones that light up) and the Toysmith Liquid Motion Bubbler, which you flip over to watch the liquid elements inside float serenely to the bottom. The box even says, “This is not a toy,” so it’s sure to please your non-toy kid.

Sensory Gifts

Thousands and thousands of sensory tools that are fun for kids are for sale (an Amazon search for “sensory toys” yields almost 10,000 results). There are far too many good ones to list here, but two I’d put on my on my wish list are:

The Cozy Canoe is an inflatable canoe that offers deep pressure for those sitting inside it. It’s a great place to read, play or chill (it’s also hard to find right now).

A pack of Stress Balls and Squeeze Toys Value Assortment (21 Pack), because you can never have too many “fidget” toys. Kids love the feel of these squishy rubber items, and I like that you can get 21 of them for less than $25.

Items for Active Kids

A good occupational therapy (OT) gym can be a kid’s nirvana. Between the ball pit, swings, trampoline and rock wall, there is so much to do at OT. A lot of families I know try to recreate the OT gym at home. Trampolines — from mini-exercise versions to full-size, outdoor trampolines — are especially popular. Indoor swings are also great. Just be sure to get the right mounting/hanging gear. We ordered ours from Southpaw. All my kids — and their friends — love being able to swing indoors. We have our swing mounted on our basement ceiling, but there are also swings that attach to doorways or that you can attach to a free-standing base. A kiddie pool and a few bags of colorful plastic balls are an easy way to make an indoor ball pit. We’ve never done it, but they are always popular at friends’ houses.

Other Ideas

Consider a personalized picture book. On his sixth birthday, my son got one of these. I created this book on Picaboo, one of a number of online sites that allow users to create photo books. My son’s book is 82 pages of family photos and text, documenting milestones such as birthdays, vacations, the first and last days of school and other yearly traditions.

Something completely outside the box — two years ago, we had absolutely no idea what to get my son. He was obsessed with elevators. We looked for books about elevators and toys that might somehow resemble an elevator. After my son watched a video made by a teen who built his own for the millionth time, I thought it would be cool if my son could have his own elevator control panel. I scoured the Internet, found a local elevator company and e-mailed them to see if they had any suggestions.

Their response: “We actually have a briefcase that you open up and it has a whole panel of buttons that he can push and they light up. It just has to be plugged in. I would be happy to give that to you. We have not used it because we decided not to use that vendor’s panel.”

Places they can go — you can’t wrap classes, tickets or memberships, but any of these would be excellent choices. I have a number of friends who recently started therapeutic horseback riding. One friend gave her son a horseback riding lesson for his birthday. He loved it and now goes weekly. Tickets to shows and concerts (especially sensory-friendly ones) are also great choices, as are zoo or aquarium memberships. When a kid has a passion for animals, just a few trips to the zoo can more than pay for the membership.

Follow this journey on Special Ev.

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story about the holiday season related to disability, disease or mental illness. It can be lighthearted or more serious — whatever inspires you. Be sure to include an intro for your list. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Autism is a different journey for every family, but there are some common experiences we may share. Here are some of these experiences illustrated with scenes from some of my favorite movies and TV shows.

In case you missed the rest of the series, check out  Autism Parenting Rules 1 – 10 and Autism Parenting Rules 11 – 20.

Here are rules 21 – 35!

21. You may spend so much time and energy keeping your own child clothed that you overlook your own appearance.

Like going to the store looking like The Dude.

Gramercy Pictures/“The Big Lebowski”

22. When a meltdown is imminent, you may do anything to reduce extra sensory input. 

BBC/“Doctor Who”

23. Casual phone conversations are almost impossible.

BBC/“Doctor Who”

24. You suffer a moment of panic every time you see someone using the front burners on the stove. 

Because yours haven’t been used in years.

Columbia Pictures/“Paul Blart: Mall Cop”

25. Kitchen knives are kept hidden in a locked, secure location at all times.

Marvel Studios/“Deadpool”

26. Privacy in the bathroom does not exist. 

This is true for most parents really!

Warner Bros./”Lethal Weapon 2″

27. Autism parents can sweep a room looking for possible threats better than the Secret Service.

NBC/“The West Wing”

28. The concept of age- and gender-appropriate toys is invalid. 

They like what they like.


29. Your child might not like their personal space invaded but has no problem invading anyone else’s.

CBS/“Get Smart”

30. Any assumption others have about your child’s ability is probably wrong.


31. If your child wants to wear a costume outside of Halloween, they’re going to wear a costume. 

We choose our battles!

USA Network/“Psych”

32. Running out of your child’s favorite food may lead to disregard of your own physical appearance in the panic of restocking the item to avoid a meltdown.

NBC / “Chuck”

33. Parent may celebrate after their child uses the potty for its intended use. 

ABC / “Castle”

34. Lines happen. 

And don’t even think about moving them.

AMC/“The Walking Dead”

35. Pants are overrated.

If Sam and Dean Winchester aren’t wearing them, who needs to?


Read the first two parts of this series:

The 10 Autism Parenting Rules I Live By on a Daily Basis

10 More Autism Parenting Rules I Live By Every Day

Follow this journey at Autism Odysseys.

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story of your choice in regards to disability, disease or illness. It can be lighthearted and funny or more serious — whatever inspires you. Be sure to include at least one intro paragraph for your list. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Researchers at Harvard University and MIT have published a new study suggesting a specific chemical in the brain is linked to autism. Their findings, published in Current Biology on Thursday, say autistic behavior is associated with a breakdown in the signaling pathway of a chief inhibitory neurotransmitter called GABA.

Scientists speculate that reduced brain inhibition may be behind the hypersensitivity many people with autism experience, according to MIT News.

“This is the first time, in humans, that a neurotransmitter in the brain has been linked to autistic behavior. This theory — that the GABA signaling pathway plays a role in autism — has been shown in animal models, but until now we never had evidence for it actually causing autistic differences in humans,” study leader Caroline Robertson said in a Harvard University press release.

Robertson and her colleagues first tested 21 people ranging on the autism spectrum and 20 non-autistic people by showing them two conflicting images, one to each eye, according to Medical Daily. To focus on one image, the brain must suppress the other, or push it out of awareness. In this “binocular rivalry test,” the adults with autism were slower to suppress visual images. Researchers then measured GABA concentrations while subjects performed the task and found people with autism showed GABA dysfunction.

“Individuals with autism are known to have detail-oriented visual perception — exhibiting remarkable attention to small details in the sensory environment and difficulty filtering out or suppressing irrelevant sensory information,” Robertson said.

The findings suggest a drug that can boost GABA’s action may improve challenges people with autism face.

A question for our Mighty community: How do you respond when new research is published around the causes and/or symptoms of autism? What does news like this mean for your day-to-day life? Let us know in the comments below.

Experiencing a great deal of stress brought on by a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder in my eldest son, I decided to seek help from a mental health professional. Here are the top 10 things I’ve learned about myself, parenting and relationships from just over a year of psychotherapy.

1. Don’t give it back.

It seems like kids are hardwired to annoy you. My psychiatrist’s theory is that back in pre-historic times, agitating their parents was one of the best and most efficient ways children had of gaining attention, thus protection from nasty beasts. When your children deliberately annoy you or yell at you, I learned I shouldn’t give it back. Of course, if a Jurassic beast is indeed involved, you may want to look into it.

2. Building resilience in your kids starts with love.

What I’ve learned from interacting with my own children and speaking with my psychiatrist is that building resilience and confidence needs to start with love. Always remind them you love them, and never leave them wondering.

3. Understanding your own emotions makes you a better husband and father.

Talking about feelings doesn’t come naturally to me, or to many men in general. Faced with conflict or perceived disrespect, I would often shut down and go into “the cave.” Talking to someone about my frustrations helped me recognize and express them more assertively. Although this may ultimately lead to a greater number of mini-arguments, I’ve come to understand that…

4. Conflict is inevitable and even desirable.

When you and your partner can more freely express your feelings with each other, mini-conflicts are likely to surface more often. These little ruptures can actually be healthy because they teach you important conflict resolution skills. The alternative is suppressing feelings and emotions, leading to wilder conflicts.

5. Time for yourself and your partner is crucial.

When my eldest boy was diagnosed with ASD, his pediatrician told us to make sure we made time for ourselves and each other. We didn’t really listen. We felt guilty — like every minute not spent researching his condition and possible treatments would consign him to a life of misery. Our relationship suffered as a result. While time for ourselves and each other is not back to pre-kid levels (and probably won’t be until they move out!), at least we’re more conscious of it now. I now know that if I’m able to get a round of golf in, it isn’t a selfish act — I actually come back refreshed, rejuvenated and ultimately a better husband and father.

6. Your partner might need to come in with your to a therapy session.

When talking to an independent therapist, you and your partner will often say things that will provide great insight for the other. Hopefully your partner is amenable to attending. Mine took a little convincing, but when she finally agreed she saw the value in the exercise.

7. Connecting to others is so important. 

Experiencing significant stress and anxiety, I naturally isolated myself for fear of burdening others. I also lacked the confidence to engage with others and felt guilty spending time away from my family. Seeing a psychiatrist provided clarity about my thoughts and the confidence to articulate what my family was going through to significant people in my life with whom I’d become distant.

8. Whatever doesn’t kill you…

My psychiatrist uses the analogy of a boat. As a couple, you’re on a boat sailing in calm, pleasant seas. Everything seems OK on the surface. But you can’t stop wondering what would happen if a storm came. Would your boat be strong enough to withstand the pressure? Well, for us a storm did come. It rocked us, made us seasick and we came pretty close to capsizing, but ultimately we weathered it and made it through to the other side. Now, back in calm, pleasant seas, we know our boat is strong. Very strong in fact, and in some ways we’re glad we faced the storm in the first place — know we have no doubts about the strength of our boat and its storm-weathering capabilities.

At least I think that’s what he meant.

9. It’s important to seek help from someone you trust.

Culturally, asking for mental health help is seen as a sign of weakness. Hopefully by now people understand this is nonsense. After my psychiatrist I saw listened to the grief and hardship my family was undergoing, he simply said, “heartbreaking” — that one word showed me in an instant he got it and was here to help.

10. It’s OK to keep seeking help, even after you’re “fixed.” 

Although my family and I are no longer in “crisis” and many of our problems have largely been resolved, I continue to see my psychiatrist on a monthly basis. To paraphrase him, the traditional approach is to treat mental health issues like a broken leg — heal the break then send the patient on their way. A better approach to improving and maintaining mental health in an individual, however, is to keep seeing them once they have been “healed.” During this period, you can capitalize on what you’ve learned, achieving long-term, sustained, positive mental health outcomes.

Follow this journey on The Adventures of T-Bone and Sea Bass.

This past December 7 marked the 74th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and also my and my wife Kristen’s third wedding anniversary. When I guest-speak on autism, I like to joke, “My wedding anniversary is December 7, and due to autism I came into my new family like a kamikaze  — a blazing whirlwind of fire.”

When I was a young adult and my dad became frustrated with my autism quirks, he would say, “You’ll never find a woman willing to accept your rigid routines.”

Kristen, by her unconditional love, has proven him wrong.

On our third date I revealed one of my main autism quirks: my inability to deviate from my rigid patterns. I told Kristen, “After work every night I spend two to three hours in Bible memory time. This daily routine empowers me to be able to quote over 10,000 Scriptures, including 22 complete books of the New Testament and more than 5,000 quotes.” Again, both my parents had agreed, “No woman in her right mind will put up with your memory time!”

Kristen, by her unconditional love, proved my parents wrong.

After we had been dating for three months I revealed another autism-induced quirk of mine: eccentric behavior. I carried around a stuffed prairie dog named Prairie Pup from kindergarten to sixth grade. I also collected and continue to collect Calico Critters: 3-inch animal figurines dressed in handmade outfits.

My Calico Critters collection reminds my coworkers and friends of a scene from “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” — hundreds of unopened boxes lined in perfect rows up against my bedroom wall at my parents’ house. With a concerned voice my dad said, “No woman will want a husband who collects children’s toys and stuffed animals.”

Again Kristen proved him wrong by her unconditional love.

As a gift for the one-year anniversary of our first date, Kristen gave me the Calico Critters Meerkat Family. Two years later we had Calico Critters on our wedding cake; the bride and groom were cats and the priest was a beaver. During our honeymoon in Chicago, as we walked from the train station to our hotel an angry honey badger stuffed animal in a storefront display window caught my eye. My special interest took the best of me and the honey badger found a new home.

My final autism quirk is sensory issues with certain smells and sounds. When I experienced meltdowns as a child from my dad using bleach to clean the bathroom, he would say, “No woman will want a husband who screams and throws a tantrum over the smell of a little bleach.”

Thank God Kristen proved him wrong.

Kristen has accepted my kryptonite weakness of electronic noises and bleach. She demonstrates her compassion and sensitivity to my sensory issues by not using nail polish in our apartment or playing music with bass.

Proverbs 31:12 describes my wife perfectly: “She brings her husband good, not harm, all the days of her life.” Thank you, Kristen, for loving me unconditionally even with all my autism quirks. In March the newest member of our family, Makayla Marie, will arrive. On April 5, Charisma House is publishing my book, “A Parent’s Guide to Autism,” and I have dedicated my book to my beautiful wife, Kristen.

Follow this journey on Spectrum Inclusion.

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