Sneaker with untied shoelaces.

How 'Rocket Laces' Helped My Son with Autism Tie His Shoes

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After 10 years of trying, my son learned to tie his shoes with ease.

My 14-year-old son was diagnosed with autism at the age of 5, and learning self-help skills has been a challenge. His fine motor control is limited, but through much hard work with my husband, his therapists and myself he has grasped some skills. He can zip up his jacket — despite being irritated by the feeling of the zipper touching his chin when fully zipped. He learned to brush his teeth with little guidance, and can independently fasten some larger buttons. But despite all of our efforts and his will to learn, he couldn’t tie his shoes.

He understood the steps, and with hand-over-hand prompting he was able to occasionally complete some of the steps, but the floppiness of the shoelaces made it difficult. He would always choose shoes that had laces, but I would have to double knot them before sending him to school, and even then he would still come home with untied shoelaces.

Peter learning to tie his shoes
Peter learning to tie his shoes

When he was 13, early in the school year he began wearing his Crocs to school. I suspected that it was due to him not being able to tie his shoes, and worried he had been teased for not being able to tie his untied sneakers. I didn’t want him to feel different than his peers at school, so I never got him Velcro straps. I always let him wear whatever shoes he wanted, and for the first time he began choosing his slip-ons over the sneakers he had always loved.

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One day, a friend whose child is also on the spectrum asked if my son still needed help with his shoelaces. She had read an article here on The Mighty about “Rocket Laces” and how they were a brilliantly designed shoelace created to teach kids how to easily tie their shoes. The best part of the laces was that they weren’t an alternative to shoelaces. Instead, they are regular shoelaces with a wire-like stiffness, which allows the learner to accomplish every step without the frustration of having to hold floppy shoelaces. I was anxious to try them. I ordered them at SprinkCreative.com.

The day they arrived in the mail, I couldn’t wait for my son to get home from school. By the time he got home, I had already laced a pair of basketball shoes that he would only wear when someone was around to help him. I sat at the table and went over the steps, one at a time, loop-de-loop, over and under. On about his 6th attempt, he was so amazed with himself. I couldn’t hold back tears of joy as he slipped into both shoes and tied them over and over again. From now on, with Rocket Laces he will be able to wear any shoe he wants to school without worry. I hope Rocket Laces can give every child with fine motor challenges the opportunity to wear any shoes they desire.

The Mighty is asking the following: What was one moment you received help in an unexpected or unorthodox way related to disability, disease or mental illness? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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Why I No Longer Feel Guilty That ‘Bribery’ Is One of My Parenting Tools

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When I became a mom, I had a pretty hefty bag of parenting tools at my disposal. But over time, the needs that come with my son’s autism made me throw out most of my “tools.”

There was one tool that worked pretty consistently…but I didn’t like to use it.

The tool? Bribery.

It’s the ol’ “If you finish your broccoli you can have a cookie” song and dance.

It worked. But I found myself cringing every time I bribed my son towards the behavior I desired from him.

I wanted him to follow my instructions.

I wanted him to eat his green beans for the sake of his health.

I wanted him to sit through a church to learn more about God.

I pulled back on the bribes, trying to explain the intrinsic value of why we should or should not do certain things. But that didn’t work either.

I expressed my frustration at one of my son Benji’s therapy appointments.

“I don’t want to bribe him to do the things he should be doing already. I mean, he’s part of the family. He should clean up his room.”

“That’s true,” our therapist nodded. “But, call it what you will — bribing, incentives — we all are motivated by something. Even if you love your job, people ultimately go to work for the paycheck. Money is a huge motivator to get up and be responsible each morning.”

I paused, listening to her reasoning.

“Eventually,” she went on, “we want Benji to get in the habit of doing the right thing, incentive or not. But utilizing incentives for a desired outcome isn’t wrong. It can be a very good thing.”

“So you’re telling me it’s OK to bribe my kid?”

We both laughed.

And I relaxed a bit.

Bribing — incentives — (whatever) works for us.

In fact, it has been the best tool in my bag for motivating Benji towards good behavior and fewer meltdowns.

Now that he’s 8, I don’t have to promise a cookie for him to eat his vegetables. He knows that eating his veggies is part of dinner.

But in other things, an incentive — small or large — sparks his interest; it motivates and excites him. In many cases, it’s the difference between Stuck and Moving Forward.

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I don’t apply incentives to everything. Sometimes I throw down the “because you’re part of this family” card or remind him that kindness and being friendly is its own reward.

But for our cyclical struggles, like church, the incentive has become a reliable tool.

Benji knows if he sits quietly with us during the service and participates in Sunday School, he can watch Pokemon on Netflix that afternoon. He loves Pokemon and looks forward to it each week (in fact, he’s started calling Sunday “Pokemon Day”).

Sure, I’d like him to sit still, participate in the service and be an attentive listener in Sunday School because he wants to learn about God and please his parents, teachers and friends.

Pokemon book next to a toy truck

But they are abstract rewards, even if he understands or even wants those things. He struggles with the abstract, so giving him the concrete reward of Pokemon is the incentive that helps remind him of how we believe he should act and wants to act.

The Pokemon incentive is immediate gratification. But we’re trying to inspire him to work towards a goal with delayed gratification, too.

Right now, he is doing chores to get a new toy. I made a chart to track his progress. For each chore he earns 25 cents; 40 chores will get him to his goal. He’s pretty excited to mark the dots on his chart so he can visually see his progress.

Am I bribing my kid to do housework? Eh, maybe.

Bribing? Incentives? Working towards a goal? We’ve all been there as parents and as individuals. After all, as adults, we “bribe” or remind ourselves of the incentives of XYZ all day long to help motivate us towards our goals.

I try not to abuse the “bribe.” He doesn’t get to eat a lollypop or play on the iPad for every dot and tittle of good behavior. But incentives are part of the real world, so I’m planting that tool firmly in my parenting bag and am throwing out the guilt of “bribing” my kid with what motivates him.

After all, my therapist said it was OK.

Follow this journey on The Bam Blog.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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Mom 'Lets' Child Escape Into Gorilla Enclosure: I Am That Mom

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I am a mom. I am that mom.

I have four kids just a few years apart, and my oldest is on the autism spectrum. I have managed to lose each of them at different times for varying amounts of time.

When we lived in the city my son, a ball of pent up energy, would race ahead of me on his scooter while I ran to catch up, pushing his sister in her stroller, screaming for him to slow down, to wait for me, to stay within, if not my reach, at least my sight.

I’d hold my breath when he turned the corner for his preschool and the few moments I could not see him. Should he have been abducted in the time it took me to turn the corner, it would have been my fault.

My oldest, my daughter, who’s on the spectrum, tends to wander. She is distracted and
fascinated by escalators, books and animals. She would have wanted to touch and hug a live gorilla.

I have lost her in the city. I have lost her in the country. I have lost her in my own home.  It was never my intention to lose her. I lost my mind every time I did. During a family gathering when I thought she was upstairs reading, a friend found her sitting in the middle of the road in front of our house. Had something happened to her in any of those locations, it would have been my fault.

The level of venom and vitriol unleashed at this woman, at this mom, blows my mind. I wonder if her critics realize she did not arrive at the zoo that morning, a bevy of kids
in tow, with the intent to kill. Have they somehow mistaken her for someone on safari tracking, shooting and posing with the carcasses of an endangered species? Don’t they understand she was trying to occupy her kids for a few hours on a long weekend?

I wonder if her critics have ever tried to corral a group of young children. I wonder if they know that often they move in opposite directions or simultaneously drop their ice
cream and need their shoes tied. I wonder if they know that sometimes kids don’t listen, sometimes they whine and cry and fight and distract you from yourself.

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I wonder if they know that sometimes they shake loose and run away further than you can see. I wonder if they know the terror that strikes when they are out of sight.

I wonder if her critics have ever loved someone who cannot care for themselves – someone whose safety and life depends on you. I wonder if they know what it feels like to lose someone you love.

And I wonder what they would sanction to get that person back.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment where you experienced intolerance or inaccessibility. What needs to happen to change this? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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The Kid in Harambe's Habitat Could Have Been My Autistic Brother

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John Bonilla
My brother John

By now, you’ve heard about the controversial and tragic death of Harambe, the endangered Western Lowland Silverback Gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo. The internet has gone ablaze about who should be at fault for Harambe’s death. People are passionately divided. Opinions vary from backing up the Cincinnati Zoo’s decision to charging the zoo and the mother of the young boy with criminal negligence. Some have gone as far to say that if the child would have died at Harambe’s hand, he would have deserved it for wandering in there.

When I first saw the footage, I felt sick to my stomach. Being the primary caregiver of John, my autistic brother, I understand how easy it is for a young child to slip away. I am in no way condoning the mother’s actions, or lack of actions, depending on your views.  But, I do understand how in a second everything can change from calm to life-threatening. John slipping away happened to us, more than once.

Autistic children are at risk of eloping or wandering. If they are in a situation causing them to have a sensory overload, if they’re scared or if they’re fixated on a particular person, animal, object, sound, and/or smell, they might walk/run off. Wandering was a constant challenge for us, especially in John’s younger years. When John was the same age as the boy at the Cincinnati Zoo, our family went to The San Diego Wild Animal Park. While on the tram ride, which goes around the main animal preserve, John tried to jump out. He wanted to pet the animals.  Since there were no seat belts on that tram, Dad had to hold John on his lap to keep him safe. I could only imagine how terrifying it would have been if John was able to get down to the animals.

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I remember the looks on the faces of our fellow tram patrons as dad was holding John.  John was having a meltdown. Since these patrons were with their children, you would think they would have been empathetic. But sadly, this was not the case. I heard some of them whispering, accusing Mom and Dad of being “bad parents and John of being a “spoiled child.” Even if Mom and Dad had explained John’s autism, I don’t think it would have helped them. The judgmental patrons would have probably have stuck up their noses.

As the wandering continued, our parents decided to put John in a leashed child harness while in public. This made going out more difficult. John despised the harness. Then, John figured out how to get out of the harness. We spent most of our time at home and had to take extra security measures to protect John. This included adding higher deadbolts to our doors, installing a television surveillance system, getting a car with child locks and registering John with the local police department as a potential wanderer.

For the next few years, our family took extra precautions. John had a constant chaperone who would always hold his hand in public. By third grade, John developed more speech and went to an elementary school, where the security and teachers took extras measure to make sure he didn’t wander. John’s wandering decreased, but he still wanders to this day.

Recently, John and I were walking to the bus stop. Afraid we were going to miss the bus, John tried to run across a crosswalk with the red light facing us. It was difficult to hold him back from oncoming traffic. As John’s caregiver, it is my responsibility to make sure he is safe.

When we are outside of a situation, it’s so easy for us to stick our noses up and say, “I would never do that, ” or, “That would never happen to me. I’m a responsible parent.”  Yet, at a moment’s notice, things can change dramatically.

For resources on autism-related wandering, head here.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment where you experienced intolerance or inaccessibility. What needs to happen to change this? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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My Autistic Unwavering Sense of Youth Is a Good Thing

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One of my favorite features of being autistic is the fact that I have an unwavering sense of youth — a seemingly endless childhood, if you will. I have never lost sight of that childlike sense of wonder.

I’ve never felt nor acted my age. I remember acting young for my age even when I was little. I was 9 and still found my interests were those of someone about 5 or 6, such as Barney. While I had some things in common with my peers, I never  have been on quite the same page as them.

Fast forward to middle school, where my fellow female classmates were starting to develop different interests. Boys, makeup, clothes… things that all seemed foreign to me. I was into video games, toys and being goofy. I was also focused doing well in school. I had no interest in these other “strange” things, and I didn’t envy the other girls, either.

In high school and college, the other kids started dating, partying and talking about things that still didn’t interest me. Video games, toys, animals and helping others were the first things on my mind. I just had no desire to do any of those other things that still seemed too “mature” for my liking.

After college, some of my peers began getting into more serious relationships, and now in our 30s I see many of them starting families. This couldn’t be further from what my priorities are right now. I still want to help people. I want to have fun. I want to be carefree. I don’t want anything tying me down. I can’t imagine the level of responsibility raising a child entails.

I totally respect that everyone is different and we all have different lives. I’m happy for people who have that life and desire it, however it’s just not for me. I still want to live like I’m in my late teens or early 20s, and there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s what appeals to me.

Ever since I was little, it seemed to puzzle my parents that I acted differently from my peers. My dad would always try to push me to act older than I felt was right for me. I tried to explain myself for years; I told them this is who I am and I’m only acting naturally. Finally, at some point when I was in my 20s, and especially after learning I was autistic and going through the diagnostic process, my dad no longer pressed the issue. He seems to have a much better understanding of me now and knows I’m not going to change for anyone or anything. This is me.

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Though I’ve faced confusion and questions from the world around me, I’ve always taken pride in who I am. I feel blessed to have this sense of youth, and I think it only makes me enjoy life more. I have an innocence about me, and I see things for what they are. The littlest things will captivate me and I have simple pleasures. I feel about 10 or 15 years younger than I am and have the same interests I did then. It’s almost as if years have gone by, and I’ve been frozen in time… and I feel that’s a good thing! I’m living my life to its fullest. My motto is this: the younger you feel, the longer you’ll live!

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe your experience of not quite fitting under one specific diagnosis or a label your community identifies with. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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