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Goodbye WEGO Health Challenge, Hello Blogathon

1 May

In April I participated in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I published a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

I am now participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

When I first started Running For Autism a little over two years ago, my blogging was an airy-fairy kind of affair. My original intent was for this to primarily be a running blog, but it morphed very quickly into far more than that. Running is such an important part of who I am, and it is frequently difficult to squeeze it in with all of the other responsibilities I have, and I found impossible to write about it without adding the context of my life. For example, how could I write about running to raise funds for autism without trying to raise some awareness about the impact of autism on my life?

And so my subject matter started expanding to include posts about parenting and autism. As my wedding day approached and I started feeling the typical angst of a bride-to-be, my blog became a place for me to vent about my stress and toss around ideas for how to plan a wedding that both of my children could be fully involved in. At some point I started to try my hand at fiction in the Indie Ink writing challenges. A little while after that, I felt a little glimmer of bravery that allowed me to tentatively start discussing my struggles with depression.

Even as I cast my net of topics wider and grew my audience, I found it difficult to prioritize my blogging. I have a lot on my plate. I am a wife and mother. I have a child with autism. I have a full-time job outside of the home that involves two hours of commuting each day. I help my husband with his business and take care of making sure bills are paid and taxes are filed. I run. I have a commitment to write three articles a week for an ezine.

Inevitably, blogging took a back seat to all of this, and I was posting once or twice a week if I was lucky.

When WEGO Health sent me an email inviting me to participate in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to see it through to completion. I mean, we were talking about a blog post every day for a month. In the end I signed up, spurred on by the fact that the challenge coincided with Autism Awareness Month. This seemed like a great opportunity not only to give my writing a boost, but to spread the word about autism and offer some hope and encouragement to parents feeling overwhelmed by a newly acquired diagnosis.

We have now reached the end of what turned out to be a very successful challenge. The prompts that were provided offered new ways for me to think about the health focuses that matter most to me – autism, mental health and running. I had to really dig deep and be honest with myself and with the world – or at least, the corner of the world that reads my blog. I had some moments of soul-searching, and I found myself addressing questions that I’ve never had the courage to ask before.

There were two days on which the prompts just couldn’t work for me. Try as I might, I could not get past the writer’s block. The challenge rules allowed two “get out of post free” days, but I was loathe to use them. Instead, I turned to the list of bonus prompts that were provided just for occasions like that. As a result, I published a post every day in April.

Through this challenge, I gained some new readers, and some great new blogs to follow. I read some incredible stories of courage and perseverance. So many aspects of health were covered in this challenge: diabetes, cancer, mental illness, special needs parenting, and so many others.

When you read so many stories of people fighting to survive, going to the ends of the earth for their children, and using their own painful experiences to help their fellow man, it really gives you renewed faith in the awesomeness of humankind.

Thank you to WEGO Health for putting this challenge out there. Thank you to my fellow bloggers for taking me on journeys that I could never have otherwise imagined. And thank you to everyone who reads my blog, who leaves comments or clicks the “like” button, or who shares my posts on Facebook or Twitter. It means a lot to me to know that my voice is being heard.

I am compiling a list of fellow bloggers who took the challenge, and when my new website is launched, they will be on the blogroll.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mariareyesmcdavis/2890706354/. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)

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Painting Pictures With Words

30 Apr

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 30 – Word Cloud: Make a word cloud or tree with a list of words that come to mind when you think about your blog, health or interests. 

When I read this prompt, the first (OK, the only) thought in my head was, “Eh?” Although I have seen the term “word cloud” bandied about in various places on the Internet, I’ve never paid attention to what it might be. I was visualizing a mind-map kind of thing, and I was wondering how on earth I would come up with something like that. It seemed to be a highly visual concept, which would imply a kind of creativity completely alien to my way of thinking. While I think in pictures, I’m hopeless at actually creating them in any artistic sense. I can only paint pictures out of words.

When I Googled “word cloud” (because, you know, Google knows everything), I discovered that this is exactly what a word cloud is: a picture made out of words. All I had to do to make my picture was import a list of my blog tags into this online tool, select a few options, and click the button. It turned out to be lots of fun: I experimented with different shapes and colours, and finally settled on a picture that represents what my blog is all about.

When it comes down to it, Running For Autism is really about two things. Hope and love.

I think my word cloud is a perfect representation of that.

Beyond The Stars

29 Apr

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 29 – Six sentence story: In this day of micro-blogging – brevity is a skill worth honing. Can you tell a story and make it short and sweet? What can you say in six sentences?

When my son George was diagnosed with autism, I didn’t really know what it meant or what he would ultimately be capable of.

I didn’t know what it would mean for my family, or for George’s sibling relationship with his little brother.

Since then, we have discovered that George has potential that reaches beyond the stars, and that all we have to do is help him get there.

We have discovered that he has a big  heart with an infinite capacity for love, and that he and his brother will be best friends for life.

There are challenges, and I worry about what the future could bring for my boy.

But I believe in him absolutely.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gsfc/5161800961/. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)

The First Date That Never Ended

28 Apr

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 28 – The first time I…: Write a post about the first time you did something. What is it? What was it like? What did you learn from it?

The first time I took a man home with me on the very first date, I ended up marrying him. Not on the same day, of course – the marrying part took about ten years. But right away, I just knew that this was the man I wanted to be with forever.

The beginning of our romance had a whirlwind quality to it, much like a fairytale romance. The fairytale began the moment we first laid eyes on each other.

It was a balmy afternoon late in the summer, and I was sitting on a rock in the park trying to bring my life into perspective. I was reeling from a recent ugly breakup: the man I had been dating for six months had conveniently neglected to mention that he was married. I was feeling depressed, lonely, and utterly foolish.

Something made me look up, and I saw a man heading towards me. I had never seen him before, but he walking in my direction with purpose, as if he knew me. I wondered if he had mistaken me for someone else. He sat down beside me, gazed at me for a few seconds, and then said, “You have beautiful eyes.”

I looked at this man and saw a whole new future open up before me. We stood up, and hand in hand, we went for a walk through the park.We found ourselves on the patio of a restaurant, eating, drinking wine, and sharing our life stories with each other.

It was perfect, that first date. When I let him come home with me that night, it was simply because neither of us wanted the date to end.

Although almost eleven years have passed since that night – eleven years that have seen many trials and tribulations, many joys, the births of our two beautiful children, tons of parenting adventures and our introduction to the world of special needs parenting,  and eventually, our wedding, neither of us feels that the first date ever really ended.

(Photo credit: Kirsten Doyle)

The Good And The Bad

26 Apr

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 27 – 5 challenges, 5 small victories: Make a list of the 5 most difficult parts of your health focus. Make another top 5 list for the little, good things (small victories) that keep you going.

Autism can be a very complicated thing to live with. Its manifestations change from day to day. One day, my son will be able to tolerate loud noises but a small change in routine will send him into meltdown. The next, we’ll be able to turn his entire routine upside down but anything louder  than a whisper will set him off. Different strategies work for different kids on different days, and everyone you might see guidance from is convinced that their opinion is the right one.

The things I find most challenging about being an autism mom don’t really have to do with the autism itself. Whatever might be going on with my child on any particular day, I just deal with it. Sometimes it’s hard, but I always know that I’m doing my best, my son is doing his best, and at the end of the day we’ll all survive.

My challenges tend to come from sources other than my son and his autism. I list them in no particular order.

  1. The judgmental critics. It’s a moment every autism parent has lived through at least once. You and your child are in a grocery store, which let’s face it, is a mecca for sensory overload, and your child is getting more agitated by the second. You throw things into your cart at quickly as you can, but just as you get to the checkout, your child reaches his breaking point and explodes. As you are trying to calm him down, some snarky stranger loudly proclaims, “What that child needs is a good hiding.” I once heard someone say (referring to me), “If that mother was doing her job properly, this wouldn’t be happening.” Like I’m not already carrying around enough angst with me. With my social anxiety, I’m not great at the quick comeback, although I’m definitely better than I used to be.
  2. The third-person talker. These are the people who will talk about someone who is present as if that person were not in the room. The chances of this happening increase exponentially if the subject of conversation happens to have autism. I get it all the time. “Would George like a hamburger?” they will ask. My answer always seems to throw them a little: “Ask him,” I say. Yes, it is true that George is not the world’s greatest talker, and may not respond to everything that is said to him. But, you know. At least give the kid a chance to try. If he struggles to answer, I will help him.
  3. Guilt. I was educated at a girls-only Catholic school run by nuns, and I am married to an Irish Catholic man. I can therefore say with some authority that the Catholics turn guilt into an art form. And some of the guilt that I feel as a special needs parent (hell, forget special needs – just as a plain old parent) almost makes me think I should just convert. I feel guilty about everything. Did the Taco Bell I ate during pregnancy cause George’s autism? Did I give him enough affection as a baby? Am I paying enough attention to my other son? Did I get too mad at George when he tipped over the laundry basket?  The list goes on and on, and my guilt makes me constantly second-guess myself when I should just be following my parental instincts.
  4. Time. Time very often seems to be my enemy, so much so that I sometimes regard it as a person. Time with a capital T. No matter how much I try, Time seems to run away from me. At the end of each day, there is always something that remains undone. Parenting is my absolute number 1 priority, so my kids’ needs are always taken care of. But I tend to let other areas of my life slip occasionally, and that is detrimental to my physical and mental health.
  5. The Internet. When George was diagnosed with autism five years ago, the first thing I did when I got home was Google autism. I obsessively read web page after web page. Every link that I clicked on seemed to have some information that flatly contradicted something I’d read somewhere else, and in the end my brain was hurting from information overload. I was overwhelmed by not knowing what information to trust. Since then, I am wiser in my use of the Internet and I have learned, for the most part, how to tell the good information from the noise. But the Internet, with all of its gazillion theories about the causes of autism, can still hinder more than it helps a lot of the time.

In my house, there is no such thing as a “small victory”. Every single accomplishment, all of the positive things in our lives – are massive, big things. That’s the way it often is in special needs families. We tend to place extra stock in things that other families take for granted. And as hard as it can be to live with autism, there are many things that I am grateful for, that enable me to keep chugging along even at times when I just want to cry.

  1. Love. Love really does make the world go around. Out of all the challenges my son has, lack of affection is definitely not one of them. Both of my sons give the best hugs that I can carry around with me all day. My favourite moments are when my boys somehow manage to squeeze onto my lap together to give me a hug. I sit there, with my arms full of squirmy, giggling kid, and never want the moment to end.
  2. Running. Yes, running keeps me sane, and when something stops me from doing it – like illness or injury – depression starts to creep in. The fact that it keeps me in good physical health is almost a by-product of running. My prime reason for doing it, along with raising funds for autism, is to keep my mental health on an even keel. I struggle with mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, and there’s no better way to combat my darker moments than a good long run. I am stubbornly resistant to using medication to deal with my issues, and running acts as a decent substitute for chemicals most of the time.
  3. Therapy. It has been said that running is cheaper than therapy, and while that is certainly true, I actually do need both. The therapist/client relationship is a very strange one. It involves the client placing complete trust in someone they actually know nothing about. I have been going to my therapist for a little over a year now, and it has taken me almost all of this time to build up my trust to a level where I can really open up during my sessions. Sometimes the sessions are very hard and they make me feel all weirded out for a while, but the truth is that once a week, I get the opportunity to talk without reservation in the sanctuary of my therapist’s office. I can say whatever I like and there will be no judgment or anger.
  4. Writing. I am somewhat inept as a verbal communicator, and I experience high levels of anxiety in social situations. When I am talking to other people, I hold back a lot, not only because of my natural shyness, but because my brain actually doesn’t work well during conversation. I can formulate a completely coherent thought in my mind, and even mentally phrase how I want to say it, but when it comes time for me to speak, my words get lost somewhere between my brain and my mouth. With writing, that doesn’t happen. I truly have a voice, and I treasure the opportunities to speak my mind on things that are important to me.
  5. The Internet. The Internet is both a blessing and a curse. Despite the evils described in my “bad” list, the Internet is a haven of sorts. I belong to two Internet support groups – one for moms who have suffered pregnancy or infant loss, and one for parents of children with autism. Both of these groups are places where I can vent my concerns, ask for advice, or celebrate good news. Some of my best friends are people who I have known online for a long time, but have never met in person. Here’s the wonderful thing about the Internet: no matter what I am going through on any particular day, I will always be able to find someone who knows, at least to some extent, how I feel.

Autism: Seeing The World From A Different Angle

26 Apr

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 26 – Health tagline: Give yourself, your blog, your condition, or some aspect of your health a tagline. Make sure it’s catchy!

Seeing The World From A Different Angle

A couple of years ago, George had a block of Occupational Therapy appointments. He needed help with some sensory issues he was having, and he had virtually no fine motor skills. My husband and I were always present at the sessions, mostly to observe and learn techniques we could use at home. We didn’t actually do anything during the sessions. We just let George and the therapist do their thing.

One of the tools in the therapist’s toolbox was a board full of evenly spaced holes that went with a bag full of coloured pegs. George would be asked to fill the pegboard with pegs. He could choose whatever colours he wanted: the point of the exercise was to strengthen his hands. It was not a task George enjoyed, because he struggled with it so much. He didn’t bother to select colours – he would just take pegs out of the bag at random and try mightily to get them into the board.

One day, he deviated from this way of doing things. He emptied the bag and separated the pegs into piles according to what colour they were. And then, for the first time, we saw him systematically select his pegs and make a pattern on the board. My husband was seated beside George, and I was on the opposite side of the table. The therapist was behind George, helping him correct his grip on the pegs when needed.

As George filled the board, the pattern became clear. It was oddly soothing to watch him make his little design, knowing with each turn which peg he would use next. I felt comforted by the predictability my son had created.

All of a sudden my sense of calm was jarred when George picked up a yellow peg and put it where I’d been expecting a blue peg. This wasn’t right! What about the pattern? I looked at my husband, who seemed surprised at this unexpected turn of events. However, he didn’t look quite as horrified as I felt. I’m not sure why I had placed so much stock in this pattern, since that wasn’t an objective of the exercise, but I really felt disturbed.

A few pegs later, the pattern was history, and George appeared to be placing the pegs randomly. My husband got up to stretch his legs, and he walked around to the side of the table. He stopped dead and as he stared at the board, a look of astonishment spread across his face. Not wanting to disrupt George, he whispered in my ear.

“You have to look at this from over there.”

I stood up and went to where he had been standing, and immediately, I saw what had amazed my husband so much.

Changing my perspective of the board by a mere ninety degrees made me see that George had not abandoned his pattern at all. He had simply been shooting for a pattern completely different to the one I had expected. What he was creating was complex and utterly unique. It was one of those things that needed creative thinking and planning. At that moment George reminded me of those chess players who can plan the next twenty moves and know that they are going to skewer their opponent at the end of it.

The pattern was quite, quite beautiful. And it was something that needed George’s own unique brand of thought.

Individuals with autism do not look at the world the same way we do. And that is a good thing.

Because if it weren’t for autistic thought, I would not have gotten to see that beautiful pattern that day.

The tagline I chose is not one that I created myself. I borrowed it from the T-shirt I wore when I ran last year’s autism run. The T-shirt was designed by my friend, whose name is also George, from the Geneva Centre for Autism. I could not think of any tagline that so perfectly encapsulates that day at the O.T.’s office.

(Photo credit: Kirsten Doyle)

Child, Paper, Scissors

25 Apr

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 25 – Third person post: Write about a memory you have but describe it using the third person. Use as many sensory images (sights, sounds, textures, etc) as you can. Don’t use “I” or “me” unless you include dialogue.

The little girl struggled with her craft project and prayed for the bell to ring. Unlike her classmates, who were happily making creations out of coloured construction paper and bits of glitter, she didn’t really know what she was supposed to do. She didn’t want to ask Miss H, the teacher, for help. Miss H hated her and would only yell at her.

Sighing inwardly, she picked up her scissors and tried to cut a triangle out of a piece of bright yellow construction paper. But the scissors were too blunt – made that way for the safety of ten-year-olds like herself – and they were hard for people like her to use. Sometimes it was hard being a left-handed person in a right-handed world.

The little girl found herself close to tears as she tried to get the scissors to comply. She had a hard enough time at school. She had “learning disabilities”. She didn’t know exactly what that meant, but she did know that she had to work really, really hard just to keep up with her classmates.

Sensing someone standing behind her, the little girl looked up and saw Miss H regarding her sternly. She started to quiver. She was afraid of Miss H. She almost cried with relief when the bell rang, signalling the end of the school day. But when she started to gather up her things, Miss H pinned her to her seat with a glare and said, “You’re not going anywhere until you cut that piece of paper properly.”

The little girl watched helplessly as her classmates filed out of the room. I can do this, she thought. It’s only scissors. I’ll cut this paper and then I’ll be allowed to leave.

Under Miss H’s hostile gaze, the little girl picked up the scissors with her left hand and prepared to cut.

“The scissors go in your other hand!” barked Miss H.

“But I’m left-handed,” said the little girl timidly.

“Not in my class! Now pick up those scissors – in your right hand – and cut!

The little girl tentatively held the scissors in her right hand. She tried to cut but the paper just bunched up awkwardly. The little girl looked up imploringly.

“My mom is waiting for me,” she whispered.

“She’s just going to have to wait! You’re not going until you get this right! Are you so stupid that you can’t cut a simple piece of paper?”

The little girl tried again, but this time she was shaking so badly that she accidentally ripped the paper. Miss H whipped the paper away and slapped a fresh sheet down on the desk.

“Do it!” she snapped.

As the little girl tried desperately to use the hand she was not designed to use, the pile of discarded paper grew. Fat tears started rolling down her face and plopping onto the paper.

All of a sudden a new voice pierced the terrible atmosphere: the little girl’s mother had come looking for her and was witnessing the events with horror.

“Miss H!What is going on?” asked the girl’s mother, furiously.

Miss H, caught off-guard by a mother protecting her young, said something incoherent about acting in the best interests of the child.

The little girl’s mother lowered her voice menacingly and said, “Now, you listen to me. My daughter has a learning disability that you are well aware of. And you have just destroyed five years of confidence-building work in fifteen minutes. I hope you’re happy!”

With that, the mother swept up her little girl and whisked her away to safety.

She took her home and immediately started the process of building up her broken child.

(Photo credit: Kirsten Doyle)