Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Ever-Changing Daddy Life

The past year brought so many changes that it is hard to cast back and find the center.

I have been pretty quiet over here about the rigors of the stay-at-home daddy life. Having kids at 4 and 2 was not any less challenging, but it was more manageable. And more satisfying, I think.  

A year ago we moved into the Cornett Compound. The move nearly killed us, and we swore not to move again for 20 years. Make that 19 years, now. We were lucky to find and buy our dream house on a flat-ish lot in the West Hills. The move allowed us all to grow a little, into our new space.

I love it here. We are set back from the street with a long driveway, plenty of woods, tall trees, a small yard, and room to run. I have a big shop that is mostly filled with bikes and skis and lawn chairs. But my personal happiness was not the only reason for this big move. We needed the space and the privacy to deal with another problem that was rapidly taking over our lives.

My boy is a monkey
This is a post about Sensory Processing Disorder, or living with too much stimulation. It has been overdue for some time, but I will try to make some sense of the world we live in. Maybe it will help my three readers in the raising of their own maniacs someday.  I am talking about Jude, my sweet little baby boy who is now 4 and ½ but he looks like he’s 6 (as he’ll tell you). He is a mad web of complexities that gives me both pride and cause to cringe, every single day.

A Summary of Jude

Jude dressed for the Pool
We have always known that Jude was a little different from other kids, but had no frame of reference. He was our first child, so we loved him, and parented him, and fed him, and raised him like everyone does, as best you can. A couple of things stand out about Jude. 

First, he is BIG. He really is solid, and really does look like he’s six. This is a source of pride at first, and then a problem in the real world. Other parents treat him like he should know better. And sometimes he should.  Second, he is independent (and willful). I love this about him, and as a parent I have consciously fostered it (within reason). You want to do the dishes? Great. You want to put on your own clothes? No problem. You want to climb on the mossy shake roof? Sorry, Judey.  Which brings me to a third standout:  he has great balance. The kid seems absolutely fearless, but then I’ve noticed that it is because he is also very careful. He almost never falls. He climbs, swings, dances over playgrounds, cars, ropes, or whatever. It’s enviable, even in a four year old. I would also say that Jude is very smart. He is good with words and numbers, and very interested in the world. He can be socially very engaging, but also demonstrates very antisocial behaviors by crashing around his body into other kids. This all makes for a pretty good puzzle, and I will add one more piece. Jude experiences extreme highs and lows in life. At moments he is nothing but pure joy, and at the other end he is crying and screaming and ANGRY. All of this will someday translate into personality and character. For now, we just call it CHALLENGING. 

Are you feeling frustrated?
Last year Jude was three, and it was in the context of our co-op preschool that it became evident there might be a problem. We had a few plane flights that were terrible. One day Jude tried to run through airport security (thank God he was unarmed). Getting in and out of the car was a daily challenge. I have carried him, screaming, out of too many perfectly nice parties.  Jude would get worked up, and start spinning out of control. Crying, lashing out, yelling, running away, falling on the floor. A real Jude tantrum is a thing to behold, and not fun at all. The best way I can describe it would be the word SAVAGE. On more than one occasion, old ladies on the street have been convinced that Jude’s rage was a desperate attempt to escape from his abusive father. They were very well intentioned, I am sure. These were red flags.

Sensory Processing Disorder
The very experienced teachers at Jude’s school kindly helped us to see that our reality was not what MOST parents know about. They directed us to hear a speaker about Sensory Processing Disorder, and encouraged us to try making Jude an appointment with an Occupational Therapist. As we studied SPD, it became clear that this might be a key to unlocking some of our problems.

What is this Sensory Processing thing? I can best describe it as a window to look at sensory experience. As we learn more about brain function, it has become clear that some children need certain inputs to help them grow up in a healthy way. As adults, we all find ways to modulate the stimulation in our lives. Some children need our help to do this. The experts talk about something called the “Sensory Diet.” It is not so much about food, but about regulating the stimulating experiences to a manageable level. Maybe this is the latest fad in pediatric psychology, but all I can say is that IT WORKS.

The biggest convincing factor came when I realized that I was already managing our lives around Jude’s sensory experience. Were we going to a party that evening? Better get to the pool in the afternoon. Did Jude spend the day at co-op preschool? Let him cool down for a few hours before another activity. Should I run some quick errands with three stops out of the car? Not on your life.

Last fall we began Occupational Therapy at a local clinic where they specialize in managing Sensory Processing Disorders, or SPD. It helped us to know that a number of other children in our pre-school community have also pursued this kind of treatment.   The very calm and knowledgeable Teacher Kristin met with Jude once a week for the past 6 months. She began with a short evaluation, and then moved to a combination of focused tasks and structured physical activities. Jude loves going there. He gets one-on-one time with an attentive adult, and she provides him with challenges that he can complete. 

The OT has also passed to us a number of strategies that have made a tremendous difference in our home life.  Let me give some examples.
The Crazy Chart

Schedules. We noticed that Kristin relied heavily on the use of quick-sketched, pictorial schedules to alert Jude to transitions. We adopted these at home to great effect. I’m a little embarrassed that I never tried the schedules on my own – I am a special ed teacher for gawds sakes. But sometimes it takes a look in from the outside to make things clear.

Stimulation. Kristin and Jude developed a number system and scale for describing his level of frustration. Jude once referred to it as his Crazy Chart. Now when he’s getting frustrated, we ask him, “Jude, what number are you?” It works as a self-awareness tool. Of course he has made up many more numbers to describe varying states of being.

Modulation. This is really about modulating stimulation or energy levels. When Jude is heightened, he needs activity, or challenges, or any of several other calming activities. Jumping, wheelbarrows, climbing on the car, spinning and swinging; these all work to serve this goal of giving Jude a better internal locus of control. Blowing through a straw. Sucking on a lollipop. The list goes on and on.  

Daily Brushing
Intervention. We experimented with a couple of different home program tools. One was something called brushing that is basically used to “wake up” Jude’s body and alert him to stimulation. Another tool is something called Therapeutic Listening, which works to build connections in the brain through specialized music. I was skeptical of these things, but they seemed to help!

Color-Coded Transitions. This one was invented by our boy, and we adopted it for use with any time-sensitive transition. Some parents can just say, “Elroy, two minutes!” and then Elroy runs dutifully to the car. That was not remotely working for us. The system described below is just quirky enough and just repetitive enough to satisfy Dad, kids, and everyone else.
It all began with Code Green. 5 minutes to go. This was a good baseline.
But then eventually Code Green was not enough time, so we invented Code Pink. 7 minutes.
Don’t forget about Code White. More than 7 minutes, up to infinity minutes.
Where were we? Oh, yeah. Code Yellow actually means Time to Go, but I give it at 2 minutes.
One minute? Code Orange.
And finally, CODE RED - Red means Run. Technically it means one minute, but actually it was so named because it was at this point that Dad was seeing red, and definitely Out of Patience. We try very hard not to get to Code Red.
I know this all seems so silly, but if I want a smooth transition, then giving appropriate codes at White, Pink, Green, Yellow, and Orange works every time.

Days in the Life
Our life is much improved over the experience we were having just one year back.  MAYBE, that is just maturity and time, MAYBE we are all just getting more comfortable in our family life.  It is certainly true that Jude’s behavior got much better last summer when we started swimming every day. For a long time, we had been held hostage over Jude’s whims and needs. That is no longer the case. I have barely mentioned Ada in this post. She is coming into her own as a happy, healthy, almost-three-year old. It is a pleasure to see.

I am sure it helps for us all to have more room to do our work and build our skills.  If somebody needs to be angry and run away for a few minutes, it is entirely okay to go down to the creek and break sticks.  Dad goes to the backyard and splits wood. Ada climbs the tree. Linden goes for a walk. And Jude is still learning the things he needs to learn about self-control, caring for others, and building self-esteem. But we’re getting there. Ever onward.
Ada doing an Ada Dance
Safety goggles are all the rage at our house.
Our general take on SPD is that Occupational Therapy can’t hurt us reach our goal – for Jude to engage with the world in a healthy and meaningful way. It is a few short months until the end of co-op. Then comes summer time, followed by the beginning of Kindergarten.

The Daddy Life began as an experiment to see if I could handle being a stay-at-home parent. To see if my restlessness and my identity could weather the storms of raising two babies into kids. Something changed in the last year that helped me answer that question. I love what I’m doing. This is my life. Someone asked me recently if this situation was temporary. I thought back on the nearly 5 years I have been home from work and answered without thinking twice. “It is temporary. And it’s going to be temporary for about 5 more years.”

You could almost call it fleeting. Managing my family is the best job I’ve ever had. I haven’t been writing much because I’ve been WORKING. But the reflection is good for me. Thanks for reading!

Peace and Love from the Daddy Life!