Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Autism Answer: The Flower Project

My youngest son turned in his flower project today. For decades every ninth grader in our small town (even my best friend remembers this from her own ninth grade here) has had to turn in The Flower Project. 

The Flower Project: Explore and discover and pick and press sixty different Texas wildflowers. Record the date you picked the flower and put it in a photo album along with a tag naming it. This is for a huge portion of the last semester's Biology grade. 

I've helped three of my four sons with The Flower Project. My oldest son moved to California at the beginning of ninth grade so he didn't have the project. I'll admit, I was happy about that. It's a challenging project! Sixty different flowers is a lot of flowers! 

And yet, I'll grudgingly admit, my boys and I have learned a few things while working on The Flower Project. 

First, holy moley Texas has a lot of gorgeous wildflowers! I mean.... seriously!! 

Second, when you come across a large grouping of yellow flowers that look the same-- take a closer look. True, many of them are the same, but there are groupings of different yellow flowers as well. Now, look closer. There are tiny red ones and itty bitty fluffy purple ones! Oh, my! Look even closer.... see that orange speck? See that it has petals? It's another flower! Although it's true that you've found a group of mostly the same yellow flower, if you take time to peek and prod you'll see that within it are other friends. Many similar in appearance and others not at all the same! And now....

Third, move onto another grouping of flowers. These ones are blue and seem to want to take over an entire field. But, wait! What do we see here? All kinds of completely new flowers--white, orange, yellow, and pink--that didn't even exist only two miles away in the yellow flower patch! Once again we are treated to an entirely new neighborhood of flowers living together. Oops! Don't disturb that bee! And ... yikes!! We just saw a copperhead snake! It would seem that our neighborhood of flowers live in collaboration with creatures that sort of scare us. That's okay because we can accept the danger of the copperhead and appreciate it's important existence while we step nervously back, heading toward the relative safety of the country road. 

Fourth, while we walk in nature and listen to its sounds, while we take in its scents and breathe in its freshness, we waken and excite new sides to ourselves and our children. Sometimes the new side is silent. Sometimes it's vocal. Sometimes it hums and moves with more confidence, and sometimes it pulls forth a quieter grace. Always, it's nice to know this part of ourselves for a bit. 

Fifth, when we think we've found all of the flowers we possibly can, though it's nowhere near sixty different kinds, we look again a few weeks later. Oh my! It's all different now! Some of our yellow and red flowered friends are still here, and some have gone away, but now we are greeted with brand new purple and pink and orange and white flowers! And now we also remember to be careful so we don't disturb the copperheads. They live there too, and they can kill us. Though they have better things to do and we'd like to leave them to it. We're seasoned explorers now and have communicated an understanding with our dangerous new friends. We didn't write up a contract exactly, or talk to each other with words, but we communicated our needs and have an unspoken agreement. We don't intend to hurt each other.

Sixth, although the work of pressing and labeling and learning about each flower seems tedious, it's also interesting. We learn a bit about when we can go find that elusive red flower we've been looking for, and where we'll most likely find it. We feel surprised to learn that it's the tedious work that can often bring enlightenment to us as flower finders, but also to others who haven't had time to find flowers. To people who are not in the business of doing The Flower Project. Without the labeling and pressing and studying, we would have little to show them. There is suddenly value in taking the time to do the tedious work. Because, we want to share what we know. 

Seventh, like the flowers we've found we are more beautiful and interesting when we surround ourselves with diversity. We blossom at times and let our friends blossom at other times and always we are all equally part of the same connected thing. The Community. The World. The Universe.

Eighth, even though I've been part of The Flower Project for a few years now I still don't know or remember or care what the names of the flowers are. It's enough for me to see and know and learn that there are so many different kinds and colors. But some people (including one of my sons) love to know the names and habits of the individual flower families. And in this way, we are different and good for each other. I'm nourished and he is nourished and we're all nourished in different ways. 

Much like the flowers we're studying. 

My youngest son handed in his flower project today, and it's the last one we'll do. I'm mostly relieved. It's a lot of work and worth a huge chunk of the biology grade. It's nice to have it over with! 

But, also, we've gotten a lot of lovely things from The Flower Project. 

And so, though I'm glad to never do it again, I'm also glad to know that ninth graders will continue with this lovely tradition. 

Thanks in part to The Flower Project, for the rest of my life I will take time to peek at and appreciate and learn from the flowers!

Hugs, smiles, and love!!
Autism Answers with Tsara Shelton (Facebook)

I found these folks hanging around our yard. I guess they like it here!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Autism Answer: The Power of "What If...?" (for Writers and Parents)

Author's note: This post grew out of a comment I made on THIS blog post titled "What if?" by Jack Fitzgerald, an author and writer of screenplays that I follow. In invite you to have a peek!

I'm a mom and a writer. 

I'm other things too, of course, but these are kinda my favorite. 

In my parenting role I still sometimes shy away from "What if...?". There is responsibility hinted at in the phrase and I am uncommonly uncomfortable with responsibility. Luckily, for me and my siblings and all of our children, my mom is the queen of "What if...?" She uses it wisely and recognizes its power. So even though I'm tempted to shy away I've grown gifted--though not as gifted as mom!--in the use of "What if...?" 

"What if my son squishes my cheeks because he's seeking a sensory sensation that I can give him in a less intrusive way?" or "What if my brother is hitting his thigh because he feels numb and needs help with circulation?" or "What if those sounds my brother makes are words and he's trying with all of his heart to have his ideas heard?" These are a few examples of important and healthy "What if...?"s.

Of course, "What if my daughter is autistic because I didn't breastfeed?" or "What if I didn't have such a weird mom and I'd had a normal childhood with less poverty?" or "What if I could just go to the store without everyone staring at me or avoiding me out of misplaced fear?" These are a few examples of more dangerous "What if...?"s. They are not valueless but need to be explored with extreme caution. 

As a parent and a writer, all "What if...?"s can be healthy, but we have to insist on using them in healthy ways. In parenting, my mom taught me the never-ending value of asking our "What if...?"s carefully and with an eye on taking kind action. It's made so many wonderful and important differences in our lives!! 

As a writer I can be a little less careful. In fact, it's a good idea to follow some dangerous "What if...?"s so that I can explore their potential in a world of my own making without ever manifesting it where lives are lived more concretely. 

But, there is still power. And where there is power, there is danger. So when following and creating "What if...?"s, even in writing, we still have a responsibility to be intentional. 

Many years ago I was on a long drive and a movie idea manifested for me. While my small sons sang and played and fought in the back seat I enjoyed my usual habit of peeking in passing cars, wondering where the other travelers were going and why. Then (with a touch of wistfulness for a life unencumbered) I wondered, “What if I could just live alone on the road and imagine all the lives I want to live?”

A few nights later I put my boys to bed and sat up writing Carhopping.

Most of the lives the Hitchhiker in my movie imagines are, not surprisingly, variations of my own. Things I’d experienced or people I’d once wanted to be. What began as a neat idea for a movie turned into an important exercise for me. And in my writing, bad things happen. People hurt each other. I explore the hurt and find answers for healing it. I encouraged myself to think dangerous "What if...?"s and I even put one of my characters in a situation I thought I couldn't imagine her getting out of. 

Indeed, in my first draft she gave up. She killed herself. But soon, she gave me a better solution for herself and I was amazed! My dangerous "What if...?" taught me that somewhere down deep, there is always an answer! Giving up is never the only option!

Following those "What if...?"s began a gorgeous addiction to writing! 

Reading is a wonderful way to know ourselves. By listening to our thoughts and reactions as we imagine a life different from our own. But writing is a way to know and to create! To ask “What if...?” and then to discover answers. And while writing we are reminded that there are always so many answers–not right or wrong answers so much as, simply, answers. Choices. Ideas. Twists. Possibilities.

There are an infinite number of possibilities available when we wonder, “What if….?”!!

As parents, it's a powerful tool. We must be intentional and kind and action oriented and hopeful and loving when we ask "What if...?" When we do, when we are, as my mom taught me over and over--miracles can be made

In other areas of our lives we can be a bit freer with our "What if...?"s Though, they are still powerful! So we still need to be intentional and loving while we dive deeper into danger. 

I’m going to be careful. I find the "What if...?" world of writing addicting and delicious. “What if…” I get lost in the world of possibilities and can’t find my way home? But wait, “What if…” my home is the possibilities? Much like the Hitchhiker in my movie learns about himself, perhaps the feelings and memories I create with my imagination are my true home??

The "What if...?" game is powerful. 

Even if it can be a little bit dangerous. 

And now I'm wondering, "What if... I cleaned my kitchen? Would I finally discover the source of that strange and not-so-nice smell?"

I think I'll explore that "What if...?" Although, the source of the smell could be dangerous and is most certainly gross. Seriously, I think something died behind my stove. 

"What if.... my husband checks it out for me?" Oooohhhh.... I'm liking the "What if...?" game even more now! tee hee! 

Hugs, smiles, and love!!
"What if.... four brothers sneak off to a party in the woods when mom leaves the oldest babysitting?" The Mice will Play... title (for now) of the book I'm working on!

("What if... you share this blog post with your friends? Giggle! )

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Autism Answer: A Series of Choices

MY SON: My thoughts are confusing me today. I don't know how to feel about them. It's a little bit sad I think. 

ME: (busy working and only half listening) Hmmmmm.... how do you feel about that?

MY SON: Seriously? I just told you I don't know how I feel. 

ME: Hmmmm... I see. Have you brushed your teeth today?

MY SON: Seriously?

My son leaves the room and I make a mental note to listen better. You know, after I'm finished with the work I'm working on. Then a moment later my son returns wearing shoes.

MY SON: I think I'll go see if dad needs some help outside. 

ME: (turning away from my computer so I'll actually be present) That's a good idea. You're such a nice guy! And smart too!

MY SON: Not really. I just want to do something to forget about my thoughts being confusing. 

ME: Ya, I know. And you chose going outside to offer your dad a helping hand. You chose doing something useful and physical. That's nice and smart! Don't devalue your choices just because you felt compelled to make them. Those are still nice and smart choices that you chose to make!

MY SON: (smiling and opening the door, speaking up over the sound of my husband's outside tools) You're weird mom! I love you! 

I watched him head out the door and turned back to my computer. I almost felt bad for having been distracted when he first came to talk to me. But then I realized that had I not been distracted he may not have chosen to step outside and help his dad. So, I chose not to feel bad!

Huh! Neat!

"Life is a series of choices." Lynette Louise aka The Brain Broad

Smart woman!

Hugs, smiles, and love!!

Autism Answers with Tsara Shelton (Facebook)

My son working outside with his dad. Good choice!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Autism Answer: The Mess In His Brain

My seventeen year old son, Shay, finally got the vampire teeth he ordered. As he sat reading the instructions on how to customize them so that they'd snap off and on easily, and fit comfortable, he chatted with me about all the reasons he wanted the teeth. 

The stories and explanations included all kinds of characters from all sorts of realms and dimensions in time and space. 

Eventually, I interrupted him. 

ME: Man, I wish I could spend time in your brain! It's gotta be fantastical in there!

SHAY: Oh, no, mom. You couldn't handle it in there. You know what it's like? It's like somebody went in and made a huge mess, knocked everything over, broke stuff, dumped trash, and just had a huge tantrum. Then it's left to me to clean up the mess, figure out where everything goes. I get side tracked easy and it takes a long time but just when I think I'm getting it figured out, bam! Here comes the mess maker! Things get thrown around and broken all over again. 

ME: Okay, so when you're at the point of putting stuff away and figuring out where it goes, do you always pick the same style and design? Do you always make the same choices? Or do you adjust the look based on new things you've learned and new things you want out of life?

SHAY: I guess I adjust it. But I really wish it would just stay cleaned up in my head for a while, you know? It seems like I never even get to finish the job. 

ME: It's going to be a fun conversation when you realize that the guy making the mess and doing the tantruming is probably also you. 

SHAY: Ya. I know. 

ME: Anyway, you're not making me want to spend time in your brain any less, dude. Now I want to hang out in there even more!!!

We had a good giggle and my son went back to molding his vampire fangs while describing insightful truths using imagery, dragon wings, and dream worlds. 

It's a Shay thing. 

Hugs, smiles, and love!!
Autism Answers with Tsara Shelton (Facebook) 

Shay and his fabulous vampire fangs!
He ordered them from www.vampfangs.com
The site is awesome!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Autism Answer: He Told Me I'm His Mentor

After school yesterday my youngest son told me, "I think of you as my mentor."

I was touched! I smiled and said calmly, "Thanks, Declyn."

Now, I didn't want to say it calmly. I'm a bit of an over-reactor when it comes to celebrating stuff. It's always been a funny thing about me. Funny, and kind of annoying. 

So for Declyn's sake (and, honestly, for my sake so I won't scare him away from giving me things to celebrate!) I kept calm. 

He approved of my even tempered gratitude and, as we sat down to the dinner table for an after school snack, he continued. "I think of a mother and son on a busy city street. I imagine the mom giving a homeless man all the money she has with her and when the son asks why she did it her response is 'the only thing I want in return is his gratitude.' I imagine that because I know that's what you'd say. That's why you're my mentor."

Well, that was lovely! Also... it wasn't true. Sure, when I was his age I might have said that. I totally get why he thinks I'd say that. But, I wouldn't. 

So as we sat snacking on guacamole and tortillas I wondered what to say next. I didn't want him to shy away from telling me these things, and I didn't want him to break-up with me as a mentor. 

But that's just it. He told me I'm his mentor, and so I was encouraged to take on the role with purpose and tell him the truth. 

"I love that story!" I admitted honestly as I brushed crumbs off my fingertips. "But you know what I actually would have said? If I had given all of my money to a homeless man, and my son wanted to know why, I'd tell him it was because at that moment I'd be happier and more comfortable with myself if I did. I would point out that I don't often give all of my money to homeless people, and that when I did I didn't require their gratitude. Only my own."

He looked disappointed in me, as I'd feared. "You always want to make everything deep and insightful. It was just a story about gratitude."

"I know! I loved it! There wasn't a hint of judging homeless people or a touch of cruel intentions. It was beautiful! I'm just saying, if we do things for the gratitude we get from others, we're missing out on the more important gift. The gratitude we give ourselves. Sometimes a homeless person will resent you for helping them. Sometimes they'll be so embarrassed that they don't feel comfortable showing their gratitude. Sometimes they'll shower you with thank-yous and kind words only because they think they might get more out of you. It's dangerous to motivate yourself to do kind things just because of the impressed attention you might get from others. That's all I was saying."

My darling boy grabbed a tortilla and tore off a tiny piece. Dipping it in the guacamole he looked at me with raised eyebrows and a cocky grin on his face. "Like I said, you always wanna make things deep and insightful. Maybe I shouldn't have told you you were my mentor."

I shrugged. I know how this works. So even though I wanted to rewind and try again, or keep talking until he agreed with me, or play it off by reminding him that I'm not always deep, that I listen to cool music and take them to rock concerts, I just sat silent. I let the mixed up mood dance a bit, and then settle. 

As I started to put away our snack my son stood up from the table and headed toward his room. Usually at this point I'd just tell him I love him and remind myself that parenting is like this. Our rewards come later. And the ones that come now are generally from work we've done long ago. It's a never ending ride.

But this time there wasn't long to wait. As he headed out the door he turned his head and said over his shoulder, "Ah, don't worry about it. I guess that deep and insightful stuff is why you're my mentor in the first place. Love you, mom."

And then he was gone. 

It's a balancing act, this parenting thing.

I don't always get it right.

But my children give me reason to believe that I don't always get it wrong either. 

He told me I'm his mentor.

Hugs, smiles, and love!!!

Autism Answers with Tsara Shelton (Facebook)

He told me I'm his mentor.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Autism Answer: The Baltimore Riots and The Incredible Hulk #NationalSuperHeroDay

The downtrodden need to remain passionate so as not to become complacent, without ever exploding in anger. It's not fair but it's necessary. 

Like Bruce Banner, they/we need to keep an eye on our rights and walk the edge of justified insistence when it comes to being treated fairly--without tripping over into blind anger. 

Again I admit, it's not fair but it's necessary.

It's hard to walk that line. 

When you're constantly treated as though your life is "less than" or as though being treated fairly is a gift you should be grateful for, then you  have to choose between giving up and pretending it's okay, or insisting on change and engaging in civil disobedience. It's an exhausting way to live.

And change is slow moving. So, sometimes people explode. Which is so sad and brings the movement farther away from where it needs to be. 

In Baltimore there were protests and pleas to look deeper into the possibility of police brutality and prejudice, following the death of Freddie Gray--a twenty-five year old black man who was arrested pretty peaceably but then died of an as yet unexplained spinal cord injury while in police custody. It's all pretty shady and not-so transparent. But also, it's all too familiar and easy for folks to make assumptions. Assumptions that grow out of the world they live in. 

In Baltimore there were protests. 

But there were also violent riots and heavy looting.  

And that's why I thought of Bruce Banner. 

He turns into The Hulk when he's angry, and he destroys everything in the process. His life, his city, his possibilities for a future. But if he doesn't stay at least a little bit angry then he also loses control of his life. He has to hide away from society, become useless, and be afraid of accidentally becoming angry. 

A line in The Avengers film offered by Bruce Banner (played by the ever sexy--oops! I mean talented--Mark Ruffalo) really resonates for me today. Throughout the movie the superheros wonder what his secret is, how it is that he mostly stays in control and doesn't turn into The Hulk. In the end, during the epic and obligatory end-of-a-Hollywood-action-movie battle, when they need The Hulk to appear and so tell Bruce to go ahead and get angry, he lets us in on his trick. "That's my secret," he says as he begins to turn green. "I'm always angry."

Now, I don't know that the downtrodden need to stay always angry. But they/we do need to stay always aware and brave. Willing to step up and insist on fairness or change, without tripping over into blind anger. It's emotionally and physically exhausting.

It's not fair.
And hopefully one day it won't be necessary. 

My heart goes out to those in Baltimore and elsewhere. Scrambling to get a foothold on how to express a passion and truth that needs to be acknowledged. 

Already many superheros have emerged. Volunteers and leaders changing the tone and insisting that the reason for the outburst not get lost in the rubble of the rioting. 

I stand with them and I hear their message.  

Hugs, smiles, and love.
Autism Answers with Tsara Shelton (Facebook)

Yes, I did just compare the Baltimore Riots and a Civil Rights movement to Bruce Banner and The Incredible Hulk. Yes, my mind works in mysterious ways. But in my defense I have four sons! And an itty bitty crush on Mark Ruffalo!!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Autism Answer: Sometimes the Answer is to Send Her Home

I have a step-daughter who's a handful. Especially when she's been drinking alcohol. And she likes to drink alcohol.

So my husband and I have told her, often, that she's not welcome to come over to our home when she's been drinking alcohol.

Today she stopped by and she'd been quite obviously drinking. As she screamed and yelled and paced and swore at us we reminded her she was not welcome inside until she'd sobered up. Our seventeen year old son heard the commotion and came out of his room to see what strange new thing could possibly be going on in our silly, happy, swear-only-when-it-makes-a-kind-joke-funnier home. 

My step-daughter apologized to him saying, "This isn't about you. This is grown-up stuff." 

To which I replied strongly, "This is not grown-up stuff. Not at all. This is the opposite of grown-up stuff."

My step-daughter looked confused (in her defense she grew up in an extremely different environment than the one I insist on calling home, and learned the look of "grown up" from extremely different grown ups) and seemed almost sober for a moment. 

After hearing my comment my son looked no longer confused. He seemed certain of my authority. 

I have a step-daughter who's a handful. And I love her enough to tell her to go home while I strongly insist on exampling what I believe that a home can be.

Sometimes your step-daughter needs to hear no, and sometimes your son needs to hear you tell her no and explain why. 

I insist on a kind, happy, open minded home. And I believe in teaching our children how to insist on it too. 

All of our children. 

Hugs, smiles, and love!!
Autism Answers with Tsara Shelton (Facebook)

You don't have to be treated with kindness to insist on being kind. And sometimes being kind means saying no.

I insist on living in a kind, happy, open minded home. Also, I like trees!