What is Normal?

I haven’t written a post in a while and thought about which topic to start with first. But I’m thinking an update on all the good things that have happened over the past several months is deserved. Life has been pretty good, busy and somewhat “normal”. But what is normal in the life of a family overcoming autism?

Well, for starters, both my sons are growing like weeds. I can’t keep enough food in the house, let alone in their stomachs.  My preteen son eats more than both my husband and I combined. His shoe size is a men’s 10 and is already 5’6″ at age 12.  I think I’m actually spending more money on groceries and his shoes each month than vitamin supplements. And that’s a lot!

My younger son with autism went through 35 treatments (dives) of hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) this past summer. It was tough to keep up the treatments at a facility that was an hour drive away from home (each way). We saw immediate gains after the first 10-15 dives. His expressive language was soaring and his eye contact rocked! We slowly saw improvements come gradually during the remaining dives. His gut was improving and bacteria died off.  Focus, attention and eagerness to have friends come over for play dates all improved. We continue to see steady improvement each month. It’s very gradual and he just seems to do better and better each week. HBOT stimulates the growth of new blood vessels and increases blood vessel diameter which improves circulation to damaged organs (his brain). This process continues for up to six months once treatment is stopped.
I am proud to announce that both of my boys are now first degree black belts in Taekwondo! It is such a huge accomplishment for them, especially for my son with autism. He had to learn to focus, stay at attention, do numerous kicks, blocks, punches and all eight Taekwondo forms. Each form has 18 steps in them which must be done in sequence. He also had to break boards with punches/kicks five times during testing. Not an easy thing for a child that started classes three years ago, with lack of attention, focus and just plain disobedience to his Taekwondo Master. He also feared board breaking, mostly due to the sound it made. He is doing awesome in class now and a lot of the parents keep telling me what a different boy he is today, verses when he began. I could tell they wanted to say that he seemed “normal” now, but held back because that would be an odd thing to say.

So what is normal in the life of a family overcoming autism? My boys argue over inane matters, are competitive with each other, vie for their parents attention, go to school, do homework, have friends and have overcome a lot in the past four years. Our normal may be a lot different from other families. Autism will forever touch our lives. We deal with it each and every day. Some days we see it more than others…sometimes not at all.

Autism, Anger & Acceptance

Sometimes circumstances beyond my son’s control can get so frustrating; for him, and for me. Today I found myself very angry and frustrated after my son’s Taekwondo instructor told me that he may not have my son take his color belt test this week with his class. He’s concerned that my son won’t hold it together and focus during testing and talked about having him do a make up test. This took me by surprise because my son is not always consistent, but pulls it together for testing and takes it very serious. After all, this is his 3rd degree red belt testing, which makes it his ninth color belt test. He’s never held him back and not let him test. Why now?!  The only thing I can imagine is he’s worried about his reputation if he lets my son test and it doesn’t go well.

I’m in my kitchen preparing dinner and it hits me like a freight train. I’m not angry with my son’s instructor. I’m angry with autism. There are days that I curse autism and today is one of them. It’s not fair that my son works hard at Taekwondo but will have bad days like today due to circumstances beyond his control. The winds were blowing today and his allergies were peaking. He had to attend class with itchy eyes and when his allergies are bad, he can’t focus. He can’t hold his body still and impulses are out of control.  Damn wind, allergies and yes, autism!

My son does not understand why he is not earning his stripe that he needs to qualify for testing. He keeps correcting what his master asks him to work on and he takes it seriously. It’s going to break his heart if he can’t test with his class, which of course has me  now chopping onions in tears. And the tears weren’t due to the onion vapors.

My son has his great days and his not so great days. Mostly, he is more neuro-typical than not. But autism lies beneath the surface and pops its ugly head out very unexpectedly. This always catches me off guard and forces me stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and just accept the cards my son has been dealt. Despite it all, he’s a wonderful, humorous, boy with a passionate view on life. I love that kid with all my heart and accept him for who he is, autism and all.

Sequencing, Taekwondo and Autism

My seven-year-old son with autism used to get confused when it came to sequencing. That was 3 years ago; he now is a pro at it. Well, a second-degree red belt pro that is. Yes, Taekwondo has done wonders for his ability to learn sequencing. It also helps with focus, attention, respect, community, self-defense, and self-esteem.  So if you’re not familiar with the practice of Taekwondo and why it helps kids on the spectrum with sequencing, let me explain how.

When students of Taekwondo earn their belt colors/testing, they must master the Taekwondo forms/patterns called Taegeuk for that belt level. There are eight Taegeuk (forms) in the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) that students learn and perform at testing for a color belt. This shows that the student can display their proficiency in individual techniques and the ability to perform techniques in a logical sequence.  The Taegeuk patterns are all intended to simulate multiple attacks coming at the student from all sides. Each Taegeuk has 18 techniques/steps to master.  The Taegeuk patterns become progressively more complex, and introduce more advanced techniques the higher you go.  By the time the student reaches black belt, they will have learned 8 Taegeuk forms, and must demonstrate a mastery of each in sequence for their black belt test. This is the goal of my seven-year-old with autism.

When my son began taking Taekwondo classes at age 5, I thought that perhaps this was an outlet for him to expend energy, learn to focus and pay attention to his master, and perhaps boost his self-esteem. Now keep in mind this studio is for neuro-typical kids and adults. My son is expected to behave, focus and attend just like all the other kids. The first few months were challenging and I thought that maybe we’ll be lucky if he gets to the next level after white belt (first belt), which is yellow belt. When I witnessed a yellow belt class practicing the first Taegeuk form and saw the 18 techniques taught in sequence, I thought that would put my son over the edge and would be the end of Taekwondo for him. Nope! Again, my son continues to amaze me with his perseverance, tenacity and just plain stubbornness.

He not only learned all 18 techniques in the proper sequence, he overcame his fears and did his first board breaking. Granted, he covered his ears due to the loud snap of the board, but he was only using his leg/foot to break the board, not his hands. Yet. Fast forward to a few more belt testings later, and he must now do the previous three Taegeuk forms, plus the new fourth one. Yep, he learned them with ease. He has mastered sequencing.

Now the board breaking technique for this belt test is knife hand strike, where he must break the board using one of his hands. I thought, how in the world is he going to get through this? He can’t cover both his ears AND break the board at the same time! Well, my son’s Taekwondo master is awesome. He worked with my son on this technique by using x-ray film sheets (that make loud sounds when hit) first. Slowly, he encouraged him in class to try the x-ray sheet with his knife hand strike while the other students were working out.

So when it came to testing and he had to stand up in front of the entire class and their parents to do this technique without covering his ears, it was effortless. He did it! And miraculously, his fear of the loud sound the board breaking makes was vanquished. Every belt test after that, he looked forward to board breaks with excitement and performed them without anxiety. Talk about a self-esteem booster!

We are 2 1/2 years into our son’s Taekwondo journey to black belt. Last week he tested for second degree red belt and passed his 7th Taegeuk form with flying colors. To date, he has learned seven forms with 18 techniques within each one! His board breaking technique was jump back spinning kick. Yes, a sequence again! And he mastered it so well, he broke the board on his first attempt. I can’t be more proud of his accomplishments in earning his Taekwondo belts. Next May (6 months) he will hopefully be ready for his black belt test.  My son, the black belt.  Oh, and he will have overcome his autism disability to obtain it. I’m already celebrating!

Update Nov. 2011 – my son the black belt!

 

If you live in the Santa Clarita Valley, in Southern California, I highly recommend the Tae Ryong Taekwondo Studio taught by Sr. Master Chad Moore. He is a sixth degree DAN black belt and a wonderful instructor. He has classes for all levels/abilities for children and adults. His website is www.taeryong.net.

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